By 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.
Next 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 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.