Monday, August 24, 2009

Why so bored in Palmyra?

For those of you unfamiliar with Mormon history, let me share with you a few basics.

Outside of Utah, there are three places we consider Big Ones. They are Palmyra (New York), Kirtland (Ohio), and Nauvoo (Illinois). Important things happened elsewhere but the historic events of the early church were concentrated in these places.

One of the perks of moving to Upstate New York as a Mormon is all of a sudden living about 90 minutes away from Palmyra. As far as the three Big Ones go, Palmyra is relatively low on the sheer number of sites to see. There's not much there - not as much as there is in Kirtland or certainly Nauvoo - but what there is, is historically huge. You've got the Smith farm and frame house where Joseph Smith spent his formative years. Then there's the Sacred Grove where he had the First Vision. Besides that, there's the Hill Cumorah (where the record later translated into the Book of Mormon was buried), the press shop where the first Book of Mormon was published, and lesser peripherals like the Martin Harris farm and the graveyard where Alvin Smith is buried. Thirty minutes away is the Whitmer farm where the Church was organized in 1830.

We spent Saturday in Palmyra visiting the historic sites and one thing that has changed since I visited there 11 years ago is that the church runs a tighter ship now. You can't just hop out of the car and explore the sites for yourself as I remember doing when I was a teenager. At all the sites we visited, we were funnelled through a Visitors Center and usually given a tour by a missionary or two.

Here we are in front of the Whitmer cabin, where according to most sources, the first meeting of the church took place on April 6, 1830. Don't you think that's neat, or can you at least understand how it would be neat to visit such a place for a believing Mormon? Too bad, then, that the overwhelming impression we got from the sister missionaries who gave us a tour there was: "WE ARE BORED."

Don't get me wrong - they went through all the motions, showed us all the right places and said all the right things. But there was something missing. I think it was, oh I don't know, any shred of enthusiasm for the absolutely fantastic events that took place at this very spot some 180 years ago. They stood in front of us and with calm eyes and soft voices told us about how the room had 40-50 people in it, and these were the names of the people on the church's charter document, and here was where some of the translation of the Book of Mormon took place, blah blah blah.

Meanwhile, I couldn't help but think: Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith, Sr. were in this room?!? and the church we know today started right here?!? and the work of translation went on right upstairs?!? If considering the fact that a young, unlearned day laborer farm boy wrested a religion - part culture, part revelation, part revival, a religion that has since become the largest home-grown American faith - from the rough farmland of upstate New York with his own bare hands does not excite you, as a Mormon, well, what does?

Anyway, as we drove away, I realized that being a site missionary (a missionary assigned not to knocking doors but giving tours at Mormon historical sites) must be a tough job, especially in a place as remote as Waterloo, NY, where the Whitmer farm is. There is nothing for miles and miles around except Amish farms and I can imagine the isolation and daily repetition could numb your mind a little. I hope for their sakes that they get rotated out to the more vibrant sites like the Hill Cumorah every once in a while.

Speaking of which, here is the Hill Cumorah. This place runs an outdoor play every year that is apparently America's largest. Has anyone ever been? Should we make an effort to go now that we live so close?

This is the Palmyra Temple, adjacent to the Smith farm. My Mormon heart almost weeps to think of the poor Smiths looking down today and seeing a beautiful temple built close to the land they worked so hard to improve but ultimately lost and left.

This is the original soapstone sink from when the house belonged to the Smiths. The elderly man who was our guide at the Joseph Smith sites in Palmyra was considerably more enthused about his duties than the ladies at the Whitmer farm. It's interesting, because he largely left his stated testimony of the Gospel of Jesus Christ out of the tour. And yet, through his happiness and enthusiasm for the service he was doing, I could tell that it was there, going strong. Even when he was telling us rambunctious stories like how a woman with a seer stone showed up at the Smiths' cooper shop late one night in 1827 and had some men tear it apart, looking for the "Gold Bible." All they found was an empty box buried beneath the floorboards (Joseph Smith had moved it beforehand).

See what I mean? Fascinating stuff. Don't let anyone convince you otherwise.


JackJen said...

The last time I was at the pageant was more than 10 years ago. And it was great.

I've always thought that senior missionaries at visitors' centers were so much perkier.... =) I have a friend who served in the Washington DC mission and told me about all of the extra rules that historical sites/visitors' center sister missionaries have, and it was EXTENSIVE. My understanding is that the senior couples get a lot more autonomy....that might contribute.

Liz Johnson said...

That's awesome. I seriously need to come visit and see all of this stuff!

JackJen said...

Liz, you know I've been trying to get you out here before you left Indiana. Turn right at Palmyra and head straight to the ocean.

Laura said...

I have never been to any of the historical church sites outside of Utah. I would love to go to Palmyra.

Sarah Rose Evans said...

I've seen the play-- my cousins were in it when I was twelve. I remember it being pretty fantastic, with hundreds of actors/dancers/etc. You should totally go. Or maybe you could be in it, too.

Sarah Rose Evans said...

I distrusted my memory-- could there really have been hundreds of actors? So I looked it up: Experience one of the world's great outdoor theatrical productions. Each July, seven evening performances are presented on the beautiful Cumorah hillside next to the Visitors' Center. A beautiful story on an enormous 10 level stage, twelve-tower lighting, state-of-the-art sound system, Hollywood special effects, and a costumed cast of over 650 provide a truly spectacular show.

Britney said...

I'm so glad you were already able to take a trip out to Palmyra. When I was a youth I lived 5 minutes from Kirtland, Ohio and can't tell you how many times we toured the Newel K. Whitney store, the temple there, the John Johnson farm, etc. My family and I also spent several summers in upstate NY, and were even cast members of the Hill Cumorah Pageant a few times. It all became so deeply personal having it at our fingertips like that.

Susanne said...

Meant to say that I enjoyed this brief look at Mormon historical sites from a woman with a Mormon heart. It was interesting.

goodmorning, i am alyssa. said...

Hey Bridget!
So just so you know, I went to the Hill Camora Pagent a few years ago and it was AWFUL. It felt really hokey and almost sacrilegious. It was also huge and crowded, and hard to see/understand what was going on. To add to it, there were a bunch of anti-mormon protesters outside of it. I really wouldn't bother unless you get absolutely starved for fun in Ithaca.

Ps, I just came to BYU the on Wednesday, and yesterday I bought groceries at Maceys. And I love it. Its super close to my apartment, i got asked if I needed help like 3 times, and thier prices were incredible. Maybe it was because I am used to Creamery/BYU Bookstore prices, but it was so cheap. Also, they carry a lot of organic products and super-portland things like Bob's Red Mill!!

Anyway, thanks for the tip!


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