When Joseph Smith was a boy, ministers of the leading Protestant churches taught that God no longer spoke to man. They claimed that communication from heaven had ceased with the death of the Lord’s Apostles, that the Bible contained all of God’s word to man, and that no more revelation would be given.
But God had not forgotten mankind. On a beautiful day in spring 1820, God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ appeared in person to the young Joseph Smith in a woodland on his family’s farm in rural western New York. This event inaugurated the restoration of the gospel—lost from the earth for centuries—and ushered in the dispensation of the fulness of times.
The Joseph Smith, Sr., family moved from the Connecticut River Valley of eastern Vermont to western New York in 1816. They settled in Palmyra, a promising village located in the rich wheat-growing lands of the Genesee country.
About two years after the Smiths arrived in Palmyra, they constructed a log home two miles south of the village down Stafford Road in order to be near a heavily timbered 100-acre tract of land they were then negotiating to buy. Prior to signing a contract for the property in mid-1820, they received permission from its owners to begin clearing the land. Between 1819 and 1825, they succeeded in cutting timber from sixty of the hundred acres. They developed this cleared land into fields, meadows, a garden, an orchard, a permanent homesite, and building lots.
In developing their farm, the Smiths followed the pattern of most other farm families of the early nineteenth century, reserving about a third of their land in timber. Twenty-five acres of the timber that they reserved covered most of the two hills on the east of the property. The red and white oak, which grew in abundance there, were used for making barrels. The Smiths used other trees as fuel for cooking, heating their home, and boiling sap into maple syrup and sugar. The Smiths also sold “jags of cordwood” to local residents.1
Approximately 15 acres on the west end of the farm were left as forest. This area included a great many large maple trees and was chiefly used as a “sugar bush.” Most of the approximately 1,500 maple trees the Smiths tapped each season to produce an average of one thousand pounds of sugar grew here.2 From this grove Alvin, the oldest son, probably cut the beech timbers used in the construction of the frame home. The grove provided wood for making household and farm implements and produced fruit and nuts for family and livestock.
The forested lands of the Smith farm served as more than a storehouse from which to draw commodities for sustaining daily life. The woods also enriched the family’s spiritual lives. Somewhere in the forest on the Smith farm was a quiet place “where members of the Smith family were wont to hold secret prayer.”3
After the Smiths moved from the farm, later owners expanded the cultivated areas by removing nearly all the timber on the east end of the farm and reducing the woodland on the west to its present size of ten acres. It is this beautiful tract at the west end of the farm that is traditionally honored as the Sacred Grove—the place where God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith in spring 1820.
Joseph was only a boy when he experienced his vision in the grove. Sources about his early life indicate that from a very young age he had pondered concerning his standing before God. He was a prayerful person and also sought spiritual understanding through Bible study and attendance at religious meetings. These efforts, however, did not resolve his yearning to know if he was accepted of the Lord and which, if any, of the churches was God’s.
At length, Joseph became convinced that God would answer his questions if he sought Him in faith. The epistle of James inspired Joseph to seek divine understanding through prayer. It was his first effort to pray vocally for answers to these specific questions.
Joseph said, “It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the Spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” when he prayed.4 Since Sunday was the only day of the week a farm boy was free from the demands of rigorous spring farm labor, he probably chose a Sabbath to find a quiet and secluded place for his supplication. Joseph later said that he went to pray in an area of the forest where, on the day before, he and his father and brothers had been felling trees.5 At the time of Joseph’s prayer, the Smiths had cleared the trees from probably only five or ten acres of their developing farm. Farm work was seasonal, and felling trees—generally for the purpose of clearing land—was undertaken from late fall through early spring, concluding in time to plow, plant, and tend crops. The cutting of trees usually stopped by the end of April. Thus it was probably in the weeks of late March through April 1820 that Joseph sought God in prayer.
The precise location where Joseph prayed and experienced the marvelous vision is not known. This omission on Joseph’s part seems intentional. Except for specific reference to the Lord’s appearance in the Kirtland Temple, the Prophet throughout his life refrained from referring, except in a general way, to places where sacred events had occurred. This reserve was born of respect for holy experiences.
The grove at the west end of the Smith farm has been long associated with the First Vision by people who lived in the neighborhood after the Smiths moved from the Palmyra area. In 1860, Seth T. Chapman, who claimed to be a boyhood friend of Joseph Smith, purchased what had been the Smith farm. He later told his son William that he had never touched an ax to the trees in the woodlot on the west end of the farm because Joseph had identified this area as the place where he had beheld his vision.6
The Sacred Grove is one of the last surviving tracts of primeval forest in western New York state. When first purchased by Joseph Smith, Sr., and Alvin, the Smith farm, like much of the land in the area, was covered with a magnificent stand of hardwood forest. Many of the trees were from 350 to 400 years old. Maples, beech, hophornbeam, and wild cherry dominated, interspersed with ash, oak, hickory, and elm. This forest supported as many as 120 trees per acre, nearly all a foot or more in diameter.
Numerous trees in this ancient forest grew to tremendous size. More than half were from 2 to 4 feet across their trunks. A considerable number reached diameters of 4 to 6 feet, and a few had diameters of 7 feet or more. Two, three, or even four trees on the Smith’s hundred acres likely reached massive proportions of nine to ten feet in diameter.
The upper canopy of this forest included maple, beech, oak, and hickory, reaching heights of more than 100 feet. A few enormous elms rose more than 125 feet. The understory of trees ranged from 25 to 60 feet and included hophornbeams, wild cherry, and white ash. Of all the trees, the sugar maples were truly the patriarchs of the forest, rivaling elms in height and generally exceeding all others in size and age.
The floors of these great woodlands were carpeted with the leaves of many seasons. Their rich soil nurtured a luxuriant growth of ferns, grasses, wildflowers, chokecherry, and dogwood. Few forests in the eastern United States of the early 1800s rivaled the size, height, age, and beauty of the trees in the woods of western New York. The preparing hand of nature had truly created a sanctuary worthy of the presence of the Father and the Son.
A century and a half after the First Vision, the ten-acre grove still retains much of its primeval beauty. Trees of mature size in Joseph’s day still grace this aged forest. Many are more than 200 years old. One old monarch has lived 260 years. The trunks of a dozen of the now-ancient ones surpass 4 feet, and great numbers of the trees in the grove reach upward between 90 and 100 feet. The ground below, still accumulating its seasonal fall of leaves, continues to spawn its ever-renewing undergrowth.
The Sacred Grove is currently healthier, better cared for, and more beautiful than it has been for many years. The Church has for some years been directing a program to safeguard and extend the life of this beautiful woodland that is sacred to Latter-day Saints. New growth and plantings are extending the grove’s boundaries to its historic dimensions and strengthening its interior. The Sacred Grove is making a marvelous comeback from the disease and pollution that, until recently, seriously threatened its existence.7
A directive specifying that the Sacred Grove is to be reserved as a quiet place of contemplation for individuals, couples, and small groups, along with the ongoing professional maintenance program, will help ensure that future generations will be able to enjoy the serenity and sacredness of this hallowed ground.