While Church members generally commemorate each May the restoration of the priesthood, the precise location where John the Baptist appeared to Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in 1829 and conferred upon them the Aaronic Priesthood has remained somewhat nebulous — that is, until recently.
Researchers and historians have come closer to pinpointing the spot, to the point where the First Presidency has approved a concept for a Church historic site at the location near the Susquehanna River in what was once Harmony, a small township in Pennsylvania adjacent to its northeastern border with New York.
"We're moving ahead with detailed design drawings," said Steven L. Olsen, senior curator in the Church History Department.
Plans call for reconstruction of the homes where Joseph was living with his wife, Emma, and where Emma's parents, Isaac and Elizabeth Hale, were living on the Hale farm at the time of the priesthood restoration, Brother Olsen said. Joseph and Emma had purchased about 13 acres of the 90-acre farm, and archaeological investigation has identified the specific location, size and shape of their home.
A busy state highway that currently runs between the two homes and in effect divides the historic site in half will be re-routed. "We feel that is an essential step in not only making the site as safe as it can possibly be, but also as sacred as it can possibly be," Brother Olsen said.
Also to be constructed on the site is a combination meetinghouse and visitors center.
"The visitors center will serve as an orientation for all the visitors who come there," Brother Olsen said, "and we plan not only exhibits, but a film, kind of like we've done at Kirtland (Ohio) and the Hill Cumorah (in New York), to introduce the message of the site."
The historic site may serve to clarify in the minds of visitors where the priesthood restoration actually transpired. "For most of the 20th century, the Church believed that John the Baptist appeared on the banks of the Susquehanna," Brother Olsen observed. That was, perhaps, a reasonable conclusion, as Joseph recorded that immediately after receiving the priesthood, he and Oliver went into the river and baptized each other (see Joseph Smith — History 1:21).
"But in further study, both of historical evidence and environmental evidence — that is, evidence of the setting itself — we've determined that it was probably in the woods north of the two homes, up in what they call the sugar bush, or the sugar maple grove," he said.
That is some distance from the river, perhaps a hundred yards, Brother Olsen estimated. "The homes are on a direct line, probably 50 or 60 yards from the river, maybe more."
A reason for the conclusion, he said, is that Joseph and Oliver consistently described the spiritual experience as having occurred in the woods or the sugar bush. "They used those terms interchangeably. And second, there are remnants of that sugar bush still on site today."
In fact, the sugar maple grove will be restored as part of the historic site construction to give visitors a sense of where the visit of John the Baptist probably occurred.
On the other hand, there are no sugar maple trees down by the river, as such trees do not grow in the wet, sandy soil of the riverbank.
Another reason why researchers are fairly certain the appearance of John the Baptist didn't happen down by the river is that the Susquehanna often overflows its banks. "Eighteen twenty-nine was a particularly wet runoff year," Brother Olsen said. "The traditional banks of the Susquehanna were probably under 10 feet of water in mid-May."