Church History
Church Historic Sites
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Church Historic Sites

Beginning in the early 1900s, the Church purchased and preserved some of the most significant sites of the Restoration. The Church’s purpose in preserving and operating these sites is to witness to the events of the Restoration, the blessings of God upon His people, and the devotion of Latter-day Saints who sacrificed to build the kingdom of God. Latter-day Saints today visit historic sites in person and virtually to experience the places associated with the Prophet Joseph Smith and early Church history.

In 1902, the First Presidency established a Bureau of Information on Temple Square—the Church’s most visible and visited historic site. Local missionaries provided tours, and throngs of visitors came to learn about the buildings and the Church. The effort was so successful that in 1905, as the centennial of Joseph Smith’s birth approached, the First Presidency authorized the purchase of the farm where Joseph was born in Sharon, Vermont. Although the Church had previously acquired a pioneer cemetery at Mount Pisgah, Iowa, in 1886; the Carthage Jail in Illinois in 1903; and part of the temple lot in Independence, Missouri, in 1904, the Joseph Smith Birthplace was the first site developed expressly as a place of learning, inspiration, and pilgrimage. 1 The First Presidency’s decision initiated what would become a network of more than two dozen historic sites in the United States. 2

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Joseph Smith's Birthplace

Foundation of Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Sharon, Vermont, when Church leaders purchased the property in 1905.

Over the next several decades, the Church acquired additional historic sites, including the Sacred Grove in 1907, the Far West Temple site in 1909, the Hill Cumorah in 1923 and 1928, the Whitmer Farm in 1926, numerous properties at Nauvoo beginning in 1937, and the Liberty Jail site in 1939. 3

The Church rented some of these properties to tenants. At other properties, Church leaders called couples to serve as farmers and caretakers. In both cases, people sometimes knocked on the doors and asked for tours. 4 Visitors were particularly interested in Carthage Jail. In 1939, at the urging of Bryant S. Hinckley, the Northern States Mission president, the Church partially restored the jail to its historic setting and called a missionary couple to provide tours, establishing a precedent for other sites. 5

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Illinois. Hancock Co. Carthage. Carthage Jail

Exterior of Carthage Jail, Carthage, Illinois.

Since the 1960s, the Church has focused on creating accurate restorations of original structures and landscapes, influenced by trends in historic preservation in the United States. 6 Sites like the frame home built by the Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith family on their New York farm have been meticulously restored and furnished. Missing features, such as the Smiths’ earlier log home, have been reconstructed on the foundations of the originals. These restored and reconstructed buildings, set in historic landscapes, help visitors more fully imagine the earliest events of the Restoration. At some sites, especially where original structures are missing or the landscape is the primary feature of significance, the stories are told primarily through monuments, films, and exhibits.

Early Church buildings, including temples, tabernacles, and chapels, are also important historic places, many of which remain in active use by Church members and congregations. There are of course hundreds of other sites significant to the history of the Church throughout the world. Many of these locations feature historic markers installed by governments, families, historical societies, or the Church itself. Others have been repurposed but are still remembered by local Saints.

Related Topics: Liberty Jail, Palmyra and Manchester, Sacred Grove and Smith Family Farm

Notes

  1. See Proceedings at the Dedication of the Joseph Smith Memorial Monument at Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, December 23rd, 1905 (Salt Lake City, 1906).

  2. Jennifer L. Lund, “Joseph F. Smith and the Origins of the Church Historic Sites Program,” in Craig K. Manscill, Brian D. Reeves, Guy L. Dorius, and J. B. Haws, eds., Joseph F. Smith: Reflections on the Man and His Times (Provo: Religious Studies Center, 2013), 345–52.

  3. Lund, “Origins of the Church Historic Sites Program,” 352; Larry C. Porter, “Central New York,” in Larry C. Porter, ed., New York and Pennsylvania, vol. 2 of LaMar C. Berrett, ed., Sacred Places: A Comprehensive Guide to Early LDS Historical Sites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2000), 140; Larry C. Porter, “Western New York,” in Porter, ed., New York and Pennsylvania, 158; Max H Parkin, ed., Missouri, vol. 4 of LaMar C. Berrett, ed., Sacred Places: A Comprehensive Guide to Early LDS Historical Sites (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2004), 225; Benjamin C. Pykles, Excavating Nauvoo: The Mormons and the Rise of Historical Archaeology in America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010), 27.

  4. Lund, “Origins of the Church Historic Sites Program,” 354.

  5. Scott C. Esplin, “Dark Tourism: Healing at Historic Carthage Jail,” Journal of Mormon History, vol. 46, no. 1 (Jan. 2020), 101.

  6. Pykles, Excavating Nauvoo, 71–128.