The Kirtland Ohio Visitors’ Center
While visiting friends in Ohio, my husband and I suddenly realized we were only a few hours from Kirtland, Ohio, an important location in early Mormon history. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose members are sometimes called Mormons, settled in that town for a time and built their first temple there. Today, some of the important historic sites have been restored and are open to the public.
The first place we visited was Historic Kirtland. This site, owned by the Mormons, focuses on Newel K. Whitney and his wife, Ann. They had been searching for a church to join when they had a shared vision in which they were promised the word of the Lord would soon come to their town. A few weeks later, four Mormon missionaries arrived in town. Ann joined the church first, and her husband followed a few days later, after receiving his own witness.
The Whitneys were an important part of Mormon history in Kirtland. Newel was a successful shop owner whose store was a gathering place for the community. Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet, and his wife Emma, stayed with them for several weeks and then again the next year before moving into their own home in Kirtland.
Newel K. Whitney’s store was attacked by a mob, which did not dim his faith in any way, even though a great deal of merchandise was destroyed. He donated land to build the sawmill that was used to build the temple. He even helped the Mormon Church learn how to open and operate a store that would help to pay off the debts incurred in building the temple, despite the fact that this store competed with his own. He was a man who put God before himself.
The home, store, ashery, and sawmill have been restored, along with some other buildings. Our tour began with a video that helped us understand what events from Mormon history happened during that time period. Having recently written about church history, I had read about many of these events, but seeing them in the video helped me to understand the impact they must have had on the participants. Terrible persecutions occurred in Kirtland. One day Joseph Smith was awake late at night helping his wife care for their adopted twins, who were ill. Eventually he sent his wife to bed with the girl, and he stayed up with his son, who was more seriously ill. After a time, the baby slept and Joseph placed it in its bed and lay down nearby to try to sleep a little. However, a mob broke into the home and dragged Joseph outside, where they threatened to kill him. Instead, he was tarred and feathered, along with another church leader. Perhaps the most horrendous part of this night though is that the mob left the door to the house open and the little boy died as a result of the cold air hitting him for a brief time while he was so sick. Although they decided not to kill Joseph, the mob did indirectly kill his child through their choices.
The next day, Joseph preached, despite his injuries. Some of the men in the mob showed up to the meeting, but Joseph did not call attention to them or even mention what happened. He simply delivered his sermon. Later in the day I was able to see the house where he delivered that sermon.
I am a history buff, and I have always loved visiting the places where notable events happened. I don’t get much from random statues placed in parks, but when I visit a place where special people were and where important things happened, I always feel a connection to those people and events. I stood in the Whitney store and, as another family searched the handwritten shop records for their ancestors’ names, I simply stood quietly and pictured Joseph Smith and other important church leaders entering the room where I now stood. I tried to picture them interacting with each other. Having a good imagination, I quickly found myself not in a modern store with missionaries and tourists, but a bustling community center filled with people I’ve read about during my time as a church member. I could see Joseph coming into the room, smiling and greeting people, perhaps answering a gospel question from a member trying to understand her new religion, kneeling to play with a small child (knowing he loved children), and turning back to help an elderly woman up the stairs. I pictured him paying special attention to Whitney’s brother and aunt, who were not members of the Church, demonstrating through his actions what a Mormon really was.
The School of the Prophets was especially meaningful to me. It is a place I had always wanted to see. It was located upstairs, over the store, and was a small room set aside for learning about the gospel. In this room, men were trained to better understand their religion and prepare to lead the Church. Since everyone was new to the gospel in those days, it was important for each new or prospective leader to get a solid foundation in his new Mormon religion. The three sister missionaries who showed us around the village shared an event that happened in that room. Joseph Smith told the men gathered that if they humbled themselves and had enough faith, they would see Jesus. As they prayed, a personage walked through the room from east to west. Joseph asked the men if they could see the personage and then he identified Him as Jesus Christ. This event was recorded by at least two other men, John Murdock and Zebedee Coltrin.
A few years ago I went to Palmyra, New York, where Joseph Smith, as a teenager, saw God and Jesus Christ. I walked through the woods where this happened. We don’t know the exact spot, but it really didn’t make a difference. I understood that I stood in a woods that Jesus and God had once visited. This room had that same sacred feeling to it. Because it is again being used for sacred purposes—that of helping people come to a testimony that Jesus Christ lives—I believe the Spirit of that day lingers in the room to help testify of the Savior to anyone who enters it with a sincere desire to have a testimony of Jesus Christ.