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Kirtland and a Very Different Temple

Recently my wife and I visited the temple built by Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio. Both this temple and its ceremonies come from a very different era than the LDS temples we know today and the way they are operated.

My first surprise was that this temple was owned and operated by the church formerly known as the Reorganized LDS church (affectionately called the “Mormon Church, Missouri Synod”), now known by the name Community of Christ. My surprise was because I had only heard that the Kirtland temple had been abandoned and vandalized after the Mormons left in 1838. What I did not know is that the Reorganized church had come back and reasserted title to the property under the leadership of Joseph III (son of Joseph, Jr.).

The Kirtland temple was finished in 1836. What was done in the Kirtland temple was different from what was done in Nauvoo and every other Mormon temple other than the temple built by the Reorganized church in Independence, Missouri.

For starters, baptism for the dead, a major function performed in modern LDS temples, was not introduced into LDS practice until 1842 (see Doctrine & Covenants 128). Furthermore, the secret endowment ceremonies that form the heart of what happens in an LDS temple, many of the details of which were borrowed from Masonry (I am not a Mason, I rely on what others tell me) were not introduced until 1842. Neither of these is practiced in today’s Kirtland temple. Finally, the sacrament is performed there today with grape, just as Joseph and his church did, but unlike the use of water in place of grape in all Utah-branch LDS temples.

The Kirtland temple, unlike today’s Utah-branch LDS temples, was a multi-purpose facility. It was used, not for secret ceremonies, but for both worship and leadership training. Even high school classes were held on the top floor.

The LDS scripture Doctrine and Covenants devotes two whole chapters to events surrounding the completion of the Kirtland temple. Joseph describes the scene in his journey as a virtual “Pentecost.” Indeed, having claimed to have restored the true church of Christ, all he lacked was a Pentecost, which is what this temple was intended to usher in. Accounts of numerous visions are given, including the appearances of both “Elijah” and “Elias.” (Joseph did not realize that the two names are merely Hebrew and Greek names for the same person.)

The Kirtland temple is a reminder that Joseph’s teachings and practice were very different in 1836 than they were in the Nauvoo of the 1840’s. The hyper-Trinitarian theology of Joseph’s Book of Mormon was replaced by his gods-unlimited theology of his final sermons. And his God required handshakes, tokens, and temple clothing that he did not require in Ohio.

The Reorganized church rejects Joseph’s polytheism and polygamy, and sticks to the theology and practice of the original Joseph. Which one is truly Joseph’s successor depends on whether the real Joseph is who he became or who he started out as.

Which way Joseph should have gone is the real question. Theologically, he should have stayed in Kirtland, closer to the truth.