OAKLAND TOWNSHIP, PENNSYLVANIA
For many years, its development as a Church historic site was hindered by a hazardous highway that passes through it, but after three years of development, the Priesthood Restoration Site where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery received the Aaronic Priesthood from the resurrected John the Baptist was dedicated.
President Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles presided at the Sept. 19 dedication of the site, known in the scriptures as Harmony, where most of the Book of Mormon was translated and where 15 sections of the Doctrine and Covenants and a portion of the Pearl of Great Price were received by the Prophet as revelations.
Conducting and speaking at the dedicatory service in addition to President Nelson was Elder Steven E. Snow of the Seventy, Church Historian and Recorder, whose article in the current edition of the Ensign magazine, “Joseph Smith in Harmony,” tells of the events that transpired there.
Rep. Sandra Major of the Pennsylvania State House of Representatives spoke at the service and lauded the Church for its work in preserving the site.
A capacity congregation filled the historic site’s new visitors’ center, which doubles as a meetinghouse for the Susquehanna Branch of the Scranton Pennsylvania Stake. A stake choir performed “Hark, All Ye Nations” during the service, which was streamed live over the Church’s Internet web site (a video recording of the proceedings can be viewed on the website at www.lds.org).
In his talk, President Nelson recounted the events that occurred in Harmony, including the meeting of Joseph and Emma Hale and their courtship, their subsequent life there on a farm divided from the homestead of Emma’s parents beginning in November 1827, the coming of Oliver Cowdery to assist as a scribe in the translation of the Book of Mormon, the reception of the Aaronic Priesthood there, the first baptisms by priesthood authority performed in this dispensation when Joseph and Oliver baptized each other in the Susquehanna River, and the final removal of Joseph and Emma from Harmony in January 1831.
“Even though they lived at Harmony for only a brief time, the experiences they had were crucial to the restoration of the Lord’s gospel,” President Nelson said. “Harmony provided Joseph with spiritual solitude and protection, allowing him to focus on the translation of the Book of Mormon. Through this period, the Lord tutored Joseph in his divine role as prophet, seer and revelator. Receiving the priesthood power empowered Joseph Smith to function fully as the prophet of the last dispensation. Here he worked during a remarkable and formative season of translation, revelation and restoration.”
“… God be thanked for all that has recently been restored here to enrich our memories, to ennoble our souls, and to energize our commitment to advance this great and glorious work of the Lord,” said President Nelson.
Elder Snow spoke of coming to the site three years ago and “wandering around in the rain with some of our folks to try to figure out how it would all look. And to come back three years later and see this stunning chapel and visitors’ center along with the reconstructed homes, and to feel the Spirit at the bank of the river once again was truly a wonderful feeling.”
With their wives and with other Church dignitaries, the two men toured the site before the dedication and viewed a new 25-minute motion picture dramatization of the events in Harmony told through the eyes of Oliver Cowdery. The movie was produced expressly for and will be unique to the Priesthood Restoration Site.
They viewed the following features on the site:
Statuary outside the visitor’s center that replicates the Avard Fairbanks sculptures on Temple Square in Salt Lake City that depict the visit of John the Baptist to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and a later visit by Christ’s resurrected apostles — Peter, James and John — who conferred upon the two men the higher, or Melchizedek Priesthood. This transpired, according to Joseph’s record, “in the wilderness between Harmony, Susquehanna County, and Colesville, Broome County, on the Susquehanna River.” The sugar maple grove, or “sugar bush” adjacent to the visitors’ center, where the visitation by John the Baptist occurred. Carefully nurtured, the grove is a canopy of trees excluding much of the sunlight and heat from midday sun. With a network of trails, it is a serene locale for contemplation that some are comparing to the Sacred Grove. Contrary to long-held misconception, historians are now confident from research that the visitation occurred there, not on the riverbank. An early artistic depiction of the visitation showed it occurring next to the river, and the popular misconception stemmed from that. The reconstructed homes of Isaac and Elizabeth Hale and of Joseph and Emma Smith, carefully replicated from photographs and research and constructed on the footprint of the original structures, known from the remnant foundation stones, which now comprise the façade of the Hale home’s foundation and a fence surrounding the Smith home. Improved access to the site on the river where it is believed the baptisms occurred in compliance with a directive from John the Baptist. The river is unusually low this year for lack of rainfall, but Jennifer Lund, director of the Church’s historic sites division told the visiting group it would have been so high at the time the baptisms occurred that the spot where the group was standing would have been under water. It is recorded that there was heavy traffic on the river on the day of the priesthood restoration, leading historians to conclude that the baptisms likely occurred in the evening when traffic subsided. A paved turn-off from the highway and parking lots for buses and cars have improved the access to the baptism site, which is located near a railroad crossing. The McKune Cemetery is adjacent to the Priesthood Restoration Site. Though not part of the historic site, visitors often include the still active cemetery as part of their tour because it contains the readily apparent grave stones of Emma’s parents and of Joseph’s and Emma’s first son, who died in infancy.
During the dedicatory service, Rep. Major said, “I wish to applaud all those who were involved in the extensive restoration project. You did an amazing job. … I look forward to watching strong bonds grow up between the surrounding communities and the Priesthood Restoration Site. The new stretch of State Route 171, which adds to our local infrastructure, is just one example of the contributions already taking place.”
The new stretch was completed by the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation with participation from the Church. It alleviated a prohibitive obstacle to restoration of the site, as the old highway — stemming from a road that Isaac Hale helped construct — went between the Hale and Smith homes. Visitors would have had to walk along the side of the highway to view the homes.
Elder Kyle B. Walker, visitors’ center director at the site, said Church leaders would not allow a restoration project to proceed until that traffic hazard could be alleviated. That meant not only re-routing the highway, but also raising the grade so that a pedestrian underpass could be constructed to facilitate access between the visitors’ center and sugar maple grove on one side and the reconstructed Hale and Smith homes on the other.
Brent Morgan from Ensign Engineering, the Sandy, Utah, firm that did the structural engineering for the project, told of a miracle in getting the necessary approvals for the rerouting of the highway.
“In my mind, it was a complete miracle in terms of the attitude and the prevailing thought process for the project, and how it moved and changed attitudes,” he said. “It became a desire to help rather than hinder that changed over time.”
His colleague at Ensign, David Alter, told of a highway official who was less than cooperative at first but whose attitude changed after his brother, whose home was damaged by Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast in 2012, received help from LDS volunteers in cleaning up his basement.
Until the recent development, the only objects commemorating the site were a roadside marker and a monument erected in 1960, sculpted by Avard Fairbanks and funded by the Aaronic priesthood quorums of the Church. That monument still stands in its original place, not far from the Joseph and Emma Smith home.
Many Church members, including President Nelson, had never visited the location. That may change with the new developments.
“We opened on the 29th of August, and last Sunday we had our 1,000th visitor come through the door,” said Elder Walker, who added that publicity has been mainly through word-of-mouth.
A Canadian family — not members of the Church — visited the site.
“And the parents had prepared the three children beyond anything I could have imagined,” Elder Walker said.
At Elder Walker’s invitation, the parents invited non-LDS friends to come back with them and tour the site.
“Since it has opened, we’ve had members of civic committees, mayors and town councils come, and more are scheduled,” Elder Walker said.
One group mainly wanted to talk about partnering with the site to boost economic development in the community. But after a subsequent tour of the site, “we weren’t talking economics; we were talking gospel principles,” Elder Walker said.
Grant Davis of South Jordan, Utah, hopes the newly developed site will help him draw a family and gospel connection with cousins. Having ancestors who lived in the area, he wondered whether they had resided in Harmony. On a hunch, he did an Internet search and learned that they had resided in the Isaac and Elizabeth Hale home from 1864 to 1880, after the deaths of the Hales.
“Many of those descendants live right around this area, so we’re trying to contact them and invite them to come to the historic site and see and hear what happened here,” he said.
If they come, they, like other visitors, will learn of a formative time in the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ in this dispensation.
“This was a great time of spiritual outpouring,” Elder Snow said in his talk at the dedicatory service, “and a time when our Prophet Joseph was still in the process of restoring the gospel. Many members think he walked out of the sacred grove in Palmyra with a bushel basket of handbooks, but that’s really not the case. The Church continued to grow and mature, as did the Prophet, as revelations were received by him and subsequent prophets even unto today.”