[Editor’s Note: Over the course of 2022 and 2023, New American History Executive Director Ed Ayers is visiting places where significant history happened, and exploring what has happened to that history since. He is focusing on the decades between 1800 and 1860, filing dispatches about the stories being told at sites both famous and forgotten. This is the tenth installment in the series.]
From a global perspective, the most important places Abby and I visited on this leg of our trip were sites associated with the birth of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The faith emerged in the 1820s when a young man, Joseph Smith, Jr., received visions of gold plates buried on a hillside near Palmyra, New York. The strange alphabet he saw on the plates told of an ancient civilization that had lived, and fallen, in North America hundreds of years before. With the help of his wife, Emma, and other trusted allies, Smith translated The Book of Mormon from these visions.
After many trials, the volume was published in Palmyra in 1830, and was immediately controversial. Though presented in the familiar cadences of the King James Version of the Bible, The Book of Mormon was denounced as fraudulent and blasphemous by some, and revered as divine inspiration by others. The charismatic young Smith drew people to him, slowly at first and then in growing numbers. Over the 14 years following the volume’s publication, he led the Latter-day Saints into new communities to create the Kingdom of God on Earth, moving west as they encountered persecution and violence in one place after another. In 1844, Smith was killed after he announced polygamy as a new revelation.
Two sites near Palmyra commemorate the birth of the new religion. One is a reconstruction of the Smith family farm site in the 1820s; the other is the Hill Cumorah, where the gold plates were revealed. Both places are open to the public even as they hold spiritual significance for Latter-day Saints. A woman at the visitor center for the farm welcomed us, politely asking where we were from and if we were with a group. Later, a man dressed in the white shirt associated with LDS missionaries asked if he could guide us anywhere. Our answers seemed to disappoint them, since we did not suggest that we were there as a matter of faith. They proceeded to other, more encouraging, conversations as the parking lot filled around our camper van.
The Book of Mormon challenged much of the United States of its time, attacking as sinful the intemperance, intolerance, and injustice that was widespread in the new nation. The Saints committed themselves to communal labor and property, contradicting the principles of private property and individual advancement that defined much of American life. The Mormons’ political power, nurtured through consensus and coordination, threatened the communities to which they migrated in large numbers. Polygamy, the source of a revelation after the Saints had left New York, scandalized many.
Across the 20th century, the LDS worked, with great success, to align itself with American values of patriotism, the nuclear family, commercial enterprise, and private initiative. Its efforts delivered many converts; of the more than 16 million members of the faith today, six million live in the U.S. The Church relies on museums and other historical sites to explain the origins and tenets of the faith.
Joseph’s family lived on a farm in the years he received his first visions. Most of the Smith Family Farm buildings were reconstructed in the 1990s on land the church purchased in 1907. In 1920, the Sacred Grove, the woods in which Smith received what Mormons call his “ First Vision,” became a site of pilgrimage. As we followed the path into the Sacred Grove, a sign told us that “In the spring of 1820, Joseph Smith entered this remnant of an ancient forest to kneel in prayer. The vision he beheld of God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ initiated the restoration to the earth of the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ.” A quote from Smith testified that “I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.” The Book of Mormon and Smith’s revelations completed a story begun but unfinished in the Bible.
The signs on the path through the Sacred Grove also carried testimony from witnesses who, nine years after Smith’s first vision, saw the gold plates. “He allowed each of the eight participants to hold the ancient record, turn its pages, and examine its characters.” These men — including four from the Whitmer family and three from the Smith family — testified that they had seen “the engravings thereon, all of which have the appearance of ancient work, and of curious workmanship.” The Book of Mormon bore the words of the eight men: “we give our names unto the world, to witness unto the world that which we have seen. And we lie not, God bearing witness of it.”
The path through the Sacred Grove led to the Smith Family Farm. Though the family struggled, failing to purchase the farm despite years of labor, the signs emphasize the improvements they brought to the land. “In just over twelve years,” signs explain, “the Smiths turned their hundred acres of forest into a farm that provided for their needs and stood as a monument to their family unity, thrift, and exemplary work habits.” The site displays a reconstruction of the log cabin the family built upon their arrival in 1818 and then lived in again as their hopes failed.
A sign in front of the larger frame home on the property tells the poignant story: “The Smiths’ oldest son, Alvin, planned the construction of this handsome New England-style farmhouse to provide for his future family and to care for his parents in their elderly years.” Alvin put up the timber frame of the house but died suddenly in 1823. The family moved into the incomplete house, but when payments came due the Smiths could not meet them. They returned to the log house and worked as tenants on the land they had cleared. The family abandoned the area in 1830.
The Smith Farm, with its cooper shop, barn, and finished frame house, focuses on accomplishment rather than failure. The family members appear as self-sufficient pioneers carving out a future for themselves. The reconstructed farm is a monument to the virtues and success the Church sought in later generations.
The greater significance of the Smith Farm for the Latter-day Saints lies, of course, in its spiritual rather than secular history. A series of recent paintings in the Sacred Grove Welcome Center represent the defining moments of the site, including “The First Vision,” “The Angel Moroni’s First Visit,” and “Bringing the Gold Plates from the Hill Cumorah.”
The Hill Cumorah, about three miles from the Smith Farm, stands as the other sacred place for the Latter-day Saints. As the church explains on its website, the Hill Cumorah “is the place where Joseph Smith met annually with the angel Moroni from 1823 to 1827” and where “the angel allowed Joseph to obtain the gold plates from which the Book of Mormon would be translated.” Reclaiming the land for the Church in the early 20th century proved challenging, for its owner refused to sell except for “an unfair price.” After the owner’s death in the 1920s, however, the LDS was able to purchase the bare hill. The church planted saplings from the Sacred Grove to restore the site to its appearance a century before. In the 1930s the LDS erected a golden statue of the Angel Moroni on the crest of the Hill Cumorah.
The Church launched an annual pageant in the 1930s. The performances grew ever more elaborate, boasting large stages and expansive lighting. Hundreds of people danced and sang; tens of thousands attended. A sign at the Hill Cumorah today explains that “almost every summer from 1937 to 2019, workers built a stage here. As many as 750 performers filled the stage to present a theatrical production.” They “united in faith and devotion to share the broad sweep of Book of Mormon history through music, dancing, and the spoken word.” Donny Osmond, a popular performer, portrayed a prophet. The Church canceled the pageant in 2021.
Instead of hosting performances, today the Hill Cumorah, like the Smith Farm site, seeks to represent history at the time of the birth of the faith. “Now this area is being reforested with native tree seeds,” a sign announces. “The young trees might look a bit messy, but over time this part of the hill will become a mature forest again, much like it was in the early 1800s.” Indeed, “visitors walking these woods today,” the Church’s website proudly pronounces, “can discover a quiet setting similar to the one in which Joseph Smith received his instructions from Moroni in the 1820s.” The path to the top of the Hill Cumorah still leads to the tall statue, but otherwise, the site is unadorned, looking out over a landscape of farms.
At the base of the hill, a stately new visitor center, featuring a self-guided tour and missionaries “available to answer your questions,” has replaced the pageants. We did not have the time to partake in the tour or the conversations, and so we drove on to our campground for the night. It was particularly large and filled with attractions. A friendly man in the site next to ours told us that he lived nearby, but set up camp at the lake so his grandkids could enjoy fishing, a giant bouncing pad, and the games in the arcade.
Hearing where we had visited that day, he told us that he had poured concrete for the foundations of the reconstructed structures at the Smith Farm back in the nineties. He explained, too, that the campground had grown so large and elaborate because LDS folks had brought vast numbers of campers and trailers to the pageants. Now that the pageants had ended, he said, it was easier to get a prime spot on the lake. He was sorry to see the pageants end, though, because Palmyra and other nearby towns missed the tens of thousands of pilgrims who came to celebrate the birth of their faith each year. History, he told us, just didn’t attract as many people as the spectacles.