Nothing remains but the explanatory sign which sticks out of the ground at the site of the anti-bank bank. This ill-advised venture would cause the almost collapse of the Mormon venture in the Kirtland area and led directly to the departure of Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon and many of those that remained faithful to Smith’s leadership. For more on the details of the bank, read the introduction.
Mormonism is not a unitary movement but has seen schisms through much of its history. The major fault lines developed at the time of Joseph Smith’s murder near Nauvoo, Illinois in 1844. A leadership crisis and questions regarding the practice of polygamy led to the development of two major branches. The largest group are those that followed the leadership of Brigham Young - and polygamy - and left the Midwest to start a new world in Utah as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - LDS. Many that stayed behind in the Midwest eventually coalesced behind the leadership of the slain prophet’s son, Joseph Smith III and denying the tenets of polygamy and other practices that had developed in the Nauvoo period of Mormonism. This group became the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - RLDS. In recent years, the RLDS have undergone a name change and are now known as the Community of Christ. The Community of Christ have maintained ownership of many of the important sites of early Mormon history, such as the home and grave of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo and here in Kirtland, the temple, itself.
Here, at their Visitor Center, you will find an informative small museum demonstrating early history of the Mormon movement both in New York and Ohio. You can find out something about how things developed during the Kirtland years and something about the quick demise and removal to Missouri. From here, informative tour guides will take you - after a short introductory film - over to tour the inside of the temple - $2 preservation fee. The propaganda level , though still present, is lower key than what you will find at the LDS Visitor Center down the street at ‘Historic Kirtland’.
Across from both the Visitor Center, you can find a sizable Community of Christ church that serves the local congregation. They used to meet in the temple, itself, and it was decided a separate church would mean less wear and tear on the 170 year old building. The Community of Christ has faced major schismatic problems of their own, especially in recent years. Evidence of that can be found with the large ‘Restoration’ church down the street which is made up of members who have not followed the movement of Community of Christ leaders towards a more liberal Christian faith which includes the ordination of women and a certain de-emphasis on aspects of the more ‘Mormon’ aspects of the church’s past.
Almost across the street from the Kirtland Temple stands the house that used to belong to Sidney Rigdon and his wife. Rigdon is a man that doesn’t get much play in today’s LDS church. It was mostly because of him that the Mormon movement relocated from New York to Ohio in 1831. Rigdon was a Disciples of Christ preacher with a congregation in Kirtland. He converted as did much of his church and the ranks of the nascent Mormon faith doubled. Joseph Smith elevated him to be his second in command and Rigdon served Smith closely during the Ohio years. That relationship would wane during the Nauvoo period though Rigdon was still serving as Smith’s First Counsellor at the time of Smith’s murder. Rigdon became the leader of one of the many schismatic branches that developed following the leadership crisis caused by Smith’s death. Rigdon, himself, made a losing pitch for overall leadership of the movement. The group he led survives today mostly in Pennsylvania as the Church of Jesus Christ. The house is privately owned.
The Utah branch of Mormonism is by far the most numerous one today. For many years the Latter Day Saints were isolated in their Great Basin homelands centered around Salt Lake City. During the latter part of the 20th century, church authorities decided to reclaim those parts of their historical heritage that they could. They have been reasonably successful in acquiring many sites with significant meaning in Mormon history. One coup was the Hill Cumorah in New York - where there is a large summertime pageant that runs. Here, Joseph Smith is thought to have dug up golden plates with heavenly guidance and translated them - again, with heavenly help - into what became the Book of Mormon. They have recently also rebuilt a replica of the original temple that stood on the hill above %LNauvoo, Illinois. Here in Kirtland, they have come onto the playing field a bit later than their schismatic brothers, the Community of Christ, which owns the temple, itself. No worries, however, as there is plenty of history to go around. The acquisition and restoration of several buildings dating to the Kirtland period of Mormon history - and a re-routing of the main highway, thanks in part to the efforts of former NFL quarterback Steve Young - gives the LDS an opportunity to put their spin on Mormon history. At the Visitor Center, you are shown an introductory film that sets the stage for the exhibits within the buildings and the informative and spiritual talks given by the elder missionaries - usually volunteer retired couples who come to live here for some time with the express purpose of helping to guide visitors through Mormon history. Historic Kirtland receives thousands of visitors during the summer months, so it can be much quieter in the off months. If you are not of the LDS faith, you will find yourself surrounded by the faithful as they return to their religious roots.
On the north side of the Kirtland Temple you will find the local cemetery. Here you will find many several early Mormons buried within the grounds, including both John Johnson and his wife. They had left the Mormon church with many others as a result of the failure of the Kirtland bank in 1838.
This was the first brick building built in the Kirtland area, erected in 1813. Purchased by the Mormon church in 1833, the building also served in addition to a public house as a temporary printing house following the destruction of the church printing press in Independence, Missouri in 1833. It was in this inn that Egyptian mummies purchased by Joseph Smith, Jr., were put on display. Hieroglyphics included with the mummies were translated by Smith and became part of the third book of LDS scripture - The Pearl of Great Price - though some today question the veracity of those ‘translations’. The Inn was rebuilt by the LDS church in 2003 on its original location.
Two of Johnson’s sons were active in the Ohio Mormon church - Lyman and Luke, as well as their brother-in-law, Orson Hyde, became initial members of the Twelve Apostles, which were organized in 1835. Lyman, as well as John Johnson, himself, would later be among the many apostates from the Mormon faith following the economic chaos of the Kirtland Bank’s failure in 1837. Luke and Orson both became opponents of Smith for a time, but later returned to the movement - Orson was out of the church for a short time while Luke reconverted only as the exodus to Utah was beginning - and followed it to the West, both dying eventually in Utah. Orson was especially important as an important member part of Heber C. Kimball’s mission to England which attracted thousands of new converts who would become a vital nucleus for the Utahn Zion.
Johnson was given the inn in return for his efforts at buying land in the Kirtland area for the church following the sale of his farm near Hiram - some 30 miles to the south. He would leave the church following the collapse of the Kirtland Bank and did not follow Smith to Missouri. He and his wife are buried in the cemetery across the street from the Kirtland Temple.
In September 1832, Joseph Smith, Jr., and his wife, Emma, moved back from the John Johnson farm in Hiram, Ohio - following his tar and feather incident at the hands of a local mob - and the lived in an apartment above the store for the next year. In that time, the store also served as the church’s headquarters and many of the revelations written down by Smith were from this period. Also, upstairs in the store that winter, the School of the Prophets was organized which was an early attempt to educate men who were to go out into the mission field and spread the Mormon message. In this room, Mormons believe that God and Jesus Christ appeared - not the only place such a visitation occurred - and here, your tour guide, usually an elderly Mormon missionary, will give you their testament as to the truth of the events that transpired.
The store was purchased by the LDS church and restored in 1984 winning a national historic preservation award presented by President Reagan in 1988.
Newell K. Whitney had been living in Kirtland - though he had been born in Vermont just a few miles from where Joseph Smith, Jr., started life in Sharon, Vermont - and had been religiously affiliated with Sidney Rigdon. He converted with many others in the congregation during November, 1830. It was to Whitney’s house that Smith and his wife, Emma, came first to live when they came to Kirtland from New York in the winter of 1831, staying for several weeks. Whitney would become the second bishop of the church - bishops in the early Mormon church had temporal/financial duties as compared to their later more parochial function. He would follow Smith to Nauvoo, always being in the upper echelons of religious leaders in the movement. Following Smith’s revelations concerning polygamy, he would take on an addition seven wives and followed Brigham Young to Utah following Smith’s 1844 murder. His descendants continued to occupy positions of high renown in the LDS hierarchy in the years to come. His house was restored in 2003 as part of the LDS effort to honor its Ohio roots.
In December 1832, Joseph Smith, Jr., revealed a commandment directing him to erect a temple in Kirtland. It was to be “a house of prayer, a house of fasting, a house of faith, a house of learning, a house of glory, a house of order, a house of God.” Construction was not able to start until the following summer and was completed in the spring of 1836. Even with working on the temple themselves, the costs were upwards towards $60000, a very large sum that when combined with the prodigious efforts required to settle the many new converts both in the Kirtland area and in Missouri put a severe strain on the church’s finances. That financial constraint would lead to the ill-advised Kirtland Safety Society Bank, whose failure would lead to another Mormon exodus.
The temple was one of the largest buildings built in northern Ohio at the time of completion. The exterior is reminiscent of a New England church house which was where many of the members of the new religion originated from - including Joseph Smith and Brigham Young. There were three levels, the first level being a large open congregation hall. On the second level was another large meeting hall with raised seat rows on either end. This is where different priesthood groups met for their meetings. Curtains could subdivide the hall and seating could be arranged to face either end. On the third level, education classes were held and offices including Joseph Smith’s could be found. The main meeting hall was constructed to be large enough to hold the entire community but by the time of the dedication - into which over a thousand crammed in for the seven hour long proceedings - the movement had far outstripped the space - a second dedication service was held for those who didn’t get into the first. The next completed Mormon temple would come in Nauvoo, Illinois and at three times the size of the Kirtland temple, it would also prove to be grossly inadequate in size.
The function of the temple in Kirtland was much different from what is found in other temples. Present day LDS temples are only open to members deemed to be in good standing and aim at functions that were not practiced within the church during its Ohio days. Those practices would come about in the last days of Smith’s days in Nauvoo.
Smith and many of the faithful left Kirtland in 1838 following the financial catastrophes following the failure of the Kirtland Bank. By 1844, following different orders from the church hierarchy to ‘gather’ anew in Nauvoo, there were not many Mormons left behind. The temple was used in succeeding years in a number of functions - religious hall, school and office space. In 1873, the RLDS (now Community of Christ) church - organized from the Mormon groups that did not recognize Brigham Young as the movement’s leader following Smith’s death in 1844 and groups that did not recognize Smith’s later practices which included polygamy among others - acquired the title to the temple and have held it ever since. Eventually, the temple was restored to its present state and is open for several services throughout the year as well as tours to the public.