While the city of Independence, Missouri, is best known for its connections to President Harry Truman, it also is a major spiritual destination, particularly for those who draw inspiration from the teachings and revelations of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, Jr.
Smith sent missionaries to Independence in 1831. At the time the town was on the outskirts of the frontier, a rough and rowdy outfitting post for pioneers headed west on the Santa Fe Trail. Within a short time hundreds of Mormons had settled in the area, building homes and establishing businesses. Smith declared Independence to be Zion, the city of God, and placed stone markers dedicating a site for a future temple.
Economic, social and religious differences ignited conflict between the Mormons and other community members. Tensions also arose over the issue of slavery, as many in the area were southern sympathizers while the newcomers hailed primarily from the north. In 1833 armed conflict broke out. The Mormon settlers moved north across the Missouri River, and then in 1835 established new headquarters in Nauvoo, Illinois.
In 1844, Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum were killed by a mob in nearby Carthage and the Latter Day Saints movement split into several groups. The largest branch, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS), traveled to Utah under the leadership of Brigham Young. Some of Smith’s other followers eventually chose to return to Independence, where two branches of the church were established. One group, now called the Church of the Temple Lot, returned in 1867 and purchased the property where Smith had hoped to establish a temple. The other group, known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, were under the leadership of Joseph Smith III, the eldest son of the founding prophet. They began returning to Independence in the 1870s. Independence became the church’s official headquarters in 1921. In 2001, the church changed its name to the Community of Christ to better reflect its theology and mission. (More information on Community of Christ landmarks in Independence.)
The Independence Mormon Visitors Center tells the story of the early Mormon settlers in Independence and traces the church’s history after leaving the area. On its upper level, you can tour interactive and audiovisual displays that outline the major tenets of the LDS Church. Particularly impressive is an exhibit with a huge globe accompanied by translations of the Book of Mormon in dozens of languages, indicating the worldwide reach of the faith.
On the lower level, historical displays bring to life the events that took place in Independence in the 1830s. A frontier cabin provides a place for guides to explain the hardships endured by the early settlers, while a printer’s shop triggers a discussion of the persecutions experienced by the Mormons. The first newspaper published in Independence came from a Mormon press in 1832. After locals demanded that the publication be halted and the printer refused, the press was heavily damaged and church members were harassed and abused. The exhibit shows how the Mormon identity was forged in part through tribulation and that the LDS Church continues to honor the sacrifices made by its early members.
Other religious sites in Independence include Trinity Episcopal Church, where Harry and Bess Truman were married in 1919 and where Bess’s funeral was held in 1982. The Church of Christ Temple Lot is another landmark. The building sits on the lot that was dedicated by the prophet Joseph Smith, Jr., in 1831 as the site of a temple. Its downstairs features a visitor’s area with two of the original marker stones for the temple, pieces that were found during an excavation in the 1920s.
If You Go: Independence Comfort Suites (www.choicehotels.com; 816-373-9880) offers convenient and comfortable lodging. Another option is Ophelia’s Inn (816-461-4525; www.opheliasind.com), located on the city’s historic town square. For upscale dining, book a table at Ophelia’s Restaurant, located downstairs from the inn. For more information, contact Independence Tourism at www.visitindependence.com or (800) 748-7323.