Joseph Smith Papers lead historian discusses lessons from the Kirtland period

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The temple was the anchor of Joseph Smith’s Kirtland, Ohio, the lead historian of the latest Joseph Smith Papers volume declared in a lecture May 18.

“It was the central, guiding focus in his life,” said Brent M. Rogers at the Assembly Hall on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. “It was a sacred place that he helped develop, even as his own understanding of its spiritual and religious significance developed and grew because of what he learned within its walls. And in the end, Joseph made the temple a priority, even in the face of great hardships.”

Rogers, associate managing historian for the Joseph Smith Papers, is one of four volume editors of Documents, Volume 5: October 1835-January 1838, which was released May 15. It covers the events of the Kirtland period of Church history, and Rogers’ presentation, titled “The Temple in Joseph Smith’s Kirtland,” was based largely on research for that volume.

In accordance with revelation, the physical landscape of Kirtland was to revolve around what was called “the House of the Lord,” or the temple, Rogers said. “It was to be central, the foundation and focal point of the city. From this central space, the beauty and power of the temple could radiate out and be a constant reminder in Church members’ lives.”

Documents show that bringing to pass the temple’s construction had significant spiritual and economic ramifications, Rogers noted.

In a revelation given nearly two years earlier, Church members learned it would be in this “house of God” that they would be endowed with power.

The exterior and interior of the edifice were shown in vision to the Prophet Joseph Smith and his counselors in the First Presidency, Rogers related. According to the account of Frederick G. Williams, one of the counselors, the building “seemed to come right over them as if they were inside of it, which allowed them to craft the architectural plans they would use to build this sacred edifice,” Rogers said.

Documents from late 1835 to April 1836 attest to Joseph’s efforts to complete the physical building as well as to prepare Church members spiritually for the temple, he said. The Prophet encouraged the members to unify themselves, repent and live by the principles of equality and humility. On Nov. 12, 1835, he promised the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that “all who are prepared and are sufficiently pure to abide the presence of the Savior will see Him in the solemn assembly” that would transpire in the temple.

In January 1836, Joseph and several Church leaders gathered in the unfinished temple where they performed an Old Testament-based ritual of washing and anointing of their bodies. On that occasion, Joseph received a vision of the celestial kingdom and the individuals who would dwell therein. The vision is recorded today as Doctrine and Covenants 137, Rogers noted.

Others in attendance saw the face of the Savior, and others were ministered unto by holy angels, he added. “So it was not just the Prophet, but all who were sufficiently prepared and humbled who beheld these great and marvelous things in the temple that night.”

On March 27, 1836, a congregation of approximately 1,000 filled the temple to capacity for the dedication. In the afternoon session, Joseph read the prayer of dedication from a printed broadside, marking the first temple dedication in the latter-day dispensation, Rogers said.

Miraculous manifestations on that day were reported.

“Frederick G. Williams bore record that a holy angel of God came and sat between him and Joseph Smith Sr. while the temple was being dedicated,” Rogers said. “Eliza R. Snow, who attended the dedication, later wrote, ‘Angels appeared to some, while a sense of divine presence was realized by all present, and each heart was filled with joy inexpressible and full of glory.’”

Rogers shared one of his favorite stories from his research. It illustrates the importance the Saints placed on attending the dedication.

Writers Benjamin Brown and Eliza R. Snow recorded that an unnamed woman could not find anyone with whom to leave her 2-month-old child while she attended the dedication, so she brought the child with her.

As the mother was being turned away, Joseph Smith Sr. approached and reportedly said to the doorkeepers, “Brethren, we do not exercise enough faith. My faith is that this child will not cry a word in this house today.”

The woman was admitted with her child. According to a letter from Benjamin Brown to his wife, the child did not cry from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. “But when the Saints all shouted ‘Hosannah’ the child was nursing but let go and shouted. Also, when the Saints paused, the child paused. When they shouted, it shouted, three times. When they shouted ‘Amen,’ the child also shouted and then resumed its nursing without any alarm.”

The temple’s dedication day was not the end of miraculous outpourings.

“On the afternoon of Sunday, April 3, 1836, as they were secluded within the curtains and pulpits of the temple, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery had a miraculous vision of Jesus Christ, who accepted the House of the Lord as Joseph had prayed for at the dedication,” Rogers recounted.

Thereafter, Moses, Elias and Elijah appeared and instructed Joseph and Oliver and restored through them the keys of the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood, including the authority to gather Israel from the four corners of the earth, and the authority to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children and the children to their fathers, as had been prophesied. Also included was the authority to perform sealings for eternal marriages and families for both the living and the dead.

The bestowal of those priesthood keys “proved to be a new beginning and immense theological development for the Latter-day Saints and an essential purpose of today’s temples,” Rogers noted.

He commented that the Kirtland Temple was a preparatory temple, “and the bestowal of these keys prepared the world for a great work to come.”

Some months later, Joseph and the Saints “began to face a litany of trials and challenges,” he said. These included word of the expulsion of Church members living in Clay County, Missouri.

At the same time, Church debts and financial struggles weighed on Joseph Smith in Kirtland, some of them stemming from the cost of completing the temple, which cost nearly $40,000, a sizable sum in that day.

Rogers said he thinks of debt incurred for such a purpose as “a temporal investment for a spiritual return.”

“The manifestations that occurred in connection with the Kirtland Temple opened the way for future temple revelations and ordinances, and all of the construction and spiritual outpouring was necessary as part of the Lord’s plan to reveal knowledge and ordinances line upon line, precept upon precept, to His chosen prophet and people.”

But financial and temporal problems created discord and tension, he added. “When problems arose, many were willing to quickly find fault with their Church leaders, while some also lost their faith in God’s restored Church and the Prophet of that Restoration.”

Joseph’s efforts through business ventures did not succeed in bringing the Church or its members out of debt. “In this context, many in the Church suffered temporally, and some Church members could not reconcile the Prophet’s temporal policies and their own impoverished state and chose to attack and demean Joseph and the Church,” Rogers said.

“It is here that I think the documents of the past can provide perspective for our times,” he remarked. “These documents remind us that the people of the past were not perfect. They also remind us that faith is both a challenge and a choice. … Joseph Smith chose faith. He obediently followed the commands to direct the building of the temple and was rewarded with immense spiritual outpouring. He exercised faith as he navigated a difficult time in trying to liquidate and renegotiate debts associated with building the temple, among other financial concerns. And he exercised faith as he found a way to lead the Church through difficult circumstances and his friends — or former friends — calling him a fallen prophet.”

Church members had to choose whether to believe in Joseph as both a prophet and an imperfect human, or if their expectations of a prophet required perfection, he said.

“All Saints, then and now, have to make a similar choice: to exercise faith, even amid trying circumstances, and choose to follow the prophet or not,” he commented.

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