The Blue Willow

Fort Harmony

Spiritual Foundation of LDS Historic Sites:
by Elder Marlin K. Jensen.
From Church News Week ending January 22, 2011

"As the Book of Mormon prophet Alma preserved sacred records so as to enlarge the memory of his people (Alma 37:7), so today the Church preserves its history to deepen the understanding of the Latter-day Saints, the Church historian and recorder said Jan. 13th to a group of departing Church historic sites and visitors centers directors and their wives.

Elder Marlin K. Jensen of the Seventy was the luncheon speaker for the three-day seminar that included new MTC presidents and those that would be presidents of the visitors centers. His topic was "The spiritual foundation of historic sites."

Elder Jensen recommended the passage in Alma as a "a one-verse summary" of that foundation.

"A historic site is a record in a sense," he said, "Behold, there shall be a record kept (D&C 21:1). There are many ways to keep that record, and one of the ways is to preserve a place, a building, an artifact that represents history."

Alma's statement that the records had "enlarged the memory of his people" could justify a very long sermon, Elder Jensen said. "Reading the scriptures carefully, especially the Book of Mormon, one comes to know that remembering [which Elder Bednar recently indicated was a commandment] not in a passive way, but in a manner associated with change, repentance, action, is a motivation to righteousness," he explained. "There's something very fundamental about reflecting back on where we've been in God's economy of things," he said, "If we have the stability of history, if we can enter into the peace of the Lord, the rest of the Lord, that can come from a knowledge that our history is secure and solid and true," it can help many good people get past troubling questions that arise on the Internet and elsewhere, Elder Jensen added.

"To get beyond those, and to discover the error of our ways by having a solid history is part of the spiritual foundation that's so critical," he said. And, "Alma concludes, "it [enlarged memory] brought them to a knowledge of their God unto the salvation of their souls." (verse 8).

"What can be said about Church history in general can be expressed even more definitely about a Church History site. Elder Jensen remarked, "because it is tangible, tactile, something that can be lived and experienced by those who go there, enhanced by the love and the spirit of those of you who will accompany the guest, the visitor. It can be an incomparable experience. And we need it in this day and age. We need to have our faith deepened and solidified. We need to know that our history is true."

He said that, more than any other church, "we rise and fall with our history. If Joseph Smith saw what he saw, then the Church is God's kingdom on earth; if not, then it is the largest fraud that has ever been perpetrated," Elder Jensen remarked. "But as a lawyer, I can't help but think that if Joseph had been into perpetrating frauds, he wouldn't list as his first revelation 'behold there shall be a record kept,' because people who want to defraud others don't keep records.

"You'll find the Spirit literally in place and in things; artifacts can have a spirit," he said, as he displayed a wrist watch that had been loaned to him at the luncheon as a time-keeping aid by Elder Richard G. Hinckley of the Seventy and which had belonged to Elder Hinckley's father, President Gordon B. Hinckley. "To me, this is a dear artifact, as we would call it in the historical world, that tells its own story of punctuality, of devotion, of excellence. All of those things, I think, characterized President Hinckley and his ministry." He said, "but beyond the brick and mortar you will deal with, the underlying foundation, really, is made up of the people." Elder Jensen said the Church History Department about 22 years ago formulated a strategic plan for selecting, acquiring and improving Church history sites, essentially those associated with the foundational events of Church history. Most recently approved for restoration, he said, was the site at Harmony, Pa., now known as Oakton, the location of the restoration of the Aaronic and Mechizedek Priesthood. A few years ago, the first overseas Church historic site was acquired, the Gadfield Elm chapel near Preston, England.

"In addition to D&C 21, the scriptural mandate for the keeping of Church history is found in Section 69 indicating there is a hierarchy of important things to be preserved; and Section 85, explaing that the Church historian is to give special emphasis to the life, faith and works of the Latter-day Saints," Elder Jensen said. "From the scriptural base, we have derived our essential work as a department, which is to collect, preserve and share the history of the Church," he said, "your work in historic site enables you to be part of all three of those functions."

In this same Church News publication, Elder Holland gave two points of counsel tailored individually for each of the two kinds of assignments being undertaken by the couples at the seminar.

To visitors center directors, he said, "these places are not museums. This is supposed to be an active, vibrant, scintillating, sparkling experience in people's lives. Make it that in your life, make it that in the missionaries' lives and make it that in the lives of the people who come.

He said he is grateful for visitors centers, adding the easiest way he can think to introduce the gospel to a friend is to invite that friend to a visitors center "where the displays will do the talking, where the beauty and serenity, the peace and dedication of the property will do the talking."

Elder Holland said that last year some 4 million people came to Church visitors centers, of which there were about 503,000 people who took tours who were not Church members. The visits yielded some 90,000 missionary referrals.

Just a couple of points I wish to make:

When Lyman and I decided to go to the Hill Cumorah Pageant one year, as we were waiting for the pageant to start, we struck up a conversation with a couple setting next to us. I asked him about how long he was a member of the Church and how he happened to become one. He said that he lived near the Hill Cumorah for all of his life. He was a truck driver and often, daily would drive past the Hill Cumorah. This was early, when there wasn't anything there; but I think the Church did have the property. He said every time he looked at the Hill Cumorah, he had a funny feeling come over him and he felt like the place was special and that he should find out why. He said he put it off daily until one day the urge was so strong he decided to pull in and just walk on the grounds to see what he could find out. He met a missionary and they started talking. The missionary told him the story of the Hill Cumorah. He knew immediately when he heard the story that this was why he was prompted to stop and he knew he had to become a member, which he did. Life went on and his ward-stake was involved in developing the Hill Cumorah pageant. So he told us this story of how and when they started there was nothing and how they built up the pageant until it is the biggest outdoor theatre in the USA if not the world. It was a fascinating story. But there was still more to come. He said he kept getting this feeling he needed to know about his ancestors. He said he was certain none of his family was involved in the beginnings of the Church although they lived near Palmyra. Again the spirit was consistent with these promptings. One day, at Church during a genealogy class someone mentioned the story of the Joseph Knight family. This was familiar to him because he remembered stories from his parents and grandparents about the Knight family. He was a DeMille! We know the DeMille family married into the Knight family. The DeMille's came to Utah, but there were some that didn't. There was a sister and a brother that stayed back in New York and wouldn't have anything to do with the Mormons and in fact spoke often about how wicked they were. As a consequence, his side of the family never joined.

The DeMille's came to Utah, settled in Manti and moved to the Upper Virgin and settled in Rockville and Shunnesburg. Their descendants did not know why the rest of the family stayed in Utah until one day they found a letter to the DeMille Utah family from the sister, which was this person's ancestor, explaining her feelings about the Church.

When I told this person what I knew about the DeMilles, he couldn't believe it. My ancestor, William Stringham married Polly & Esther Knight and the Stringhams, Knights and DeMille families stayed together in their trek to Nauvoo.

This experience is a testimony for what Elder Jensen and Elder Holland are saying. When we served for a couple of weeks as guides at the pageant, we talked to hundreds of people about their testimony and how they came to know about the Church. It was a phenomenal experience! What Elder Jensen and Elder Holland are saying is really true.

This is one reason why Fort Harmony is so important and why we should do all we can to save it! But remember what Elder Jensen said. The Church will not be interested unless the site fulfills their criteria.

Lyman and I have spoken with Elder Jensen several times, and knew how he felt. We have to show how people's testimonies will change and become stronger in our efforts with the Fort or the Church isn't going to be much interested. The more I read and study, the more I find out about the site. There is also the issue of "spirit of place". We all know that when we walk around the Fort site, there is a spirit there that is special. That special spirit extends to the valley and many of us have a testimony of it. It means something very special and we are fortunate to live here. We also need to be very aware of that special spirit and respect it in what we do with the Fort and generally in the area.

One other point. " When you visit the historic sites of the Church and are asked for referrals, as a missionary tool, be prepared to offer some names for the missionaries. The Palmyra and Kirtland sites follow through on these referrals with dedication and commitment. We have given out several names and the missionaries have always reported back to us what happened with these contacts. This is an important missionary tool. If you aren't prepared with names, you can easily be offended. But if you realize the impact it can have on the world, then it becomes a privilege!

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