The Kirtland Temple Suit (formally Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Williams) is an 1880 Ohio legal case that is often cited as the case that awarded ownership of the Kirtland Temple to the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (RLDS Church). Though the case was dismissed by the court, the publication of the court's findings of fact—as if they had been the decision of the court—reinforced the belief by members of the RLDS Church and others that the court had considered the RLDS Church, and not The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the rightful legal successor to the Latter Day Saint church established by Joseph Smith, Jr. in 1830.
Under the direction of Joseph Smith, Jr., Latter Day Saints in Kirtland, Ohio constructed the Kirtland Temple in Kirtland, Ohio from 1833 to 1836. Smith and the majority of Latter Day Saints ultimately left Kirtland, settling in Nauvoo, Illinois. After Smith was killed in 1844, a number of churches arose, all of which claimed to be the rightful successor to Smith's church. Among those claiming to be a continuation of Smith's church were the Utah-based LDS Church, and the RLDS Church, led by Smith's son Joseph Smith III.
In 1860, a probate court in Lake County, Ohio ordered that the Kirtland Temple be sold in order to settle still-outstanding debts that Joseph Smith, Jr.'s estate owed to various Kirtland residents. In 1862, the building was sold to William L. Perkins, a local businessperson. On the day of purchase, Perkins conveyed the temple to Russell Huntley in a quitclaim deed. On 17 February 1873, Joseph Smith III and Mark Hill Forscutt purchased Huntley's title for $150.
Reason for the suit
In 1875, Smith and Forscutt attempted to sell the Kirtland Temple to the city of Kirtland in order to raise needed money for the RLDS Church. However, the sale did not proceed because there were doubts surrounding Smith and Forscutt's ownership, since their title was based on a quitclaim deed. As a result, in 1878 the presiding bishop of the RLDS Church filed suit in the Lake County Court of Common Pleas, requesting that the court conclude that the RLDS Church held legal title to the Kirtland Temple. Smith and Forscutt supported, and in fact were the initiators of, the RLDS Church action.
Among others, the RLDS Church named Smith, Forscutt, and John Taylor, the president of the LDS Church, as defendants in the action. Taylor was named as a defendant because the RLDS Church anticipated that the LDS Church might claim ownership of the temple as successor to the original church. However, neither Taylor nor other members of the LDS Church were likely aware of the suit because notice of the suit was limited to publication in the Painesville [Ohio] Telegraph.
In February 1880, Judge L. S. Sherman of the Court of Common Pleas dismissed the case. Kim L. Loving, an attorney and former president of the Eastern Great Lakes Mission Center of the Community of Christ in Kirtland, Ohio, explained: "Suffice it to say that, legally, the Court dismissed the default case of the plaintiff, the Reorganized Church, because it failed to allege or prove one of the essential elements of a statutory cause of action to quiet title in Ohio, that the plaintiff was in possession of the property. As such, the involuntary dismissal, or nonsuit, legally was not an adjudication on the merits of the truth or falsity of the plaintiff’s contentions. Findings of fact in such a case are not legally binding on anyone, least of all upon absent defendants. It could be inferred that E. L. Kelley should have known as much, but failed to broach or explore these ramifications with the leaders of the Church." Though frequently misrepresented as a product of Judge Sherman's court, the findings of fact in the case were written as a proposed judgement by E. L. Kelley, attorney for the RLDS Church.
Publishing the findings of fact without mention that the case had been dismissed, Kelley strengthened public opinion that the RLDS Church was "the True and Lawful continuation of, and successor to the said original Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, organized in 1830, and is entitled in law to all its rights and property." Furthermore, the findings stated that the LDS Church was not the lawful successor to the original Latter Day Saint church because it "has materially and largely departed from the faith, doctrines, law, ordinances and usages of the said original Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints". The findings specifically cited the LDS Church doctrines of celestial marriage, plural marriage, and Adam–God worship as being "contrary to the laws and constitution of said original Church".
The RLDS Church eventually took possession of the building and made major renovations as though they won the case, even though they had not. Over time, however, by the laws of adverse possession the RLDS Church was able to obtain clear title to the property. Had the RLDS Church not done this, it is unlikely the building would be standing today as the LDS Church seemed to have no interest in the property at the time.
The RLDS Church, which was renamed Community of Christ in 2001, owns the Kirtland Temple. Though the court dismissed the case, the publication of the findings of fact filed by the attorney representing the RLDS Church in the Painesville Telegraph effectively gave the false impression that the Kirtland Temple Suit had been won. The March 15, 1880, issue of the church organ Saints' Herald also omitted the last two sentences which stated that the case was dismissed. Therefore, the case has been celebrated within the RLDS Church for its determination that the RLDS Church, and not the LDS Church, was the lawful successor to Joseph Smith's original organization.
In 1942, E. Guy Hammond, an Akron, Ohio attorney, wrote to Israel A. Smith: "From your letter I get the impression that you still cling to the notion that Judge Sherman's decision in Common Pleas at Painesville might be relied on. For my part, I cannot see, as explained before, that this decision can have the least effect, other than to dismiss the case, and to deny the relief prayed for. And if we should rely on it in any respect, in the first instance, it would but give the adversary opportunity to make us ridiculous." As late as 1986, historian Roger D. Launius still claimed that "[i]t would be quibbling to suggest that the outcome of the Kirtland Temple Suit did not give the Reorganized church legal ownership of the property." In 2004, Loving countered: "These polemical proclamations of victory may have carried some weight in the court of public opinion .... The only difficulty, at least from today's perspective, was that the Reorganization's polemical proclamations of judicially determined legitimacy actually had no legal basis whatsoever. In fact, the legal result of the lawsuit was that the title stood exactly as it had before the case was filed; legally, nothing had been accomplished. This finding goes to the very essence of the matter and can hardly be dismissed as mere 'quibbling'."
- Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints v. Williams, Record T, 1880, p. 488, Court of Common Pleas, Lake County Courthouse, Painesville, Ohio.
- Kim L. Loving, "Ownership of the Kirtland Temple: Legends, Lies, and Misunderstandings", Journal of Mormon History 30(2): 1-80 (Fall 2004).
- Eric Paul Rogers and R. Scott Glauser, "The Kirtland Temple Suit and the Utah Church", Journal of Mormon History 30(2): 81–97 (Fall 2004).
- Roger D. Launius, "Joseph Smith III and the Kirtland Temple Suit", BYU Studies 25:110–116 (Summer 1985).
- Loving, 65
- Elbert A. Smith. The Church in Court: Decisions of United States and Canadian Courts Affecting the Standing of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Lamoni, Iowa.: Herald House) pp. 3–6.
- Inez Smith Davis (1969). The Story of the Church (Independence, Mo.: Herald House) p. 554.
- Joseph Smith III, "The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith (1832–1914)", Saints' Herald 82:1553–1554 (1935-12-03).
- Israel A. Smith, "The Kirtland Temple Litigation", Saints' Herald 90:40–43, 54 (1943-01-09).
- E. Guy Hammond, Letter to Israel A. Smith, November 3, 1942, Kirtland Temple file, Community of Christ Legal Department. Quoted in Loving, 67.
- Roger D. Launius. The Kirtland Temple: A Historical Narrative (Independence, Missouri: Herald House, 1986), 115
- Loving, 65–66.