After more than a year of closures due to the global pandemic, historic sites of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are now beginning to reopen. Historic Sites operations manager Gary L. Boatright Jr. and Historic Sites manager Benjamin Pykles join this episode of the Church News podcast to discuss these sacred spaces, how closures allowed for the opening of virtual tours, and how we can honor “the spirit of place” while visiting these locations.
They discuss how touring historic sites in person or virtually can allow the Holy Spirit to testify of the importance these spaces held in the Restoration of Christ’s gospel on the earth and how the Lord continues to guide the Church today.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with leaders, members and others on the Church News team. We end each Church News podcast by giving our guests the last word and the opportunity to answer the very important question, “What do you know now?” We hope each of you will also be able to answer the same question and say, “I have just been listening to the Church News podcast and this is what I know now.”
After being closed for more than 400 days during the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic, historic sites of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints began to reopen this May and June. Those in-person tours were celebrated by missionaries and Church members. They reopened, however, to a new normal in which visitors can visit these sacred spaces in-person, or as was learned during the pandemic, through virtual tours. During this episode of the Church News podcast, we are joined by Gary L. Boatwright, operations manager of historic sites for the Church History department, and Benjamin Pykles, historic sites manager. Welcome to the Church News podcast.
Gary Boatright Jr. and Benjamin Pykles: Thank you.
Sarah Jane Weaver: I want to just jump right in today and talk about what is so important about historic sites, especially in context of the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Brother Boatright, can you just start by telling us why is it that as a Church, we have preserved these sites, and we've made them available for people to visit?
Gary Boatright Jr.: Well, as going back in Church history, on April 6, 1830, the day that the Church was organized, the Lord revealed to Joseph Smith a revelation and that revelation began by saying, “Behold, there shall be a record kept among you.” And we typically think of that record as being artifacts or manuscripts and documents, but it also includes places, and the historic sites of the Church are material witnesses of the sacred events and the earlier events of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ on the earth. And so places like the Sacred Grove, the priesthood restoration sites, historic Kirtland, these are places where significant events occurred that impact the worldwide Church today. And they're key to the Restoration. And we refer to them as key sites of the Restoration. And then we also have other sites like Cove Fort and the Brigham Young winter home in St. George that are also important sites in the Restoration of the gospel, but they really show more of the faith and dedication of its members, and what they did to help establish the kingdom of God.
And so these historic sites, which over the course of time the Church has purchased and developed and opened up to visitors, these are places where members can come and not only learn about the history and their heritage as Latter-day Saints, but walk in the same footsteps where Joseph Smith walked and the other early Saints walked and really have an immersive experience with the history of the Church.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And Brother Pykles, we obviously believe that people have a transformative experience, that something happens to them when they visit these sites. What is it that makes visiting these sites significant for Latter-day Saints and friends of the Church as well?
Benjamin Pykles: It's a great question. And I think it comes down to what we often refer to as “the spirit of place.” And I don't think that's anything different than the Holy Spirit, the Holy Ghost that bears witness of the truthfulness and the reality of what the Lord has done in these sacred places for His children in these the last days in restoring the fullness of His gospel to the earth in preparation for the Second Coming. And what's wonderful is that we've learned over the last year and a half that that Spirit is not only confined to those that are able to come in-person and visit in-person, but it's bearing witness via virtual tours as well. We've had people connect with the sites and the missionaries at the sites and received tours from all over the world in the last year and a half, and it has been remarkable to see the impact that a virtual tour has had on members’ faith and testimonies of the Restoration in very similar ways as those that are privileged enough and fortunate enough to be able to come in-person.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and let's just jump in there. We did reference that a little bit in the introduction to this podcast, but that is one of the compensatory blessings that came out of the pandemic. Now, you were probably looking at virtual tours long before the pandemic, but certainly that was an opportunity for you to put those ideas into practice.
Benjamin Pykles: Indeed, and I think it required us to kind of take a leap of faith that we probably weren't otherwise prepared to do or willing to do. We had been studying virtual tours for about a year before the pandemic. And I think looking back, we feel very fortunate that we had even that level of preparation, so that we could kind of just dive in headlong when the opportunity presented itself, but it did require some faith, because we hadn't figured out everything. And ultimately, it just came down to — we had a bunch of willing and technologically capable missionaries at the sites, and they wanted to do their job. They were called and set apart to give tours and testify of the Restoration and teach of the history of the Church, and we basically said, “OK, go for it. Here's what little we know. And here's some technology or some tools, and here you go, just do it,” and they did. And, to their credit, the missionaries really have helped us pioneer this effort. It's not a done deal, we're still meeting regularly with the missionaries and the teams here in Salt Lake trying to work out the details and make things even better. We know that there are still gaps in our program in terms of reaching people in certain time zones or certain languages. But I think one thing that we can say for certain is that virtual tours are here to stay. It's really the first time in the history of the historic sites program of the Church where these sacred places can be shared with a global audience, which is remarkable. They are significant for a global audience, and it's always been something that we've lamented that just a tiny fraction of Church members worldwide have been able to come experience these places in-person. But now, we're seeing that we really can, in meaningful and significant ways, share these sacred places with members all around the world.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I'm sure that didn't just happen smooth and seamlessly. I'm assuming that there may have been some sites that didn't even have full internet capacity. So did it take a little while to get things up and running? Or how did that work?
Benjamin Pykles: Yeah, and like I said, it's still a work in progress. And in some ways, one of the things we were working on, and I think we've worked out, at least for the short term, is the internet connection. We do not have good wireless internet capacity at many of the historic sites there because they're in remote places. And that remoteness is actually a blessing and a curse. The blessing, because these sites aren't being threatened by modern development in many cases, like roadways or power lines or things so they can stay preserved in these nice, quiet settings. But it also means that modern technologies haven't reached them yet, in many instances. So one of the things we did, and this was actually with Gary's great insight and help was, we were able to determine that even though there's not great wireless capacity at many of the sites, there does seem to be adequate cellular phone coverage. And so we were able to get each site a number of cellular phone accounts and other phones. And that's actually how most of the sites are doing it right now, it’s just through cellular connections instead of kind of a Wi-Fi situation. At the same time, we are trying to beef up the wireless capabilities at each site, because we know that that’s slightly more reliable technology and something that we can kind of exercise more control over than having to rely on a cellular company. But so far, it's been working out great. And we just feel so blessed that this technology is even here. Two decades ago, we couldn't have been thinking about this. And here we are now. And like I said, we're for the first time being able to share these places with members all around the world.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, that's wonderful. Brother Boatright, we're so happy that you embrace cell phone service. I'd like to talk to you a little bit about this idea. You know, we have these sites and they're available to Latter-day Saints, but even though only a portion of the Church has ancestry that were pioneers or part of the early Restoration, they're all part of the Church heritage and we claim them all as an important part of our Latter-day Saint experience. And suddenly now this is available to members internationally. What is it like to be able to take the experience of Church historic sites to a population of Latter-day Saints that haven't had access to them before?
Gary Boatright Jr.: It's actually really exciting. And when you think that the vast majority of members of the Church will never have an opportunity to visit these places in-person, but now, through technologies, they can visit them sitting in their own home or in their stake center or ward building. And I had an experience earlier this summer, where I was visiting the Mormon Trail Center at Winter Quarters, and my wife and I, in our home ward, we serve in a local care facility, and we are doing family home evenings, and they happen to be at the Winter Quarters site on a Monday. And so I arranged to borrow some of the equipment that we had sent out there and give a virtual tour for the residents of this care facility. And now these are residents that just live in Utah. But there was no way that these folks would ever have the opportunity to go to that place. And as I was giving them a tour of the site, I wondered, “What are they thinking? How are they feeling? Are they hearing me OK? Are they seeing everything OK?” But when I returned home and visited with them the next Sunday, they were all just so appreciative of being able to see the site and hear the history of the site, and to hear the birds in the trees as I was walking through the Winter Quarters Cemetery. And I imagine that conversation that I had with the residents of the care center where I serve is happening all over the world, as family members and wards and youth groups are participating in these virtual tours. They are feeling the same Spirit that a person who goes to the sites feels, and there's not a different Spirit that testifies of truth, it's the same Spirit. And even though they are not able to physically stand in the Sacred Grove or physically stand in the Whitney store, they are able to see their surroundings and the Spirit is able to testify to them as strongly as if they were there that the events that occurred there were sacred and true. And it's just been a wonderful blessing in the lives of members of the Church around the world, but also a blessing to the lives of missionaries. Imagine a missionary — they're called to serve at the Mormon Battalion site in San Diego, and they're thinking they're just going to be helping people who walk into the place. But now they are teaching people about the Mormon Battalion, and their faith and their sacrifice, to people around the world. And that is just an amazing thing to think that even though they've been called to one place, they are literally teaching people about the gospel and about the history of the Church to Latter-day Saints and friends of the Church across the globe.
Sarah Jane Weaver: That is a really beautiful sentiment, and oftentimes that could be happening in their native language as well, right?
Gary Boatright Jr.: Absolutely. We do have quite a few Spanish speakers at some of our sites. We have been blessed to have others who speak different languages and have been able to have more of a reach. But that is one of the challenges, Ben was mentioning, is language. We would love to have somebody at each site who can speak one of 10 languages, but it's just not possible to do that. And so, we are looking at other options to help overcome that barrier so any Latter-day Saints or anybody, wherever they are in the world, whatever language they speak, they can experience these places and feel the spirit of the place.
Sarah Jane Weaver: And I want to shift again — Brother Pykles, you have responsibility for the Northeastern sites of the Church, and a few months ago, Elder LeGrand R. Curtis, who is a General Authority Seventy and Church historian, made a pretty significant announcement that that would impact some of those sites. Can you talk to us about what that is?
Benjamin Pykles: Sure, yeah, I'd be happy to. He gave this presentation at the Mormon History Association Conference that was held in Park City, and he basically announced what the Church was doing to rehabilitate the Hill Cumorah, following the announcement from the First Presidency that the Hill Cumorah Pageant would be discontinued. So he kind of outlined the program that's happening there, and it is underway.
Just earlier today, I was on a meeting with the contractors and the rest of the team that's responsible for that project, but they've removed 21 buildings from the hill now. They've all been removed and are in the process of removing some 400,000 square feet of asphalt, gravel, paved surfaces, and in this process, they're going to be establishing a new network of trails on the hill, all of which will lead up to the angel Moroni monument, which is staying, and the visitor center that's there is staying. But they’ll be reforesting the hill as well with native trees and seeds, so that the area that had been clear cut to accommodate the pageant will, over time, grow up into a mature, old growth forest, like other parts of the hill already are.
And this is really an attempt to recapture, if you will, the sacred significance in the sacred settings, the sacred landscape of the Hill Cumorah. One of the things that we've been so impressed with is that the pageant has been a marvelous tool for over 80 years in sharing the story of the Book of Mormon. Times have changed, and people prefer different types of entertainment and media now, I think. There was Elder Christofferson, who a couple weeks ago gave a devotional about the significance of the project, but also explained a little bit about the decision to discontinue it and how the Church, as it becomes increasingly global, the Church has to really focus on activities and events and programs that are serving the global audience. And in this case, the pageant wasn't doing that — at least as much as other things are. So at the time that one program that has been so influential for so long, as that kind of comes to a close, this other program of sharing the historic sites in new ways would be a virtual tours is just starting to begin. And so we see this as just a really wonderful transition in the history of the Hill Cumorah and we're excited about it. We think visitors, both in-person visitors and virtual visitors, will continue to love the Hill Cumorah and appreciate it and be able to experience it in a way more similar to how Joseph Smith experienced it when he went there to meet with the angel Moroni so many times and be tutored and prepared for his sacred calling as the Prophet of the Restoration.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I I loved that Elder D. Todd Christofferson, when he was speaking about the Hill Cumorah pageant, he actually said that to be in Palmyra and to visit the Sacred Grove and to walk on the Hill Cumorah actually feels like a dream. He called it a dream. And so, Brother Boatwright, I would love for you to weigh in. The Church is going to all these efforts to restore the Hill Cumorah, to make it authentic. What is it that you want members to know about our Church historic sites?
Gary Boatright Jr.: I think the biggest thing I would like members to know is, and they know this, but these are sacred sites. These are sacred places where revelations were received, and in some cases, where God and Jesus Christ themselves appeared to people, ushering in the dispensation of the fullness of times. And as members of the Church, sometimes as we go to the sites on vacation and visiting these places, we sometimes shortchange them. We have an agenda we need to keep and so we’ve got to keep on time, and so we see people who just kind of rush to the Sacred Grove real quick and rush out. We see others who, as long as they just kind of check it off on their list: “Oh, we've seen the Joseph Smith birthplace monument. Let's get on to our next destination.” I think those who are doing that really are short changing themselves, because these are sacred places. And as people visit these sites and give them the time that's appropriate for them, they can really have profound and inspiring experiences.
I think one of the other things that has at least been concerning to me personally, is that sometimes we as members don't treat them as sacred places, and the biggest example I see of that is in the Sacred Grove, where every year, we have members of the Church who carve their names on the trees, and they carve out the dates and or some other message. And we would never, ever think about spray painting a name on the temple or on a Church building. But there are members of the Church who deface these trees and in one of the most sacred and holy places on the earth. And, as we come to appreciate and understand these places for what they are, we can really have those transformative experiences that were talked about earlier. If we treat them as sacred places, then we will have sacred experiences there ourselves.
And I've seen that in my own life where if I have gone to a site on a work assignment, if I'm just there for work, it’s just work, and I don't walk away uplifted. I may get the job done, but I've come to know that whenever I go to these places, I need to reconnect with them — not as a Church employee or as the historic sites operations manager, but I need to connect with them as a member of the Church, as a member of God's kingdom on the earth, and so I always try to spend time by myself to walk around the site, read from “Saints” or read from the scriptures, or read from a revelation that was received in that place to really remind myself why the Church keeps these places, and I have had many profound and sacred and uplifting experiences over the years being able to do that. And I recognize that as an employee of the historic sites division, that I'm in a rare position where I get to visit these sites multiple times, and that most people will not have that opportunity, but I hope that members of the Church who are able to visit the sites do give them the time and also the attention that they deserve, and I think they will walk away from these places with more than just being able to say, “Yes, I've been to the Sacred Grove,” but “Yes, I've been to the Sacred Grove, and I know that that is the place where God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Joseph Smith.”
Sarah Jane Weaver: What a beautiful sentiment and reminder that we all need to work hard to feel what we called earlier in this podcast, “the spirit of the place.” The other thing that I thought was interesting is both of you do have the opportunity because of your job to be at these sites and visit these sites more than the average person would, more than the rest of us. We sometimes call it a “backstage pass,” but we'd sure love to give our listeners a glimpse at a “backstage pass” to one of these sites. Would each of you be willing to just think about something about one of the sites that you find so interesting, that the average member might not know about? And we can start with you, Brother Pykles.
Benjamin Pykles: Yes, that is a great question, and the thing that comes to mind immediately is the amount of research that goes into these historic sites. Most visitors don't see this because they see the end product of what is often years and years worth of very careful, meticulous historical, archaeological, architectural research that goes into crafting these places and reconstructing them or restoring them in very authentic ways, as authentic as we possibly can. My background happens to be in archaeology, and so I get to participate in some of that work, at least on a high level. And I'm thinking of, for example, the recently dedicated temple district in historic Nauvoo. One of those homes that was reconstructed was the home of Bishop Edward Hunter and his wife, Anna. And that building didn't exist five years ago. It did exist historically in the 1840s, but years ago, we were in Nauvoo using advanced archeological technologies like ground penetrating radar to first locate that site and determine if there was anything left of it underground, and then we hired a team of archaeologists from Brigham Young University to come in, and very carefully excavated and documented not just the foundations that were still there, but some of the ancillary features like wells and whatnot, and then, of course, the artifacts that were still buried in the ground. And from all of that information, combined with detailed photograph analysis, historic photographs analysis and historical research and architectural research on what we could tell from the photographs, then we can engage a modern-day architect to help us draw up plans to reconstruct this thing as accurately as we possibly can, and then experts that have expertise in historic furnishings and historic material culture. They're brought in and they help us furnish the sites and we have expert interpreters who help us tell the story and the significance of those places. And so all of this comes together and literally it does take upwards of 10 years sometimes to do this. All of this comes together to produce the kind of transformative experience that we've been talking about, both in-person and virtually in the tours that the missionaries give and it's really wonderful, and it's exciting to be a part of that process. Sometimes it's hard to remember what our end goal is when we're kind of down in the weeds doing the nitty gritty, but once the site is dedicated, we step back and we can see the missionaries sharing these places, and we see the fruits of all the labor for many, many years. It's really, really rewarding. And it's like what Gary said earlier — these places are material witnesses to God Himself that we remember what He's done for us as children in these last days, and it's a privilege to be a part of that.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, it's amazing that you brought up the historic Nauvoo district — I was there for the dedication, I stood right where you're talking about and looked up at the Nauvoo temple, and indeed did feel the spirit of that place, and so, so many people are so grateful for the work of of so many who makes those possible for us. Brother Boatright, is there a “backstage pass” you can share with us?
Gary Boatright Jr.: Well, just kind of building off of what Ben talked about with the research, and that, I’ve worked very closely with the site leaders and the missionaries, and there is not a single couple who's been called the service site leaders or a single missionary, whether they be senior couple missionary or young sisters, who I think aren't overwhelmed by a call to serve at a Church historic site. And when you think that they are called to share the history of these places, and rarely do we have a missionary who has a background in history, or in historical interpretation, or archaeology, and so it is really kind of a crash course and in history, one-on-one of how to first, to gain a knowledge of the history of these places, but also to share that history. And it is really inspiring to me to see how — for example, I was just in San Diego at the Mormon Battalion historic site, and being able to see young sisters who had just been called to serve. They just arrived a few months earlier, and they really only had two months of experience under their belt, but they were giving an amazing presentation. They were answering questions with clarity, with accuracy; but they were also testifying appropriately.
It confirms to me that the Lord is in charge. He continually sends the right people to the right places at the right times, and I think sometimes as members of the Church as we go visit these places, we tend to take these missionaries for granted sometimes. And I think if everyone could see how much work and effort and dedication a missionary puts into and in preparing a tour, I think members would have a greater appreciation not just for the historic site itself, but for those who have been called to serve there.
Sarah Jane Weaver: We were just at Carthage Jail when Elder Quentin L Cook dedicated the historic district of Nauvoo. While he was there, he visited Carthage Jail. The sister missionaries took the time to sing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” We have a video — we'll link to it from this podcast — but that was such a powerful experience to feel their testimonies through that song.
And we have a tradition at the Church News podcast. That tradition is that we always give our guests the last word and offer them the opportunity to share their own testimony of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And so today, I hope each of you will take a few minutes and answer the question that we have all of our guests answer at the Church News podcast and that is, “What do you know now?” and then share your testimony of what you've learned as you've worked with Church historic sites. And so Brother Boatright, let's start with you. What do you know now after your work with Church history and with Church historic sites and what has that taught you, and how has that strengthened your testimony of the Church?
Gary Boatright Jr.: Well, thank you for the opportunity to share. I've had the opportunity to work for the Church for 21 years now, and I still feel like the new guy in the group. But over the course of my career in the Church, and specifically in historic sites, I have really come to understand and know that the Lord is in charge. And as I study the history of the Church, and when you think of all the challenges that the early Saints faced and the things that the Prophet Joseph and others had to learn, we can look back and see how the Lord's hands were in the Restoration of the gospel. His hand was in the lives of Joseph and Emma and the other early Saints, but sometimes it's hard for us to recognize the Lord's hands today, and during the past 18 months with the pandemic, as historic sites closed and we sent all of our missionaries home, and we wondered, “What are we going to do to keep the missionaries who are there busy?” Virtual tours really blossomed, and all these other things happened. And it just, again, confirmed to me that the Lord is still in charge. The Lord wasn't just concerned about the early Saints, but He is concerned about us, the Latter-day Saints as well, and being able to visit these places, the sacred places where all these events that we read about in “Saints” and online and other places occurred, really has strengthened my faith and testimony as a member of the Church.
I think about all the experiences that I've been blessed with — to walk in the Sacred Grove, to stand in the Kirtland Temple, to be at the Whitney store, and all these other places. Nauvoo, Cove Fort, the handcart sites, these sites do stand as a witness of the great things that God has done in history, and specifically in the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. And I am so grateful for the opportunity and the technology that we now have to share these places with members of the Church and others around the world. We're hearing reports of how members of the Church in Africa, South America, the islands of the Pacific are being able to experience these and have that same Spirit testify to them of the truthfulness and the sacredness of these places and the events that occurred there. Just as I'm able to experience as I'm standing in the Sacred Grove, or the Whitney home, or wherever I'm at. And again, that just testifies to me that the Lord is in charge. The Lord wants to share these places, not with just those who can visit physically, but He wants to share them with the world and He's opening up the way to do that. And fortunately, we have been able to help with that, and listen to the promptings and listen to the Spirit. And the Lord has allowed us to make mistakes once in a while, and we've been able to learn and grow from those, but He continues to be in charge, and He will continue to be in charge.
Sarah Jane Weaver: Thank you so much for sharing that. Brother Pykles, what do you know now after your work with historic sites?
Benjamin Pykles: Thank you, Sarah. This has been a wonderful opportunity. And I would echo everything that Gary has said, was so beautifully stated. And maybe I would just add a few things. And that is, I think I know now better than ever before that the Restoration is ongoing. We study and work on these early sites of the Restoration, and some amazing things happen there, and God did amazing things for the world at these places. But we're seeing amazing things continue even now, and with President Nelson and the Apostles today, and the work is going forward. And like they've said, and we've heard them say time and time again, the Lord is hastening His work. We see that even in our small corner of the Church’s operations and historic sites. The Lord is hastening his work. He's preparing the world for His Second Coming, and we're thrilled that we get to share these places where it began, and where the early members of the Church lived in face and with the world.
And so another thing I've learned is — something that I've learned from colleagues that Gary and I work with who frequently refer to historic sites and the temples of the Church being the bookends of the Restoration, and what he means by that is that whereas the historic sites of the Church are the places where Heavenly Father restored His everlasting covenant to the earth in these last days, the holy temples of the Church are where that covenant and those covenants and ordinances are fully realized in the lives of members today. And I really appreciate that dualism because I think it helps us understand that, yes, just like temples are holy places of the Lord, these sacred historic sites are equally holy and they do play a significant role in the lives of Church members and those who are not yet Church members, because they carry that Spirit. They are places where the Holy Spirit, like we've talked about, can bear powerful witness to people's hearts and minds about the truthfulness and the reality of the Restoration of the gospel. It's an amazing thing that we can do that with those that can come in-person, and those that can't, but can still connect virtually.
One other thing I might share is that I'm reflecting on one of your earlier questions today, which was about why do these places matter to members of the Church around the world, and I was thinking about my own family. My parents were converts to the Church. I was born and raised in the Church, but my parents were not, so I don't have any pioneer ancestry. My origins in the Church just go back to my parents, just maybe 50 years ago. But nonetheless, even from the time I was a child, I felt a connection to these places into this history. It's our history. It's our collective history as Latter-day Saints, the things that took place here. And I would say it's not just limited to the Latter-day Saints, it's all of God's children. What He did at these places in restoring the fullness of the everlasting gospel to the earth is for all of his children, living and dead. So these are really, really important places, and we're just thrilled that we get the opportunity to participate in the work and share it with people all over the planet.
Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on thechurchnews.com.