In a Facebook Group recently the topic of the ownership of the Kirtland Temple came up. I thought I would take a shot at a (very) brief sketch of the first part of the subject.
There were four strands in the chain of title:
- On May 13, 1799 the Connecticut Land Company transferred a large tract of real estate (including the temple site) to Turhand Kirtland and others.
- Kirtland conveyed just more than 51 acres to Peter French on July 2, 1827.
- On April 10, 1833, Peter and his wife, Sally, conveyed 103 acres (including the temple site) to Joseph Coe for a consideration of $5,000. French took back a purchase money mortgage in the amount of $3,000 securing two $1,500 notes from Coe, one due in one year and the other due in two years. Apparently the other $2,000 came from John Johnson from the sale of his own farm.
- Joseph Coe and his wife conveyed the temple site on June 17, 1833 to Newel K, Whitney and Company for a recited consideration of $5,000.
- On May 5, 1834, John Johnson and wife conveyed the temple property (consisting of one acre and 154 1/2 rods by warranty deed to Joseph Smith Junior President of the Church of Christ . . . and . . . called the church of the Latter Day saints . . . and his successors in the Office of Presidency in the aforesaid Church.”
- Newel K. Whitney and his wife, Elizabeth Ann Smith Whitney conveyed a large parcel including the temple property to John Johnson for $5,000 on September 23, 1836 for $5,000.
A minor imperfection in this strand of title was the conveyance to Newel K. Whitney and Company, but from Newel K. Whitney (personally) and his wife. A more significant strain on the title was that John Johnson conveyed the title some two years before he received the title himself. Loving suggests that by the doctrine of estoppel by deed the conveyance from Johnson became valid upon the subsequent conveyance to him.
The Church was an unincorporated association at this time. The conveyance to Joseph Smith was not to him personally, but as a trustee for the church; that is, the equitable and beneficial title resided in the church, not in Joseph. This trust relationship was created by the deed itself, but since there was no other formal trust document, Joseph would have had very limited rights to deal with the property personally. Under Ohio law, he would not have been able to sell or mortgage it without a court order.
- John Johnson and his wife conveyed the temple property to Joseph Smith in his personal capacity on January 4, 1837 for a recited consideration of $222.30. The deed refers back to the prior deed and recites “which deed is supposed to be illegal, for which reason this last deed is executed. . . .”
- On April 10, 1837, Joseph in his personal capacity joined by Emma his wife conveyed the temple property to William Marks, a member of the high council for a recited consideration of $500.
- William Marks and his wife on February 11, 1841 to Joseph Smith, Jr. as “sole Trustee in Trust for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints” for a recited consideration of $1. Unlike the first strand deed, no successor in office is mentioned.
It seems apparent that these transactions were not arm’s length but an attempt to protect the temple from creditors.
- William Marks quitclaimed his interest in the temple to Newel K. Whitney and George Miller, trustees in trust for the Church, on November 23, 1845 for a recited consideration of $1. (This deed represents a complete break in title.)
- On August 15, 1846, Almon W. Babbitt, Joseph L. Heywood, and John S. Fullmer, trustees in trust for the Church, by warranty deed conveyed the temple property to Reuben McBride for a recited consideration of $10,000.
- On December 14, 1846, Reuben McBride and his wife by warranty deed conveyed the temple property to George Edmunds, Jr., of Nauvoo, for a recited consideration of $10,000. (This was not an arm’s length transaction; this was a straw party to justify the $10,000 asking price for the temple.)
- On April 6, 1847, George Edmunds and wife conveyed it back to the three trustees for $1.
- On April 19, 1862, Henry Holcomb, administrator of Joseph Smith’s estate, executed an administrator’s deed for the temple property to William L. Perkins for $150, subject to an annual $4.11 dower for Emma Hale Smith Bidamon.
- Later the same day, Perkins quitclaimed his interest to Russell Huntley for $150.
- For $450, Huntley quitclaimed a small portion of the temple property not including the temple itself, 5/16 of an acre, to Lucius Williams on October 15, 1866.
- On May 15, 1869, Williams quitclaimed the small parcel to Seth Williams for $450.
- Williams then quitclaimed the temple itself for $150 on February 17, 1873 to Joseph Smith III and Mark H. Forscutt for $150.
This fourth strand began as a scheme of Grandison Newell, a bitter enemy of Joseph Smith’s from the 1830s, and William L. Perkins, the Lake County Prosecuting Attorney, to cloud the title in the aftermath of the 1856-57 Utah War. Their intent was to cloud the title to try to prevent the Utah church from ever reclaiming the temple.
Loving also goes over the encumbrances against the property, suits for possession, and payments of taxes.
In untangling the four strands in the chain of title, Loving concludes the first is the strongest, the second more tenuous, and the third and fourth are completely bad. Therefore, throughout the period 1834-1879, the bare legal title to the House of the Lord was held by Joseph Smith, Jr. and his successors in the office of the Presidency for the benefit of the members of the Church. But with the prophet’s death and splintering of the church, who was the rightful successor in the office of Presidency? That became a big question.
(To learn about the Kirtland Temple litigation [that was intended or hoped to answer that question] and how the RLDS eventually succeeded in quieting title by adverse possession in the year 1901, read Loving’s article.)
 These brief notes are based on Kim L. Loving, “Ownership of the Kirtland Temple: Legends, Lies, and Misunderstandings,” Journal of Mormon History 30/2 (2004): 1-80. The entire issue is online here. I saw Kim present on this topic at the first MHA I ever attended, in Kirtland in 2003, and it made a deep impression on me, which is why I have remembered it all these years later. He unfortunately died of cancer in 2004 shortly before this issue of the Journal came out.