Morning News, Sunday, April 01, 2007
Historic Kirtland: Revisit Ohio town's central role in the early development of the LDS Church
KIRTLAND, Ohio — It was all so new back then.
That's the thing that strikes you about Kirtland — how early it took its central place upon the stage.
By 1831, the United States of America had barely passed its two-score milestone. Settlement in this section of "the Ohio," as it was known, was barely 20 years old. The first homesteaders had moved into the area in 1811; by 1818 enough had arrived to form a township. In 1823 an enterprising young storekeeper named Newell Whitney opened up shop; by 1825 mail service had arrived.
Kirtland — named after an agent of the Connecticut Land Company who never actually lived there — was a pleasant enough spot. But without the benefit of railroad or seaport, it would never have become another Cleveland. It may never have been more than a typical little frontier town had it not been for another development that also shared a feeling of newness.
In February of 1831, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had existed for less than a year when its prophet, Joseph Smith, came to the area. He was only 25.
Church missionaries had been through this "wilderness" earlier and had had striking success, particularly among the Campbellite congregation of Sidney Rigdon. So, there was a base of the faithful and reason enough to move the young church's headquarters to this new gathering place. But both Smith and the church had a lot of growing to do.
Now, as you look at the gently rolling hills and the fields of Shasta daisies, as you feel the quiet, peaceful spirit that lingers over the "flats," you can't help but think this was a great place to do it.
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Kirtland, which today has a population of just over 6,600, is considered on the fringes of the greater Cleveland area; Cleveland is just 22 miles away. Kirtland is about 10 miles south of Lake Erie and is a choice little pocket of interest tucked into this corner of the state.
The town has a few other attractions, mostly nature sites such as the Holden Arboretum and the Penitentiary Glen Nature Center, which have walking trails through woodland areas. But the most important draw is Kirtland's connection to the early LDS Church. There are several important sites, including what is now known as "Historic Kirtland," the area of the flats that has been restored and turned into a small village by the church. In recent years, the LDS Church has expanded, restored, reconstructed and even moved a highway to create the little village. There are visitors centers at the nearby Isaac Morley farm and at the Johnson Farm, some 35 miles away in Hiram, Ohio.
A mini-park is at the old Temple Quarry, where sandstone was cut into blocks for the temple. Men quarried the stone during the week, let it dry in the sun and hauled it to the temple site on Saturday. A nice little path leads through the woods and around the pond. Drill marks from the quarry are visible on some of the stones.
On the hill overlooking the flats, the Kirtland Temple — the first
such structure built by the Saints — still stands. It is now owned and operated by the Community of Christ church. Nearby is a little cemetery where a number of early pioneers are buried, including Hyrum Smith's first wife, Jerusha Barden Smith, and Joseph Smith's paternal grandmother, Mary Duty Smith.
A number of other structures in town were associated with the early settlers. (A plaque on the house across from the cemetery, for example, notes that it was once the home of Joseph and Emma.) But they are all privately owned and not open for tours.
The best place to get a feel for Kirtland is in the Historic Kirtland district. Much of what you find there is faith-related, and believers will be deeply touched by seeing the places and hearing the stories of early church events.
Kirtland is where many of the early doctrines were received, where many policies and organizations came into being. It is a place of firsts: the first First Presidency was organized, the first bishop called, the first stake and the first high council organized. The first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published; the first School of the Prophets met.
But there is also much in Kirtland that sets the faith into the context of its times — much to be learned about early building methods, early commerce and daily life in the 1830s.
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You may first see this Kirtland through the eyes of Ann Whitney, the wife of early settler and later church stalwart Newel K. Whitney. A film at the visitors center shares her point of view: Moving to Kirtland, establishing a store, looking for a spiritual presence in her life and finding it in the early church and then helping to build the little religious community.
From there, a natural place to start your tour of the village is at the home where the Whitneys lived, but also where Joseph and Emma stayed when they first arrived. It's a charming little house and easily evokes images of a happy family living there.
The Newel K. Whitney store, built in 1826, still has original floors and walls. Over the course of its life it had been used as other things, including a bar, so some restoration was needed. On the main floor, bonnets and bottles line the shelves and giant barrels of rice and beans are scattered about.
The upstairs rooms, however, once served as the headquarters of the church. The School of the Prophets met there — and the Word of Wisdom was inspired in part by the spittoons and debris they left — a story any Primary child has learned. Other sacred things took place there, too, and have left a tangible feeling of peace.
Other sites in the little village include a replica of the John Johnson Inn, now a museum with interactive exhibits. The original inn was where Egyptian mummies were once displayed and where the apostles left for their missions.
An authentic 1834 sawmill, operated entirely by water, shows how lumber was created for use in the temple. The original sawmill was operated by Joel Hills Johnson for that purpose.
Behind the sawmill is the only restored ashery in North America. In those days, asheries produced potash, which was used to manufacture glass, soap and gun powder. Ash was so useful it was a cash staple of the American frontier. This one was owned by Newel K. Whitney and was used to help finance the building of the temple.
Across the way is the one-room schoolhouse, originally built in 1819 and used by the community and the church. Joseph Smith was a frequent speaker there. Now there are skits and programs that tell more of the history.
Detailed information about the early church members in Kirtland is found at the Saints of Kirtland center. You can look up ancestors or other folks you want to know more about.
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Now a National Historic Landmark, the Kirtland Temple still has a majestic presence in the town. The Community of Christ church got title to it in the late 1800s — largely because no one else claimed it. (The body of the LDS Church had, by then, moved on to the Salt Lake Valley. ) It has preserved it and tended it with love and care ever since.
From the outside, it looks much like other early American churches, but inside it is very distinctive. If you happen to get a tour guide like Dwight, he will tell you about the "distinctives" — the fact that there are pulpits on both sides, with pews in the middle; the fact that an elaborate system of pulleys lets curtains be dropped down to section off rooms; the fact that even interior rooms have windows.
Beautiful windows let in beautiful light. Carved decorations embellish the lower floor. The upper floors are enhanced with fretwork designed by Truman O. Angel. You can fall in love with the building for this fretwork alone. It says so much about the need for beautiful things, even in a frontier setting.
You can climb the 33 steps — one for each year in Christ's life — to the upper floors, where offices and classrooms were. This was a house of prayer and a house of learning, after all.
You will be moved by the story of construction — it took three full years. And by the story of the dedication. If you go away humming "The Spirit of God," the hymn that was sung on that occasion, well, you probably won't be alone.
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You might still be humming, if you drive on to the Isaac Morley farm. Joseph Smith lived at the farm for six months in 1831, and some 13 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants were added when he was there.
The guides at the farm will give you a bit of the history and then take you on a little walk up the hill to where an old schoolhouse once stood. You walk through the woods in silence, hearing the rustle of leaves and the singing of birds. It is not surprising that they call it "The Sacred Grove of the Ohio," both for the atmosphere and the events that occurred there.
The Johnson Farm is a farther drive; it takes about an hour but is well worth it — especially if you happen along when fresh strawberries are being offered at roadside stands.
This farm, too, is in a pretty setting, surrounded by gentle green fields. It is where Joseph Smith lived for about a year — where more revelations came; where he was pulled out of bed in the dark of night by an angry mob and tarred and feathered; where he often preached from the front porch to visitors who came from far and near. It, too, has a special feeling of history and faith.
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The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was headquartered in Kirtland for only seven years. Persecution and apostasy drove the saints from there in 1838. They moved on to Missouri, then to Nauvoo and then to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake.
Kirtland was never intended to be the permanent home of the church. Zion was always going to be farther West. Kirtland was intended to be the place of beginnings rather than endings.
Still, as you look at this peaceful little village crowned by its beautiful temple, you have a better appreciation of what the Saints left behind. You, too, will want to linger to soak up the history and the atmosphere. That's the thing that strikes you about leaving Kirtland — how hard it is to leave.