The last major historic site of the Restoration to be developed by the Church will be open to visitors in about a year from now. It’s the location at which the resurrected John the Baptist visited the Prophet Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery in May 1829 and conferred upon them the Aaronic Priesthood, by which authority they immediately baptized each other.
The Melchizedek Priesthood Restoration, under the hands of the resurrected apostles Peter, James and John is believed to have occurred later in the same vicinity.
The Priesthood Restoration Site is located in present-day Oakland Township, Pennsylvania, which in 1829 was called Harmony, the name by which it is identified in Church History and scripture (see, for example, the headers to sections 3-13 and 24-27 of the Doctrine and Covenants).
Included at the site will be the reconstructed log cabin in which Joseph and Emma Smith were living and the adjacent frame home of Emma’s parents, Isaac and Elizabeth Hale; a combination visitors’ center and Church meetinghouse; the “sugar maple bush” where historians now believe the visitation from John the Baptist occurred and the Susquehanna River, where Joseph and Oliver subsequently baptized each other.
A 22-minute narrative film depicting the events in Harmony is under production, with scenes shot partly on location but largely at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo. There, news media representatives were invited Sept. 29 to watch a scene being filmed on a sound stage and to get something of a progress report from the managing directors of the Church’s Missionary and Church History Departments.
“This new site is extremely important from our standpoint,” said Stephen B. Allen of the Missionary Department. “All of the other major sites of the Restoration — the Sacred Grove, the sites around Palmyra, Kirtland and Nauvoo — have been restored. But the Priesthood Restoration Site is now under development.”
Reid Neilson, Church History Department managing director, said this is perhaps the most geographically challenging and complex of any of the Church’s historic sites.
For one thing, State Highway 171, a major thoroughfare, passes between the Hale and Smith homes, which are now being constructed on site, as does a railroad.
To alleviate the problem, he said, the Church obtained approval for the highway to be re-routed away from the homes.
When the site is finished and opens in late summer or early fall next year, visitors will come to the center where they will view the film. An underpass beneath the highway will allow visitor access to the “historic district,” where the two homes are located, as is the sugar maple grove, where John the Baptist came.
Finally, visitors will be able to make their way down to the bank of the river and see where the first baptisms by authority in this dispensation took place.
“There are three major messages that we’re trying to address at the Priesthood Restoration Site,” Brother Neilson said. “The first is the Book of Mormon translation. The majority of the book, after the 116 pages were lost, was actually translated in Harmony. It was here that he grew into his role as a seer and as a prophet.”
The second message, he said, is that some of the earliest and most beloved revelations of the Restoration, now recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants were received in Harmony, Pennsylvania.
The third message is the priesthood restoration itself. Brother Neilson said research, some of it supported by the Joseph Smith Papers Project, brought about a change in the traditional understanding of the events pertaining to it, as often portrayed in Church artwork and narratives over the years.
Previously, it was believed the angel John the Baptist came to the two men on the riverbank, followed immediately by the baptisms. Now, historians have concluded the visitation happened on the hillside near the homes in the sugar maple bush, a grove where sap was tapped for making syrup.
“That will be news to many people,” Brother Allen remarked. He added, “I walked that grove this summer, just before we started building the visitors’ center, and I can tell you this site is every bit as pristine and beautiful — and has a spirit about it — as the Sacred Grove.”
The film, which has the working title “Days Never to be Forgotten,” is being directed by prominent LDS filmmaker T. C. Christensen, who directed the handcart-trek dramas “17 Miracles” and “Ephraim’s Rescue.” It will be told from the standpoint of Oliver Cowdery, who approached Joseph Smith after hearing of his remarkable visions and was immediately engaged as scribe to the Prophet in the translation of the Book of Mormon.
One of the scenes shot in Pennsylvania was in the Susquehanna River, where the actors portraying Joseph and Oliver depict the two men baptizing each other.
Scenes shot in Provo are on sets constructed in a sound stage and on the studio back lot, where the Smith and Hale homes have been replicated.