Missouri remains land of religious promise for Mormons

RNS photo by J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. (RNS) In 1831, Mormon founder Joseph Smith declared that the righteous would gather in Independence, Mo., to greet the Second Coming of Jesus Christ — just one of the prophecies that estranged his faith from traditional Christianity.

Storm clouds roll over the Kansas City, Missouri Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Saturday evening, August 18, 2012. The Temple was dedicated on May 6, 2012.

Storm clouds roll over the Kansas City, Missouri Temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Saturday evening, August 18, 2012. The Temple was dedicated on May 6, 2012.

Thousands of converted Mormons moved from Ohio and upstate New York to claim their New Jerusalem. Disputes with Missourians led to a bloody Mormon War that ended only when the state’s governor issued an “extermination order” to expel Smith’s followers.

Today, few places are better to contemplate the evolving — but still uncertain — relationship between Mormonism and the country where it was founded.

On the one hand, Missouri symbolizes how far Mormons have come. At least 66,000 Mormons now live in the state, more than triple the number of just three decades ago. Most recently, the LDS church has built a temple in Kansas City, Mo., near the epicenter of the Mormon War.

But Missouri also serves to highlight the intractable differences between mainstream Christianity and Mormon theology.

One of the mission assignments of the LDS church is to work in the Independence Visitor's Center in Independence, Mo. From left: Sister Lettig, Sister Minall, Sister Bingham and Sister Richardson sing to visitors after they take a tour of the center on Sunday, August 19, 2012.

One of the mission assignments of the LDS church is to work in the Independence Visitor’s Center in Independence, Mo. From left: Sister Lettig, Sister Minall, Sister Bingham and Sister Richardson sing to visitors after they take a tour of the center on Sunday, August 19, 2012.

Independence and other nearby sites in western Missouri — including a pasture 70 miles north that Smith tied to the Garden of Eden — serve to emphasize distinctive Mormon beliefs. Those differences are amplified by Mormon scriptures, doctrines and the abandoned practice of polygamy.

A poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that half of non-Mormons do not consider Mormons Christian and when asked to describe the faith in one word, the most common response was “cult.”

That tension of a faith still on the edges of acceptance and yet growing in popularity has surfaced with the nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for president. It has been highlighted further by the popularity of the Broadway musical “The Book of Mormon,” which pokes fun at elements of the faith.

All the attention has added up to what has been dubbed the “Mormon moment.” And many Mormons have greeted it with a measure of ambivalence. A January Pew poll reinforces that anxiety, with two-thirds of Mormons saying they don’t believe they are accepted as part of mainstream society.

“I think some people have a sense of anxiety, and maybe a little hesitancy to speak up and share right now,” said Ben Munson, a Lake Saint Louis resident who serves on the church’s regional public affairs council. “But there are others who look at this moment as a huge opportunity to share the gospel with a co-worker or a friend.”

Smith sought not merely to reform Christianity, but to rebuild the early Christian church, with new apostles and priesthood authority. He claimed not only to have seen God and Jesus in a vision as a young boy, but also to have been given gold plates from an angel, from which he published the Book of Mormon.

A year after completing the Book of Mormon, Smith said God had told him a “New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints” would be built in Jackson County, Mo.

“And the glory of the Lord shall be there, and the terror of the Lord also shall be there,” Smith’s revelation continued, “insomuch that the wicked will not come unto it, and it shall be called Zion.”

The revelations declared that a temple would be built on a lot in Independence, 10 miles east of Kansas City, and would be the site of a gathering for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.

The boldness of those claims invited conflict with Missouri settlers. Mormons who settled in Jackson County were soon pushed out. And when a plan to relocate Mormons to newly formed Caldwell County also ended in conflict, Gov. Lilburn Boggs ordered all Mormons out — leaving their sacred sites behind.

Since then, the vividness of Smith’s prophecy about a gathering and temple in Independence has faded.

“Today neither Missouri nor the temple lot there figure prominently in the consciousness of the average Mormon,” said Terryl Givens, a Mormon and professor of religion and literature at the University of Richmond in Virginia. “Most Mormons probably don’t even know the particulars of Smith’s teachings on the subject.”

Modern Mormonism should be defined not by unusual Missouri prophecies, Givens said, but by core doctrines. And many Mormons focus on what’s common between their faith and mainstream Christianity. They worship Jesus Christ, and take weekly sacraments in his name. They host potluck dinners and youth socials.

“Outsiders’ fantasies of what Mormons do in worship services are much more exciting than the truth,” said Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a non-Mormon scholar of the faith and chairwoman of the University of North Carolina’s religion department. “When I send my students to a sacrament service, they usually come back talking about how boring it was.”

But that’s not to say that prophecies about Missouri and the historic sites tied to them have been stripped of spiritual significance.

On a recent afternoon, financial planner Tom Springer, 39, and his wife, Olivia Hood, 34, a piano teacher, both from Fort Worth, Texas, stopped for a picnic at Far West, Mo. — a site Smith had designated for a temple.

The couple were crossing the country to visit family, and they stopped at a few Mormon sites to teach their children about the history of their church and to connect with the suffering and fortitude of that first generation of saints.

The couple said that while they believe in the prophecies of their faith — including a gathering of Mormons in Missouri during the last days — some of those teachings don’t fit in their daily lives.

“We believe those revelations from the prophet as central to the restored church, and we take them extremely seriously,” Springer said.

“When God tells me to move my family to Independence, I’ll move them,” Hood said. “But right now, we like Fort Worth. We’re not going to put our house on the market just yet.”

The plot of land in Independence that Smith said would be the site of Zion’s great temple is a vacant lot, owned and safeguarded by a tiny LDS offshoot. But various sects with ties to Mormonism still revere the land’s significance.

The 250,000-member Community of Christ, for example, has built a glistening conch-shaped temple across the street from Smith’s designated temple site.

The larger LDS church maintains its visitor center across the street, where missionaries conduct tours and show movies that tell the story of the early Mormon pioneers.

For Jeremiah Morgan the call to Zion’s soil is tilled deep into his genealogy. Morgan’s ancestors were Joseph Smith’s neighbors in Nauvoo, Ill., where Mormons congregated after their expulsion from Missouri. Smith was killed there, and soon after that, Brigham Young led the saints to Utah. But Morgan’s relatives remained in the Midwest and joined a reorganized LDS group that had rejected Young’s leadership.

When Morgan was a child, his mother moved her family to Independence to prepare for the gathering at Zion.

Morgan, 41, has since joined the larger LDS church and is now a stake president, one of the highest church officers in the Kansas City region.

If the early saints viewed western Missouri as a final gathering place, modern Mormons tend to think of Zion more metaphorically, as a state of spiritual being. Today’s saints are more focused on constancy, on sticking around suburban subdivisions across the nation and driving minivans packed with children to small congregations.

“The prophet said to make Zion wherever you are,” Morgan said. “Zion is people.”

And this May, Mormons in the Kansas City region, who now number nearly 30,000, gathered to dedicate a gleaming white, double-spired temple. It was built not on the sacred plots designated by Smith, but off an interstate, just three miles west of a jail that once held Smith for four months.

Speeches during the dedication service made reference to western Missouri’s unhappy place in church history, but also emphasized healing rather than pain.

The temple, Morgan said, represents “how far we’ve come as a people and as a nation.”

(Tim Townsend writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in St. Louis.)


About the author

Tim Townsend

Tim Townsend is the religion writer for The Post-Dispatch in St. Louis.


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  • Romney’s arrogance:

    “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”

    So where does Romney get such a dysfunctional ideology?

    From his Mormonism!

    The Book of Mormon, one of the unique additional scriptures Mormon prophet Joseph Smith added to the Bible in the Mormon scriptures, is thoroughly corrupted with this “prosperity gospel” ideology:

    “…inasmuch as ye shall keep my commandments ye shall prosper in the land;” (1 Nephi 1:20)


    “…inasmuch as ye will not keep my commandments ye shall not prosper in the land.” (Omni 1:6; see also Jarom 1:9; Mosiah 1:7; Alma 9:13; Alma 37:13; 3 Nephi 5:22).

    The obvious corollary is that all wealthy Mormons, such as Mitt Romney, the Huntsman and Marriott families, and many others, are rich because they have been more righteous and kept god’s commandments better than others!

    The dark side of this corollary is that those who are poor have NOT been “blessed”by the Mormon god because they have not been as faithful in obeying his commandments, and they are unworthy of prosperity.

    This is the religious ideology behind Mitt Romney’s arrogance and his appalling and unsympathetic view of his fellow Americans.

    The tragedy is that, like most Conservative Republicans, Romney seems to lack the ability to even comprehend such a realistic view. They appear to live in a Disney fairy tale where good and evil, right and wrong, success and failure, are two dimensional, highly contrasted charicatures, and the world is a perfectly just one where everybody gets exactly what they deserve… and since Mitt is rich, he wants to convince us that he EARNED it and DESERVES it, and those who are poor are just lazy freeloaders who have EARNED their poverty and failure, too!

    And quite honestly, it sickens me.

  • well, Vanka, i must say i agree. i find it funny how most of the republicans in their convention talked about america as it “used to be” they portrayed america as a wonderland filled with butterflies and rainbows and happiness until obama came and ruined it all!! they complain that he hasn’t done anything to help america in his office, but they haven’t let him!! they voted against all of his policies and tried their very best to keep him from doing anything!!
    sorry. that was my rant for the day.

  • B/O has had 4 yrs to fulfill his promises/lies. He trashes -main street-to bail out his Wall street whores. At the cost to tax payers of $6 trillion. His first move was an executive order to have all his records sealed. So much for his most open administration lie. His next executive order was to remove the anti-abortion requirement tied to foreign aid. How many executive orders has he forced on us that he knew Congress wouldn’t pass? His gun running to the drug cartels cost 100’s of lives, just to try and steal our 2nd amendment rights.
    The murders of Chris Stevens and 3 other brave Americans in Libya based on a 4 month old video lie to steal our 1st amendment free speech rights and trash the freedom of the internet. Every veteran should vomit over the 7 hr battle when a fast response team was just 1.5 hrs away. The State Dept should be forced to release the phone calls for help/evacuation cries, along with the drone video.
    What’s the dude doing with 2 social security numbers? What about his “there’s no god but allah ring? The uppidy dude has cost us billions in colby steaks, jets setting, gulf, basketball,white house parties,vacations etc.
    The jive dude has wasted our tax dollars blocking Arizona,Texas from securing their borders
    The open microphone comment during the meeting with Putin should inflame all blacks.
    How many blacks are in Russia? Lots of white Russians though. We still have the wars going on , thousands of innocent have died(collateral damage) . Getmo is still open for business. B/O can’t solve Amerika’c problems by appointing liberal communist sodomites to cabnet post. It’s all too clear we’ve had 4 bad seasons, time to dump thecoach.