Palmyra is a quiet, unassuming little town in beautiful upstate New York. When you go there today, you would never guess that back in the 1820‘s it was the site of great religious revivals, excitement and fervor. Indeed, it is the place where Joseph Smith, an obscure boy of 14, experienced a marvelous spiritual witness of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, in answer to a sincere and fervent prayer about which church to join. Joseph Smith subsequently organized The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (a.k.a. The Mormon Church) and the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored to the earth.
For members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (“Mormons”), Palmyra, NY is a must-see LDS Historical Site. For 2 weeks in July of each year, the church hosts “The Hill Cumorah Pageant”, a musical production depicting stories from the Bible and Book of Mormon, the scriptural work translated by Joseph Smith. (www.HillCumorah.org) The pageant draws large crowds during July, and Palmyra is inundated with tourists for much of the summer. For that reason, my crowd-averse husband and our family visited a wonderfully peaceful and tourist-free Palmyra in August, after the peak season. Sometime we will have to go back and see the pageant, but it did not fit our schedule on this trip.
We arrived at Main Street Palmyra early in the evening after a 2-hour drive from Niagara Falls. We passed the famed 4-Churches corner on our way (The only place in America where a different church stands on each of the 4 corners of the intersection.) Our growling stomachs had us searching for a place to eat. However, when we saw that the historic Grandin Press building was still open for another hour, we decided to delay our dinner and take a tour. We were the only ones there, and so we were the recipients of an unhurried, detail-rich narration of the history of the press, Mr. E.B. Grandin, and his role in the printing of The Book of Mormon. The building has been beautifully restored, with an actual working press from that time period (although they don’t run it), as well as some wonderful displays, artifacts and artwork from LDS Church History. We were so absorbed in the stories our guide was telling us that we momentarily forgot our hunger. We were grateful to the senior couple who gave us a fantastic tour and were generous with their time.
We stayed at The Palmyra Inn, which is a homey little place right across the street from the Sacred Grove. You could not ask for a more perfect location! Early the next morning we walked over to the Sacred Grove so that we could be there by ourselves in the stillness of the dawning day. We were rewarded with a cool, quiet grove free of any other visitors. We had ample time to stroll through the green canopy undisturbed and rest on a bench contemplating the events that took place there in the early 1800s. It is not hard to imagine Joseph kneeling among the trees, pouring out his soul to God. With the sun filtering through the trees, I could easily picture heavenly light shining down from above. You can feel the sacredness of this place. It’s the kind of place you could linger in for a good long while, thinking about things of the soul.
After breakfast at the hotel, we headed over to the Hill Cumorah Visitors’ Center to begin our tour of the area’s sites. Here we were met by senior missionaries. We watched a short video and then were left on our own to browse the visitors’ center. Though there were many displays and historical information available here, we went through rather quickly and headed out to see the sights — The Hill Cumorah, the Smith Farm and the Peter Whitmer Farm (a 40 minute drive to Fayette).
We drove to the top of the Hill Cumorah, where there stands a monument with the angel Moroni on top. The view of the surrounding countryside from the top of the hill is beautiful. This is the “stage” from which the pageant is performed.
A lovely sister missionary was our guide for our tour of the Smith Farm. We first visited the humble log home where Joseph lived as a boy. We saw the upstairs room where Joseph slept with his brothers, and where the angel Moroni appeared to him to give him instructions about the gold plates (later translated to become The Book of Mormon). The home has been restored to look as it might have in 1820.
Next we toured the larger frame home where Joseph’s brother, Alvin, his wife and children, and his parents lived for a time. This home and the nearby cooper’s shop were two of the places the gold plates were hidden during that volatile period of Joseph Smith’s life where persecution raged and mobsters sought to steal the plates. You can still see the loose bricks on the hearth where the plates were hidden.
At the end of the tour, we were directed to the Sacred Grove, where we spent a few more peaceful moments before heading on to Fayette and the Peter Whitmer Farm.
The drive to Fayette was through beautiful small towns and green countryside. There is a church building and a visitor’s center at this site. We were treated to a tour of the Visitor’s Center and the Peter Whitmer home, another humble log cabin.
Many significant events in the history of the church took place on this property. It was here that the church was formally organized on April 6, 1830. The Whitmer family graciously housed Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery as they completed the translation of The Book of Mormon. And David Whitmer, Martin Harris, and Oliver Cowdery were privileged to be witnesses to the gold plates while at this farm. We were glad we made the trip to this scenic and peaceful place that was an integral part of the development of the church.