A California Mormon visits the other Zion

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ZionBy Joe Geisner (guest blogger)

No I am not talking about Utah. I left Sam Brannan’s Zion for Joseph Smith’s Zion on April 11, 2008. I arrived at about 4 pm in Kansas City airport and almost froze to death waiting for the rental car shuttle. I had left 80 degree weather for 40 degree weather and began to wonder who really was the prophet? Obviously it was Brannan. The temperature never rose above 45 degrees, and we had snow in April!

I arrived in Independence about 4:30 pm and found the Independence campus of Graceland University. (Graceland is the Community of Christ equivalent of BYU, and its primary campus is in Lamoni, Iowa) I was early enough that I wanted to see “the” temple lot area.  I could see the spire of the Community of Christ temple reaching to the sky, and I knew that the lot was close to that. I found the Church of Christ (Temple lot) across the street from the Community of Christ temple. I knew nothing about this group except that they own the property that Joseph Smith had dedicated as the temple site for the city of Zion. I saw a sign for a visitor’s center and hoped they were still open. I was lucky enough to find William Sheldon giving a tour and explaining the beliefs of this interesting branch of the Restoration.  William “Bill” Sheldon is the oldest and longest acting apostle for the Church of Christ (Temple lot). (For more on this Restoration movement, see R. Jean Addams’ excellent article in Scattering of the Saints) Bill was, at first, quite defensive (or, as others told me, “he is always on the offensive.”) Once he realized I was not there to show him that my church was right, but that I was his student and wanted to learn from him, the atmosphere completely changed. He then became the teacher and from then on it was a very enjoyable experience. The Temple lot church’s visitor’s center, has two different cornerstones on display which they believe were placed by the early saints for the temple.

At 5pm we gathered at Graceland University in a beautiful auditorium that must hold a couple of hundred people. It was to attend a screening of the film, A Mormon President. Mike Riggs was kind enough to introduce the film. My impression of the film is that I don’t know what audience the filmmaker, Adam Christing, is looking for.  It seems to be more of a history of Joseph Smith’s bid for the presidency than Mitt Romney’s. I think that is unfortunate. Watching this film, I also realized how luck we Mormons were that Helen Whitney chose to do a film about us. 

After the film I was able to meet and visit with Robert Flanders of Nauvoo: Kingdom on the Mississippi fame.  Bob is a pure intellectual. He sees history clearly and is gifted in explaining his thoughts to a lay person such as myself. I was able to spend quite a bit of time with Bob through the three-day conference. I wish I had brought along a tape recorder to capture all of his interesting comments. A couple I can remember: Bob told me that Nauvoo was a complete failure no matter how one looked at it, and then gave a few examples. Bob then talked about Mormons as Christians and said that when he teaches others about Mormons, he tells them if it walks like a duck, etc., then it is a duck, and Mormons walk like Christians, etc. Bob then uses an example of a black woman who was stranded in the SLC bus depot where a Mormon woman asked her if she needed help. The Mormon woman took this lady into her home, fed her, clothed her, and helped her find a job. Bob’s favorable comments here have credibility since he is no longer a member of the Restoration movement but has been a Presbyterian since the late 1970s.

Wallace SmithNext at 8 pm, Wallace B. Smith, the great grandson of Joseph Smith Jr., grandson of Joseph Smith III, and retired prophet and president of the Community of Christ presented his talk. It was incredible and will be made available in audio form and in printed form at the next conference. I will just give a couple of impressions. His honesty was overwhelming. He openly talked about issues that he faced as prophet of what was then named the RLDS church, as well as about issues that continue to face the church. These included the status of homosexuals in the church, the Book of Mormon as scripture, and the ordination of woman to the priesthood. His discussion of section 156 of the RLDS D&C was amazing and quite spiritual. He discussed the concern of having it voted at conference and the possibility that it could be voted down. People came together and affirmed the section as God’s word, and dramatic changes began to happen within the RLDS church. One of the questions in the Q&A period and Wallace Smith’s response was really amazing. He was asked if he edited his father’s revelations or if his revelations were edited. Wallace’s demeanor changed, and he spoke with authority as he said the revelations were his words and his words alone—no one edited those revelations except his secretary for grammatical errors. I was blown away at his honesty and spirituality at that moment. I have studied in depth the accounts of the 1978 revelation in the LDS church and found the differences startling. Also during the Q & A Bob Flanders made the comment that when he left the RLDS church he thought they had painted themselves into a corner doctrinally and historically through continuing to hold fast to the teachings of Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. After hearing Wallace Smith’s talk, he believed the Community of Christ was going to do just fine. The electricity in the room was incredible. After the Q&A, I went up to ask Wallace Smith to sign a couple of my books and he was gracious enough to do this. They were George Q. Cannon’s Life of Joseph Smith (1st edition) and Roger Launius’ Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet. In conversation, it came up about his contact with the LDS church leaders. He said that he met with Spencer Kimball a couple of times and had quite pleasant meetings with him.

On Saturday, April 12th, 2008, we met early at 8 a.m. for a panel discussion on “The Future Status of the Book of Mormon in the Community of Christ.” Four things stood out for me at this session. (1) Having an intelligent conversation about the Book of Mormon as scripture, as Christian, what effect it has had on Native American members,  and its history both internally and as a modern work. (2) That an apostle of a restoration movement (Dale Luffman) would know that the book of Daniel in the Bible was written 400 years after it is claimed to be. (3) Mark Scherer as a true pastor and how that affects lay members of the church in dealing with these issues. Mark made the comment that members of the Community of Christ need to determine if will they follow the carpenter from Nazareth or the Prophet from Palmyra, asserting that by choosing the Nazarene they will do just fine. (4) The professionalism of the leaders in the Community of Christ.

I then attended four sessions from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. They ranged from the Book of Mormon as a way to follow Christ, to the different movements in the Restoration, to women and the priesthood during Joseph Smiths time, to Book of Mormon authorship, to Mitt Romney’s campaign for the presidency. All sessions were stimulating and informative. The respect that was shown for differences in ideas and opinions was wonderful.

During one break between sessions, I introduced myself to Fred Larsen, prophet, seer and revelator for the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Fred Larsen is the great great grandson of Joseph Smith Jr., the great grandson of Joseph Smith III, and the grandson of RLDS prophet Frederick M. Smith. Fred was kind enough to sign my copy of Dan Vogel’s Joseph Smith; the Making of a Prophet. He did this even though he admitted it was not his favorite book and that he disagreed with Dan’s conclusions. This is how kind and gracious of a man Fred is, and I found him to be quite interesting. Unfortunately I did not get to talk with him much because his wife was ill and he needed to get back to his home and take care of her.

At the dinner break I was invited by John Hamer to have dinner with him, Mike Karpowicz, David Howlett, Matt Frizzel, and Jan Shipps. We went to a restaurant that is owned by a member of the Community of Christ. It was excellent, and the food was not too bad either. David and Matt are both PhD. candidates in theology and/or history and members of the Community of Christ. Matt is the Community of Christ’s “Mission Center President” (“Stake President” in LDS lingo) for Chicago. The discussion was open and informative. We talked a bit about the early history of the Kirtland temple and the solemn assembly procedure. I was amazed at the knowledge at the table and the openness of the discussion. David laid out the events, and I brought up the amount of wine that was used to help with the visions and manifestations. No one seemed surprised or offended by my comments.

Jan ShippsJan had to speak at 8 pm, so we hurried and finished dinner. Jan’s presentation was brilliant. She shared with us a personal journey of hers with Joseph Smith’s Restoration movement. A couple of amazing insights included her experience at USU getting her bachelor’s degree. She commented that her history classes were misnamed. Even though the class was American history, Civil War history, or Western history, in reality they were Mormon history classes.  Jan also described the famous Mormon History Association meeting in Nauvoo where Reed Durham spoke about Joseph Smith and masonry. She described the emotions, events, and finds that led up to the presidential talk. The important find was Reed Durham discovering the weather vane in someone’s garage. I thought it interesting that Reed Durham happened to be the one to find the weather vane for the temple, clean it up, and take photos. I am not sure if the vane or the photos are still available? This image is all I could find.

She also described that as soon as Reed finished his talk, there was a loud sound of thunder and wind, followed by the lights going out in the Nauvoo Mansion house. Jan said there was dead silence before the lights finally flickered and came back on. She also said it was the only time she saw Leonard Arrington angry, and he said to her (referring to the likely fallout of Durham’s talk), “We have the archives open and now this will close them.” Jan also saw Durham’s talk as linked to Mark Hofmann’s decision to create his salamander letter.

On Sunday morning, April 13th, 2008, we met at the Community of Christ temple and Ron Romig graciously shared with us some of the treasures of the archives and the museum. These treasures include two seer stones passed down from the David Whitmer family, a letter from Joseph to Emma, Kirtland Bank notes, the supposed daguerreotype of Joseph that is making its rounds on the internet (the one that is of a painting of Joseph), and multiple photos of Emma—and, to my delight, my favorite one in which she is holding Hyrum David as an infant. We also got to see the printer’s manuscript of the Book of Mormon, the manuscript for the inspired version, and the actual Bible Joseph owned for that inspired version. The books we saw, among other items, were Edward Partridge’s copy of the 1830 Book of Mormon, Oliver Cowdery’s specially bound 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, a Book of Commandments, Lucy Mack Smith’s history, the evening and the Morning Star, and an original 1835 hymnal. We saw Joseph Smith’s watch, Emma Smith’s wedding ring, a woman’s slip hand made by Emma, Joseph’s cane, sword, sheath, and epaulets, and a dressing chest. We also saw David Whitmer’s hope chest in which he stored the printer’s manuscript. In the museum, we also were able to see the first three editions of the Book of Mormon together, the actual front door from Liberty jail, and a Mark Hofmann forgery. I would say the most exciting artifact/document for me was the “caracters” document. I believe this is the real Anthon transcript, and my heart almost stopped beating as it went around the room. I cannot express my feelings because this was an experience that I could have only dreamed about. The people of the Community of Christ and Ron Romig are the greatest.

Just a note about the seer stones: Both stones came from the David Whitmer family.  A chocolate “egg shaped” flat stone was first inventoried at the RLDS church in 1940. It has three holes drilled into it for leather straps.  The other stone is oval and flat and one can see a picture of it in Mike Quinn’s Early Mormonism and the Magic World View. Both are pretty close in size. The oval stone looks much like the same stone material that Rick Grunder sold (and the photo of that stone can be seen at Rick’s site. Both stones are Native American gorget. The egg shaped stone is darker than the oval stone. I asked Newell Bringhurst if he had brought his hat so we could do some translating. Unfortunately he had left it at home. We were done at the temple around 11 am.

I next went on a search to find the Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerites) meeting house and temple. This is a nice two-story white wood frame building on a piece of land about an acre in size. It sits in a low area south of the railroad tracks. As I drove away from the Independence area, I was overcome with emotion that I had been to a celebration of Joseph Smith and his legacy that had fed me intellectually, spiritually, and geographically. To have buildings of Community of Christ, LDS, Remnant LDS, Church of Christ temple lot, and Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite) all within view of one another is quite amazing. To see and feel the movement that started from a poor itinerant farmer boy and the diversity of that movement will never leave my mind.

I next went on a trek to find Liberty jail, about 30 minutes away from Independence. This was a much different experience. Liberty jail reconstructed is housed inside a much larger granite building. There are mannequins of Joseph, Hyrum, and the other prisoners. The only part of the jail that is original is the rock flooring that is covered with straw. I have to admit it was very depressing for me. To think of the conditions and hardship for the people in jail was emotionally distressing. I also had a hay fever flare-up from the straw, so that did not help.

I needed something to pick me up, so I drove to Westport just outside Kansas City and walked around the place that the Santa Fe Trail, Oregon Trail, and California Trail met. This was the drop off point for the pioneers heading west into the frontier. There is also a building that was owned by Daniel Boone’s grandson that had been the major mercantile store for these pioneers to buy their supplies. It is an amazing building. It is currently a bar, so it is open to the public to go inside a look around. The people were quite nice to me and I pictured myself going back to those early times.

To gather together and meet with people whom I have been friends with for years, or to just meet someone who feels like they have been a friend for years, is an amazing experience. That is exactly what happened for me during those three days.

Comments 22

  1. You should have visited Old Northeast where the Colesville Branch had their settlement. I own a plot of land in the area where this consecrated village once sat.

  2. Joe,

    I currently live in the Liberty, MO area, and like you attended this session of JWHA. It was my first time attending, but I’ll never miss another one while I reside in the area. To your comments around the presentations I say a firm AMEN! I felt the same electricy during the visit to the archives. A couple of documents that I remember were 1) the letter Joseph wrote to President of the United States, often referred to as the ‘redress letter’. Also, for me, 2) the practice worksheet from Joseph’s study of Hebrew, containing a sentence and then his written Hebrew characters, was fascinating. I was thankful to a researcher on the Joseph Smith Papers, that was helping carry the artifacts around the room, as he would point little interesting things about the documents. Jon and Dan thanks for helping to organize such a great event.

  3. Thanks for all your comments. I loved to have had more time to visit all the Restoration historical sites in Missouri. I plan on going again and then I can see the site of the Colesville Branch.

    I wish I could have met you Zionssuburb. In many ways the conference was a whirlwind. You bring up two more important treasures and you are correct that those who carried around the artifacts we quite helpful in pointing out interesting things about the items.

    I kept having people tell me that all the John Whitmer events are like this. I am skeptical because I can’t believe anything could top these three days. John and others almost have me convinced that I need to get my reservations for Voree. If I go, does that mean I have to choose between Brannan, Smith or Strang?

  4. There is no designated Colesville site, unfortunately — no sign nor historical monument. But it is pretty much the Old Northeast neighborhoods of downtown Kansas City, if I have figured the old descriptions correctly. Its layout and geography is greatly affected by the Irish from Chicago that came to the area during the 1840s, the second wave of mass settlement in Jackson County following the extermination order and exodus from Nauvoo.

    There are supposed to be 24 temples (schools of learning) on the temple mount in Independence. So the RLDS built the first one. I think its great, though all local non-members seem to think that we believe Jesus will slide down the spiral during his descension at the Second Coming. Some even say we expect Jesus to descend through to the basement into a Cadillac, which he will drive out of the temple. I am not kidding you, I have had people in Kansas City insist that this is what Mormons believe. They usually find out I’m Mormon when I insist that they are wrong.

    The temple of the Melchizedek priesthood will be built when the fragments of the Church reunite and the Saints are called to Zion. The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) has tried to built this temple twice, but halted construction both times. Joseph Smith, Jr., buried large, smooth marker stones to outline the corners of the chief temple, but the Church of Christ dug these up and reburied their own markers. Joseph Smith’s original markers are on display at a Temple Lot museum. Some years ago, the president of the Church of Christ received a revelation to move their markers 10 feet to the east.

  5. The Church of Jesus Christ (Cutlerite) “temple” you mention is really more of an Endowment House, as they continue to practice the Nauvoo-era endowment.

    Restoration RLDS is represented here in Independence. They are RLDS leaders disaffected by the reforms of the Community of Christ, and they so have declared their congregations independent (but united as Restoration Branches). For example, they are not scared of the Book of Mormon, they find no “problems” with it like the Community of Christ used to and still does (CoC had to go so far as to “reaffirm” the Book of Mormon last year).

    And, of course, there are a bunch of polygamous groups in town (and a remnant branch of the original United Order is rumored to be south of here in Humansville, MO).

  6. Joe,

    If I remember right, I believe we at lunch together, you were telling a story about a recent trip to Ireland, correct?

  7. So I’m heading out east from Cedar City in two weeks to trapse across Missouri, Illinois, and Iowa. Can anyone give me a good itinerary of places to visit, LDS and CoC, Reformist, etc. I want to see it all.

    Derek “The temple of the Melchizedek priesthood will be built when the fragments of the Church reunite and the Saints are called to Zion.”

    It’s intersting you note that. The United Apostolic Bretheren (polygamist Utah splinter) quite Woolsey in much the same fashion through a supposed revelation given him by John Tayler that the LDS Church would be forced to abandon its beliefs in order to spread the Book of Mormon throughout the world and that certain Patriarchal orders were called to carry on the practice until a great reuniting prior to the 2nd Coming. It makes much sense to me that these different groups hold on to different tenents of the faith, as well as does wider Christianity, until a great confluence happens and we all come in unity of the faith, and the proper orders are reaffirmed. This is my belief and I feel that its imminent and will be affected by our economic collapse.

  8. I’m envious. Living in the sticks has its drawbacks. I was considering (as I have little other opportunity to feel that kind of connection) attending a CoC church in the next town for the cultural experience. Can anyone tell me what I might expect in a CoC service? (Very small town, small church, remote from their headquarters).

  9. Pingback: The Greek and Roman Testaments: A Scriptural Analogy at Mormon Matters

  10. Peter —

    If you want to see it all, here are the directions. Go east on Interstate-70 from Utah to Independence, MO. The Temple Lot is at 200 S. River Blvd. Once you’re there you can easily see the Community of Christ Temple (1001 West Walnut St.) and the Auditorium and the LDS Visitor Center. (This LDS Visitor Center is skippable, because I’m going to send you to two more and they don’t have much at this one.) The Remnant Church HQ is across Lexington from the temple at 700 West Lexington Ave. The Cutlerite Church is just a few blocks south of the temple lot at 807 S. Cottage St. There are lots and lots of other Restoration related churches in Independence, but that should be plenty.

    While you’re in Zion, remember that it is one of the BBQ capitals of the world. Eat at Gates BBQ (a local chain) 10440 East 40 Highway in Independence. Your kids will make a mess, but you shouldn’t miss the experience.

    Next, take 291 Highway north to Liberty. The reconstructed Liberty Jail (216 N. Main St., Liberty, MO) is inside of an LDS Visitor Center, which you should visit. Take Interstate 35 north to Far West. The Temple Site is owned by the LDS church and has the corner stones. At Exit 48, take County Road HH east, turn left onto County Road D. The temple site is at the corner of D and NW Far West Dr. If you want to goto Haun’s Mill site, it’s very remote and there’s nothing much there at present. Take Far West Dr. east to Highway 13, turn left (north). Take 13 to County Road U. Keep going until the road ends, turn right (south) on Catawba Rd. Before you get to the Shoal Creek bridge, turn right (west) onto a dirt road and the site is less than a mile off that road.

    Adam-ondi-Ahman also has nothing there except a few plaques and a lot of fences, but people like to go. If you’re back to Interstate 35 going north, it’s at Exit 72 and there are many big signs leading you there. Interstate 35 takes you north to Lamoni, Iowa (Exit 4), which is the location of Graceland University (the Community of Christ version of BYU). Joseph Smith III’s home (Liberty Hall, 1138 W. Main St.) is open for tours.

    Nauvoo isn’t an interstate destination, but there are very reasonable roads to get there. If you’re up in Lamoni, you can take US 34 east to Illinois and then you can take the river road south to Nauvoo. We’ve taken Iowa highway 2 east from Lamoni to Nauvoo and that was a nice drive. In either case, as you’re in the Iowa countryside, you’re in the general vicinity of the Mormon trail. Nauvoo is great and you ought to spend 2 days there to see it. The LDS church sites include all sorts of pioneer era reenactments for kids (making bricks, newspapers, candles, etc.) If you have ancestors in Nauvoo, go to the LDS records office and find out where they lived. Community of Christ’s sites make you take the tour, but you should go because they have all the Smith family property, from Joseph and Emma’s homes to their graves. Carthage Jail is just east of Nauvoo and there are signs.

    Take Interstate 80 back to Utah, so that you can visit Council Bluffs/Omaha. There’s a reconstructed Kanesville Tabernacle (where Brigham Young reorganized the LDS church in 1847) and an LDS temple and Visitor Center in Winter Quarters (at the north edge of Omaha).

    And there you have it.

  11. Joe —

    Thanks for the great write up. I’m so glad you had a memorable experience. I had a great time too. I loved being able to meet and visit with you in person. Even though it was rushed, it was a fun dinner.

    — John

  12. Thank you John and Mormon Matters for allowing me to post. One of the comments I continually heard was how nice a conference this was and that it was the first conference. This says quite a bit about the effort and time Mike and you put into making this a successful conference.

    Zionssuburb, I am very glad we met, one of the best parts about the conference was meeting new people.

    I am grateful that John has stepped in and gave a travel guide. I can only add one comment and that is DO NOT MISS The Community of Christ Museum. It is first rate and many of the artifact treasures I mention can be found there.

    Rigel, as for attending church, I really can’t help. I grew up Utah Mormon and continue to attend church at a Utah Mormon ward, I have never attended a Community of Christ branch (their ward). I plan on attending one of their services because of my experience in Independence. Maybe we can share notes after doing this.

    Derek, you are correct, it seems every Restoration branch wants to be in Independence since it is Joseph’s Zion. I did a search of the Journal of Discourses and it is quite amazing the desire of the Utah saints to be in Independence and get the temple built. If one really wants to hear an amazing Utah Mormon talk about packing your bags and headin’ to Missouri take a listen to Alvin Dyer’s talk “Establishing the Cities of Zion”. It can be found on the BYU devotional website.

  13. Joe & Rigel :—

    I have attended a Community of Christ service at the Stone Church near the temple mount:


    Stone Church is very cool! Never before have I seen such beautiful stained glass of Joseph Smith, the Book of Mormon, and Mesoamerican pyramids, etc. It was awesome to see Mormon-themed stained glass windows.

    Their services are very much like a traditional Christian service. They are quite different from LDS services. There is usually a minister that has prepared a sermon, there ministers even go so far as to use the rolling voice and shouts of revival evangelists. They have their own hymnal, which has some traditional Mormon tunes as well as some of their own stuff and/or standard Christian tunes. They partake communion once a month or once a quarter (I forget which).

    When I went I met one of their Quorum of the Seventy, he gave a very nice sermon about how their churches have been able to improve and organize within the worse-off neighbors of Independence (once called the meth capital of the world by Rolling Stone), and how they need to focus more on helping the needy and unchurched, etc.

    I was a little disappointed that their meetings were so much like non-denomination services. I was hoping for something more akin to the Mormon services I’m familiar with, and I would guess that they have occasional testimony meetings or member speakers, like we do. But the day I went it was very much like a mainstream worship service.

    They have Scripture study and whatnot during the week, like we used to before everything was consolidated into 3 hours on Sunday. All in all, I had a good time at their service, the congregants were very “real” — they were overly proud and self-righteous like us Mormons tend to be, and there wasn’t as much “fine apparel” as there is in our churches. I was happy to worship with fellow WT, even if I was somewhat overdressed. 😉

  14. Excellent review. The Community of Christ has impressed me for years, and I envy the experience you had visiting different branches of the LDS movement in the Independence area. I heard about this conference only about a month before it was to be held. I’m sorry I missed it, and wondered about the audio recordings you mentioned. Do you know if they’ll be available for sale online?

  15. Great story, I loved reading it from beginning to end. I didn’t understand the part about freezing to death in 40 degree weather though. That’s still t-shirt weather for me!

  16. Thanks very much for that interesting article about your trip to “the other Zion”.I am a mormon convert;first,i joined Utah LDS,then STRANGITE Mormons,currently a member of the REMNANT CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER DAY SAINTS.I live in UGANDA,EAST AFRICA and the Presiding Elder.I plan to have a trip to U.S.A some months to come.It will be my greatest joy to tour those interesting Mormon historical sites.
    God bless.
    ELDER JAMES MUBIRU,Presiding Elder,Uganda

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