Pilgrimage: Internalizing 20th Century Joseph Smith

Sharon Vermont and Religious Memory, Part 2

If President Smith’s dedicatory remarks remembered Joseph Smith’s birth and legacy in such a way as to distance the church from its recent past, lay-members nonetheless made use of the memorial and its surroundings to shape their own memories of Joseph Smith and his work. As Latter-day Saint believers made personal pilgrimages to the memorial throughout the early twentieth century, their physical interactions with the surrounding site and its artifacts, coupled with their previous life experiences, led them to feel a personal attachment to Joseph Smith and his prophetic calling.

Early on, church leaders envisioned a time when the Saints would flock to the memorial in large numbers, both for leisure as well as spiritual sustenance. In 1905, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles Francis M. Lyman noted that while “only a little pilgrimage [was] made for the dedication” itself, the Saints would soon “find that travel [would] increase” to the site “after awhile.” And indeed, following the dedication, some LDS visitors saw the location as a spiritual haven. When Joseph Valentine stayed at a recently built cottage on the site after returning from a mission to England he expressed his pleasure at being “away from that card playing, liquor drinking, tobacco smoking gang on the boat” he had just departed and in “a real Mormon home again.” To Valentine, visiting the memorial “was just like going from hell to heaven.”[1]

A gathering of missionaries at the monument in 1911.

Junius Wells, the memorial’s original champion, worked to provide a site where both visitors and pilgrims could come to feel that they knew Joseph through tangible reminders of his life. After discovering what he believed to be the Smith family home’s original hearthstone, he worked it into the design of the visitors’ cottage, calling for its placement its “focal point.” To Wells the stone held not only spiritual, but also sentimental value: “Joseph Smith was only three years old when his parents moved,” Wells remarked, “so if he had any association with that hearthstone, it was as a child . . . perhaps it was where he washed and dressed as a babe.” When visitors dropped by Wells often made the hearthstone the center of his tours, urging guests to sit on the relic and look “down towards Sharon” in an effort to visualize the prophet’s early life.[2]

At the same time Wells sent pictures of the completed monument (framed in wood from a sumach tree on the property) to church schools, temples and mission homes. One  photo particularly touched a Utah temple president who wrote Wells upon receipt of the gift to remark that it would “give general satisfaction to the saints . . . to see that on the birthplace of the greatest Prophet that has lived upon the earth, save Jesus Christ, there has been an all-time enduring monument erected to his sacred memory.” Seeking to create a sense of sacredness within the cottage itself Wells purposefully placed pictures of Joseph, his brother Hyrum and mother Lucy Mack Smith, as well as books which took the prophet, and his divine mission, as their subject. All this, Wells hoped, would provide the building with the proper “memorial character” as well as imbue it with a “delightful influence and spirit.”[3]

Many LDS visitors imbibed just such a spirit during their stay. Upon arrival member Susan Young Gates found herself almost at a loss for words, noting that “What the monument is, no one can describe,” yet, when pressed to try found the memorial, “together with the cottage which nestles near it” to be an access point for “that worshipful peace . . . [that] fills the soul only when standing before the unique and splendid architecture of [the] Salt Lake Temple.” Frederick Mitchell, believed there to be “a sacred hallowed influence pervading these grounds, that lend strength to testimony to the divine Mission of that great and just man Joseph Smith the Prophet of God,” while another simply quoted Brigham Young to the effect that, “This [was] the place.” Yet another anonymous visitor found himself touched that the “Prophet & his brother Hyrum & many other church leaders long ago & and since [had] walked the same paths.” Where Joseph F Smith had attempted to use the dedication of the monument in 1905 to emphasize Joseph’s (and thus the current church’s) access to divine revelation and authority in the wake of plural marriage’s demise, members saw in both the built and natural environment a means by which to recover, in some small sense, a personal relationship with a Prophet long since gone, as well as a rededication to his teachings.[4]




[3] Keith A. Erekson, “From Missionary Resort to Memorial Farm: Commemoration and Capitalism at the Birthplace of Joseph Smith, 1905-1925,” Mormon Historical Studies (2005), 73, 77-79.

[4] Erekson, “From Missionary Resort to Commercial Farm,” 80-81.