Mitt Romney and his fellow mormons believe that Adam ate the forbidden fruit in Independence.

The Search for the Garden of Eden 

Mitt Romney and his fellow mormons believe that Adam ate the forbidden fruit in Independence.

There is a volleyball net staked on the grassy hill where Jesus will rule the Earth during the Second Coming. A signpost at the bottom of the hill explains the spot's historical and spiritual significance: On August 3, 1831, Mormon prophet Joseph Smith Jr. dedicated this land in the City of Zion for the Lord's temple, and Mormons believe that Christ will rule from a throne here for a millennium.

The City of Zion is also known as Independence, Missouri.

The same year that Smith blessed the land — 1831 — he had a revelation that the Garden of Eden was in Independence, which he called "the center place." Most Judeo-Christian theology places the Garden in the Middle East. But the Mormons, more formally known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, believe that Adam and Eve lived in Independence before being expelled and that the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge grew nearby.

That's why I'm here — I'm searching for the Garden of Eden. My logic is simple. Smith marked the site for Christ's temple. He even knew where Adam and Eve went after they were kicked out of the Garden of Eden (which he put about 85 miles north of Independence, in a place he called Adam-ondi-Ahman, just outside Jameson in Daviess County). Surely Smith marked the spot of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. With 20,000 Mormons living in the Kansas City area (worldwide Mormonism claims 13 million followers), I figured that someone could show me where the Garden grew.

Let me explain by first saying I am not a Mormon, nor am I particularly spiritual, having been born into a family of Sunday-football-watching, nonpracticing Lutherans. My experience with Mormonism has been limited to a 2003 episode of South Park in which the blue-and-red-stocking-capped Stan disputes Joseph Smith's claim that the Garden sprouted in Jackson County. "If you're going to say things that have been proven wrong, like the first man and woman lived in Missouri and that Native Americans came from Jerusalem, then you better have something to back it up," Stan scolds his family and a Mormon family.

The rest of America's experience with Mormons is also somewhat limited. Evangelical Christians believe that Mormonism is a cult. HBO viewers know Big Love, a show about a man with three wives, and believe that they're Mormons. They're actually Fundamentalist Mormons, inspired by Warren Jeffs, the leader of a radical splinter group known as the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Jeffs, who was once on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List, made national headlines in 2006 and 2007 after he was arrested in Nevada and charged with incest, sexual conduct with a minor and arranging marriages between adult men in his church and "child brides."

And last month saw the release of September Dawn, a film about the 1857 massacre of 120 men, women and children at the hands of a Mormon militia in Utah.

Then there's Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and practicing Mormon. Romney is searching for his own Garden of Eden: the Republican nomination for president of the United States. Finding it will be about as difficult as locating the Garden. To do so, he will have to overcome not just the perception of Mormons in society but also the fact that Americans have elected only one president who wasn't from a traditional Protestant background — John F. Kennedy, a Catholic.

His quest for the White House inspired my journey.

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