A Mormon Relic?: Thoughts on Religion, Material Culture, and Classification

By David J. Howlett

The Kirtland Temple, Kirtland, Ohio
Photo courtesy of the author.
As I was visiting the Community of Christ’s archives this summer in Independence, Missouri, I was told that a block of wood from the first Mormon temple, the Kirtland Temple, had recently been donated to the archive’s collection. I was intrigued. After fishing around a bit, the archivist produced an envelope which contained a flat piece of wood, no more than three inches by three inches square and a quarter of an inch thick. A photo of the Kirtland Temple along with the words “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” (the former name of the Community of Christ) and “House of the Lord – Kirtland, O.” had been glued on the front of the wooden square. On the back, someone had written, “Piece of the original Kirtland Temple, presented by Ed. Miller, 1910.”

Since I was working on a book about the Kirtland Temple, I could immediately make several rather pedestrian observations about the small wooden object (for instance, I knew that Miller was an RLDS “appointee” — a fulltime, paid minister — and tour guide at the Kirtland Temple in the early twentieth century). Still, I’d never really seen anything quite like this piece of the temple. It was an object out of place in my mental schema for thinking about the RLDS church and its material culture.

Viewing the wooden square gave me pause to consider what a scholar does when she classifies an object. Here, I’m not as interested in describing an object as “a thing in itself” as much as I’m interested in teasing out the reasons (and consequences) for placing an object in relation to another set of things.

For instance, what if I classify my piece of Kirtland Temple wood as a souvenir? A souvenir witnesses that a person has traveled to a distant center and brought something back. Calling my item a souvenir places it in the realm of tourist practices and modern consumption. Such classification acknowledges how religion is produced within the web of commoditization that pervades our lives. And, it connects the Kirtland Temple wood with other material objects associated with the temple in the early twentieth century.

LDS member Edith Ann Smith wrote of touring the temple in late December 1905 and afterward “the little store [across the street from the temple] was visited and some postcards and paper weights secured.”1 I’ve found evidence that transferware china sets with images of the temple were also sold.

Yet, I have never found an account of pieces of the temple being sold. Individuals were given pieces, or they obtained pieces of the temple from someone who did restoration work on the building. A surprising number of RLDS families in Ohio had pieces of the temple, too, whether it was stucco, nails, or wood. If a “souvenir” is produced for the accumulation of economic capital, these latter items were definitely not souvenirs. Wood, nails, and stucco from the temple may have granted the giver social capital (prestige), but no one was in the business of selling fragments of the sacred structure.

So, what if I call the wooden square by a much more explicitly religious term–“relic”? It is, after all, an actual piece, or fragment, of the very first Mormon temple. Calling my object a “relic” acknowledges that the person who collected it asserted that suprahuman transactions happened within the physical structure of the temple. Early RLDS claimed Jesus and a host of other angelic beings had appeared at the temple, sanctifying the site. Ed Miller and a host of others even claimed that the Kirtland Temple was “the only temple standing today, built by command of the Lord.”2 (This latter claim, incidentally, was a “dig” at their LDS cousins who had multiple temples in the American West.)

These claims about the temple are all good observations that warrant the term “relic” for my block of wood. However, the powers that many Christians associate with a relic would not have been asserted by the person(s) who possessed the wooden square from the temple. I have never encountered an RLDS member’s account of healings or miracles attributed to contact with a piece of the Kirtland Temple. And, I would not expect to find one. Healing by contact with a relic just was not part of their sacramental world. It was just too “Catholic” for these early twentieth-century saints. Of course, one could stretch the term relic to include venerated material objects that do not have miraculous powers. At some point, though, an expansive term loses its utility by sacrificing specificity.

A third possibility could be to call my object a piece of kitsch. Think miniature Eiffel towers or small porcelain copies of the Statue of Liberty. The label glued on the small block of wood bears all evidence of being mass produced, after all. Still, I have never seen another piece of the temple quite like this. Honestly, I have no idea how many blocks of wood with this label were produced and given to individuals. There could have been hundreds or there could have been a dozen. The owners of a wooden square could have treated it like a porcelain Statue of Liberty, but I just do not know based upon scanty evidence.

Another caveat, though, needs to be raised. “Kitsch” carries with it pejorative connotations. Mass produced religious objects may be signified as kitsch, but those who possess such objects would rarely label them as such. Calling the Kirtland Temple wood “kitsch” tells us more about ourselves and our relationship to a particular religion rather than how the object functioned for its owner.

Of course, I could invent my own neologism for classifying the Kirtland Temple wood. I could call it a “religious souvenir,” thus acknowledging the duality of the item—half the souvenir, half the relic. This has definite advantages, as the term itself is easily understood (or at least, it is composed of two words that have common lexical meanings). However, a neologism often has a half-life shorter than that of francium 233 (about 22 minutes). Incidentally, 22 minutes is about treble the time that it has taken you to read this far. Wait a few minutes, and you’ll completely forget my neologism.

With all of my discussion of classifying a material object based upon “function,” I’ve sidestepped a very large factor in all of our choices about how to describe something. Perceiving always happens within pre-existing social relationships—in this case, one’s presence in a scholarly community. Our bodies have been shaped by academic practices that cause us to see, think, and classify the world in certain ways. When we classify an object or practice, we always actively or passively align ourselves with particular communities and reflect our previous backgrounds. Why call something a deathway rather than a religious ritual? Why call something religious tourism rather than pilgrimage? Why classify something as religious dieting rather than just dieting?

In the end, it is not because we simply think that an object or practice empirically fits better with one term rather than another. It is also the result of any number of choices and structural constraints—from the departments within which we work to the scholars with whom we desire to be in dialogue. Relic. Souvenir. Kitsch. Religious souvenir. By choosing a term, I’m also choosing a discursive community. I am not wed to be entirely monogamous in such a choice, but my decision does make a difference.

So…what would you call my object?



[1] Edith Ann Smith, “Journal,” 27 December 1905, the Church History Library, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake, City, MS 1317 FD.1.

[2] C. Ed Miller, “The House of the Lord,” Saints Herald 83 (1936): 242.

2 Responses to “A Mormon Relic?: Thoughts on Religion, Material Culture, and Classification”

  1. Dr. David,
    Very good and thought provoking blog entry. There maybe too many unknowns about this object yet to classify it into one or another of the categories you have provided. We do not know who owned it. Miller’s name on the object could mean that as an official who was assigned to work at the Kirtland Temple as a guide he might have made it in between tours and then given it as a present. It might have been made in similar fashion and presented to him as a keepsake (maybe an additional category) as a job well done? Whether it was made and retained as a memento by him or someone else would seem to help understand the significance of the object. A short personal confession…I can tell this because the statute of limitations has expired. As many times as I have moved over the years, I still haul around with me a couple of bricks (one fired the other not) that as a 19 year old I took on a late night stroll with a friend in Nauvoo. It was from a structure (the Sylvester Stoddard Tin Shop) that happily has since been restored. I am no longer in the movement (I’ve been out now longer than I was in it), but the bricks continue to remind me of a good time in my youth visiting a place that still attracts me to return periodically. It also is a piece of history and as a person who studies and writes about the past, it reminds me of where I have come from in that journey as well. If it turned out the relic you shared with us sat on Miller’s bookshelf in his office gathering dust, whatever classification you would put on that would resonate well with me…I’d get it…

  2. Chris Smith says:

    Heirloom? That has a slightly different connotation from souvenir, since souvenir sounds voyeuristic, while heirloom implies that this object is part of one’s family history. In this case it’s a religious heirloom rather than a family heirloom, but one’s religious group is a bit like one’s clan or extended family, so I think the term fits.

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