The 150th Annual General Conference, held April 5-6, 1980, was unlike any other members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had experienced to that point.
During the Sunday morning session, the miracle of satellite technology transported the sesquicentennial proceedings from the Salt Lake Tabernacle in Salt Lake City to Fayette, New York, where President Spencer W. Kimball was standing in the newly restored Peter Whitmer Sr. Farmhouse, the modest dwelling where the Church was organized a century and a half earlier. The Church was only beginning to use satellites to transmit broadcasts of the conference.
“My brothers and sisters, it is a deeply moving and wonderful experience to stand here today where the prophet Joseph Smith stood 150 years ago,” Pres. Kimball said as the cameras moved in close.
Following President Kimball’s short remarks, then-Elder Gordon B. Hinckley read a proclamation to the world from The First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
President Kimball later dedicated the restored Whitmer log farmhouse, which he said was a reminder of the humble beginnings from which the Lord’s “mighty work has grown.”
Then-Church News editor Dell Van Orden reported that nearly 30 television and newspaper reporters and photographers covered the event. Elder Hinckley and Latter-day Saint businessman J. Willard Marriott were featured on a segment of NBC's "The Today Show." The New York Times and Washington Post were among several national news organizations to acknowledge the Church’s milestone.
“A century and a half after its founding by a poorly educated, mystically inclined New York farmer named Joseph Smith, the Mormon Church stands at the threshold of great worldly success — a wealthy, powerful institution moving quickly toward its goal of becoming one of Christianity’s major denominations,” wrote Joel Kotkin of the Washington Post.
A time capsule with historical items not to be opened until 2030 was placed at the Fayette Visitors’ Center and a grand ball — where President and Sister Camilla Kimball delighted the crowd with a dance — were among other activities commemorating the sesquicentennial, according to the Church News.
The 1980 sesquicentennial is one of several occasions when the Church has commemorated events of the Restoration. As Church members reflect on Joseph Smith’s First Vision during this bicentennial year, here’s a look back at some of the historic celebrations, the acquisition and development of historic sites, the building of monuments and other efforts by the Church to honor the Restoration, according to sources at the Church History Library.
At general conference on April 6, a special jubilee year celebration was inaugurated to remember the 50th anniversary of the Church. Charitable actions, reminiscent of Old Testament jubilee celebrations, included rescinding half the debt owed to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund Company, distribution of cows and sheep among the needy, and advice to Saints to forgive the worthy poor of their debts.
On May 23, the Church purchased the Solomon Mack farm (68 acres) in Royalton/Sharon, Vermont.
On Dec. 23, President Joseph F. Smith dedicated the Joseph Smith Memorial Cottage and large granite monument at Sharon, Vermont, the site of the Prophet Joseph’s birth 100 years earlier. A missionary couple lived on the farm and hosted visitors as part of their assignment.
Many Latter-day Saint congregations also held local observances.
Apostle George Albert Smith, likely acting as an agent for the Church, purchased the 100-acre Joseph Smith and Lucy Mack Smith farm in Manchester, New York, along with 39 additional acres to the west. The previous owner, William A. Chapman, leased back the property and continued to farm until 1915.
Willard and Rebecca Bean were called as missionaries to live on the Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith farm in Manchester, New York, to farm the property and host visitors.
Then-Elder George Albert Smith conveyed the title to the Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith farm in Manchester, New York, to the Presiding Bishopric.
Acting as an agent for the Church, Bean purchased the 97.5-acre farm at the north end of the Hill Cumorah. The purchase included property halfway up the west side of the hill.
On Sept. 23, President Heber J. Grant and other Church leaders met in Palmyra and Manchester, New York, for the centennial of the angel Moroni’s first visitation to Joseph Smith on the Hill Cumorah.
President B.H. Roberts of the Eastern States Mission purchased the 100-acre farm once owned by Peter and Mary Whitmer in Fayette, New York, on behalf of the Church.
On Sept. 22, President Heber J. Grant conducted a devotional on the Hill Cumorah near the area where Joseph Smith received the gold plates from the angel Moroni 100 years earlier. That week, congregations throughout the Church held commemorative programs as part of their Sunday worship services, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
The Church purchased three additional farms that included the main portion of the Hill Cumorah (283 acres) near Palmyra, New York.
The same year, the first Book of Mormon Pageant was held at the Smith Manchester frame home about three miles from the hill.
The Church purchased an additional 16 acres to add to the Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith farm in Manchester, New York.
Prior to celebrating the Church’s centennial anniversary, radios were installed in more than a thousand meetinghouses within broadcasting range of KSL Radio. During the first session of general conference, members gathered in these and other chapels and at the appointed time, they participated in the Hosanna Shout, normally reserved for temple dedications. Speakers during the conference focused on the Church’s century-long legacy, according to the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.
During the week of April 6-12, people filled the Salt Lake Tabernacle to see a pageant called “Message of the Ages,” a stage production with a thousand actors, singers and musicians that recounted the history of the Church.
B.H. Roberts prepared his comprehensive history of the Church as a centennial memorial.
The Church erected a monument depicting the angel Moroni with the gold plates at the crest of the Hill Cumorah, where Joseph found the buried record.
A pageant titled “Truth from the Earth” was staged at the base of the Hill Cumorah, with the audience sitting on the hillside.
Bean made arrangements to purchase the Martin Harris farm in Palmyra, New York.
Another pageant, “America’s Witness for Christ,” took place on the side of the Hill Cumorah while the audience watched from the base of the hill. It was the first year of the production that became known as the Hill Cumorah Pageant. In 2018, the Church announced the final Hill Cumorah Pageant would take place in 2020.
Acting as an agent for the Church, Wilford Wood purchased the Joseph and Emma Smith property and Isaac and Elizabeth Hale property at Harmony, Pennsylvania.
The Church erected a monument commemorating the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood on the Joseph and Emma Smith farm in Harmony, Pennsylvania.
A new visitors’ center and missionary residence was dedicated at the Joseph Smith Birthplace Memorial in Sharon, Vermont.
The Church purchased the building in Palmyra, New York, where Egbert Grandin operated his printing business and the Book of Mormon was published.
In addition to the year-long sesquicentennial celebration highlighted by President Kimball’s conference broadcast from the Whitmer farmhouse, the Grandin Building in Palmyra, New York, was partially restored and exhibits were installed.
The Church acquired the rest of the 80-acre farm adjacent to the Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith farm in the Palmyra-Manchester area of New York. A portion of the property was first purchased in the 1940s.
The reconstructed Smith log home and the restored Grandin Building in Palmyra, New York, were dedicated by President Gordon B. Hinckley.
The restored frame home on the Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith farm in Manchester, New York, was dedicated by then-Elder M. Russell Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
As part of a year-long celebration of the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Church held a commemorative satellite broadcast on Dec. 23 that featured segments from the prophet’s birthplace in Vermont and the Conference Center in Salt Lake City.
The commemorative program was telecast to 61 countries by satellite and worldwide by internet with the proceedings translated into 81 languages.
The Priesthood Restoration Site in Harmony (now Oakland), Pennsylvania, was dedicated by President Russell M. Nelson.