Near Kansas City, in Jackson County of the state of Missouri, is a remarkable suburb with a remarkable name: Independence, Missouri. Independence has a population of about 117,000 making it the fourth largest city in the state. The town is best known for two significant facts. One is that it was the hometown Harry S. Truman, 33rd president of the United States. He and his wife, Bess, are buried there today. It is also the location of the Truman Presidential Library and Museum.
The other significant fact about Independence is that it was, and still is, an important place in the history and beliefs of the Latter-day Saints movements. Located in the town is a specific area of vacant land which Mormons regard as holy and consecrated. They believe it is the divinely designated location (as supposedly revealed through Joseph Smith) for a great temple to be built. It is there where they believe Jesus Himself will return from heaven to rule on earth. It is usually referred to as the “Temple Lot” and is owned by a small Mormon splinter group called the “Church of Christ (Temple Lot).”
Near that plot of land is also the world headquarters of the Community of Christ (COC) church. That body, prior to 2001, was known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS). The COC still claims as its founder Mormon Prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. (1805-1844).
The COC’s current leaders include the First Presidency consisting of President Stephen M. Veazy and his two Counselors, Becky L. Savage and K. Scott Murphy. The church’s business and doctrine are administered by them and other members of the church’s World Leadership Council. That body includes the church’s Council of the Twelve Apostles which acts as its executive board of directors.
The church’s headquarters is in an impressive office and theater building called “The Auditorium.” It is located across the street from the Temple Lot at 1001 W. Walnut, Independence, Missouri. Also in the same block is the COC’s Temple, a rather odd shaped building with a winding and twisting roof that supposedly points toward heaven. It was dedicated in 1994 as a place of worship and to offer prayers for peace, reconciliation, and healing of the spirit. The COC also still owns the first Mormon temple built in 1833 by Joseph Smith, Jr., in Kirtland, Ohio. Neither COC temple bears any resemblance or similarity of purpose to temples of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). Note the difference in spelling of “Latter Day Saints” (RLDS) and Latter-day Saints (LDS).
Other Institutions related to the COC include Graceland University and the Community of Christ Seminary, both situated in Lamoni, Iowa, and the Herald Publishing House in Independence. The church claims a current membership of approximately 250,000 people worldwide. However, the last published regional membership report (2006) totaled less than 200,000.
History of the Community of Christ
In 1820, a then 14-year-old New York farm boy, Joseph Smith, Jr., was concerned about which church he should join that was most like what Jesus had established. He claimed that one day in the fall of that year, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to him as he was praying in the woods near his home. Smith said they told him to join none of the churches as they were all apostate and corrupt. The divine beings said, however, that soon they were going use him, Joseph, to restore true Christianity and the true church of Christ to the earth.
Smith also claimed that, in 1823, an angel named Moroni appeared to him and told him where to find a set of golden plates which had been buried since ancient times. Smith claimed that he miraculously translated the plates from “reformed Egyptian” to King James English, beginning in 1827. In 1830, Smith published his finished product, which he maintained was an inspired extra-biblical scripture called the Book of Mormon.
On April 6, 1830, Smith, along with five other men he had recruited into his new movement, established what they called the restored “Church of Christ” in Fayette, N.Y. Smith was designated as the church’s “President and Living Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.” Later, the name of Smith’s church was changed to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and his followers came to be known as Mormons.
Over the next 14 years, Smith led his followers out of New York and westward to Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. In 1844, Smith was killed by a mob in Carthage, Illinois, following the public revelation of Smith’s abuses of power and LDS’ practice of polygamy.
After Smith’s death, the majority of his followers accepted the leadership of Brigham Young – who later became the second President and Prophet of the LDS. Young led most of the Mormon remnant on a perilous trek to the far west where, in 1847, they established a settlement in what later became Salt Lake City, Utah.
Smith’s first wife, Emma Hale Smith, and her children, however, were among a minority of Mormons who refused to acknowledge Young’s authority and refused to go west. Emma claimed that Joseph Smith, Jr., had designated their oldest son, Joseph Smith III, as his eventual successor as President and Prophet of his church. So, in 1860, 28 year-old Joseph Smith III was ordained as the first president of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS).
In the years after Smith III’s death in 1914, RLDS presidents were traditionally direct descendants of Joseph Smith, Jr. This remained true until 1996, when President Wallace B. Smith, Joseph Smith, Jr.’s great-grandson, retired as President and designated W. Grant McMurray as his successor. He became the first non-Smith ancestor to be ordained RLDS President and Prophet. McMurray unexpectedly resigned his post in November, 2004, for reasons never clearly explained. The current President, Stephen M. Veazy, was ordained in June, 2005.
In 1920, the RLDS headquarters was officially established in Independence, Missouri. This was in an area Joseph Smith, Jr., had dedicated for the construction of a great temple to prepare for Christ’s return. In 1994, the RLDS dedicated its temple near that site.
In 2001, the RLDS officially changed its name to the Community of Christ (COC). The change was probably to further establish its separate identity from the much larger Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). For years the RLDS labored in the shadow of its bigger cousin LDS organization. It also struggled to distance itself from some of the LDS’ more unorthodox theological doctrines.
Other significant COC historical events included the 1986 revelation by President Wallace B. Smith that opened the church’s priesthoods to women. Also, in April of 2013, the COC’s United States National Conference approved a study committee’s recommendations that the USA COC recognize same sex marriages as legal and to ordain openly gay and lesbian members as priests. The recommendations are now pending final approval by the world church’s First Presidency and Council of Twelve Apostles before they can be implemented.
In the next installment we will examine and analyze the current beliefs of the Community of Christ. We will show how the church’s theology and practices have radically changed over the past several decades. These changes have moved it even further away from traditional Mormonism and closer to the tenets of modernist mainline Liberal Protestantism.
© 2013 Tal Davis