Ownership of the Kirtland Temple

kirtland temple 13

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.[1]

There were four strands in the chain of title:

First Strand:

  • 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.

Second Strand:

  • 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.

Third Strand:

  • 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.

Fourth Strand:

  • 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.)

[1] 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.


  1. Really interesting stuff, Kevin. Thanks for reviewing the article.

  2. Interesting work.

    This feels like the setup to a law school exam in a property class. I promptly forgot everything about titles as soon as the bar exam was over.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Yeah, Kim was a lawyer himself. You’d pretty much have to be to work through all this. It’s a pretty dense 80-page article.

  4. Aussie Mormon says:

    You’re such a tease Kevin. Getting me all excited and then cutting off the story. It’s worse than the ending of “Burn after Reading”.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    It’s a long story. But basically the RLDS initiated a suit to quiet title. The temple itself was not the main motivation; what they really wanted was a judicial determination that they were the rightful successors to the original church. The court accepted their findings, but in the last two sentences it dismissed the case because the church was not in possession of the temple (I.E. their Illinois lawyer had made a mistake under Ohio law.) No matter they were thrilled with the courts findings, even though the dismissal of the case meant they didn’t really mean anything. Instead of bringing another suit to quiet title they eventually gained good title by holding themselves out as owner for 21 years (called adverse possession).

  6. Thank you for this article Kevin. As a teenager in the mid-1990s, I recall visiting RLDS sites in Kirtland and Nauvoo with my family. I didn’t understand why at the time, but the tour guides made a big deal about the legal dispute and court decision. I’ve lived in the Cleveland area for the past 12 years; we visit Kirtland often. I’ve also take my kids to church sites in Nauvoo and Missouri and we always visit the RLDS (now CoC) sites because, frankly, their guides have a better historical training and their tours are more informational than devotional. FWIW, in the past 10-15 years, I’ve noticed they no longer emphasize the court decision or claims to legitimate succession.

    I’ll offer a couple other interesting tidbits and my personal view on who should own the Kirtland temple. Your chain of title begins with the Connecticut Land Company. This is because Connecticut’s initial land grant from the King stretched westward into the current midwest (bisected by NY and PA). The counties that surrounds current day Cleveland were known as Connecticut’s ‘Western Reserve’ (hence Case Western Reserve University). Following the revolutionary war, Connecticut citizens largely sold off their land rights rather than settle in the area themselves. Those rights were bought up by New Englanders such as the Pratt brothers and other soon-to-be mormon converts.

    The LDS-RLDS court dispute in the late 1800s was the reason why so much testimony was given by women who had been Joseph’s plural wives. In arguing that it was the legitimate successor, the LDS church put on testimony from these sisters to prove that Joseph practiced polygamy. Because Brigham’s group continued the practice and Emma’s did not, the Utah-based church was the true successor – or so the argument went. But for the dispute over the Kirtland temple and other properties, it is doubtful that historians would have so much sworn testimony from sisters who were married to Joseph in Nauvoo.

    Finally, in my church circles I sometimes hear the sentiment that the LDS church should buy the Kirtland Temple rather than continue to subsidize the CoC’s ownership. I believe that would be a mistake. The CoC is very generous in allowing our church groups access to the Temple. We have youth conferences, devotionals, high school senior sacrament meetings, and many other events in the Temple. Acquiring the Temple would not give us any better access. It would also not lead to a repurposing of the Temple (such as turning it into a functional temple with ordinances) because the Kirtland Temple was not designed for Nauvoo-era ordinances and, as a historical building, the building would not be allowed to be repurposed. While a change of ownership would not give the LDS anything more, it would deprive the CoC of a key part of their heritage. So long as the CoC has the Temple (and other properties) it is indelibly tied to Joseph’s restoration movement and cannot fall into being just another protestant faith. The Temple keeps these good people tied to us Brighamites. I never want to see that binding broken.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    Thanks for your comment, Dave. Yes, the RLDS used to make a huge deal out of the findings of the court that they were the legitimate successor to the original church. They used to have a sign on the temple that mentioned the court case. You’re right that they no longer do this (and they took the sign down), largely as a result of Kim’s research.

    There was no testimony given in the Kirtland temple case; I believe you’re talking about the temple lot case that involved testimony of some of Joseph Smith’s wives. Yeah, historians are very fortunate to have that testimony, not something that would normally be expressed by Victorian era women.

    I agree that the CoC docents are better prepared than the LDS ones. I blogged on this here:


    And I totally agree with your last paragraph.

  8. In recent years when I have visited the Kirtland Temple (near my childhood home), there’s always some giant tour of members from Utah or Idaho, and the tour guide does a great job on the temple tour. There’s always someone from the larger tour that asks, “When are you giving the Temple back to the Mormon Church?” The kind tour guide, usually a college kid, responds with something like, “You abandoned it and it’s ours”, which usually delights me to no end.

    The current relationship between the LDS and CoC churches relative to Kirtland has never been more cooperative than it is today. Back in the 60s-80s, the relationship was downright hostile but good locals like Karl Anderson have nurtured the relationship between the two churches.

  9. “I agree that the CoC docents are better prepared than the LDS ones.”

    That’s true for the last 5-6 years or so. In the late 80s, through the 90s, and into the 00s the tours were so terrible, you were better served to visit the Whitney Store and watch the Temple video there and *then* go see the Temple, having been advised of what to watch out for (that the Temple guides wouldn’t show you).

  10. Terry H says:

    By the way, BYU Studies did an excellent article a couple of years ago on Grandison Newell and his involvement in this case. Its over 100 pages. Its an excellent companion to the article Kevin refers to up there.

  11. Kevin, I’m wondering if you could contact me privately. I have an important inquiry about a different matter.

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