Are We Going to Be Able to Buy the Kirtland Temple?

I’ve always been fascinated with sacred real estate disputes, and we certainly have our own. The most salient–the American “Temple Mount”–is probably the Temple Lot in Independence, the story of which makes for fascinating reading: a geographically precise, small plot of land is prophesied by Joseph Smith as the location of a future temple. After his death various branches legally fight over ownership. The ones who end up winning the prize are a small, numerically marginal branch known as the Church of Christ (Temple Lot, AKA Hedrickites), after forming an alliance of convenience with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints against the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that includes gathering some of the few first-hand accounts from Joseph Smith’s living wives. 

While one historically prominent exegetical strand among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds that D&C 57 should be interpreted as indicating that we will some day return to Independence and build the temple at the Temple Lot site now occupied by the Hedrickites, there are other ways to read that scripture given the historical context; I’m personally less inclined to the traditional interpretation, but I might be wrong and would not be surprised if it does end up happening the way Brigham Young thought it would. Whatever the case with the Temple Lot, it looks like the Hedrickites are comfortably ensconced there, have no plans to sell any time soon, and fulfilling that particular interpretation of that prophecy is not terribly high on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ list of priorities right now. I’m assuming that the status quo, where the Hedrickites graciously allow visitors to the currently Temple-less grassy field, will continue for the foreseeable future. The Hedrickites are a small group, but they have been a small group for a while, and given the centrality of that location to their self-conceptualization I doubt they will sell it off as long as there is somebody there to keep the lights on. 

However, the sacred properties currently owned by the Community of Christ are another matter. Since their turn towards the Christian theological mainstream, their sense of their religious mission is not as bounded to geographic space and physical objects as much as it was during the RLDS era, and they appear willing to occasionally exchange artifacts and historically significant properties for resources to be able to fulfill their current, more mainstream religious mission. Most prominently, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints broke the record for most paid for a manuscript when they purchased the Printer’s Manuscript of the Book of Mormon from the Community of Christ for $35 million. 

However, the market for LDS religious sites provides an interesting game theoretic situation, with one seller and one buyer. Although the buyer has the resources, purchasing those particular properties might not be high on the list of priorities as long as the seller is taking care of them and allowing access. The seller also still presumably still feels some historical connection to the site, and the sites may also provide a revenue stream. 

Ultimately, I believe the deciding factor will probably be the financial situation of the seller. So what is the situation? 

The Community of Christ is very transparent about their finances, and every year they publish a financial update that basically lays out their balance sheet including outflows and inflows. From looking at their statements for this year and the last I draw the following conclusions, with the caveat that I am no accountant and I may be misreading something. 

A financial contraction is looming as their tithe payers pass away. However, they have shown themselves to be adept at “living within their means,” so the decline in revenues may not mean more indebtedness. However, in the meantime they need to come up with $32 million to plug the hole in their unfunded pension liabilities, which they will probably not be able to pull off just by living frugally. Finally, in the 2020 report they noted that they were open to selling additional historical assets.

It looks likely, by all accounts, that there will be additional sales from the Community of Christ to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the future (whether near, medium, or long term I don’t know). However, as the Community of Christ’s tithing base shrinks, the Church may find themselves in a better bargaining situation and may find it more effective to just wait. 

The Community of Christ’s report raises the possibility of growth coming from the younger cohort given some new institutional initiative or another, but I’m skeptical given the sociological realities. This is not a “Brighamite” jeering at the situation of the “Josephites,” I was similarly skeptical about the sense permeating my Western European mission that we just had to add this or that special sauce to our proselytizing technique and we’d have a Dan Jones 2.0 in Europe. (Although I didn’t have the maturity at the time to realize that deflating young aspiration probably was not the most prudent thing to do). The fact is that the sociological realities of a post-religious society are incredibly difficult to swim against, so unless I see evidence suggesting otherwise I will assume that the future of the Community of Christ is one of contraction. 

So what do they have that the Church might want?  

  • Kirtland Temple

As the first temple of this dispensation it is arguably on the same level as the Temple Lot in terms of sacral importance. However (I’m just speculating, I don’t claim to be an expert Salt Lake City “Vaticanologist”), the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purchasing it would raise all sorts of potentially difficult questions about whether to rededicate it as a functioning temple after remodeling it to accommodate endowments, or dedicate it as a historical site. With another restoration branch owning and operating the site, Salt Lake City can sidestep this question entirely. 

  • Larger Temple Lot Properties: 

While the narrowly defined “Temple Lot” is owned by the Hedrickites, the Community of Christ owns other property in the larger “Temple Lot” area. However, this is essentially their Temple Square, so while they might sell off a lot here or there, I am assuming that they will be located there for the foreseeable future.  

  • Red Brick Store 

This served as the Nauvoo-era headquarters for the Church and was the location where the first endowments were performed. Given its liturgical history this may be viewed as more of a “sacred site” than, say, the Nauvoo House, but still probably not at the level of the Kirtland Temple or Temple Lot. 

  • Mansion House

Joseph and Emma’s home in Nauvoo. It was where the Book of Abraham mummies were displayed; some temple ordinances were performed here as well.

  • Nauvoo House

This was meant to be a hotel built in tandem with the temple, but was unfinished at Joseph Smith’s death. Currently rented out by the Community of Christ to groups. 

Nauvoo House

  • Smith Family Cemetery

Gravestones of Hyrum, Joseph, Emma, Joseph Sr., Lucy Mack, Samuel, and Don Carlos Smith. 

  • Manuscripts of Joseph Smith’s Translation of the Bible

While in the past there was conflict between the RLDS and the LDS Church over the manuscripts involved in Joseph Smith’s translation, cooperative efforts between the two institutions led to highly detailed facsimiles and analyses in the 20th century. As such, if interested, the Church would be interested in the manuscript as a historical artifact, as the information contained in them has already been analyzed. 

So what is going to happen? I don’t know what the going rate for sacred Latter-day Movement property is. I don’t think anybody does. As noted, it’s an interesting game theoretic, bargaining situation. I could see various combinations of those properties and artifact adding up to $32 million. However, I might be off by an order of magnitude. I certainly would not have guessed that the original manuscript of the Book of Mormon would have been sold for $35 million. What I will prognosticate is that something will get sold in the near or medium term future, since, according to my reading of their financial statements, they will probably need to in order to fulfill their looming pension obligations. 

 

 

20 comments for “Are We Going to Be Able to Buy the Kirtland Temple?

  1. I am incredibly grateful that the Community of Christ has ownership of the Kirtland Temple. They take historical preservation very seriously, they keep the temple doors open for all to feel it’s spirit, and they graciously allow local LDS Ohio stakes to use the temple for conferences and firesides. Compare their approach to what the LDS Church is currently doing to the pioneer craftsmanship of the Salt Lake temple. They have shown themselves to be better stewards.

  2. I found this extremely interesting. A lot to think about. It may not be a priority now but I like the idea of property being owned by the Church in the original Zion area.

  3. I agree with Rolfe. I also prefer to visit the historical sites owned by the Community of Christ because they treat it as an experience where you’re learning about a historic site rather than an opportunity to shove testimony and missionary work down your throat every five seconds.

  4. Hopefully there is just one buyer. I would be sad if someone decided to outbid the church for any of these properties in attempt to then extort the church into paying even more for them.

  5. The Kirkland Temple, the last I spoke with someone from the CoC about it, was built with joists too far apart on the upper floors. It needs a lot of work just to preserve the building. I do not think it could easily accommodate being a rededicated temple, nor do I think it wise to do so. The temple at Nauvoo was destroyed, you had nothing to preserve, so you could do what you want.

    Also, AFAIK, the Red Brick Store I thought was not original.

  6. Ot: That is a very important point that I missed: I see on Wikipedia that the Red Brick Store is a replica; consequently it’s probably worth a pittance of what it would be if they had the original building (although it’s built on the original foundation, which makes for an interest “Ship of Theseus” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship_of_Theseus) situation about what makes an “original” church history site). Since I assume that the Mansion house and Nauvoo house are not terribly important to the Church (the latter was really only finished after the Brighamites left) that really leaves the Kirtland temple as the potentially pricey piece of real estate. I could maybe see them selling off everything except for the Kirtland temple and Temple Lot properties and raising the $32 million, or just selling the Kirtland Temple.

    The fact that it needs significant repairs is also relevant, although I could just as easily see the Church just footing the bill for the renovations. Who knows.

  7. Rolfe, amen!!!!

    And if we managed to not butcher all the Kirkland Temple’s historical elements, women would rarely if ever again see the sacred pulpit, as such rooms in the pioneer temples are used for PH solemn assemblies. : (
    I don’t know if the General “auxiliaries” have similar access in Logan, SL, Marti, etc.

    How sad would that be for us sisters to never see the pulpit and main hall in the Kirkland temple again?

    The CoC has land and buildings in Limoni- Graceland U. Would they sell it?

  8. I understand the need for historical preservation, and I too wish they would have preserved more of the pioneer craftsmanship and artwork in the SLC and Logan temples (the latter doesn’t get as much attention because it happened a while ago, but it’s another example of the same thing).

    However, there’s always going to be a fundamental disjuncture those who see the value of temples as primarily coming from their historical or artistic legacies, and those who see their primary function as living, breathing structures built for active ordinances whose effects will last long after Minerva Teichert’s paintings have rotted away. Whether you agree with them or not Church leadership, and probably the craftsman who built the temple in the first place, belong to the latter category, and coming from those premises the question of what to do with the Kirtland temple is not so slam dunk. A dedicated temple’s rightful place is as a house of ordinances, but at the same time that temple was not built to accommodate all the ordinances. It’s a hard call if you view it from their (and the original Saints’) perspective.

  9. Stephen C,
    You have a good point- the Kirkland Temple’s architecture was unique- it functioned in a not only a preparatory, but communal way long before our modern temple ordinances were correlated and codified. And yet, some of our most sacred temple moments occurred there in a manner that we do not accommodate in our modern temples. The question is- are we open enough to worship in a sacred place in the original manner (as the architecture supports) – in ways that we are not familiar with, or are we so lock-step that we feel we need to gut the pews and pulpit to install lockers, movie theater seats, a/v systems, and offices? It’s too small for our purposes- maybe we need to knock down a wall or two and build modern annexes? Maybe just raze the whole thing and build it 10x bigger? (Just writing those hypotheticals hurt my heart.)

    I think that we could learn a lot from the past about the possibility and potential for what temple worship can look like. If God has “yet to reveal many great and important things pertaining to the kingdom of heaven” (including our conduits to heaven- temples), maybe we have a thing or two to learn about temples. They can be more than and different from the rote machines we created to dot the earth. There is a place and space for this special, historic temple in the future. The sacred dedicatory prayer and purposes articulated a vision for this place that was and remains unprecedented. It won’t look or operate like all the rest. Nonetheless, it is no less sacred, no less functional, no less effective. Maybe, just maybe, we need to learn and grow *back* into it.

    And no, we’re not ready to think outside the box- even though doing so isn’t really “outside the box” thinking as there is historical precedent for it. Even here on the bloggernacle we shifted into binary thinking about the temple instead of a more expansive “what if….” (I am guilty too.)

    Yeah- maybe CoC can be the Hedrikites of the Kirtand Temple until we get out of our Dalek-like “conform! Must conform!” thinking.

    In the meantime, if the church is sitting on $100B how about they fix up the Hauns Mill site. It needs more archeological preservation/research and a memorial. It has nothing now. Signs have been shot out by the locals and the only way you know if you are at the site is by checking your GPS. The church website directs visitors to a park in nearby Richmond where another memorial has been set up. And we own Hauns Mill- President Monson purchased acres around it from the CoC back when the KC a temple was dedicated. Maybe we should steward what we have before getting more. Similarly, wells that Joseph dug, the ferry site, foundations of historic homes, etc. at Adam Ondi Ahman are not being preserved, are not visible to visitors, and are not secured. Tourists do stupid things like taking souvenirs. There was once a “Nephite Alter” at the site that was picked apart that way and no longer exists. Consequently- since nothing has been preserved, they just closed everything off. Maybe we get to work on the sites we aren’t curating, first.

  10. Mortimer:

    That’s tragic about the Adam-Ondi-Ahman and other sites, I had no idea, and that’s a very good point. 

    I too am open about future revelation about temples, I think just about everybody is (although I disagree with the idea of them being “rote machines”). However, more often than not when people say “I think the Church should be open to the possibility X” that’s just a polite way of saying “I think the Church should do X, ” but couched in language to make it more palatable for conservative cultural expectations about change through revelation.
     
    For many the defining element of Joseph Smith-era theology comes mostly from the meta-attribute of “thinking outside the box” more than the particulars of what’s in the new box. Sure, as a new religious movement the Kirtland-era Church had a lot of theological change in a short amount of time and that might inspire further radical changes in the 21st century, but since then we’ve gone through an Weberian bureaucratization process (all large churches do the same as they progress from a small sect to a larger denomination), and  part of being being a member in the 21st century is crediting that process as also being generally inspired, and not just the inheritor of an almost completely malleable and expansive seed of theological creativity established in the Joseph Smith era. 

    While the Kirtland temple was indeed more open, the seeds of exclusiveness were already in the dedicatory prayer (“no unclean thing shall be permitted to come into thy house”), although I’m not enough of a historian to know the evolutionary background of the temple recommend (Ardis, if you’re lurking in the background, I’m sure you know!). Although yes, as I note, the temple was not actually built for temple ordinances in mind, so its liturgical status is not clear. 

  11. Kirkland = Costco house brand of fine goods including delicious rotisserie chickens.

    Kirtland = what we’re talking about.

  12. As a many-times visitor to Adam-ondi-Ahman when my family lived in Jackson County in the ‘70s, I can confirm both the souvenir taking and the fact that it is not a recent phenomenon. Any original altar stones disappeared generations ago. In the ‘70s, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it continued today, the elders’ quorum in the stake had a regular assignment to take a load of stones out there for thieving tourists to take. It isn’t the relics that matter, really, but the chance for quiet contemplation of past and future events in the silent and natural setting. I hope they never develop some of those sites into the Disneyland that Nauvoo has become.

  13. S Cranney, now I’m interested in reading Weber- thanks!

    There’s a fine line between the principle of common consent and steadying the ark. Today’s administrators would have us dismiss the entire notion of common consent. Certainly, juggling common consent in a 17 m member church as opposed to a Kirtland-sized church is a whole different game. I tend to think we need each other; the leaders and the rank and file. I think the leadership sees themselves listening to the heavens instead.

    Your food allergy is fake,
    Hardy-har har. Now let’s all go buy jugs of salsa and cartloads of toilet paper. Kirkland brand.

    Orsonite, you bring the monster-sized bags of chips.

    Ardis, I didn’t know the elders hauled rocks out to AAD. I’d hate for people to take the rocks I mentioned above, especially when archeological research and preservation still need to take place. For the time being, much is out of sight and out of mind. I agree- it’s hard to connect with sacred sites when they are busy and/or overly controlled. Doves and Serpents wrote a beautiful post years ago about letting the forest at the sacred grove “go natural”, allowing the old trees to fall and decay, keeping the ground messy instead of cleaning everything up with overly fastidious care. As a result, the health of the forest greatly improved and is more historically accurate. Surely lessons are still to be learned.

  14. When I was a young man at a stake youth conference in the 1970s, the visiting authority, L Tom Perry, told us that the Salt Lake church had been in discussions with the (then) RLDS church about transferring the Kirtland Temple to the LDS church, and promised us that it would not be long until that happened. At the time I thought it would be a cool “we won, finally” event in the Salt Lake/Independence rivalry. Now I think it would be a tragedy, since the Community of Christ has proven itself to be a very worthy steward of the Kirtland Temple, and the Salt Lake leadership has proven itself to care nothing about the historical integrity of its iconic sacred structures (i.e., Manti and SL temples).

    Also, I have to comment on how your careful hewing to the RMN style guide and repeating “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” every time you meant “Utah Mormons” is a perfect example of how awkward and unwieldy that usage is and how silly its imposition was.

  15. Thanks for sharing this interesting insight into the CoC and the potential future agreements. While your conclusions are admittedly speculative, it has been interesting to consider our the lives our of our sibling faiths continue to be intertwined. I hope charity and respect reigns supreme when and if discussions occur. I appreciate the work the CoC has done to preserve our mutual heritage and hope their efforts will continue to bless our lives for generations to come.

  16. Hi Mark, good to hear from you! No problem with disagreeing, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the hierarchy disagreed with the style change as well, but even if you don’t agree there is a more general issue of referring to people how they want to be referred to. If Pope Francis stated tomorrow that they should refer to the Catholic Church as the Holy Roman Apostolic Catholic Church, then sure, it’s no skin off my back. (Although I don’t know where “Brighamite” fits in the style guide). Similarly, I don’t refer to Unificationists as Moonies, etc. However, I should have referred to the Hedrickites as Church of Christ (Temple Lot), so I’m not pure on this issue either (especially since I do think they’re actually particular about that).

  17. I agree whole-heartedly with Ardis. My family and I have visited the Missouri sites as well as Nauvoo. I pray the Missouri states remain exactly as they are. My quiet, reverent visit to the Far West temple site was as sacred and holy as my first visit to the Western Wall in Jerusalem – and that was with five children in tow. I hope the Church leaves the Missouri sites exactly as they are. And God bless the Community of Christ for their care of the Kirtland temple.

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