Kirtland Today: History with a Future

It was a frigid night, the Monday after Thanksgiving 1977. Donald S. Brewer, president of the Ohio Cleveland Mission, was showing the Newel K. Whitney store in Kirtland, Ohio, to his mother, who wanted to “feel the spirit that was there.”

He showed her the rooms above the Whitney store where Joseph and Emma Smith lived for some time during the Kirtland era, where Joseph received revelations, where the Savior appeared to men attending the School of Prophets, where Emma gave birth to Joseph Smith III.

Now, no one lived there. No missionaries had served full time in Kirtland for 135 years.

The Brewers were walking through the School of the Prophets room, heading downstairs to their car, when President Brewer felt impressed to linger. “I said, ‘Mom, why don’t you go on downstairs; I’ll be right there. There’s something I’ve got to take care of,’” President Brewer relates.

His mother left. Alone in a center upstairs room, he prayed for guidance. “And the whole scene came before me. I knew what I was supposed to do, and how we were going to put missionaries in Kirtland. I saw the elders moving in, living upstairs in the store. I knew immediately which elders to send.”

Several days later he telephoned Karl Ricks Anderson, then president of the Cleveland Ohio Stake, “President, it’s happened.”

“What’s happened?”

“I know that the missionaries will walk the streets of Kirtland again.”

One of the last missionaries in Kirtland was Elder Lyman Wight, an apostle who came in 1842, several years after many of the Saints had left to follow the Prophet to Missouri. Elder Wight rebaptized some two hundred wayward Saints who had remained in Kirtland in defiance of the Prophet’s order to move west, and sent them to Nauvoo, Illinois, to join the main body of Saints.

In following years, missionaries sporadically visited Kirtland, but none are known to have served there full time. The Church owned no property there. For years the temple stood vacant and rarely used. In the late 1800s the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints acquired the temple and later restored it and opened it for public tours. No members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the “Mormons,” lived in Kirtland.

Over the years, as missionary work spread throughout the world, the Church slowly grew in northern Ohio. In 1954, President David O. McKay dedicated the Cleveland Branch Chapel, some twenty-five miles west of Kirtland. It was the first Church building constructed in the area since the late 1830s.

Missionary work flourished in Cleveland and its nearby communities after World War II—except in Kirtland. Cleveland’s one branch became many; the Cleveland Ohio Stake was formed in 1963. Wards and branches grew. Then on 5 June 1977 the Kirtland Ward was formed, with membership coming mostly from the area surrounding Kirtland; but few ward members lived in Kirtland itself. Property for a meetinghouse in Kirtland was purchased, with construction planned this year.

In accordance with President Brewer’s instructions, the first two missionaries did return to Kirtland—but not to proselyte, at first. They went to do historical research and to establish good will in the community. They moved into the Whitney store, owned by Mrs. Lillian Wood of Bountiful, Utah, whose husband, the late Wilford Wood, purchased the store in the 1960s. Brother Wood had hoped to have missionaries work out of the store. Before its purchase, the building was used, among other things, as a restaurant, a post office, and a rooming house.

In January 1978 Elders Raymond S. Baum of La Grande, Oregon, and R. Drew Galbraith of Raymond, Alberta, moved into the upstairs part of the store. President Brewer impressed on the elders, former zone leaders in the area, the importance of the assignment. The day they arrived, Elder Galbraith wrote in his journal: “Kirtland will ever be of great import and significance in the grand story of the Restoration. Elder Baum and I feel humbled and honored to come so close to and be a part of that story.”

The accommodations were rough at first. The elders had no beds, no stove, and leaky plumbing. Elder Baum recorded in a 21 January 1978 journal entry: “We are getting right into the old spirit of things. For the past couple of weeks we have been taking ‘sponge’ baths due to a leaky shower. This must be just like the Brethren used to do it. … This experience has helped Elder Galbraith and me to acquaint ourselves more fully with the practical history of the store and what it must have been like to live here in the early 1830s.”

Taking sponge baths and sleeping on cots were not their only brush with the past. In fact, they launched an intensive study of Kirtland history, using periodicals, pictures, books, and people as resources. After a day in the Painesville, Ohio, library, surveying old anti-Mormon newspaper articles, Elder Galbraith wrote that they left the library proud and happy, determined to be better elders and men.

To locate residents willing to talk about Kirtland, they walked the streets, even in severe weather. Although Ohio had one of its worst recorded winters, the only days the elders did not go walking were when a storm from Lake Erie took the windchill factor down to one hundred Fahrenheit degrees below zero.

While Kirtland was buried in several feet of snow, the Kirtland elders tramped throughout the city, searching among Kirtland’s 7,000 residents for those acquainted with Kirtland history. They made friends with some of Kirtland’s two hundred members of the Reorganized LDS Church. They collected and photographed old pictures of Kirtland and put together a slide presentation. “We had the winter to prepare, spiritually and intellectually,” Elder Galbraith says. “Our knowledge has given us confidence to talk to people about history, or about the differences and similarities in our churches.”

Even in chillier months, many travelers stopped at the unmarked Whitney store. As warm weather and summer vacations brought tourists to the Kirtland Temple, hundreds stopped at the store. President Brewer assigned two additional elders to man the store during the daytime, and a sign now marks the store.

Now, while Reorganized Church guides at the Kirtland Temple tell of the sacrifice and craftsmanship that went into that building, “Mormon” missionaries at the Whitney store tell of the spiritual manifestations that took place there. They show slides and share history.

President Brewer’s charge to the missionaries is direct: “Visitors who come to Kirtland will leave here knowing they’ve been in a sacred place.”

Many visitors are unaware that nearly half of the Doctrine and Covenants was revealed to Joseph Smith in the Kirtland area. In nearby Amherst, Joseph was first sustained as president of the high priesthood and prophet and seer. The first priesthood quorums, the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Quorum of the Seventy, were organized in Kirtland. The Kirtland Stake was the first in the Church and covered an area roughly paralleling the boundaries of the Ohio Cleveland Mission. Translation of the Book of Abraham began in Kirtland. Joseph did much work on the Bible revision in Kirtland. The Word of Wisdom and the Olive Leaf revelations were both received there. In neighboring Hiram the description of the degrees of glory was revealed in vision by the Savior to the Prophet Joseph and Sidney Rigdon. Many dramatic spiritual manifestations occurred in the Kirtland Temple and the Whitney store.

Missionaries at the Whitney store tell of the early Saints’ sacrifice in building the temple. They tell how Brigham Young was responsible for much of the wood carving and carpentry work in the temple. Though impoverished, he followed the Prophet’s request to stay in Kirtland and work on the temple rather than find more lucrative employment elsewhere.

Many Kirtland residents—not members of the Church—graciously help the elders collect historical information. Some, such as Frank Ray, who died in June 1978, live in homes with historical significance. His home on Joseph Street (named after the Prophet) was once owned by Vinson Knight, counselor in the Kirtland bishopric.

Other Kirtland residents also have knowledge to share. Elizabeth Hitchcock, whose husband is a descendent of a relative of Isaac Morley, studied Kirtland Temple architecture and gave useful background information to the elders. Information also comes from such people as Susie Kunzman, a woman in her eighties who recalls playing hide-and-seek in the temple as a child.

Also helpful are Lewis Schupp of nearby East-Lake, Ohio, descendant of early-day Kirtland settlers, and Jim Naughton, former Kirtland mayor, who helps the elders understand the city’s politics and economics. From Earl Curry, longtime Kirtland resident, they learn how he and other workmen restored the temple interior and structure.

As the missionaries’ information has grown, so has their circle of friends. Many Kirtland residents welcome them into their homes. The president of the stake of the Reorganized Church at Kirtland, William Clinefelter, has been cordial to the missionaries; he has met with them in his office, and, on occasion, has played golf with them on their preparation days.

“It is a challenge and a privilege to labor among the RLDS people,” says Elder Michael Fitzgerald of Monmouth, Oregon, who was transferred to Kirtland at the conclusion of Elder Baum’s mission. “Certainly it is a unique circumstance to meet people who already believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that the Book of Mormon is true.”

While the missionaries work in Kirtland, the Church continues to grow around it. Missionaries in the Kirtland zone bring numerous investigators from nearby towns to Church meetings. Some converts are first introduced to the Church at visitors’ centers. Others become interested through the Book of Mormon. Many members bring their friends.

Many strong members have moved into the area—often feeling inspired to make the move. Zane Lee was one of those. A descendant of Levi Hancock, one of the original seven presidents of the First Quorum of the Seventy, he moved to Ohio twelve years ago when he was offered a job in Cleveland.

“I wondered why I was here. It was a real struggle, except I knew I was supposed to be here.” As the Lees moved, things went wrong. Their baby was born early; they couldn’t sell their home in Denver and had to live in a Cleveland motel; they had to borrow money; the job didn’t work out well. But Brother Lee soon saw a purpose in moving: while they still lived at the motel, he was called as a counselor in the bishopric. Since then, he has served as bishop, high council member, and first counselor in the stake presidency.

While he has lived in Ohio, Church membership in the area has tripled. When the stake was divided four years ago, it had fourteen wards and branches. Now there are twenty-two wards in the Cleveland and Akron stakes.

Jack Davis, bishop of the Kirtland Ward, also feels that the Lord guided his family to Kirtland. The job transfer that took him to the Kirtland area was unprecedented in his company. “It was an unusual circumstance that brought us to the area. We felt like we were meant to be here.”

Members of the Kirtland Ward say that living in the area poses some challenges but offers great rewards.

“There are a lot of misconceptions,” says Andy Walter, a mother who joined the Church with her family shortly after moving to Kirtland’s outskirts. “People automatically assume I’m Reorganized, but people that take time to know me find out that I’m a Mormon,” she says.

Dorothy Lasker says the misconceptions about the Church make her feel a need to live the gospel and “extend” herself. “People that know you are looking to you as an example,” she says.

Not having a meetinghouse yet has been difficult. “We have met in this building and that building, and we have no identity with where we are,” Sister Lasker says. “It’s easier to be recognized when you go to the same spiritual atmosphere. But at the same time, I’ve seen increased spirituality among ward members because of our difficulties.”

President Brewer, many members of the Kirtland Ward, and President Anderson (now a Regional Representative) see the growth of the Church and the work of missionaries in Kirtland as fulfillment of prophecy.

Elder Robert L. Backman of the First Quorum of the Seventy, area supervisor whose responsibilities include Kirtland, was one of many missionaries who visited Kirtland throughout the years. He says he sensed spiritual evidence of the prophecies that Joseph Smith recorded in January 1841: “I, the Lord will build up Kirtland, but I, the Lord, have a scourge prepared for the inhabitants thereof.” (D&C 124:83) Such was the Lord’s displeasure with those early apostates and nonmembers who drove the Saints out of Kirtland.

But promises were also in store. Hyrum Smith, patriarch to the Church, received a revelation in 1841 that promises a bright future for Kirtland, in the Lord’s due time: “I will send forth and build up Kirtland, and it shall be polished and refined according to my word.” (Times and Seasons 1:589, Nov. 1, 1841)

Now, with the growth of the community paralleling that of the Church there, President Anderson feels that Kirtland’s time has come; he believes Kirtland and the Church will both continue to grow.

In January 1976 President Spencer W. Kimball addressed a gathering of thousands of members and nonmembers in Cleveland, and visited Kirtland. Since his visit, missionary work in northern Ohio has boomed. “From that day forward, people have come into the Church in miraculous ways,” President Anderson says. “It became apparent that we were going to have to do something in Kirtland. First it became a dependent branch, and then we were able to establish a ward. So there is no question but that the Lord is building it up.

“Many people think of Kirtland as just part of the Mormon past, but the message of Kirtland is that our heritage of culture and sacrifice remains. There are good lessons to be learned at Kirtland,” President Anderson says. “This town has a message to tell. The Church has a future here.”

[photos] Photography by Janet Brigham, R. Drew Galbraith, and Libby Frech

[photos] Bernice Miller, left, is a descendant of Christopher Crery, who helped settle Kirtland in 1811. Frank Ray, right, lived in the old Vinson Knight home until his death last fall.

[photo] Missionaries R. Drew Galbraith and Raymond S. Baum stand in front of their Kirtland “home,” the restored Whitney store.

[photo] Regional Representative Karl Ricks Anderson, right, stands with Ohio Cleveland Mission President Donald S. Brewer on the proposed Kirtland Ward meetinghouse site.