Days 100-101/ June 6th-7th – North Kansas City, MO to Plattsburg, MO: The Latter-Day Saint ‘Hood

After the best breakfast thus far on our walk, an orgy of blueberry pancakes and fruit smoothies at Ginger Sue’s in the town of Liberty, we asked our waitress, a young Japanese-American girl, what she recommended we go and see in town.

“Oh, I dunno,” she shrugged.  “There are some trails, I guess.”  She paused for thought. “Or you could go see the Jesse James Museum.  I went to have a look at that my senior year in high school a few years ago.  It was so boring!”

Main Street in Liberty, Missouri

Liberty, Missouri: A nice place to live, at last

We were in Jesse James country, and ‘boring’ is not usually an adjective applied to his life.  He was born in Kearney, our destination today, in 1847, and drifted into outlawry while fighting with Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War.  After the war, he formed the James-Younger gang, and one of their first targets had been the Farmers’ Bank, here in Liberty, on February 13th 1866.  Today it was the Clay County Savings Association, a solid brick building on the corner of Liberty’s lovely Victorian square.  They struck during the daytime, the first such bank robbery in America, and got away with $60,000, a considerable sum at the time.

James had a long subsequent career, spending ten years with the same gang and then three years with a second, until in St. Joseph (our destination in two days’ time) he was murdered in bathetic fashion in 1882 – shot in the back of the head while standing on a chair to adjust a picture.  He was still only 35, and had been one of the most wanted men in America for almost half his life.  He was buried in Kearney, though a poke around its cemetery failed to yield any sign of his grave.

“You’re going to Kearney?” our waitress remarked.  “Ugh!  Why?”

We were also in Mormon country, and before we left Liberty we went to visit one of the Church of Latter-Day Saints’ most hallowed sites.  In place of a long disquisition on the origins of the Mormons (which probably isn’t why you’re here), it’s helpful to think of their early history as a highly accelerated microcosm of the Jewish experience: a fringe sect, grudgingly tolerated by the authorities, fleeing from place to place to escape persecution before being led by a chosen prophet on a long and perilous migration to a promised land.  For Abraham, read Joseph Smith; for Egypt, Missouri and Illinois; for Moses, Brigham Young; for Israel, Utah.

The Mormons had first come to Missouri in 1830 – a year after their church was founded in New York – to preach to local Indians (one of the more eye-catching assertions in the Book of Mormon was that native Americans were members of the lost tribes of Israel, and hence prime candidates for conversion).  Congress promptly forbade them to proselytise to the Indians, so they switched to the local settlers, and had enough success that their leader, Joseph Smith, moved from New York to Independence, Missouri to join them.

Community of Christ Temple in Independence, Missouri

Mollusc? Electric drill? You be the judge.

Harry Truman may have loved his hometown of Independence, which we visited last week, but not nearly as much as the early Mormons did.  They believed it was Zion, where Christ would one day establish the Kingdom of God on Earth at the Second Coming (he’d better hurry: property prices are becoming prohibitive).  Joseph Smith arrived in the town and announced that a vacant lot near the centre was the site of the prophesied Temple of the New Jerusalem.  The local townsfolk, who one senses had had just about enough of all this by now, began an efficient and systematic persecution of the Mormons, driving them out of Independence in 1833 and the whole of Missouri in 1838.

Joseph Smith was arrested in Liberty that year, and imprisoned in the town jail.  Only its foundations survived, now housed in a rather grim Sixties bunker topped with a grand copper rotunda.  I was given a tour by Elder Coombs, a dapper, silver-haired man on a year’s secondment from Utah.

“Are you a Mormon?” he asked as we walked into the rotunda.

“No,” I said. “I’m an atheist.”

“Ah, well,” he replied.  “I suppose we can fit you in.”

LIberty Jail in Liberty, Missouri

Liberty Jail in, uh, Liberty

The jail had been reconstructed on top of the foundations, complete with mannequins of Joseph Smith and his imprisoned followers, sitting rather dejectedly in the cut-away basement in the manner of people at a bus stop during a tube strike.  After six months, they all escaped, probably with the connivance of the local authorities, and made their way to the new Mormon settlement in Illinois.

Many Mormons have since made their way back to Missouri, and especially to Independence, and when we passed through the town last week we visited its most extraordinary building, the Community of Christ Temple.  Like any self-respecting Christian church, the Mormons have splintered into dozens of competing denominations; the Community of Christ broke away as early as 1844, before the Mormons even made it to Utah, and has even managed to splinter into People’s Front of Judea/ Judean People’s Front denominations of its own.  It has built as its HQ in Independence ‘an architectural symbol of God’s involvement with humankind through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ’, which resembled nothing so much as a 300-foot high mollusc shell.

Inside the Sanctuary at the Community of Christ Temple

Inside the ice-cream co-, er, Temple Sanctuary

We walked to it through a shabby stretch of dilapidated and abandoned warehouses, which gave way to the neat hedges and lush lawns of the Temple grounds.  Paul Hansen, a church volunteer in his eighties, spotted us loitering in the echoing reception area and kindly offered us a tour.  Inside, the Temple felt like an understated corporate headquarters or an expensive private gallery, with winding corridors (‘The Worshiper’s Path’) filled with avant-garde and self-consciously multi-cultural artworks.  At its centre was the Sanctuary, a 1,600-seat church dominated by a colossal organ that entirely filled one wall, and with a white ceiling curling around on itself to a point hundreds of feet above the aisle.  It was like being in the centre of an ice-cream cone.

Alongside the Oregon and California Trails, we’ll also be following the Mormon Trail, the route taken by early Mormon emigrants to Salt Lake City, for hundreds of miles across the Midwest, so it was gratifying to get to grips with the events that led them to set out west.  They seem to occupy a unique place in the history of America – a purported haven from religious persecution that ended up persecuting them – and we’re looking forward to seeing what they made of their new life in the desert, 1,500 miles and three months from now.

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One Response to “Days 100-101/ June 6th-7th – North Kansas City, MO to Plattsburg, MO: The Latter-Day Saint ‘Hood”

  1. BaileyPaige Says:

    Stumbled across your charming blog today. I live in the Kansas City area and thought you’d enjoy knowing how the locals refer to the Community of Christ temple. Many people call it “The Jesus Slide”. 🙂

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