Spencer: In the late 1800s and early 1900s, when members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints traveled to and from the eastern United States, they often stopped in Kirtland, Ohio, to see what buildings and other sites remained from the 1830s. But by the end of the twentieth century, tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints were traveling to Kirtland each year. In fact, the city had become a destination for those seeking to walk the fields of early church history. By that time, the church had restored or rebuilt a number of historic buildings in Kirtland, presenting to visitors a robust historic site, a place for them to ponder how God communicated to Joseph Smith in the 1830s through revelations, a place to consider how God communicates with men and women today.
How did historians and church leaders work together to make Kirtland a historical site, a destination for those curious about the place’s spiritual significance? What obstacles did they face and how did they overcome them? And perhaps most importantly, how does the ongoing work to restore and preserve historic sites in Kirtland help visitors feel and embrace the city’s spiritual legacy? We’ll answer all those questions in this, the final episode of Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 8: “The Legacy of Kirtland”
Spencer: In considering the return of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to Kirtland and surrounding sites, I spoke with Jenny Lund. At the time of our interview, Jenny was the director of the Historic Sites division of the Church History Department.
Jenny: Latter-day Saints began traveling to Kirtland very early on, in fact, really before the Saints came to the Salt Lake Valley. Particularly missionaries who were going out would often make a stop in Ohio to see the Kirtland temple particularly. And you have to remember that there were Latter-day Saints who stayed in that area, so not all the members of the church left in 1838.
And there were a number of splinter groups of the church that were in Kirtland as well, and some of those people gave tours of the temple to visitors. I think a key fact to understanding of how important or key fact to understanding how important the temple was in Latter-day Saint memory is the major kind of fact-finding trips or major trips to try and recover Latter-day Saint history. One in 1878 made by two apostles, Orson Pratt and Joseph F. Smith. One in the 1880s by Andrew Jenson, who was working in the Church Historian’s Office and a couple of other Saints, and then the one in 1905, which included all of the First Presidency and several apostles. All of those trips went to Kirtland.
Spencer: Kirtland has such a prominent place in the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I cannot help but wonder what was racing through the minds of the early church members and leaders who visited the area contemplating the eventual purchase of some of the historic properties in and around the city. Jenny told me that the church purchased the John and Elsa Johnson home in Hiram, Ohio, in 1956, but that the story of purchasing and restoring properties in Kirtland itself is a little more complicated.
Jenny: If we were to say, what year did the church first purchase property in Kirtland proper? That would be 1976. But the story actually starts much earlier than that. There was an individual named Wilford Wood. He was a Latter-day Saint, and he was a furrier; he made fur coats by profession. And his profession took him all over the country many times every year, and he was also a lover of church history. So, as he traveled, he would look for opportunities to buy early copies of Latter-day Saint books or manuscripts, and then he got interested in historic sites.
So, in 1934, he was in Kirtland and recognizing the significance of the building, which at that time was a tavern but had earlier been the Newel K. Whitney store; he decided to purchase that and so he bought that for himself in 1934. He often worked with church leaders at that time, and so he went to the church and said, “Are you interested in purchasing this?” And the church said no. And so it wasn’t until 1976 that the church purchased that property.
Spencer: Purchasing historic properties in Kirtland marked a key step in their preservation and restoration. But creating a historic site for thousands of people to visit each year was a large undertaking. As it turns out, the driving force for such a historic site did not come from church headquarters in Salt Lake City. Instead, it was local.
Jenny: The idea for historic Kirtland did not come from church leaders, it came from members in the Kirtland area. And individuals who love church history and who tried to discover the history of the church in the Kirtland area came to be real advocates for this with church leaders. So, when church leaders would go to a conference in the area, they would get a tour and a little strong-arming to say, “Wouldn’t this be a great idea?” So it was these local champions and a local mission president who was there who was really interested and just repeatedly raising the issue with church leaders. So that in 1976, they decided that the church probably ought to do something in Kirtland, and so they decided to purchase the Whitney store. But it was still another four years before they actually engaged in a project to even study the building and try and decide exactly what it was they were going to do with it.
Spencer: Benjamin Pykles, the director of the Historic Sites division of the Church History Department, described for me some of the process that followed with the Whitney store in Kirtland.
Benjamin: They began a multi-year project to investigate and research that store architecturally, archaeologically, historically, looking through all the documents. The construction to restore it began in 1983, and then about a year and a half later in June, it was dedicated by President Ezra Benson, who was the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at that time. So I believe that was the beginning of the restoration of historic Kirtland as we know it today.
Spencer: What was the experience for visitors who came to Kirtland at this time to learn about the church’s history there?
Benjamin: The Whitney store stood alone as a historic site for a number of years, as a restored historic site. Even before it was completed and constructed, the church did purchase the Whitney home, which is just right across the street from the Whitney store; I believe that happened in 1983 as well.
It sat there and was used as kind of a welcome entry of sorts, a waiting area, people would go in to take the tour of the Whitney store. So that’s what it was throughout the 80s and the 90s, and at some point, there started to be discussions about doing something more in the Ohio area.
Spencer: However, expanding the Kirtland historic site presented some real obstacles. Jenny Lund explains.
Jenny: Every historic site development project has its challenges, and Kirtland is no exception. One of the biggest challenges for Kirtland was that the roads going through there were major arteries that took people into Cleveland. Now Kirtland itself and the area around it are really bedroom communities to Cleveland. They’re suburbs. And so everybody, every day was traveling into the city to work. And that meant that there were thousands of cars per day going through a little four-way stop right in the center of what we wanted to be our historic site.
And so the big issue there was that we needed to move the road, because you really can’t have thousands of cars going right through the middle of your historic site. It’s way too dangerous for visitors and so that took a lot of negotiation. We partnered with a private, nonprofit group who raised the money to give to the state of Ohio in order to get that road moved, and it took years to figure out.
Spencer: This moving of a main state highway in Ohio is similar to what occurred in Manchester, New York, when the Smith family farm adjoining the Sacred Grove was restored. A busy road went directly through the site and needed to be rerouted for the safety of visitors.
Benjamin Pykles told me that the restoration projects also had to deal with the presence of a different type of modern infrastructure.
Benjamin: Another obstacle in connection with restoring the historic Kirtland, it’s associated with the road, but on that busy road that they moved, there were also high-tension power lines. When the site was dedicated, those power lines were still there, and church leaders instructed those working on the project to bury those right, because they are such an intrusion into the historic setting and historic atmosphere and the view shed of the historic site that they really were an impediment. It’s kind of a modern intrusion to the otherwise historic setting. So additional funds were made available and again, working with the city and the utility companies, those utility lines were buried so that now when you go there, you don’t have, you know, looming power lines right there in the middle of the historic site. There’s plenty of power lines all around the historic site, but in the middle, they’ve been buried. So that was an obstacle that they were able to overcome as well.
Spencer: Since the 1980s, the church has restored several historic properties in and around Kirtland. Every summer, tens of thousands of visitors come to Kirtland to walk these fields of history. They visit sites such as the Morley farm, the John and Elsa Johnson home, the ashery, the sawmill, the Whitney home and store, just to name a few. But for many visitors, the Kirtland temple is the centerpiece of their visit to historic Kirtland. As we talked about in the previous episode, the temple is now owned and operated by the Community of Christ. I asked Jenny Lund about the ways in which the tours of the different historic sites help highlight the central place of the temple to the city’s history.
Jenny: Kirtland is a marvelous place, and we’re so grateful to the Community of Christ and our friends and colleagues there who preserved the temple and who open it to visitors of all denominations. And we work together with them really well to help tell the story of Kirtland in its broad context. Now there are certainly parts of the story of the temple that we tell at our historic sites, and we have certain places where that works really well.
For instance, the ashery, which, if the listeners aren’t familiar with that, an ashery was a manufacturing plant which took ashes and turned them into chemicals, pot ash and pearl ash, which were then sold for uses in different manufacturing processes. That business was a real, today we’d call it a cash cow. It was a very lucrative business, and the funds from that business helped support things like building the temple.
Another site we have is the sawmill, which we learned by finding things archaeologically that actually matched the woodwork in the temple, that the sawmill was cutting both the structural woodwork and also doing some of the finished carpentry, window mullions and the beautiful woodwork that’s found in the building. They were found right there in the archeological excavation at the sawmill.
Spencer: I asked Jenny what she thinks most church members are looking to experience when they visit Kirtland?
Jenny: I think one of the interesting things about Kirtland is the fact that almost half of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants were received in or around Kirtland. And I think that’s something that really drives Latter-day Saints who go to the area because it’s a way for them to more fully imagine what the setting was like and the experience when those revelations were received by the prophet Joseph and other church leaders.
I think that’s a hope that we have that the scriptures will become more real and more impactful in the lives of Latter-day Saints who visit there. For me, I always feel like it’s a matter of hoping that people find a connection with the past, that they feel something while they’re there, and that they walk away a bit of a different person, that they understand the world and they understand their faith, and they understand the love of God in a different way.
Spencer: The work of restoring historic Kirtland is hardly complete. Historians continue to locate historic buildings or the location where significant buildings once stood. In some cases, homes lived in by Latter-day Saints in the 1830s have been lived in by others ever since. With remodels and expansions over the ensuing decades, the homes may not look historic at first glance, but beneath all these additions lie the bones of historic properties. Such is the case of the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland, which will be open to the public in the fall of 2023 is open to the public.
Jenny: We’re blessed to have just opening recently, the Joseph and Emma Smith home in Kirtland. The Smiths built that home probably in late, very late 1833, and they lived there until 1838. And so for those years, that house was really the headquarters of the church since that was the prophet’s home.
Spencer: As such, the home was the site of many momentous events. It was the location where Joseph Smith received many significant revelations. But it also became a cherished home for future owners and occupants. Benjamin Pykles explains.
Benjamin: When Joseph and his family left Kirtland in early 1838 to go to Missouri, the home was involved in a lawsuit, property disputes, and ultimately it was repurchased by the church. And then it changed hands a number of times quickly, in rapid succession until in 1854, a man named Howell Rockefeller purchased the home, and he lived there for about fifteen years. So he was the next kind of long-term resident of the home.
He sold it to a man named Milton McFarland, who purchased it in 1872, and he lived there for thirty-two years until he died, and then his widow lived there for another fourteen years until she died in 1921. So much of what the home was like before it was restored by the church in 2022 was a result of Milton McFarland and his family, and he changed the home significantly.
Spencer: I asked Ben what the restoration process entailed and what they discovered about how the home had changed over the years.
Benjamin: The original home was one and a half stories tall. Milton raised it to two full stories. The original home had a very small room attached to the back of it, or a rear room, if you will. Milton McFarland tore that down and brought up a much larger, we think it was a barn and attached it to the back of the home. So he expanded the home significantly in size. All of that has been removed as part of the restoration and what visitors will see today is really an accurate restoration of what the home would have looked like when Joseph and Emma were living there.
The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints purchased the home in 1979 and they used it as a residence for some of their personnel that worked in Kirtland with the temple and whatnot until 2012, when they sold it to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And when we purchased it, we spent a good ten years studying it intensively, architecturally, archaeologically, historically. And ultimately, we began the restoration and we’re excited to now share that with the visiting public. We think it will be one of, if not the most significant historic properties of the church in Kirtland, not only because it’s right now on the hill from the temple. And the historic cemetery is the only thing that separates Joseph and Emma Smith’s home from the temple, but also because of the really amazing things that happened in that home or that happened in the restoration while Joseph the prophet was living in that home.
Spencer: What were some of the major challenges you and your colleagues faced in the restoration process?
Benjamin: Any time the church undertakes the restoration of an original structure or even reconstructing a structure that no longer stands, but especially in this case, where you have an original structure that’s been heavily modified over a number of years, a big challenge is simply this: trying to figure out what is original to the home and what was added later.
And so, like I said, we undertook many years of research trying to answer that very question. We hire architectural historians to go into the home, they peel off a lot of the modern drywall and plasters, and they start looking at the actual bones of the home, the original elements, and in this case, for example, on the second floor of the home, as you peel off the wall surfaces, you start to see that the original studs of the walls ended about halfway up the wall, and then attached to the side of them are extensions of those studs when they raised the second floor to an entire full story.
And so that’s an obvious clue that the original home was only one and a half story. We did extensive documentary research looking at the documents and the journals and the newspapers and photographs, and fortunately, we have an early photograph from about the 1880s that confirms, shows the home before the second story was fully enlarged.
And so these architectural historians go through and it’s almost like doing an archaeological investigation above ground. They read all the clues in the building itself from the types of nails being used to the types of moldings being used, and they know how to date all of those things, and they can start to piece together what is original, what is added later.
Adding to that, we bring in teams of archaeologists to start investigating what was the original footprint of the home, and in this case, we ripped up the floor boards of the later rear addition to the home so the archaeologist could get into the ground there, and they started digging down there and they found evidence of what the original rear room of the home was. So that’s how we know, how we know and how to reconstruct that original room, how big it was and the size that it was.
Spencer: The opening of the newly restored Joseph and Emma Smith house in Kirtland is an exciting development for an already robust historic site. At the conclusion of my conversation with Benjamin Pykles, he reflected on the significance of the work that he and his colleagues undertake in restoring historic sites and opening them up for the public to visit.
Benjamin: We often ask ourselves the hypothetical question of what would the church do with these places if no one came to them ever again, if people just stopped coming for whatever reason? We don’t think that would ever happen, but if that were to happen, what would the church do with these places? And I don’t know the answer, because I’m not a senior leader for the church. But I’d like to think that they would still keep and preserve these places because of what they represent. They are tangible witnesses of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, and so much of what happened at these places still impacts and still influences, and it’s core to our identity as God’s covenant people as the Latter-day Saints.
And so these places are central to our beliefs and to our identity, and because of that, we want to make them as accurate and as truthful as possible and to preserve them as best we can so that if nothing else, we are witnessing to God Himself that we remember what he’s done for us in these last days in restoring His gospel and kingdom to the earth.
Spencer: As I interviewed historians for this podcast, I asked each of them to reflect on the legacy of Kirtland to the history of the church. Matt Grow, Managing Director of the Church History Department, offered some thoughts on how the years when the church was headquartered in Kirtland affected the trajectory of what followed as the church grew and spread throughout the world.
Matt: There’s obviously a profound spiritual legacy of Kirtland for Latter-day Saints today. So many of Joseph Smith’s revelations came in Kirtland. So much of the organizational structure that we have came in Kirtland. That’s where the Twelve Apostles were organized. That’s where the high council was organized. That’s where Joseph began to pass authority to others, where it becomes less of a church of a leading prophet and a few others and more of a church that’s going to be run by councils, like the Council of the Twelve Apostles, the high councils that are going to help organize the stakes. So the organizational structure really becomes refined as the church grows quickly in that Kirtland era. Then, of course, we have the profound spiritual legacy of the Kirtland temple. It’s in Kirtland that the church becomes a temple church.
And, of course, the exact ordinances are going to wait for Nauvoo. But that sense of a temple being the house of the Lord, the temple being where the Lord Himself can come and give additional instruction and then other messengers to give additional keys and power and spiritual authority—that sense of the church being a temple church really comes from Kirtland.
Spencer: To dive even deeper into the historical and spiritual legacy of Kirtland in the present, I spoke with Elder Kyle S. McKay. Elder McKay is a General Authority seventy in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and serves as the church historian and recorder. We started by talking about the place of Kirtland in church members’ study of church history. Why is it so important for church members throughout the world to study church history, including what happened in Kirtland?
Elder McKay: We learn from history that we don’t learn from history. We often repeat the mistakes that our fathers have made, and I think this is an effort to make sure we don’t repeat their mistakes. On the other hand, it’s vitally important that we repeat the good that they did.
We’re constantly in that situation where we need to remember. “We have proved him in days that are passed,” is one of our hymns, and this is part of remembering how we have proved Him and knowing that He has, helps us to know that He will.
Spencer: I asked Elder McKay if, in his own study of the church history, he has found anything surprising about the time Joseph Smith was living and around Kirtland.
Elder McKay: One of the amazing revelations that came out of that era was this vision that was called “the Vision,” the seventy-sixth section of the Doctrine and Covenants. But maybe the greatest vision, as I look back on it, is a vision that’s not recorded, and that is this vision that happens in early June of 1833. The prophet has been given the commandment about a half a year earlier, I think it’s December of ’32, to construct a temple.
And now in June of 1833, he, Sidney Rigdon, and Frederick G. Williams have this vision where they see the temple, but not just the exterior—the temple passes over them and they view the interior. That’s marvelous. That’s amazing. That’s borderline surprising, but you can’t be surprised by anything God does. It certainly is amazing though.
Spencer: Looking beyond particular events and revelations, Elder McKay also considered the history of Kirtland as a whole.
Elder McKay: Another thing that is amazing that comes out of Kirtland is the making of Kirtland itself.
This is a manifestation of the Lord’s words, where He says, “I will go before your face.” He says in Moses 1:39, “This is my work.” And then elsewhere in the scriptures, He says, “I’m able to do mine own work.” Kirtland is proof of that. His fingerprints are all over this, in fact, man’s fingerprints are seldom found, I think. It’s mostly God doing the work.
When you think of how Kirtland came to be, how Sidney Rigdon was prepared and how he prepared a people, and especially how he prepared Parley P. Pratt. That’s the man who came back to his friend in Kirtland, and all of these people, including “the family,” come from these preparations that were going on without Joseph ever knowing about it. And then he sends four missionaries to Missouri, and on their way they create the beginnings of Kirtland.
Our missionaries run into that all the time. It happens to them all the time. Looking for someone else, they find the person the Lord wants them to meet and to teach and baptize. So that’s just a marvelous thing about Kirtland as well.
Spencer: Our conversation turned to the spiritual legacy of Kirtland and the key spiritual lessons that he hopes Latter-day Saints will learn from that history.
Elder McKay: It just resonates with me and is a great lesson from the Kirtland history, is revelation. And that’s another thing that we’ve been taught recently with a little more emphasis, that is the need for revelation in this church and revelation in our lives. Wilford Woodruff made the statement that this church wouldn’t survive twenty-four hours without revelation, and Kirtland is an example of how this church grew with significant revelation, almost daily.
Here is another lesson that comes out of Kirtland: God allows his people, including his leaders, to make mistakes. One of the great revelations that came in Kirtland, in fact, it was promised that it would come in Kirtland, is “the Law,” Doctrine and Covenants section 42.
In that law, the Lord gave a revelation, or one of the things he said can be juxtaposed to other revelations He’s given. You’ll recall in section 60 and in section 62 and elsewhere, he said, regarding decisions that the brethren had to make, “Do as seemeth you good. It mattereth not unto me, only be faithful.”
You’re my child; I’ve given you the ability to reason and to make decisions, so do as seemeth you good, and so long as you’re faithful, I’ll support you. In section 42, the Law, verse 16, He said, “And as you shall raise up your voices by the comforter, ye shall speak and prophesy as seemeth me good.”
So the Lord makes a distinction between matters where we’re to move forward as seemeth us good and matters where Ge says, “We're going to do this my way.” And we learned that in Kirtland. So one of the things that it seems anyway, in retrospect, the Lord said, “Okay, make your Kirtland Safety Society, do what seemeth you good,” and they did, and it failed, and it didn’t wreck the church, but it caused some turmoil. In matters of preaching the gospel and gathering the Saints, we’re going to do that as seemeth me good. And so we learned that distinction there in Kirtland.
Spencer: At the conclusion of our conversation, I asked Elder McKay what he thought was the legacy of Kirtland, Ohio, during the 1830s to the church today.
Elder McKay: Kirtland was a place of abundant revelation, but I think it’s important for our members to remember that the abundant revelation continues. Revelation in context and for the purpose of the restoration just flowed in Kirtland. But in personal lives, it didn’t stop there and it continues now. And so the revelation and the words of the Lord in section 42, when he said, “If you will ask, you’ll receive revelation upon revelation or revelation after revelation.” And that promise, he makes good on, if we will ask.
Now the Lord also established a pattern, and Joseph followed it from the time he was fourteen years old. And he got it out of the book of James. You don’t just ask, you ask in faith, nothing wavering. And if you read all the accounts of the First Vision, Joseph entered the grove and asked in faith for forgiveness and for guidance. That pattern is repeated and it’s implicit but sometimes expressed in most of the revelations in the Doctrine and Covenants.
Spencer: What is the historical legacy of Kirtland, Ohio? There are a lot of ways to answer this question, but I am convinced that stories of revelation are central to any such answer. In the 1830s, thousands of men and women flocked to the fledgling American settlement to hear the word of God through a prophet. And for many of the men and women who chose to build their lives in Kirtland, the ensuing prophetic revelations revealed previously unknown or misunderstood doctrines of Christianity. Those revelations provided answers to spiritual and temporal questions. They further established the doctrine and organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But when we talk about Kirtland as a place of revelation, we are talking about something more than a living prophet dictating the mind and will of God as it was revealed to him. As part of his prophetic role and as president of the church, Joseph Smith took seriously his responsibility to teach men and women how to hear the voice of God in their own lives, how to receive revelation for their own stewardships. And I think that the Kirtland temple is at the heart of all these efforts. It was a way for church members to receive an endowment of power, a place for them to experience spiritual manifestations, a way for them to recognize and strengthen their connection to heaven.
The legacy of Kirtland, then, is a legacy of revelation. It’s a legacy of men and women seeking the power of godliness in their lives.
This has been Kirtland, City of Revelation: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. Thank you for listening.