Traveling the Pages of Church History

It doesn’t take a personal visit to gain a testimony of what occurred in places like Palmyra and Kirtland, but a journey to see them first hand is certainly a special treat and profound experience, as you actually stand where it all happened and feel the spirit that clearly envelops these special sites.

If you’re planning a Church history tour, then this article will guide you along in your journey, letting you know many of the sites you’ll want to see and what you’ll want to know before going there. If you’re not able to plan a history tour any time soon, then perhaps this article can serve as your personal tour guide right in your home via our stories and photos. Sharon, Vermont: Birthplace of the Prophet 

If beginning a Church history tour from start to finish, then your first stop would naturally be Sharon, Vermont, the birthplace of Joseph Smith.

If you’re looking for the shortest route to Sharon, you’ll want to fly into Burlington Vermont (1 ½ hours from Sharon); Manchester, New Hampshire (1 ½ hours from Sharon); or Boston, Massachusetts (a 2 ½ hour drive). Some travelers opt to fly into one of the larger airports in New York City, Washington D.C., or even Philadelphia, tour those cities, and then drive to Vermont.

The Prophet and his family’s history in this area is perhaps not discussed as frequently as are their times in Palmyra or elsewhere, but it is, nonetheless, fascinating, as it is here that we begin to see a framework being established for the rest of Joseph Smith’s life.

You’ll see the monument obelisk standing between the visitor’s center and the home of the missionary couple directing the memorial grounds. Even with today’s construction capabilities, the monument would certainly be considered an exceptional piece of art, but it is important to keep in mind that this monument was erected in 1905. It is made of a single piece of granite, quarried at the nearby Barre excavation site, and stands 38 ½ feet tall (one foot for each year of the Prophet’s life). Including the base, it reaches over 50 feet tall. Be sure to walk around the perimeter and read Joseph Smith’s testimony and the other engravings.

Transporting a 39-ton, single shaft of granite in 1905 was no easy task. Barre is about twenty-five miles north of Sharon with the last five miles muddy and virtually impassable for the two oxen and twenty-two horses trying to move the stone. The group charged with the task of transporting the rock prayed that somehow the Lord would provide a way. The muddy ground unexpectedly froze after a storm—just days before the scheduled December 23, 1905 dedication.

To the left of the monument is the site of the log cabin in which the Prophet was born. All that remains now is the original front doorstep (and a hearthstone taken from the original cabin is located in the visitor’s center).

The memorial grounds are well shaded and absolutely beautiful, so plan ahead for a picnic and enjoy the serenity surrounding you.

Palmyra, New York: The Gospel Truth Restored 

For many families, taking an all-inclusive trip to see the Church history sites spanning Vermont to Illinois simply may not be feasible. For this reason, you might decide to visit just one city in the Saints’ journey to Zion. If this is your choice, then the two options are probably Palmyra or Nauvoo.

The significant events that occurred in both towns make either choice a winning answer, but a visit to Palmyra, particularly to the Sacred Grove, is one that will likely leave an indelible impression in the heart of any visitor.

 The Sacred Grove 

Be sure to read Joseph Smith’s account of what happened in the grove before you begin visiting these sites (JS—H 1), and try to prepare yourself spiritually so that the experience can be all the more sacred for you and your family.

Although we don’t know the exact spot within the grove where the vision occurred, you’ll easily be able to picture the scene as you wander along. As most who have visited here will tell you, the spirit contained within these woods is nearly palpable. It will surely be a faith-promoting experience you will not easily forget.

The Joseph Smith Family Farm

Adjacent to the Sacred Grove is the Smith family log home and the Smith family farm. You should allow at least two hours to see the sites, including the Sacred Grove, in this area.

Joseph Sr., his wife Lucy, and their nine children all lived in the residence (though it’s a wonder how they did it by our modern standards) from 1818 until 1825. It was while living here that Joseph went into the woods behind his home to pray, and here (in the upstairs bedroom) that Joseph was visited three times by the angel Moroni. The original log home was torn down, but it was rebuilt on the original foundation and rededicated by President Hinckley in 1998.

In 1825 Joseph Sr. and Lucy moved into the frame home that son Alvin began constructing in 1822 (just a short walk from the log home you’ll visit first). He was not able to finish the construction, as he passed in 1823, but Hyrum ensured that the home was completed. The home is not ornate but certainly lovely and a nice upgrade for the humble family. In this home Joseph Jr. hid the gold plates in the hearthstone. It was also here where Joseph retreated after hearing that Martin Harris had lost the 116 pages of manuscript. This home has been carefully reconstructed to represent what life was like for the Smiths at that time. Be sure to ask the missionaries questions and learn even more history—you’ll be amazed at the additional insight they have to share.

Just across the dirt road from the frame home are the threshing barn and cooper (barrel-making) shop. Adults and kids alike will love to wander through these buildings, which are set up with markers explaining daily tasks and farm life. You’ll learn that the family was anything but idle, as they chopped trees, tended the apple orchard, tapped maple trees for syrup and sugar, and grew crops like corn and wheat. The Hill Cumorah 

“As we drove past the hill in our tour bus, I could hardly believe I was passing by the same hill out of which the Prophet took the golden plates,” remarked one recent visitor to the Hill Cumorah. “It leaves such an impression to actually see a place you’ve learned about since you were a child, and to think about what actually took place there.”

The Prophet Joseph Smith’s first trip to this sacred hill occurred on September 22, 1823 and he returned on the same date from 1824 to 1827 to receive instruction from Moroni. That last year (1827) he returned with his wife Emma, who waited in the wagon while her husband climbed the hill to receive the plates. There are several spots overlooking the hill where you can sit, read, and reflect at the same place where an ancient prophet taught Joseph Smith. The Book of Mormon Publication Site: The Grandin Building 

Located at 219 East Main Street in Palmyra, the original site of the printing and binding of the Book of Mormon will likely be one of the most educational stops of the journey as you learn how books were created in the 1820s, and of the sacrifice it took to make the Book of Mormon available.

When first presented with the offer to print the book, Mr. E.B. Grandin refused. No one in Palmyra, including Grandin, was a stranger to the controversy surrounding Joseph. However, once the payment of $3,000 was confirmed by the mortgage of Martin Harris’s farm, and after several townspeople assured him it would simply be seen as a business venture, he consented to print the requested 5,000 copies.

You’ll be able to see several priceless treasures here, and the missionaries will describe how the monotonous and arduous process of printing the book all came together. You’ll see an original printer’s proof sheet, a first edition of the Book of Mormon, and a replica of the press.

The Martin Harris Farm 

The most impressive aspect of this site is probably not the house you’ll see, but the acres of rolling fields flanking it. And the fields are impressive not just because of their beauty, but because Martin Harris sacrificed this 240-acre farm in order to pay for the printing of the Book of Mormon, mortgaging it and later selling it to make the $3,000 printing payment (that would be about $52,000 today).

As you look out across all that he gave up in order to ensure that others could read the Book of Mormon, you will naturally be struck with a humbling feeling and a newfound admiration for Martin Harris. The home itself is owned by the Church but not available for tours, but you may walk the grounds and admire the stretches of farmland.

Fayette and the Organization of the Church 

Fayette, New York, located about thirty miles southeast of Palmyra, is home to the organization of the Church, which occurred at the Peter Whitmer log home (take I-90 to exit 41 or 42 and follow the signs to Waterloo and then to the Whitmer farm).

Several significant events happened in Fayette, and this approximately forty-five minute trip outside of Palmyra is definitely a must-see. It was in Fayette that the translation of the Book of Mormon was completed, here that the three witnesses were allowed to see the plates, here twenty revelations were received and many people baptized, and here the Church was officially organized in the small front room of the Peter Whitmer log home.

As you walk through the home, the first thing you’ll probably be struck by is the fact that approximately fifty people somehow fit into the tiny room that day (April 6, 1830) in order to take part in the organization of the Church and partake of the sacrament. After these inspirational proceedings, Joseph Smith Sr., Martin Harris, Porter Rockwell, and possibly Lucy Smith were all baptized.

Kirtland: A Period of Building and Revelation 

About a five hour drive from Fayette is the next stop in the journey, Kirtland, Ohio. Kirtland is brimming with special sites and was the home to many significant events in Church history. The Church was able to build a stronger foundation of Saints here, in part because missionary Parley P. Pratt was allowed by his friend Sidney Rigdon (a Kirtland minister) to preach to his congregation—resulting in 127 baptisms. Then, because of strong persecution in Palmyra, the New York body of Saints also came to Kirtland. During this time (1831–1838), Church membership in Kirtland grew to approximately 2,000.

Historic Kirtland Village

You’ll start your tour of the village at the informative visitor’s center and then continue up the road to see a functioning sawmill, tannery, printing press, and ashery. At the ashery you’ll learn about the process of mixing ash with water to make what was then the profitable product potash, which could be used to create everything from fertilizer to glass to soap.

Also located in the village is the Newell K. Whitney store. This was Joseph Smith’s first stop when he arrived in Kirtland, and Newell and his wife (who were recent converts) welcomed them happily, allowing Joseph and Emma to live in their home. The store is a fascinating stop, and the missionaries will tell you about many of the products, what they were used for, what was so unique about them, and how merchant life differed from today’s standards.

For example, you’ll see that the shoes for sale are not left or right footed—there was no differentiation at the time because they could be worn on either foot for longer wear. The store, both inside and out, is a near exact replica of the original, made possible because Newell kept meticulous records of his inventory. You may be shown one of his old ledgers and can compare it to the products in the store.

Upstairs you’ll be introduced to the room where the School of the Prophets met. Listen as the missionaries describe what was taught in this sacred and holy place where Heavenly Father and Jesus communicated with a prophet to address the affairs of the Church.Hiram, Ohio and the John Johnson Farm 

Hiram, Ohio (about 32 miles south of Kirtland) and the John Johnson farm are marked with the testimony of faith and strength Joseph left here. Here the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon received the vision of the three degrees of glory and saw God the Father and Jesus. Joseph received fifteen other revelations, worked on the inspired translation of the Bible, and approved the publication of the Book of Commandments. The location, however, also carries the memory of one of the most violent persecutions of the Prophet’s turbulent life.

On March 24, 1832, a mob of about fifty men stormed into the home in the middle of the night where Joseph was sleeping on a trundle bed, and dragged him out of the house. Joseph had been trying to comfort their sick baby son who was suffering with measles.

The original plan was to kill Joseph, but instead the mob decided to severely beat him then douse him with tar and feathers. They also forced a vial of poison down his throat, which chipped a front tooth and caused him to speak with a slight whistle after that. Sidney Rigdon was also dragged from his nearby home by his ankles, resulting in a severe head injury.

When Emma first saw her husband covered in the tar she thought it was blood and fainted. She later recovered and with the help of friends, scraped the tar off her husband. Despite everything, the next morning Joseph gave his sermon as usual from the front steps of the Johnson home (at that time it was Church headquarters), though covered in cuts and bruises. Later that same day, three people were baptized.

Because of the exposure to the cold night air after already being ill, Joseph and Emma’s son Joseph passed away five days later, less than eleven months old.

Imagine as you stare at the steps leading into the Johnson home what both Joseph and Emma went through, and the courage and strength they upheld through it all.

Each step in the journey undertaken by the beloved Prophet Joseph Smith, and those who faithfully followed him, was inspired by the Lord. As you follow the path of the earliest latter-day members, it is impossible not to note their strength. Despite their tremendous hardships, they triumphed through their faith and dedication in helping to bring about a restoration and strengthening of the Lord’s Church upon the earth.

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