The Sunday School curriculum is currently covering the Kirtland period of LDS history, including a full lesson on the Kirtland Temple. While we often treat that temple as part of 19th-century history, it is still around, it is still used for religious services, and it is available for public tours for visitors of any religious faith. I asked Tom Kimball, who lives in Kirtland, to respond to some questions about the Kirtland Temple. Tom is a semi-retired Mormon bookseller of twenty years, a former board member of the Mormon History Association, and presently a staff service volunteer at the Kirtland Temple visitor center.
1. So tell us how you came to live in Kirtland and the kind of work you do in and around the temple?
Thank you for inviting me to do this interview. When I was going through a transition in my personal life and finding the need for a soft place to land, I reached out to a friend in the Community of Christ (Seth Bryant, who became the site director for the Kirkland Temple in December 2016). He generously offered me an associate maintenance contract for the temple, the adjacent visitor center, and housing properties. With paintbrush, screwdriver, and vacuum cord in hand, I have the privilege of serving in and around the temple. With several ancestors having taken part in the construction of the temple, and a great-great-grandmother in the graveyard, my time here has been meaningful and personal. Stepping away from the temple, tools in hand, I often run into folks from the American West who appear devastated that they arrive in Kirtland only to find the visitor center closed and the temple locked. I’m a sucker for such things, so I invite these folks in for a short handyman version of a regular tour. As a former Mormon missionary who once preached Jesus to Christians in Alabama, and as a twenty-year Mormon bookseller, I can’t say I am shy after my tour in asking folks throw a little money into the donation plate, which ultimately supports the maintenance efforts of preserving the temple. I also invite folks to go online and donate at the Community of Christ Historic Sites Foundation, the arm of the Church which manages the preservation of these historic properties.
With some hesitation, I report to Seth when I give yet another handyman tour, but as long as he keeps finding twenties in the donation plate and no sign of physical damage to the temple, he doesn’t seem to mind. Personally, I think I’m up to shenanigans, but Seth says I’m serving our cousins in the Restoration. As a Utah Mormon with a last name like Kimball, giving semi-authorized tours of our temple has caused me view the Community of Christ as beloved cousins in the Restoration and the temple as part of our shared heritage. One of the first repairs I was asked to do was to tighten the screws on all the hinges of the box pew doors in the lower court. As I walk the aisles, the weight of my steps was enough to release the pew door latches and they would swing open on their own in front of me. It was as if I was being asked to come sit and rest from my troubles for a spell. After tightening all of the screws, the phenomenon has slowed down significantly. When it happens now, it still causes my heart to skip, and then to warm just a little. Providing small repairs to the imperfections within the temple has allowed me to consider imperfection within sacred space. I think there is a metaphor there for myself and others. With vacuum cord in hand, I have experienced personal healing within these walls. I hope your readers will come and experience some of this themselves. Come rub shoulders with our cousins. Come with your questions. Come with charity and an open heart, for what you bring with you is what you’ll find. Come this summer and look for the handyman with the ponytail. I promise to have a story or two.
2. Unlike the original Nauvoo Temple, which fell into disrepair and ruin in the years after the main group of Saints under Brigham Young left for the West in 1846, the Kirtland Temple still stands today. The Community of Christ (formerly the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints) presently owns the land and building. Tell us what meetings, services, and ordinances are presently performed in the building.
To answer this, I think it is important to note that the Kirtland Temple has always been cared for by believers of the Restoration. While my people walked away from the temple 180 years ago and went west, other Restoration groups have always remained in Kirtland and cared for the building, paying the taxes and keeping it as safe as they could. Martin Harris, one of the three original witnesses of the Book of Mormon, lived in Kirkland from 1831 to 1870. Harris could often be found providing impromptu tours of the temple to Utah missionaries passing to or from the East. Had the defenders of the physical temple like Harris not been around, the temple very likely would have collapsed on itself just as the Nauvoo Temple did.
The Kirtland Temple was built by men who were accustomed to building barns and modest two story buildings, not grand three story buildings with two large courts, third-story offices, and a bell tower that stretched up yet another three stories. Construction began on the temple without providing proper footings. The major first-floor support crossbeams were installed wide instead of tall. Notches were then cut into these beams to fit notched floor joists instead of resting whole joists directly on top of whole crossbeams. Some of these mistakes were corrected in the construction of the second floor, but the building is an engineering scramble. In time, the original rock slate roof would have pushed in the roof. Neighborhood kids with stones were the likely culprits of forty years of window smashing. The adjacent Restoration churches defended the structure from major disaster, but it was the Kelly brothers, William and E. L., who in the 1880s finally stepped in with churchwide resources and began making major structural repairs. If the only thing they did was replace the 3,389 exterior windows, we all owe them a great deal of thanks. But they, and others with them, did so much more.
Originally, the Saints conducted washing and anointing ceremonies in the printing building and the Kirtland Temple, including the ordinance of washing the feet. In the Joseph Smith period, members of the Restoration viewed their temple experience as a time of Pentecost endowing them with the Holy Spirit as they were prepared (as described in the books of Luke and Acts) to go forth into the world to serve God. The lower court of the temple would be designated the House of Worship, while the upper court was the House of Learning. The third-floor offices were for priesthood meetings, including Joseph Smith’s office which would serve for a time as the school of the prophets. The Nauvoo Temple was fashioned in the general design of the Kirkland Temple. In my reading, it seems that only the lower court and third floor of the Nauvoo Temple were ever completed, and the masonic-style endowment that was developed in Nauvoo and the new marriage sealing ordinance took place on the third floor. Neither of these ordinances occurred in the Kirtland Temple. Curiously, the third floor has five bay offices, the same number of spaces needed to conduct the Nauvoo ritual. I envision these five spaces in the Kirtland Temple as the Garden Room, World Room, and Terrestrial, Telestial, and Celestial Rooms. But this view requires more research on my part to verify.
In modern times, the Community of Christ holds regular Christmas and Easter services in the Kirtland Temple, which I have had the good fortune to attend. Regular Sunday worship services are held in a church across the street from the temple. The temple is available for use by many Restoration groups, including the LDS Church, for communion (sacrament) and other services. As a side note, while attending the Good Friday services in the temple this year, I leaned forward in the pew, which took my weight from the pew box and caused the pew door behind me to release and swing open as they do. I quickly glanced over my shoulder to see it swing and noticed the Utah Mormons two boxes behind me, color slipping from their faces with their eyes locked on the still-moving door.
3. The building is open to public tours. No doubt many of the visitors are LDS Mormons, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Name a couple of things that are most surprising to LDS Mormons who take the tour and view the Kirtland Temple.
This is an interesting question. There are several major elements of a visit that amaze visitors. People are often taken aback by the size, the quality, and the detail of the work. Folks also comment on the remains of the complicated veil system in the temple with spools and cranks in the columns, and under alter seats. I personally find the amount of light that exists in the courts even on cloudy days remarkable. The fact that there are two grand courts that mirror each other often surprises folks. One large court is amazing, but two? People are also often surprised how much of the structure is still original to the 1830s.
The thing that surprises me the most is the personal baggage people bring into to the temple. One visitor said they feel a void of spirituality during their visit, while others are moved to tears and leave spiritually uplifted. I’m usually in paint cloths, sporting a beard and a long ponytail. These folks aren’t getting any special juju vibes from me, they get it from this holy space. I remember wagging a finger at an uncontrolled ADHD fueled teen who was about to run up the steps of the Melchizedek alters. I told him that it isn’t whether we view this place as sacred, but because others view this place as sacred, and that we respect this space with our actions. I don’t know, maybe I’m just drinking my own kool-aid, but I love this place and find joy, personal healing, and solace here. Everyone should visit or return to this place. It has something for everyone.
4. What significant modifications or renovations have been made to the exterior and interior of the building since its completion in 1836?
My sense from viewing images online is that the building appears today much like it would have to a visitor in 1836. The existing lower court (the House of Worship), the third floor offices, and the alters and choir boxes of the second floor were completed by the March 27, 1836 dedication. The box pews in the House of Learning (second floor) were completed by the 1850s, but went missing by the 1880s. The Kelly brothers (RLDS leaders living in Kirtland) ordered ten dozen high-backed chairs to fill the space for reunions and conferences. The pews were later restored in 1919. In their letters home, missionaries began to report that in the 1850s they began to see windows broken on the exterior of the temple. By the time William Homer reports on the building in 1869, most of the 3,389 exterior windows had rocks put to them. Souvenir hunters had taken most of the lettering from the alters as well as some of the ornament work, and the sacrament tables had been removed. The Kelly brothers repaired the windows, renovated the alters by replacing the letters and such, and installed extra support to the beams in the basement.
My people left before a bell was installed so when funds were being raised in the 1890s, significant retrofitting had to take place in the bellower to hold the 1,000 pound bell which was ultimately purchased in Cincinnati. (We ring this bell every Sunday at 9:00 a.m., please come join us as we ring the temple bell.) The exterior stucco was replaced in the 1950s and the original slate roof that was crushing the building was replaced with cedar shakes. An earthquake shook the temple for some fifteen seconds in 1986. Significant interior plaster came down then and has been replaced. I have heard Ron Romig, a historian with the Community of Christ, say that the temple is 85% original. Personally, I’m astonished how much is original to the time my ancestors were here.
5. Let’s talk about the two sections of the D&C that relate directly to the Kirtland Temple. First, there is the dedicatory prayer, dated March 27, 1836, the first day of the dedicatory services. The text of the prayer is entered in the Joseph Smith Journal for that date as viewed at the JS Papers site, but it was not canonized until it appeared in the 1876 LDS edition of the D&C as section 109.
Second, LDS D&C 110 relates a vision of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple just days after the the dedication services. A text similar to LDS D&C 110 is entered in the Joseph Smith Journal for April 3, 1836, and is viewable at the JS Papers website. That entry was written by Warren Cowdery, Oliver’s brother, and is recorded in third person. The version presently presently appearing as LDS D&C 110 was not canonized until it appeared in the 1876 LDS edition of the D&C, where it appeared as a first-person account, drawn from a later version that appears in in Joseph’s 1838 history. I know you are not a spokesperson for the Community of Christ, but how does the CoC view the dedicatory prayer at section 109 and the vision recorded in section 110?
One of the things that I think most of my people misunderstand about the Community of Christ (and other Restoration churches) is that we share some fourteen years of history together. Most significantly, we share the Kirtland period. Just as there are true believers along with the skeptics of the supernatural (such as myself) among the mountain saints, there are true believers and skeptics among the Community of Christ as well. Having said this, the traditional members of the Community of Christ share the words, events, and understanding of the manifestations associated with the dedication and the weeks that follow with the rest of the descendants of the Restoration. Though we have 170 years of separation, we share the events of Kirtland.
Interestingly, I find that the mountain saints tend to want to gloss over Brigham Young speaking in tongues at the end of the dedication because we don’t practice such things in the West (the Community of Christ just wants to just gloss over Brigham Young). Here in the Midwest there are a lot of charismatic Christian religions, so speaking in tongues would seem less out-of-sorts with the prairie saints. The disappointing thing is that the 19th-century Utah Mormons removed text from the dedicatory prayer that speaks of the temple being holy forever. The fact is, my people wanted to view the prairie saints as apostates who kept animals in the temple. The prairie saints wanted to distance themselves from cousins who were murdering immigrant trains and practicing polygamy. While my ancestors were in open conflict with American laws, our cousins in the prairie were acting as good citizens and making friends with their neighbors. I’m glad that rifts like these are now being repaired.
6. Although the Community of Christ owns the Kirtland Temple, the LDS Church has its own visitor’s center in Kirtland and conducts tours to several historical sites there, including the Isaac Morley farm, the John Johnson home, and Newel K. Whitney’s store. I am hoping there is friendly cooperation between the two groups as visitors come to Kirtland and visit the various sites.
I love that you asked this. I think we should remember that it was Wilford C. Wood of Woods Cross, Utah, who purchased most of these properties as a hobby. When the LDS church finally became interested, it worked a deal with Wood to acquire these properties. My mother met Wood when she was a youth growing up in Palmyra. I think that ownership of these historic sites of the Restoration is a relatively recent concern of the LDS Church. For other members of the Reorganization, these sites were simply part of their hometown.
Having said this, the peacemaking between the mountain saints and the prairie saints that has taken place among the historians of both churches has carried over well into the Kirtland area. I asked if some of the Mormon missionaries could come help me clean up a mess I made on the third floor while painting and sixteen site missionaries and several senior couples come running to my rescue. Visiting the flats has been nothing but a positive experience for me and there are very good feelings between the religious cousins here. I would love to see this continue to spread widely across both churches. We share some fourteen years of history. Let’s focus on what we share as we accept the differences of 150 years of separation. We have lots of good stories to share with one another. If you have visited Kirtland before, come back! If you haven’t been here, make plans to come.