LDS missionaries to staff newly acquired Kirtland Temple and Nauvoo sites

Latter-day Saint leaders, historians and members were still beaming Wednesday over their church’s purchase of the faith’s first temple.

The landmark temple in Kirtland, Ohio — where members believe Jesus visited Mormonism founder Joseph Smith on Easter in 1836 — was purchased this week by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from its longtime owner, the Community of Christ (formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

For more than $192 million, the Utah-based faith also acquired significant buildings in Nauvoo, Ill., and important documents and artifacts.

[Read more about the Kirtland Temple and Nauvoo purchases.]

“We rejoice at the opportunity to be the steward for these properties going forward,” general authority Seventy Kyle McKay, who serves as church historian and recorder, said Wednesday in a virtual news conference. “We are so grateful to the Community of Christ for how they cared for these properties and these artifacts over the years.”

(George Edward Anderson via The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Visitors in front of the Mansion House in Nauvoo, Ill., in 1907.

The transfer of ownership could dramatically affect how the faith’s early decades may be described to visitors — from a largely historical approach offered by Community of Christ docents (many of whom were college interns with a couple of weeks of training) to a more proselytizing (or at least simplified) approach.

“This is going to change Nauvoo’s story,” said Joseph Johnstun, a Latter-day Saint historian who lives nearby. “A very important part of the history is leaving. We won’t have the presence of those who stayed with Emma Smith Bidamon [founder Smith’s widow] and her family. They will no longer be personally represented, and the stories they told are in danger of being forgotten. That would be sad not just for them but for those of us who are Latter-day Saints, too, because so much of who we are, how we treat history and historic sites, is very much wrapped up with our ‘Prairie cousins.’”

Matthew Grow, managing director the LDS Church’s History Department, said that the Community of Christ’s “historic ownership and preservation of the sites will be acknowledged as well as some of the later history.”

The core of the tours will be “on what Latter-day Saints see as the sacred significance of those sites,” Grow said, “but not to the exclusion of anything else.”

He acknowledged Wednesday that guides at all the church’s sites in Kirtland and Nauvoo will continue to be senior missionary couples and young women (“sister missionaries”) but they will follow scripts written by historians.

And they are, Grow said, “supervised by professional historians and curators.”

A cache of documents

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Included in the stash of historical buildings, artifacts and documents the Latter-day Saint Church purchased from Community Christ are portraits of the faith’s founder, Joseph Smith, and his wife Emma.

All of the documents that the Salt Lake City-headquartered church acquired in this deal are well known to scholars with the Joseph Smith Papers project, Grow said, but it is good to have the physical pages.

The most important ones, he said, deal with the church’s scriptures, including Smith’s revisions of the Bible (known as the Joseph Smith Translation).

For the historian, though, the handwritten letters between Smith and his wife Emma are particularly poignant.

“Joseph is writing letters at times of extreme duress,” Grow explained. “He’s depressed for a moment. So one of the letters is the first time he visits New York City, and he’s just kind of overwhelmed by his big metropolis that he’s in. Another of the letters is when he’s on the Camp of Israel or Zion’s Camp expedition at the time of a lot of drama and stress. Another two letters are from Liberty Jail and Richmond Jail. Two of the letters are in the final few days of his life, written from Carthage [where Joseph and his brother Hyrum were gunned down].”

Holy but public

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The interior of the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, Ohio.

While the Community of Christ owned the Kirtland Temple, it allowed many groups to use it for services, speeches, meetings and memory-making, including gatherings by the Sunstone Education Foundation, Affirmation for LGBTQ Latter-day Saints, the Mormon History Association, and an assembly of academics.

Will the LDS Church allow such diverse groups to use its space?

“When a group wants to use the site, we would enter into discussions with them and just make sure that the use would be appropriate,” Grow said. “For instance, at the St. George Tabernacle that we operate with the church History Department, it’s open to many different types of community groups and organizations and lectures and things like that.”

Certainly, he said, “the Kirtland Temple is a very sacred, special site. We would want to maintain it that way.”

One aspect of that temple that will soon open to the public is the third floor, which has been closed for some time.

“Some of the really sacred things about the Kirtland Temple happened on that top floor,” Grow said. “It was where Joseph Smith sees a vision of the afterlife and sees his [deceased] brother, Alvin, and his parents. … We feel good about taking small groups to that third floor space. And because of this, we’ll have a reservation system for tours.”

The space holds particular meaning to Emily Utt, a Latter-day Saint curator of historic sites. She studied in Cleveland and went often to the temple.

“The ability that I have to go to the temple and make covenants and live a holy life is because of the Kirtland Temple,” Utt said in the virtual news conference. “It is significant to all of us who live, but it is significant to me personally, because the way that I live my life is dependent on events that happened in that space.”

Many of the church’s historic sites celebrate pioneer life and culture, Grow said, but the “most special” locations are those like the Sacred Grove in New York, where members believe  Smith saw God and Christ, and the Kirtland Temple.

“Those sites are where heaven and earth came together,” he said, and which “for us, continue to be sacred ground.”

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