In October my wife and I attended Sunstone, in Kirtland, Ohio. I should have done a report on what I learned there when it happened, but it really was a remarkable experience that I often still think about. When I heard that Sunstone was going to be in Kirtland, I felt strongly that my wife and I needed to attend. I am by no means a church history expert, but I’ve read a lot in the last year, and I know a lot of important church history happened in Kirtland in the 1830’s. I also knew Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS church) now owns the Kirtland temple, which was the first temple built by the Latter Day Saints. I figured it would be interesting to go inside the temple and see it for myself. I wondered if any of my LDS friends were surprised to see me go there. No one asked me though, so maybe they didn’t care one way or another. But for me, I felt like it was a pilgrimage I needed to take. I was born into the LDS faith, and I have generations of relatives before me who gave everything for their church, including some who died making the migration to Utah. I have relatives from Denmark who were disowned by their parents when they decided to join the LDS church. They made a hard choice to follow the dictate of their conscience, even if it meant being disaffected from their families. I believe I have also made the hard choice to follow the dictates of my conscience, even if that means some of my friends and family are sad or angry at me for not believing as they do. But even if I no longer believe the LDS church is God’s one true church, I honor the sacrifice of the saints who came before me. I claim their sacrifice and their history as my heritage, even though I am no longer a member of the LDS church.
The Kirtland LDS Visitors Center
Kirtland is a very small town. Although there are about 7,000 citizens, it felt even smaller than that to me. As we drove into town Friday afternoon, we had a couple of hours before we were to meet other Sunstone attendees at a local restaurant. We decided to make a quick trip to the LDS Visitors Center at the bottom of the hill before you drive up to the temple. As you drive in to the complex, there are many buildings, with some that look like buildings restored from the 1830’s. The grounds are absolutely immaculate and beautiful. We went in to the main visitors center building and we were greeted by a young sister missionary. We told her we didn’t have a lot of time, and she said she would be happy to customize the tour so that we could see the things that interested us. She asked us what brought us to Kirtland, and when we told her we were in town for Sunstone, I thought I detected a slight scowl, like she wasn’t happy about it. But, she remained helpful and asked if we wanted to watch a short church history movie about the Kirtland era of the church. We watched it, and although it was beautifully made, it showed a very black and white telling of the history: the Mormons were noble and faithful, and the anti-Mormons were crude and lousy. The evil anti-Mormons chased the Mormons out of Kirtland for what seemed like pure spite. I was disappointed when the movie never mentioned the failure of the Kirtland bank. After the movie was over I was surprised when a sister missionary told the few of us in the theater: “I know everything in this movie is true.” I thought to myself, “Really? You don’t think there was any artistic license taken with anything in the movie?” How can a movie be 100% true if all of it happened so long ago?
She then took us on a tour of two restored buildings, Newel K. Whitney’s house and his store. Whitney was a good friend to Joseph Smith and his family. He was also the bishop in Kirtland and was an important figure in early church history. Both buildings were very beautifully restored. Items have been added in the rooms to show what they may have looked like back in the 1830’s when people lived there. In the top of the store there were rooms where Joseph Smith and has family lived for a time. We went in the bedroom where Joseph Smith III was born, who eventually would be the leader of the “Josephites” (the RLDS church) after the “Brighamites” (what would become the church in SLC) moved west. We saw the room where the School of the Prophets met, and where the revelation for the Word of Wisdom was received. Downstairs on the ground floor was the store, which was filled with goods and props that made it look like it was ready for business. At one point we asked our guide if the Whitney’s daughter Sarah Ann Whitney was one of Joseph Smith’s plural wives like we thought we remembered. Our sister missionary scrunched up her face and looked annoyed. “I don’t know about any of his other wives. I only know about Emma.” Here was a woman who had been working at a church history site for over a year, and not only did she know nothing about polygamy, she didn’t want to know and made it clear she didn’t plan on learning about it.
The Kirtland Temple and Visitors Center
Continuing on up the road from the LDS visitors center, we reached the top of the hill where we found the Kirtland Temple and the Community of Christ’s visitor center. The people and guides we met from the Community of Christ were quite different from what we encountered at the LDS visitors center. They were very open with the facts of the early history of the church. In their visitors center, you can buy books and materials that most active LDS members would be afraid to read, like “Mormon Enigma” (I still need to write a book review on that incredible book) and D. Michael Quinn’s “Early Mormonism and the Magic World View”. I bought an autographed version of that book that I still haven’t started reading. They even had facsimiles of “The Nauvoo Expositor”, and I bought one of those too. The person who gave us a tour of the Kirtland Temple, Lachlan Mackay, was the Community of Christ Historic Sites Coordinator. The temple is fascinating because there are two floors that seem like a copy of each other, with stands for the leaders in the back and front of the room, and pews in between. Above them both are smaller rooms that Joseph Smith used to run the church. If I remember correctly, he worked on the Book of Abraham up there.
Besides the historical and educational part of our pilgrimage, I felt a very strong spiritual component as well. On Friday night at 8 PM, there was an LGBTQIA Human Rights Devotional in the temple. Oh how I wished the LDS Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency could have seen us there! Women sat on the stand and ran the meeting. A married homosexual couple spoke eloquently about the LGBT cause and how we could all be better allies for those who feel marginalized. On Sunday morning, we had a Sabbath devotional in the temple and we sang “The Spirit of God”. There were very few dry eyes in the House of the Lord. And who were we? Active Mormons, inactive Mormons, disaffected Mormons, ex-Mormons, members of the Community of Christ, and even an ex-FLDS member. What did we have in common? A shared heritage that we all claimed as our own, in our own way. It didn’t matter that we all didn’t believe the same things. We had a short testimony meeting, and I was very grateful to get to make use of that time and bear a testimony that I knew I could never share in an LDS church. I told how I had lost my faith in the LDS church, and I wasn’t sure I would ever have faith in God again when it happened. But along my journey, I had found a new faith, something even more beautiful and precious to me than what I had before. And there I was sharing it with people of all different shades of belief and unbelief, and no one judged me for my honest expression of my unorthodox views. It was an experience I will treasure for the rest of my life, because it was in the House of the Lord my people labored to build so many years ago. I was in the same place where Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon said they saw Jesus Christ. I sat in a pew that maybe Emma Smith or one of the Whitmers once sat in. It was their temple, and it’s my temple too. No one can take that away from me, because it’s my heritage and I proudly claim it.