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Spencer: Joseph Smith left Kirtland on January 12, 1838, and never returned to the city. But Latter-day Saints had a continued presence there—and the House of the Lord remained the city’s most prominent building and a place for church members to meet and to worship God.
For those who remained in the city after Joseph Smith moved to Missouri and then to Illinois—and after he had effectively brought the headquarters of the church with him—Kirtland continued to be a site of religious devotion. A place for personal revelation. Yet the city had changed, and Latter-day Saints were faced with new obstacles, particularly financial and legal challenges. These challenges included the use and ownership of the temple.
We’ll talk about those challenges—about life in the city without a prophet—in this episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 7: “The Fate of the Kirtland Temple”
Spencer: The months that followed Joseph Smith moving to Missouri were naturally a period of transition for residents of Kirtland, particularly for church members there. Elizabeth Kuehn, a historian with The Joseph Smith Papers, explains.
Elizabeth: Things are very much in transition in 1838, and you have to remember that this is still a very divided community. Right? We have this rival Church of Christ that’s established. We still have a branch of the church that’s there with the Kirtland temple, and there is a stake presidency organized in January, about the time that Joseph is leaving, so that there is still leadership. So William Marks is appointed as the stake president; John Smith and Reynolds Cahoon are his counselors. But all three of those men will leave by the end of 1838.
And so leadership from then on falls to Oliver Granger, who had been appointed an agent for Joseph, was very much the overseer of Kirtland, and later leaders would include Almon Babbitt, who has a difficult run of his time in Kirtland, and then Lester Brooks, who will take Babbitt’s place.
Spencer: A large number of Kirtland Latter-day Saints moved to Missouri in 1838, and still more moved the following year to join Joseph Smith and the Saints in Nauvoo, Illinois. While the prophet had designated Kirtland a stake of Zion, difficulties stemming from the expulsion of church members from Missouri in 1838 initially made the formal designation of Kirtland unclear.
Elizabeth: You have various individuals acting in this capacity. Church leaders in Nauvoo are also unsure of how best to balance the Saints in Kirtland. There is this feeling that there should be no other stakes of Zion for a time, and so they withdraw that title for Kirtland, only to grant it again later as they realized that it is kind of this midpoint for so many converts, especially those from the East, that they’ll stop in Kirtland and then make their way to Nauvoo. And you have many members who had gone to Missouri with Joseph that, instead of going to Nauvoo, will go back to Kirtland.
And so there is a fairly well-established branch of the church in Kirtland. Many will, of course, go to Nauvoo. You kind of see this scattering of the Kirtland Saints. When Heber C. Kimball and Orson Hyde come back from their British mission, they stop in Kirtland on their way to Missouri and say it’s just a very contentious, divided community. That seems to be true for Kirtland through the 1840s.
Spencer: But the church in Kirtland soon stabilized. This occurred, in part, because of a fateful visit of a church leader in 1842.
Elizabeth: Then there’s a wonderful moment in 1842, where apostle Lyman Wight on his way back east, will stop in Kirtland and hold essentially revival meetings in the Kirtland temple. And his initial meeting gathers probably less than a hundred, probably what were the kind of strong remnants of the branch there. But as word spreads, he gets hundreds and hundreds, to the point that he gets anywhere between five hundred and seven hundred members, or at least interested parties, coming in to listen to him preach.
And we know that there are around two hundred baptisms. Many of those seem to be rebaptisms. And so it seems to be that he’s calling so many of those who had fallen away in ’37 and ’38, in this time of crisis, back to the church and rebaptizing them, having them rejoin the church.
Spencer: Latter-day Saints welcomed this revival of church participation in their community and the return to fellowship of so many friends with whom they had previously worshipped.
Elizabeth: And so I think this moment in 1842 with Lyman Wight is really interesting in that we have this sense of revival and recommitment for so many of those that had felt the truth of the gospel but couldn’t handle it in this moment of extreme disunity.
Spencer: As for Joseph Smith, his relocation to Missouri and then to Illinois did not sever his connections to Kirtland and its surrounding communities. He continued to communicate with the Kirtland Saints, and he still held property in the area—and he had outstanding debts there as well. To help him manage this work, he employed agents, a practice he started even before leaving for Missouri.
Elizabeth: So Joseph establishes agents starting in 1836. There had been some specific agents who had acted on the church’s behalf earlier, but it’s really in ’36 and ’37 that Joseph feels the need for financial agents to act for him. And agents were a common need across the nineteenth-century world. You can’t be everywhere, signing all the papers you need to, conducting all the business you need to, and so you essentially give someone else the right to act in your stead. That’s what a financial agent is doing.
So Joseph appoints William Marks and Oliver Granger in ’37 to act on his behalf. William Marks is holding land for the church, and Oliver Granger is settling church debts. Marks, of course, becomes the next stake president of Kirtland before he leaves in 1838. And Oliver Granger, although he comes back and forth between Ohio and Illinois, will mainly live in Ohio. But throughout ’38 especially, he’s trying to settle local debts with Paintsville merchants, and we have many letters written by these merchants, praising him and praising Joseph and Sidney for fulfilling their debts, meeting their financial obligations.
Spencer: Elizabeth explained to me that Joseph Smith’s sustained efforts to pay his outstanding debts as demonstrated by historical records is an important point in a sometimes-fraught historical discussion.
Elizabeth: There’s often this trope that we see, both in Joseph’s lifetime and still to this day, from antagonistic parties, that one of the reasons that Joseph fled from Ohio was to escape his debts.
And that simply is not true. He did everything he could to repay those debts, and part of that is establishing these financial agents. And so we have letters attesting to Oliver Granger’s dutiful actions as an agent and Joseph’s own honesty in repaying these debts.
Of course, these local debts were a lot easier to settle than these large-scale debts in New York, which were tied to the temple. And those are tens of thousands of dollars of debt and therefore harder to repay, harder to settle.
And Granger works for the rest of his life to settle these debts. He passes away in 1841 but spends the remainder of his life acting on the church’s behalf, trying to make good, trying to come up with compromises that will work for these merchants, often offering to exchange land. Often saints in the East would give their property in the East to an agent that they could then use to give to the wholesale merchants or to sell, and then those members would be granted land in Missouri or Illinois, wherever the church held land at that time. And so this transfer gave the church resources to then be able to sell or barter in other areas. And so that’s mainly what Granger is doing. Unfortunately, Granger passes away rather suddenly, and he hadn’t kept very good records, and his son, Gilbert Granger, inherits access to these agent records of the church, is very antagonistic to Joseph, and will not give these back.
Spencer: The inability to access Granger’s records made the work of his successor, Almon Babbit, acutely more difficult and he struggled in this role.
Elizabeth: And so Joseph does not know what Granger has done. He doesn’t know who he’s paid, what compromises he’s made, what agreements he’s promised. And so this leaves Joseph in a very unsettled financial position, especially with these long-standing debts.
And this will all culminate in Joseph filing for bankruptcy in 1842 because he has debts that he cannot pay and honestly doesn’t know where they stand because of the situation with Oliver Granger. After Granger, Almon Babbitt will act as an agent for Joseph in Ohio for a time. His will be revoked because Joseph does not like how he is conducting business.
Spencer: The next person to step into the role of agent for Joseph Smith in Ohio and in neighboring states was a man named Reuben McBride, who had moved to Kirtland within two years of his baptism in New York in 1834.
McBride continued in this role as agent into the years 1843 and 1844 and found that he had to be especially watchful of Smith’s property—and the property of the church—in Ohio, to guard it against those who wished to take advantage of Smith residing outside the state.
Spencer: There’s one incident that is particularly telling on this point. It had to do with the actions of a former church member named Joseph Coe. Historian Christian Heimburger of The Joseph Smith Papers explains.
Christian: Church member Joseph Coe was one of the three investors right along with Joseph Smith and S. Andrews, who purchased the Egyptian mummies and papyrus in 1835. In 1837, Coe was one of more than three dozen church members who were excommunicated for dissent. Coe remained in Kirtland while Joseph Smith and a majority of the Latter-day Saints migrated west.
Spencer: But this did not end Coe’s connection to Joseph Smith.
Christian: In 1842, Coe began renting Joseph Smith’s farm in Kirtland, and he apparently failed to pay the full rent as well as the property tax. And in early 1844, Joseph Smith’s financial agent, Reuben McBride, informed Joseph that the farm was liable to be seized and auctioned off.
Now for his part, Coe insisted that Joseph Smith still owed him money for the purchase of the Egyptian mummies, and he wrote a letter to Joseph in early 1844 proposing to excuse the debt in exchange for Smith’s farm in Kirtland.
Spencer: Joseph Smith asserted that he had already repaid Coe in full and declined to sell the farm to him. But McBride informed Smith that Coe’s inconsistency in paying rent and taxes on the farm was part of an underhanded scheme to obtain it.
Elizabeth: And Coe is also working behind the scenes to make sure that he gets it one way or another, in that he stopped paying taxes on it.
And when that happens, at a certain point, the sheriff will see that, for lack of payment and it will go up for public auction and usually be purchased at a much lower rate than it would from just a direct transaction. And so Coe behind the scenes is doing this as well, probably to ensure that he gets the land that he wants.
Spencer: McBride successfully evicted Coe from the farm, foiling Coe’s scheme. But such was the work and vigilance required of Joseph Smith’s agents in Kirtland.
Just months later, in June 1844, a mob murdered Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. The Saints everywhere, including those in Kirtland, were devastated. They mourned the loss of Joseph, their prophet, and of Hyrum, the church’s patriarch.
Yet the work of the church went on. And that included the work of agents such as McBride.
Eventually, in the wake of the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the majority of church members made the trek to what became known as Utah, following Brigham Young. This included many of the Saints who were living in Kirtland. McBride was among them, resolving what financial affairs he could before setting off to the Great Salt Lake valley.
The continued presence in Kirtland of Saints who chose to affiliate with groups that did not follow Brigham Young west—and the continued ambiguity surrounding ownership of several properties—meant that the future of several important buildings, including the Kirtland temple, was uncertain.
Spencer: To better understand the history of the Kirtland temple after 1846, I spoke with David Howlett, a visiting assistant professor of religion at Smith College, and a world historian for the Community of Christ.
David: After 1844, a variety of Latter-day Saints groups would meet in the temple, maybe it could be several times a year, maybe more than that. And those groups, while not necessarily legally the owners of the temple, were people who were caring for the temple. Maybe not always physically caring for it in this way, what they would hoped they could, because they didn’t necessarily have a lot of funds to do that, but they cared emotionally for the temple, for sure.
Spencer: Who were these groups meeting in the temple?
David: There was a group under Zatic Brooks, by the time we’re getting into the 1850s, that’s meeting there. A very small group, we’re talking about seven people. One of those seven is one of the Three Witnesses, Martin Harris, who is a supporter, at the time, of Zatic Brooks. You have a group under, these are little known names, maybe, James Collin Brewster, who is meeting in there; you have other groups that are in there at one point that I think it’d be in ’46. There is a meeting of some people who are loyal to the Twelve that are there. In 1857, William Smith, Joseph Smith’s sole surviving brother, launches a movement from Kirtland, hoping to be the leader of that movement. That movement falls apart by 1858.
So you have a variety of people then who are meeting there in the temple, who again, care for the temple emotionally, but oftentimes don’t have the means to care for it physically.
Spencer: David explained that in 1862 a member of one of these groups tried to purchase the temple but that it was a complicated transaction.
David: In 1862, one of Zatic Brooks’s followers in Kirtland at the time, Russell Huntley, believes that he buys the temple at auction. Legally he didn’t, but he thought so, and the person telling him that, thought so. It was for $150, but he buys it, and he spends $2,000 of his own money to put a new roof on the temple; he re-stuccos it, re-plasters it, re-paints it. If he hadn’t done that, the temple wouldn’t exist today. So that’s probably the most significant kind of physical maintenance, the temple in those thirty years after many of the Saints had left and gone on to other places.
Spencer: Now as we will explain in just in moment, Huntley did not actually purchase the temple. He just thought that he had. Around this time, Brooks is part of the new organization of a church.
David: And by the 1860s, this new group that initially calls itself the new organization, and later they just go by the title “The Reorganization” or “The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” A small group begins meeting in the temple. That small group, it meets off and on, and it’s not necessarily a group that’s all that big, but by the 1880s, a regular congregation that meets regularly is in the temple, that’s an RLDS congregation and that has no kind of break in terms of meeting in a temple from that point on. And they meet in that temple as a basically, what LDS would think of as a ward space, they need it as a meeting space, until all the way into the 1950s when that congregation moves across the street to a new building, which is now the current Community of Christ’s Kirtland congregation. So, for a very, very long time, it is a meeting place. There’s a few other small uses in between that didn’t last very long. The Western Reserve Teacher Seminary meets for only a very short time, for one year, like a winter in the Kirtland temple for classes.
They find that it’s not a great meeting place because it’s so big, it’s really hard to heat, it’s expensive to heat, and so they no longer then rent the space. But it’s mainly used as a meeting space.
Spencer: Many have heard and repeated stories of the Kirtland temple being used to house animals. I asked David about the circumstances that brought about such a use of the building and asked him to comment on the historical sources of such stories.
David: Now there are stories, one by Joseph Smith III and one by a local Kirtland resident that says that in this period of time in the 40s and 50s, that the temple doors are sometimes open during the summer or during the day, and then that free-range livestock sometimes are wandering in. And one local resident, this is maybe thirty years after the fact, says something as to the effect of like “Hens, then sheep and hogs are penned in the basement.”
So that’s probably the source of later stories, much later stories about the temple becoming like a stable for animals. These are kind of offhand remarks, but those are these sources that at least we can point to say, where do those stories come from? If that is the case that that occasionally happens, it is also the case that any of those years where that is happening, people are meeting in the temple to worship, so that things are happening simultaneously, if that is in fact true.
Spencer: Our conversation then turned back to the question of ownership of the temple. Why did Russell Huntley think that he had bought the temple? Who actually owned it? And how did it come to be owned by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a church now known as the Community of Christ)?
David: It’s much easier in the 1840s to 1870s period to talk about who is meeting in the temple rather than who is owning the temple. Because in fact, legally, the case about who owns the temple, it’s clouded because in the 1830s there are breaks in the chain of title.
There is a clear break in the title, at least a couple of places in the 1830s, in that kind of like conveying land back and forth. And one of those, for instance, is when you have the building being conveyed to Joseph Smith Jr. and Emma Smith. Is it them as individuals or trustee-in-trust for the church? Probably trustee-in-trust for the church. But again, you can say, what’s the intention, but somehow a court of law has to adjudicate what exactly is going on here?
This complex story with Russell Huntley, who believes he buys the temple at auction. It is sold in relief to the late Joseph Smith Jr.’s debt. It’s something schemed by Grandison Newell, who is a familiar, based in Kirtland, as a kind of like public enemy number one for the Saints, and in Kirtland it’s his scheme with an Ohio legislature to try to recover some debt, and basically it’s his business partner, sells it to Russell Huntley for $150.
Spencer: David explained to me that what Huntley actually purchased was the land upon which the temple was built. But, even amid this uncertainty, Huntley, believing he owned the temple itself, sold it to Joseph Smith III in 1873.
Joseph Smith III was the oldest son of Joseph Smith Jr., and at that time served as the president of the Reorganized Church. And in the 1870s he was saddled with tremendous debt.
David: So he wants to sell the temple to the city of Kirtland as a public building. The City of Kirtland buys it, they think, and then they’re like, whoa, whoa, whoa, this is not actually. This deed isn’t all that legal? So that alerts Joseph III, that maybe there’s something cloudy in this, so this initiates an investigation by the RLDS Presiding Bishopric, Israel Rogers is his name, and he incorrectly thinks that he looks at the chain of title that clearly the church owns the building, not Joseph Smith III. And so he says, “Who is the Church?”
And so he and others began to think about, maybe they can initiate a lawsuit to get a court of law to declare themselves as the church and therefore owners of the temple.
Spencer: So Joseph Smith III pursued this plan.
David: At the same time, the RLDS church has written to a Lake County, Lake County is where Kirtland is, a Lake County, Ohio abstractor and asked them about the chain of title. And he says, “Look, the chain of title is cloudy. The best way to clear this up is adverse possession.” Adverse possession means, in Ohio, that if you are the possessor and, where we have a cloudy chain of title, if you’re the possessor of the building for twenty years, on the twenty-first year, you are owner free and clear. And that’s how you clear it up. He says, “Russell Huntley is possessor by 1862. He has it for eleven years, conveys it to you. You can tack on your years, Joseph Smith III, which is seventy-nine. You can tack on your six years, so that will give you seventeen years. You just need four more years, so by 1883, you’re owner of the temple, free and clear.” Joseph Smith III chooses instead to do a riskier route. He says, “We're going to go to a Court of Law in Ohio and sue potential claimants on the temple, the church, meaning the RLDS church is going to sue the claimants.”
Spencer: Those claimants included Joseph Smith III himself, as well as the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, John Taylor, who was unaware that this was all happening. But the lawsuit was the riskier route, and it did not work out the way that Joseph Smith III hoped it would.
The RLDS church sued for legal ownership of the temple in a local Ohio court. Judge Lyman Sherman heard the case and considers a finding of facts submitted by that church. He ultimately dismissed the case, finding that the RLDS church could not sue as a plaintiff if it is not already in possession of the building. So the lawsuit became a dead-end of Joseph Smith III.
So the RLDS church takes the easier path to legal ownership that the county official had already advised—continuing to occupy the temple until the church could claim ownership by the law of adverse possession. This meant that by conservative estimations, depending on when one would count the start of the RLDS church’s possession of the temple, that church owned the temple by 1901.
Yet today members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Community of Christ, and a host of other religious groups all treasure the historical and spiritual significance of the Kirtland temple. David described the building as a “shared sacred space.” I asked him to elaborate on that.
David: I think of the Kirtland temple as a shared sacred space in the same way that I think about places across the world that multiple religious groups find significant.
Spencer: David explained that the sacred sites in Jerusalem can provide a useful example of shared sacred space.
David: I think an easy analogy would be the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where you have many Christians that aren’t from the same group finding the Church of the Holy Sepulchre significant. So Catholic, various groups that are Orthodox as well, find that as a very holy and sacred site. You probably know in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, people don’t always get along in that place. It’s famous for some spites among monks occasionally. But the reality is, most of the time, the groups that have interest in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre get along very well together and they find a ways to cooperate together.
So I think that the Kirtland temple as something similar in that way, in the sense that multiple groups that don’t have the same headquarters, that don’t have the same kinds of lineage of priesthood, or they’re different, they’ve spread in different ways, find that spiritually significance, but not for the same reasons, or from parallel reasons or from related reasons. So that creates it as a shared sacred space in that sense.
Spencer: When I visit the Kirtland temple, when I tour it and reflect on its spiritual and historic meaning for me, I cherish the mutual respect that exists at the site that allows people of different faiths to be there at the same time.
David: So that other side of the cooperation, cooperation’s really necessary, that cooperation between hosts and guests and cooperation between different religious groups then, to be able to literally navigate a site together.
Spencer: In closing this episode, we’ve talked about how the Kirtland temple today is a shared sacred space. It features prominently in the landscape of the city. Each year tens of thousands of men, women, and children travel to Kirtland, not only to see the temple but to visit the restored historic buildings throughout the city and to learn about their lives of the men and women who built their lives there, to hear about their troubles, and to be inspired by their faith. To these visitors, much of the city of Kirtland is sacred ground.
But how did this come about? How did Kirtland become a destination for so many visitors each year? How did it become a formal historic site?
We’ll talk about that, as well as the lasting legacy of Kirtland in church history in the next and final episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast.