Gerry Avant: President Benson’s visit to the Sacred Grove

During this year, the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision, much attention is being given to the place known as the Sacred Grove.

We know this place near Palmyra, New York, is one of the most significant sites in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Members just about everywhere have read about this place and seen photos and art illustrations of the grove. I consider myself fortunate to be among the tens of thousands who have been able to walk in the Sacred Grove more than once.

I went to the grove the first time to cover a visit by President Ezra Taft Benson to upstate New York Aug. 2-3, 1986. During his travels, the 13th prophet of this dispensation visited:

  • The Sacred Grove, where God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ appeared to the boy Joseph Smith in answer to his prayer.
  • The Hill Cumorah, where Joseph was directed to unearth the golden plates, the translation of which led to the publishing of the Book of Mormon.
  • The Peter Whitmer Farm near Fayette, New York, where a good portion of the Book of Mormon was translated and where, on April 6, 1830, the Church was organized.
President Ezra Taft Benson
President Ezra Taft Benson Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

In each historic site, President Benson was accompanied by his wife, Sister Flora Amussen Benson, and several members of their family. At each site, President Benson spoke of the Book of Mormon. He often repeated Joseph Smith’s declaration that the Book of Mormon is “the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book.”

For many years — and especially after he became president of the Church in 1985 — President Benson had spoken numerous times about the Book of Mormon. However, his words and message seemed to take on new fervency and, for his listeners, deeper meaning, as he spoke in settings so directly relating to the coming forth of the Book of Mormon.

One of the first things I noticed as we arrived at the Sacred Grove was how quiet it was, even though many people were already there. Some 200 missionaries and a dozen or more local Church leaders and their families were inside the grove awaiting President Benson’s arrival.

Frequent rains had fallen several days before, but that Saturday, Aug. 2, was sunny. The ground was slippery with mud, but the weather was pleasant, and a canopy of leafy branches shaded the grove.

Addressing the missionaries serving in the New York Rochester Mission as “brothers and sisters” and calling them “fellow workers in the greatest cause of the world,” President Benson spoke warmly and personably about the Book of Mormon and gave four keys to successful missionary work: Strive to obtain the Spirit, acquire humility, love others and work diligently.

He looked at the missionaries — young elders and sisters, middle-aged and older couples — and reminded them of where they were. “You’re here in the trees where the greatest demonstration of the power of God took place,” he declared.

“God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ appeared here. There is no other revelation in all the world that can compare in power with this, but this was just the beginning.”

He spoke further of young Joseph, “a prophet of God in the making,” who came to the grove “in the light of day, as a farm boy, and knelt on the ground … and asked God which church was true and got an answer … directly from the Lord, Who introduced His Son. God help us to realize the importance of our mission.”

The Sacred Grove
The Sacred Grove Credit: Church News archives

Sister Benson spoke of her love for missionary work being done throughout the world and expressed gratitude for the opportunity she had as a young woman to serve as a missionary in the Hawaiian Islands.

Flora Benson Parker, a granddaughter of President and Sister Benson, sang one of President Benson’s favorite hymns, “How Great Thou Art.”

Many visitors had gone to the grove, unaware that President Benson was in the area. “We were just walking around when we heard President Benson,” said Barbara Lawson of Indianapolis, Indiana. “We followed his voice. It was thrilling to come to the grove and find the prophet here.”

I could feel a bit of the awe Sister Lawson felt, although her discovery of the Church president in the grove was by happenstance and my presence there that day was by assignment to “follow the prophet.” Whenever I hear mention of the Sacred Grove, I’m reminded of my first visit to the place where the Restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ began.

During his travels, President Benson celebrated his 87th birthday on Aug. 4 during a visit with family members in the Washington, D.C., area. President Benson died on May 30, 1994, at age 94.