Friday, August 26, 2005

Far West, then on to John Whitmer's grave

The area that would have become the Far West Temple is marked by four massive cornerstones and enclosed by a wrought iron fence.

Memo to self: Re-read Fawn M. Brodie's 1945 "No man knows my history: The Life of Joseph Smith." I dated the copy I now have (Second Edition: Revised and Enlarged) 10 January 1989. So it's been more than 16 years. I've spent the morning reading reviews and retrospectives of Brodie's blockbuster, as opposed to doing something useful, so might as well return to the real thing.

Like it or not, "No man's" publication was the definitive 20th century event in Mormon studies. Mormons hated it. Non-Mormons loved it. The truth lies somewhere in between. It's helped to shape nearly everything written since about Mormon history by Mormon and non-Mormon alike. Besides, it is so wonderfully written that it reads like a novel (which some critics have suggested it is).

Memo to others: If you're going to become a Mormon trekker, buy the latest version of Becky Cardon Smith's "The LDS Family Travel Guide." It's updated annually. In addition to telling you how to get to places, it helps to see the high and low spots of Mormon history through Mormon eyes. And that's useful. For the Midwest, you want the "Independence, Nauvoo and Winter Quarters" version. There are other versions for other regions.

After dusting myself off, I left the Far West Cultural Center, wound my way back to pavement and headed about four miles straight north to the site of Far West. The site is high prairie, empty now save for the LDS Temple Site memorial and a Community of Christ (formerly RLDS) church off to the southwest.

The Mormons began arriving here, in Caldwell County, soon after the county was created for them during December of 1836 after much unpleasantness in Jackson and Clay counties to the south. Far West was designated the county seat and remained such until after the Mormon expulsion, when the more centrally located Kingston was created.

As planned, Far West would have rivaled any Missouri city in size and scope. Originally headquarters of only the Missouri Stake it became the headquarters of the entire church during the spring of 1838 when financial and other troubles ripped apart the Mormon community and church headquarters in Kirtland, Ohio, leaving the temple there in dissident hands. Joseph Smith and family fled here, to Zion, during March of 1838.

As Mormon immigrants continued to flood into Caldwell, then adjoining counties, tension mounted and erupted in what we now call the Mormon War. The surrender of Far West on 2 November 1838 marked the end of the 19th century Mormon dream in northwest Missouri. Joseph Smith left the city under arrest and a majority of the Saints fled, coming to ground again after a year or so had passed in Nauvoo. Then, Far West vanished for more than a century.

But beneath the prairie, the cornerstones laid for a temple to replace the building lost in Kirtland remained. Latter-day Saints purchased the temple site during the early 1970s, excavated the cornerstones and developed the current memorial.

It is a wonderful, quiet place with broad prairie views in all directions. I first visited here with my parents during the early 1970s, not long after development began. It's been interesting to watch it develop, and some Mormons expect that church authorities might someday authorize construction of a temple here to fulfill the original dream. I rather hope not.

A fenced and carefully landscaped enclave is about the size the temple would have been. The cornerstones now have glass covers and explanatory plaques. Huge stone panels at the east end repeat revelations relevant to the the temple and the Missouri experience.

There almost always are Mormon pilgrims here, if you wait a bit, but it's rarely crowded (except when a tour bus comes in off Interstate 35 some miles to the west). I shared my visit during early August with an extremely pleasant young family from Utah, making its first trip via Independence, Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman to Nauvoo. It's been said (inaccurately) that Mormons have little theology but much history. What they do have, is an intense consciousness of and interest in history, and the parents in this instance gathered their children on the curved benches before the revelation panels, read the inscriptions, read accounts of what had transpired here from a guide book, then visited each point of interest within the temple in turn. And finally, I fumbled with their camera so they would have a photograph of the entire family together within the temple enclave to take away with them.

They were headed north from Far West to Adam-ondi-Ahman, where Joseph Smith declared following a revelation Adam had lived after expulsion from the Garden of Eden (at Independence) and where "Adam shall come to visit his people, or the Ancient of Days shall sit, as spoken of by Daniel the Prophet."

I headed east instead, to Kingston to visit the grave of Book of the Mormon witness and Mormon historian John Whittmer, then finally to Haun's Mill.

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