An Introduction to the Temple Lot Case
by R. Jean Addams

The founder of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith, sent missionaries to Missouri in 1831 to convert Native Americans. Then he visited the state himself a few months later to announce a revelation stating that the county seat of Jackson County, namely Independence, was to be the “the center place” of a future utopia—“a spot for the temple … lying westward, upon a lot which is not far from the court-house” (LDS D&C 57:1-4). At the time, Independence was the staging area for the Santa Fe Trail and otherwise a small, backwater settlement. In a few years, it would become the trailhead for the Oregon Trail and the California Trail, bringing significantly more traffic and a few more permanent settlers to the area, but remaining something of a frontier outpost.

In December 1831, LDS Church Bishop Edward Partridge purchased the land Smith and counselor Sidney Rigdon dedicated in August 1831 in a ceremony that marked the spot as the exact site for a millennial temple. It was not yet clear what function this new temple might serve or even exactly what the “millennium” implied, whether the community would establish a city of peace so Jesus could return or if Jesus would destroy the wicked and then establish peace.

Either way, older residents of Independence got the idea that they would not be welcome in this new utopia. Over a two-year period, tensions with locals escalated into heated encounters until the old settlers forcibly expelled Mormons from Jackson County in late 1833, leaving the Temple Lot lying fallow. Yet despite the impossibility of realizing Joseph Smith’s dream, the idea of a promised land surrounding a central temple remained dear to his followers. Today most Churches that claim Joseph Smith as their founder—the factions collectively referred to as the “Restoration Churches”—still envision a realization of Joseph Smith’s prophecy of a great city in Missouri with a temple at its heart, that this will become the biblical Zion. Church members will one day “redeem” the land, they have said.

In early 1848, Bishop Partridge’s widow and daughters sold the 63¼ acres purchased in 1831 and deeded the land to James Poole. In 1849, Poole’s property was auctioned at a sheriff’s sale and John Maxwell acquired the property. In 1851, two developers, John Maxwell and Samuel H. Woodson, entered into an agreement and divided the 63 acres into lots. Whether or not they knew it, Lot 15 contained a stone marker indicating that it was where the temple would be built.

Plotting “the Redemption of Zion”

Most Latter-day Saints settled in Illinois in 1838-1839 after their expulsion from Missouri and then, after being evicted from their headquarters in the city of Nauvoo in 1846, moved west to Utah with Brigham Young. However, a significant number of Latter Day Saints remained in the Midwest and organized themselves into various churches. One group, led by Granville Hedrick, consolidated into the Crow Creek congregation centered in Woodford County, Illinois. This is in the north-central part of the state near Peoria. Hedrick said that on April 24, 1864, an angel instructed him to prepare to return to Independence, Missouri, three years hence. Accordingly, in 1867-68, Hedrick and his congregation sold their farms and moved to Independence as instructed. In addition to buying land for themselves, John Hedrick and William Eaton purchased, between 1867 and 1874, an additional eight lots (2.5 acres) comprising the immediate site of the land that had been dedicated earlier. In November 1869 and November 1877 respectively, they conveyed their property to Granville Hedrick as “trustee in trust” for the Church of Christ. The Kansas City Times announced that, from what they were told, work would soon begin on the construction of a temple.

A second group of scattered Saints, loosely guided by Jason W. Briggs and Zenos H. Gurley Sr., was by mid-1852 being called the “New Organization.” In response to requests to lead them, in March 1860 Joseph Smith’s son, Joseph III, consented to “take my father’s place as the head of the Mormon church.” He did so at the April 1860 conference of the renamed “Reorganization,” and twelve years later he incorporated the Church in Illinois as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.

Initially Joseph Smith III warned people that if they returned to Missouri too soon, “they may expect that the judgments of God will come upon them.” But by 1877 he was telling members that if they “so desire,” they could “move into that state in safety.” In 1878 he spoke of the “spiritual vision” he had received of the future temple.

The Evacuation Notice

As early as 1856, leaders of the Church of Christ and RLDS Church had made overtures to each other to establish “harmony” between the two groups. In 1885 the RLDS Church suggested that a “joint” committee be formed to iron out their differences. Correspondence indicates that the real intent of the RLDS Church was nevertheless to acquire the Temple Lot, Joseph Smith III feeling that it rightfully belonged to the RLDS, he being his father’s legitimate successor. When meetings with the Church of Christ did not proceed as planned, the RLDS filed a “Notice to Quit Possession” in the local courthouse on June 11, 1887, which was similar to a landlord ordering a tenant to vacate. In the notice, the RLDS Church said that 2.5 acres occupied by the Church of Christ did not belong to them because the RLDS Church was the inheritor of Edward Partridge’s trust (the 1831 purchase).

The Church of Christ moved quickly to solidify its ownership. Anticipating the RLDS Church’s action a few months earlier, the Church announced plans in April 1887 to design a “house of worship and to locate the same on the temple grounds.” Within two years they erected a 16’ x 25’ edifice at a cost of $377. From the RLDS Church’s point of view, this was an act of defiance.

Even so, one wonders why the RLDS Church waited until June 1887 to claim ownership of something it believed all along was theirs. Interestingly, in June 1887 the RLDS also purchased a quit-claim deed to the property from Oliver Cowdery’s daughter, who verified that it was an authentic document even though some RLDS Church leaders had their doubts. For instance, Joseph III’s counselor William W. Blair wrote to another member of the hierarchy, Edmund L. Kelley, that “the deed by E. Partridge to the children of O. Cowdery … is doubtless a fraud.” When Joseph III sought legal advice from George Edmunds, he was told that “it seems [the Church of Christ] has title. … I think you are too late.” In reply, Joseph III mentioned that although he had “not a particle of doubt” regarding his own personal “right of succession,” regarding the land he was “in grave doubt, and am prepared in mind for adverse judgment.”

The Civil Suit

Four years passed, then on August 6, 1891, the RLDS Church filed a Bill of Equity in the U.S. Circuit Court in Kansas City against the Church of Christ. At the time of the filing, the Church of Christ had fewer than a hundred members, while the RLDS Church had approximately 25,000.

Counsel for the RLDS Church developed a two-fold strategy to secure the Temple Lot. First, they intended to prove that they were the legitimate successor to the Latter Day Saint Church and, therefore, to the property purchased with Church funds; and second, they intended to show that they now held the rightful deed. This, in essence, would mean that the chain of deeds by which the Church of Christ had obtained the property was invalid.

Complicating the controversy was the defection from the RLDS Church to the Church of Christ in April 1885 of Charles A. Hall. Four years later, the charismatic Hall was chosen as the Church of Christ’s “presiding High Priest.” Throwing all his energy into the Temple Lot Case, he traveled to Salt Lake City in 1890 or 1891 to alert the Utah Church about the RLDS attempt to obtain ownership of the Temple Lot. He was directed to John M. Cannon, an attorney whose uncle was in the LDS Church’s First Presidency. Cannon personally loaned Hall funds to cover the anticipated legal fees; Hall, in turn, loaned the money to the Church of Christ. Although Hall left the Church he had served as the president of in February 1894 and converted to the LDS Church, he did not abandon his effort to see the Temple Lot Case through to its conclusion—much to the dismay of the RLDS Church. When he resigned from the Church of Christ, the local press deduced that the Utah Church was the real “power behind the throne in the Temple lot controversy.” Hall was baptized into the Utah Church four months later.

The depositions taken in Kansas City and Salt Lake City in 1892 in advance of the trial provide rich detail and insight regarding the history of the original LDS Church and the schisms that developed after the founder’s death. The official transcription totals over 1,700 pages and covers events and personalities, the prophet’s travels and revelations, and the experiences of early leaders, missionaries, and ordinary members. Of particular note is the testimony regarding the beginnings of polygamy in Nauvoo. The depositions, legal maneuverings, and travel to and from Salt Lake City dragged the litigation out for 2½ years.

Finally on March 4, 1894, U.S. District Judge John F. Philips issued a ruling in favor of the RLDS Church, ordering that the land be relinquished. The Church of Christ appealed, and in 1895 the U.S. Court of Appeals in St. Louis reversed the decision, writing that the RLDS Church had “acquiesced too long … to be now heard to complain.” In January 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal and remanded the case to the Eighth Circuit Court for compliance. The Church of Christ therefore retained the property.

Ronald E. Romig, in his 1992 analysis of the Temple Lot Case, summarized:

By design or misunderstanding, RLDS Church leaders straightaway assumed the position that the Decree of the Appeals Court did not affect issues contested in the lower court, but only prevented the RLDS [Church] from possessing the Temple Lot. … However it may be construed, the Appellate Decree mandated the reversal of the decision of the lower court with the effect of completely setting aside and vacating its proceedings. For the past 100 years, the practical effect of the Appellate Decree is as if Judge Philips’ opinion and decree had never been entered.

Aftermath

This clash colored the relationship between the two Missouri Churches for at least eighty years. The Church of Christ resented incurring $7,600 in legal fees, although $2,200 of that amount was reimbursed by the RLDS Church by order of the court. The Church of Christ expressed bitterness over the litigation stating that Joseph Smith III had “allowed his people to do wrong to drag us into the courts of the land and force many of our people to spend the earnings of a life time in defense of a God given trust.” For their part, the RLDS Church claimed that only part of Judge Philips’s decision was reversed—ownership of the Temple Lot—and that they were vindicated in all other points, particularly Philips’s denouncement of Brigham Young’s polygamy.

Notwithstanding the continuing animosity, aborted attempts to merge or facilitate a better working relationship took place in 1897, 1900, and 1918. In fact, in the latter year an Agreements of Working Harmony allowed members to transfer their memberships between the Churches. Internal policies enacted by the RLDS Church thereafter resulted in approximately 1,500 members transferring to the Church of Christ. The resulting resentment by the RLDS Church prompted its leaders to declare the agreement null and void in 1926. Then in 1952, the RLDS Church resurrected the controversy, straining the relationship again until 1970 when the two groups re-established a Joint Relations Committee.

In 1942, RLDS Church President Frederick M. Smith asked Church Historian Samuel Burgess whether the temple “might be shifted considerable from that [2.75 acre] spot and still be in the confines of the sixty-three acres.” Burgess’s answer is unknown, but in 1968 RLDS Church President W. Wallace Smith said he had received a revelation from God that “the time has come” to begin preparing to build “my temple in the Center Place.” The ground-breaking was held on April 6, 1990, and the beautiful, spiral-shaped edifice was dedicated in April 1994. The Church changed its name to the Community of Christ in April 2001.

Meanwhile, the Church of Christ continues to be headquartered on the Temple Lot. It has a lovely church, offices, and a visitor reception area. Although the Church maintains a Temple Fund, it does not have immediate plans to construct another building. Apostle William A. Sheldon explained that the Church “considers it their sacred duty to be … the physical custodian of the property” and that as such, they “patiently wait for the time when we will be told by divine commandment to build the holy temple.”

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