The Kirtland Temple, known originally as “The House of the Lord,” was built by followers of Joseph Smith, Jr.
Known as Latter Day Saints, they were seeking to restore original Christianity. They built the House of the Lord as a gathering place, just as Jesus’ earliest followers gathered to the Temple in Jerusalem. Like those original saints in Acts Chapter 2, the Latter Day Saints were seeking to experience Pentecost—an endowment of God’s Spirit, that they might then go forth among all nations.
As the the first Latter Day Saint temple, the House of the Lord was completed between 1833 and 1836. Using local sandstone and native timber from surrounding forests, the people worked together to construct what was then one of the largest buildings in northern Ohio. The Kirtland Temple stood at the center of community life for more than 2,000 believers by 1838. But within a year, all but 100 were gone.
The First Floor: "A House of Prayer"
Imagine 900 to 1,000 people filling the lower court for the dedication of the Kirtland Temple on March 27, 1836. People began gathering around the temple as early as 8 a.m. Many of those attending were involved in the construction of the temple. For seven hours, the lower court was filled with the sounds of sermons, songs, and prayers—a legacy of worship continuing to this day, although our services today never go that long!
During the dedication, Joseph prayed for the Lord to accept the house, which had been built by the Saints out of their poverty. A week later - on April 3, an Easter Sunday - Joseph and Oliver Cowdery said that they had seen a vision while praying in the Melchisedec pulpits: Christ appearing to them, and accepting the house and placing his name upon it. After this, they said other visions opened to them of ancient prophets, connecting the Latter Day Saints to former generations of God's covenant peoples.
Unique features of the lower court include richly carved wooden pulpits located at both the east and west ends of the room. The multi-leveled pulpits represent the two priesthoods of the church. Early church leaders spoke sermons from both sets of pulpits; pew boxes were fashioned with a movable bench, allowing their listeners to face either end of the room. Heavily painted curtains hung from the ceiling and acted as room dividers during prayer meetings and weekly services. These dividers allowed the early community members to use the lower court for multiple activities at one time. Choir lofts fill the corners of the room.
The Second Floor: "A House of Learning"
The second floor of the Temple contains a hall almost identical to the first floor. You have to look hard between the photo to the left and the photo above to notice the differences. But, unlike the first floor, this second floor known as the "House of Learning" was devoted to training the church's priesthood in what was called "The School of the Prophets."
The Temple's design - with two near-identical halls, one on top of the other - was incredibly unique, then and now. They could have used the first floor for both worship and education. But, the Temple invites you to encounter different purposes in uniquely set-apart spaces. This movement through sacred space invests purpose and order into each gathering; and was likely formative for those involved.
Like the first floor, a veil or curtain system could be employed on the second floor. Unlike the first floor, the House of Learning included writing desks and simplified pulpits lacking sacrament or communion tables at their front.
The Third Floor: "A House of Order"
"House of Order" is another way of saying the Kirtland Temple provided administrative space for Latter Day Saint church leaders to run the church.
In the evenings, the administrative quorums occupied the third floor. High Priests met on Monday nights, the Seventies on Tuesday nights, and the Elders on Wednesdays. Finally, Joseph Smith, Jr.'s private study is located in the far west office of the third floor. In this west office, during a meeting with several church leaders, the prayer of dedication for the Temple was written.
The five upper rooms of the third floor were also occupied by the Kirtland High School. Nearly 135 to 140 students filled the attic story learning a variety of lessons in geography, reading, writing, Greek and Latin. The far west room served as classroom space for the first Latter Day Saint seminary, the Kirtland, Ohio, Theological Institution. The Hebrew Grammar class was led by Joshua Seixas, a renowned Hebrew Scholar. It was among the first five seminaries in the state of Ohio. In 1838, the second and third floors continued to be devoted to education as the Western Reserve Teachers’ Seminary rented the space to train teachers. Having the second and third floors dedicated to learning demonstrates just how much value the Saints placed in education.
A Community Divides
Shortly after the dedication of the temple, the community fell on difficult times. Financial and personal tensions rose between members of the church and with surrounding communities. Much of the tension was caused from the creation of a bank, known as the Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company. This bank, located a few yards from the temple, was opened with hopes of alleviating the economic stresses of the community. Without a charter, the bank quickly lost the support of the surrounding communities and failed within months of opening. Lawsuits and dissent related to the failure of the Kirtland Bank resulted in the breakup of the community in 1838. By 1839, the Latter Day Saint community consisted of only 100 members. Although few in numbers and resources, the community continued to use the temple as a "house of learning" by renting the second and third floors to the Western Reserve Teachers Seminary in 1838–1839. Worship services continued in the Lower Court and by 1842, the community increased to 500 members.
Many Kirtland residents moved first to northern Missouri and then to Nauvoo, Illinois. Despite the frequent moves the church grew quickly and the teachings of its leaders evolved rapidly. Political, economic and religious differences with neighbors led to conflict, resulting in the death of Joseph Smith Jr. in 1844. Soon after his death, church leaders and the community they worked to establish began to divide. One of the branches of Joseph Smith’s Restoration movement, known as the Reorganization, obtained title to the temple and began caring for it. Known today as Community of Christ, this branch of the Restoration continues to care for the temple, continuing a tradition of worship and education at the temple that began in the 1830s.