Why Historic Sites?

Jenny Lund
21 February 2020

The Sacred Grove in upstate New York (USA) is the premier historic site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Yet it does not witness alone. More than two dozen Church-owned sites from Vermont to California and one in England celebrate the Restoration of the gospel and the commitment of Latter-day Saints to establish God’s kingdom in our day. Numerous historic markers dot the landscape, as do historic temples, tabernacles, and meetinghouses. For many people, these sites are sacred, evoking a sense of awe, reverence, and personal connection.

The idea of sacred space is an ancient one. When the Lord spoke to Moses out of the burning bush, He commanded, “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5).

The concept of preserving or marking a site also has ancient roots. When the Lord led the children of Israel into the promised land, Joshua paused, as directed by the Lord, and placed 12 stone markers to remind future generations of God’s blessings upon His children (see Joshua 4:19–22).

Just as these scriptural accounts affirm that places where significant events occurred are sacred and should be remembered and honored by God’s people, the Church today identifies, preserves, and interprets places significant to the history of this dispensation. These places have been sanctified by God’s blessings upon His people and by faithful Latter-day Saints who have dedicated their lives to building up God’s kingdom. They bear witness to the Restoration and remind us of God’s blessings and the faith, commitment, and sacrifice of His people.

One Woman’s Experience

In December 1905, Edith Ann Smith boarded a train in Salt Lake City, Utah, headed for Vermont. She was in good company. Members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, as well as several relatives and friends, also occupied the railcar. They were on their way to dedicate a memorial at the birthplace of Joseph Smith—one of the first historic monuments to be built by the Church.

In the back row, fourth from the left, Edith is standing beside Joseph F. Smith in front of the newly unveiled Joseph Smith Monument

Forty-four-year-old Edith was the Joseph Smith Sr. family’s unofficial historian and had the honor of unveiling the monument in Sharon, Vermont. In addition to the Prophet’s birthplace, she and the group visited Church historic sites in New York and Ohio. For many, it was the first time they had ever seen the places where the Restoration of the gospel had unfolded. The highlight of the post-dedication tour was a visit to the Smith farm, Sacred Grove, and Hill Cumorah in Manchester, New York.

In her role as family historian, Edith kept a detailed journal. Of the Sacred Grove, she wrote, “If there is any hallowed ground on the earth, surely the place where the Father and the Son appeared in person must be hallowed ground.”1 As they wandered among the trees, she recalled, “many thoughts passed through our minds. . . . We could not tell the exact spot where these holy beings stood but no one doubted that somewhere near the Father and Son did actually appear to Joseph Smith.”

Joseph F. Smith standing in the Sacred Grove in 1905

The group then gathered around a tree that was probably a sapling at the time of the First Vision and sang “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer.”2 All of the participants felt a sense of awe and wonder that comes from being in the place where an event occurred that changed the world. The revelations and history read over a lifetime suddenly took on greater clarity as the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the place provided an accurate setting in which to imagine the Prophet Joseph walking and kneeling to pray.

It was an unforgettable day. Soon the Church arranged to purchase the historic Smith farm so members of the Church across generations could have similar experiences.

Experiences of Thousands

Today visitors from all over the world can find a connection to Church historic sites. Sometimes they visit in person, walking the paths and streets where Joseph Smith and other Church leaders once walked. More often, they visit through photographs and vivid descriptions. Students of modern-day revelation often find that events in Church history make more sense when a connection is made to places and settings where they occurred. An obscure reference to Joseph Smith’s office in the attic of the Kirtland Temple suddenly becomes clear when the place is pictured. It is easy to imagine Joseph or his scribes at work there.

Restored Newel K. Whitney store and home in Kirtland, Ohio

While the places are often beautiful and grand, it is the stories of the people who inhabited them that strike the strongest chord for people today. People such as Joseph Smith or the early pioneers sacrificed significantly to build the kingdom of God and saw the hand of God in their lives. Seeing the landscapes where key experiences unfolded can cultivate a deep sense of gratitude in those of us whose lives have been changed and blessed by the Restoration. These sites can help open our eyes to the beauties of the principles of salvation and motivate us to embrace them with our whole hearts.

Photos courtesy of the Church History Library.