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MORMON MOMENT

Romney's run spotlights tension over faith's distinctive beliefs - and Missouri is at the center of many.

BY TIM TOWNSEND

ttownsend@post-dispatch.com

INDEPENDENCE, MO. - With a stark white statue of Jesus - his arms stretched out before him, palms up in invitation - four missionaries sing hymns to carry a message Mormons have been trying to get across for generations.

They work six days a week at the visitors center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, declaring to all who will stop and listen that they worship Jesus Christ.

And yet the missionaries work against a backdrop far bigger than an 8-foot-tall likeness of Christ.

The young women are on peculiar soil, just feet from a small, scrubby plot of land sacred only within Mormonism. It's a setting that in some ways distracts from their effort to draw ties between Mormons and other Christians.

In 1831, founder Joseph Smith declared that the righteous would gather in Independence to greet the second coming of Jesus Christ - yet another of his prophecies that estranged the faith from traditional Christianity.

"I feel so humble knowing what will happen here, " said Camille Cashmore, 21, who is on an 18-month mission from California. "This is where God called me to be, to help build up Zion."

Few places have greater historic and religious significance to Mormons than western Missouri. Likewise few places have been the site of greater Mormon conflict.

In the 1830s, Smith's prophecies sent thousands of the converted west from Ohio and upstate New York to claim their New Jerusalem. Disputes with Missourians led to a bloody Mormon War that ended only when the state's governor issued an "extermination order" to expel Smith's followers.

Today, few places are better to contemplate the evolving - but still uncertain - relationship between Mormonism and the country where it was founded.

On the one hand, Missouri symbolizes how far Mormons have come. At least 66,000 Mormons now live in the state, more than triple the number of just three decades ago. Most recently, the LDS church has built a temple in Kansas City, near the epicenter of the Mormon War.

But Missouri also serves to highlight the intractable differences between mainstream Christianity and Mormon theology.

Independence and other nearby sites in western Missouri - including a pasture 70 miles north that Smith tied to the Garden of Eden - serve to emphasize distinctive Mormon beliefs. Those differences are amplified by Mormons' new scriptures, peculiar doctrines and the abandoned practice of polygamy.

A November poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life found that half of non-Mormons do not consider Mormons Christian and when asked to describe the faith in one word, the most common response was "cult."

That tension of a faith still on the edges of acceptance and yet growing in popularity has surfaced with the nomination of Mitt Romney as the Republican candidate for president. It has been highlighted further by the popularity of the Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon, " which pokes fun at elements of the faith.

All the attention has added up to what has been dubbed the "Mormon moment." And many Mormons have greeted it with a measure of ambivalence. A January Pew poll reinforces that anxiety, with two-thirds of Mormons saying they don't believe they are accepted as part of mainstream society.

"I think some people have a sense of anxiety, and maybe a little hesitancy to speak up and share right now, " said Ben Munson, a Lake Saint Louis resident who serves on the church's regional public affairs council. "But there are others who look at this moment as a huge opportunity to share the gospel with a co-worker or a friend."

A NEW JERUSALEM

Long before this Mormon moment, Americans were fixated by a new and strange Christian movement - one that triggered conflict wherever it was practiced.

Smith burst onto the young nation's religious landscape during the Second Great Awakening of the 1820s and '30s, a period of religious revival that included widespread belief across American Christianity that the return of Jesus Christ was imminent.

While that movement would also give rise to mainstream Christian movements such as the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Smith took things further.

Smith sought not merely to reform Christianity, but to rebuild the early Christian church, with new apostles and priesthood authority. He claimed not only to have seen God and Jesus in a vision as a young boy, but also to have been given gold plates from an angel, from which he published the Book of Mormon.

Smith's prophecies were specific. In a revelation he was given in Ohio in 1831, just a year after completing the Book of Mormon, he said God had told him a "New Jerusalem, a land of peace, a city of refuge, a place of safety for the saints" would be built in Jackson County, Mo.

"And the glory of the Lord shall be there, and the terror of the Lord also shall be there, " Smith's revelation continued, "insomuch that the wicked will not come unto it, and it shall be called Zion."

The revelations declared that a temple, "reared in this generation, " would be built on a specific lot in Independence, 10 miles east of Kansas City, and would be the site of a gathering for the second coming of Jesus Christ. He also called for two additional temples in western Missouri.

The boldness of those claims invited conflict with Missouri settlers. Mormons who settled in Jackson County were soon pushed out. And when a plan to relocate Mormons to newly formed Caldwell County also ended in conflict, Gov. Lilburn Boggs ordered all Mormons out - leaving their sacred sites behind.

Since then, the vividness of Smith's prophecy about a gathering and temple in Independence has faded.

"Today neither Missouri nor the temple lot there figure prominently in the consciousness of the average Mormon, " said Terryl Givens, a Mormon and professor of religion and literature at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "Most Mormons probably don't even know the particulars of Smith's teachings on the subject."

CORE DOCTRINES

Modern Mormonism should be defined not by unusual Missouri prophecies, Givens said, but by core doctrines. And many Mormons focus on what's common between their faith and mainstream Christianity. They worship Jesus Christ, and take weekly sacraments in his name. They host potluck dinners and youth socials.

"Outsiders' fantasies of what Mormons do in worship services are much more exciting than the truth, " said Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a non-Mormon scholar of the faith and chairwoman of the University of North Carolina's religion department. "When I send my students to a sacrament service, they usually come back talking about how boring it was."

But that's not to say that prophecies about Missouri and the historic sites tied to them have been stripped of spiritual significance.

On a recent searing-hot afternoon, financial planner Tom Springer, 39, and his wife, Olivia Hood, 34, a piano teacher, both from Fort Worth, Texas, stopped for a picnic at Far West, Mo. - a site Smith had designated for a temple.

The couple were crossing the country to visit family, and they stopped at a few Mormon sites to teach their children about the history of their church and to connect with the suffering and fortitude of that first generation of saints.

The couple said that while they believe in the prophecies of their faith - including a gathering of Mormons in Missouri during the last days - some of those teachings don't fit in their daily lives.

"We believe those revelations from the prophet as central to the restored church, and we take them extremely seriously, " Springer said.

"When God tells me to move my family to Independence, I'll move them, " Hood said. "But right now, we like Fort Worth. We're not going to put our house on the market just yet."

ZION, THE PURE IN HEART

Today, Joseph Smith's prophecies for western Missouri remain unfulfilled.

The plot of land in Independence that Smith said would be the site of Zion's great temple is a vacant lot, owned and safeguarded by a tiny LDS offshoot group. But various sects with ties to Mormonism still revere the land's significance.

The 250,000-member Community of Christ, for example, has built a glistening conch-shape temple, designed by famed St. Louis architect Gyo Obata, across the street from Smith's designated temple site.

The larger LDS church, meanwhile, maintains its visitor center across the street, where missionaries such as Cashmore conduct tours and show movies that tell the story of the early Mormon pioneers.

For Jeremiah Morgan the call to Zion's soil is tilled deep into his genealogy. Morgan's ancestors were Joseph Smith's neighbors in Nauvoo, Ill., where Mormons congregated after their expulsion from Missouri. Smith was killed there, and soon after that, Brigham Young led the saints to Utah. But Morgan's relatives remained in the Midwest and joined a reorganized LDS group that had rejected Young's leadership.

When Morgan was a child, his mother moved her family to Independence to prepare for the gathering at Zion.

Morgan, 41, has since joined the larger LDS church and is now a stake president, one of the highest church officers in the Kansas City region. It's the same church position held by Mitt Romney in Boston from 1986 to 1994.

Morgan said the reason the areas around Independence "are important elements of our belief system" was simple.

"Because the first prophet of the church said it was, " he said.

But if the early saints viewed western Missouri as a final gathering place, modern Mormons tend to think of Zion more metaphorically, as a state of spiritual being. Today's saints are more focused on constancy, on sticking around suburban subdivisions across the nation and driving minivans packed with children to small congregations they've built up to practice their faith together.

"The prophet said to make Zion wherever you are, " Morgan said. "Zion is people."

And in that spirit, Mormons are congregating once more in Missouri.

Some have migrated in recent decades from Utah and other Western states with high Mormon populations. And in the process they've converted Missourians by the thousands to the faith.

In 1997, Mormons reached a landmark moment in Missouri, dedicating a temple in St. Louis - just the 50th in the world at the time.

And this May, Mormons in the Kansas City region, who now number nearly 30,000, gathered to dedicate a gleaming white, double-spired temple. It was built not on the sacred plots designated by Smith, but off an interstate, just 3 miles west of a jail that once held Smith for four months.

Gov. Jay Nixon visited the temple's open house and referred to the dedication as "a time of healing, " according to the church's news service.

Speeches during the dedication service made reference to western Missouri's unhappy place in church history, but also emphasized healing rather than pain.

The temple, Morgan said, represents "how far we've come as a people and as a nation."

But while it is symbolically significant that the church finally has a temple where the earliest saints spent some of their darkest hours, for most of today's Mormons, geography is secondary.

"Zion can be anywhere the pure in heart are, " said Paige Conrow, 22, a missionary from Montana working at the Independence LDS visitors center. "The history is amazing here, but it really all goes back to Jesus Christ."

Valley is linked to Adam, Christ

To Mormons, the obscure plot in northwestern Missouri represents both the beginning and end of human time.

BY TIM TOWNSEND

ttownsend@post-dispatch.com

DAVIESS COUNTY, MO. - When Jose Rangel got out of his minivan on a hot day here recently, he stretched, then helped his elderly mother from the passenger seat. Rangel's wife and children spilled out of the side door into the manicured parking lot. What could be a scene from any American family's summer visit to a state park was actually a spiritual pilgrimage.

The Rangels were at Adam-ondi-Ahman, a mysterious plot of land 70 miles north of Kansas City owned and maintained as a sacred site by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

"This place is very important to the church, " said Rangel, who had brought his mother to the site while she was visiting from Mexico. "When Jesus Christ comes for the second time, this is where he's going to come."

"And, " Rangel's daughter Nefertiti, 15, added, "this is where it all started."

To non-Mormons it sounds odd that a bluff in northwestern Missouri, on a bend 124 feet above the Grand River, represents to 15 million people both the beginning and end of human time. It may also be a surprise to some Mormons.

Adam-ondi-Ahman (adam-on-die-AH-min) is a part of the faith that most Mormons don't encounter in their everyday lives or incorporate into their regular worship.

Yet, for believers such as the Rangel family, Adam-ondi-Ahman also fits in a small but significant way into their faith's broader theology.

Mormons believe that in June 1838, Smith received a revelation from God that this Mormon farming settlement of between 500 and 1,000 above the Grand River was to be called Adam-ondi-Ahman - a translation from "the original language spoken by Adam, " according to the church, that means "Valley of God, where Adam dwelt."

Church doctrine makes reference to the place as the site where Adam and Eve went after God banished them from the Garden of Eden. It's also regarded as a gathering place for the faithful at the second coming of Jesus Christ.

Author Brook Wilensky-Lanford said Smith's prophecy was best be understood in the context of history. Mormons had repeatedly been pushed out of their settlements, and longed for a gathering place.

"The Garden of Eden sounded to Smith like a perfect refuge, " said Wilensky-Lanford, who wrote "Paradise Lust: Searching for the Garden of Eden."

"It was about finding the perfect place, and about exile from that place."

Today, many Mormons say they give Adam-ondi-Ahman little thought. Columbia University scholar and practicing Mormon Richard Bushman even calls it "Mormon lore."

And yet, many Mormons believe this plot of land has been used by outsiders to cast Mormonism as weird. There's even a Missouri Garden of Eden reference in the hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon, " which pokes fun at elements of the faith.

Portrayals of Mormonism that gravitate toward the edges of the faith's doctrine are rooted in human nature, some scholars say. We are more drawn to the unusual and exotic than to the normal and bland. A Missouri Garden of Eden is more interesting than traditional belief in Jesus Christ.

"Such a focus distorts, by replacing what is essential to the faith with what is tangential, " said Terryl Givens, professor of literature and religion at the University of Richmond and a Mormon. "And by distorting, you discredit."

Adam-ondi-Ahman is in such a remote part of northwestern Missouri that getting there requires GPS coordinates. Past Nalle's Feed & Grain, MFA Agri Services and Gallatin Truck & Tractor, a tiny country road leads to a white-picket gate. Inside, the grounds are meticulously groomed - neat gravel roads with symmetrically planted trees on both sides lead to an overlook of the valley below.

The site's plaques mention Adam and Eve, only to say that Smith named the place after Adam. The church leaves it up to Mormons to teach their own children that it is in this valley that a future gathering of Adam and his righteous descendants will meet with Jesus Christ during the last days.

There are no missionaries or guides at Adam-ondi-Ahman. On a typical summer afternoon, hours can pass with no visitors. But Mormon families do trickle through, often as part of a pilgrimage to a host of nearby sites that mark the significance of western Missouri in Smith's cosmology, or historical sites of interest in Mormonism's bloody history here.

For families such as the Rangels, the prophecies of Adam-ondi-Ahman, while abstract, are valid. They speak to the faith's foundational claim that Smith was the first of many modern prophets, who reopened communication with God, with visions of angelic messengers and new scripture such as the Book of Mormon.

For Mormons, this early period of the church - from Smith's first visions in New York, to Brigham Young's trek to Utah - is sacred history, told in Sunday school alongside Old Testament stories of Moses and the Exodus.

"It is the founding narrative of our faith, and it's used to shape lessons, to teach virtues and values, the same way Scriptures are used, " said Matthew Bowman, a religion professor at Hampden-Sydney College in Virginia. "And Adam-ondi-Ahman really does fit into that."

KEY DATES

1831 - Mormon founder Joseph Smith declares that the second coming of Jesus Christ is near and that the City of Zion would be in Independence, Mo.

1831 - Mormons, most from Ohio, begin settling in Jackson County, Mo., believing they were destined to inherit the land.

1833 - Tension between Mormon immigrants and Missourians escalates, and in August, mobs evict Mormons from Jackson County. Most move to nearby Clay County.

1836 - Newly formed Caldwell County is established as a Mormon settlement.

August 1838 - Hostilities re-emerge, including a violent battle at Crooked River, in what is known as the Mormon War.

October 1838 - Gov. Lilburn Boggs issues Missouri Executive Order 44, stating that "the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace. ..."

October 1838 - 17 Mormons are killed at the settlement of Haun's Mill by mobs who were probably unaware of the extermination order.

November 1838 - Mormon leaders surrender, and prophet Joseph Smith and others are imprisoned at Liberty Jail.

1839 - Mormons resettle in Nauvoo, Ill., where they remain before leaving for Utah.

1848 - St. Louis becomes a haven for Mormons from other cities to prepare for treks out West.

1976 - Gov. Christopher "Kit" Bond rescinds the 1838 extermination order.

1997 - A Mormon temple is dedicated in St. Louis, the 50th worldwide.

2012 - A Kansas City temple is dedicated.

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