When Joseph Smith Sr. and his son Alvin first purchased their 100-acre farm near Palmyra, New York, the land, like most of the land in the area, was covered with a magnificent stand of hardwood forest. Many of the trees were from 200 to 350 years old. Maples, beech, hop hornbeam, and wild cherry dominated the landscape, interspersed with ash, oak, hickory, and elm. This forest supported as many as 110 trees per acre, many a foot or more in diameter. The upper canopy of this forest reached heights of more than 100 feet, with a few enormous elms rising over 125 feet.
Few forests in the eastern United States of the early 1800s rivaled the size, height, age, and beauty of the trees in the woods of western New York. The preparing hand of nature had truly created a sanctuary worthy of Divine presence. Over the years, the hands of human stewards have kept a portion of that sanctuary thriving today.
Woods on the Smith Farm
Although the Smiths cleared 60 acres of their ground—enough for a productive orchard and farm—they reserved acreage on the east and west ends of the farm as forest. They would not have thought about windbreaks, microclimates, and storm water runoff as we do today, but they still knew that keeping forest was just as important as developing cleared land into fields, orchards, and building lots.
In developing their farm, the Smiths followed the pattern of most other farm families of the early 19th century, reserving about a third of their land in timber. From harvested timber came useful fuel, building materials, and a cash crop of ashes. The Smiths used oak for making barrels and other wood for making household and farm implements. Alvin, the oldest son, cut beech timbers to construct the family’s frame home. They also sold cordwood to local residents.1
Besides the useful harvested wood, the living woods on the Smith farm produced wild fruit, nuts, and herbs for cooking and medicine. In the west grove grew most of the approximately 1,500 maple trees the Smiths tapped each season to produce an average of 1,000 pounds of sugar.2 The trees also provided cover for small game and protection against soil erosion.
Place of Prayer
But the forested lands of the Smith farm served as more than a storehouse of commodities for sustaining daily life. The woods also enriched the family’s spiritual lives. Somewhere in the forest on the Smith farm was a quiet place “where members of the Smith family were wont to hold secret prayer.”3
The beautiful tract at the west end of the farm is traditionally honored as the Sacred Grove—the place where God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith in spring 1820.
Joseph was only a boy when he experienced his vision in the grove. Sources indicate that from a very young age he had pondered concerning his standing before God. He sought spiritual understanding through Bible study and attendance at religious meetings. But the heated religious debates of his time seemed confusing to young Joseph, especially when compared to the beauty and harmony of the divinely created natural world around him. His revelatory experience in the woods near his home filled his heart with love for many days4 and ushered in the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Change of Owners
After the Smiths moved from the farm in 1830, farming practices began to change. Later owners of the Smith property expanded the cultivated areas by removing nearly all the timber on the east end of the farm and reducing the woodland on the west to just 10 acres.
When the Church acquired the property from William Avery Chapman in 1907, he said that his father, Seth T. Chapman, had been a boyhood friend of Joseph Smith. The Chapmans never joined the Smiths’ new faith, but Seth told his son that since acquiring the farm in 1860, he had never touched an ax to the trees in the woodlot on the west end because Joseph had identified this area as the place where he had beheld his vision.5 Despite changes in ownership and land use over more than 75 years, 10 acres of the Sacred Grove survived as one of the few tracts of primeval forest in western New York.
The Grove Today
Almost two centuries after the First Vision, the grove still retains much of its ancient beauty, though there have also been changes. Trees of mature size in Joseph’s day still grace this aged forest alongside new growth and plantings that are extending the grove’s boundaries to its historic dimensions and strengthening its interior.
The Sacred Grove is currently healthier, better cared for, and more beautiful than it has been for many years. Past experiences inform today’s professional maintenance program.6 Safeguarding a forest is a long-term commitment, requiring a sense of stewardship to be passed on. The Church maintains the Sacred Grove as a quiet place of contemplation. As visitors respect the living forest by following the guidance of professional stewards, they help ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the serenity and sacredness of this hallowed ground.
Photos of the Sacred Grove in this article are by John Telford and used courtesy of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.