There’s nothing quite like singing “The Spirit of God” with a congregation in the Kirtland Temple. I’ve had the opportunity three times — the first time was at the dedication of the new Temple Visitor Center, the second was at a meeting of the John Whitmer Historical Association, and the third time was yesterday. However, yesterday was the first time the congregation also gave the “Hosanna shout.” (I’ve heard a lot of reviews of lackluster Hosanna shouts — I’ve never before participated in one, so I have no basis for comparison — but I thought this one was pretty good.)
Yesterday was the 175th anniversary of the dedication of the Kirtland Temple and I traveled there for the weekend to participate in the commemorative events. Beginning Friday there were a series of special meetings, services, seminars, lectures, and tours. There were three services on Sunday itself — an LDS service in the early morning and one in the evening, and a Community of Christ service in the mid-morning. To preserve the temple, the number of attendees for each session was limited to 300 (over a thousand apparently packed in for the original 1836 dedication), so I was only able to attend the Community of Christ service, but by every account, all three were very special and moving.
For Joseph Smith, the original dedication on March 27, 1836, was a pinnacle in his ministry. As I reflected on that event this weekend, I was struck that in some ways it was the highest pinnacle. Yes, Joseph had later triumphs — Nauvoo and the Nauvoo temple were larger and more impressive than Kirtland — but, of course, Joseph didn’t live to see the Nauvoo temple completed. The publication of the Book of Mormon was an earlier spectacular achievement for someone of Joseph’s background. But as sweet as it would have been to hold the first copy in his hands, the moment of publication would have been immediately accompanied by the need to sell books to try to pay Martin Harris’s note along with the discovery that the books wouldn’t sell. The construction of Kirtland temple was similarly burdened by crippling debt (that would likewise go largely unpaid), but in this case the financial reckoning was a year in the future. Meanwhile, contemporary reports of the spiritual outpouring that accompanied the dedication chronicle an elation that is without parallel in the history of the early church.
I didn’t get to Kirtland until Saturday afternoon, which meant I unfortunately missed the first activities on the schedule, including all the seminars — (I especially would have loved to hear David Howlet’s presentation on the Kirtland endowment, since I often get asked about that topic, but at least he’s promised to send me his notes). Instead, I was immediately immersed in one of the best parts of these events: encountering and visiting old friends, while simultaneously making some new friends. I’m quite sure that I received (and gave) more hugs this weekend than in the whole rest of 2011 to date.
The first event I attended was the Community of Christ Historic Sites Foundation banquet (which was held for the donors who raise the money for the ongoing preservation efforts for the temple). I mention it because the event was held in the theater room of the Visitor Center and the setting was beautiful. The theater has a massive window that perfectly frames the temple. Normally, for tours, after the introductory movie, a curtain rises to reveal the temple. For the banquet, we had that same wonderful view continually, as the temple was lit amid the twilight.
After dinner, the group relocated to the temple itself for a vespers service. The interior of the lower court is divided into pew boxes and I was fortunate enough to share a pew box with President Stephen Veazey and President Becky Savage, prophet and one of two counselors in the Community of Christ First Presidency,* along with their spouses Cathy Cackler-Veazey and Greg Savage. We didn’t sing the “Spirit of God” at vespers, but at the close of the service, all the lights were turned off save for the spotlights on the pulpits, and the pianist played the tune to the hymn while the congregation sat in quiet contemplation. (This ended up being a very special experience too.) After the conclusion of the service, I went back home with my friends Ron Romig (the director of the temple) and his wife Anne (who generously put me up for the weekend), and my final activity of the night was talking Mormon history with Ron until the wee hours.
Sunday morning began early (and much earlier for Ron and Anne than for me). Lach Mackay, a great great great grandson of Joseph and Emma Smith who is overall director of historic sites for the Community of Christ, rang the bell of the temple 175 times. The service I attended was a combination of old and new. Cathy Loving dressed as Emma Smith and presented a staged reenactment that hoped to peer into what Emma’s feelings might have been during the original dedication. It was then quite moving when Richard Clothier (who was directing the hymn festival portion) gave a response of the church, thanking Emma for her sacrifices — for the four hymnals she made for the early church and for the Reorganization, and for her support both of her husband’s ministry, but especially of her son’s.
The main address was given by President Stephen Veazey, who quoted what I think of as the Community of Christ verse of the “Spirit of God”: “How blessed the day when the lamb and the lion shall lie down together without any ire.” (Since the beginning of the Reorganization, the Community of Christ’s seal has been an image of a child with a lamb and a lion, emblazoned with the motto “Peace.”) President Veazey spoke about how Kirtland and the Kirtland experience continues to inform the Community of Christ, but he also talked about the importance of the temple to all Latter Day Saint tradition churches and about the special stewardship the Community of Christ has today to welcome all to the sacred space. (The newly more harmonious relationship between the churches being underscored by the LDS services earlier and later the same day.)
The congregation sang six hymns known to have been sung at the original dedication. One of these was “Now Let Us Rejoice,” which — like the early Saints — we sang to the same tune normally used for “The Spirit of God.” If you haven’t done it before, you can try it now:
The Spi-rit of God, like a fi-re is bur-ur-ning
The La-at-ter Day glo-o-ry, be-gi-ins to come forth.
Now let us re-joice in the day of sal-va-a-tion
No lo-on-ger as stra-an-gers on ea-earth need we roam.
Of course, the service culminated with singing the “Spirit of God” — the special song written for the original dedication and added as the final hymn in Emma’s 1836 hymnal. Community of Christ people sing “The Spirit of God” really fast. As fast as you think the tempo’s going to be, it’s always faster still — so it was very rousing (and very moving), preparing everyone for the shout at the end of the commemoration. “Hosanna! Hosanna! Hosanna to God and the Lamb! Amen, Amen, and Amen!”
I left with the hymn on my lips and the spirit that dwells in Kirtland in my heart.
*The Community of Christ First Presidency includes two counselors, but they are not numbered as “first” or “second”; both are simply counselors, and, like the prophet-president, both are addressed as “president.”