On the church history trail

Published: Monday, July 15 2013 5:00 a.m. MDT

This image shows the monument marking the area where the Prophet Joseph Smith was born near Sharon, Vt., on Dec. 23, 1805. The Smith family was renting the home and some acreage on a 100-acre farm owned by the Prophets maternal grandfather, Solomon Mack.

Kenneth Mays

As marvelous as books and photos are, there is something special about visiting LDS Church historical landmarks, trails and sites in person.

That's how Kenneth Mays, a Church Educational System instructor and a church history enthusiast, feels about it.

"There are feelings that one can feel when visiting a church history site ...," Mays said. "There is a connection that never seems to happen in a book. There is a new reality that emerges. It becomes more than just a story. … It becomes so much more real."

To illustrate his point, Mays, who serves as a bishop in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, recalled visiting the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, N.Y., where Joseph Smith had the First Vision. He didn't feel anything.

Yet on another occasion, while standing in a Nebraska cornfield where pioneers would outfit their wagons for the long journey west, he had a very personal spiritual experience.

"So how do I not feel something in the Sacred Grove but I do in a Nebraska cornfield?" he said. "The point is there are feelings you feel that you don't feel in other places."

Each year countless Latter-day Saints and tourists visit church history sites all over the United States to learn about the church's rich history and create lifelong memories. The most prominent sites stretch from Sharon, Vt., to locations in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, Utah and beyond.

"As marvelous as books are, there is just something about being there," Mays said.

Sharon, Vt.: Joseph Smith, the future founder and prophet of the LDS Church, was born in a cabin near Sharon on Dec. 23, 1805. His parents, Joseph and Lucy Smith, were the parents of three children when they rented the Dairy Hill home from Lucy Mack Smith's father, Solomon Mack.

The Prophet Joseph Smith himself likely had no personal recollection of the site because his family moved to another home when he was young. But his nephew, President Joseph F. Smith, authorized Junius F. Wells to purchase what was once the Mack farm, including the birth site of the Prophet. In 1905, a memorial cottage and granite monument were erected at the site. Both sites were dedicated by President Smith on Dec. 23, 1905, the 100th anniversary of Joseph's birth.

Palmyra and Fayette, N.Y.: In the spring of 1820, 14-year-old Joseph Smith walked into a grove of trees near his home to pray. He was visited by God the Father and his son, Jesus Christ, initiating the restoration of the gospel. During the course of the next decade, Joseph took steps to translate and publish the Book of Mormon. On April 6, 1830, the church was officially organized in Fayette. In February 1831, Joseph and his wife, Emma Smith, along with other Latter-day Saints, departed for Kirtland, Ohio.

Harmony, Pa.: The Susquehanna River is located in the Oakland Township (formerly the town of Harmony), Pa. 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.

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