In the summer of 1888, amateur Mormon historian Andrew Jenson received the blessing of the leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to take a fact-finding mission to the Church’s historical sites in Missouri, New York, Ohio, and Illinois—a trip he had contemplated and hoped for for some time. That September, Jenson, together with Mormon pioneers Edward Stevenson and Joseph S. Black, made their way to the Church Historian’s Office in Salt Lake City, Utah, “to receive instructions, as the contemplated journey was considered as a mission of considerable importance.” One of the major purposes of their fact-finding mission to the East was to provide firsthand experiences for Jenson as a journalist and budding chronicler of the past. He wanted to see and witness the sites on his own, and the trip promised to be most useful for these purposes. Latter-day Saints then and now believe that there is power in sacred spaces.
Before leaving for the East, Jenson and his companions entered into an agreement with the Deseret News to publish their ongoing adventures to help their fellow members better understand the “infancy of the Church.” Over the course of the next month, the three deputized correspondents sent a flurry of eighteen letters, all of which were published as promised in the pages of Utah’s largest newspaper. They traveled from Utah to Missouri by train, where they visited Church history sites in Independence, Richmond, Far West, Gallatin, and Liberty, before continuing eastward by train through Memphis and Chattanooga, Tennessee, and on to Norfolk, Virginia. They then steamed up the Atlantic coast to New York City and on to Rochester, New York, and the cradle of the Restoration in nearby Palmyra and Fayette. The trio next traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, and on to Chicago, Illinois, before heading south to Nauvoo and Carthage, Illinois, and then back to Utah via Richmond, Missouri. They collected Church history wherever they could and fulfilled their missionary purpose.
The three men’s visit to the farms of Fayette, New York, was especially meaningful to them in their quest to document the most important sites of the Restoration. As historian and documentary editor Michael H. MacKay has so carefully documented in this volume, Sacred Space: Exploring the Birthplace of Mormonism, the New York township of Fayette (not Manchester) was the location of the formal establishment of the Church of Christ in this final dispensation. The old Peter Sr. and Mary Musselman Whitmer farm located there had long been the traditional site of the reorganization of Christ’s primitive Church in these latter days. In fact, when the three Church-history missionaries departed from Palmyra and headed toward Fayette, they passed through neighboring Manchester without even making a stop, on the afternoon of September 28, 1888. “We left the hill Cumorah about eleven o’clock today. Two miles south we passed through the village of Manchester, and traveling one mile further we arrived at Shortsville, a small town on the N. Y. C. & H. R. Ry. From here we went by rail to Waterloo, a flourishing little city of five thousand inhabitants, situated on both sides of the Seneca River, about halfway between the north end of Seneca and Cayuga Lakes.” The men described their journey that day to the readers of the Deseret News.
After disembarking from their passenger train car in Waterloo, New York, the three men looked to the locals to orient them to their sacred surroundings. They wandered around the area southwest of Waterloo looking for the old Whitmer farm. About four miles south of Waterloo they met a local farmer, who directed their final steps to the site of the organization of the Church in 1830, as Jenson described in their newspaper account:
Having walked about ten miles we came to the house of an aged gentleman by the name of John Marshall, who had attended meetings in Whitmer’s house when a boy and had heard Joseph and a number of other early Elders of the Church preach. Guided by his directions we had no further difficulty in finding the exact spot we were aiming for, and about 4 o’clock we arrived at the farm once owned by Peter Whitmer, sen., and now the property of Jesse Snook, a prominent business man of Waterloo, who rents it to Chester Reed, the present occupant. The old Whitmer house, in which the Church was organized and in which the three first general conferences of the Church were held and Joseph received a number of important revelations, was a one-and-a-half-story log house. It was torn down years ago, but the site on which it stood is well known and was pointed out to us. The old family well is still there; also several of the logs, which once constituted a part of the building, lay along the fence half decayed.
The Church history missionaries from Utah were sobered to be on sacred ground, where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery completed the translation of the gold plates, the site of twenty revelations to the Lord’s prophet, and the location where the first and second elders of the Restoration determined to organize the Church. “Many were the thoughts as we trod the ground where the Book of Mormon was translated, Church organized, mother Whitmer saw the Angel and the Plates of the Book of Mormon,” Edward Stevenson wrote. “The old well still stands there but only a little of the 1 1/
I am now sitting on a rotten log, which once formed part of the Whitmer house, in which the Church was organized. It was a double log house, one and a half stories and is now torn down and some of the logs lie by the well, which is a little northwest of the house and is good yet. They have built a house a little to the northeast of the old location, and on a little higher ground. The place where the old house stood is now covered with a beautiful clover. It is a beautiful rolling country, with fine farms and closed with wire fence, and the farm is in a high state of cultivation.
Likewise, Andrew Jenson celebrated the chance to be in the exact location where Joseph Smith and his associates organized the Church back in 1830: “We examined the ground very closely, and thought of the past, spoke of the present, wished that certain things might transpire in the future, prepared resolutions, made the necessary entries in our notebooks, and returned to Waterloo.”
Weeks later, the Church history missionaries arrived back in Utah, their fact-finding mission to the sites of the Restoration complete. Both their newspaper letters and resulting compilation, Infancy of the Church, delighted Church members living in the Great Basin kingdom, most of whom were second-generation members who had never visited the sacred sites of Mormondom to the East. In other words, these LDS Church-history missionaries wrote these descriptive accounts to their fellow believers, who wanted to vicariously experience the early days of the Restoration. Places like Palmyra, Fayette, Kirtland, Hawn’s Mill, Far West, and Nauvoo, as well as structures like the Smith Family Log Cabin, Whitmer Home, Kirtland Temple, Liberty Jail, and Nauvoo Temple conjured up tender memories and freighted meanings for most Latter-day Saints. They were treading on tender theological trails during their journey to the sacred sites of Mormondom.
The three men were ahead of their time with regards to the subsequent rise of historic-place consciousness among the Mormons. How these sacred sites should be remembered and memorialized are questions begged in the missionaries’ writings. The visitors from Utah were very concerned over the current ownership and stewardship of the sacred sites and structures of Mormondom. In 1888 the Church owned none of the historic properties or buildings associated with its pre-Utah history. It would not be until 1903, fifteen years later, that Mormon leaders would purchase the Church’s first historic site, Carthage Jail. Later that decade, the Church acquired additional sites, including part of the original temple lot in Missouri, Joseph Smith’s birthplace in Vermont, and the Joseph Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith farm in New York. In subsequent decades Latter-day Saint leaders would purchase many of the historic sites and structures that Jenson and his companions toured in 1888. Jenson, later employed at the Church Historian’s Office, would be a chief cheerleader for their preservation and promotion. But in 1888 there were no reconstructed buildings, visitors’ centers, or missionary outposts that told the Utah church’s story. While Church leaders and members spent most of the nineteenth century just trying to help preserve the Church, by the turn of the twentieth century they started to commemorate their origins.
By the early twenty-first century, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and the Community of Christ (RLDS)—two ecclesiastical bodies that trace their spiritual origins to the organization events that transpired in upstate New York in April 1830—have done a remarkable job of transforming what Jenson and his fellow missionaries called the “waste places of Zion” into sacred spaces that can be experienced and enjoyed by all visitors. Interested individuals are invited to visit the Church’s extensive historic sites in New York and Pennsylvania, including the Smith Family Farm, the Book of Mormon Publication Site (Grandin Building), the Peter Whitmer Log Home, and the Priesthood Restoration Site. In the Kirtland, Ohio, vicinity they can tour the John Johnson Home, the Johnson Inn, the Newel K. Whitney Store, and the Newel K. and Elizabeth Whitney Home, among other restored homes and buildings. The Kirtland Temple, which is owned and operated by the Community of Christ, is a “can’t miss” destination and sacred space. The state of Missouri also offers a number of Mormon-related sites to visit, including a reconstructed Liberty Jail and visitors’ center in Independence. Finally, the Church and the Community of Christ have worked to re-create historic Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi River. Many pioneer dwellings and public structures may be toured and experienced, most on the flats below the reconstructed Nauvoo Temple.
For what purpose does the Church go to such great lengths to make these historic sites accessible to Latter-day Saints and members of other faiths? Why the historic sites program in off-the-beaten-path places like Fayette, New York? “More than two dozen Church-owned sites from Vermont to California and one in England celebrate the Restoration of the gospel and the commitment of Latter-day Saints to establish God’s kingdom in our day. Numerous historic markers dot the landscape, as do historic temples, tabernacles, and meetinghouses. For many people, these sites are sacred, evoking a sense of awe, reverence, and personal connection,” Jennifer Lund, director of the Church’s Historic Sites Division, explains. In the Old Testament books of Exodus and Joshua, the Lord instructs his prophets, including Moses and Joshua, to treat sacred the places where God instructed and delivered the children of Israel (see, for example, Exodus 3:5; Joshua 4:19–22). Lund continues, “Just as these scriptural accounts affirm that places where significant events occurred are sacred and should be remembered and honored by God’s people, the Church today identifies, preserves, and interprets places significant to the history of this dispensation. These places have been sanctified by God’s blessings upon His people and by faithful Latter-day Saints who have dedicated their lives to building up God’s kingdom.” As such, Latter-day Saints are committed to testifying of the reality of the Restoration through their extensive historic sites program.
Representation of Peter Whitner Sr.'s home in Fayette, New York , the location of the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. President Spencer W. Kimball dedicated this log home in 1980. Courtesy of Ray Huntington.
But, as MacKay chronicles in this volume, some of these traditional sites and events of the Restoration have become contested places and conflicting narratives among certain historians. Thankfully, the Church has skillful scholars, like MacKay, who are willing to use the best of their time, training, and talents to uncover the clues of the past and nail down the historical facts surrounding the coming forth of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in these last days. It takes a consecrated chronicler to do the historical spadework and documentary analysis to offer his readers such a strong case for Fayette as the birthplace of the Church, a traditional conclusion accepted by Andrew Jenson back in 1888, but now clarified by the historical record. “History can potentially establish sacred space by creating religious narratives founded upon rigorous research and careful examination of historical records. History can establish a sacred narrative that defines sacred space in both time and place,” MacKay convincingly argues in the pages that follow. “History can establish a sacred narrative that defines sacred space in both time and place. Historical dialogue within itself fosters interest, examination, and reassessment, all of which have created the environment where Fayette transformed from a place with only historical significance into a space that marks the birthplace of the Restoration and a destination of faith for believers.” MacKay’s thoughtful analysis as a documentary editor is both interesting to follow and edifying to believe.
Like Joshua of old, who was commanded by the Lord to place a dozen stones from the Jordan River as a reminder to the children of Israel that God had blessed his chosen people anciently, Mormon historians like MacKay stand as witnesses that Jehovah is still with his covenant Saints. As disciple-scholars, they prod us to do more to learn by faith and study.
Reid L. Neilson
Assistant Church Historian and Recorder
 See Reid L. Neilson, Justin R. Bray, and Alan D. Johnson, Rediscovering the Sites of the Restoration: The 1888 Travel Writings of Mormon Historian Andrew Jenson, Edward Stevenson, and Joseph S. Black (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 2015).
 Andrew Jenson, Autobiography of Andrew Jenson (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1938), 149.
 Neilson, Bray, and Johnson, Rediscovering the Sites, 196.
 Neilson, Bray, and Johnson, Rediscovering the Sites, 196.
 Neilson, Bray, and Johnson, Rediscovering the Sites, 196n45.
 “The Journal of Joseph Smith Black,” in Our Pioneer Heritage, comp. Kate B. Carter, 20 vols. (Salt Lake City: Daughters of Utah Pioneers, 1967), 10:295–96.
 Neilson, Bray, and Johnson, Rediscovering the Sites, 199.
 Jenny Lund, “Why Historic Sites? Sacred Places Help Us Remember God’s Hand,” https://
 See introduction, page 1 herein.