Monday, July 6, 2015

Community of Christ Temple - Independence, Missouri

It was fascinating visiting several Community of Christ ("CofC"), formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, sites on a recent trip to the Midwest. I was familiar with the CofC early history but knew virtually nothing about the significant developments that have taken place within the organization over the last 35 years or so. It was very enlightening to visit and learn more.
Community of Christ - History

The CofC started out as the Reorganized Church ("Reorganized Church") of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on April 6, 1860 in Amboy, Illinois. However, they consider themselves to be a continuation of the same church that the Mormons claim to be a continuation of, organized on April 6, 1830 by Joseph Smith, Jr. ("Joseph Smith") at Fayette, New York and continuing until the assassination of Joseph Smith on June 25, 1844 at Carthage, Illinois. Following the death of Joseph Smith, a number of leaders claimed the right to continue to lead the church. The majority of church members followed Brigham Young (often referred to by the CofC as the Brighamites) and ended up in the Salt Lake Valley, today's Mormons. However, a number of splinter groups went other directions, including groups led by James J. Strang (the Strangites) in Wisconsin, Lyman Wight (Wightites) in Texas, Sidney Rigdon (the Rigdonites) in Pennsylvania,  and Alpheus Cutler (the Cutlerites) in Iowa. Other churches were splinters of splinter groups, including one formed by Joseph Morris (the Morrisites or Church of the First Born) in Utah. 

When the Reorganized Church was organized in 1860, Joseph Smith, III ("Joseph III"), the son of Joseph Smith, by then age 27, was the first President. This was not an accident. When his father died, many felt that Joseph III was his proper successor, but he was only 11 and too young. Several people had reported that Joseph had prophesied that his eldest son would be his successor.  As Joseph III got older many groups approached him about joining them, including the Brighamites. When he was approached by those that would eventually become the Reorganized Church, it felt right to him. He called William Marks, former president of the Nauvoo Stake of Illinois at the time of his father's death, as was one of his counselors. Joseph III served as president of the Reorganized Church for 54 years.

Following the death of Joseph III in 1914, his son, Frederick M. Smith, became president. Frederick was president for 32 years until his death in 1946. Upon Frederick's death, another son of Joseph III, Israel A. Smith, became president. He served for 12 years, until his death in 1958. He was succeeded by another son of Joseph III, W. Wallace Smith, who served for 20 years until 1978 when he appointed his son, Wallace B. Smith, as his successor and he took emeritas status. Wallace B. Smith served for 18 years and then in a controversial move, appointed a non-Smith, W. Grant McMurray, as he took emeritas status in 1996. This was not a move because of a lack of Smith descendants. There were plenty that could have continued the line. Wallace B. Smith just felt called to end the practice. McMurray stepped-down in 2004 after 8 years and another non-Smith, Stephen M. Veazey, the current president, has served now for 11 years.  

Theology and Doctrine

I don't have enough background to know how teachings and beliefs evolved over time, but initially the Reorganized Church did not believe that Joseph Smith introduced and taught plural marriage  or the related temple ceremony and ordinances. Joseph III and his brothers, Alexander and David, went on missions to Utah to preach to the Brighamites against plural marriage beginning in the 1860s. This caused their cousin, Joseph F. Smith, a son of Joseph's brother, Hyrum, to begin collecting affidavits from those who could verify that Joseph Smith had, in fact, taught and practiced plural marriage. Over time, with this collection of evidence, many in the Reorganized Church began to accept that Joseph had initiated plural marriage and determined that he had fallen in his later years. They rejected many of the theological innovations introduced by Joseph Smith, including the nature of the godhead, multiplicity of gods, progression to godhood, the differing degrees of glory after death, baptism for the dead, the church's involvement in political activities (the theocratic kingdom of God), the Pearl of Great Price and the Book of Abraham.

In the 1960s and 1970s many of the Reorganized Church hierarchy attended theology school and they began to re-think their beliefs in light of the knowledge and evidence they encountered in the world of general Christian theology. They ultimately downplayed and then dropped their "one true church" stance and adopted the analogy of the church being one tributary of a stream which is the universal Christian church. This transition was particularly painful during the period of change from Wallace B. Smith, a Smith descendant, to Grant McMurray, a former church historian. At about the time of this transition, the Reorganized Church lost about 25% of its membership, many of them eventually settling in the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, formed on April 6, 2000, which continues to have a descendant of Joseph Smith as its head, Frederick Niels Larsen. During the period of turmoil, there was a one-third decline in new baptisms in the U.S. and a 50% drop in financial contributions to the church.

In a very interesting article by Roger D. Launius, titled, "Is Joseph Smith Relevant to the Community of Christ," he states that Joseph Smith is basically an embarrassment to the CofC as the church has abandoned concepts of restoration of the priesthood, a belief in the Second Coming of Christ, Jackson County being a physical Zion on earth, and even the concept that the Book of Mormon is a historical record (he states that no current leaders of the church believe the historicity of the Book of Mormon, although many members probably still harbor that belief). Joseph's doctrinal innovations are viewed by many as the "ramblings of a misguided fanatic." John Hamer, in an article titled "LDS Myths about Reorganized latter Day Saints," contrasts the views held by both organizations about William Law.  William Law published the Nauvoo Expositor that revealed Joseph's involvement in plural marriage that ultimately led to the assassination of Joseph. Hamer says that to Mormons, William Law was a Judas. However, the members of the Reorganized Church view Law as a hero for fighting against the "creeping theocracy and corruption in the church, even though it meant taking on Joseph Smith Jr. himself."

The CofC accepts the doctrine of the Trinity, but differs from other Christian faiths in a continued belief in prophetic leadership and an open canon of scripture. Their Doctrine and Covenants ("D&C") has 164 Sections with revelations from each of the church presidents, including the non-Smith presidents. Their D&C does not include some of the Sections that are in the Mormon D&C, particularly those that relate to plural marriage and other practices advocated by Joseph Smith that are innovations to general Christian belief. Most of the new revelations are organizational in character, reflecting changes in church hierarchy, such as Section 160 by Wallace B. Smith. It states, in part, that "my servant W. Grant McMurray is called and should be ordained without delay as Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, and as President of the High Priesthood and the Church, to the end that prophetic guidance and vision may continue to be brought to the church through the ministry of my Spirit. Upon the ordination of his successor, Wallace B. Smith shall lay down the responsibility of President and be retired with the title of President Emeritus." One of the more controversial revelations is contained in Section 156 of the D&C, by Wallace B. Smith, adopted in 1984. It states, "do not wonder that some women of the church are being called to priesthood responsibilities. This is in harmony with my will and where these calls are made known to my servants, they may proceed according to administrative procedures and provisions of the law. Nevertheless, in the ordaining of women to priesthood, let this be done with all deliberateness."
There are currently at least three women in the CofC Council of the Twelve Apostles, including the president. Further, President Grant McMurray was allowing priesthood ordination of practicing gays, but later renounced the practice after the uproar it caused. However, recommendations by various conferences to the CofC leadership to allow the ordination of gays that are in same-sex marriages has resulted in an embrace by the church of those recommendations in March 2014. 

Since 2010, the CofC has been a member of the National Council of Churches in the USA and has practiced open communion since 1994. For sermons, they use the Revised Common Lectionary used by other Christian churches and may have some added readings from the D&C and Book of Mormon. For all intents and purposes, it is now a mainstream Christian Church and for the most part, has abandoned its early roots. As part of that process, in 2001, it changed its name from the Reorganized Church to the CofC.

The Temple in Independence

The CofC temple is built on land that was originally part of the land owned by the original LDS Church and which Joseph Smith prophesied would have a temple built on it some day. I find it intriguing that although they now reject the idea of Independence being a new Zion, they built a temple on the land. However, they didn't really know what to do with it. As indicated previously, they reject the ordinances and ceremonies used by the Mormons in their temples. In D&C 156, the revelation to Wallace B. Smith says that "The temple shall be dedicated to the pursuit of peace. It shall be for reconciliation and for healing of the spirit. It shall also be for a strengthening of faith and preparation for witness."

On April 6, 1990, the Reorganized Church broke ground for the temple in Independence. It was to serve as a place of learning, administration and public worship. They also acknowledge it was to fulfill the dream of church members to have a temple built on the ground dedicated for a temple in 1831. It was dedicated on April 17, 1994 and its $60 million cost was fully paid.

The nautilus shell design symbolizes the infinite nature of God.

The spire extends up above the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) church next door. 
The cross reflects the CofC embrace of traditional Christianity.
Giant bronze doors on the exterior have the word "Peace" and depict a child and a lion lying with a lamb.
The images of wheat and rice fields remind of the themes of harvest and plenty.

To reach the sanctuary, worshipers follow a path that causes them to reflect on the unique CofC story.
Entrance to the Sanctuary. The glass around the door represents Joseph's conversion experience in the grove. One of the few symbols in the temple that really hearken back to the early days of the church before the Reorganization. 
Glass surrounding the entrance shows woods symbolic of Joseph Smith's conversion experience. The CofC does not talk in terms of the First Vision like Mormons do, with Joseph seeing God and Christ as separate and distinct beings. Rather, they are aware of the various versions of Joseph's experience and do not try to delineate what actually happened.

Other steps along the path show Moses' encounter with God at the burning bush,
the father reconciling with his prodigal son,
the tree of life and a cross that casts a shadow over worshipers as they pass.

Just before entering the Sanctuary is a pool representing the Christ and his living water.

A large organ and pulpit in the Sanctuary.

Looking back toward seating. 
A view up inside the nautilus dome. 
An inner courtyard.
While we visited the CofC Temple I purchased a current version of the CofC Doctrine and Covenants ("D&C") and Community of Christ: An Illustrated History by David J. Howlett, Barbara B. Walden, and John C. Hamer. Portions of this post have also come from those sources. 


  1. Great background information. You brought a lot of pieces together for your comprehensive summary. I think what I appreciated most about our visit was the friendliness of the CofC members. They were very welcoming and open about partnerships that have developed over the last few years with the Mormon church. It was a great experience.

  2. Thanks for this very interesting post!

  3. I visited the headquarters of the RLDS in 1974 with a high school group, and again during the Nauvoo temple open house. I was quite surprised with the evolution of beliefs that had happened in that time--particularly in regards to their view of the Book of Mormon. Very interesting information, Bob.

  4. A very well researched and written essay!

  5. I appreciate the author's attempts to portray Community of Christ in a positive way. However, I believe more research needs to be done as there were many inaccuracies in the assumptions made.

  6. As a member of Community of Christ, its always interesting to learn how we are viewed by members of other Latter Day Restoration groups, other Christian denominations, or other religions.

    I’m glad you enjoyed your experience visiting our temple. I wanted to offer some comments that I hope will help provide some clarity on some of the points you made (though I’m not an official spokesperson, and can only offer opinions based on how I understand things).

    One tiny spelling issue: Our old name does not have a hyphen, and the D of Day is always upper case  (so it’s The Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints).

    You mentioned different doctrinal points that Community of Christ has rejected, beginning with the different degrees of glory after death. While I do feel that we put much more emphasis on this life, and less on the next life, I feel the need to point out that the glories are described in Section 76 of our Doctrine & Covenants (which is the same Section that they are found in the LDS D&C).

    Regarding baptism for the dead, we have an interesting history with it. Although it was never practised in the Reorganization (for a very good reason, as I’ll explain), the revelation that introduced it was part of our Doctrine & Covenants (our Section 107, LDS Section 124). However, that revelation included a condition (the timely completion of the Nauvoo temple), and it also said it could only be performed in Jerusalem and the stakes of Zion. As the Nauvoo temple was not completed in a timely manner, baptism for the dead could not be legally performed, so the church did not do so. To prevent confusion, the revelation was eventually removed from our Doctrine & Covenants.

    You quoted Roger D. Launius as saying that Community of Christ considers Joseph Smith an embarrassment. I actually don’t see any basis for that position whatsoever. We consider him to be our founding prophet (and he has been termed as such by our current prophet, President Stephen M. Veazey), and we make not effort to hide the fact that we are connected to him. We don’t idolize him, we don’t regard him as infallible, but I don’t believe we consider him to be an embarrassment.

    His opinion that we reject the second coming might be his own, but that is not a teaching of the church.

    There were some other things that I felt are not quite accurate, but the point that you made that I most wanted to respond to was this:

    “For all intents and purposes, it is now a mainstream Christian Church and for the most part, has abandoned its early roots.”

    This is a very common myth that many LDS members have about Community of Christ, arising from misinformation. While common, it is completely unfounded.

    It would take far too long to explain why in this reply, so I’ll direct anyone interested to a few blogs I’ve written that help showcase that we have not abandoned our Restoration roots.

    1. Thanks for the response. It is always an interesting exercise to try and look at a religious community through their eyes, and in this case, to have that include a look at my own Mormon community through the CofC eyes. My experience was surely colored by my own background. I know that in my own community any number of Mormons will view the history and doctrine in different ways. My own views change and fluctuate over time. I am sure the CofC is no different. I did appreciate very much the friendliness of the CofC people we encountered at the Temple, the Stone Church and the Graceland campus in Lamoni and I was heartened to learn about efforts being made between the two churches to have joint gatherings and communication. Learning more about the CofC has helped me learn more about my own Mormonism, including both some of its strengths and weaknesses.