A small white church sits at the corner of a large lot in Independence, Mo. It is the headquarters of the Church of Christ (Temple Lot). Joseph Smith dedicated this spot in 1831 for a temple to be built to usher in the millennial reign of Christ.
The Temple Lot church tried to build that temple 80 years ago.
"All factions of Mormonism believe … that this is sacred space," R. Jean Addams, an independent historian, said.
"There will be a sacred temple built here before Jesus Christ descends openly to the earth again … (Mormons) haven't abandoned this hope that at some future time there will be a holy city, literally, built at this location," Alexander L. Baugh, associate professor of church history and doctrine at BYU, said.
Addams and Baugh spoke at the 22nd international conference of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) on June 11 in Salt Lake City. Their presentations told about the Temple Lot church's efforts to build that prophesied temple.
When the main body of the Saints left for the West under Brigham Young, several small groups remained in central Illinois. These branches united in 1852 under Granville Hedrick — and called themselves the Church of Christ. Hedrick claimed a revelation to return to Missouri in 1867 where they began buying up small parcels where Joseph Smith had dedicated the temple site.
Eventually they acquired 2¾ acres and added "Temple Lot" after their church's name to distinguish it from another Church of Christ.
This purchase did not sit well with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now called the Community of Christ). In 1891, they unsuccessfully sued the Temple Lot church to gain control of those important acres.
The two churches then opened dialogue with each other and, in 1918, agreed that their members could transfer to either church without rebaptism.
One of those RLDS transferees was Otto Fetting, who became an apostle in the Temple Lot church. He said John the Baptist appeared to him and declared the temple needed to be built beginning in 1929 and finished in seven years.
On April 6, 1929, with only $889 in their temple fund, ground was broken on the temple lot. The tiny church's joy was to be short-lived.
Almost four months after ground was broken, Fetting announced that John the Baptist wanted all the RLDS transferees, about 1,100, to be rebaptized.
The Temple Lot church's quorum of the twelve called a special October conference. "Fetting is silenced at this conference, dropped from the quorum of the twelve and specifically forbidden from practicing rebaptism," Addams said.
Fetting left the church with about 400 people, according to Addams.
At their 1931 general conference, Temple Lot church apostle James Yates announced a revelation: "Let the work on the foundation proceed when the sum of $5,000 shall have accumulated in the treasury."
"That's really quite an amazing statement when (their architect said) it's going to cost half a million," Addams said.
In April 1936, the end of the seven-year deadline, the church voted to repudiate Fetting's John the Baptist messages "as being the work of God," even though their leaders felt the mandate to finish the temple was of God. They continued to try to raise $5,000.
Only $169 was then in the fund.
A plea was sent to the LDS for money to build the temple. President David O. McKay, then second counselor to President Heber J. Grant, wrote in his journal that "we courteously refused."
A donation in 1941 finally brought the temple fund to the $5,000 level — but then $4,000 mysteriously disappeared, leading to court action and accusations instead of temple building.
By 1943, the Temple Lot church abandoned the project.
Three years later, the hole was filled in and re-landscaped.
The Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS Church) completed its temple in 1994 near the temple lot. "They would interpret the building of their temple to be the fulfillment of the prophesy of Joseph Smith and the temple that will be raised here," Baugh said.
But for members of the LDS Church — and for the Church of Christ (Temple Lot) — that glorious day is yet to come.