Saints in Independence


Modern Saints make their niche in historic surroundings.

The lines began forming early, on 3 September 1978, with Saints gathering at every entrance to the new stake center. For many, the dedication service that Sunday morning at the new building in Independence, Missouri, came after years of sacrifice and work. The older chapel, built in 1913, was beloved and charming, but inadequate for four wards.

A man who, as a missionary, had helped finish that smaller chapel now had returned to dedicate the new one. Lines would have formed even if he had not come—but because the former missionary was President Spencer W. Kimball, the lines were extra long.

Members of the Church elsewhere might have wanted to see the dedication of the stake center—built on part of the Independence land originally purchased by Bishop Edward Partridge in 1831—as a sign that Missouri was on its way to becoming the center place of Zion that, according to prophecy, it would someday become.

But President Kimball reminded the local Saints that although they live in an area rich with Church history, an area with abundant promise and potential, building the kingdom means building individually righteous lives.

“Build spiritual reserves,” he told them at a Saturday night fireside in Kansas City. “Hold fast to the commandments,” he told them at the Sunday dedication.

Such counsel is no less applicable today than it was for an earlier generation of Mormons in Missouri, even though those earlier Saints faced persecution and privation. When they began settling in Missouri in the 1830s, other Missourians resented Mormon religious claims, sometimes offensively voiced, and the sometimes imprudent zeal with which they settled. Resentment became violence, and thousands of Saints fled.

Now, where the Church was once gravely persecuted, the Church is growing. The first Independence Ward was formed in 1956, when the Kansas City Stake was organized. In 1971, the Independence Stake was organized by President Kimball. Even as the new stake center was dedicated, it was filled to capacity.

The Independence Stake faces the same types of challenges faced by other stakes throughout the Church.

“We need to develop leadership,” says President Melvin J. Bennion of the Independence Missouri Stake. “Most of the fourteen wards and branches in the stake need leadership training.”

Bishop Ralph Meadows of the Independence First Ward agrees: “The greatest challenge in our ward is the teaching and training of leadership to completely staff each auxiliary. As for priesthood leadership—the growth will come. When I was made bishop, half of all the high priests in the ward were in the bishopric.” After being called as bishop in 1975, Bishop Meadows encouraged reactivation of inactive members. Activity increased.

“We still have our active, our inactive, and our indifferent. But a lot of people here have a lot of faith. We are growing. Faithfulness is the same no matter where you go.”

Eighty-four-year-old Ruby Harris has seen much of the growth Bishop Meadows speaks of during her fifty-five years residence in Independence. For many years, she says, priesthood leadership was so scarce that “I hardly knew what a high priest was until the 1950s. They seemed to be just in Salt Lake City. And then one moved here, and I thought he ought to know everything there was. We didn’t have high priests or seventies quorums for years.”

Still, there were more members in Independence than in Indiana when, in 1924, she and her husband decided to move to Missouri so that their children could be raised near more Mormons. To finance the move, they sold all of their possessions, which brought them about $800. When they reached Independence after a three-day drive, Sister Harris insisted that they pay tithing. They settled near the Independence chapel, where Sister Harris still lives.

The move succeeded in its purpose. The Harris family has produced three bishops, a patriarch, and two full-time missionaries. And they appreciate the opportunities for service and leadership they’ve found in Independence. “A lot of growth came to us because we were here and we were needed,” says Bishop Gerald Harris of the Independence Ward, a son of Sister Harris.

Throughout her years in Independence, Sister Harris has known and heard great Church leaders, such as the late Samuel O. Bennion, president of the Central States Mission for more than twenty-five years. (“He was a wonderful speaker,” she says. “He didn’t need any microphone—but, of course, we didn’t have a mike ‘till after the war.”)

She remembers when President Heber J. Grant preached a relative’s funeral sermon in Independence in the 1920s. Elders George Albert Smith, Joseph Fielding Smith, and Harold B. Lee visited Independence while they were members of the Council of the Twelve. Even though the number of Saints was not large, they felt the support and love of the Brethren.

But now, with Independence itself growing, job opportunities in the Kansas City area bring new members of the Church to Independence, and as converts join the Church in increasing numbers, the wards grow.

Several years ago, some Latter-day Saint families from Samoa and Tonga began emigrating to Independence for better employment and education opportunities. Several hundred Polynesians now are members of the Independence wards. The cultural differences have challenged both new and old ward members, but the Saints have learned ways to grow in understanding and acceptance.

Even as years pass, evidences of Polynesian culture are strong in Independence. Ward dinners are apt to be luaus. And when President Kimball’s plane landed at the Kansas City International Airport, he was greeted by Polynesian dancers and bedecked with leis.

But despite its growth, Independence has not lost its identity. Its residents are proud of the Church’s facilities in Independence—the older chapel, the mission home, the new stake center, and a visitors’ center—and of the numerous Church history sites nearby.

Thousands of members and nonmembers see the Independence Visitors’ Center each year. For the last two years, a locally produced Church pageant has been staged on the sloping lawn near the visitors’ center. Many of these visitors who come to Independence continue north to see some of Missouri’s other significant Church history sites.

North of Independence is Liberty, Missouri, where Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were incarcerated in 1838 and 1839 in pathetic conditions. The recently reconstructed Liberty Jail is now part of a visitors’ center where missionaries tell of the Church and the Prophet Joseph’s trials.

Within a few hours’ drive from Independence are other sites, identified by historical markers: Far West, where a temple site was dedicated but some 5,000 Saints were driven out after briefly establishing a community; and Adam-ondi-Ahman, where a city was started, a temple site dedicated, and locations of prophetic import designated by Joseph Smith. Many visitors go to these sites, but just how many is impossible to determine, since those sites have no visitors’ centers or guides. Local members of the Church estimate that between 20,000 and 30,000 persons visit Adam-ondi-Ahman each year.

Other sites are visited with less frequency. Some, such as the Crooked River Battle location, have been difficult for historians to pinpoint. Visitors are generally unaware of others, such as the pioneer cemetery at Richmond. And some, such as the site of the Haun’s Mill Massacre, are simply difficult to reach.

The Church does not own all the property significant in Church history. The site of the Haun’s Mill Massacre is owned by the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Part of the original Independence temple lot is owned by the Church of Christ (Temple Lot).

Because of the many visitors, the expanding population, and the relative sparseness of Church members, the Saints in Independence have their missionary work cut out for them.

President Edward A. Johnson of the Missouri Independence Mission says missionary work is “traditionally slow in Independence,” but it progresses nonetheless. One boost in missionary efforts came in 1978 with the display of the Mormon Panorama of pioneer art at the Independence Visitors’ Center. The display of paintings by pioneer artist C. C. A. Christensen drew 31,000 visitors. Many were members of the Church, but many were nonmembers curious to see Missouri history depicted in art. Attendance at the visitors’ center increased twenty-five percent over 1977.

Another boon to missionary work was Mormon Night at the Royals—an evening Kansas City Royals baseball game featuring Mormon ballplayers and Elder Paul H. Dunn of the First Quorum of the Seventy.

Cooperation between Church members and the Independence-based Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints reached new heights of friendliness in the fall of 1978 with the Joseph Smith Symposium, jointly sponsored by the two churches. Scholars from both churches participated, discussing the common origin and some of the teachings of both churches. Some eight hundred townspeople—including members of both churches—attended the sessions, held alternately in the Independence Stake Center, the RLDS Stone Church, and the Kansas City Stake Center. President Melvin Bennion conducted the session held at the Independence Stake Center; RLDS Center Stake President Frank Kelly conducted the Stone Church sessions; and President Kay H. Christensen conducted the sessions in the Kansas City Stake Center.

“The major feature of it has been the breakthrough in working with RLDS on subjects of common interest,” President Johnson says. “As one announcer on an RLDS radio program said, ‘now we can talk to each other.’”

Shortly after the first symposium session, a nonmember friend of the Johnsons came to their home to tell them how thrilled she was with the idea of the jointly sponsored symposium. “She said she felt a whole new spirit,” President Johnson says.

Healthy relations with the RLDS Church were evident as President Kimball and RLDS President Wallace B. Smith enjoyed a dinner together when President Kimball was in Independence to dedicate the stake center.

An equally significant work goes on throughout the vast mission area, as missionaries teach people in large cities and in hundreds of small, isolated towns. The missionary force is not large enough to cover each small town, so missionaries have limited contact with people in some areas. What helps missionary work the most, President Johnson says, is when stable Latter-day Saint couples move into these small communities and simply “live the gospel”—by helping their neighbors, living clean and happy lives, and being loving examples.

The challenge, he says, is the same in Independence and other Missouri communities as it is anywhere in the world—to build Zion by becoming a people of purity and righteousness.

Three Churches on Walnut Street

To a visitor unacquainted with Mormons, Walnut Street in Independence, Missouri, can be confusing.

On one side of the street are The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints visitors’ center, stake center, old chapel, and Missouri Independence mission headquarters. Only hundreds of feet away, on the same side of the street, is the world headquarters auditorium of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. And just across the street from the RLDS building is the headquarters of the Church of Christ (Temple Lot).

Each of the three churches considers the others to be splinter groups from the church established by Joseph Smith in 1830.

The churches do have some teachings in common. All three teach that Joseph Smith restored the Lord’s true church in 1830; all teach from the Book of Mormon; all call their leaders “apostles.” All three teach of the significance of Independence and surrounding Jackson County in the history and future of their church. All believe that ultimately a temple will be built in Independence; all three own some of the land dedicated in 1831 as the site of the temple and the center place of Zion.

But as time has brought a sifting and refinement of doctrinal interpretation and understanding, the churches have varied in other teachings and in their goals.

For example, the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) is a small group of devoted followers who own property they believe to be the original Independence temple lot. Seeing themselves as caretakers of sacred property, they have resisted attempts by other churches to purchase the temple site. In a leaflet called That Sacred Spot Is Definitely Located, they express their hope for the time a temple will stand on their property:

“We look forward to the day when Latter Day Saints shall resolve their doctrinal difference and return to the primite teachings of the Church as Restored on April 6, 1830, that they may assist in building the House of the Lord upon this consecrated Spot.”

The RLDS Church similarly hopes for a more cooperative interchurch effort. In contrast to the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that it is “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30), RLDS Church leaders no longer see a strong need to claim that theirs is the only true church. Carl Mesle, presiding elder of the Stone Church RLDS congregation in Independence, explains in a recent interview:

“We are being forced to see our role more clearly, not so much as the true church, though we do not surrender that claim, but as an institution established by God to accomplish certain purposes here, even while he uses all kinds of people and things to achieve his goal. That’s a difficult thing to come from—from saying ‘we are the only true church and all the rest are wrong,’ to saying ‘we were established by divinity and we must work with other people through whom God is working.’”

RLDS Church Historian and Commissioner Richard P. Howard concurs: “The task of the RLDS Church is to try to discern where God is working in the world, and to meet and work with God there. To be an agent in the hand of God, to do the will of God.”

Baptism for the dead is another area where LDS and RLDS doctrines differ. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints teaches the need for a temple ordinance of proxy baptism by immersion for those who have died. The RLDS Church neither believes in nor practices baptism for the dead.

The more than four million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints look to their president and prophet for continual revelation. The Church has strong central leaders who direct the work of local leaders worldwide.

Although RLDS Church members revere their prophet-president as the one who brings inspired guidance in terms of policy and doctrine, the decisions of the leading councils and quorums, and the vote of representatives attending the church’s biennial world conferences in Independence play an important role in these and other matters.

RLDS leaders hope to decentralize their worldwide church organization, so that RLDS congregations in each part of the world will be appropriately self-regulating. “This is a great decentralization of ecclesiastical authority,” Mr. Howard says. “It is extending the ‘principle of common consent’ around the world.”

Also, RLDS leaders encourage their members to accept a diversity of beliefs and worship forms within the church. “The church at its best creates the climate for ministries that include rather than exclude widely ranging value and behavioral systems. The church deals with the tough ethical issues in an effort to relate creatively to persons who exhibit deviant forms of behavior, no matter what they may be,” Mr. Howard says. The real test of incorporating a plurality of beliefs and values into the church will be at the local level, he says. “Can we develop that kind of reconciliatory, adaptive spirit so that the various needs of so many kinds of outlooks and people can be met in ways that make us appreciate and capitalize on our differences rather than fear them?” he asks.

In earlier years the churches on Walnut Street debated their differences openly. Now, while they maintain their diverse stands on numerous doctrines and practices, they exist side-by-side in open good will. The time for defensiveness is past; the time for understanding and friendship has come.

[photos] Photography by Jed A. Clark and Andrew D. Olsen

[photos] From left to right: Bishop Gerald Harris of the Independence Second Ward looks out a window in the new Independence Stake Center. The Billy Chase family, Independence Second Ward, take time for music together. A basketball game between the Independence Second and Third wards.

[photos] Above: Independence First Ward choir practice, directed by Neil Goodson. Right: Randy Gregg, Angie Bradley, and Ruth Mullin enjoy a Sunday School class.

[photo] The new Independence Stake Center, located near the Church’s visitors’ center, was dedicated in September 1978 by President Spencer W. Kimball. Four wards meet in the building.