‘There’s a lot of sadness’ — The Kirtland Temple sale through the eyes of a Community of Christ historian

Members feel a “profound loss” after caring for this historic building for generations.

While Brigham Young and his band of pioneers in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints trekked across the country to a new home in Utah, a smaller group remained in the Midwest and lovingly cared for the sacred spaces left behind — including the faith’s first temple, in Kirtland, Ohio.

The latter believers, led by founder Joseph Smith’s eldest surviving son, eventually formed the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and became devoted custodians of some of Mormonism’s earliest sites in Ohio and Illinois.

This month, the much larger Utah-based faith bought many of those sites, including the Kirtland Temple, along with other historical artifacts for $192 million.

Though members of the Community of Christ — the new name for the RLDS — understand that this money will help their ability to continue their global mission into the future, many have expressed sadness, heartache and tears at the sale. They lament losing ownership of these cherished pieces of the past.

It was “a profound loss,” says David Howlett, a Community of Christ historian, visiting religion professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and author of “Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space.”

(David Howlett) David Howlett is a Community of Christ historian, visiting religion professor at Smith College in Massachusetts and author of “Kirtland Temple: The Biography of a Shared Mormon Sacred Space.”

He worries that the two churches — which at times were bitter enemies but have enjoyed warmer ties in recent years — may have fewer interactions as a result of the property transfer.

Here are excerpts from Howlett’s recent interview on The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Mormon Land” podcast:

How did the news of the sale hit you personally and professionally?

I spent 12 summers of my life living in Kirtland, giving tours of the temple, studying the temple, interviewing people, thinking about it, writing a dissertation, and later a book about it. I had invested a lot of my professional life, thinking about it through these different academic terms, but also my personal life. So there’s a lot of sadness that went along with hearing about [the sale]. I went to a very personal place. I went back to Facebook, and I looked at a picture of my dad and me, when I gave him a tour in 2019 of the temple. As an academic, I know that things aren’t just things — things stand on a continuum between thing and person. If I were just to sell my grandparents’ wedding ring, I’d still feel some regret over it because it’s not just a thing. … People sometimes drift apart, fathers and sons, and families. But sometimes things bring people back together. I thought about that day with my dad and how that thing, the Kirtland Temple, brought us back together. It was the first time he had seen it in his life. He told me about it as a kid. I had known about it from his stories, and then to be able to come together as a family in a relationship as adults now, I thought about what that meant to me and my father, too.

Do you think the sale of the temple, the other buildings and artifacts was a good thing?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) The interior of the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, Ohio.

It’s a profoundly complicated question. In terms of immediate funding for the [Community of Christ] church for its future, it gave the church some capital that it can invest to ensure a certain kind of endowment income for the future. That’s good in that sort of business sense. But it is harder to tell the church’s story about its 19th-century past and connect with it without those places. It’s not just paper and places that are detached from it; people have literally cared for these places for generations. And it’s not just ownership, but care is another way of having a relationship to something. When you lose that relationship with care, that’s also a profound loss. It’s a profound loss, I think, overall.

In the past, the two churches shared quite a bit of animosity — at times even being outright enemies. What is the current relationship between them?

One of the best relationships between the two churches had been through historic sites because you had professionals invested in a common history, and also invested in common methods like historical preservation, historical stories, but also knowing that they had to tell these stories to faith communities. Probably in the future, there’ll be fewer opportunities for these two churches to have places for interaction with each other. I don’t see that as necessarily a good thing either. So that’s a loss as well.

How did the Community of Christ approach temple tours?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) Members of the now-named Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square visit the Kirtland Temple in 1911.

There was an evolution in terms of the temple tours. The earliest tours that I can find were from the 1950s, and it’s clear from those tour scripts that [the temple] is being used as a prop for talking about the “one true church” and about the restored gospel, and the order of the church offices of this “true priesthood.” By the time we get to the ’60s and ’70s, there’s a growing professionalization of historic sites that begins with the people involved. Professional historians are now part of it, rather than folks who are Seventies (kind of missionaries in the former RLDS faith). That changes the temple tours, and it changes how things are shared. Professionalization continues throughout the ‘80s, ‘90s into the 2000s. The staff working on the sites have museum studies degrees or history degrees or religious studies degrees. And the tours reflect that.

What did Community of Christ guides tell guests about Christ’s reported appearance in the temple?

Earlier RLDS official church histories talked about it. However, today there is an assumed commonsense notion of what that means for LDS folks, which I don’t think would have been clear for 1830s folks at all, and certainly was not clear for RLDS folks because they were from different traditions. There’s a tradition the LDS Church built around that vision, which RLDS did not share because they didn’t have the same tradition. For LDS, it legitimizes temples today, and the ordinances and the power to do them today. RLDS read it as an appearance of Christ to accept the temple and didn’t have a theology of keys to accompany it. That theology of keys in the LDS Church is not at all clear in the 1830s, but what it means develops over time in Nauvoo and evolves even further in the Salt Lake Valley.

Are you concerned that Latter-day Saint missionaries — under the guidance of professional historians — will now be the tour guides?

(The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) A view of the Kirtland Temple and historic cemetery from inside the newly restored home of church founder Joseph Smith and wife Emma Smith in August 2023.

I can’t dictate to the LDS Church [leaders] about their training program. I could suggest that [they do] something like what the Community of Christ did. We would use college-age interns, (not that much different than [young LDS] missionaries really, they’re the same age) and do a class at night with them. It was a three-hour college credit course. It was a real college credit course where they had to read stuff and do papers. It made them into better guides. A real academic course could be really helpful for missionaries. But maybe that’s not what they thought when they were originally called on the mission.

What is the function of the Community of Christ’s temple in Independence, Mo.?

The template for the Independence Temple is the Kirtland Temple, in which you have church headquarters, you have a place for public worship and conferences. Then you also have the church’s graduate seminary, which is like what happens in the school of the apostles or other iterations of priesthood training in the Kirtland Temple. It does show the kind of continued legacy of Kirtland in the present day life of the Community of Christ.

What are your hopes for Kirtland for the future?

I do hope it still will be a place where multiple traditions can value it and that the sale of sites won’t mean the Community of Christ will value its 19th-century history less. I hope that it continues its promise of being a version of progressive Christianity with a restoration heritage, that can put those two together in a way that is kind of unique among the Mormon family of churches. I think that needs to happen in this world just for the ecological diversity of the restoration tradition. That’s a valuable thing. I hope, too, that folks who found Kirtland in the past as a safe place — I think of LGBTQ Mormons and Mormon feminists and others — to reconnect with the past and an institution that sometimes they feel very alienated from (the institution they were born into). ...That’s really complicated. And I feel sadness, too, wondering how that will play out.

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