A Visit to the Kirtland Temple
I recently had an opportunity to visit the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, Ohio. This was the first temple built by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are often called Mormons.
This temple was built for a somewhat different purpose than modern Mormon temples. It was a place where heavenly beings could come to restore important parts of the gospel that were lost during the apostasy which followed the death of Jesus and His apostles. It was also a place where Mormons, even children, could come to receive an education in both secular and spiritual matters. Many of the early Mormons were uneducated and many were immigrants. The academic classes were not just for children; adults were free to attend them as well, allowing them to make up for a lifetime of poverty or lack of education.
Joseph Smith, the first prophet and president of the restored Mormon Church, took classes there himself. He had only three years of formal education, supplemented by a little education at home from his father, and worked hard all his adult life to make up for that lack of education. One class Joseph attended was a popular course in Hebrew, taught by a leading Jewish instructor named Joshua Seixas. The instructor said Joseph Smith worked harder than any other student and at the end of the course, he received not only a certificate of completion, but a certificate authorizing him to teach Hebrew. It was through this Hebrew class that Lorenzo Snow, a future Mormon prophet, would become interested in joining the Church. His sister, a Mormon, invited him to attend it, giving him an opportunity to meet Joseph Smith and other leaders.
Today’s temples are not open to the public and are used to carry out sacred ordinances, such as marriage and baptism for the dead. Baptism for the dead is an ordinance done vicariously through a living person in the name of someone who died without receiving the ordinances necessary for salvation. For instance, the Bible says we must be baptized in order to enter the kingdom of Heaven, but many people die never having been baptized or without even knowing they needed to be baptized. A loving and fair God does not punish people for things beyond their control and so he has created a way for them to receive the ordinance. This baptism does not automatically make the person a Mormon—each person will be given the opportunity to accept or reject the ordinance, just as he would have during his lifetime if he’d had the opportunity.
The Kirtland temple is now owned by the Community of Christ, not The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This group organized after the death of Joseph Smith as a splinter group from the main body of the Church. The apostles were to become the governing body at the death of a prophet, with the senior apostle becoming the new prophet. However, a number of groups organized around people who wanted a different plan. The Community of Christ, which was initially called the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, wanted the role of prophet to be handed from father to oldest son. However, Joseph’s oldest son was only eleven when Joseph was murdered by a lawless mob, and so the three men who proposed this plan intended to operate their church through a proxy group until he was old enough to do it himself. Joseph Smith III was initially unwilling to take on leadership, but eventually agreed to do so when he was an adult.
The Community of Christ has opened the temple to tours and, naturally, many of their visitors are Mormons. Our guide was very knowledgeable about Mormon history and, upon figuring out we were Mormons, he gave scripture references from the Doctrine and Covenants using our numbering system rather than the numbes from his church’s version. Both groups use this book of modern revelations, but they have removed some sections, and, of course, some occurred after they left the main body of the Church, so their book is not identical to ours.
I had some familiarity with this religion, so the night before the visit I first read the history of the temple and of Kirtland’s Mormon period on my own church’s website. Then I went to the Community of Christ website and to their temple website to read about it from their perspective. There were some differences, naturally, because history is not just facts and figures, but is also a narrative. Those who tell the story of history will tell the narrative based on their own values and ongoing storyline. For instance, the way I tell my life story is probably different than the way my mother would tell it, since she was seeing it from a mother’s perspective, not mine. The Civil War narrative will be told differently by a Southerner than by a Northerner and differently still by a soldier who was there than by a civilian who lived outside the war zones. In each case, the version might be accurate, even though it is different.
As both a Mormon and a history buff, I felt it important to understand the narrative in terms of the larger picture of my faith, but since my guide would be from the Community of Christ, I also wanted to understand it in the larger picture of his faith. It helped me to understand the ways our churches have moved in very different directions since parting ways. They have become largely an evangelical church while we have continued in the restorationist pattern. The guide put disclaimers before some historical accounts of miracles, saying there was no proof of whether or not they happened other than the personal accounts of witnesses, whereas we tend to accept these miraculous events without question.
Our guide was very kind and when I asked a few questions about his religion—with the sole intent of learning, not converting or debating—he answered them with the same spirit in which they were asked. I enjoyed learning more about his faith, as well as my own. It was fascinating to see our shared history through a new lens and I enjoyed the testimony we shared of Joseph Smith and many of the events our people shared, having been one unified people in those days. Today, the two churches have a good relationship, since each has some of the historical sites and documents of our shared history. We work together to preserve and study early Mormon history.
As I toured the temple and learned of the many sacrifices that went into building it and the miracles that occurred at the dedication, I could feel the Spirit testifying of the sacredness of the temple space. The current owners treat it with a great deal of loving respect for its sacredness and have done a lovely job of restoring it and protecting it.