10 spots in church history to see, experience

Published: Monday, May 9 2011 4:00 a.m. MDT

The interesting stories and events behind them are significant and well-known, yet they aren’t the most popular historic sites visited by Mormons.

Gary Boatright Jr. and Emily Utt, historic site curators for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recently compiled a list of 10 significant spots they recommend every church member make an effort to see and experience at least once in their lifetime.

“When I go to a church history site, I go to the visitor’s center and take the tour, but these are the places I make a point to see because they have an impact,” Utt said. “Something else I would say for all these places is we rush too much. As you visit historic sites, stop, sit, look and wander.”

Relish the sense of just being there, Boatright said.

“When you read or hear about something your whole life, then you are actually able to go and stand at the location where it happened, there is something special, almost sacred, about it and you get a better understanding of the event,” Boatright said. “It can be a special experience for families.”

The Witness Trees

Everyone is familiar with the 38-and-a-half-foot granite monument in that marks the Vermont birthplace of the prophet Joseph Smith, but what many miss are the witness trees. One, the “Joseph Tree,” is a massive oak that dates back to 1776. The other, the “Patriarch Tree,” is not quite as old but was also there when Joseph was born. Seeing and touching these age-old trees will help you connect to the place, Boatright said.

“To have these two living parts of the landscape that date back to time the Smiths were there on the Mack farm, for me, is intriguing,” Boatright said.

LDS missionaries at the birthplace visitor’s center can provide directions for hikes to the trees. One hike up Patriarch Hill offers a beautiful panorama of the Vermont landscape.

The Sacred Grove

The serene woods, just west of the Smith family farm in Palmyra, N.Y., are known as the Sacred Grove. This is where 14-year-old Joseph Smith knelt to pray and beheld the First Vision of God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, in the spring of 1820. The Sacred Grove is one of the few tracts of pristine forestland in upstate New York that has remained undisturbed.

While the Sacred Grove is very popular place to visit, people don’t spend enough time there, Boatright said. With a network of trails, visitors should forget their Disneyland itineraries and plan to spend a day at the Smith farm, the curator said.

“This is where one of the most significant moments in the history of the earth occurred, and the Spirit is so strong there. The reason why we are all members of the church is because of what occurred in that grove,” he said. “Take time to enjoy it, soak it in.”

Early morning walks through the grove are strongly encouraged.

Susquehanna River

The Susquehanna River is located in the Oakland Township (formerly the town of Harmony), Penn. This is where Joseph Smith met and married Emma Hale in the late 1820s. He began translating the gold plates in their small home near the river. While translating, Joseph and Oliver Cowdery prayed near the river to learn more about baptism. Their prayer was answered when John the Baptist appeared on May 15, 1829, and conferred the Aaronic Priesthood on the two men. Joseph and Oliver then entered the river and baptized each other. Soon thereafter, Peter, James and John appeared on the banks of the river and conferred on the men the Melchizedek Priesthood.

The LDS Church is in the process of restoring buildings and monuments near the present-day town of Susquehanna, but Boatright and Utt recommend walking the river.

“I don’t think a lot of people go down there now because it’s a challenge. It’s a chore to get there, but if you are going to be there, you can’t miss the river. It’s a beautiful spot,” he said.

“We don’t know the exact spot, but we know Joseph walked along that river. Being in that landscape helps you connect with Joseph in a way,” Utt said.

John Johnson farm

The home of John and Alice Johnson is located in Hiram, Ohio.

Joseph and Emma Smith lived in the home in 1832 when Joseph and Sidney Rigdon received the revelation that became Doctrine and Covenants 76. Joseph also worked on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible in this home. It is also where a mob of apostates and anti-Mormons severely beat and tarred and feathered Joseph and Sidney.

“Everyone goes to Kirtland, but most don’t feel it’s worth the 40-minute drive to go to the Johnson home. Personally, it’s my favorite church historic site,” Utt said. “My favorite spot in the home is the section 76 room. I also like standing on the porch because the morning after the tar and feathering, Joseph gave a sermon from that porch. You overlook the yard, out into the fields, and I can really imagine those events taking place.”

The landscape is still very much what it would have looked like in 1832. The home has been restored to its original beauty.

Three spots in Missouri

Most people go to Missouri to visit sites in Independence. But it you head north for one of the following, you might as well visit all three.

“All these are literally in the middle of nowhere. I think there are a couple of markers. But once again, it’s worth it,” Boatright said.

The first Missouri stop is the Far West temple site. In the late 1830s, Far West was once home to more than 3,000 Saints. A temple site was dedicated and the corner stones were laid. The saints were eventually driven out in the winter of 1838-39 and relocated in Illinois.

Adam-ondi-Ahman, a quiet, picturesque valley located near Gallatin in northwestern Missouri, is the second spot. A historic marker indicates the valley where about 1,000 Saints settled in 1838 before being expelled. The valley is also significant because three years before Adam died, he called his righteous posterity into that valley and blessed them (Doctrine and Covenants 107: 53-56). Before Christ’s second coming, Adam and his righteous posterity, which includes Saints of all dispensations, will again assemble in this valley to meet the Savior. An ideal time to visit is late spring/early summer, the curators agreed.

“There is that feeling that something happened here,” Boatright said. “And that something will happen here.”

From Gallatin, drive 45 minutes southeast to Haun’s Mill, the sobering site of a massacre on Oct. 30, 1838. On that day a mob of about 250 men attacked a small settlement of Mormon families, killing 18 and injuring 13. The grounds are owned and maintained by the Community of Christ.

“You really have to want to get there to get there, especially if it has been raining,” Boatright said. “But this was a bustling community where a horrific and tragic event occurred. To contrast the peaceful setting you find today with the event that gave it its place in church history is just surreal.”

Two spots in Nauvoo, Ill.

First, the Smith Family Cemetery is located on the south end of Main Street in historic Nauvoo, near the Red Brick Store, the homestead and mansion house, on the banks of the Mississippi River. This cemetery serves as the final resting place for Joseph Smith, Emma Hale Smith, Hyrum Smith, Joseph Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith, as well as many other Smith family members and friends.

“Here lies the prophet of the restoration and last dispensation. If you are going to Nauvoo, pay your respects to the prophet and his family,” Boatright suggested.

The Hiram and Sarah Granger Kimball Home is one of many historically restored homes visitors can tour. During the construction of the original Nauvoo Temple in the early 1840s, Sarah Granger Kimball contributed by sewing shirts for the workers. She played a role in the establishment of a women’s charitable organization that eventually became the Relief Society. The white home, one of the oldest in the city, is secluded from other homes, and as a result, few take the tour.

“What is so interesting about this home is as you finish your tour, your are talking about building the temple, then you walk back outside and you see the temple from her house,” Utt said.

Winter Quarter’s cemetery

The cemetery is located next to the Winter Quarters Temple and across the street from the Mormon Trail Center in Omaha, Neb.

Mormon pioneers built a temporary settlement at Winter Quarters with more than 800 cabins during the winter of 1846–1847 while they waited for better conditions for their trek westward. While witnessing a glimpse of the “Mormon Migration,” visit the one remaining headstone and approximately 300 unmarked pioneer graves in the cemetery.

“It’s a nice way to conclude your time there and take a moment to reflect on their experiences as they were preparing to come to Utah,” Utt said.

Devil’s Gate, Wyo.

Most people go to Martin’s Cove to experience the story of the Martin handcart company rescue. But what many miss is the trail near the visitor’s center that turns east (away from Martin’s Cove) and follows a short hike a narrow gorge in the mountain with cliffs that stretch 400 feet above the rushing Sweetwater River. Devil’s Gate was a major landmark on the trail west.

“Anyone who came, whether they were going to Utah, Oregon or California, walked past Devil’s Gate,” Utt said. “You can go there, dip your feet in the water and have a moment with the trail.”

Cardston Alberta Temple

The Cardston Alberta Temple, built from 1913 to 1923, was the first temple built in Canada, as well as the first built outside the United States. Mormon settlers founded Cardston, located just 15 miles north of the US-Canada border, in 1887. The Cardston area tells part of the story of pioneer Mormonism after Utah.

“We have the famous pioneer temples of Utah, but the Cardston temple is one of the first modern temples the church has built. The architecture and craftsmanship are very unique,” Boatright said. “It stands out … as one of the gems architecturally that the church has.”

The pulpit of the St. George Tabernacle

There are several historic sites in St. George, but for Utt, one spot that stands out is the pulpit of the St. George Tabernacle. Tours of the pioneer building conclude at the pulpit, where multiple prophets have spoken, from Brigham Young to David O. McKay, including Lorenzo Snow’s famous 1899 tithing revelation.

“The tabernacle is right in the center of town, so that building has been a landmark in that city since construction started in the 1860s,” Utt said.

Email: ttoone@desnews.com

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