Because the Come Follow Me curriculum for the next five months is about revelations received in Kirtland and many Church members would like to understand that period better, beginning today, Meridian will run a series of articles by Karl Ricks Anderson on this remarkable period in Church history.
“Go to the Ohio!”[i] With this command the Lord dispatched his small but growing flock of mere hundreds to Kirtland. This first Church gathering place would now become a holy land of unparalleled latter-day spiritual outpourings and divine instruction. However, today most Church members are unaware of the significant happenings and the length of stay of the Church in “the Ohio.” People know that the Kirtland Temple was erected there but are generally unaware of most events beyond that.
President M. Russell Ballard acknowledged that, “the Kirtland period is one of the least-understood periods in Church history.”[ii] It is almost as if a cloak of obscurity settled over Kirtland in the minds of the people after the early Saints left. President Gordon B. Hinckley began to remove that obscurity in 2003 when he dedicated Kirtland’s restored historic sites.
Most people are surprised when they begin to understand Kirtland and its real significance. When learning of all that transpired in early Kirtland, visitors frequently state, “Why did I never know of these things?” The Lord designated Kirtland and other surrounding towns like Hiram, Ohio as being “the land of Kirtland” six times in the Doctrine and Covenants.[iii] This area served as Church headquarters from 1831 to 1838 (longer than any other location, except for Salt Lake City.) Today’s Church structure and offices were put in place over 185 years ago in Kirtland. This is remarkable! The Lord’s organizational structure seems timeless.
Joseph Smith lived in Kirtland more of his adult years than any other location. More events of major restoration significance took place in Kirtland than any other early Church history location. Unprecedented spiritual manifestations showered down upon Kirtland, including over ten visions of Deity to Joseph Smith alone. Joseph saw 15 past prophets in visions. He also saw over 30 separate God given visions during the Kirtland years.
Kirtland could be called our teaching period. I often identify Kirtland as being the Galilee of our dispensation because this is where the Savior principally taught the Church. In the first month that the Saints came to Kirtland, the Lord said to the elders, “Ye are not sent forth to be taught, but to teach… And ye are to be taught from on high.”[iv] More divine revelations came in Kirtland than any other early Church history location. Almost half of the revelations recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants came in Ohio. Christ dictated these revelations. Christ was truly their teacher!
Our Kirtland years impacted each one of our standard scriptures. The Church published the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants there in 1835. The Pearl of Great Price consists largely of Joseph Smith’s inspired translations of the Book of Abraham and the last chapter of the Book of Moses there. In addition, Joseph Smith virtually completed his Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible in Ohio locations. Finally, the Church published the second edition of the Book of Mormon there in 1837.
In 1994, I spent a day with Elder Neal A. Maxwell, a latter-day Apostle, and his family in Kirtland. After we had visited several sacred sites together and reviewed much scripture and history, he asked me to write the book, “The Savior in Kirtland.” He noted my knowledge and love of Kirtland and added that there was a “mother lode of Christology” in Kirtland that had never been mined and of which the Church was largely unaware. He asked me to seek out the Christ-centered teachings and evidences of the Savior in Kirtland and write them. Urging patience, inspiration, and thoroughness in research, he suggested that I let it percolate and cautioned that I not be too quick to publish it. (I am not sure he meant for me to take eighteen years—I may yet have to answer for that.)
Central to his challenge was this: “Write it on the Christology of Kirtland—what we know that we otherwise would not know… and what we gain from the revelations . . . Combine your insights into Christ and your love of Kirtland with the history.”[v] Writing it became a tender spiritual experience and developed in me a powerful witness of the Savior. As a result, I now frequently identify Kirtland as the land of our Savior. Nowhere in all of Church history do we see Him or “hear Him” more clearly than through the Kirtland years. He prepared the land, gathered His followers, and protected them from the adversary.
In Kirtland, the Savior promised His Saints, “I will appear unto my servants, and speak unto them with mine own voice.”[vi] He manifested himself more than ten times to Joseph Smith alone. Seven of these visions included God, our Heavenly Father. He appeared in vision or spoke to more than twenty-three of His other servants there. More first-person words of Christ have gone to the world from Kirtland than from any other location in history. Through His direct voice of revelation, Christ comprehensively taught the world about Himself, His mission of Atonement, and the premortal and post mortal worlds.
He structured His Church in Kirtland and called its leaders by personal revelation. He taught them in vision as well as through the Spirit. He commanded His poverty-stricken Saints to build His first temple in two thousand years. He showed them the pattern and then gave them the assistance and power to build it. In Kirtland, the very heavens thundered many additional witnesses of Christ’s visions and voice. He sent angels, heavenly choirs, and divine messengers—who reflected His divinity and direction from heaven above—with keys and authority. Finally, He dispatched His latter-day messengers from Kirtland unto all nations in fulfillment of ancient prophecy. The Savior knew Kirtland well. The story of Kirtland is, in reality, a story of Christ. Kirtland and Christ can never be separated.
I also describe Kirtland as the “Holy Ground” of our dispensation. On Sinai the Lord told Moses to remove his shoes, for he stood on holy ground. Over the years, I have come to realize that the Lord made Kirtland holy the same way as he made Sinai holy. I have witnessed visitors sense this holiness and latter-day prophets speak of it. In 1990, I accompanied President Howard W. Hunter for two days as he visited Kirtland. He concluded his visit by telling me, “The feelings I have felt here in Kirtland, I have only felt in one other place in the world, (and that other place is) the Holy Land!”[vii] President Ezra Taft Benson made five trips to Kirtland in his later years. As he dedicated the Kirtland Stake Center in 1982, he stated, “I feel that I have been walking on sacred ground (in Kirtland) and my soul is subdued and my feelings rather tender. . .. There is no other Church history location that… is more important (than Kirtland).”[viii]
In 2003, President Gordon B. Hinckley delivered the dedicatory prayer for the Historic Kirtland sites and said, “In no other area of the Church was so much revelation received. In no other place was Thy Beloved Son so revealed to mortal man. In no other place was there such remarkable manifestations given to so many.”[ix] Our current prophet, President Russell M. Nelson declared in an area conference in Cleveland Ohio in 1990, “I honor (Kirtland) Ohio as a Holy Land! The Lord appeared often out of love to teach a better way of life.”[x] Finally, President M. Russell Ballard referred to Kirtland in much the same way, “(Kirtland) is… hallowed… sacred ground! There is no other place… where there have been as many spiritual manifestations, save the Holy Land. It has been said that we may yet discover that Kirtland is our most significant Church history site.”[xi]
Joseph Smith identified Kirtland as being a period of Pentecost for the Church. He compared the spiritual manifestations to those occurring with Peter and Christ’s other apostles on the New Testament Day of Pentecost. At the solemn assembly following the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, he declared, “It was a Pentecost and an endowment … long to be remembered, for the sound shall go forth from this place (Kirtland) into all the world, and the occurrences of this day shall be handed down upon the pages of sacred history, to all generations; as the day of Pentecost… a year of jubilee, and time of rejoicing.”[xii] Spiritual manifestations in the Kirtland Temple occurred in a magnitude exceeded only at Christ’s birth and resurrection.
The following ancient prophets appeared in the Kirtland Temple: Adam, Abraham, Moses, Elias, Elijah, Peter, James and John. Personal journals and histories record more occurrences. Concourses of angels were seen repeatedly. The Apostle John joined in an anointing circle. Twenty men watched John and Peter for up to two hours. Twelve legions of angels worshipped with the Saints. Angels on both sides of the veil joined in the Hosannah Shout. Thousands of angels were seen inside and outside the temple. The heavens opened and some looked directly into heaven. Forty men “communed” with “holy angels” in one meeting. Angels entered Joseph’s upper room office and “ministered” and “mingled their voices” with 53 leaders for ½ hour in another meeting. Finally, angels apparently officiated in the upper rooms of the temple. President M. Russell Ballard summed it up appropriately as he said in 2013, “When we think of ‘Kirtland,’ we think that Heaven was walking here amidst the people.”[xiii]
Ultimately, the high point of Kirtland occurred one week after the dedication as Christ stood on the pulpits of the Kirtland Temple and introduced Moses, Elias and Elijah. They bestowed long awaited final keys and authority for the basic work of the Church even today. Elijah concluded their visit by declaring to Joseph and Oliver, “Therefore, the keys of this dispensation are committed into your hands!”[xiv] President Russell M. Nelson, who holds those same keys today characterizes them simply as the gathering of Israel on both sides of the veil. He underscored the critical nature of the bestowal of these keys in Kirtland as he declared, “Gathering [Israel] is the most important thing taking place on earth today. There is nothing of greater consequence. Absolutely nothing.”[xv]
Having lived in the shadows of the Kirtland Temple for over fifty years and having frequently walked Kirtland’s streets, hills, and places of history, I constantly sense the unspoken sacredness of “the Ohio.” Christ was in Kirtland! He established His House here. These were glorious days when heaven and earth seemed as one. These were days of celestial events—events filled with great symbolism and meaning for the Church. Could any days have been more glorious in our dispensation than these? Kirtland is finally emerging from obscurity!
[i] Doctrine and Covenants 37:1
[iii] Doctrine and Covenants sections 64, 82, 94, 104, 105, and 117
[iv] (Doctrine and Covenants 43:15-16)
[v] Karl Ricks Anderson, Personal Journal Entry for July 9, 1994 & Personal letter March 31, 1998
[vi] Doctrine and Covenants 110:8
[vii] Karl Ricks Anderson Personal Journal Entry, September 9, 1990
[viii]Typescript of Ezra Taft Benson address at Kirtland Ward dedication, October 17, 1982 in Author’s possession.
[x] Karl Ricks Anderson Personal Journal, Sunday September 9, 1990
[xiv] Doctrine & Covenants 110:16