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.
- 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.