The snow was lightly falling. It was dark, but whether from the street lamps’ soft illumination or something more, Jewell Bolton still remembers how the white temple on a hill took her breath away.
“It’s magical in a way,” she said. “It’s a place of pilgrimage. People go because they want to learn and they want to feel the spirit in the temple there.”
The Kirtland, Ohio temple was Jewell’s destination. As an elder in the Community of Christ and wife to former apostle Andrew Bolton, Jewell said her own “pilgrimage” experience as a young adult has stayed with her.
Bolton is a former apostle for the Community of Christ, a teacher of world religions since 1987, and an outspoken supporter of dialogue between The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Community of Christ church.
The two churches have a common origin. The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was formed after the Prophet Joseph Smith was martyred in 1844. The reorganized church became the Community of Christ in 2001.
Many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also make the “pilgrimage” to historic sites in Kirtland. BYU church history professor Casey Griffiths is one such member. He said “one of the greatest experiences of (his) life” was on a private tour in the Kirtland temple.
Relations between the Community of Christ and the LDS Church have had ups and downs in the 182 years since the Kirtland temple dedication in 1836, but Community of Christ Apostle Lachlan Mackay said the temple remains common historical ground for the two “restorationist” faiths.
Kirtland temple ownership
Many Latter-day Saints wonder why the LDS Church doesn’t own the Kirtland temple, but Richard O. Cowan, BYU professor emeritus of church history and doctrine, said it’s important to remember the history behind ownership in the early church.
“The (Kirtland) temple had been held in (Joseph Smith’s) name, just like in later years many things were in the name of Brigham Young; that’s the way they did it,” Cowan said. “So after the death of these people, there was a question about what was church property and what was personal property.”
According to Richard Moore’s book, “Know Your Religions: A Comparative Look at Mormonism and the Community of Christ,” the Community of Christ — formerly known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — was founded by Latter-day Saints who rejected teachings of polygamy and believed Joseph Smith’s son, Joseph Smith III, should succeed his father as prophet.
It was Joseph Smith III who gained the title of the Kirtland temple in 1880. The Community of Christ takes care of the temple and owns various historic sites throughout Kirtland today.
However, Griffiths said in recent years the Community of Christ has sold historic sites such as Joseph Smith’s Kirtland home and Haun’s Mill to the LDS Church.
Perhaps the most publicized sale was of the original Book of Mormon printer’s manuscript for $35 million, according to Griffiths.
Map by Eleanor Cain
Would ownership change?
Bold questions resurfaced about future sales of historic items in the church’s possession when the Community of Christ sold the original Book of Mormon printer’s manuscript in September 2017, Griffiths said.
After the decision to sell the manuscript, a Community of Christ statement announced the church would sell “historic assets and other noninvestment properties that are not essential for the church’s mission” to rebuild its financial position.
Though the announcement does not specify which other historic properties are being considered, it said “the Presiding Bishopric is continuing to explore several potential sales.”
“We’re carefully saying what’s not included,” Mackay said. “We are most interested in (selling) things that are not directly missional. … But our historic sites are more missional right now than they have ever been.”
Though Andrew Bolton is no longer in the leading councils of the Community of Christ, he said the spiritual beauty of the temple would be missed if ownership were ever to change hands.
“I think it would be very difficult for us to lose (the) Kirtland temple because it is really a sacred space,” Andrew said. “You always anticipate a spiritual blessing by going there.”
Cowan said he remembers a past president of the Community of Christ addressing the question of ownership at a Mormon History Association conference in Kirtland a few years back.
“He said that every so often people from (the LDS) church approach them and say, “Are you interested in selling?” And you hear stories (that) they would welcome the finances and so on, but he said that the temple is significant to them and their heritage and he just didn’t see them selling it,” Cowan said.
However, LDS interest in the temple remains high. The shared heritage of the early Kirtland years is important for both Mormons and Community of Christ members, though interest in the temple doesn’t end with just those denominations, Griffiths said.
“On one level it’s one of the few places we can pinpoint an exact spot where Jesus visited the earth,” Griffiths said. “On a second level, the Kirtland temple should be significant to all people that are Jewish or Christian or Muslim because that prophecy at the end of Malachi that Elijah will come before the great and dreadful day of the Lord is fulfilled in the Kirtland temple.”
Stewards for ‘all who care’
Though the Community of Christ owns and cares for the Kirtland temple, Mackay also said the structure holds special significance for secular scholars and people of all faiths, including Latter-day Saints.
However, Mackay said visitors will often find the “spirit that they are looking for.”
“I’ve had (LDS) people on the same tour and one is having this powerful, emotional, spiritual experience … and another one leaves a little card saying, ‘I feel no spirit here,’” Mackay said.
Over the 25 years Mackay has spent caring for Community of Christ historic sites, including serving as director of the Kirtland temple visitors center for 15 years, he said people of all faith traditions have come to worship and learn about the temple.
“I always thought of what I was doing (in Kirtland) as providing stewardship, not simply for Community of Christ but for all who share the heritage,” Mackay said. “We’re stewards for all who care.”
In fact, relations with the LDS Church over the Kirtland temple have a history of “increasing collaboration,” Mackay said, adding that both religions owe a debt of gratitude to scholars from both faiths.
Finding common ground
Differences between the LDS Church and the Community of Christ originally ran much deeper than doctrine, Mackay said.
When first cousins Joseph F. Smith and Joseph Smith III were presidents of the respective organizations, Mackay said the schism was more than a matter religious differences; it was a “family feud.”
“They would write 30-page letters to each other … pointing out the errors of their ways,” Mackay said. “They infected all of us and it took our historians beginning the 1960s to begin talking and sharing insights and sources, and that new relationship slowly worked up the leadership and slowly down to membership.”
Cowan, who has been involved with church history for 53 years, said he appreciates all that the Community of Christ has done in recent years to make the Kirtland temple available to historians and LDS visitors alike.
“A few years ago they let us hold a special meeting in the temple, and that meant a great deal to us,” Cowan said. “They have a very cordial relationship with us.”
Griffiths also said the Community of Christ’s openness with the temple has benefitted many Latter-day Saints, including himself. After a private tour from Mackay, Griffiths said he remembers the “feeling of love” as Andrew led his group in singing the hymn “The Spirit of God.”
“I wish more Latter-day saints in our tradition would understand what a sacred shared space (the Kirtland temple) is,” Griffiths said. “I wish our tradition had a little less ‘us versus them’ (mentality) … and instead would say, ‘this is our space.'”