Community of Christ
The Legacy and Blessings of the Kirtland Temple and the Community Created by the Prophet Joseph Smith in the lives of ALL Types of Latter-Day Saints
"Joseph's vision called the Saints to to prepare for the creation of a community where all people will be accepted as they are, and their gifts and talents appreciated"
by William D. Russell
An address delivered in the Kirtland Temple on September 18, 2011 as part of the 2011 Affirmation Conference.
Bill Russell is a former president of both the John Whitmer Historical Association and the Mormon History Association. A retired professor and former chair of the Division of Social Science at Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa, Bill has been supporting progressive causes, civil rights, and women's issues for five decades. In 2008 he edited Homosexual Saints: The Community of Christ Experience.
I am so happy to have the opportunity to stand in this historic, sacred space and proclaim that we are all one in Christ Jesus! As the Apostle Paul put it, in chapter 4 of Ephesians, we have one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.
In the Mormon movement, the Kirtland period is when we were all together. The divisions that occurred in Nauvoo –and later– had not occurred yet. Today we participate in breaking down those walls of division –here in this sacred space. The building of this "House of the Lord" –and the dedication services in 1836– represented a time of high purpose in the infancy of the Mormon movement. Joseph's vision of a "House of the Lord" where we would receive power from on high was a vision that called the Saints to high purpose, to prepare for the creation of a Zionic community –a community where all people will be accepted as they are, and their gifts and talents appreciated. In short, the kingdom of God on earth.
Human frailties prevented the achievement of that Zionic community. After the Temple was built the community of Saints began to splinter and the Prophet and most of the Saints moved to Missouri in the wake of problems that arose here.
Walls of division were created in the movement. In chapter 2 of Ephesians Paul declared that in Christ these walls are broken down. In Christ we are no longer strangers and aliens. Today –in this sacred space– we are participating in that process of reconciliation.
Accidents of geography were no doubt a major reason why this holy place ended up in the hands of the Reorganized Church. Our proximity to Kirtland and your huge distance from Kirtland in a horse-and-buggy age made it easier for us to obtain "The House of the Lord."
We in the Reorganization were fond of claiming that we received title to this temple because the court found us to be the "true successor" of the original Mormon Church. For years we loved to say that –but it just wasn't true. For one thing, American courts have no right to make any judgments about the truth or falsity of any religious claim. As Kim Loving concluded in his Journal of Mormon History article seven years ago, the Reorganized Church was granted the temple because of the legal doctrine of adverse possession (Kim L. Loving, "Ownership of the Kirtland Temple: Legends, Lies, and Misunderstandings," Journal of Mormon History [Fall 2004], 1-80). We had taken possession of the building, used it, took care of it, repaired it when needed, and so forth. In Ohio law at the time, if you lived in open possession of a piece of real estate for 20 years, unchallenged, and took care of it during that time, you were entitled to the property.
In laymen's terms, we got lucky. I'm not sure what Lemuel's terms would be.
In Kirtland, the temple was built by the unified efforts of all the Saints –men and women, rich and poor, priesthood and non-priesthood, gay and straight– all working together for the cause of the kingdom.
To paraphrase the Apostle Paul in Galatians –he had a way with words– there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, gay nor straight –for we are all one in Christ Jesus.
This temple today is open to all expressions of Mormonism for worship services of their own design, as it was also during Joseph Smith's lifetime.
In the 1830s here in Kirtland we were one. We can be sure there were gay Mormons in Kirtland, but they could hardly come out of the closet. No one knew they were gay, and many gay Saints probably didn't themselves know what to call this attraction to the same gender that they felt.
For those who split with the RLDS Church in the 1980s after women were ordained, the Kirtland Temple has special significance. They are usually referred to as "Restorationists." Kirtland is the only temple they recognize, since they don't recognize the 20-year-old Community of Christ temple in Independence as legitimate. As my friend Richard Price, one of the best known Restorationists, put it in his book The Temple of the Lord, the Independence Temple is located in the wrong place –it should be across the street from where it stands.
It is of the wrong design. It should look sort of like this temple.
And it is for the wrong purpose –the temple was supposed to be a place of refuge where the Saints could gather and wait for the return of Christ. According to my friend Richard, it is not supposed to be dedicated for "the pursuit of peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit," as stated in our Doctrine and Covenants Section 156, approved by the delegates at our 1984 World Conference.
So, the Independence temple was built in the wrong place, by the wrong design, and for the wrong purpose. Other than that…
So for the Restorationists, there is just one legitimate temple –this one. But we own it! I am pleased that we let them use it even though they have left our church.
LDS people are likewise benefited by this ecumenical policy. Most of our Kirtland Temple visitors are LDS. Visiting LDS groups often participate in meaningful sacrament services, firesides, testimony services, and musical events.
So, the Kirtland Temple remains a symbol of unity among the Saints. And to the credit of David Ettinger, Barb Walden, Lach Mackay, and Ron Romig, and others who have had a hand in guiding policy at the temple, this "House of the Lord" is open for worship by Mormons of the Utah affiliation, and the various schismatic groups that have broken away from the RLDS Church over the years.
My faith is an ecumenical faith, influenced greatly by bringing raised in a strong RLDS family, and my education at a Methodist theological seminary and religious thinkers like Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Karl Barth, and most of all – Dr. Martin Luther King.
So I am really pleased that this temple is open to all factions of Mormonism , because this "House of the Lord" is important in the history of all Latter Day Saints organizations. It is the one temple all factions believe is approved by the Almighty.
For some of us in the Community of Christ who have enjoyed fellowship with people from the Utah branch of the Mormon movement, the Mormon History Association has been the vehicle for sharing both our scholarship and a wonderful fellowship. Beginning in 1971 a significant number of us began attending their annual meetings.
In 2003 the Mormon History Association met here in Kirtland. The program planned by Ron Romig was one of the best ever. Ron is now the director of the Kirtland Temple. At the close of that weekend, we held a worship service here in the temple, led by retired Graceland College orchestra director, Dick Clothier. He had a 90 voice choir seated in the four corners of the sanctuary, along with a dozen instrumentalists.
We sang the hymns that were sung in the dedication service in 1836, concluding with "The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning." There wasn't a dry eye in the place.
GLBT people are not yet first-class citizens in the Community of Christ. But significant progress has been made. Almost every year at our annual Gay and Lesbian Acceptance retreat there has been what you call a General Authority –our current president and his immediate predecessor or an apostle. Two weeks ago Apostle Ron Harmon attended. At one point he carefully scanned his eyes over the room, looking at each person and said, "I'm sorry for the pain the church has caused almost every one of you." The leadership seems to be on board and are educating the members prior to our 2013 conference where we expect a decision to be made.
It is my prayer that one day this GLBT community of wonderful people will be fully recognized and appreciated in all expressions of the Mormon movement, and all denominations of the Christian religion.
May the Spirit of God burn within us today and forever more. And in this sacred place today, and for the rest of our lives, may each one of us realize that we, too, are sacred in the eyes of God.