PALMYRA, NEW YORK
In an unassuming pastoral setting between today's New York Thruway and Highway 31 near Rochester, N.Y., stands a collection of some of the most important sites in Church history.
Here, the Restoration of the gospel began. Here, in 1820, the boy Joseph Smith offered a personal prayer and was answered with a vision of the Father and the Son in a quiet grove of trees now visited by Latter-day Saints from around the world. Here, Angel Moroni gave him the record of an ancient civilization, inscribed on gold plates and hidden up in a hill. The young Prophet's translation would become known as The Book of Mormon, Another Testament of Jesus Christ, and its reach would extend throughout the earth.
The Church has a relatively quiet yet substantial presence in the area. The Palmyra New York Temple was dedicated on April 6, 2000, by President Gordon B. Hinckley and a new visitors' center built at the foot of Hill Cumorah was dedicated in 2002. An art glass depiction of Angel Moroni giving Joseph the plates highlights the center.
Elder Stephen C. Lenker and his wife, Sister Nancy R. Lenker, began a two-year mission early this year as directors of the Hill Cumorah Visitors Center and historic sites, which include the Joseph Smith Family Farm, the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah and the Book of Mormon Historic Publication Site in the Palmyra area. Also included is the Peter Whitmer Farm, 27 miles away near Fayette, where the Church was organized on April 6, 1830.
Elder Lenker supervises 17 senior couples and 12 companionships of young sister missionaries from the New York Rochester Mission who rotate between the visitors center and historic sites. Last year, they hosted 145,000 visitors to the Palmyra area, the bulk of them during the Hill Cumorah Pageant in July.
Elder Lenker said the Smith Family Farm where the Restoration began seems to be the top destination for all visitors. The Sacred Grove is open 24 hours a day, and the road to the top of the Hill Cumorah is open daily from dawn to dusk. Tours of the reconstructed Smith family log cabin and the original frame home they later built farther down the road begin at the Smith Farm Welcome Center. (Fewer people make the half-hour drive to the Peter Whitmer farm, which features a typical log home.)
Regardless, "The vast majority remark about the spirit they feel, not just at the visitors center, but at all the historic sites," he said.
Elder Lenker enjoys "all the people we get from all over the world," along with local members who come by after Church on Sunday afternoons and many who are not members of the Church, as well.
The farm and hill, about a 30-minute drive from their home, are favorite places for Jeff and Sharleen P. Campbell to take their six children, ages 8-16. Of course, they give first-time guests "the grand tour," said Sister Campbell. But having lived in the Rochester area for 20 years, they've built family traditions around the historic sites.
A typical afternoon visit goes like this: After a stop at the large-timbered barn across from the original frame home on Stafford Road, they take one of the paths through the Sacred Grove. Next is a drive to the top of the Hill Cumorah, where the kids and Dad head down the grassy hillside. Mom meets them again at the visitors center, where they watch films and use interactive exhibits. Sister Campbell said the large circular table where copies of the Book of Mormon are displayed in many languages is a favorite place for the kids to browse.
On Sundays when general conference is viewed in the Palmyra Stake Center across the road from the temple, the Campbells and many other local families take a picnic lunch to the top of the hill afterward and walk through the gardens around the statue of Angel Moroni.
Sister Campbell related a memorable experience her family had a few years ago as darkness fell. Sites were closed and missionaries absent.
"It was a moonless night that we stopped at the frame house — not a rebuilt one or a replica, but the real house the Smiths lived in." They talked with their children about the movie they'd just seen at the visitors center, especially the scene showing the Smith children banging on pots and pans to make a mob think there were more people in the house than there actually were.
"We'd been to that place many times, but this time, all by ourselves in the dark, I think our children felt something of what the Smith family had felt," Sister Campbell explained. "They realized for the first time that Joseph Smith's family really lived here. It really did happen here."
The Campbells have been spectators at the pageant for years, but this summer, for the first time, their family is participating as cast members.
Bob Parrott, a neighbor who, though not a member of the Church, has taken care of the Sacred Grove for a decade, joked that he thought "every single Mormon has been to the pageant," judging by the traffic on his road that runs past the farm. He said that he himself has seen it "more times than most Mormons have" and has felt its "wonderful spirit."
On Main Street in the nearby village of Palmyra stands a red brick building on the site where the first copies of the Book of Mormon came off the press in March 1830, published by E. B. Grandin. Missionaries guide visitors through exhibits explaining the place and the printing process while adding their testimonies of the Book of Mormon.
Although Sister Andrea Arellano, from Montreal, Canada, had often visited the Palmyra area with her family, the place has different meaning for her as a missionary, she said.
"The Spirit can be felt anywhere at these sites," she said, "but there's something special about the farm, book-ended by the Hill Cumorah and the temple."
Standing in the upstairs bedroom of the replica log cabin where she tells of the visitation of the Angel Moroni to the young Prophet, she said, "I know [the cabin's] a replica, but the feeling I get every time I come here is that Joseph Smith wasn't just a man. He was a prophet."