This year, I decided to spend my birthday not sitting in solitude at my desk, but doing what I love to do best — seeing and learning new things.
I was so wound up over my plans that I couldn’t sleep. Even remembering the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s suggestion to “Count Your Blessings Instead of Sheep” didn’t help. I was going to Kirtland, Ohio to see the places that have great historical significance to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
In Salt Lake City, I learned that Kirtland holds a very important place in Mormon history. Located in Lake County, 22 miles east of Cleveland, this “City of Faith and Beauty” was where 65 of the revelations in the Doctrine & Covenants were given, according to an LDS Church film called “I Remember Kirtland.” To make the most of my visit, I thoroughly researched the subject beforehand.
Our first stop in Kirtland was the visitors’ center for the Kirtland Temple. There, you can admire the temple’s original weathervane, finial and one of its 32 original Gothic windows that symbolize a house of worship. In the museum, you can see a first-edition Book of Mormon from 1830, an 1834 anti-Mormon publication called Mormonism Unvailed by E. D. Howe, an 1835 edition of the Mormon hymnal compiled by Emma Smith, and an 1837 Book of Mormon bound in red Moroccan leather that Oliver Cowdery, one of the first Latter-day Saint Apostles, gave to his wife, Elizabeth. Clever interactive activities make the museum even more enjoyable.
From 1831 to 1838, Joseph Smith and his followers gathered in Kirtland and made it their headquarters.
Recognizing that the Church would benefit from a house of worship, Smith prayed about it. On December 27, 1832, he received a revelation that the Saints should build a “House of the Lord” that would be used for prayer, fasting, worship and learning. Then, in early June 1833, Smith received another revelation that provided instructions on how the temple should be built. Construction began a few days later.
The building was situated on a hilltop, facing north toward Mentor. Materials native to the area — including white poplar, oak, walnut and sandstone — were used for its construction.
While Joseph Smith and more than 100 men worked on the project, Emma Smith and other women of the church sewed and cooked for them. Brigham Young contributed to the effort by overseeing the painting of the interior with white paint, causing the space to reflect an abundance of light.
Construction was finished on January 8, 1836. An inscription on the front of the temple, over a large oval window, reads “House of the Lord. Built by the Church of Christ in 1834.”
Walking through beautifully tended gardens of colorful dahlias and roses, our guide observed how remarkable the temple is since no trained architect designed it. The exterior of the building was finished following an old building practice called “rough cast” stuccoing. Pebbles, sand and other materials were mixed into plaster to create a textured surface that had a faded-blue color. The Saints also mixed pieces of broken glass and china into the plaster so that it would sparkle in the sunlight. After placing the plaster over mortared rubble stone, the builders painted lines on the stucco to imitate masonry joins, so that the exterior looked as if it had been built with bricks.
We arrived at the temple and opened the original front doors, which feature raised oval-shaped panels and their original olive green color of paint. Entering a vestibule called the outer court, we saw symmetrical staircases with original freestanding black walnut handrails and a large Palladian window above the front doors.
On the first floor, the inner court consists of a large sanctuary that was used as a place of worship. Here, people listened to sermons, recited prayers and sung hymns. Four tiers of carved wooden pulpits, representing the two groups of priesthood leaders in the Church, flank both ends of the room. On the west end, our guide explained, were the Melchisedek Priesthood, those who ministered in spiritual concerns, such as blessing babies and healing the sick. The Aaronic Priesthood, those who ministered to families and were responsible for helping them understand their faith, sat on the opposite side. Each pulpit was marked with a different set of initials, signifying the rank of the church presidents who sat in them.
We climbed 33 steep steps to the second floor and entered a large room similar to the one on the first floor, but less ornate. This space was used for educational classes for both children and adults. Missionaries were also trained here before they went on their missions.
In addition to receiving religious instruction, men studied reading, writing, geography, history and foreign languages. In 1836, Joseph Smith invited a Jewish scholar named Joshua Seixas to teach Hebrew classes to Church leaders so that they could gain a better understanding of the Old Testament by reading it in its original language.
Our guide explained that doors on the pew boxes for the congregation opened into the aisles to conserve heat during the winter. Backless, moveable benches in each pew box allowed those inside to face either end of the room. The room could be partitioned off for meetings, prayer and even visions with large canvas curtains, or “vails,” that were supported by hooks on the ceiling, hung on rollers and operated with pulleys.
Climbing 33 more steep steps, we arrived at the third floor. This attic space was divided into five rooms which were used for classes, meetings and offices. Rows of Gothic dormer windows light the space. We sat for a while in Joseph Smith’s office, on the westernmost end of the floor.
Inside the temple, we saw breathtaking examples of craftsmanship. The Saints relied on the carpenter’s manuals, or pattern books, of Asher Benjamin, an early-19th century architect who favored Greek Revival styles. Using hand tools and a great deal of skill, they adapted the decorative woodworking patterns that Benjamin had included in his The Architect, or Practical House Carpenter and The American Builder’s Companion throughout the interior. You can spot elegant patterns like the never-ending circle, the egg and dart, beading, ornamented keystones, Greek frets, running vines and other decorative ornament carvings on columns, pulpits, around windows, down staircases and more.
During our visit, we learned that the temple was dedicated on March 27, 1836. About a thousand people filled the sanctuary on the first floor, while still more filled the vestibule and stood outside near the open windows. Joseph Smith led the day-long service, which included singing of hymns, delivery of sermons, and a 20-minute dedicatory prayer that Smith wrote for the occasion and read out loud. W.W. Phelps wrote a hymn titled “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning” especially for the service. That day, some Saints reported seeing angels and feeling a divine presence; others are said to have spoken in tongues and to have seen an unusual light on top of the temple. A week later, on April 3, 1836, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery went to a pulpit on the west end of the building to pray. Smith recorded that as they prayed, they experienced a vision of Jesus Christ standing on the pulpit, accepting the House of the Lord and giving Smith authority to carry out his work.
Less than two years after the dedication, many of the Saints left Kirtland for Missouri. After their departure, the Kirtland Temple was used first as an educational facility, and then for religious purposes by those who had remained in Kirtland. Since 1880, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now known as the Community of Christ, has owned and maintained the property, which has been named a National Historic Landmark.
Before we left, we browsed a well-chosen selection of books and objects related to the temple and its builders in the Museum Store. I brought home a cross-stitch graph of a Kirtland Temple Sampler designed by Debi Griffin, as well as a postcard and button of the earliest known pictorial representation of the temple – an engraving of the Kirtland Temple that Henry Howe made in 1846 for Volume II of his Historical Collections of Ohio.
Since photography inside the Temple is not permitted, we have to rely on photographs in books to see just how striking the interior is. The following books also provide more information about the construction of the Temple: The First Mormon Temple: Design, Construction, and Historic Context of the Kirtland Temple, by Elwin C. Robison; An Illustrated History of the Kirtland Temple, by Roger D. Launius; The Kirtland Temple: A Historical Narrative, by Roger D. Launius; House of the Lord: The Story of Kirtland Temple, by Barbara Walden and Lachlan Mackay; and A House Full of Females: Plural Marriage and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism, 1835-1870, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich.