Kirtland Temple – Sunstone Symposium review

Sunstone Kirtland Symposium – a review

I figured I would put down some vary basic notes and thoughts on the Kirtland Symposium. It was a joint venture between Sunstone, John Whitmer Historical Association, and the Community of Christ.  The CoC provided the rooms in their visitor’s center, adjacent to the temple.  Their center is a nice, warm and inviting place, strengthened by some wonderful people like Ron Romig.  They are doing a wonderful job maintaining the Kirtland Temple and providing such access to it as a sacred space in the Kirtland area.

About 40 people attended, not bad considering it was the first symposium in the area of its kind, and Sunstone is not exactly appreciated or perhaps even trusted by mainstream Mormons, being that they tend to lean left.  That said, the group had a great experience, with seminars going from the left to at least the center of the Mormon realm.

First Session

For me, perhaps the best lecture was the very first.  John Hamer, a Community of Christ member and Mormon Historian, discussed the early church, Kirtland temple and the factions that arose.  He discussed in detail the conversion of the Kirtland area (doubling the membership), and how it brought Joseph Smith and the eastern saints west. Due to property values, many of the eastern saints were sent to Missouri, where land was cheap.  Hamer spoke about the construction of the temple, how there was no blue print for building it, but was put together as they went along. This explains some issues with the temple, such as the stairways that block part of the windows in the front.  After the day of Pentecost during the dedication, Hamer explained the economic crash of the bank Joseph Smith started, and how this began an exodus from the Church, as well as push the faithful followers of Joseph to Missouri.  John then explained the various groups/sects that popped out of Kirtland and Nauvoo, with the two major groups being the LDS and Community of Christ churches.  He described how some of the leading members followed other sects, or jumped between them for a time.  Interestingly, much of the difference had to do with where the group decided the apostasy of the Church began. Some drew the line with polygamy and the endowment, while others went so far as to reject the Book of Mormon.  Some rejected the Church, because for a time it called itself the “Latter-day Saint Church”, which did not have Jesus’ name in the title, and therefore could not be Christ’s true religion.  I recommend if you want to learn about the early church and its divisions, etc., you consider reading John’s book, “Scattering of the Saints, Schisms Within Mormonism.”

Second Session

Donald Westbrook, Catholic and PhD in religion candidate at Claremont, discussed the struggle it is to find a balance in studying esoteric religions, such as Mormonism and Scientology.  When it comes to the endowment, for instance, how do you do good scholarship without insulting the people you are studying?  He suggested the Goldilocks standard.  You need to determine whether the research is “too hot”, “too cold”, or “just right”.  He gave President Packer’s book on the temple as being “too cold” as it really does not describe anything of what goes on.  He gave Dr John-Charles Duffy’s lds endowment website as “too hot”, because while it comes from an active and faithful member, it holds little back to the imagination in regards to what goes on in the endowment.  Westbrook suggests a middle of the road approach, even though he can never fully understand it, as he will never experience the endowment himself.  That said, his choice of respecting the esoteric beliefs of other faiths is refreshing.  Interestingly, there were some in the audience that felt more needed to be put forth regarding it, including an ex-Mormon who has written many negative things about the Church.  But then there were several, including me, who thanked him for his approach.  It allows the sacred space to be respected, while still allowing sociologists and others to understand many things regarding the LDS religion.  As I thanked him, I noted other non-LDS scholars, such as Jan Shipps, who have taken this approach with much success.

During lunch, music from the Broadway musical and Mitt Romney-related humor from the Daily Show and Colbert Report were played.

Session Three
There were two sessions after lunch: Community of Christ’s Women’s Ordinations, and the Hill Cumorah Pageant at 75.

Given that I intentionally choose to avoid certain topics that currently have no easy resolution and that tend to only cause divisions, I went with the Hill Cumorah Pageant seminar.

Gerald and Gail Argetsinger presented.  He was a former president/director of the pageant (1987-1997), while she formerly was in charge of costuming (1978-1997).  Gerald gave a wonderful presentation about the history of the pageant and its initial beginnings as an activity for the missionaries in the area. He explained how it grew over the years, and how in the 1980s they changed the script to gear it more towards eastern, young visitors.  Their success led to attendance of almost 100,000 in 1997. Gerald described how difficulties would cause them to think of better ways of doing things, such as the Lehi at Sea scene, where the equipment was installed backwards, and broke down. After using it  for a couple years, he was inspired instead to have the mast break off and the sail float away.
During this successful period, the Missionary Department decided to step in and make it a part of their official program. Sadly, they sanitized the production, insisting the prophets be in white and the crowds in beige (rather than in a variety of styles). Their main audience would be LDS visitors from Salt Lake, and it showed.  Attendance dropped to 20,000 in 2005.  Fortunately, there is a new director who is turning things around, and Gerald hopes to see it return to its high quality theater, which New York audiences expect.  Sadly, even the church sometimes struggles with bureaucracy. Gerald did note that all the General Authorities, who saw the productions, were extremely supportive.

Gail explained the changes and development of costumes.  Did you know that from ¼ mile, purple looks gray?  So, a purple outfit required a variety of other colors around it to set the purple off and have it seen from a distance. Lighting changed from the early years, when car headlights illumined the various areas of the hill, to the very bright theater lights they now use.  She describe several miracles that occurred, as time ran out to make 50 Lamanite women dresses, and the Lord leading them to an Afghan dress shop that just happened to have 50 outfits exactly how she needed them, and for only $20 each!  The costuming was amazing from the photos and costumes she demonstrated.

Session Four

The next two sessions were: The Burial of Joseph and Emma (discussing monogamy/polygamy and the CoC’s attempts to maintain Joseph as monogamist), and my lecture on the “The Book of Mormon as an Ancient Ascension Text”.  Of course, I was only able to attend one, and the symposium leaders insist I be present for my own presentation.  I will be preparing my slides and a text on my lecture within the next few weeks.  I will say that with the exception of some technical issues (computer’s battery died 10 minutes into my seminar), it went fairly well. Of course, the questioning afterward was rigorous by a few skeptics, but that is always expected.  I also had one observer suggest I work it into a book.  Not sure if I have that much time, but it is something to consider.  Maybe something to do with David Larsen, who also studies ascension texts in-depth (that is, if his graduate program at St Andrews gave him the time).

Following my session, was the “Midwest Pilgrimage”, a LDS women’s discussion group; and “De-cantakering Joseph Smith”.  I chose the latter to attend.

Session Five

Ross Osmond, PhD, discussed a theory on how the brain works, and how we should apply it to Joseph Smith, as well as to one another. He explained a quadrant, where 4 concepts were situated: What, Why, How, Who.  Each explains a certain way the brain may work: What = Facts based, How = Action based, Why = Context based, and Who= Emotion-based.

From his research, we find that most people tend to be dominant in one or two of these areas (I am very contextual).  For charismatics, such as Joseph Smith, they tend to use all 4 areas equally, or as needed.  With such ability, they are able to draw people to them, but also generate controversy, as they tend towards one or two groups, they may antagonize another group.  Groups that work together are What/How and Why/Who.  A discussion between Facts and Context ends up being a discussion that goes in circles.  And to diagonally cross creates tension: facts and emotions often don’t work together, nor does context and action.

Dr Osmond explained that when we see how Joseph and other charismatics are able to use all 4 areas equally well, that we can then begin to understand them on a new level.  Also, as we personally learn to understand this, we can reduce conflict by recognizing which forms we tend to use, and how they may interact with others.
I thought it was a very interesting concept he presented.  Dan Vogel did ask an interesting question regarding it: how does one tie this to a person who has been dead for centuries?  How does one do forensic studies to determine when Joseph was being contextual or emotional?  Given this is a beginning theory for Dr Osmond, who has found it useful in his practice, I hope he’ll do the research to see how well it works in conjunction with a forensic consideration. If successful, it may assist anthropologists, historians, and others to begin studying what a historical being may have been thinking or projecting when speaking or working with others.

Session Six

Next came a panel discussion on the “Historicity of the First Vision”.  The panel consisted of Lachlan Mackay, Stephen Taysom and Dan Vogel.  John-Charles Duffy moderated, and began by asking each member to consider mostly, whether the historicity of the First Vision mattered. For those readers unaware, there are several accounts of the First Vision (I’ve heard as many as 11), that differ in their story from the second hand 1820s versions that say angels visited Joseph, to the 1832 version where Joseph says Jesus appeared and forgave him of his sins, to the official 1838 version where Joseph saw Father and Son and was told all the creeds were an abomination.

Lachlan Mackay, director of the CoC Nauvoo sites, did an unofficial survey amongst many of the CoC workers and leaders he knows.  His wife said she did not believe the First Vision was historical.  The vast majority stated that the historicity did not matter.  Interestingly, they tend to use the 1832 version.  Lachlan explained that ambiguity is something the Community of Christ is learning to embrace, and that on job application forms the person is asked how they deal with ambiguity. Dealing to accept ambiguity has affected the CoC, as thousands who view things in black and white have left their ranks over such acceptance of ambiguity.

Stephen Taysom discussed a variety of issues, mostly regarding the 1832 and 1838 visions. IIRC, he noted that the 1838 version actually challenges evangelicals, as it notes God’s disdain for their creeds, which brings animosity towards Mormons from them. He discussed some methodologies to discuss the value of evidences available. He finally determined that historicity was not important.

Dan Vogel, author and historian on Mormonism (and well known by many LDS scholars for his statements on the Church and its history), first attacked the methodologies mentioned by Taysom as being inadequate and liable to individual bias.  He then described major difference between the 1832 and 1838 accounts, insisting that the historicity of the First Vision IS important.  I was speaking to him earlier in the day (though we disagree on many things, he is a very amiable and nice person), and he admitted that he believes something happened, but he doesn’t know what. For him, it likely could have been something induced by hormones, a brain disease, as Vogel does not believe in God, and so there is no real God to approach Joseph.  For Dan, Joseph was a “pious fraud” who believed God gave him a call, and he did whatever was necessary to accomplish that call, even if it meant lying and/or changing a story along the way.

For me, the issue is that we only have fragments and traces of stories. We cannot easily do forensics on the issue, to see whether Joseph initially focused on his personal experience with Christ, but later as he grew into being a prophet, noted the other issues that made it not just a personal event of forgiveness, but an event that included many important issues for him as prophet and the restoration.  For example, as a teenager, the first few times I read the Book of Mormon, I mostly noted the wars and action events.  Now, at 52, I don’t focus much on the wars, but on the teachings.  It isn’t that they weren’t there all along, but I just didn’t take notice of them, until they became very important to me.  Perhaps it is the same for Joseph Smith.  Again, without lots of evidence to do good forensics on, we just do not know exactly what went on.

Kirtland Temple Sunday service

Imagine having a church meeting in the Kirtland temple!  Ramona and I were eager to have this experience, and were able to sit in the front row box.  The meeting was conducted by Mary Ellen Robertson.  Among the hymns sung, was a Community of Christ hymn (sadly, I’ve forgotten its name), Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing, and the Spirit of God.

Michael Vinson, who writes for Sunstone gave the keynote.  His topic was supposed to be “Hard Journeys to Sacred Places: A Look at Mormon Spiritual Pilgrimage”, but he changed it.  Instead, he spoke of each person needing to find their “authentic self”. He used several religious references, including from Buddhist teachings, as well as Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra”.  He did not make much reference to LDS or even Christian materials available.  It was a very excellent lecture on finding our true selves, and not walking anyone else’s path.  My one criticism, and perhaps it might feel like driving a stake through the heart of the lecture, is that it did not speak of spiritual things, of Jesus, or of the sacred space we were in.  When he concluded, I felt my mind filled with interesting and relevant things.  Yet my spirit was left empty.  I would note that there are sacred places for intelligence, where one seeks to fill his mind.  In such places, we would hope the teachers are like Michael, in filling the minds with great thoughts.  I would also add that there are sacred places to fill the soul, and the Kirtland Temple is one perfect spot.

After his talk, they allowed time for the congregation to speak (Quaker style).  The first to arise was Gail Argetsinger.  She began discussing the beauty of the miracles that have occurred in her life because of the restoration, Joseph Smith, and the Kirtland Temple.  Suddenly, I felt the spiritual nourishment I hoped to experience.  Gail, if you read this, I thank you for making the Kirtland temple service a spiritual one.

Others also spoke, and most invited the spirit, as well.  I arose and noted what a wonderful place we were in.  I took from Michael Vinson’s speech, and stated that while Joseph Smith established one temple, the experience on the Pentecostal dedication ceremony, was different for each person. Some spoke in tongues, while others saw angels fly in through the windows.

Singing “Come Thou Fount” and “Spirit of God” was also amazing.  Over all, it was a remarkable event, one that so few get to experience.


While most LDS consider Sunstone too liberal for them (and they can be very liberal at times), I would encourage everyone to look past the differences and focus on those things that unite us. In doing so, we may find wonderful experiences and opportunities. While I did not agree with many things said or believed, I did find some wonderful treasures to keep and take home with me.  I especially want to thank Mary Ellen Robertson from Sunstone for putting together such a fine program.  I believe they will want to come back next spring, and I hope many more will consider attending, if for no other reason, to attend a service in the Kirtland Temple.

BTW, the Kirtland Temple is in need of restoration work. There are big cracks in the exterior walls, as well as other work needed done on it. For those interested in helping, go to

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About rameumptom

Gerald (Rameumptom) Smith is a student of the gospel. Joining the Church of Jesus Christ when he was 16, he served a mission in Santa Cruz Bolivia (1978=1980). He is married to Ramona, has 3 stepchildren and 7 grandchildren. Retired Air Force (Aim High!). He has been on the Internet since 1986 when only colleges and military were online. Gerald has defended the gospel since the 1980s, and was on the first Latter-Day Saint email lists, including the late Bill Hamblin's Morm-Ant. Gerald has worked with FairMormon, More Good Foundation, LDS.Net and other pro-LDS online groups. He has blogged on the scriptures for over a decade at his site: Joel's Monastery ( He has the following degrees: AAS Computer Management, BS Resource Mgmt, MA Teaching/History. Gerald was the leader for the Tuskegee Alabama group, prior to it becoming a branch. He opened the door for missionary work to African Americans in Montgomery Alabama in the 1980s. He's served in two bishoprics, stake clerk, high council, HP group leader and several other callings over the years. While on his mission, he served as a counselor in a branch Relief Society presidency.

15 thoughts on “Kirtland Temple – Sunstone Symposium review

  1. I would have loved to have gone, but this pesky little thing called “work” interfered. So I very much appreciate this report. Thank you.

  2. I understand how the work thing works. Fortunately, I have a zillion hours of vacation saved, so my boss couldn’t really complain.

  3. Rame, this was a very interesting report, and thanks for taking the time to do this. I would be interested in hearing if you felt the Spirit during any of these events and if overall you found this experience faith-promoting. What say you?

    (My brother went on his mission to the Kirtland area and has wonderful faith-promoting stories about visiting the Kirtland temple).

  4. Geoff, I would say most of the lectures were spiritually neutral, focusing more on fact-based discussion.

    I would definitely say that Gail introduced a wonderful spirit into the Hill Cumorah Pageant seminar. Her husband gave the facts, and she shared the miracles that occurred while working in costume design. Again, in the temple service on Sunday, she invited the spirit with her witness.

    I do not expect spiritual experiences from most LDS seminars. In attending FAIR, for example, there are really few lectures that attempt to promote the spirit. Most do focus on the intellectual side of things.

    The major differences between a FAIR conference and Sunstone symposium is probably the views taken. FAIR tends to be more conservative, even though many of its speakers are not necessarily conservative. OTOH, I would have been surprised if while attending the Sunstone symposium, even half of the lecturers were conservative. They did not surprise me.

    The issues discussed were interesting. Rarely was anything faith-promoting. As I said, it wasn’t geared towards that. Most symposiums seem to focus on issues that gender controversy, and this one was not an exception. But it also engendered some decent friendships beyond political ties. I would note that Mary Ellen Robertson, and her husband Michael (not Vinson), both shared their spiritual witness of sacred space during the temple service, and it was uplifting to hear. For me, it helped me appreciate that perhaps we have more in common than that which tends to divide us. Even Dan Vogel sat quietly in the temple service, honoring and respecting the feelings of those expressed, even though he does not agree with them, being a non-Theist. I appreciate that level of respect and professionalism from him.

    I suppose it comes down to what a person expects. I did not expect spiritual experiences during the Saturday seminars. I did expect it during the temple service. While there were minor disappointments, I tend to focus on the positiveness of the event, and I feel it went off very well, with few exceptions that I choose not to dwell upon.

  5. Just for the record, I didn’t suggest the First Vision was the result of hormones or brain disease. However, I have suggested that as a result of the trauma of his leg operation, JS may have had the ability to dissociate. But this is not a requirement. Completely normal people can hallucinate. When the vision is stripped of the anachronistic elements such as the revival, the presence of God the Father, and the command to not join any church, and priority is given to the 1832, the vision is not unlike those experienced by JS’s other contemporaries.

  6. Sorry Dan, but its a distinction without a difference. Comes down to the same thing, claiming Joseph Smith was a mental case. no he wasn’t! He was a prophet of God.

  7. Believe what you want. My purpose for posting was only to correct an error with regard to my position. I don’t believe JS was a “mental case”.

  8. Dan, thanks for the correction. I couldn’t quite remember your theory. Of course, I was tempted to state that the First Vision was just a bad potato, a la Scrooge. It would amount to the same thing, I suppose.

    That said, my spiritual witness and many of the evidences I’ve seen suggest that either I also have eaten bad potatoes, or that Joseph did see visions from God.

  9. Geoff,
    Given your understanding of the pious-fraud thesis, it’s no wonder you’re confused. None of your rhetorical questions is a logical inconsistency with said theory, but are based on your own assumptions and straw men.

  10. All, we are going to shut down comments for a while. I would like to remind commenters and readers that this is a blog whose purpose is to build up the Church and increase faith. I am sure Dan is a good scholar, but this subject matter is really not appropriate for this site. In addition, it’s really not fair for people to question his theories without him having a chance to defend himself.

    I look forward to Rame’s presentation about his talk.

  11. Thank you Rame for your review on Sunstone Symposium-Kirtland, and sharing what you learned there. What a marvelous opportunity to learn more about the Kirtland era and the temple! I enjoyed the two SLC symposiums I attended. You are right, it is quite possible to find faith-promoting sessions.

  12. I believe in keeping an open mind, and a respectful consideration even for those I disagree with. I realize that the saints will not agree on all things. But I do believe we can agree on many things. That is where our greatest focus should be, if we ever hope to be one.

    The sad thing is, Sunstone would love to have more presence from the conservative community, as presenters and audience. Mary Ellen Robertson just told me this herself. However, conservatives seem to boycott it, rather than be involved and make their views known, as well.

    Sunstone symposiums will never be 100% mainstream. However, they can become more mainstream if we respectfully engage in it.

  13. As a regular Sunstone participant and sometime reader here, I would love to see some of you bring your thoughts and scholarship to a symposium near me – both as presenters and as responders and audience members who are willing to share open, thoughtful conversations. I suspect we would all be better off if we stepped away from our own echo chambers and considered the lives and experiences of The Other.

    So, will we see any of you in July in Salt Lake City? (yeah, it’s early this year)

  14. I won’t be there. I can only afford so many trips, and I’m going to see grand-kids this year. Also, their agenda is on the political side this time, with Romney in the arena. Not sure how that one will be dealt with by liberals, Ron Paul fans, or etc….

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