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Artifacts acquired with Kirtland Temple now on display at Church History Museum

The Liberty Jail door, portraits of Joseph and Emma Smith, Book of Mormon translation documents and more bring the Restoration to life, historians say

The artifacts are arranged to tell the story of the Restoration.

Walk into the Church History Museum room and turn right to see manuscripts used while translating the Book of Mormon and the inspired revision of the Bible. Continue counterclockwise to where the Liberty Jail door is displayed. Just a few steps past that are original portraits of Joseph and Emma Smith, accompanied by letters from Joseph to Emma.

Taken all together, the artifacts — recently acquired from Community of Christ — make the Restoration and the gospel of Jesus Christ real, said Church History Museum art curator Laura Paulsen Howe.

“That’s really the purpose of art and artifacts when you come in. … Giving people [the] opportunity to connect to sacred history is what we hope to accomplish in the Church History Museum,” she said.

Howe shared her thoughts on Monday, March 25, during the opening of “Sacred History: Treasures from the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ” at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City.

On the same day, the Church resumed tours of the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, Ohio.

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The new exhibit, running through Oct. 26, features a number of significant documents and artifacts recently acquired by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. After the exhibit closes, historians will assess if the artifacts need any additional restoration or preservation work, Church History Museum director Riley Lorimer said, emphasizing that Community of Christ did an “incredible” job caring for these items.

Lorimer said she doesn’t have a projected number of exhibit guests, but she’s hoping for a robust turnout — especially because for people living along Utah’s Wasatch Front, the new exhibit is more accessible than sites like Kirtland, Ohio, or Nauvoo, Illinois.

“My hope is that not only will people come and learn something about the history that they didn’t know before, but that they’ll have an experience in the presence of these physical items that helps speak to them about the sacrifice that the early members of the Church made to follow their faith, and the care and love and mercy that God showed to them,” Lorimer said.

Historical documents newly acquired from the Community of Christ are displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024.
Historical documents and books, newly acquired from Community of Christ, are displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Significant documents in Church history

The Church of Jesus Christ announced March 5 that it had acquired the Kirtland Temple — the first temple built in this dispensation — from Community of Christ.

The landmark agreement also included the transfer of several significant buildings in Nauvoo, including the Smith Family Homestead, the Mansion House, the Nauvoo House and the Red Brick Store.

Significant documents and artifacts were also included in the transaction. Some, such as Emma Smith’s walking stick and Lucy Mack Smith’s rocking chair, will stay in Kirtland and Nauvoo, where they are most useful in interpreting the sites they belong to.

But others are now displayed at the Church History Museum. One case, for instance, displays manuscripts used in the translation of the Book of Mormon and Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, including the Bible used for the Joseph Smith Translation; records of ongoing revelation; and a document with the title of “Caractors,” which may contain a sample of inscriptions from the gold plates.

Spencer McBride, associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, said the greatest risk to old paper is light and handling; that’s why the translation documents are kept behind glass, in displays that light up only when people are actively looking at them. For anyone who would like a closer look, however, every page is available online through the Joseph Smith Papers website as a high-resolution color image.

Spencer McBride, associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, stands by historical documents newly acquired from the Community of Christ and displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024.
Spencer McBride, associate managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers, stands by historical documents acquired from Community of Christ on March 5, 2024 and displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

McBride said he particularly appreciates the “messiness” of the translation documents — it reminds him that translation wasn’t necessarily a straightforward task and that people have always been imperfect.

“Sometimes, I think, it’s really easy for us to imagine that Joseph spoke a word and it was perfect from the moment he spoke it. And it wasn’t the case,” McBride said. “Revelation took effort for him. Revelation took time, it took energy. And it’s demonstrated in the messiness, in the crossed-out words. [He was] finding the right words to convey the revelation.”

Beyond the significance of the documents themselves, McBride said the pages offer insights about the people who created them. Considering how the writers were trying to contribute to the Restoration and bring the power of heaven into their lives is “where we find the real strong connection to the people.”

The papers, he continued, demonstrate the realness of these people and events.

“These documents are witnesses of sacred moments of history,” McBride said, adding, “Life in the 1830s was a lot different than life is now, but in some ways, it [was] actually remarkably similar. These people are not that different than you and me. … And that’s a sense you really get when you see documents and artifacts in person.”

The Liberty Jail door, recently acquired from the Community of Christ, is displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024.
The Liberty Jail door, recently acquired from Community of Christ, is displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The Liberty Jail door

After seeing the translation documents, exhibit guests will next come to the Liberty Jail door.

Lorimer, the Church History Museum director, said the door is a “powerful” record of Joseph Smith’s time in Liberty Jail during the fall and winter of 1838-1839. During this period, Joseph received revelation now found in Doctrine and Covenants 121-123, which Lorimer called “poignant” texts about wondering where God is.

“And having the door here … it’s evocative of that experience. You can imagine what it’s like to be imprisoned behind a big, heavy door like this,” she said.

This section of the exhibit also includes a quote from Mercy Fielding Thompson, Hyrum Smith’s sister-in-law, who once visited Liberty Jail overnight with Hyrum’s wife, Mary Fielding Smith. Of that experience, Mercy wrote, “As long as memory lasts will remain in my recollection the creaking hinges of that door which closed upon the noblest men on earth. … But would I sell the honor bestowed upon me of being locked up in jail with such characters for gold? No. No.”

Lorimer said Mercy’s words combined with the Liberty Jail door brings history alive in a way that’s difficult to accomplish otherwise.

She added that one of the most powerful ways to build faith is by witnessing the faith of others, including those in history.

The exhibit is “a good way for people to come and reflect [on] not only… what God has done for His people in the past, but what He can do in their own lives,” Lorimer said.

Portraits of Emma Hale Smith, left, and her husband Joseph Smith Jr. are displayed with other artifacts at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024.
Portraits of Emma Hale Smith, left, and her husband Joseph Smith Jr. are displayed with other artifacts at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024. The portraits, along with other historical artifacts, were recently acquired from Community of Christ. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The portrait and letters

The exhibit’s final section includes portraits of Joseph and Emma Smith, as well as letters from Joseph to Emma.

Howe, the Church History Museum art curator, said the portraits are two of “very few” done from real life. They are attributed to David Rogers, a Church member who, according to Joseph’s journal, spent several days in September 1842 working on a portrait of the Prophet.

The portraits also set the precedent for every portrait of Joseph and Emma that came after, Howe said, which is why Joseph is often depicted with a high collar and neatly tied cravat and why Emma is often depicted wearing embroidered clothing and a strand of gold beads.

Howe said while many people have likely seen the portraits separately, they probably haven’t seen the paintings hung together — and they’re meant to be seen together. They were so important to Emma that she displayed them in every home she lived in for the rest of her life, Howe said.

The portraits “tell the story of Joseph and Emma,” who were an “important force” in the Restoration as they worked and struggled together and raised their family.

A portion of a letter from Joseph Smith Jr. to his wife, Emma Smith, is displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024. The letter, along with other historical artifacts, was recently acquired from the Community of Christ.
A portion of a letter from Joseph Smith Jr. to his wife, Emma Smith, is displayed at the Church History Museum in Salt Lake City on Monday, March 25, 2024. The letter, along with other historical artifacts, was recently acquired from Community of Christ. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Displayed beneath the portraits are seven letters from Joseph to Emma. In one, written from New York in 1832 while Emma was pregnant, he comforts Emma and reminds her that God is her “friend in heaven.” In another, written in 1834 from Virginia, Joseph tells Emma that her letters are consolation in his “lonely moments, which [are] not easily described.”

Perhaps the most striking letter is the one written from Carthage, Illinois, on the morning of June 27, 1844 — the day of Joseph’s martyrdom. In the postscript, he writes, “I am very much resigned to my lot, knowing I am justified and have done the best that could be done.”

Speaking on the Church News podcast, Elder Kyle S. McKay, General Authority Seventy and Church historian and recorder, said this letter from Carthage — like many documents associated with Church history — was dictated by Joseph and written by someone else. But the postscript of this letter is scrawled in Joseph’s own handwriting.

“[It’s] as though he wants to say, ‘Now, Emma, it’s just you and me. Nobody here is in between. Nobody’s writing this for me,’” Elder McKay said, adding, “That speaks volumes about Joseph and Emma, what their relationship was like, but also how he died. He died with their relationship in that condition.”

Howe, like her Church History Museum colleagues, reiterated the realness that seeing Joseph’s letters brings to sacred events.

“These are important historical objects,” she said, “but they are also objects that make real history of the Restoration, of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

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