Church’s roots continue to draw Mormons

The Buffalo News, Aug. 4, 2003
By JAY TOKASZ, News Staff Reporter

PALMYRA – Ridiculed for preaching a radical new religion, Joseph Smith Jr. fled this sleepy town along the Erie Canal.

More than 170 years later, members of the church he founded – the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints – have largely overcome their uneasy relationship with wary non-Mormons and reclaimed their place in this community.

Salt Lake City may be the headquarters and spiritual center of the 11 million-member church, which is growing more quickly than almost any other religion in the world.

But roughly 85 miles east of Buffalo, the early Smith stomping grounds – scattered in Manchester in Ontario County and Palmyra in Wayne County – mark the origins of the faith.

“It is to Mormonism what the Holy Land is to traditional Christianity,” said Steven Olsen, associate managing director for church history at the church’s museum in Salt Lake City.

Like Moses with the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, Smith is believed to have climbed Hill Cumorah in Manchester to receive golden plates from an angel called Moroni in 1827. Later, Smith translated the plates into the Book of Mormon, a volume of Scripture upon which church members base many of their beliefs.

The first copies of the Book of Mormon were printed in Palmyra. Twenty miles away, in Fayette, Seneca County, the Church of Latter-day Saints was first organized in 1830, inside the home of a farmer named Peter Whitmer.

These sites have enormous spiritual significance for church members, some of whom travel from as far away as New Zealand and the Philippines.

“Basically, everything builds off of this,” said Alice Marsh, who drove from Woodbine, Md., in mid-July for the annual Hill Cumorah Pageant, a lavish outdoor re-enactment of stories from the Bible and the Book of Mormon. “There’s just something very sacred about being here.”

The church has invested millions of dollars in acquiring, restoring and reconstructing properties in upstate New York and in Ohio and Missouri, where other pivotal moments in Mormon history occurred.

“This is one of the things in the church you hear about,” said Dave Fisher, who drove from Medford, Ore. “Our church is about history, it’s about genealogy, and it’s about ancestry and stuff like that. . . . This is like going to see your grandma.”

Pilgrimages aren’t required, but the church does encourage them.

Persecution in early days

Latter-day Saints believe they are a chosen people, the restored lost tribes of Israel, and that Earth will ultimately be transformed into heaven.

They are sensitive about the church’s colorful past, believing history is inextricably bound up with the tenets of the faith.

“Our historical consciousness is part and parcel of our religious identity,” said Olsen. “What happened in the past really matters.”

But the church’s beginnings, marked by severe persecution and violence, are bittersweet for Mormons, and questions about the church’s interpretation of its past have dogged Latter-day Saints since the days of Smith.

The Book of Mormon asserts that lost tribes of ancient Israel ended up in the Americas and that a resurrected Jesus visited these Hebrew ancestors of Native Americans, although scientists doubt ancient Israelites roamed this continent.

Church members believe that, after the death of the early apostles, Christianity went awry and needed to be restored in “latter days.”

Smith was chosen to lead this new church when, at age 14, he saw visions of God and Jesus in a grove near the family farm in Manchester, according to Mormon belief.

“Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the father and His beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true,” Church of Jesus Christ President Gordon B. Hinckley remarked in 1998. “This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life.”

The gold plates, the source for the Book of Mormon, were the cause of considerable controversy in the Palmyra area.

In the mid-1820s, Smith became involved in a venture known as “money digging” and was hired to search for a legendary lost silver mine.

Polygamy brings resentment

After word got out about the plates, Smith was accused of hoarding them from those who had invested in his treasure hunting.

At the historic sites in Manchester and Palmyra, the church portrays Smith as a heroic protector of the plates, describing how he hid them under floorboards in his cooper shop and in the shop’s loft from townspeople who sought the plates as treasure. While fleeing on a horse and cart, Smith buried the tablets in a barrel full of beans.

Eleven witnesses provided written testimony that they saw the divine plates, but there is no physical evidence of their existence, and skeptics concluded that Smith made up the story.

Smith explained in his writings that the tablets were returned to the messenger Moroni on May 2, 1838.

The heaviest persecution came as a result of the Mormons’ early belief that God commanded them to practice polygamy, or plural marriage.

It wasn’t until 1852, after Smith’s death, that the church publicly acknowledged its members practiced polygamy, but the idea of multiple wives might have taken shape with Smith in New York State.

“Before he started going west, Joseph Smith believed strongly that he had to procreate with more than one woman,” said Beth Hoad, historian for the Town of Palmyra. “That was one of the big reasons that people held him in such low regard.”

The resentment lingered years after the church, in an effort to gain statehood for Utah, declared in 1890 that polygamy was no longer acceptable.

Missions continue growth

In Palmyra, village shopkeepers would shut down their stores when thousands of Mormons came to town for the annual pageant, refusing to do business with church members, according to Lynne Green, Palmyra town clerk.

“There wasn’t anybody around to refute it, so the old stereotypes and the old negativism were still around,” said Green, who is not a Mormon.

But the church continued to win converts through its missionaries. Latter-day Saints number 4.2 million in the United States, including about 3,000 in Western New York and 10,000 in Rochester and Palmyra. On their way to Ohio in 1831, the earliest Mormons did their first missionary work among Seneca Indians on the Cattaraugus Reservation, according to church records.

And in the early 1900s, the church began acquiring significant properties. In time, its neighborliness won over most residents.

It struck a deal with local charitable groups, allowing them to sell food and beverages at the pageant site, as long as the proceeds benefit the community. The concessions have since become the area’s biggest fund-raiser, netting five organizations around $10,000 each, said Green. The town’s administrative offices are located in an old Mormon meeting house, which the church sold for half of its assessed value.

Missionaries from across the country who perform in the pageant spend part of their free time on volunteer projects in the community, such as painting the interior of the town hall.

The church completed its New York acquisitions and restorations in 2000 with the Smith family farmhouse, which was originally built in 1818.

It constructed a new temple in 2000 and a 15,000-square-foot visitors center in 2002.

“In the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been a kind of golden age of historic site restorations,” said Olsen.

Mormons have largely gotten past the scorn early church members faced, opening the door for the historic restoration work, he added.

“It’s taken changes in our attitudes as much as in other people,” said Olsen. “The preoccupation with persecution has really died down.”

The church’s huge investment in its historical sites has a dual purpose, said Jan Shipps, a Methodist who has studied Mormonism for more than 40 years. It enables the church to interpret its history on its own terms, while serving as a unifying element for Latter-day Saints who are now scattered around the globe, not just Utah.

“People come to get in touch with the faith they have converted to,” said Shipps, a professor emerita of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

The rapid emergence of Mormonism has fascinated scholars and writers.

While most of the world’s major faiths formed centuries ago, Mormonism offers an unusual opportunity to study the beginnings of a religious tradition still unfolding, said Philip Barlow, a professor of theological studies at Hanover College in Indiana who has written a book about Mormons and the Bible.

Scholars are debating whether Mormonism constitutes a new world religion or is another denomination of Christianity, he added.

Restoration boosts tourism

In Palmyra today, pockets of hostility toward the church linger.

A half-dozen pickets stood outside the fences during the most recent pageant, encouraging people filing into the seating area to reject Mormonism as a false religion.

“Ninety percent of what they teach is not truth,” said Bruce Perrault, who describes himself as a “Bible-believing Christian” and protests frequently outside the pageant grounds. “I believe Joseph Smith was a charlatan, a sexual deviant. A hundred and seventy years ago, they ran him out of here for being a charlatan.”

Perrault also claims the church has too much influence with local government in Palmyra.

But businesses have embraced the Latter-day Saints, who bring millions of tourist dollars to the area.

An estimated 62,000 people attended the pageant last month. The pageant is the high point of the tourist season, drawing Mormons and non-Mormons by the busloads. But since the restorations, area residents say the touring season has expanded considerably.

Connie Zona, who is not Mormon, estimates a 15 percent increase in off-peak business at the Roadside Inn in Manchester, where Latter-day Saints have stayed for years.

“They’re great people. It’s like having your family come visit,” said Zona, the motel manager.

Mark Spinelli, who owns the Garlock House restaurant and catering business on Main Street in the village, welcomed two busloads of visitors – 100 people in all – for dinner prior to a recent pageant performance. He shook his head in disbelief at the thought that he might have turned down such business if he had owned the restaurant years ago.

“I don’t understand that mind-set,” he said.

The Garlock House has experienced the positive effects of the church’s recent investments in Palmyra, and Spinelli anticipates even more growth once an upscale hotel, aimed at visiting Latter-day Saints, gets built.

“We’re looking forward to that,” he said.


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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday August 5, 2003.
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