1905-1911: Imagining Joseph

Sharon Vermont and Religious Memory, Part 2

If President Smith’s dedicatory remarks linked Joseph Smith’s birth to a post-polygamous recalibration and re-placing of Mormonism’s fundamental truth claims, it remained up to the monument’s future visitors to imbue the memorial, and its surrounding landscape, with experiential meaning.

Even before December 1905, Junius Wells, the memorial’s original champion, called for “a beautiful summer resort” to be built within site of the monument. With the tourism industry booming in Vermont, Wells’s plea made sense. But the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial was never a waypoint for non-Mormon sightseers alone. LDS missionaries and members alike visited the site and came away with increased reverence for the truth claims of Mormonism, but for Joseph Smith himself.[1]

Junius Wells played his own role in this shift, seeking to transform the site into a living memorial to honor Smith himself. After happening upon what he believed to be the original hearthstone to the Smith family house, he decided to incorporate it into the design of the soon-to-be built cottage, calling for its placement at the “focal point” of the new building. 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.” Within the house itself, Wells purposefully placed pictures of Joseph, his brother Hyrum and mother Lucy Mack Smith, as well as books which took the prophet as their subject. All this, Wells hoped, would provide the building with the proper “memorial character.”[2]

For their part, many LDS visitors left believing they had been walking on sacred ground. 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 a conduit 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.” 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 employ 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 the site a means by which to recover, in some small sense, a personable and personal relationship with a Prophet long since gone.[3]

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[1] 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.

[2] Erekson, “From Missionary Resort to Memorial Farm,” 77-79.

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