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180 years ago today in the Kirtland Temple, visits by Jesus Christ, Moses, Elijah and Elias

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Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery lowered one of the temple curtains that provided a private place to pray among the pulpits in the Kirtland Temple.

A week earlier, Joseph had dedicated the first temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and said it was built so the Lord would have a place “to manifest himself to his people."

Now, on, April 3, 1836 — 180 years ago today — as Christians celebrated Easter and Jews celebrated the Passover, "everything was seemingly set to align the Old and New Testament dispensations with the last great dispensation," says BYU church historian Richard Neitzel Holzapfel.

Joseph and Oliver offered a "solemn, but silent prayer to the Most High." What happened next changed the direction of the church and added to its doctrines. We asked six LDS historians and Kirtland-area experts to explain what happened and why, what it meant to the new church then and why it still matters exactly 180 years later.

Robert L. Millet, emeritus dean of religious education at BYU:

Joseph and Oliver knelt in prayer behind drawn curtains adjacent to the large pulpits on the west side of the main floor of the Kirtland Temple. After rising from prayer, a remarkable vision burst upon them.

First and foremost, Jesus Christ appeared. In fulfillment of prophecy, he came to his temple (Malachi 3:1; Doctrine & Covenants 36:8; 42:36; 133:2) — the first to be properly authorized by him for centuries.

The eyewitnesses reported, “His eyes were as a flame of fire; the hair of his head was white like the pure snow; his countenance shone above the brightness of the sun; and his voice was as the sound of the rushing of great waters, even the voice of Jehovah” (D&C 110:3).

The Savior accepted the offering of his Saints and then declared that "the hearts of thousands and tens of thousands shall greatly rejoice in consequence of the blessings which shall be poured out" through this first temple of the last dispensation (D&C 110:9).

The three heavenly messengers who then appeared, one after another, laid the foundation for the latter-day establishment of eternal families.

Moses appeared and restored the keys of the gathering of Israel, the formal charge to take the message of salvation to the world and bring people into the restored church through baptism and conversion.

Elias appeared and committed to Joseph and Oliver what we know as the Abrahamic Covenant, which includes the power to create eternal family units through the new and everlasting covenant of marriage.

Finally, Elijah appeared and committed the power to bind and seal those families together forever.

The keys of the priesthood restored on this occasion opened to the Saints the capstone blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ; this sacred labor provides purpose and perspective relative to all other gospel principles, covenants and ordinances.

Steven L. Olsen, senior curator, LDS Church History Department

Only two types of church-owned places are dedicated by apostolic authority and never relocated: temples and historic sites. I believe that this longstanding practice reveals a profound connection between these unique places.

Church historic sites are the places where eternal promises of this dispensation were revealed through associated spiritual experiences and other sacred events. Temples are the places where these eternal promises are fulfilled through holy ordinances and covenants. This complementary function explains why temples are connected with historic sites in places that are not centers of church strength — Palmyra, New York; Nauvoo, Illinois; and Winter Quarters, Nebraska.

From this perspective, the temple in Kirtland, Ohio, is unique. It is both a sacred House of the Lord and a historic site.

Latter-day Saints honor it as the place of some of the most sublime and significant experiences in our history, especially the revelations, visions and transmission of priesthood keys connected with its dedication 180 years ago this week.

The Community of Christ cares for the temple as a symbol of their concept of an ideal religious community.

The two churches work together to assure its preservation, accessibility and understanding as a holy place.

Building the Kirtland Temple required the sacrifice of virtually everything of value the Saints had at the time. The Lord accepted of their offering and gave them in return heavenly treasures that they could not possibly have received in any other way.

Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, professor of church history and doctrine at BYU:

Millions of people have traveled to the Holy Land to see, hear, smell and touch a place made holy by God’s own Son. They yearn to walk where Jesus walked and to be in a place where the guide can say, "This is the spot!"

Although Latter-day Saints make similar journeys to the Holy Land, we add to our itineraries church historical sites in the United States, primarily in Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Nebraska, Wyoming and Utah. At these places, well known in our history, we celebrate important events that made the past have meaning for us today.

On Easter Sunday 180 years ago this week, Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery saw the resurrected Christ standing on the breastwork of one of the Melchizedek Priesthood pulpits in the west end of the main assembly floor of the Kirtland Temple.

Today, thousands of Latter-day Saints visit the Kirtland Temple each year to see the place Jesus Christ once stood so we can see and touch our sacred past. Thus, like the accounts of the appearances found in the New Testament, we have records of when heaven and earth met for a brief moment, creating sacred space and sacred time.

Christ’s first appearance to Joseph Smith happened in a grove of trees near his home in New York. Today, the Sacred Grove allows visitors to imagine what it may have been like when Joseph sought the Lord in the spring of 1820. Although the exact location on the Smith farm is unknown, visitors can see, touch and smell a natural woodland as it was when Joseph sought forgiveness and direction.

This was not the last time Joseph saw the resurrected Lord, as the historical record indicates he saw the risen Lord again in May 1831, June 1831, February 1832, March 1833, December 1833, January 1836, March 1836 and finally on April 3, 1836. The last recorded experience tells us not only when but also where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery "saw the Lord standing upon the breastwork of the pulpit" in the Kirtland Temple.

We celebrate sacred events when we visit sacred places. We also celebrate sacred events when we remember them on the anniversary. For us, Jesus Christ does not simply exist in our history and scripture. He is a living reality whom we worship with special memories at the anniversary of a glorious vision of the resurrected Savior recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants 110.

Robin L. Laubaugh, LDS church public affairs director in the Cleveland, Ohio, area:

Early in his life, Joseph Smith was taught how central eternal families are to the purposes of this Earth. On the evening of Sept. 21, 1823, Moroni appeared to him and quoted, with a little variation, a prophecy that was originally given by Malachi:

"Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers. If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming." (Joseph Smith-History 1:38-39)

Almost 13 years later, on April 3, 1836, the promise that Joseph was given when he was a young man was fulfilled. Christ, Moses, Elias and Elijah appeared in the Kirtland Temple and committed to man the keys that enable us to be forever bound to our families and to our dead.

Later in his life, Joseph taught: "The greatest responsibility in this world that God has laid upon us is to seek after our dead. … For it is necessary that the sealing power should be in our hands to seal our children and our dead for the fullness of the dispensation of times — a dispensation to meet the promises made by Jesus Christ before the foundation of the world for the salvation of man." (Teachings: Joseph Smith, 475).

I am grateful for the keys that were restored in Kirtland that day, and for the opportunity that I have to be together with my family forever.

Scott C. Esplin, professor of church history and doctrine at BYU:

The anniversary of the vision of Christ, Moses, Elias and Elijah and their bestowal of priesthood keys to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple on Easter Sunday, April 3, 1836, is certainly worth commemorating.

As part of the experience, the Lord said, "The fame of this house shall spread to foreign lands; and this is the beginning of the blessing which shall be poured out upon the heads of my people." (D&C 110:10)

In many ways, the experience of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the Kirtland Temple is a modern version of a similar occurrence two millennia ago on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Peter, James and John witnessed the transfigured Christ and the visitation of heavenly messengers (see Matthew 17:1-8).

That event, arguably one of the most important in the ministry of the Savior and his apostles, parallels the experience of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in Kirtland, Ohio. Importantly, several of the same participants, including Jesus, Moses and Elijah, actively participated in both events.

The vision was recorded in Joseph Smith’s 1835-1836 journal by one of his scribes, Warren Cowdery, an older brother to the Prophet’s fellow participant in the revelation. It was later added to the manuscript version of Joseph Smith’s history.

Though likely not well-known by the broader church at the time, those closest to Joseph Smith may have been familiar with his experience. Furthermore, the Prophet openly taught about the importance of the visitors and the powers bestowed on this occasion the remainder of his life.

After his death, the text itself was first published in the Deseret News in 1852 and added to the Doctrine and Covenants in 1876. Many of the things that Latter-day Saints care most deeply about today can be traced to this experience.

Personally, I find the following significant: Like he did with the Saints' efforts to build the Kirtland Temple, Christ accepts my best, though faltering, offerings, and refines them like gold (D&C 110: 2, 7).

Furthermore, like Joseph and Oliver, I too can be forgiven of my sins through Christ and stand clean before him (verse 5).

Additionally, I am blessed with the privilege to serve a mission and assist in gathering God’s children to him (verse 11).

Because of temple ordinances, I too enjoy the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant, including the promise of an eternal family (verse 12).

Finally, I am blessed with the power to receive and participate in saving ordinances for myself and for my ancestors, being sealed or bound to my fathers and my children (verse 15).

Indeed, I am one of many who can testify of the Lord’s prophesy declared on this occasion, "The hearts of thousands and tens of thousands shall greatly rejoice in consequence of the blessings which shall be poured out, and the endowment with which my servants have been endowed in this house" (D&C 110:9). This makes the events of April 3, 1836, definitely worthy of celebration.

Chad S. Hawkins, artist and author of "Temples of the New Millennium":

"The morning breaks, the shadows flee; Lo, Zion's standard is unfurled! The dawning of a brighter day … Majestic rises on the world." (The Morning Breaks, LDS Hymnbook, pg. 1)

The LDS hymnbook appropriately begins with Parley P. Pratt’s celebrated hymn of the restoration. The shadows of the apostasy did indeed flee during the Pentecostal season of the Kirtland Temple.

Nearly six years after the church's organization, the Latter-day Saints had matured and progressed sufficiently to receive additional keys, knowledge and blessings.

On Easter Sunday, April 3, 1836, within the walls of the newly completed Kirtland Temple, Christ appeared to accept the temple offering. Subsequently, Moses, Elias and Elijah appeared to restore keys, power and authority to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery.

The message of salvation was to again be proclaimed to the world and the sacred labor of binding and sealing families together forever could commence. These pinnacle events brought increased power to the Lord's covenant people and delivered a crippling blow to work of the adversary.

Now, 180 years later, the blessings of this celebrated day continue to assist in triumphantly furthering the Lord's work. In this historic season of temple construction, 150 temples have been dedicated in 42 different countries.

"Every foundation stone that is laid for a temple," George Q. Cannon said, "lessens the power of Satan on the earth and increases the power of God and Godliness." The "clouds of error" continue to disappear as nearly 75,000 missionaries enthusiastically serve in 421 missions.

On the anniversary of these transcendent events, it is wonderful to remember what occurred in the Kirtland Temple and witness the strengthening momentum of the Lord's kingdom preceding his Second Coming.

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com