The peaceful rolling hills, green pastures and tree-lined roadways of northern Ohio belie the wealth of significant events that occurred in the Restoration in and near Kirtland.
The Saints remained in the area eight years, 1831-39, longer than any other place before they migrated to the Salt Lake Valley.
It was in Kirtland that the School of the Prophets began in a room above the Whitney Store. It's where half the revelations now found in the Doctrine and Covenants were received and the first edition of the book was printed. It's where the Prophet worked on the Joseph Smith translation of the Bible and most of the Pearl of Great Price and where all of the priesthood offices in the Church today were revealed. There were also visions of the Father and the Son — more of those appearances in Kirtland than in any other place.
The Kirtland Temple, built by the sweat and sacrifice of the Saints before they were driven to Missouri, still stands. Owned by the Community of Christ (formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), it is open for tours, along with a new visitors center. (A few blocks from the other historic area, the temple is now used as a gathering place for special occasions and Sunday services.)
Many original sites in the Kirtland area have been rebuilt or restored by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including the Newel K. Whitney Store, Whitney home, sawmill, schoolhouse, ashery and Johnson Inn. Those are all within a one-block walking area of the new visitors center, which offers a 24-minute movie giving the historical background of Kirtland.
About a mile away is the Isaac Morley Farm, where the first high priest was ordained and Joseph Smith first prophesied that the Saints would go to the Rocky Mountains. The John Johnson farm and home, an hour's drive away in Hiram, has also been acquired and was restored by the Church in recent years. The Prophet's family was living here in 1832 when he was dragged out of the house by a mob and tarred and feathered. Many important revelations, including Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants concerning the degrees of glory, were received in the upstairs room.
The visitors center in Kirtland records about 100,000 visitors each year, the bulk of them — some 20,000 — during July, according to director Roger C. Butterfield. He and his wife, Sue, from West Jordan, Utah, began three years of service in January 2008.
Fourteen senior missionary couples as well as 28 young sisters from the Ohio Cleveland Mission serve at the sites, retelling the events that happened there and offering personal testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the restored Church.
When new missionaries arrive in the Ohio Cleveland Mission, they are taken the first week to the sites in and around Kirtland, a historical place that one senior missionary described as "the best-kept secret in the Church."
Elder Butterfield said, "It's a place where people pull off the road," rather than a destination such as Nauvoo, Ill., or Palmyra, N.Y., Church sites that have many more times the visitors each year. "But when they do [stop and spend time in Kirtland], they feel something special here."
But Kirtland is becoming better known in the surrounding area as special exhibits are brought in for display on the second floor of the visitors center. In turn, the exhibits — including a Nativity display of more than 500 sets at Christmastime and artwork during the rest of the year — bring in people of all faiths.
A recent exhibit by sculptor Angela Johnson of Mesa, Ariz., drew several groups. Many of other faiths who attended commented that the bronze figures they viewed in "The Healing Power of Christ" helped them feel the Spirit.
One Catholic called it "unbelievably beautiful," and a born-again Christian said it was "a beautiful commentary on what Jesus Christ has done for us."
Nineteen large framed prints of Walter Rane's Book of Mormon scenes are on display upstairs at the visitors center through the end of October. The artist's original mural-sized painting depicting the Saints building the Kirtland Temple hangs permanently on the main floor.
In addition to the exhibits, visitors view a film specially-produced for the Kirtland Visitors Center. Told in the voice of Elizabeth Ann Whitney, "Remembering Kirtland" recounts the important historical events that occurred while the early Church leaders resided in the area. "Many, many nonmembers have asked to have the missionaries come" because of what they've felt in Kirtland, Elder Butterfield said.
Sister Butterfield reported that one of her favorite things about serving in Kirtland is "seeing people come in, not knowing what's here, then leave with a stronger testimony."
She noted a paragraph from the printed copy of President Gordon B. Hinckley's prayer when he dedicated the sites May 18, 2003. He asked that Kirtland "become a great gathering place for Thy people from all over the earth … a place of spiritual refreshment … a place where the stranger may be touched by Thy spirit," that people "may experience here a sure and solemn witness of the divine calling of Joseph Smith and the divinity of Thy work established through him."
Sister Butterfield said, "We see this coming to pass."
For more information or to plan a visit to Kirtland, see www.lds.org/placestovisit.