Walking in Sacred Spaces

I returned late last night from the John Whitmer Historical Association meeting in Omaha, Nebraska (the RLDS equivalent of the Mormon History Association). It was a great conference and I always enjoy driving along the Mormon trail, looking out at the Platte River and imagining the columns of Saints making their way to their new home in the west. Meetings with our RLDS (now Community of Christ) counterparts make it difficult not to compare and see the distinctions between us. I’ll confess, the differences don’t always fall in the Rocky Mountain Saints’ favor.

At the MHA meeting in Kirtland two years ago, we walked through the sites owned by the Community of Christ, notably the Kirtland Temple, and were greeted by professional historians willing to answer all of our questions. They were knowledgeable and knew the history of the sites well. When we walked through the LDS-owned sites, we were greeted by young sister missionaries who repeated the same brief stories about the rooms and buildings for each group, and then bore the same testimony – word for word – at the end of each room. At the end of one tour, we asked the kind Korean sister who’d been giving the tour a question or two. She did her best to explain to us that she didn’t know English, and that she had memorized her tour spiel and testimony. I find no fault with this dear, faithful Korean sister doing her best in the assignment she was given. But I was stunned that the Church wouldn’t bother to provide historians, or even just a volunteer who spoke English, to staff these sites while MHA attendees, the vast majority of which are already Church members, tried to learn more about the buildings and grounds.

This time around, at John Whitmer, two other distinctions were very obvious. First, as we discussed the history of the early restoration and our common heritage, I noticed the lack of tension in the room and among the members. History was not used as a way to convert people to the Church or build faith; nor was it used to tear down or attack the Church. History simply was. When Klaus Hansen spoke of his journey writing the history of the Council of Fifty, he made some very matter-of-fact comments about difficulties with LDS Church archives, particularly with General Authority G. Homer Durham and his well-known tight grip on the archives. Hansen didn’t make the comments critically, but he didn’t present it as a positive development; it was just what happened. No one shifted uncomfortably in their seats, or stormed out offended that someone would dare say something not perfectly faithful about a Church leader.

I couldn’t help but think there’s something to not tying so much of our faith into our history. It’s a difficult thing in Mormonism, but it can be done. The historian of the Community of Christ can speak of Joseph Smith and his legacy without having to defend the prophet every five minutes. He can talk of Joseph’s polyandrous marriages to ten women without having to stop and assume an apologetic perspective for what he’s saying. Community of Christ historians treat Mormon history much the way American historians treat American history: They admire the men and women they write about, and you can see the fondness they feel as they speak. But they don’t have a crisis of identity or patriotism when they write about George Washington or Thomas Jefferson as slave owners. They write it because it’s true, so far as the evidence explains. Robert Dallek wrote of John F. Kennedy admiringly, but didn’t wonder if he could still like Kennedy when he wrote about his affairs with multiple women. This is the Community of Christ approach to history, and I wonder if we could learn from it.

Finally, the greatest distinction between the two movements comes whenever I hear Grant McMurray, president of the Community of Christ, speak. He approaches faith and history with the question of what they can do to help be good people today. While I think the LDS Church does the same, often we are slaves to our history, insisting that things be done a certain way because that’s how they’ve always been done. When you believe your past comes from God, it makes it tough to change the present, no matter how necessary.

President McMurray’s closing address Sunday morning was a masterpiece. He talked of going to the Nauvoo Temple to the open-house and walking through. He recalled being given booties (no, not that kind of booty!) to put over his shoes. He said he was not offended at this request, and completely understood it. But it did give him cause to pause and think about the divergent ways the two movements view sacred space. He humorously talked of Rocky Mountain Mormons standing in awe at a truck stop in the middle of Nebraska because Brigham Young may have walked there. He said that if you were to ask Community of Christ members what their most important sacred spaces are, most would respond that the campgrounds, where they went on youth camps, are sacred to them. This is where they ruminated over their faith with friends, where they experienced things that forever contributed to their faith journey. President McMurray pointed out that the youth stayed up past curfew, sneaking around to visit other youth. Minds would wander during the testimony meetings and church meetings, and young pranks would be pulled when serious minds ought to be prevailing.

But it is precisely because of these human foibles that makes the space sacred, because our humaness is mixed with spirituality, President McMurray insisted. He told of attending literally hundreds of meetings about the construction of the RLDS temple in Independence, where lengthy discussions would go on and on about what’s appropriate for the temple, and what should be allowed in different rooms, particularly the Sanctuary. A few months after the temple was built and dedicated, the youth had their first meeting. In the sanctuary, a large, inflated globe of the world (picture a beach ball) was symbolically passed around, showing that the youth are the future of the world. It took about two seconds before the ball was being batted around, as if the youth were at a baseball game. This went on while each hand tried to touch the ball. Was President McMurray shocked or outraged? No; this is what makes sacred spaces sacred. Our humanity, trying to become better, is what creates the sacred. A building is not sacred simply because we deem it as such. It is sacred because of what we experience there, and what it does to help build our faith. President McMurray closed by asking us to remove the booties from our shoes, and plant our very human feet on sacred ground.


  1. “He can talk of Joseph’s polyandrous marriages to ten women without having to stop and assume an apologetic perspective for what he’s saying.”

    I thought the RLDS position was from the beginning that Joseph Smith never taught nor participated in polygamy (and the like) himself…

    Has this changed in the present day CoC?

  2. “He said that if you were to ask Community of Christ members what their most important sacred spaces are, most would respond that the campgrounds, where they went on youth camps, are sacred to them.”

    Did pres. McMurray really say that? With a straight face? If that is true, we do indeed have a great deal to learn from our friends in the CofC. Between my youth, as a participant, and adulthood, as scoutmaster/advisor/chaperone, I have been on probably 150 camps, youth conferences, etc. *Sacred* is not the word that comes to mind in describing them.

    If you went to Appomattox, VA and your guide didnÂ’t mention Grant and Lee, you would be disappointed.
    That is how I would describe my experiences with many historical sites owned by the CofC. However, I am very grateful to them for maintaining those sites and making them available to the public.

    John H., I agree with you – Although it is a long drive, I enjoy traveling west on I-80 through Nebraska. I’ll be going again in three weeks, and I already know I’ll stop to refuel at the truck stop in Mormon Island. I will look across the freeway at the river and think about the Oregon immigrants, 49ers, and mormons who walked those trails. Those were my peeps, and that truck stop is sacred to me.

  3. my point was for this specific event, they had the foresight to realize that maybe, just maybe, historians who were already Mormons might want to learn more about the site instead of hearing canned testimony from someone who could barely speak English.

    No, I got that this was your point — I was simply saying that in a somewhat similar fashion, I had expected that the RLDS would have put on a more polished presentation for the hordes coming through town during that time.

  4. Dave:

    I think the impact would probably be similar. You’re exactly right, and it’s the lack of uniqueness of identity that keeps me from converting to the RLDS Church :)

    The reason why the current members of the RLDS Church can talk about history so openly, without a loss to their faith, is because they are the members who survived a few different shockwaves and schisms, including the ordination of women. I identify with them so well because they’re basically people like me – uninterested in truth claims and more focused on a kind of humanist faith in God.

    If we found out tomorrow that Joseph Smith wrote the Book of Mormon, that the First Vision never happened, etc., I’d still be a member of the Church, despite such painful revelations. I think those that would stick around with me would create a community much like the RLDS church has today. But therein lies the dilemma: The Rocky Mountain tradition tends to be more interesting to watch and talk about because we’ve got very core, inflexible beliefs.

  5. Durkee, you could be overreacting, but I don’t think so. I’d agree with you that we need to be very, very careful to avoid the pride and self-righteousness that seems to jump up in this context.

    And congrats on a first comment! Yay!

  6. Durkee:

    Great comments, particularly about our continued willingness to attack the RLDS Church. We’re having the argument long after the other guy has gotten up, left the table, and gone home. We’re trying to win a debate that no longer exists. I’m embarrassed at the way I would characterize the RLDS Church as a missionary, woefully ignorant of who they actually were or what their actual beliefs might be.

    It’s a shame we’ve gotten to arguing about tour guides (though Dave’s comments had me laughing). The quality of tour guides is hardly the point. The tour guide experience was simply my way of suggesting that history can exist for the sake of history. It doesn’t always need to be about converting someone.

  7. Following Dave’s comment, maybe we should set up a “Hall of Presidents” like at Disney? “Hello visitor, I am Lorenzo Snow. Welcome to Salt Lake City!”

  8. I agree with Jeremy on this. Since 2001, I have made the Haj twice, visiting Independence, Kirtland, and Palmyra each time. I found the quality of information lacking at CofC sites. The red brick store in Nauvoo is simply a place to by faux coonskin caps. You will find no information on the founding of the RS, the bestowal of keys on the 12, or the origins of the endowment. In Kirtland, if you hadn’t already ready sections 109 and 110, you would come away thinking that it is a building where they had school and Sunday services, nothing more.

  9. I am sorry, but I find almost this entire thread very sad. Just being honest. I know you are sincere and searching, but the orientation of many of these posts is depressing, primarily because of the deep dissatisfaction with the LDS Church that is evident. I am not sure what to tell you about that, so I’ll just make the observation.

  10. I feel compelled to mention that, while professional historians may have been brought in by the RLDS/CoC for the event mentioned, I don’t know how standard a procedure that is. When I attended some RLDS-owned sites in Nauvoo during the temple openhouse, I went away quite disappointed at the depth of the tourguides’ knowledge and their rather less-than-professional manner.

    I live near the sites in Palmyra, and have found the tour guides there to vary greatly in their knowledge. Some are very bright, well-informed, and articulate; others seem to have more of a struggle.

    Of course, I thought a central (if often unspoken) tenet of Mormonism was entrusting people with tasks for which they are woefully underqualified…

  11. a random John says:

    I have to echo what others have said here about the quality of tour guides. On my trip to Kirtland the kind young woman who took us through the temple was unable to answer any questions at all and seemed extremely uncomfortable. It turned out that she was acting a as guide in order to get classroom credit from an RLDS college. She admitted that she didn’t have any training and in my opinion was uninformed about not only the history of her own church, but also was unable to answer questions about the church itself.

    Community of Christ sites in Nauvoo weren’t much better. Most of the guides were college age students that were there for a few weeks or months. The quality varied quite a bit, but none struck me as outstanding and several seemed to be annoyed by the influx of LDS visitors. This was just previous to the temple dedication. Some made disparaging remarks about the new temple and the original temple as well.

    The couple missionaries that gave us a tour of the LDS-owned sites in Kirtland were much better informed and were able to answer questions.

    The sister missionaries in Nauvoo were a little better than the CoC guides, and possibly a little sticky sweet. At least they weren’t tearing down the RLDS church. Or at least it was my perception that they weren’t. I am sure that an RLDS person has a very different experience when touring church history sites.

  12. I’m just being honest, Dave. In my college days I was a Sunstone enthusiast, was even on the magazine’s masthead (although truthfully I never did much of anything because I became uncomfortable with the “feel” of the magazine). 25 years have passed and I still feel that discomfort when I read threads like this. No, it is not that I prefer “feigned or misleading (rather than serious) and superficial (rather than searching) remarks about LDS life and doctrine.” That statement, unkind as it is, is also interesting, because it suggests that those who do not prefer the approach of this forum are necessarily interested in feigned or misleading superficiality.

    That’s an excellent example of what turned me away from Sunstone all those years ago. The magazine at that time (I have not read it lately) was suffused with resentment, anger, disappointment, and often a snide undercurrent. Whatever else we Mormons might disagree about, it seems clear that charity is the one thing for which we should all seek (or “pray unto the Father with all the energy of heart” that we might be filled with it). Although some posters (bless their hearts) clearly try hard to include in their expressions, charity does not seem to abound here or on similar boards. Instead, I see more anger and resentment and occasional cruelty.

    Again, that’s just how it seems to me. I’ll drop by from time to time to try to understand better.


  13. Mephibosheth says:

    I’ve spoken with a few CofC tour guides who said it wasn’t their “personal belief” that Joseph Smith ever practiced polygamy.

    Others have said that when Joseph left Liberty Jail he was a “fallen prophet,” hence the disavowal of Nauvoo-era revelations (polygamy, baptism for the dead, etc).

    For someone so uninterested in “truth claims,” you have a lot of beef with the quality of the historical aspects of the LDS tours.

    Clearly, the LDS church wants to uplift, edify, and provide a spiritual experience for those who come (a humanistic goal, one might say).

    Although he gets a lot of flack from the critics for it, I agree with Elder Packer’s remarks on “useful history.” I can read Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and be filled with a sense of awe and patriotism, or I can read one of his earlier, lesser-known ribald short stories and realize that, yes, Lincoln was just a human being after all. But what does that do for me? –Makes me feel more secure in my mediocrity while wanting to find some place to wash my hands.

    …And the “booties” are to help keep the carpet white, not because contact with a “gentile’s” shoe would make it unclean for 40 days.

  14. Interesting comment, Lowell. Personally, I find your remarks the saddest of the bunch, reading what you admit to be “serious and searching” comments but coming away depressed. If serious and searching discussion makes you depressed, don’t come to BCC. If what would bring you joy and happiness are feigned or misleading (rather than serious) and superficial (rather than searching) remarks about LDS life and doctrine, there are online forums out there to meet that need.

    That said, I’ll bet if you hang around for awhile, you will come to find the discussion here less depressing.

  15. Jeremy and CB:

    I think you missed my point (or I wasn’t very clear in making it). I’m not suggesting that every RLDS site is staffed by professional, brilliant historians. Rather, my point was for this specific event, they had the foresight to realize that maybe, just maybe, historians who were already Mormons might want to learn more about the site instead of hearing canned testimony from someone who could barely speak English. The Church could’ve just thought ahead a bit and done something different for this day.

    Also, I’ve done the Nauvoo thing as well, and despite the lack of information from RLDS tour guides, the blow the LDS tour guides out of the water. I understand that these are nice old people on missions dressed up in 19th century costumes. I appreciate their willingness to serve. But hearing their testimony about every room every five minutes is just awkward, not inspiring.

    I suppose I was just suggesting that, in Kirtland, it was hard not to see a big difference when you walked from a site owned by the LDS Church, to a site owned by the RLDS Church.

  16. John H.: Perhaps it was a problem of timing for you at the Kirtland sites at MHA. The folks from the Church Historical department who oversaw the restoration of the sites (which was very professional) were present at the conference, gave a panel on the restoration process (complete with some rather funny jabs at the missionary department), and did tours of the sites. I am sorry to hear that you missed it. (I am also sorry that I was not yet wise enough at Kirtland to seek you out and introduce myself.)

  17. Kevin:

    This has changed, at least for most of the members. They realize the futility of denying it.

    The Community of Christ has changed a great deal – something some Rocky Mountain Saints use as evidence of the lack of their divinity. But the Community of Christ has long since given up debating their Utah counterparts. They gladly admit to their changes, and they aren’t ashamed of them.

  18. Lowell, no unkindness intended. Rereading a bit, perhaps you were trying to say that it’s okay to be “serious and searching,” but what struck you as depressing was the tone or orientation of the remarks. There may be “serious and searching” discussions that pass your tone and orientation test. You’re certainly more likely to find it here than in any other online forum I’ve encountered.

    Interestingly, in my college days I specifically decided not to do the Sunstone thing–I’ve never subscribed to it, nor Dialogue, nor attended any symposia or conferences. I do enjoy “serious and searching” discussion, but I certainly don’t have anything against those who either don’t like it or had their fill of it in earlier years.

  19. Mephibosheth:

    The problem with “useful history” is that people like yourself and Elder Packer want to define what that is for us. Therefore, I’m subjected to something you think is useful and inspiring, although it may be painfully boring or even offensive to me. The reverse is of course true – I find the realities of Joseph Smith’s early life as a treasure digger to be wonderfully illustrative and inspiring as he moves from gold digger to prophet. Yet many people are uncomfortable with such discussions.

    Why should the Conservatives in the Church be the ones that control the discourse of what’s inspiring and what’s “useful.”

  20. Nice post, John. It’s clear the RLDS/CoC has been much more open to “the New Mormon History” than the Utah Church and that historians and their fan base are happy about that. But what has the impact of that acceptance been on the RLDS/CoC community?

    I’ve heard they have suffered dramatic membership shrinkage and that they seem to be morphing into a Protestant rather than a Mormon denomination, suggesting a significant change of organizational self-image or identity. Would the impact on the Utah Church have been any different had its leaders not taken a different approach to revisionist history?

  21. Perhaps I’m overreacting a little, but I think it’s a little sad that many of the comments to this post all seem to be missing the point, choosing instead to recycle hackneyed criticisms of the RLDS/CoC so that we feel snugly (or should I say smugly) secure in our LDS faith. It seems insecure to rush to the condemnation of a well-meaning church.

    Most Latter-day Saints like to paint everything in black or white. With us or against us. Love it or hate it. This is true of historical events, of political figures and political positions, of books, movies and other forms of art, and of people. They are either good or evil. There is no gray.

    Well there is gray. There’s a lot of gray. Good poeple make mistakes. Otherwise good political platforms have some wrongheaded positions. But in their efforts to keep their garments spotless, many Latter-day Saints shun anything and everything with even the slightest taint in it.

    Does this remind you of anyone in scripture? I don’t know about you, but I’d sure hate to be lumped with the Pharisees. Christ dined with the sinners. He didn’t stone the woman taken in adultery, he encouraged her to repent. He looked for the good in people. Many of us look for the evil. If we can’t shun it (as we do people who live lifestyles we don’t agree with), we hide it (as we do with the more muddled aspects of our history).

    “If there is ANYTHING virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things.” Or at least we should be.

    So in the spirit of trying to find the good in things instead of being obsessed with smoking out the bad, I thank God we have an intellectually rigorous, honest, intelligent, motivated group of people doing research on the history of the Church with simultaneously trying to pass judgment on whatever they find. Regardless of whether the Community of Christ’s historical sites are any more informative than ours, they do have an excellent reputation as Mormon historians. I hope their Protestantization doesn’t eventually kill their interest in Mormon history.

    By the way, sorry if my post comes across as shrill. I’ve never posted here, and I find it takes time for me to find the socially acceptable tone. Please don’t rush to condemn me. :-)

  22. Re: LDS tour guides, yes they are now generally insufferable. The missionaries should be replaced with animatronic statuettes with a button (“push here for LDS missionary spiel”) and a new crop of flesh-and-blood people called and set apart as “regular people who can hold a friendly but authentic and informative conversation.” Yes, they should actually be called and set apart as “Regular People.” I think it’s the overwrought “missionary” label that has created the problem. I’m basing my perception on several visits to a variety of LDS historical sites over the last couple of years.

  23. Sorry, that should be, “they blow the LDS tour guides out of the water.”

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