“Why doesn’t The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints own the Kirtland Temple?” many LDS Church members wonder this as they tour the Kirtland, Ohio, historic sites. Both LDS Church and Community of Christ members have learned to work together with one another in a spirit of cooperation fostered by a joint love of the history and holiness of the Kirtland Temple.

David J. Howlett, a professor of Bowdoin College, explained Friday afternoon at the Mormon History Association Conference in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, that “the staff at the Community of Christ’s Kirtland Temple and the full-time missionaries at the LDS Church’s site, Historic Kirtland, engage in direct forms of cooperation and sharing that allows for a somewhat harmonious and amicable relationship between the two churches.”

The Prophet Joseph Smith and early members of the church built the Kirtland Temple and it was dedicated in March 1836 (see Doctrine and Covenants 109 and 100). Ownership changed due to conflicts within Ohio and Missouri, pinacling after the martydom of Joseph Smith in 1844, as various leaders with claims to the church tried to take control of the temple, igniting many legal battles that lasted through much of the late 19th century.

By 1901, the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now Community of Christ) legally secured ownership and has worked to preserve the temple for the benefit of those connected to the history and heritage of Mormonism (see this Kirtland Temple history on kirtlandtemple.org and "A History of Temples" on lds.org for more information).

During his presentation, Howlett quoted Barbara Walden, a former Community of Christ Kirtland Temple site director, compared the relationship between the two groups as a family: “Just like in any good family, there is mutual respect and appreciation for members of the family. This is kindness and affection, and a shared heritage. … We certainly have our differences in theology … but we genuinely get along despite our differences.”

This cooperation comes in various forms. For example, there are joint tours led by both Community of Christ tour guides and scholars along with Mormon scholars and missionaries. Karl Anderson is a well-known historian specializing in the area’s history who joined with Walden to conduct a tour in 2009 that Howlett referenced.

“Barbara Walden emphasized the construction, architecture and worship functions of the temple, allowing Karl Anderson to talk about parts of the third floor and the first floor as it related to LDS doctrine,” Howlett said.

Anderson even had participants take off their shoes on the third floor, remarking, “We are on holy ground because of what happened here and the presence of deity here.”

Another recent joint effort was a July 2011 hymn festival. Howlett described how members from “three different Restoration denominations or sects gathered to celebrate the 207th birthday of their common spiritual ancestor, Emma Hale Smith Bidamon.”

Members joined together and read portions of a biographical script, shared in the music of the festival and ended with them standing and singing a common hymn beloved by all, “The Spirit of God Like a Fire Is Burning.” Other examples of cooperation include a Christmas hymn service, joint summer picnics and, as Howlett explained, the “LDS staff invites the Community of Christ staff to all major events at their sites, including a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony and missionary send-offs.”

These and other cooperative efforts, including how both staffs of the respective historic sites encourage visitors to visit the other sites and to “treat staff at the other sites with respect,” is the product of years of cooperation that has proven to benefit both religious traditions.

Ensuring that, as Howlett concludes, “the Kirtland Temple remains one of Mormonism’s holiest (places).”

Emily W. Jensen updates "Today in the Bloggernacle" on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, presenting the best from the world of LDS-oriented blog sites. Her extended "Bloggernacle Back Bench" appears on Tuesdays. Email: ejensen@desnews.com