The Stone church celebrates 135 years

The Stone Church celebrated 135 years as an active congregation on May 25, 2008. It has now been 120 years since the cornerstone of the building was set in place on April 6, 1888. The structure is now a familiar icon in Independence, Missouri.

The congregation’s story is intimately tied to the larger story of the Community of Christ. Throughout much of its history it was often referred to as the “pulpit of the Presidency.” Many church members treasure the Stone Church as the place where they were baptized, shared in its remarkable Sunday school, or where they were married. Especially in times past, it was where out-of-town visitors would attend on Sundays, a new “home congregation” for church members during their retirement years, or the preferred site for a funeral or memorial service.

The prophetic call of the Stone Church is not to memorialize the past, however. The current congregation builds on these strong roots toward a future where God’s vision of a vibrant new community embodies shalom, the peace of Jesus Christ.

The Stone Church sits next to the sixty-three acre tract of land consecrated and dedicated in August 1831 by Joseph Smith Jr. as the “land of Zion and the spot for the temple.” The Saints who gathered to Independence in the 1830s stayed only a short time. Other local residents forced them out of Independence and then from northwestern Missouri. They went on to what would become Nauvoo, Illinois. The vision of Zion in Independence faded when the church split into several groups after the murder of Joseph Smith in 1844.

In 1860, the eldest son of the slain prophet, Joseph Smith III, accepted leadership of what became known as the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (renamed Community of Christ in 2001). Beginning in the late 1860s, some members of the Reorganization began to reclaim the vision by gathering back to the Independence area.

The Henry Etzenhouser family was one such family, arriving in Independence in March 1870. They joined with other Saints and began holding meetings. A branch of the church was organized on May 25, 1873, with Priest Henry Etzenhouser as pastor. They first met in the courthouse, then moved to the second floor of the Chrisman-Sawyer Bank Building.

Talk among the growing number of Saints soon turned to the possibility of building their own house of worship. Henry Etzenhouser owned a brick-making business, so many members volunteered to work there to make extra bricks. They built a thirty-six by fifty-foot church building at Lexington and Pearl Streets, just east of the county courthouse. The growth of the church was steady. When Joseph Smith III dedicated the building in 1884, they had already outgrown it. Rather than expanding it, the members agreed to erect a new church building.

In 1880, the Daniel Bowen family had settled near Stewartsville, Missouri. Daniel was alone outside his home one day when he heard a voice saying, “Look south.” He and his wife pondered the message but could not understand its meaning. Some months later the same voice spoke to him again: “There is a piece of land in Independence for you.” This time he responded by arranging his affairs so he could travel to Independence.

On his arrival he looked for a real estate agent and asked the first man he saw where he could find the land office. The man was a broker and began to show him sites around town. While engaged in the sight-seeing tour of Independence, Daniel prayed that the Holy Spirit would help him find the right plot of land to buy. As he passed the Temple Lot, the Spirit told him to buy the land across the road north of the Temple Lot. He bought the land without hesitation.

When the congregation began talking about where to build a new church, Daniel offered the land. Many thought the half mile from the square was too far from town, but the leadership determined that it was the perfect spot for the church. This nearness to the Temple Lot was just the place for their new brick church. However, the masons prevailed and determined stone was a better choice. The only native building stone in the area surrounding the church was limestone. Charles Sperry, whose father was one of the masons who worked on the building, says the stone was quarried near Warrensburg, Missouri. It was transported by rail to the station at the bottom of the hill where the Auditorium would be built decades later. Workers transported the stone up River Street by wagon to the site and then cut each piece on-site.

This beautiful building served often as the church’s “meetinghouse” from that time on.  Joseph Smith III, Frederick M. Smith, Israel A. Smith, W. Wallace Smith, Wallace B. Smith, W. Grant McMurray, and Stephen Veazey have each preached from its pulpit.  General Conferences met there before the nearby Auditorium was built. Yet the Stone Church continues to play a major role at World Conferences by providing worship and meeting space for quorums, orders, and committees.

The same Spirit that prompted Daniel Bowen and others to put their building on this spot makes it holy and sacred. Joseph Luff sang “Admonition” (HS 387) for the first time during a prayer meeting at the Stone Church. Such church stalwarts as F. Henry Edwards, Arthur Oakman, Geoffrey Spencer, and Maurice Draper (to name but a few) have proclaimed the gospel from its pulpit.

The first of its three pipe organs was dedicated in 1903. The first performance of the Messiah occurred at the Stone Church in 1916. Many choirs and orchestras and quartets of voice and instrument have filled the air with music for worship and entertainment. Other Stone Church notables are the beginning of the Laurel Club (1906); one of the first Boy Scout troops west of the Mississippi (1910); and the current stainedglass windows (1970). The Stone Church sponsored the first Christian radio broadcasts in the Kansas City area with the call letters KLDS, which later became KMBC (1920s). Arthur Oakman and Evan Fry were two popular radio preachers.

Stone Church membership steadily increased as people responded to the gospel message and were baptized, and as other church members moved to town. It soon became necessary to start new congregations. Ten new congregations emerged in response to members discerning God’s call to be in mission. The most recent is Open Arms congregation (2007), dedicated and committed to ministering to the people who live in the shadows of the Temple and Auditorium.

We continue to celebrate the voice of God speaking to the Stone Church. From the beginning, that voice has spoken through preaching, singing, and teaching. It is an eternal voice of God’s Spirit bringing the church into existence. The Stone Church will continue to discern God’s will so our ministries come to fuller expression as a congregation “in the areas around the Temple.” The Stone Church remains committed to its early purpose as a “house of the Lord.” The gospel of Jesus Christ is our message. The Spirit of Christ touches the hearts and souls of all who pass through its doors.

Written by Henry Volskay and Greg Savage, Pastor
Reprinted from the April 2008 Herald