Joseph Smith chopped down the Sacred Grove

Twelve years ago my family piled in a rented RV and drove cross-country to attend a wedding reception for my older brother and his wife in Minnesota. On the way we stopped at the church history sites in Missouri, including Independence, Liberty Jail, and Far West. At Adam-ondi-Ahman, a very nice senior couple gave us a tour, and at one point we stopped near a pile of rocks that looked, with some imagination, something like the remnants of an ancient stone altar. My memory may be a bit hazy here, but I seem to recall the missionary telling me that people would take rocks from the pile, apparently thinking they were relics of Adam’s sacrificial altar there, and then the missionaries would go out and find rocks to replenish the pile every so often. We thus have our own Mormon counterpart of the pieces of the True Cross or Berlin Wall.

My memory may not be entirely precise on that, and the whole thing may be apocryphal (or just a senior missionary having some fun with some teenagers), but I’ve thought about it ever since. Based on that and a recent conversation with Mark Ashurst-McGee (one of our best young scholars on Joseph Smith), I’ve been thinking about sacred sites and memory. Let me give a couple more examples, then share some thoughts and pose some questions.

Example #1: There’s a pretty good chance Joseph Smith cut down the Sacred Grove. The Smith family spent their first several years in Palmyra clearing their farm, which would have lasted well beyond 1820. And we know that Joseph had marked the spot where he wanted to pray by leaving his axe in a tree stump the day before. So it probably wasn’t too far from the log cabin, around which they would have been clearing land at the time. And if you’ve been to the site, which has been nicely restored by the Church, you know that the land all around the cabin was entirely cleared of trees by the Smiths in the dozen or so years they lived there. The spot that we now call the Sacred Grove—where countless thousands of LDS pilgrims have prayed and settled on a spot where they say “this is the placeâ€?—is in fact part of the old-growth forest, and was part of the Smiths’ homestead. But it seems unlikely, though not entirely impossible, that Joseph bothered to go so far from his house to pray, when there would have been plenty of as-yet-uncleared woods much nearer. If this is all true, then the spot where he saw the Father and the Son would have been cleared of trees by the family in the ensuing months or years, and then farmed on (which includes plowing, planting, laying manure, etc.).

Example #2: One of the big controversies now regarding Mormon historical sites is whether or not we’ve got the wrong Martin’s Cove, as in the place where the Martin handcart company found shelter from a raging Wyoming blizzard for a few days in 1856 before moving on. The traditional site, which is on BLM land but which has trails and signs posted by the Church, was identified much later, and without the direct help of any actual participants. Recent scholarship by Lydia Carter, presented at the MHA, suggests that the real cove is a mile or two further northwest. This year there will be tens of thousands of youth who go to Martin’s Cove and pull handcarts. The senior missionaries who are guides at the site will take them to the traditional cove and bear earnest testimony that “this is the placeâ€? where people suffered and died.

Example #3: My wife and I were in Jerusalem in March as part of an international conference dealing with conflict over sacred space. I was struck with many things, some of which I may post on later, but one thing that was particularly poignant was the argument over the place of Christ’s crucifixion and burial. For centuries virtually all Christians agreed upon the traditional site, identified by St. Helena in the 4th (5th?) c., which is now where the Church of the Holy Sepulcher stands. In the nineteenth century, British(?) archaeologists identified another set of stone tombs just outside the present city wall that has come to be known as the Garden Tomb, and which is the site accepted by many Protestant groups, but rejected by Catholics and Orthodox and most scholars. This is where Pres. Kimball went and said he had a strong feeling that “this is the place.â€?

Does any of this matter? Does it matter that we know (or don’t know) where the precise spot of the First Vision is? Does it matter which cove was really the place where pioneers suffered and died? Does it matter which of the two tombs (if either) Christ was buried in, and also presumably where He was resurrected and saw Mary? Does it matter if people have a probably counterfeit piece of Adam’s altar on their fireplace mantle?

On the one hand, I’m inclined to say WHO CARES? On the other hand, it was special for me to go to the Kirtland Temple and see the actual spot where I believe Joseph and Oliver saw the risen Christ on April 3, 1836 (see D&C 110). Most of my Catholic students are troubled by the historicity of Mormonism—they prefer the historical details of their faith to be shrouded in the fog of ancient history and mystery. I think they are uncomfortable reconciling their faith in improbable supernatural events (like the Resurrection) and their modern faith in verifiable science. I love the fact that Mormon history is so close, so tangible. For me part of the beauty of Mormonism is its collapse of the distance between the sacred and the profane—temples are the most obvious place where we sanctify earthly space and time.

For me it’s also a pedagogical issue. The missionaries at Martin’s Cove, I am told, bristle when anyone suggests that “their” cove may not be the right one. They have too much invested – they have received and dispensed their personal witness. And all those people who make their hajj to Palmyra who want to kneel where Joseph knelt and see, if only in their mind’s eye, what he saw. It all speaks to the literalism that is so characteristic of most sectors of modern Mormonism. It’s a literalism born of the Enlightenment and then applied to religion. Protestants did it first, with the Scottish common-sense movement that was influential in shaping modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism, and we have essentially adopted it. People want to know the spot, just as they want to know the answer and the way.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in our pedagogy we allowed for multiple spots, multiple answers, and multiple ways? Not on the essentials, mind you — there is only one Savior, and He is the Way, the Truth, the Light, and the Life. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if there were fifteen ways to read Jesus’ genealogy (as Julie has so beautifully shown us), not just one? What would it do if we took our youth to Martin’s Cove and said, “We don’t know which cove it was, but the story is still important?” Or if at the Sacred Grove we told our children, “This probably isn’t the spot, but it’s close, and we can still have a moment of quiet prayer that strengthens our testimony of God entering modern space and time?” Or do we need to identify and mark the exact place, or stick with our best guess in the meantime?

Does it matter?

57 comments for “Joseph Smith chopped down the Sacred Grove

  1. Interesting thoughts, Patrick; thanks.

    Regarding the question “does it matter”….I suppose my answer is “it depends,” and what it depends upon is something that we, as a relatively new religious movement, are still trying to theologically and historically articulate (much less patiently await revelation regarding such). You pick out a couple of obvious extremes: it does matter regarding the essentials–there really was a Christ who lived and died and was resurrected; and obviously it doesn’t matter regarding the location of Martin’s Cove, or the stories told about martin’s Cove. But what about the stuff between those two? What about, say, the Book of Mormon’s account of the Nephite prophets? “We don’t know where or when the Nephites lived or how many there were or whether anything that we’ve speculated about them since the publication of the BoM is even remotely accurate, but hey, it’s the story that matters?” That’s the point where Mormonism’s particular need to resolve the issue of historicity seems quite forceful.

  2. Interesting post. Thousands of people have toured the spotlessly restored Whitmer Farm, believing it to be the place where the church was organized, even though early records of the church indicated the event probably occured at the Smith farm in Manchester. One visiting the well branded and maintained site would have no idea that any controversy over the site’s true significance existed. It certainly wouldn’t be testimony-shattering for the church to admit that the farm “might” be the place where the organization occurred, but it certainly would go against the ingrained nature of the church to forcefully and artificially try remove all doubt or vagary.

  3. Last sentence should read “…but it certainly would go against the ingrained nature of the church, which is to forcefully and artificially try remove all doubt or vagary.”

  4. Patrick,

    Interesting thoughts.

    “Or if at the Sacred Grove we told our children, “This probably isn’t the spot, but it’s close, and we can still have a moment of quiet prayer that strengthens our testimony of God entering modern space and timeâ€??”

    Of course, the spot where Joseph prayed could very well have been in that forest that is still standing, as you point out, we really don’t know. But there is no “spot” in the Sacred Grove memorialized as the place where he prayed. There is a big old clump of forest with trails and benches in it called the Sacred Grove, but no attempt is made to point to a “spot” in that grove. So even now, one is left saying “this probably isn’t the spot” at any particular point where one might pray. And since the grove is so close to the farm, you really are about as close to it as you think you are, whether the actual spot is now grove or farmland.

  5. Fantastic post, Patrick.

    “That’s the point where Mormonism’s particular need to resolve the issue of historicity seems quite forceful.” But unfortunately, the current climate in the mainstream LDS church ensures that much of the interesting work will take place elsewhere. When scholars risk disfellowship or excommunication for raising questions like: ‘What was Joseph Smith really doing and why was he doing it?’ or ‘Were there really any Nephites?’ you’ve closed the door on comprehensive scholarship in-house. What’s left is compartmentalization that nibbles around the edges but avoids the core, or purely defensive apologetics a la FARMS.

    Catholicism has moved way beyond this. I’m not sure your Catholic students actually prefer their faith’s origins be shrouded in mystery; they just realize that this is indeed the case, so what choice do they have? Most human beings crave the kind of historical certainty that Mormonism traditionally provides. But for some reason the Lord has chosen not to provide it. Could this perhaps be linked to Gospel principles such as faith, progression, and the need to search for knowledge? Why weren’t the plates left for us?

  6. In my glorfied opinion, it doesn’t matter where these events happened, what matters most it that they did happen, which all of these events, in fact, did. AND I am grateful that they did happen.

  7. A note in connection to what you say about Jerusalem and the sites said to be the tomb where Christ was buried: In the witnesses of Christ video, President Hinckley, standing in front of the garden tomb says “in this place, or somewhere nearby, was the tomb . . . “

  8. Patrick, thanks for the post. God told Moses to remove his shoes because he was on holy ground. I wonder if that ground was holy a week earlier. If not, was it holy a week later? Or, does the holiness come only from the manifestation of God, which varies with each person?

    I have wondered, had we been hiding behind one of those trees in 1820, whether we would have seen anything more than Joseph. I expect not. Joseph would have then left the scene and we would be there amidst the trees that all looked pretty much the same, and wondering what his contortions were about. If we then heard of his experience a few years later, and realized what he saw that we did not, would we want to run back to the grove or run to Joseph? Or, drop to our knees wherever we were and seek the Lord there in thanksgiving?

    And yet, when we visited the Smith farm, we walked through the grove seeking some special feeling or special thought. So, the place does matter somewhat in practice, at least to make the history more vivid.

  9. Or if at the Sacred Grove we told our children, “This probably isn’t the spot, but it’s close, and we can still have a moment of quiet prayer that strengthens our testimony of God entering modern space and time�?

    Funny, this is exactly what my parents told us; rather, they said something like, noone know for sure where exactly JS prayed, but this is pretty much what it would have looked like, and this might even be it.

    I am aware of a kitch, place-sensitive trend in Mormonism, so I understand your post. However, I think for many Latter-day Saints it is still the fact that these things happened and not the exact place where they happened that matters most.

  10. Just a little musing on the alter of Adam. I doubt that the alter that Joseph found was Adams alter. We know from the scriptures that “the world that then was, being overflowed with water, perished” (2 Peter 3:6). The flood would have destroyed the entire landscape and would have left hundreds and thousands of feet of flood sediment. It may be that Joseph found the geographical location of the alter but doubtful that the alter they found was pre-flood at all. It was probablt a nephite or lamanite alter at best.

  11. . . .I seem to recall the missionary telling me that people would take rocks from the pile, apparently thinking they were relics of Adam’s sacrificial altar there, and then the missionaries would go out and find rocks to replenish the pile every so often.

    I laughed out loud when I read that. Something about senior missionaries having nothing better to do than wander out through the fields looking for suitable rocks. But then I realized that what this all means: We really do have people in the church who really would take a rock from a pile they really thought was Adam’s altar. Unbelievable.

  12. Who is that naive? I rather suspect they liked the remotest of possibilities that it might be – and more particularly the conversational value of such a proposition, however vague. Any rock from the surrounding area would do.

  13. Patrick wrote: At Adam-ondi-Ahman, a very nice senior couple gave us a tour, and at one point we stopped near a pile of rocks that looked, with some imagination, something like the remnants of an ancient stone altar. My memory may be a bit hazy here, but I seem to recall the missionary telling me that people would take rocks from the pile, apparently thinking they were relics of Adam’s sacrificial altar there, and then the missionaries would go out and find rocks to replenish the pile every so often.

    I confirm that this also was the case in early 1997 when I visited the site.

  14. A marvelous post. It highlights a couple of things for me that I hadn’t focused on. When we consider historical sites, it’s easier to separate the sanctity of the events from the sanctity of the location, but I’ve often blended those two things in my own mind with respect to current experience. Is the temple a sacred location? We often talk in such terms. But it is, essentially, three-dimensional space, just as the temple’s parking lot is.

    The post also reminds me that with respect to some aspects, we have been more specific about locations in the past than we tend to be today…
    We believe … that Zion (the New Jerusalem) will be built upon the American continent

  15. Is there a parallel between our tendency to consider locations as sacred and the ancient legal practice (that manifests itself in a few current US statutes) of deeming objects used in crimes to be tainted?

    Is it more than superstition? Is it just institutionally utilitarian?

  16. Incidentally, regarding senior missionary couples pointing out piles of rocks at Adam-ondi-Ahman….maybe they just decided, at some point, that they needed to get in on a game that was developing all around them anyway. My family also took a big cross-country trip, in 1984, travelling from Washington state to Washington DC and back again, and we hit every church historical spot along the way, including Adam-ondi-Ahman. That spring of 1984 there was no one there, and barely even a sign; it was just a big field. My mother took a rock from the field anyway, and kept it in our home’s flower garden for years thereafter. If her behavior is remotely typical of other LDS visitors, then gathering rocks to provide tourists with probably became a necessity eventually.

  17. Adam-ondi-Ahman was in my stake growing up and one set of missionaries befriended our family. Seems to me it was a nephite alter, not adam’s.

    This is a great post and speeks, as Russell notes, to the general fondness for relics that Mormon’s have. Nate’s fun post about kangaroo skin’s and Joseph’s pistol is another example. How many people do you know with a piece of the original nauvoo temple? I don’t know anybody living that has hair from any prophets, but it used to be rather common.

    Perhaps it is rooted in folk magic. We don’t believe that you can find a rock that allows you to see cool stuff, but who wouldn’t love to handle one of the three such stones in the FP vault? I used to scoff at the head of John the Baptist that was held in the cathedral next door to my appartment in france, but I have visited the graves of our prophets.

  18. I would totally take a rock from Adam-ondi-Ahman. Not because I believe that the altar there is Adam’s altar; not because I believe Adam lived in Missouri; not because I have any kind of firm faith in the “historical” Adam; but because I believe pilgrims can create sacred spaces, and I like those kinds of connections. It’s the same reason I kissed the star on the floor of the Church of the Nativity.

  19. Starting in about 1965, when I was seven, my family visited Nauvoo/Carthage every year en route to Utah to visit relatives. Back in those days, they had Hyrum’s blood stain on the floor in the upper bedroom under glass. Some time during the administration of SWK they removed the glass and stopped referring to it, ostensibly under the view that it was “time to move on.”

    A debate arose a few years ago, I forget in what forum (I believe an e-mail list), over whether that had been Hyrum’s actual blood stain. Having seen it many times as a boy, I took the position that it was; someone else (I forget who) took the position that it wasn’t. Determined to get to the bottom of this, I managed to contact Don Enders, the Church’s point person on historic sites. I was tremendously impressed with him when he gave a small group of us a personal tour of the potash factory in Kirtland, and no one else I contacted, including Susan Easton Black, knew the skinny on this.

    Don informed me that, no, that stain was not Hyrum’s blood. The historic sites restoration people are very careful with this sort of thing. The son of the owners of the jail from whom the Church acquired it early in the 20th century recalled that the floor had been replaced. The timbers of the floor were cut with a type of saw that did not yet exist during Joseph’s lifetime. So the stain that for so many years was under glass and a highlight of the tour was just that: a stain, and not Hyrum’s blood.

    I didn’t mind losing the argument in the least; I was just happy to learn the truth so that I could put my childhood experiences into context.

  20. I visited at Adam Ondi Ahman several times in 1972 when I was in that area on a full time mission. At the time it was rather undeveloped brush and open farmland. There are a number of local rock formations suitable for prompting fertile imaginations. I have photos of several missionary associates posing in sacrificial scenes. Elder Dansie gave an especially gruesome dramatic rendition.

  21. One is hard pressed to dispute a neutral proposition about a future contingent. Why shouldn’t we believe that the New Jerusalem will be built on this contintent? Lack of evidence? If one won’t take Joseph Smith’s word for it, what could possibly count as evidence?

    There is a wide variety of scriptural support for the idea, and further arguments that follow directly from rather straightforward statements on the subject from Isaiah and many others.

    In fact the strongest contemporary opposition to the idea comes from those who can’t stand the idea of a dual monarchy in the millennial era.

    The Old Testament is full of it, and the other scriptures are much more explicit:

    And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the LORD’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.

    And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.
    (Isaiah 2:2-3)

    LISTEN, O isles, unto me; and hearken, ye people, from far; The LORD hath called me from the womb; from the bowels of my mother hath he made mention of my name. And he hath made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand hath he hid me, and made me a polished shaft; in his quiver hath he hid me; And said unto me, Thou art my servant, O Israel, in whom I will be glorified. Then I said, I have laboured in vain, I have spent my strength for nought, and in vain: yet surely my judgment is with the LORD, and my work with my God.

    And now, saith the LORD that formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob again to him, Though Israel be not gathered, yet shall I be glorious in the eyes of the LORD, and my God shall be my strength. And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.

    Thus saith the LORD, the Redeemer of Israel, and his Holy One, to him whom man despiseth, to him whom the nation abhorreth, to a servant of rulers, Kings shall see and arise, princes also shall worship, because of the LORD that is faithful, and the Holy One of Israel, and he shall choose thee.
    (Isaiah 49:1-7)

    My righteousness is near; my salvation is gone forth, and mine arms shall judge the people; the isles shall wait upon me, and on mine arm shall they trust.

    The captive exile hasteneth that he may be loosed, and that he should not die in the pit, nor that his bread should fail.

    But I am the LORD thy God, that divided the sea, whose waves roared: The LORD of hosts is his name. And I have put my words in thy mouth, and I have covered thee in the shadow of mine hand, that I may plant the heavens, and lay the foundations of the earth, and say unto Zion, Thou art my people
    (Isaiah 51:5,14-16)

    And speak unto him, saying, Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Behold the man whose name is The BRANCH; and he shall grow up out of his place, and he shall build the temple of the LORD:

    Even he shall build the temple of the LORD; and he shall bear the glory, and shall sit and rule upon his throne; and he shall be a priest upon his throne: and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.
    (Zechariah 6:12-13)

    For behold, they rejected all the words of Ether; for he truly told them of all things, from the beginning of man; and that after the waters had receded from off the face of this land it became a choice land above all other lands, a chosen land of the Lord; wherefore the Lord would have that all men should serve him who dwell upon the face thereof; And that it was the place of the New Jerusalem, which should come down out of heaven, and the holy sanctuary of the Lord.

    Behold, Ether saw the days of Christ, and he spake concerning a New Jerusalem upon this land. And he spake also concerning the house of Israel, and the Jerusalem from whence Lehi should come—after it should be destroyed it should be built up again, a holy city unto the Lord; wherefore, it could not be a new Jerusalem for it had been in a time of old; but it should be built up again, and become a holy city of the Lord; and it should be built unto the house of Israel.

    And that a New Jerusalem should be built up upon this land, unto the remnant of the seed of Joseph, for which things there has been a type. For as Joseph brought his father down into the land of Egypt, even so he died there; wherefore, the Lord brought a remnant of the seed of Joseph out of the land of Jerusalem, that he might be merciful unto the seed of Joseph that they should perish not, even as he was merciful unto the father of Joseph that he should perish not.

    Wherefore, the remnant of the house of Joseph shall be built upon this land; and it shall be a land of their inheritance; and they shall build up a holy city unto the Lord, like unto the Jerusalem of old; and they shall no more be confounded, until the end come when the earth shall pass away. And there shall be a new heaven and a new earth; and they shall be like unto the old save the old have passed away, and all things have become new.

    And then cometh the New Jerusalem; and blessed are they who dwell therein, for it is they whose garments are white through the blood of the Lamb; and they are they who are numbered among the remnant of the seed of Joseph, who were of the house of Israel.

    And then also cometh the Jerusalem of old; and the inhabitants thereof, blessed are they, for they have been washed in the blood of the Lamb; and they are they who were scattered and gathered in from the four quarters of the earth, and from the north countries, and are partakers of the fulfilling of the covenant which God made with their father, Abraham. And when these things come, bringeth to pass the scripture which saith, there are they who were first, who shall be last; and there are they who were last, who shall be first.
    (Ether 13:6-12)

    AND I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

    And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God.

    And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away. And he that sat upon the throne said, Behold, I make all things new. And he said unto me, Write: for these words are true and faithful.
    (Revelations 21:1-5)

    All bluster? I don’t think so. In the words of Parley P. Pratt:

    As the sun began to decline behind the long range of forest which bounded the western horizon, and the lengthened shadows of the tall trees were thrown over our prison, we called upon the Lord to prosper us and open our way, and then sang aloud the following lines:

    Lord, cause their foolish plans to fail,
    And let them faint or die:
    Our souls would quit this poor old jail,
    And fly to Illinois–
    To join with the embodied Saints,
    Who are with freedom blest:
    That only bliss for which we pant,
    With them awhile to rest.
    Give joy for grief–give ease for pain,
    Take all our foes away;
    But let us find our friends again
    In this eventful day.

    These lines were sung several times over, with the spirit and with the understanding also, and very loud and distinct–being heard by the old apostate and his wife, and by the keepers of the prison; but the doctrine of spiritualizing had become so prevalent that neither this, nor the flag of liberty, nor any other Scripture seemed to them to have any literal meaning, till they found too late the true interpretation by the fulfillment.
    (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ch 32)

    Now how can anyone justify the motivation to spiritualize the scriptures as much as possible. Isn’t that motivation one of the primary factors behind the Apostasy in all ages and times. God does not need a body, Ambrose tells Augustine – see we can spiritualize it away!

  22. Kevin (and J. Stapely),

    The story that I really want to know about Nauvoo and Carthage and all the rest is the story of those early relic-hunters and preservationists (in the beginning, is there really a difference?) who moved heaven and earth to hold on to a little bit of history, until such a time that the rest of the church catches up. Ronan wrote about this on BCC in regards to the small, isolated church that Wilford Woodruff preached from on his mission–a chapel preserved solely through the actions of obesessive, forward-thinking, local British saints. Regarding Nauvoo and Carthage, my memory is telling me that, sometime in the 1920s, a missionary couple were sent by the church to head back to the area, and see what they could save. Apparently they convinced the church to buy Carthage Jail (once they’d located it–it’d been turned into a house), and then spent the next twenty years haunting antique shops and neighbors’ attics, slowly but surely making possible the sites we have today. Anybody know more about that?

  23. Patrick:

    Apparently, you’re having a hard time seeing the “forest” for the “trees”.

    Bwaa ha ha hardy har har!

  24. Amen, Ronan. I had the exact same experience in Israel. There are sacred places in the world, but they are as much a creation of the human spirit’s connection to God as they are places where real historical events took place. My thinking on all this has been deeply influenced by (Episcopal Bishop) John Shelby Spong, who has done much to articulate how a Christian can reconcile a profound, real experience of God with a scientific worldview.

  25. I recieved a bee sting at Adam-ondi-Ahman. (Stinkin’ bug.) That’s what I remember most. Then I remember being told that the Saints will end up gathering there. Then I think of all the Saints who will get stung there. DON”T move there unless you can withstand the bee stings!!

    Actually, I think young people need to see some of these places as a way to grasp what really happened. It doesn’t matter if the place they stand on is two miles different than where it really happened. By being where an event happened (or close to it) they can have visual (and other sensory) memories to look back on as they rediscover and understand a little more of the histories of those events.

    Of course, if there is no concrete evidence people ought to be careful to say (especially when bearing testimony) that they know that “this exact spot” is where the event happened. They can evoke the same emotional and spiritual response by saying, “it was close to here that” the event happened. A prophet can probably get away with it, however, in my view.

  26. Russell, you may be thinking of Wilford C. Wood, collector of Mormon memorabilia extraordinaire. I could swear there was an article in one of the Mormon journals somewhere about how he assembled the various lots constituting the Nauvoo temple over a period of several decades, starting in 1937, but I can’t find it at the moment. In the meantime, you can get the gist of these acquisitions from this Nauvoo temple chronology:

  27. Russell, I’m not sure about a specific couple. Joseph F. Smith focused heavily on these sites. He had indaviduals purchase a part of the Independence, Missouri, temple site (1904); Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Sharon, Vermont (1905-1907); and the Smith homestead in Manchester, New York (1907). The Church purchased the Jail in 1903 and two acres of Land for $4000 and given to a custodian. It had been transformed into a “cottage.” Samuel Bennion, President of the Central States mission at the turn of the century, pruchased Far West. Adam-ond-ahman was purchased in pieces starting in the 40s – the first being purchased by Wilford Wood. Wood was an ardent collector of Mormon Memorabilia, things like the Joseph’s Medalion came from his searching.

    I couldn’t find to much on who the caretaker was. Joseph A. McCrea was the custodian in 1944.

  28. I visited Adam Ondi Ahman in about 1975-1976. I was 10 or 11. At the time, my father was looking into purchasing land in Missouri for a catfish farm, he had also discussed becoming a sales rep for an agricultural fertilizer company. With the latter option in mind, as we walked around the Adam Ondi Ahman property, he walked over and starting talking shop with a farmer who was working some adjacent land. I don\’t remember if the farmer was gathering rocks at that moment, I remember him telling my dad that he would would place rocks from his field into piles, because \”those crazy Mormons will come and haul them away for me, one at a time.\”
    My father kindly pointed out that we also were crazy Mormons, and speaking on the behalf of the other crazy Mormons, we were happy to be of help to the farmer.

  29. Nathan, excellent point. This is why Ronan’s experience and observations are still valid, useful, and desirable, even if people from the handcart companies didn’t die on the exact square meter of ground he was standing on in Martin’s Cove. Being there allowed him to see the land where they languished and tell Councilor Kelly about it, even if the actual Cove is two miles away (and that is only a theory anyway).

    We should perhaps all be a little more agnostic about what we suppose are the “facts” of history and allow ourselves to take in the general idea and meaning. Because of our faulty ability at history (assisted in this by nature and chaos) we can’t say for certain where the garden tomb is or the spot of the crucifixion; we can’t say where Adam’s altar at Adam-ondi-Ahman or the exact square meter of earth is where JS kneeled and prayed; (it’s no wonder we can’t say for certain where Pahoran’s judgment seat was). But being in the roughly the same area still allows us to see what it looks like and have a feel of the air etc. as JS might have experienced it. That is still worthwhile.

    The occurrence of the First Vision, however, is a religious truth and therefore in a different category than a “fact” of history. There is no reason to be agnostic about whether the First Vision happened. It either happened or it did not. The metaphysics of it can be debated ad nauseum (i.e. whether JS saw it in an altered state of being or as a dream or whether the resurrected beings occupied the same time and space as him), and that can be fun and can fall into the category of historical fact (albeit an unknowable one if one is to discount the testimony of JS about it). But as a religious truth, the key regarding it always was faith in the first place, and not whether historian X can find a document that substantiates it somewhere. Because it is in the category of a religious truth, it can fairly be “reduced” to a black-and-white: either it did happen and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is true on its own terms, or it did not, and this is heresy. This line of reasoning is often criticized as unduly “reductivist”, but I wonder if that is because The First Vision is being looked at in the category of historical fact rather than religious truth.

  30. BYU professor Jeffrey R. Chadwick examined the locations and dates of origin for the Garden Tomb, the Holy Seplchure, and Skull Hill in Religious Educator a few years ago. His article was reprinted in Meridian Magazine:

    Part 1
    Part 2
    Part 3

    His conclusion?

    [T]he Garden Tomb cannot be materially connected to the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ burial and Resurrection. The tomb itself was not a “new sepulchre� in Jesus’ day, having been cut out six or seven centuries earlier, in Iron Age II. The “track� in front of the tomb was not designed for a “rolling stone� at all; it was really a water trough that was part of the donkey stable built eleven centuries after Jesus. The stable itself was certainly no early Christian shrine. And even though it is possible that a garden occupied the area in Jesus’ day, neither the winepress nor the nearby cistern is proof of this. In any case, the cistern also dates to eleven centuries later. None of the features at the Garden Tomb, either inside the burial cave or outside it, can be connected archaeologically with the events of Jesus’ burial and Resurrection as recorded in the New Testament.

  31. John F., I don’t think you can make a hard distinction between religious truth in this case. It will not do for Joseph Smith to have imagined communicating with the Father and the Son. He must have *actually* communicated with them for his account to have any real significance.

    To take the First Vision seriously the following propositions must be actual or historical facts:

    1. There is a person such as Heavenly Father
    2. There is a person such as Jesus Christ
    3. Joseph Smith actually communicated with these two figures
    4. The second figure was the same man as the historical Jesus.
    5. The testimony of Jesus w.r.t. to his divinity, his Father’s divinity, and his relationship to the Father is accurate.

    These are all questions of *fact*. Divinity entails certain necessary propositions and capacities amply described in the New Testament, truths that are or will be either historically verifiable in the process of time, or meaningless. Faith in a Savior who cannot save, nor resurrect, win the victory over sin and death, nor triumph over the forces of evil is an idle pastime.

    Joseph’s Smith testimony is controversial precisely because he asserts that he did communicate with this very Savior – the Lord of Lord and King of Kings who shall return in glory and judgment in due time – not the artifact of a bad potato, corrupt piece of meat, nor transcendent imaginary ideal.

  32. Whatever you do, just don’t tell me that John Taylor’s watch didn’t actually stop a bullet.

  33. I think its interesting that this discussion has focused entirely on religious places- as a native of Virginia, I spent my childhood being taken to the “sacred” places of American History- Mt.Vernon, Williamsburg, Monticello, Yorktown, Manassas, Appamattox, etc. It seems that everyone- Mormons and non-Mormons alike- want to feel like they are at “the place” of the events that have shaped their lives today.

    Having spent hours tromping through overgrown fields to be able to say “this is where X happened”, I do think it matters that people think they are at “the” site. I think it helps people grasp the enormity of history and all the implications of that history, as well as to give the events a type of permanence. To say that the event “might have happened here” feels only steps from saying the event “might have happened like that,” and then to saying the event “never happened at all”.

    If we can use modern methods to say that Martin’s Cove is definitively 2 miles to the north, then I want to go to the cave that is two miles to the north. But don’t tell me that it might be here or it might be there- because to me, that means it might be anywhere. And if it could be anywhere, then what’s to say it actually happened like that in the first place.

  34. I like the sentiments expressed by Nathan and Ronan and others. When I went to Jerusalem, I really didn’t care whether or not this or that was the exact spot of Event X. For me it was much more touching to see how those places had been memorialized and sacralized over the years. In my mind, both the Garden Tomb and Holy Sepulcher are sacred precisely because people believe they are, and revere them as such (and make tremendous sacrifices to see them in person). I don’t think it’s a figment of the imagination for us to feel closer to the holy in some places than in others. Those places may have been constructed at some point — all space is constructed in regards to meaning at some point, whether you’re talking about sacred space or a shopping mall — but the religious experience that people have when they visit those places and commune with the divine gives the place a spirituality and holiness in and of itself.

    It seems to me this is how our homes become holy — not that the actual building is or that the builders were somehow consciously erecting sacred space, but the work we hopefully do in our homes (raising up Saints and ultimately becoming Christlike) makes the space sacred.

    So I love all these places, even if as a historian I know there’s a certain inexactitude about them in purely “historical” terms.

  35. Mark Butler, you might have misunderstood me. I was arguing that it is a religious truth that JS saw what he said he did and that it occurred in the way he said. In that sense, perhaps you could say it is a religious fact. Whether in the body or out of the body can be debated but it either did happen or did not. Or are you saying that this either/or is invalid?

  36. One thing that has impressed me about place (especially built-up, lived-in places like Jerusalem, Chicago, or our 40 year old apartment building) is the mind-boggling number of particular events they bear through the passage of time. A place is often defined by a particular event for someone, it seems to bear the mark of that event and holds it after it has passed away. But then other events occur and take its place; the location is a pile of happenings, new layered upon old. In some places (like a canyon) one can see marks or signs of the layering of events very clearly; in others, it takes stories and records and imagination to see it.

    The attempt to hold a place sacred, to define it by one thing that happened there, to the exclusion of all the others, on the one hand seems a bit like keeping Mill’s body in preserve at Oxford (the dead form of a truly great thing is made to remain, but all its life has long left it and it is preserved *as something dead*). On the other it is an awe inspiring work of ages, an attempt to do nothing less than bind a non-existing past event to an empty point in space (thereby making something–a very important something).

    “both the Garden Tomb and Holy Sepulcher are sacred precisely because people believe they are”
    I sense something missing in this formula. As others have noted there probably wasn’t a “Holy Sepulcher” until long after the Resurrection; even then it may have been the wrong place, or if it was, it still took a great deal of dedication to “make it” a sacred place. The sacred place is indeed in some sense made or constituted by a long historical effort of devotion and pilgrimage and subjective belief. But these things all hang upon an original miraculous event about which the keepers and visitors of the location can only err about the spatial coordinates. You can get the precise place wrong and it’ll still be sacred (though the whole point is to be correct or at least close); about the Resurrection one can’t be wrong, or else it’s not sacred, no matter what people believe.

    Then again I have and often do pray at the Grotto. Go figure.

  37. When I go to the temple, I think to myself about the possibility that the Savior has actually been in this room or that. According to proper mormon legend, Christ has supposedly visited every temple and has approved of each. I cannot be sure if this is true or not.

    I like to think it is true. It brings the heavens closer to me. But if not, I still feel the heavens are closer within its walls.


    I think I understand and feel, in part, as you do concerning being in the exact place. If we know, without a doubt, where something is, then yes, show me.
    I’m not a historian so perhaps Patrick could enlighten me, but in the history that I read, there are numerous occasions where an event happened (which can be a known fact (indisputable)), and we know about where it happened, but there is no way to know an exact location. I think you go a bit to far in your slippery slope argument.

    Having been to the Sacred Grove, there is no doubt that even though the exact location is not known, the “enormity” and “implications” of the site left me with and indelible understanding of what took place in the area. I don’t think it could have been any more so had I known exactly where it took place.

    In fact, I think not knowing adds to the reverencing of a site as those tourists likely won’t be crowding into a small area with the cacophony that usually attends such crowds. Rather, they are scattered, left to themselves with time alone to think about the possible miracle that happened.

    That being said, I don’t know if that is true in all aspects. Two miles around Martins cove may be just enough for people to think that it might have happened there. However, two miles outside of the Smith home probably would not be close enough for people to reverence the area. Two hundred yards from Carthage Jail may not be close enough to feel the loss of a prophet.

    I will bet that knowing exact locations depends upon what piece of history we are talking about and how much we know about it.

  38. Speaking about where important events transpired, “This is the right place.” –B.Y. But where is the “right place?” Did Brigham mean Mexico?

  39. WillF (#34) : According to Richard Bushman in RSR, John Taylor’s watch was damaged by a windowsill that he fell against after being struck by a bullet. Dang…

    Patrick: Great thread! Your comments were quite thought-provoking, and there have been a number of fascinating posts.

  40. John F., Yes I am just quibbling about choice of terms. Truth is not the sort of thing that can be qualified, it is either absolute or not truth at all. I think “relative truth” is an oxymoron, and “religious truth” or “historical truth” is pretty close. Truth is one – there is no choice about it, with regard to the present and the past at any rate.

    The future is more complicated, of course, because arguably the future does not properly exist yet, except on the drawing board. The truth of the future is contingent on natural law, divine intent, free will, and the state of the past. Two of those can be changed on the fly, if morality has any meaning.

  41. [i]Wouldn’t it be wonderful if in our pedagogy we allowed for multiple spots, multiple answers, and multiple ways?[/i]

    Ever hear of the two Cumorahs? Or the three kingdoms?

  42. I was using “religious truth” as basically equivalent to your Truth. I have no idea what you’re taking issue with in my statement. Do you think I am relativizing Truth by stating that one can debate the metaphysics of the First Vision (because we don’t know) and come to different conclusions but still maintain an either/or view of whether it happened as Joseph said it did or not?

  43. No issue but choice of words, John. I do not think you are relativizing anything just that you appeared to be making a distinction without a difference.

  44. Is it possible…

    Are there spiritual imprints/ auras left on objects/ locations by events–not just in our thinking, but actually?

    Consider this: Why do we put blessed garments on bodies, bless houses, and dedicate meetinghouses and temples? Why do we pray over our fields?

    If so, there might actually be something special about “THE place”.

  45. Interesting thread. I have been to the Carthage Jail many times, the first time being when I was age 12. At that time our scout patrol was allowed to sleep overnight in the bedroom where the martyrdom occurred. There was a small glass picture frame on the floor, over the spot where Hyrum’s blood had stained the wood, we were told. One could see a couple of dark spots on the already dark floor beneath the frame.

    That frame has long since been removed and the guides no longer point out any such spot on the floor, although I think I might still be able to find it. The point being that although the jail and site are still hallowed, it is the events that occurred there that make it so. The actual artifacts are of much less importance.

  46. I just found another example of possibly mis-placed sacred history/memory, while reading Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith. There’s good evidence the organizational meeting for the church, on April 6, 1830, took place in Manchester, and not Fayette, New York. Again, maybe not a huge deal in the overall scheme of things, but at this point the Church has a significant investment in Fayette, having restored the Whitmer farmhouse, built a very nice chapel, and created a destination for those coming to see the Palmyra/Manchester sites (not to mention saying Fayette in all the historical treatments and in the Doctrine & Covenants; although the 1833 Book of Commandments said Manchester). I’m sure there are missionaries at the Whitmer house who are daily bearing their testimonies, “This is the place where the church was organized…” Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t.

  47. Grego, I don’t think there are spiritual imprints left in a place, but rather in our minds. and not only our minds, but the minds of the heavenly hosts, and the Holy Ghost in particular. And our minds our coupled to the minds of heaven via the spirit – when we go certain places, the memories of what went on there come rushing back both to us personally, and to heaven collectively, or at least that part we have communion with. That is why we feel transcendence – a sacredness beyond ourselves, about both place and idea – transcendence to me is heavenly resonance – the feeling of the good for the good.

  48. Yes, I agree with that. But what about the answers to the questions I asked? I think there might really be more to it.

  49. I totally agree the concreteness (and vulnerability of finitude and particularity) are key to what makes LDS faith so powerful. I don’t think it matters much exactly where Joseph prayed or whatever, but it matters very much that it happened at a place “quite like this, close by”. These events happened to particular people in particular places, and that is a key part of their meaning, because similar things can happen to particular us in our particular circumstances. Otherwise what is the point? And it would just be weird to say they happened to this person in this year etc. and not mark some place to represent and approximate that fact. Our reverence for these places is a necessary part of our communal commitment to the reality of these particular events.

  50. Regarding #18, \”We don\’t believe that you can find a rock that allows you to see cool stuff…\”, well, my daughter had a blue \”rock\” that allowed her to see cool stuff, and recently replaced it with a silver colored \”rock\” that allows her to see even more cool stuff. Of course, she calls it a camera cell phone. Indeed, the description of a white stone in D&C 130:10-11 (and Rev. 2:17) sounds a lot like someone describing what is functionally a white-cased PDA or laptop computer, using only the vocabulary available in the early 19th century (even to include a password or pin to get online access – the \”new name\”). Of course, I imagine our celestial \”white stones\” will be at least as more advanced over our current technology as our current technology is advanced over Joseph Smith\’s day, if not a great deal more so.

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