OAKLAND TOWNSHIP, Penn. – This area where Joseph and Emma Smith lived from November 1827 to January 1831 is still wooded and largely pristine, with lush forest land and rolling hills lining the banks of the Susquehanna River.
Mormons believe it was here that a resurrected John the Baptist appeared to the 25-year-old prophet and his associate Oliver Cowdery and conferred upon them the Aaronic Priesthood on May 15, 1829.
Known by the name Harmony back then, it was the location where most of the Book of Mormon was translated and many of the fundamental revelations governing the soon-to-be organized church were received.
Long neglected due to physical obstacles, Harmony is now the last of the major historic sites of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be developed. President Russell M. Nelson of the church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles on Saturday officiated at a dedicatory service for what is now known as the Priesthood Restoration Site.
Speaking to a capacity congregation in the newly constructed combination visitors’ center and meetinghouse for the Susquehanna Branch of the church, President Nelson recounted the story of Joseph and Emma meeting and falling in love at her parents’ homestead in Harmony, of an early period their married lives there and of the momentous events in the church’s history that occurred during that period.
“Even though they lived at Harmony for only a brief time, the experiences they had were crucial to the restoration of the Lord’s gospel,” he said during the proceedings that were streamed live on the church’s Internet site. “Harmony provided Joseph with spiritual solitude and protection, allowing him to focus on the translation of the Book of Mormon. Through this period, the Lord tutored Joseph in his divine role as prophet, seer and revelator. Receiving the priesthood power empowered Joseph Smith to function fully as the prophet of the last dispensation. Here he worked during a remarkable and formative season of translation, revelation and restoration.”
Elder Steven E. Snow, the church’s historian and recorder and also a member of the Seventy, conducted and spoke at the dedicatory service. It was his first visit to the site since the occasion three years ago when he said he was “wandering around in the rain with some of our folks to try to figure out how it would all look. And to come back three years later and see this stunning chapel and visitors’ center along with the reconstructed homes, and to feel the Spirit at the bank of the river once again was truly a wonderful feeling.”
Prior to the dedication, President Snow, along with their wives and other church dignitaries and historical department members, toured the site.
They visited the sugar maple grove adjacent to the visitors' center, where the visitation by John the Baptist occurred. Carefully nurtured, the grove is a canopy of trees excluding much of the sunlight and heat from the midday sun. With a network of trails, it is a serene locale for contemplation that some are comparing to the Sacred Grove, the famous church historic site in Palmyra, New York, where the prophet Joseph reported a visitation from God and Jesus Christ.
The church leaders viewed the reconstructed homes of Isaac and Elizabeth Hale and of Joseph and Emma, carefully replicated from photographs and research and constructed on the footprint of the original structures, known from the remnant foundation stones, which now comprise the façade of the Hale home’s foundation and a fence surrounding the Smith home.
They visited the adjacent McKune Cemetery, a still-active facility that contains the graves of Emma’s parents and of a son born to Joseph and Emma who died in infancy.
And they went to the bank of the Susquehanna River where historians believe the Prophet Joseph and Oliver baptized each other in compliance with a directive from John the Baptist. The river is unusually low this year from lack of rainfall, but Jennifer Lund, director of the church’s historic sites division told the visiting group it would have been so high at the time the baptisms occurred that the spot where the group was standing would have been under water.
Statuary outside the visitors’ center replicates statues on Temple Square in Salt Lake City that depict the visit of John the Baptist to Joseph and Oliver and a later visit by Christ’s resurrected apostles – Peter, James and John – who conferred upon the two men the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood.
“The location for the restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood was described by Joseph as being ‘in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna County, and Colesville, Broome County, on the Susquehanna River,’” President Nelson said in his talk.
A 25-minute film directed by T.C. Christensen (“Seventeen Miracles,” “Ephraim’s Rescue,” and “The Cokeville Miracle”) was made expressly for the newly restored site and is shown in the visitors’ center as a regular part of tours. It depicts the events at Harmony as seen through the eyes of Cowdery.
One of the speakers at the service was Rep. Sandra Major of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
“I wish to applaud all those who were involved in the extensive restoration project,” she said. “You did an amazing job. Unfortunately, all too often, older historic buildings are torn down, and grounds fall into disrepair and are forgotten about. That’s why it is such a welcome sight to see the time and care that was put into rebuilding this sacred, historical, significant area for generations of people to visit. I look forward to watching strong bonds grow up between the surrounding communities and the Priesthood Restoration Site. The new stretch of State Route 171, which adds to our local infrastructure, is just one example of the contributions already taking place.”
The new stretch was completed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation with participation from the church. It alleviated a prohibitive obstacle to restoration of the site, as the old highway went between the locations of the Hale and Smith homes.
Elder Kyle B. Walker, visitors’ center director at the site, told visiting news media the day before the dedication the late church President Gordon B. Hinckley would not allow a restoration project to proceed until the traffic hazard could be alleviated. That meant not only rerouting the highway, but raising the grade so that a pedestrian underpass could be constructed to facilitate access between the visitors’ center and sugar maple grove on the north and the reconstructed Hale and Smith homes on the south.
A railroad runs adjacent to the point at the river where the baptisms occurred. Access has been improved, with paved lots parking for busses and cars.
Until the recent development, the only objects commemorating the site were a roadside marker and a monument erected in 1960, sculpted by Avard Fairbanks and funded by the Aaronic priesthood quorums of the church. That monument still stands not far from the Smith home.
Many church members, including President Nelson, had never visited the location. That may change with the new developments.
"We opened on the 29th of August, and last Sunday we had our 1,000th visitor come thru the door,” said Elder Walker, who added that publicity has been mainly through word of mouth.
“We didn’t have a ribbon-cutting or a grand opening, because, really, the best way to experience it is with a small group led by our missionaries," he said.
Twelve young female church missionaries and two senior couples, in addition to Elder Walker and his wife, Sister Beverly Walker, staff the new facility.
The Priesthood Restoration Site can be reached via I-81 by taking the Great Bend and Hallstead exit and proceeding east on Highway 171. Elder Walker said to plan for a tour of about an hour and 40 minutes, plus extra time to explore the cemetery, visit the river and go into the grove.