Thursday, March 03, 2011

Lamoni and Liberty Hall

Liberty Hall, the home of Joseph Smith III and his family, at the west edge of Lamoni.

Iowa place names present all sorts of challenges for imported broadcast types --- consider Wapsipinicon and the Nishnabotna plus the fact we call it MAD-rid (not MaDRID) and that the middle “a” in Nevada here is pronounced long. Some folks even struggle with Chariton and Des Moines, both vaguely French.

But listening to a new weatherperson massacre “Lamoni,” our neighbor to the southwest down here in the southern hills, has for some reason always entertained me the most.

It’s pronounced La-MOAN-eye, by the way --- and if you’re a little vague about exactly where it’s at, this is the first town you’ll pass upon entering Iowa from Missouri on Interstate 35.

If you’re going to play Iowa trivia, you should also know after whom Lamoni is named. Here’s a hint --- he wasn’t French.

The city’s namesake actually is a Lamanite king named Lamoni whose story is told in The Book of Mormon. This is the only specifically Mormon place name I know of in Iowa --- although there may be others.

In addition to being a pretty little town that has preserved its brick main street, Lamoni is the home of Graceland , one of Iowa’s fine smaller universities, and of Liberty Hall --- a favorite Mormon shrine.

Liberty Hall, located on the west edge of Lamoni (just drive straight west through town past the cemetery and keep going; it’ll be on your right), is maintained by the Community of Christ (formerly Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints). It was the home of Joseph Smith III, son of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. and the founding president and prophet of the RLDS/Community of Christ, once headquartered here. Although open to all, Graceland continues its affiliation with the Community of Christ, but headquarters has moved to Independence, Missouri. How all of this came to be is one of my favorite Mormon history byways.


If you’re familiar with LDS history, you’ll know that an Illinois mob killed Joseph Smith Jr. (left) and his brother, Hyrum, on June 27, 1844, at the jail in Carthage --- the decisive event that began the great migration of Mormon refugees from Nauvoo and other settlements through Iowa toward Utah in 1846.

A majority of the Saints had acknowledged Brigham Young as Joseph Smith Jr.’s successor and followed him, but there were often-bitter disputes about the succession in leadership and many did not.

Among those who did not was Emma (Hale) Smith, Joseph Smith Jr.’s wife, left a pregnant widow when he was killed. She remained behind in Nauvoo with her children, including Joseph Smith III, the eldest, then 11. In the years that followed, various small Mormon factions gathered around various leaders but there was no centering point other than the teachings of Joseph Smith Jr.

And some of those teachings were disputed. Many who did not follow Brigham Young west had broken with him because of polygamy. The widowed Emma (right) was one of those. An amazing and powerful woman, she simply denied that her husband ever had advocated or practiced polygamy, blaming the concept entirely on Young.

Because what became the RLDS/Community of Christ was led by her descendants until quite recently, that remained the official position of this branch of the Mormon movement.

By 1860, led primarily by Midwesteners, consensus had developed that a reorganized LDS church should and could be gathered around a descendant of Joseph Smith Jr. and during that April of that year, Joseph Smith III finally agreed and was sustained as president during a conference at Amboy, Ill.

By 1866, church headquarters and its printing house had been established at Plano, Ill., but in 1870  reorganized Saints known as the Order of Enoch purchased more than 3,000 acres of land in Decatur County, Iowa, intending to establish a gathering place. Lamoni was founded and, in 1881, Joseph Smith III moved church headquarters, Herald House publishing and himself to Lamoni. That was when Liberty Hall was built as his home.

Joseph Smith III

Lamoni remained headquarters of the RLDS until 1921, but many of the reorganized saints had begun years earlier to look toward Independence, Missouri, because Joseph Smith Jr. and declared early in his ministry that it would be the gathering point for the “City of Zion.” Joseph Smith III moved there in retirement after turning reins of the church over to his son, Frederick, and died at Independence in 1914.

Community of Christ headquarters, Herald House, the Community of Christ Temple and auditorium all are located now at Independence, while Graceland College and Liberty Hall remain at Lamoni as reminders of the community’s origins.

The Community of Christ today claims total membership of roughly 250,000 worldwide and remains active in Iowa --- including Chariton. It changed its name during 2001 partly to better reflect its mission, “to proclaim Jesus Christ and promote communities of joy, hope, love and peace,” but also to differentiate more clearly the Midwest-based Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints from the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints --- similar names that confused many.

Although far more conventionally Christian than the Utah-based church, the Community of Christ continues to affirm The Book of Mormon and the Doctrines and Covenants as “additional witnesses of Christ’s ministry and God’s love.” Family leadership of the church ended with the retirement of Wallace B. Smith in 1996.

The Community of Christ outlook also is substantially more liberal socially than that of the Utah-based Mormon expression and its priesthood includes both women and men. Unlike temples of the Utah-based LDS, restricted in access to members in good standing, the Community of Christ Temple at Independence is open to all.

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