Hearken, O ye elders of my church, saith the Lord your God, who have assembled yourselves together, according to my commandments, in this land, which is the land of Missouri, which is the land which I have appointed and consecrated for the gathering of the saints. Wherefore, this is the land of promise, and the place for the city of Zion. And thus saith the Lord your God, if you will receive wisdom here is wisdom. Behold, the place which is now called Independence is the center place; and a spot for the temple is lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the courthouse…(D&C 57:1-3).
Since Joseph Smith announced this revelation on July 20, 1831 — just over a year after the organization of the church — the “Temple Lot” in Independence, Missouri, has held a special significance for members of the Latter Day Saint movement. (Please excuse the width of the illustrations that follow.)
A little over a week later, on August 2, Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Oliver Cowdery and other church leaders gathered on the spot indicated for the temple and dedicated the land of Zion for the gathering of the Saints. At the time, the property was yet not in Mormon hands. A year and a half later, on December 19, 1832, the church’s first bishop, Edward Partridge, purchased the spot along with 63 43/160 acres of land from non-Mormon Jones Hoy Flournoy. This large parcel is sometimes called the “Temple Parcel” or the “greater Temple Lot.”
Church headquarters, meanwhile, remained some 800 miles distant in Kirtland, Ohio. In June of 1833, church leaders in Kirtland drafted a plat or plan for creating the streets, blocks, and lots for the city of Zion. This original plat contained a number of attributes that would come to characterize Mormon city planning: (1) Overly wide streets, in this case
60 132 feet broad;‡ (2) long, skinny lots with a small street frontage, in this case half-acre lots 60 ft. x 300 ft.; and (3) blocks laid out in alternating directions so that no one’s home faced another.
As with later Mormon cities, the first Plat of Zion also was centered on a temple block — or, in this case, three temple blocks, one for bishops’ storehouses, and two others containing a shocking 12 temples each. Unusually, these blocks were elongated 900 ft. east to west, instead of 600 — meaning that the city of Zion would not have a grid of perfect squares. Accompanying the plat were crude plans for the first of these temples. The plan called for a temple similar in design to the Kirtland Temple, although with a 61 x 77 ft. footprint. (The Kirtland Temple has a 59 x 79 ft. footprint.) The plat indicates with a cross (+) that temple number “5” was to be built first, presumably at the spot dedicated in 1831.
Although the first plat is the most famous, church leaders in Kirtland continued to make additional plans for the city of Zion. In August of 1833, they sent a second plat to the saints in Missouri, along with a letter by Oliver Cowdery explaining “those patterns previously sent you, per mail, by our brethren, were incorrect in some respects, being drawn in great haste. We send you another.”*
The corrected plat made several changes: (1) The third block for storehouses was eliminated; (2) the remaining temple blocks were made square; (3) the temple blocks were stacked east-west instead of north-south, and (4) the area encompassed by the plat was vastly increased.‡ New plans for the temples also increased their length by 20 feet.
If we assume that tradition has preserved the correct location of the 1831 dedication, we can superimpose illustrations of these visions on an outline of the Temple Parcel (shown here in lighter green against the dark green background).
As we saw, the first plat has larger, 15 acre temple blocks, including a block for the bishop’s storehouses.
Again, the second plat changed the orientation of the temple blocks, reduced them to 10 acres each, and eliminated the storehouse block.
These visions of Zion were clearly remarkable. By 1833, there were perhaps as many as 1,200 Mormons in Jackson County, Missouri. Although the church had yet to construct a single meetinghouse, both plans called for the construction of not one, but twenty-four massive temples. (Ultimately, the incredible cost of building just one such temple in Kirtland contributed to the indebtedness and collapse of the church there.)
Given the reality of the cost, it’s hard to imagine the saints would have ever been able to complete the vision of Zion’s 24 temples. In the event, they were not able to even begin the construction on the first. Beyond cost, church leaders had failed to consider one other pressing reality: their neighbors.
The plats of Zion fail to take into account the non-Mormon town of Independence’s very existence. When the first plat is superimposed onto the actual land surrounding the Temple Parcel, we see that its blocks overlap nearly half the preexisting plat of Independence.
For the second, expanded plat to be completed, Independence would have to be obliterated.
While church leaders in Kirtland had not considered non-Mormons in their plans, during that same summer of 1833 back in Independence, those non-Mormons were making it clear that they had plans of their own. In July, Edward Partridge and fellow-Mormon Charles Allen were tarred and feathered. In addition, the church’s printing office and press in Independence, along with other church-owned property, were destroyed. Conflict continued to escalate until the end of the year when non-Mormon vigilantes succeeded in driving all the saints from the county. In all their successive attempts, legal and extra-legal, the first generation of saints failed to “redeem” their property in Zion.
By the time any Latter Day Saints finally did return, Independence had grown and expanded to include the Temple Parcel, which was subdivided into blocks and lots. The first saints to return were members of a small, Illinois-based group, which outsiders nicknamed “Hedrickites,” after their leader, Granville Hedrick. In 1863, John E. Page, an apostle under Joseph Smith Jr., ordained Hedrick to be prophet and president of the church. In 1864, Hedrick reported that he had been visited by an angel who instructed the church to “gather together upon the consecrated land which I have appointed and dedicated by my servant Joseph Smith…in Jackson County.”† By 1865, Hedrickites had begun to return to Independence. Between 1867 and 1874, they purchased the eight lots including the traditional spot of the 1831 dedication. They built their first chapel in 1889, and today they are known as the Church of Christ (Temple Lot).
The two largest Latter Day Saint churches, the LDS Church and the RLDS Church (now Community of Christ), also began to have a presence in Independence and to repurchase their own portions of the Temple Parcel. Today the ownership of the Temple Parcel remains split between these three denominations.
The Community of Christ began construction of a large stone church just north of the Temple Parcel in 1888. In 1918, the church moved its headquarters to Independence and in 1926 began the forty-year-long construction of the Auditorium on the Temple Parcel. The LDS Church constructed a Visitors Center on its portion of the Temple Parcel in 1971 and in 1980 added a Stake Center just to its east. The Church of Christ (Temple Lot) constructed a new headquarters building on its portion of the Temple Parcel in 1991. In 1994, the Community of Christ dedicated its temple on the Temple Parcel. Finally, in 1999, the Remnant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints — made up primarily of conservative former RLDS members — established its headquarters just to northeast of the Temple Parcel.
The early visions of Zion called for twenty-four temples. Thus far, three have been attempted (counting the original church’s dedication and a Hedrickite attempt in the 1920s) and one has been completed. The LDS Church’s recent decision to avoid building its new metropolitan Kansas City temple on its portion of the Temple Parcel makes it unlikely there will be any more Latter Day Saint temples in Zion in the near future.
But who knows what the far future will bring?
* Ronald E. Romig and John H. Siebert, “Jackson County, 1831-1833: A Look at the Development of Zion,” in Restorations Studies III (1986), 300.
† R. Jean Addams, “The Church of Christ (Temple Lot), Its Emergence, Struggles, and Early Schisms,” in Bringhurst and Hamer, Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism (Independence, Missouri: John Whitmer Books, 2007), 208.
‡ The first plat of Zion called for streets 132 ft. (8 perches) broad. This dimension was shown in my maps, but the text of my post originally said “60 ft.” which would have been considerably less broad. On the second plat of Zion, the four main streets bounding the temple blocks were still to have been 132 ft. broad, but all the other streets were reduced to 99 ft. (6 perches) broad.