The Temple Lot Suit After 100 Years, Ron Romig, JWHA Journal, 12 (1992):3-15.
The 1891-1894 Temple Lot Suit, and its resulting appeals, has proven an unforgettable landmark of RLDS Church History. The event represented a clash between two Restoration groups, each with a deep belief in the correctness of their course, and strong feelings, intensified by a perception of the movement as a whole having suffered a great wrong at the hands of the larger society. This skirmish left its powerful impact upon the collective character of these two Restoration religious traditions. Sadly, sour scars generated from this action have never been completely healed. The passage of one hundred years may now afford a more objective perspective of this important action.
The grounds of the Church of Christ Temple Lot [Hedrickite], though recently experiencing a remarkable transformation, are yet a familiar setting to members of the movement today. The location's appearance, contemporary with the suit, was recorded by John R. Haldeman, who then served as editor of the Church of Christ's periodical, Searchlight.
The ground slopes gently in every direction from the Lot, and one can stand on it and see for miles in several directions. Grand old trees rear their ancient heads all about you, while the earth is carpeted with a fine growth of Blue Grass. Several members of the Church of Christ fenced this land in 1882 and planted a large number of indigenous forest trees on the Temple Lot about ten years ago. It is a thing of beauty.
Stemming from the 1833 expulsion from Jackson County and in response to near cultural expectations for the movement's reinstatement, the Hedrickites were the first Restorationists to effect a return to the vicinity. In keeping with traditional expectations, these early followers of Grandville Hedrick acquired the property surrounding the location identified in the movement's history as a site for a temple of the Lord in Zion.
By the 1870's the RLDS church had also made its reappearance in Independence, Missouri. And, it may be of no surprise that Joseph Smith III and other leaders of the Reorganization had also long been interested in acquiring the Temple Lot because of its tremendous religious significance. "As the self-styled inheritors of the early Mormon legacy, the Reorganized Church membership naturally believed it should have possession of the Temple Lot." To this situation President Joseph Smith III brought a personal conviction that the disputes between the various factions of the Restoration, and the determination of the true successor, could inevitably only be settled in the courts.
Joseph the III provided some insight about his personal feelings on the issue:
Soon after beginning my ministry with the Reorganized Church, I was impressed that the evidences upon which the Reorganization based its position as a religious body must be measured against their opponents, and the truth or error of that position be ascertained before the august tribunals recognized as the Courts of law and justice. The idea that this contest would inevitably come became so firmly fixed in my mind that I am quite willing to admit it assumed almost the proportions of a prophetic obsession.
At what seemed a most opportune time, June 9, 1887, Bishop George Blakeslee purchased a deed in behalf of the RLDS church, from heirs of Oliver Cowdery, for the entire Temple Lot tract of 63 acres. Blakeslee also obtained a quit-claim deed from Maria Louise Johnson, Cowdery's daughter. "Smith believed that he had bought the legal title to the property with these documents and would finally be able to acquire possession of the Lot." Coincidental with this, church leaders learned that lumber had been taken to the ground by the Church of Christ, avowedly for the purpose of erecting a building. Notice was given that very day, June 11, 1887, as Bishop Blakeslee filed an injunction against the Church of Christ to force them from the Temple Lot. But the Hedrickites would not withdraw. "At the same time Smith contacted George Edmunds, a long-time friend who served as legal counsel for the church, to plot a strategy for legal action." As a result of the death of Blakeslee in 1890, Edmund L. Kelley succeeded him as Presiding Bishop when the Temple Lot suit was initiated. Smith wrote to E.L. Kelley, about the prospects of their cause: "There is practically no necessity as to time; in urging trial of title, I think the time suggested by you is a good one, after the setting of Conference at Independence. The contest must come and we want to be all but cock sure when we strike."
Joseph hoped to prove through legal action that the Partridge title, which he believed the church owned, represented a trust established by the original church, and that the RLDS was the true successor to the original Mormon church. Though, George Edmunds' letters to Joseph suggest some reservations. Meanwhile, between 1887-1890, the RLDS initiated efforts, to purchase the Hedrickites' claim. Joseph indicated, "I heard Bro. Kelley state that we are still willing to pay to them a reasonable sum for their supposed claim, preferring to do this rather than go to court. Bro. Blakeslee, I believe, offered to do the same thing, but no disposition has been shown to consider the offer favorably."
On August 6, 1891, the RLDS church filed a "Bill of Equity" against the Church of Christ in the U.S. Circuit Court, Western Missouri District, a court of equity, tried by judge without jury. Because of the complex nature of the trial, Judge John F. Philips, arranged for depositions to be taken from witnesses as evidence for the plaintiff and defense. Depositions were taken in the Independence, Missouri, Courthouse. Though the LDS Church was not a party to the suit, Judge Philips appointed a special examiner to also take depositions in Salt Lake City and Denver. During the suit, President Joseph Smith III, also served as editor of the Herald, with Richard S. Salyards as assistant editor. Both Smith and Salyards' editorial comments appear in Herald articles regarding the controversy.
Salyards made the following comments about the taking of depositions: The court room at Independence has of late witnessed a reunion of the old men who saw the beginnings of Mormonism including the eldest son of the Mormon prophet, Joseph Smith, and the brother of the prophet, William B. Smith, now a man of eighty years. Much has been revived in the testimony of these and others concerning the early history of the Mormon Church. The Grand jury room at Independence was crowded yesterday [April 19th] with spectators and Latter Day Saints, who had gathered to hear the testimony in the Temple Lot suit, in which Mormon churches have interests. In the afternoon Dr. Hiram Rathbun of Lansing, Michigan, was placed on the stand. Dr. Rathbun is about 80 years of age and was familiar with the life of the church from 1830 to 1840. The history of the removal of the church to Independence, Missouri, from Ohio, the trials and persecutions of the Saints while at Independence and the occurrences of the memorable day when Edward Partridge and Charles Allen were tarred and feathered and driven from Independence, was told by the witness in a quiet but interesting manner. He was one of them, and knew how it all was.
In a effort to defray growing legal costs, the RLDS Church prepared an abstract of Plaintiffs' depositions, which was printed by Herald House and offered for sale. To promote sales, Salyards penned the following advertisement for the Herald: "The Abstract of Evidence in Temple Lot Suit will be furnished, together with arguments of church's counsel, for $3, cash in advance. A limited number of the arguments have been printed. Those first ordering will be first supplied." It is interesting to note some variation between the full Plaintiffs' depositions and the abstracted version, with some unfavorable points omitted in the Herald House printing.
If the suit was costly for the RLDS church, imagine the strain placed upon the members of the Church of Christ, considering their limited resources. Church of Christ Editor, Haldeman, commented: "Smith allowed his people to do wrong to drag us into the courts of the land and force many of our people to spend the earnings of a life time in defense of a God given trust." The total spent by the Church of Christ amounted to nearly $4,000. Some, especially Hedrickites, felt it improper to try the issue before the courts of the land. Joseph Smith III responded through the Herald.
A part of the Reorganization felt that the lot should properly belong to that church, and these obtained an order of the 1891 Conference directing, "That the Bishopric be authorized to take such steps to remove the cloud of title to real estate in Independence, Missouri, as may be deemed wise and proper by them." In pursuit of this object, it was found that, whether or not the Reorganized Church had any right, the Hedrickite brethren were not disposed to recognize one; the statute of limitations would soon have run against the Reorganized claim, and to avoid this it was necessary to give notice by a suit in the courts of the land.
Haldeman suggests that the Hedrickite leaders would have preferred other alternatives to the suit. "When the Re-organized Church was threatening to bring suit against us, we wrote Bro. Joseph Smith and implored him not to bring the dispute into the courts of the land. But our entreaties were unavailing. Time and again we have offered to meet the Re-organized Church and endeavor to prove by the books, who was in error, but never have been able to induce them to do so."
Joseph portrayed his feelings on this, in a letter to an RLDS member.
We are willing to meet Mr. Hall and Mr. Hill, and the others, and listen to what they have to say in regard to a settlement of the suit, but I will not meet Mr. Hall in a dispute over church claims in debate as an equal. There must be some misunderstanding about the statement that "they" have written me "three" letters and that I refuse to settle by arbitration. There have been no such offers, in letters proposing a settlement of the Temple Lot suit, received by me. Mr. C.A. Hall wrote me a year last spring, some two or three letters, his proposition being that it was a pitiable thing that Latter Day Saints should quarrel, also deploring the fact that we went to law. So far as falling under the condemnation of Paul's injunction not to go to law with a brother, we have only this to say: Paul refers to those matters of controversy one against another in the church; and does not refer to whatever may be at stake of which the courts of the land only have cognizance.
Finally after months of anticipation, the suit came before the court. The occasion provided R.S. Salyards the opportunity to report through the Herald:
The Temple Lot case was opened in the United States Circuit Court, Western Missouri District, at Kansas City Missouri, February 7, before Judge Philips. The opening argument for Plaintiff was made by Judge Edmunds, who, in a clear and forcible statement, presented the claim of the Reorganized Church. Judge Edmunds was followed by Judge Traber, and he by solicitor P.P. Kelley; each in his turn making a fair statement and argument of the issues. The Defendants' counsel, Colonel John N. Southern, then presented to the court the line of defense relied upon to defeat the claims of the Plaintiff. When he had closed his argument Bishop E.L. Kelley, in a most comprehensive and masterly way, summed up, refuting with remarkable facility the deductions and objections presented by Colonel Southern.
Statements of counsel for the RLDS church and the Church of Christ may be summarized as follows:
The RLDS church brings a Bill of Complaint against said Church of Christ, Richard Hill, Trustee, G. D. Cole, George Frisby, Charles Hall, President, and others. Your Orator complains that the Reorganized church is the owner in fee simple of lots 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22, as well as the triangular strip north of lot 15, all in the city of Independence, known as the Temple Lot, by means of title conveyed from Edward Partridge through heirs of Oliver Cowdery. [Show map, point out lots in question] Your Orator is the same church association, teaching the same teachings, tenets, and beliefs as to all spiritual affairs as did the original church, and is the same association in fact, excepting that it has since reorganized, and incorporated, and taken unto itself the name of your Orator, by reason of which it has at all times since 1832 been the owner of the Temple Lot. We claim the Defendants [Hedrickites] "are now, and from their organization have been, heretical, and in opposition to the teachings, tenets, and ordinances of the mother church. And further, Defendants deny the ordinance of Baptism for the Dead as taught by your Orator and the mother Church."
Colonel John N. Southern, attorney for the Church of Christ, answered the complaint in the following fashion:
Respondents take exception to the many errors and insufficiencies in the complainant's bill. Deny that the Reorganized Church is owner in fee simple the described real estate, and that respondents are. Deny that the complainant has demanded respondents to surrender possession of said property. Deny that said Partridge held title in trust for the church, but in his own name. Deny that Partridge conveyed title to heirs of Oliver Cowdery. Allege that James Pool was the bona fide purchaser of title from heirs of Partridge, in Iowa Territory, 1848, and that valid chain of title exists through Grandville Hedrick to respondents. Deny that the complainant is the same church association as the original. Admit that respondents do not consider any church article adopted or authority after 1835 as binding. Deny that the Reorganized church believe in all the revelations of the Doctrine and Covenants, as alleged, or represents the mother church.
After considering the evidence, Judge Philips announced a date for the decision. Salyards reported in the Herald:
We received notice that Judge Philips of the United States Circuit Court would hand down a decision in the Temple Lot Suit on the 3rd at ten a.m. Bro. E.L. Kelley left at once for Kansas City, Missouri, where the court was held, for the rendering of the decision. At noon we received a telegram from Bro. Kelley stating that, "Judge Philips in United States Circuit Court decided in favor of Reorganized Church; complete vindication on every proposition."
Judge Philips concluded, "Decree will go in favor of complainant, establishing the trust in its favor against respondents, removing the clouds from the title, enjoining respondents from asserting title to the property and awarding the possession to the Reorganized Church."
Because of the likelihood of an appeal, the church was not able to fully enjoy this victory. Joseph Smith III wrote,
Newspaper reports state that an appeal from the decision of Judge Philips will be made; but the Journal of Kansas City, has an account of an interview with Bishop Hill, of the Hedrickite Church, in which Mr. Hill states that there will be none taken by them. Should there be no appeal, for which six months are allowed, then there is an end to litigation; but if there should be an appeal the end is not yet.
As apprehended, Salyards informed the church that, indeed, an appeal had been filed.
The Defendants in this suit filed their bond for an appeal to the Court of Appeals June 4. The Appellants will have sixty days in which to perfect their case for the hearing; after which a number of days are allowed for the Plaintiffs to prepare their side of it. If all this preliminary work is done, then there will be a rehearing, at St. Louis, in November.
Salyards also provided Herald readers with a digest of the arguments before the Court of Appeals, the day the argument closed.
The argument yesterday was begun by Mr. C.O. Tichenor, of Kansas City, in behalf of the Hedrickites. He laid particular stress on two propositions: Granting the existence of a trust to Partridge, there must be a reasonable limit to such a trust; unexecuted, it cannot remain on the property forever. Secondly, the statute of limitation should run against the deed from Partridge to the Cowdery heirs, which had been in concealment for nearly forty years. Frank Hagerman, of Kansas City, spoke for the Reorganized in a lively and brilliant manner. It was not, he said a question of a little church being dispossessed of its property, but a question of which of these bodies was the true Mormon Church.
The decree of the U.S. Court of Appeals, for the Eighth Circuit, declared that the RLDS Church had failed to prove equitable title, and that the title claims of the trustee for the Church of Christ were superior to title claims asserted by the Reorganized Church. Associate Judge Thayer, of the Appeals Court, identified two reasons why the RLDS church was not entitled to maintain the action. 1) "In our opinion, the equitable interest of the Reorganized Church via the Cowdery deed was not sufficient to support an action for the recovery of the possession from an adverse occupant who claimed under an independent title [the Pool deed]." 2) Also, more than twenty years elapsed after the deed of Edward Partridge to the Cowdery children was filed for record in Jackson County before the bill of complaint in the present suit was filed, and during that period no obstacles seem to have stood in the way of a speedy assertion of this same claim to the property. The RLDS church's attempt to assert the Partridge deed "operates as a cloud upon the titles to the entire tract [of 63 acres]." And further, that even if their allegations had been proven, they had slept on their alleged rights anyway. "In accordance with the views herein expressed, the decree of the circuit court will be reversed, and the cause will be remanded, with directions to dismiss the bill of complaint." Such were the actions of the Appeals Court. In effect, "on these two grounds, the cause itself, not just the decree of Judge Philips, was dismissed, or removed from the courts, and the controversy stood just as though it had never been acted upon."
When the appeal failed, Joseph Smith informed the church of the solemn news.
The decision of Judge Philips, of the United States Circuit Court was reversed by the Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge Caldwell presiding, the opinion being handed down by associate Judge Thayer. This reversal of decision makes necessary another effort to secure legal redress in the courts of the land. To meet the additional expense of legal costs the Bishop makes a direct appeal to the Saints. Pursuant to conference instructions, the Bishop made the effort to clear title at the expense of the general church funds, properly the fund of supply for the support of the missionary labors and the needy ones of the flock. It seems important that another effort to secure justice should be made. Let every branch respond; and let individuals be sure and not wait for dilatory branch action.
The RLDS church immediately requested a second hearing before the full Appeals Court. During the rehearing the Court declined to consider the merits of the religious elements of this controversy saying, it is only appropriate to consider a succession question between two rival parties claiming to be beneficiaries of a single trust growing out of the fact that one or the other factions has abandoned the original faith. But there was no basis for a suit in Chancery since this case urged the merits of two competing trust claims. As a result, the full Court issued a per curiam [full court] decision against the Reorganized Church, which reversed, remanded, and dismissed the complaint. Following this the RLDS church made an effort to appeal to the United States Supreme Court. However, the United States Supreme Court denied the petition of the Reorganized Church for a rehearing of the Temple Lot suit on appeal, as indicated by the following telegram from the clerk of the Supreme Court: "WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 27, 1896. E.L. Kelley, Lamoni, Iowa:- Petition for certiorari in the church case denied. James H. McKenney."
The Supreme Court's decision barred any further recourse. In response, the RLDS immediately acknowledged the loss of its primary objective, that is, failure to gain possession of the Temple Lot. However, church leaders went on to claim that since the Appeals Court did not pass on all the questions raised, all other findings of Philips, with the exception of part of decree based on adverse possession, had been upheld. Salyards asserted this to Herald readers:
The questions of succession of the Reorganized Church to the original Church of the Latter Day Saints, and its soundness in faith, doctrine, and organization, are left just as they were stated under the findings of the trial Judge in the United States Circuit Court. But touching the particular property in question, the Reorganized Church was slow in asserting its claims and therefore must be denied.
The perception, that the RLDS was denied possession of the Temple Lot as a result of latches became well established among RLDS. [LATCHES being defined as: "An unreasonable or unexplained delay in asserting rights which work disadvantage to another." ] After the suit, the Church of Christ Editor, J. R. Haldeman, questioned RLDS efforts to promote this perception regarding the Temple Lot decision though public statements. Haldeman said, Brother Joseph "takes refuge and consolation in the finding of the highest court in which they declare he did not bring his suit soon enough. You are forced to this conclusion that God either did not lead the Re-organized Church in this matter and had no intention of taking the Temple Lots from us, for foreknowing all things He would have moved on the Re-organized Church to commence at such a time as would have enabled them to have been successful in this suit, or else he desired us to continue in the possession of the Temple Lot."
On February 3, 1896, the Hedrickites officially petitioned Judge Philips to dismiss the RLDS bill of complainants and Judge Philips so decreed:
Now on this day [February 3rd, 1896] there is filed a mandate from the United States Circuit Court of Appeals reversing the decree heretofore entered. It is therefore considered, adjudged, and decreed by the Court that said decree so entered herein is hereby set aside and for naught held, and that this cause be dismissed. It is further ordered that the respondents recover of the complainant their [court] costs herein expended, [$340.65].
Obviously some members of the RLDS church were disappointed with the outcome of the suit. Joseph Smith responded:
There have been some rather disparaging remarks made concerning the prosecution of the Temple Lot suit, the cost, and the failure to gain the end sought. That we failed because the church did not begin soon enough, was not the fault of the Bishopric. Some blame may possibly attach to the Presidency for not urging procedure long before.
By design or misunderstanding, RLDS church leaders straightaway assumed the position that the Decree of the Appeals Court did not effect issues contested in the lower court, but only prevented the RLDS from possessing the Temple Lot. "The Court of Appeals' decision, it was reasoned, rested upon technicalities which left Philips' findings concerning succession undisturbed. Joseph Smith III had a lot at stake in this decision and no doubt wished to paint the outcome in its best light. This may be an instance of Joseph's pragmatism, in which he felt justified interpreting evidence so as to secure the adoption of his view. RLDS apologists have held to this posture over succeeding years. During his presidency, Israel A. Smith, went to great lengths to vindicate his father's assumptions about this issue. This perception has the coloring yet today of official policy. However it may be construed, the Appellate Decree, mandated the reversal of the decision of the lower Court with the effect of completely setting aside and vacating its proceedings. For the past 100 years, the practical effect of the Appellate Decree is as if Judge Philips' opinion and decree had never been entered. There is no longer much to be gained, other than RLDS face saving, for perpetuating any other interpretation. Nevertheless, it must be conceded that there is always room for legal advocates, such as E.L. Kelley, President Israel Smith, and others, to find opportunity within the fine points of legal interpretation.
Both churches, at times beneficial, have preferred to believe the suit decided more than simply the question of possession. While the RLDS has invariably affirmed that the suit legally decided the RLDS church to be the legal successor to the original church, the Church of Christ has, at times, affirmed that the suit legally established the site which Joseph Smith, Jr., selected for a temple as being located within their 2 1/2 acres. Despite the outcome of the Temple Lot Suit, in the late 1890's the Church of Christ pursued a course of improved relations with the RLDS church, with the two churches eventually working out terms of agreement with reciprocal membership. This arrangement remained in effect during the 1920's, supplanted as a consequence of the RLDS Supreme Directional Control controversy.
The succeeding years may be simply characterized as a time in which the two movements drifted in different directions. Regardless of the merits of either church's position over the years, RLDS justification has tended to be a stumbling block in the path of mutual understanding. Hopefully, after one hundred years, and in view of the Reorganization's recent temple related investment in the pursuit of peace, time may permit the RLDS church and the Church of Christ to begin the development of a new and increasingly healthful perspective of the Temple Lot Suit.