INDEPENDENCE, Missouri – In the spring of 1831, hundreds of Mormons arrived in the frontier town of Independence, bought land, cleared farms, and built sturdy log homes. Leader and prophet Joseph Smith, Jr. declared this to be the city of God, also called Zion, dedicated ground for a temple and drew up a plat for what would be a city of 15,000 to 20,000 residents.
Economic, political, religious and cultural differences between the Mormons and Missouri “old settlers” arose and were fanned into flames by the issue of slavery. By 1833, armed conflict broke out, and the Mormons were driven north across the Missouri River, eventually settling in Nauvoo, Illinois before they headed West.
The story of the Mormons in Independence is colorfully brought to life in the totally remodeled Mormon Visitors Center, 937 W. Walnut, which has just reopened after a year long renovation. The lower level offers a panoramic outdoor frontier “set” with trees, a furnished outdoor cabin and costumed life-sized mannequins in period clothes using tools and artifacts of the time to build a cabin and clear the land for planting.
A reconstruction of the Times and Seasons printing office shows an authentic setup for a printing press operation, where a number of Church publications were created in early Independence.
An interactive children’s room includes a smaller sized furnished log cabin with pioneer dolls, covered wagon pulled by a horse, chicken coop, large floor-to-ceiling tree and a game table where families can play with frontier-era games. Two movie theaters can show films on request from a library of more than 30 titles, available in English or Spanish.
Main floor highlights include exhibits explaining beliefs and doctrines of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These include a major themed display on God’s Plan for his Family, a six -room journey through sets with plasma screen clips that illustrate one’s journey through life.
Other major areas of focus are a large statue of the Christus with narration, a Book of Mormon display with a large rotating globe, an area of Book of Mormon exhibits with touch screens, a display with a barn, silo and farmhouse that runs award winning “Home Front” television commercials, and a display on temples and modern prophets. Interactive technology and audio-visual screens highlight many exhibits.
The Mormon Visitors Center is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and is free. Call 816-836-3466.
If you are planning to visit Independence, there are other Church-related sites to see. When Joseph Smith was killed, Brigham Young led the majority of followers across the plains to the Great Basin, where he established the territory of Utah. Among followers who remained in Nauvoo and the surrounding area were two groups who would return to Independence.
One group, now called The Church of Christ Temple Lot, returned in 1867 and purchased the temple lot properties, including the dedicated site for the temple, which can be toured today. Members of the other, known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, began returning in the late l880s. In 1920, Independence became the church’s official headquarters, where it remains today. Now known as The Community of Christ, this Church built and maintains two major Independence landmarks.
- The Community of Christ Auditorium boasts a 6,000-seat conference center with one of the largest free-standing church organs in the United States. Following a free tour, families may visit the upstairs Children’s Peace Pavilion, a hands-on interactive experience created to foster peace.
- The Church’s Temple, with its stunning architecture and modernistic silver spire piercing the sky, is highly visible around Independence. The ceiling of the sanctuary rises 200 feet from the floor, and echoes the shape of a nautilus seashell. Another world-class organ, plus a Japanese meditation garden, and worshipper’s path with carved glass panels, sculpture and granite fountains, make this a unique and peaceful tour experience the lower level also houses a museum containing church historical artifacts and documents and a gift shop/bookstore. A block away, the Community of Christ Old Stone Church has a breathtaking collection of unique historic stained glass windows on view.
The Church of Christ Temple Lot maintains a visitor’s area on the lower level of the church. Visitors may watch a video explaining the history of the Church, and view historical artifacts including two original marker stones for the temple, laid in 1831 and found during modern excavation in the 1920s.The temple site is on the National Historic Register and the Missouri Mormon Walking Trail.
Those interested in Mormon history will enjoy following the marked Missouri Mormon Walking Trail, with fourteen bronze sidewalk plaques. A free brochure with details and a map for the walking trail is available at any of the above sites, or from Independence Tourism on request.
Historic Catholic, Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist churches dating from the 1800s are still used in Independence. These include the church where Harry and Bess Truman were married, and the state’s oldest operating African-American church, which has been meeting since 1860.
Visitors should allow plenty of time to visit other Independence highlights, including the Truman Presidential Museum & Library, Truman Home, National Frontier Trails Museum, Vaile Mansion, Bingham-Waggoner Estate and Puppetry Arts Institute.