The Church Historic Site In Pennsylvania
If you were to visit northeastern Pennsylvania today to roam around in the old stomping grounds of Joseph Smith, you wouldn’t find much. Exiting east off of Interstate 81 into the small town of Great Bend, you would pass a single gas station as you followed the windy road known as State Route 171 along the meandering Susquehanna River. You would drive for only a few moments before you would pass one of the most historic places in all of Mormondom. In fact, if you blinked you would probably miss it.
But it won’t be that way for long.
In a letter to Church leaders dated 15 April 2011, the Church’s First Presidency announced plans to restore a historic site in Pennsylvania that played a significant role in the growth of the Church from humble beginnings to a worldwide faith with over 14 million members. The site, sitting on 90 acres just above a bend in the Susquehanna River, is located in Oakland Township (formerly Harmony), Pennsylvania.
This past Saturday, 13 October 2012, the Church held an unveiling of the proposed plans for the site, which currently has only a small stone monument commemorating the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood. President Keith Dunford, local stake president, said in this past Saturday’s unveiling, “Some significant events occurred here and the church concluded it was time to do a full restoration of this site for church members and non-members to learn about our church history.”
Enormously important to Latter-day Saints, this site is the location where Joseph Smith received the Aaronic Priesthood at the hands of John the Baptist and, in a nearby location, received the Melchizedek Priesthood from Peter, James and John in 1829. These men appeared as angels to restore to the earth the same authority they had received from Jesus Christ. The site is also significant since it is the place where Joseph Smith translated much of the Book of Mormon. These events laid the foundation for the restoration of the original Church established by Christ Himself.
Joseph and Emma Smith moved to Harmony as recent newlyweds in December of 1827 to escape persecution for their religious beliefs. They lived with Emma’s parents, Isaac and Elizabeth Hale, for a short time until they purchased a nearby log home with 13 ½ acres from Emma’s brother Jesse for $200. The log home was built in the 1820’s by Emma’s brother Jesse, and having recently vacated it himself, Joseph and Emma moved in to the little three-room two story house to begin their family. It was here that Joseph began translating the Book of Mormon. Emma acted as scribe until Martin Harris arrived in April of 1828 to take over the scribal duties. Between April and into June the first 116 pages of The Book of Mormon were translated. When Martin took the manuscript back to Palmyra, New York to show it to his wife, the manuscript was stolen. Because of this, the Angel Moroni took the plates back from Joseph and the work of translation was stopped for a season.
In early April 1829, schoolteacher Oliver Cowdery came to meet Joseph and soon became his scribe. During the translation process of the Book of Mormon, Joseph and Oliver went into the woods and prayed for guidance on the subject of baptism. In reply, the resurrected John the Baptist visited them on 15 May 1829 and ordained them to the Aaronic Priesthood. He then commanded Joseph and Oliver to baptize each other in the nearby Susquehanna River. In Harmony, Joseph received 15 divine revelations that were later included in the Doctrine and Covenants. Also, this was the place and land on which Emma had grown up, and the place where Joseph and Emma would bury their first child on 15 June 1828. Although Joseph and Emma Smith moved from Harmony in August 1830, and the home they lived in burned down in 1919, the land still holds a hallowed feeling from the visitors and consecrated labors which were performed there.
President Dunford went into great detail to those gathered for the unveiling of the Church’s plans. The plans for the site include the realigning of State Route 171 for safety issues, the reconstruction of the Isaac Hale and Joseph Smith homes, and the building of a Visitors Center and Chapel. Trails, walkways and access roads will also be constructed.
The work on State Route 171 could begin as early as November of this year, Dunford said. But, he added, that work could be delayed until next year depending on various circumstances. The roadway cuts through the property which, if left as it is, would make accessing various locations at the site dangerous for visitors. The locations of both the Hale and Smith homes currently sit on the north side of the state route, with the site of the restoration of the priesthood and the current stone monument sitting on the south side of the busy road. President Dunford said the roadway will be moved northward for the safety of visitors to the historic site. The road realignment is expected to take over two years to complete and will be paid for entirely by the Church with no expenses incurred by local residents or taxpayers.
The chapel, which will be the future home to the small Susquehanna Branch, will have a capacity of 235, and will have Pennsylvania bluestone used as the building’s facade. The stone will also pave the walkways in the garden area outside of the center.
Adjoining the site is the McKune Cemetary, the final resting place of Joseph and Emma’s first born child Alvin, and also Emma’s parents.
Archaeologists are already at work around the foundation and well at the Isaac Hale home. Although there are no photographs of the Hale home, Dunford said the archaeologists would be looking for clues about the home’s construction so that it could be replicated at the site.
Much of the site’s layout and plans would have been impossible were it not for the well kept records of Latter-day Saints who traveled in and out of the Harmony area in the years after Joseph and Emma’s departure. Among the most notable of these invaluable record keepers is George Edward Anderson who was a Latter-day Saint professional photographer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Although portraits were his specialty and landscape photographs were never his interest, to many Church members his 1907–1908 photographs of Church history sites are their only acquaintance with Anderson’s art. He photographed these sites while traveling across the country to begin his Church mission in England from 1909–1911. The Deseret Sunday School Union of the Church later published some of the views, as Anderson called them, in a booklet entitled The Birth of Mormonism in Picture. Included in that booklet are the only known photographs of the home in which Joseph and Emma lived during their short married time in Pennsylvania.
Walking trails will be constructed in the area of the “Sugarbush,” a grove of maple trees that, according to local church legend, is where John the Baptist first appeared to Joseph Smith. A pathway leading to the Joseph Smith baptismal site along the river, will be put in along with a parking area for visitor convenience, but no buildings will be built in that area President Dunford said.
Most members of the Church will easily recognize this sacred spot because it is the setting of Elder David A. Bednar’s testimony in the Church’s Special Witnesses of Christ presentation.
The site, as it currently sits, attracts nearly 20,000 visitors a years. However, that number is expected to rise significantly once the restoration of the site is completed. President Dunford was quick to suppress the local rumor of the Church building a hotel in the community in the nearby future. However, he admitted, someone else might see it as a benefit to the area to build such a place of lodging.
The Church maintains about two dozen historic sites around the world, all of which are free and open to the public. As with similar historic sites in Nauvoo, Illinois; Kirtland, Ohio; and Palmyra, New York, the Susquehanna site is expected to generate great interest and draw visitors to the area.
I can’t wait to visit myself.
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