My Pilgrimage to Zion
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 â€“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 â€” 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 â€” long since purged from most of the movement â€” 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 â€” 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 â€” 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.