Building History, Building Testimonies

  • 13 August 2010

Article Highlights

  • The Church preserves sites of the Restoration of the gospel.
  • The Church History Department, the Missionary Department, and the Physical Facilities Department work together to slow the wear of time.

“What the sites do is provide an experience that opens a person’s heart and soul to the message.”

The Lord commands us to remember (see D&C 21:1). But history, like a photograph bleached by time, often fades until it is lost—unless someone steps in to preserve it.

“Places give people a really strong connection to the events of the Restoration of the gospel,” said Jennifer Lund, manager of the Historic Sites Program within the Church History Department. “There’s no substitute for being on site in the very place and being able to imagine what happened there.”

As the Church grew, the early Saints established—and often left behind—many locations of significance across the U.S.

Today, in upstate New York, families walk along paths through the Sacred Grove, imagining Joseph Smith kneeling among the low-lying ferns and sun-splashed leaves. In Missouri, Saints can tour a replica of Liberty Jail, where Sections 121 to 123, some of the most beloved sections of the Doctrine and Covenants, were received by revelation as the Prophet Joseph Smith and his companions were subjected to unimaginable hardships.

Three departments within the Church are responsible for slowing the wear and tear of time and preserving the sites of the Restoration of the gospel in this dispensation. 

The Church History Department stewards the historical accuracy of the messages, furnishings, and settings found at historic sites.

Under the direction of the Missionary Department, missionaries manage the sites daily, welcoming visitors, giving tours, and answering questions.

The Physical Facilities Department is responsible for the construction and ongoing maintenance of each site to ensure that it is kept accurate, attractive, and appropriate.

All three work together, with a complex network of historians, architects, archaeologists, lawyers, artisans, contractors, and grounds workers to preserve sites as closely as possible to how they existed historically.

“We want to make it all as true to the experience as the message is,” said Steven L. Olsen, a member of the Church Historic Sites Committee. “If a setting can evoke a dimension of understanding about the First Vision or the Book of Mormon that can’t be achieved just by reading about it, you can get an experiential dimension.”

Part of the power of those experiences comes from the veracity of the structures and settings found at historic sites. 

Through studies of architecture, history, ecology, archaeology, material culture, and more, experts gather information essential to re-creating a setting and time period as accurately as possible.

Each log home, frame house, brick building, landscape, stone structure, and furnishing—from carpets to appliances to curtains and other knickknacks—is made as true to the original as possible.

Artisans strive to match time period, region, economic status, and cultural forces present at that place and time, right down to the methods used historically to create each setting and object.

“We try to make the finished product look real, but it’s a kind of hybrid between modern and historic technologies,” Brother Olsen said. “We hope that it’s engaging enough from a historical perspective that people will suspend their disbelief and look past the modern elements of the site to learn about the real history.”

There are three separate emphases of the Church’s Historic Sites Program.

Historic sites are places where events of great significance to Church history occurred, such as the Joseph Smith farm or historic Kirtland. About two dozen historic sites dot the United States, with just one international site, Worcestershire’s Gadfield Elm Chapel, the first chapel of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in England.

Historic landmarks, of which there are about four dozen, comprise temples, tabernacles, and meetinghouses, distinctive in architectural or aesthetic value. According to Brother Olsen, these landmarks exist to celebrate the importance of worship in the Church.

“In our history, we have invested a lot of energy to create spaces that are appropriate for the nature of that worship,” Brother Olsen said. “Temples do that in one way that gives us the opportunity to allow us all to receive those blessings. Tabernacles and meetinghouses provide another way to worship.”

Finally, because not every important site can be restored, historic markers—over 100 of them—identify other places the Church desires to preserve in the hearts and minds of Latter-day Saints. Markers can also designate areas (such as the Far West Temple site) where there is not enough information to restore the site accurately.

There may be three different ways to preserve these sites, but all serve to provide an experience that builds testimony, Brother Olsen said.

“What the sites do is provide an experience that opens a person’s heart and soul to the message,” he said. “Many have found the beginnings of their testimonies when they have gone to the historic sites and had the Spirit bear witness to them.”

Part of the qualifications for a place to become a historic site is that it communicate key gospel messages, which Brother Olsen explained are “the simple messages of the Restoration that anchor our identity of who we are as Latter-day Saints—the reality of the First Vision, the coming forth of the Book of Mormon, the organization of the Church, for example.

“Testimony is not simply an intellectual acceptance of certain doctrines,” he said. “It’s a recognition that certain experiences are true, that they actually happened. True conversion requires that we have an experience. And historic sites can help provide that experiential witness.”