It was a warm, sticky summer day in 1972. Tourists moved in and out of the stone-walled visitors center of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the base of heavily wooded Hill Cumorah. The hill is situated in the verdant, rolling countryside of western New York state, four miles from the quiet village of Palmyra.
Speaking before a group of some 20 people inside the visitors center was a smiling, soft-spoken grandmother whose dark brown hair was now streaked with gray. Her name was Florence Burgess Thorup. Since she was 13, she had served many times as an organist for various organizations in the Church. She had been at the side of her husband, Levi B. Thorup, when he had presided over the Denmark Mission from 1959 to 1963. He had also been for eight years a guide at the visitors center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City.
Now, as Sister Thorup lectured to the group at Hill Cumorah, she and Levi were serving an 18-month mission for the Church, having been called from their home in Fontana, in southern California. Brother Thorup, in that summer of 1972, was visitors center director.
Surrounded by a group of visitors, Sister Thorup stood beside a color transparency about four by five feet in size. It portrayed the first vision of the boy prophet Joseph Smith in a grove of tall beech and sugar maple trees only three miles away, on an early spring day in 1820.
As she related the story of Joseph Smith, Sister Thorup noticed the tall figure of a well-built, bearded, neat-looking man in hiking clothes at the rear of the group. He appeared thirtyish, and on his back was an orange-colored pack.
Sister Thorup pushed a button, and the group heard a recorded voice giving Joseph Smith’s own story of the vision. The guide then moved with the group to another large color picture showing the Angel Moroni delivering the gold plates to young Joseph at this same Hill Cumorah. She described the origin of the Book of Mormon. Then, moving to another color picture, she told of the restoration of the priesthood to the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery 143 years before, on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, 125 miles away.
The bearded man appeared eager to learn more as Sister Thorup moved the group to a diorama depicting the printing of the first copies of the Book of Mormon in Palmyra in 1830.
Before white busts of the three witnesses to the Book of Mormon, the guide told of their testimonies. She moved the group into another room and continued with the story of the Book of Mormon, before a large replica of the book and a reproduction of a painting of the last battle described in it. She told of Mormon and Moroni as prophet-historians. She paused in front of a big chart listing other ancient records on metal plates that have been discovered, then concluded her account in front of a large reproduction of a painting by artist Arnold Friberg, depicting the visit of the resurrected Savior to the people of ancient America.
Florence Thorup briefly studied the listening group.
“I was moved as seldom before to give my own solemn witness of the truths about which I had been speaking,” she said later. “As I concluded, I glanced at the bearded man. Tears were streaming down his cheeks.”
While others of the group moved into the visitors center theater to see the motion picture Ancient America Speaks, the tearful man remained behind.
“Something about your message has touched me, moved me as never before,” he said. “Please tell me more about the Book of Mormon and what you describe as the restored gospel.”
Sister Thorup gave him a blue paperback copy of the Book of Mormon with a picture of the gold-leafed statue of the Angel Moroni on the cover.
“Is there some place I can go to read the book?” he asked. He was directed to a wooden bench under a group of trees behind the visitors center.
Before night came, the man periodically entered the visitors center. Each time he asked more questions of Levi and Florence Thorup.
“Do you mind if I make my bed under the trees outside the Visitors center?” he asked. “I want to remain here awhile and study this book you have given me.”
All the next day he sat reading on the bench under the trees. From the Thorups he purchased copies of the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price. He also bought a copy of James E. Talmage’s Articles of Faith. For three days he remained at the visitors center.
Then, still wearing his heavy hiking boots, he stepped inside for his farewell. To the Thorups he began:
“Life would probably be easier for me if I had not paused here. I had left my wife in Yonkers, New York, and my jewelry business. I was running away from it all. Now I am going back and straighten things out.”
The Thorups told him they would send his name to the mission office in New York City, and missionaries would be asked to visit him at his home and explain the gospel further to him. He smilingly thanked them.
The bearded man, his orange-colored pack on his back, strode out to the highway, cutting through the green farmland. He began walking in the direction from which he had come.
That incident is typical of so many experiences with callers at the 33 visitors centers of the Church around the world. There are now approximately as many visitors who call at these centers each year as there are members of the Church—roughly 3.5 million. Despite a worldwide energy shortage, the numbers in 1973 almost equaled those of the previous year. Approximately two-thirds of the visitors are non-Mormon.
Thousands who see the displays, motion picture, translites, dioramas, and models, and hear the accounts and testimonies of the guides, linger after the regular tours. They ask more about the restored gospel. Hundreds of them are known to be baptized. Thousands of names of visitors center callers are distributed to mission offices of the Church around the world. Stake and full-time missionaries continue the teaching process. Lives are changed, even though in some instances the visitors may not join the Church.
Whether or not the bearded man found reconciliation at home is not known, but there are many known stories of how a call at a visitors center has brought families closer together. One such instance was reported by a grateful Chandler, Arizona, father in his fifties, to Brent M. Cederlof, blond, young businessman who is one of 340 guides and hosts serving at the visitors center on Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The father, Richard C. Carpenter, wrote how one of his five children, a married daughter, had joined the Church in 1960.
“Missionaries approached me again and again and I spurned them every time,” he wrote. “I can recall eight or nine particular times when I admitted them to my home just because I felt I could argue successfully against them.”
Then, in his letter, he referred to the visit that he and his wife Mary made to Temple Square on January 29, 1972. To Brother Cederlof he wrote:
“Both Mary and I were deeply impressed with your presentation. The pictures you so ably explained and the films you summarized in so inspired a manner were seemingly aimed directly at us. Perhaps your work at the visitors center is inspired by the Holy Spirit every day. It was certainly so inspired that day, for I am sure it was the quiet certainty, the sincerity, and unequivocal truth of your testimony that captivated us and touched our hearts. Our son, Ricky, 11, felt it, too.”
The father reported that he and his wife did not say much during the long drive back to Arizona. Then he added that about a week later, “before we were out of bed, I asked Mary if she thought we should begin instruction to become members of the Church. She replied, ‘I never thought you’d ask.’”
Continuing, the father wrote: “Before 7:00 a.m. that day, I called Bishop Albert M. Farnsworth of the Chandler Fourth Ward.” He arranged for the stake missionaries to begin the discussions. Six weeks later the Carpenters were baptized. The father soon became the ward’s teacher development director; the mother, a member of the ward choir and typist for the ward newsletter. Ricky found new interests in Primary and in the ward Scout troop.
On a summer day in 1970, a “to-whom-it-may-concern” letter arrived at Temple Square, requesting “a bit of detective work in my behalf.” The writer wanted to locate a visitors center guide who had introduced the gospel to her six years before. She said she thought the guide’s name was Henry Stevens. (Businessman Henry C. Stevens has been a Temple Square guide for 25 years.)
The writer told how she had visited Temple Square in January 1964 as a geology student on a field trip to the West.
“But the essential message of Joseph Smith was what made the deepest impression,” she wrote of her tour with Brother Stevens. “I stood on one foot, then the other, for 20 minutes, waiting my turn to ask questions. Finally, my roommate would wait no longer and I foolishly left.”
Then she recalled that four years later she received the answers to her questions. She had married a widower with five children, had been baptized, and her marriage had been solemnized in the Arizona Temple a year later. Gratefully, Linda J. Miller told how she and her husband “have had three children born in the new and everlasting covenant” and how the eldest of the five original children was serving on a mission and another daughter was a student at Brigham Young University.
Concluding, she wrote, “I would like to locate Henry Stevens or his heirs, and express to them my heartfelt gratitude for the fruit which has blossomed from the seed so admirably sown.”
John Holt of Poulsbo, Washington, recalled how he and his wife and son had been among the 2.3 million visitors to Temple Square in 1972. After the tour he wrote, “We signed the guest book and checked the little square asking to receive more information about the Church. Two of the most wonderful young men I have ever met came to our home and announced that they were from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. God opened our hearts to their message. Yesterday my wife, two of our sons, and I were baptized.”
More than 7,000 miles away, approximately 20,000 visitors call each year at the New Zealand Temple Visitors Center, situated on a lawned hilltop five miles from Hamilton and 86 miles south of Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city. There was concern on an April day in 1973 when a group of about 65 seemingly contentious students from the Mideast arrived at about 11:00 a.m. They paused in front of the center, then gave instructions as to where each was to be stationed. They did not appear friendly, at least to Vasco Laub, a former army officer serving as director of the visitors center.
Brother Laub approached the leader of the group, put his arm around the young man’s shoulder, and, in halting Hebrew, greeted them. He invited them into the center. Standing before a large picture of Jesus, he spoke to them for ten minutes in their own language. For two hours they remained. Upon leaving, 24 of them purchased copies of the Book of Mormon.
A unique visitors center is the one on the grounds of the temple at Laie, Hawaii, surrounded by lawns, tropical gardens, reflection pools, and a fountain. During the summer of 1973, two visitors centers were formed from the original, one for English-speaking visitors and the other for Japanese-speaking visitors. Each section is complete with a motion picture theater, displays, and translites.
The volume of visitors to this center in 1973 was up 49 percent over 1972’s total, exceeding 430,000, largest volume of any visitors center other than Temple Square. Visitors from Japan are soon expected to reach 60,000 annually.
A growing number of the guests are brought to the center by trams—rubber-wheeled buses resembling San Francisco’s trolley cars. The trams bring visitors who stop at the nearby Polynesian Cultural Center, which is also operated by the Church. There, students from the BYU-Hawaii Campus work in the six authentic Polynesian villages: Fiji, Tonga, Tahiti, Samoa, Maori New Zealand, and Hawaii. Students also perform in the evening at the center, in a show featuring Polynesian music and dancing. The show, which has been described as the Pacific’s greatest tourist attraction, continues to be a sellout for every performance, which is produced nightly except Sunday, all year long.
Director of marketing for the Cultural Center is short, fiftyish Stephen Bennett, formerly of Hollywood, a convert to the Church who has served with some of America’s major advertising agencies. “We are certain that the road ahead will produce wards and stakes never believed possible,” he comments, regarding the effects of the Polynesian Cultural Center, the tram rides, and the visitors center.
One day a young couple with their six-month-old son called at the long, low-roofed visitors center at the Arizona Temple, situated in the heart of a 21-acre tract of broad lawns, palms, cypress, and cacti gardens in Mesa. They had moved to Arizona from Indiana in 1969. The husband wanted to pursue a degree in geology at Arizona State University at Tempe, near Phoenix. Their names: Michael and Kathy Schern.
The Scherns were shown through the visitors center by Carlyle Roberts, a guide from Mesa. Kathy said she was particularly impressed with Latter-day Saint teachings regarding children under the age of eight. The Scherns asked for missionaries to visit them “as soon as possible.” Arrangements were made that evening. One of the missionaries assigned to their Tempe home was Clyde Christensen, also of Tempe.
The Scherns were baptized on April 11, 1970. They later moved to southern Arizona where Brother Schern works with one of the mining companies and is now second counselor in the Clifton-Morenci Ward bishopric.
To assist callers at the Arizona Temple Visitors Center who wish to know more about the gospel, a new plan was instituted on September 15, 1973. Through the plan, some 40 stake missionaries and two full-time missionaries are assigned to take over after each tour of the center and teach those wanting to know more about the Church. For the first time, in 1973, the number of visitors at the Arizona Temple Visitors Center exceeded 190,000 —despite the gasoline shortage.
“The Mormon visitors center in Independence, Missouri, played a very significant part in my conversion,” wrote Donna Smith of Independence. “The atmosphere is one of total serenity, allowing one to forget his problems and listen to the gospel of Jesus Christ as it is presented by the guides.”
Today there is an entire complex of restored homes and other buildings at historic Nauvoo, on a bend in the Mississippi River where the Saints built the largest city at that time in Illinois under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith. A large visitors center, walled with reddish-orange colored brick, was dedicated in 1971. Well over 100,000 visitors come there every year. While there, tourists also visit historic Mormon homes and buildings that have been restored under the leadership of the Nauvoo Mission president, J. LeRoy Kimball. Information on the Mormons in Nauvoo is taught in the restored red brick homes of Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Wilford Woodruff, and others.
“It is with great joy that I tell you we are being baptized as a family on November 28, 1970, at 5:00 p.m.,” wrote Mrs. B. H. (Lucy) Bondshu of Los Angeles California Inglewood Stake to dynamic, farm-born Don H. Smith, a meatpacking plant owner, who at the time was serving as director of the visitors center at the Los Angeles Temple, which crowns a well-groomed lawn and garden hilltop on Santa Monica Boulevard. “Your inspiring message when we visited the visitors center on October 21 never left either of us and was a contributing factor in our conversion.”
Brother Smith has received many letters like this one and has later accompanied through the temple some of those who had been introduced to the gospel through the visitors center.
Other heart-stirring stories have come to Grant W. Heath, a former newsman, who directed visitors center activities for the Church’s Public Communications Department from 1972 to 1974. Brother Heath now heads administrative services of the department. George S. Haslam, former director of the Independence Visitors Center, was recently called to be coordinator of Church visitors centers throughout the world.
Activities in visitors centers outside of Utah are now directed by mission presidents in whose missions the centers are located. Mission presidents holding these responsibilities are directed by the Church Missionary Committee. Displays and literature for all visitors centers are provided and maintained by the Public Communications Department.
Construction will soon be underway on a new visitors center that is expected to attract hundreds of thousands of callers each year. It will be on an eminence overlooking the Washington Temple on a wooded hillside at Kensington, Maryland.
A complete miniature of the center’s interior is displayed in the Public Communications Department on the 25th floor of the General Church Office Building in Salt Lake City. The department’s exhibit division is directed by ruddy, silver-haired, quiet-spoken Thomas K. Lasko, a 44-year-old San Diego convert. Under his guidance, dioramas, mannequins, displays, and tape recordings are now being created.
In the Washington center, life-size mannequins representing Isaiah, Nephi, Joseph Smith, and other prophets will speak their messages from the scriptures. With translucent masks and hidden rear projection, the figures will speak as living oracles. All will be created completely in the exhibit division’s shops by skilled Latter-day Saint craftsmen and technicians.
Most of the subject content for this visitors center has come from Elder Mark E. Petersen and Elder Gordon B. Hinckley of the Council of the Twelve, advisers to the Public Communications Department. No one through the years has influenced more the content and creation of visitors centers as they are today than Elder Petersen.
At the Washington Temple Visitors Center, the message will be the same, although the approach may be different, as at other visitors centers of the Church—in London, England; Cardston, Alberta, Canada; Liberty Jail in Missouri; Oakland, California; Bern, Switzerland; Brigham City, Utah; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Cody, Wyoming; and other places. In each the aim is to teach the restored gospel of the Master, to help the missionary effort.
That will be the message of another new visitors center that the First Presidency has authorized for the 36-story apartment building of buff-colored travertine marble and brick in New York City’s Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts district. The building, which will also include a stake center and other ward, stake, and Church facilities, is scheduled for completion later this year.
And, from around the world, missionaries continue to express thanks for help from existing visitors centers. One wrote recently to Theodore C. Jacobsen, director of the visitors center on Temple Square, “As a missionary I want to tell you that you help promote the gospel more than you will ever know.”
But the truly satisfying rewards come in messages from visitors reporting how their lives have been changed, as Rocky Shepard of Shingle Springs, California, wrote on January 30, 1973:
“Thank you for your card I received concerning my recent visit to Temple Square. …
“My friend and I are now attending lessons given by missionary Elder Kell Tanobe every Thursday, and we now are going to start going to church on Sundays.
“My trip to Temple Square has changed my life a great deal toward the better. …”
A former Air Force Academy cadet, John Koch, wrote from Val Vista, Georgia, to Glen S. Gold, Sr., Temple Square guide, on June 24, 1972. He recalled a visit to Temple Square with his bride Sandy on their honeymoon following his graduation, saying:
“You presented us with a copy of A Marvelous Work and a Wonder by Elder LeGrand Richards [of the Council of the Twelve], and told us to read it. …
We met a couple of Mormon families down here. They sent the missionaries to see us, and to make a long story short, we are being baptized on Saturday.
“We are thankful to you for introducing us to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—the true church of Christ on earth.”