The Bear That Went to Seminary

by Elyssa Renee Madsen

Editorial Intern

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What is life like for seminary students in other parts of the U.S.? Students in Gig Harbor, Washington, wanted to know, so they sent a fuzzy friend to find out.

It’s fourth period. You’ve just finished English class and are making the trek across campus for released-time seminary. As you walk, you wonder what people in other seminary classes are like. Do they wake up for early-morning lessons, or do they juggle classes to fit in released-time? Are they in a school filled with members, or are they lone defenders of the faith? Do they meet in a large, close-to-the-school seminary building, or do they study the gospel in a cramped dental office that doubles as an early-morning seminary classroom?

If you’re a seminary student in Gig Harbor, Washington, you decided to find out. Since you can’t go yourself—things like school and work prohibit cross-country travel—you send a teddy bear in your place.

A teddy bear? Absolutely. Gig Harbor seminary students loaded a stuffed bear they named “America” into a box, along with a camera, a journal, and a list of questions. “We just wanted to pretty much find out what it is like to live in different areas,” says Nick Sabin, a senior from Gig Harbor. The students sent the bear to 13 different seminary classes located near Church history sites. They asked its recipients to take pictures and to write back about their experiences in seminary.

The bear’s first stop was a class in Sharon, Vermont, birthplace of the Prophet Joseph Smith. From there it was mailed to seminaries near the Hill Cumorah, the Mormon Battalion muster site, Liberty Jail, and Winter Quarters, among other places.

Nearly a year later, America returned to Gig Harbor with gifts: students who received the bear mailed back souvenirs, including a leaf from the Sacred Grove and stones from the Susquehanna River, where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood and were baptized. They also sent two rolls of film and a journal filled with messages about attending seminary and living near Church history sites.

Included here are excerpts from the journal.

Editor’s Note:
Just a word to the wise—seminaries along the Church history trail were happy to participate in this one-time activity. But you can imagine the burden on their resources and time if they started to receive similar requests from others.

“My seminary class is taught by my mother. We meet at 6:30 A.M. five days a week. There are only two students: my sister and me. It is a fairly easy life; people respect us and our beliefs. I live only two minutes from the [Joseph Smith Monument and] Memorial. It is probably one of the prettiest sites run by the Church. In the summer I spend most of my time hiking, swimming, and just pondering life here at the Prophet Joseph Smith’s birthplace.”
—James Wilson, South Royalton, Vermont

“Hello, my name is Mike Dominici, and I attend the Waterloo, New York, seminary class. I attend seminary at 6:30 A.M. every day of the week before school starts. I am one of two active members that go to my school of about 500 kids. It is hard being LDS in my school because of all of the bad influences of others. I like the peaceful reminder of the holiness of this Church site (the Peter Whitmer Farm) so close. I was able to receive the priesthood in the log cabin where so many important things have happened.”
—Mike Dominici, Fayette, New York

“There are about 10 members of our seminary class at Mentor High School and about 10 at Kirtland High School. Some have to get up at 5:00 A.M., so we can get to seminary at 6:15 every weekday. We have the Kirtland Temple and other sites where Joseph walked and talked nearby. It’s pretty neat to stand right there where the Prophet was. I kind of take it for granted, but it’s nice to go see everything.”
—Eileen Day Jolley, Mentor, Ohio

“We have almost 1,000 students at our school and only seven LDS members. Sometimes it’s hard when we’re regarded as different, but I make the best of it and have a good time while in high school. My family lives about 20–25 minutes from the church on the John Johnson Home and Farm historical site. I used to take it for granted that we go to church every Sunday and see the home and farm. I now realize that it is a very sacred place in which some sections of the Doctrine and Covenants were received. I’m thankful that I live close to such a spiritual place.”
—Emily C. Kwan, Hiram, Ohio

“Welcome to Liberty! There are approximately 38 LDS kids in our senior high school, which consists of 10th, 11th, and 12th grades. The Liberty Jail is amazing. The Spirit is so strong there. It’s wonderful to go there and just soak up the Spirit.”
—Alyssa Madden, Liberty, Missouri

“Our seminary class is special. Since the Osceola Ward boundaries are so spread out, we only meet on Sundays an hour before regular meeting time. Our seminary learning consists of worksheets we study at home. My four siblings and I are the only members attending our school. It can be hard sometimes. People are always asking me why I do this, or what our church believes about that, etc. Other times people come to me and ask, ‘Tell me that one Bible story,’ or ‘Are you sure that everyone can know for themselves?’ It’s great living in the mission field.”
—Melissa Clark, Mount Pisgah, Iowa

“My name is Alysen Rail. I love seminary, but am blind so I read my scriptures in braille. I enjoy learning about Church history in Nebraska as well as learning anything gospel-centered.”
—Alysen Rail, Winter Quarters, Nebraska

“I go to West High in Salt Lake City and am a member of the seminary council. In our school there are enough members to fill five classrooms every class period and early mornings. Seminary is awesome.”
—Logan Millard, Salt Lake City, Utah

The Prophet Joseph Smith was born in the Sharon Township of South Royalton, Vermont, on December 23, 1805. The Joseph Smith Memorial Monument stands just near the site of his birth.

Peter Whitmer’s log home, where the Church was officially organized on April 6, 1830, is located in Fayette, New York. Much of the Book of Mormon was translated there.

Soil from Peter Whitmer’s farm

The Kirtland Temple in Ohio was the first temple built by the Church in modern times. On April 3, 1836, the Savior appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in the temple. The Saints were forced to abandon it as they were driven out of Kirtland.

Brother John Johnson, who joined the Church in Kirtland, allowed the Prophet Joseph Smith to stay at his Ohio home for a time. In an upper room of the John Johnson Home, the Prophet received the revelation concerning the three degrees of glory, which is found in the 76th section of the Doctrine and Covenants.

Liberty Jail was the place where the Prophet Joseph Smith and others were imprisoned during the winter of 1838–39. Here Joseph received sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Today the jail has been rebuilt and is a visitors’ center.

“America” picked up a little friend, “Zion,” in Independence, Missouri.

After the martyrdom, the bodies of Joseph and Hyrum had to be hidden, so their graves could not be marked. Now, a monument at the Smith family cemetery in Nauvoo pays tribute to those buried there, including Hyrum, Joseph, Emma, Joseph Sr., and Lucy Mack, among others.

In the Saints’ journey west, many stopped in Iowa to raise crops for others who were on the trail west. Mount Pisgah is not far from Liberty, Independence, and Far West, Missouri.

A “prairie diamond” ring made from a horseshoe nail

Brigham Young and the first company of Saints traveled west and settled near the Missouri River at Winter Quarters for the winter of 1846–47. Due to harsh temperatures, many perished. Here also 22 wards were organized.

At the end of their journey west, the Saints settled in Salt Lake City and built the Salt Lake Temple. The headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is in Salt Lake City.

Still-life photography by Lana Leishman