It was just a small group - perhaps a dozen and a half people - who assembled in one of the most sacred rooms of the new Mormon temple in Kansas City, Missouri, a couple of weeks ago, but what happened there was deeply significant and will be long remembered.
It was during the public open house --the period when newly built temples are opened to the public for several weeks before they are officially dedicated. Missouri Governor Jay Nixon, along with the state’s first lady, the attorney general, several dignitaries and a handful of church officials, had toured most of the building and had found their way to one of the sealing rooms on an upper floor. This is the place in the temple where members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints undertake their most sacred sacraments --the marriage ceremonies that they believe unite couples for eternity.
As they were about to leave, Governor Nixon, in a reflective, meditative mood, asked if he could speak to the group, and he did so quietly for several minutes. (Most conversations in those carpeted, beautifully appointed rooms are spoken in quiet tones, precisely because the building engenders that kind of reverence). Three times in his remarks, Governor Nixon referred to the opening of the temple as symbolizing “a time of healing.”
You would have to come from Missouri, or be a Latter-day Saint, or very well-versed in American history to appreciate just how significant that phrase was, and how mightily it resonated with the Latter-day Saints in the room. In the troubled history of Latter-day Saints in the 1800s, incidents of persecution in Missouri rank among the most heinous. The brutal shooting of seventeen Latter-day Saints, including a ten-year-old child, at Haun’s Mill on Shoal Creek in eastern Caldwell County, in October of 1838 came just three days after Missouri Executive Order No. 44 - more commonly known as the “Mormon Extermination Order” issued by Governor Lilburn W. Boggs. That order was formally rescinded by Missouri Governor Kit Bond in 1976, citing its unconstitutionality.
Every Mormon knows this history from the Missouri period, and in any dispute it is rare that all the fault rests only with one side. But there was no trace of animosity, ill will or institutional memory as church leaders welcomed guests to the temple open house. Most journalists who sat for interviews were well-versed in the history and asked about it, but church leader William R. Walker, who oversees the church’s temples worldwide, declined to dwell on it, speaking only of the times of growth and progress born in the Missouri period, and remarking that some of the church’s most powerful modern scriptural passages have emanated from that same period.
On April 4 and April 5, Governor Nixon and Kansas Governor Sam Brownback each issued official proclamations, noting the contribution of Latter-day Saints to their states in warm and welcoming terms. “A time of healing” seemed perfectly to capture the moment.
“Healing” suggests not so much a debate on the rights and wrongs of history in which none of us had a part, as much as a willingness to set aside modern personal biases and engage in the kind of mutually respectful treatment befitting a nation that wears religious pluralism as a badge of honor. In such a society in 2012, we don’t call each other “cults.” We don’t automatically assume the worst of those who worship differently from us. We don’t mischaracterize their beliefs or quote their scriptures out of context.
At a time when people are asking questions about Latter-day Saints with renewed interest and curiosity, some journalists really do seem to be striving for the right tone, and exploring in very open and honest ways how to represent a faith group that is still little known to the public at large. Of course, there are exceptions. We can always count on a minority to launch the verbal equivalents of Haun’s Mill’s hail of bullets. But today is 2012, not 1838, and I like to think that we have learned something in 170 years. Over the next few months, with the intensity of interest in Latter-day Saints as high as it is, we may find out how much.
Michael Otterson is an On Faith panelist and heads the worldwide public affairs functions of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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