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 Adamâ€™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 Iâ€™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), Iâ€™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: Thereâ€™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 wasnâ€™t too far from the log cabin, around which they would have been clearing land at the time. And if youâ€™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 Groveâ€”where countless thousands of LDS pilgrims have prayed and settled on a spot where they say â€œthis is the placeâ€?â€”is in fact part of the old-growth forest, and was part of the Smithsâ€™ 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 weâ€™ve got the wrong Martinâ€™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 Martinâ€™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 â€œthis 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 Christâ€™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 â€œthis is the place.â€?
Does any of this matter? Does it matter that we know (or donâ€™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, Iâ€™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 Mormonismâ€”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 profaneâ€”temples are the most obvious place where we sanctify earthly space and time.
For me itâ€™s also a pedagogical issue. The missionaries at Martinâ€™s Cove, I am told, bristle when anyone suggests that â€œtheirâ€? cove may not be the right one. They have too much investedâ€”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 mindâ€™s eye, what he saw. It all speaks to the literalism that is so characteristic of most sectors of modern Mormonism. Itâ€™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.
Wouldnâ€™t it be wonderful if in our pedagogy we allowed for multiple spots, multiple answers, and multiple ways? Not on the essentials, mind youâ€”there is only one Savior, and He is the Way, the Truth, the Light, and the Life. But wouldnâ€™t it be wonderful if there were fifteen ways to read Jesusâ€™ genealogy (as Julie has so beautifully shown us), not just one? What would it do if we took our youth to Martinâ€™s Cove and said, â€œWe donâ€™t know which cove it was, but the story is still importantâ€?? Or if at the Sacred Grove we told our children, â€œThis probably isnâ€™t the spot, but itâ€™s close, and we can still have a moment of quiet prayer that strengthens our testimony of God entering modern space and timeâ€?? Or do we need to identify and mark the exact place, or stick with our best guess in the meantime?
Does it matter?