Reaching out to God in our own sacred places

“It was the trip of a lifetime!” the sacrament meeting speaker declared as she described a spur-of-the-moment trip she and her family had taken to the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York.

That phrase has stayed with me. When I was 19, I visited the Sacred Grove as a student in the now-defunct BYU Nauvoo program. Although I had spent three months living in Nauvoo and studying early Church History, my adolescent doubts still lingered. Finishing the Book of Mormon for the first time as we arrived at the Sacred Grove, I intended to find a secluded place to pray as Joseph had and Moroni exhorted.

The night before we arrived, however, a massive storm blanketed the region in a thick layer of ice, breaking limbs off many of the still-leafless trees in the grove. Strewn with the debris, safety concerns had closed many of the paths. Our large group was confined to a relatively small area. Seclusion was not an option.

Still, on a small bench shoulder-to-shoulder with several classmates, I offered a silent prayer. In that place where one teenager met the Father and the Son, another found comfort, forgiveness and assurance. “You know these things are true,” the Spirit whispered to me that day. “You cannot doubt them.”

That day changed the course of my life. I now work as a professional historian and archaeologist with the Church History Department. I have been blessed to visit the Sacred Grove many times. I’ve walked the wooded paths sharing devotional messages and participated in professional assessments with the forestry manager. I’ve wandered those paths in the early morning — with birds chirping — as the day warmed, and in the late evening — with bugs buzzing — as the day faded. 

In many ways, I’ve taken those opportunities for granted. Most Latter-day Saints will never have the opportunity to visit Palmyra and walk in the Sacred Grove. Yet many have, in their own secluded places, reached out to God and learned the same simple truth Joseph did two centuries ago: God answers sincere prayer. 

For the past four years, I have led a team of missionaries and staff from the Church History Department in writing Global Histories, a series of short histories of Latter-day Saints living devoted lives throughout the world (see globalhistories.ChurchofJesusChrist.org). I have read and listened to the stories of thousands of Latter-day Saints. I’ve cried through their grief, exulted in their triumphs and marveled at their dedication.

Almost without fail, these stories include a powerful account of the circumstances that led to and the moment when these faithful Saints first experienced an answer to their prayers. Across differences in culture, political philosophy, education and socioeconomic opportunity, people throughout the world have reached out to God, longing for His love and peace, and received the answers to their prayers.

The Global Histories are filled with examples of God, in His infinite wisdom, providing answers adapted to individuals so they might “Hear Him.”

For example, in 1960, after years of attending many churches near his home in Recife, Brazil, Milton Soares had become skeptical of religion. He initially felt nothing when he prayed about the message the missionaries shared with him; however, days later while reading a business leadership book, the Spirit testified to Milton that what the missionaries taught was true.

Rafael and Teresa Tabango on the cover of the Church News, March 4, 1972.
Rafael and Teresa Tabango on the cover of the Church News, March 4, 1972. Credit: Intellectual Reserve, Inc.

The experience of Rafael Tabango, a Quichua man living near Otavalo, Ecuador, in 1968, was quite different. When the missionaries asked Rafael to read the Book of Mormon, he worried that his limited Spanish would prevent him from understanding. In answer to his prayer, the angel Moroni appeared to him in a dream and read portions of the Book of Mormon in his native language; a language the book had not yet been translated into.

For Olga Kovářová, who was a university student in Brno, Czechoslovakia, in 1983 when she first read the Book of Mormon, it was her own whispered affirmation that “God lives!” which allowed her to feel as His love filled her entire body.

In Nigeria, when Esohe Ikponmwen, a magistrate in Edo State, first encountered the restored gospel, she used her legal training to analyze the Church’s teaching. It was not until she added prayer to her search, however, that she received confirmation of the truth of what she was studying. 

After the people who listened to Alma’s preaching in the “forest of Mormon” were baptized, the Book of Mormon records that the place was beautiful “to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer” (Mosiah 18:30).

"Alma Baptizes in Waters of Mormon" by Minerva Teichert
“Alma Baptizes in Waters of Mormon” by Minerva Teichert Credit: Courtesy BYU/MOA

Although you may never walk in the Sacred Grove, you can, like so many Saints have done, reach out to God and in your own way and places — your bedroom, your closet, or shoulder-to-shoulder in a crowd — feel as He extends His loving hand to you.

— Ryan W. Saltzgiver is a global history specialist in the Church History Department.