My Pilgrimage to Zion

Community of Christ Culture LDS History

Although my graduate work was in Medieval European history, I’ve also always had a fascination with my own family history, which, by extension, includes Mormon history. Since we got together ten years ago, my partner Mike and I have done a lot of research in Mormon history. We also do a lot of Mormon history tourism.

We’d been to Kirtland, to Nauvoo, to Salt Lake City and to more obscure locations like Voree (Strangite HQ), St. George and Manti, but we first visited Zion on April 6, 2003. And by “Zion,” I mean the real Zion: Jackson County, Missouri and the city of Independence.

I’d long wanted to visit the Temple Lot. I wanted to see the Temple Lot or Hedrickite church, the Cutlerite church and, indeed, the “all manner of –ite” churches that dot Independence. But the pictures I’d seen on the internet of the Temple built by the Reorganized Latter Day Saints of the Community of Christ clinched the deal. City-building and temple-building were always aspects of my Mormon heritage that held the greatest interest for me personally. This temple in the Mormon New Jerusalem was an edifice I wanted to see.

I was not disappointed. I found the Independence Temple to be finest expression of temple building in the Latter Day Saint tradition to date. Don’t get me wrong, the Kirtland Temple is remarkable — and all the more so for the poverty and inexperience of its builders, my ancestors included. The replica Nauvoo temple, like the original, has an outrageous flair — long since purged from most of the movement — most starkly represented by the queer and famous sunstones. The Salt Lake Temple is the most inspired thing Brigham Young accomplished. Its six towers, each crowned with three crenellated tiers, perfectly embody the hierarchical aspect of the movement and derive directly from the most conspicuous element of the Kirtland Temple: the multi-tiered pulpits. The Manti Temple is charming. The Cardston, Alberta Temple is architecturally significant. The Washington D.C. Temple is a beautiful modernization of the Salt Lake Temple, and is emblematic of modernizing LDS church of its era.

The Independence Temple’s aspect is a spiral, like a sea-shell, rolling up from its firm foundations to a single, lofty tower — by far the tallest Latter Day Saint temple. Like the Kirtland Temple and the original Nauvoo Temple, the Independence Temple is open to all. And like those original temples, it serves as a school and as the church’s administrative headquarters. The main focus is an interior sanctuary which is reached by following the curve of the spiral along a symbolic “believer’s path” which begins at a glass gateway engraved to invoke the Sacred Grove. The focus, however, is not on Joseph Smith (who is not pictured); it is on the individual believer. Indeed, if Joseph Smith’s experience is meaningful to this path at all, it is only as an example of everyone’s individual ability to be personally inspired. The path walks round through a number of vignettes including a massive stained glass window stylistically portraying the Latter Day scripture, “the field is white already to harvest.” In the end, you reach the breath-taking sanctuary, immediately beneath the lofty spiral spire. I’ve toured dozens of cathedrals in Europe and for me this sanctuary takes its place among the most remarkable religious spaces I’ve witnessed.

The welcoming folk that make up the Community of Christ were another discovery my partner and I made here. In many cases these people are my distant cousins, and we often find our ancestors interacted. There are numerous similarities between their “Prairie Saint” culture and mine as a “Mountain Saint” (who grew up in the prairie “missionfield”). And there are also differences. An analogous relationship might be to compare the US to Canada, where the LDS church is the superpower, and the Community of Christ is the quiet neighbor that is “technically” a whole ‘nother country. For much of its history, anglo-Canadians had little independent identity, other than being Americans who were “not American.” But sometime in the past generation that’s changed. Canada has become its own thing. And, in many ways, the open, creative, progressive thing it’s become has significant advantages over what the US is becoming or has become. The history and identities of the Community of Christ and LDS churches have followed a similar trajectory.

Our first pilgrimage to Zion on April 6, 2003 was our doorway into the Mormon history community. My partner and I have subsequently become Executive Directors of the John Whitmer Historical Association — originally the “Prairie Saint” equivalent of the Utah-based Mormon History Association. As a result, we’ve returned to Independence not just once, but many times. Last fall, I lived here for 6 weeks doing research for my upcoming Atlas of Mormon History. On that trip, I was given an office in the Temple Archives and a key to the Temple itself.

When my partner and I came back to Independence yesterday, it was my fourth trip in the past year. Some of our friends here put us up in their guest room that overlooks the Temple Lot and I’m looking out the window at the vast Auditorium, the Temple Lot church and the spire of the Temple itself as I type this blog entry. I am still every bit as impressed with this inspiring expression of our shared Latter Day Saint heritage as I was that first visit.

Best of all, as I got up from my work this morning in the Temple Archives, I went over to one of the kitchen stations where there were two large percolators: one marked “decaf” and the other “regular coffee”. As I filled my mug, I thought to myself, “This is my kind of Mormon temple…”

John Hamer, a 7th Generation Mormon, is Executive Director of JWHA and author of Northeast of Eden: A Historical Atlas of Missouri’s Mormon County. He has produced maps for the LDS church’s Joseph Smith Papers Project, the Community of Christ and the Journal of Mormon History.

21 thoughts on “My Pilgrimage to Zion

  1. By the way, John has posted a bunch of excerpts from his atlas of Mormon history here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

    Have a look, they’re amazing!!!

  2. Isn’t it amazing how much spirit they created with innovative architecture? There is truth in mathematics.

  3. Even though the focus of your post was on architecture, I would like to reinterate your comments about the welcoming people of the CofC.
    I attended church in Kirtland twice, and the first time, accidentally arrived an hour early. What a great mistake. The people welcomed me warmly, fed me breakfast of donuts and coffee, and we talked about my family, their family, and in great detail about their farms. After church they fed me pot-luck. No one asked me for an address where they could send missionaries, or Books of Mormon. It’s as if they’re only goal was to welcome me in as a brother in Christ.

    P.s. Thanks for the maps. I have a tough time understanding the Missouri period without them.

  4. Fantastic. Beautiful photos – I’d never even seen this temple before. I really love your work, John, all your maps, and your accounts of your meetings and interactions with all the various -ites of mormondom. Truly fascinating. I can’t believe you even had a key to the temple itself!

  5. Hi sis: thanks for the warm welcome. Sr. Mary Lisa & JuliAnn: glad you enjoyed the post. 🙂

    Hellmut: I thoroughly agree. If you are going to build something, I think you can hardly go wrong by spending the extra money or effort to build a structure that is architecturally significant and innovative. It’ll return your investment a thousandfold over time.

  6. Hey Nom de Cypher —

    Yes, I’ve found everyone in the Community of Christ to be incredibly nice and welcoming. We have a lot of friends in that tradition now and whenever we travel — Kirtland, Nauvoo, Lamoni, Independence — they open their homes to us to stay with them. If anything, Community of Christ folk are welcoming and trusting to a fault. My partner Mike needed to practice some music on an organ a couple of years ago. We don’t have an organ at home, so I said, “well, let’s go to the Community of Christ church in our town and meet them.” Ann Arbor has a beautiful Community of Christ chapel in the Old West Side historic district. We attended their church one Sunday and asked them if Mike could practice on their organ sometime. They gave us a key to the church on the spot! Now, that’s too trusting, frankly. But all around, I’ve had great experiences with them.

  7. Wonderful. Just wonderful. Now that is a church I can believe in! The spiral is the icing on the cake (the spiral shell/galaxy is the unofficial emblem of pantheism). Headquarterd at Jackson County, open to anyone, church HQ in the same buildings, giving old Joe just the right amount of respect and no more. It hits all the right buttons. Just perfect. Thanks for the post.

  8. Thanks for that, John – I hadn’t seen that one before. I have mostly seen the stuff you’ve posted/linked on NOM and your own blog. Your work is so interesting, and you approach it with such a lovely attitude and voice, it’s, well, uplifting for lack of a better word :-).

  9. Damnit John, when are you going to do a podcast so we can hear you talk about this stuff. do we need to do a collective shaming of john dehlin to get that in motion?

  10. john, seeing the temples all together was a treat. you suggested in another thread somewhere else how great it would be if a group of disaffected brighamites could unite to form a congregation of their own. i believe that it was a conversation about boundaries and how your mother, for example, is not able to have her records in the same ward as your sister despite living very close to one another.

    anyways, the temples, together like that, sorta got me to thinking and dreaming that one day there could be a merger of these groups, allowing folks like you and others that may be more sympathetic to the coc and women-friendly, homosexual-friendly congregations to maintain the community, family and heritage connections that we grew up with, without having to sustain people like oaks and packer.

    my wife was recently in a cathedral in another country. she was traveling with a catholic girlfriend. while both women are certainly not subscribers to the male christian god philosophies, they are both spiritual in their own way. in the cathedral, my wife’s friend crossed herself and participated in a short ceremony at the cathedral. she is catholic by birth, but not actively catholic.

    my wife told me later how meaningful it was to see that. it was simple. but valuable. she felt a loss that she is not welcome in the temples of the mormon church simply because she finds spiritual refuge in other things. basically, the spiritual spaces she had at other times in her life, that she shared with her family, are no longer available.

    i am sure you and mike experience the same thing as you study about the mormon temples. your description of the coc, and your description of warm welcome you recieved there, regardless of your beliefs but respectful to your heritage and interests, is inspiring. i hope one day that a heretic like me can again join my family in their holy spaces, sans angst. i am not optimistic of that.

    just a dream i suppose. but again, thanks for your work. i admire your ability to see the good in so many diverse groups and also that you appreciate the history that we all share. and more, i appreciate that you are willing to work your ass off to show us the real history that has been deprived of us for so long.

    all the best to you and mike.

  11. Thanks for all the kind words, CWC! I’m glad you respond that way to what I’m doing. My goal is to present history in a way that is honest and open without being simply deconstructive and negative. It’s sometimes more complicated to do in this field, but there’s an advantage to letting maps speak to the reader instead of layering a heavy load of apologetic or antagonistic analysis on top of the work.

  12. Hey Chris T — I love the spiral too. It also becomes a great logo/symbol for the Community of Christ.

    Hey Ronan — They only have the international flags out there during World Conference (which they used to call “General Conference”). They have a flag for the countries each of the delegates has come from.

  13. Hey Mayan Elephant — Other than the baptismal room as a kid, the only LDS temple that I’ve been inside is the replica Nauvoo Temple (prior to its dedication). Based on what I know about LDS temple practices, I’m not feeling like I’m missing out at all by not going inside.

    Yes, the Catholic church is obviously much more mature than the Utah LDS church. As a result, the Catholics are able to have a much “bigger tent.” You can have liberal parishes and conservative parishes. People are much more free to regard themselves as cultural or secular Catholics — and still attend under the circumstances your wife observed. Things aren’t completely black and white: there’s some room for gray shades there.

    I’m not very optimistic that the LDS church as an institution will be able to mature until faced with graver crises from the steep declines in membership on the horizon. Crisis is opportunity, and in a generation, there may be some opportunity for change. Meanwhile, the only option progressive thinkers from the tradition have to make positive change is to build outside that single institution.

  14. Your research is pretty weak. The spire on the Community of Christ Temple is “nearly 200 feet” in height. The tallest spire on the LDS Washington D.C. Temple is 288 feet tall.

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