Audio for Episode 6, “Sacred Sites and Ongoing Restorations”
Spencer: Thinking back to where the story of the restoration of the priesthood began, it’s Harmony, Pennsylvania. Joseph and Emma left the Susquehanna River Valley in 1830. And before long, there was very little connection between the Latter-day Saints and that place.
However, the absence of Latter-day Saints in the area was not permanent. In time, they would return to this narrow valley to see for themselves the place where Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery worked tirelessly on the translation of the Book of Mormon. They would return to commemorate the restoration of the priesthood that occurred on that small farm one day in May 1829 while the rest of the world went about its regular business.
Today, the farm that once belonged to Joseph and Emma Smith is part of a historic site. How that site came to be and the ongoing significance of what happened there to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is what we are talking about in this episode.
This is The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast, and I’m your host, Spencer McBride.
Spencer: Episode 6: “Sacred Sites and Ongoing Restorations”
Spencer: How does a place of significance to Latter-day Saints become a historic site visited by tens of thousands of people each year? Well, it doesn’t usually happen overnight. And that was certainly the case with the Priesthood Restoration Site in Pennsylvania.
Mark: Not much happens toward the end of the nineteenth century.
Spencer: That’s Mark Staker, a curator with the Historic Sites Division of the Church History Department. He explains that in the early twentieth century the site of the Aaronic priesthood restoration received more visitors.
Mark: Over the next twenty to thirty years Latter-day Saints start visiting the site, usually as tourists. Missionaries stop, take pictures.
Spencer: But these visitors’ focus is not always on the restoration of the priesthood.
Mark: This is where Joseph Smith translated the Book of Mormon. The focus is on the Book of Mormon. There’s a great photograph where these elders are standing in front of the house put a little “x” on the room in the house where they think that the translation took place. And a sign is put up, saying, “Joseph Smith translated The Book of Mormon here.”
Spencer: Even though the primary focus of those visiting the site was the translation of the Book of Mormon, there were many who recognized the significance of the place in the history of the priesthood restoration.
Mark: An early photographer, George Edward Anderson, goes out toward the beginning of the twentieth century, in 1907, takes some pictures of the areas. And he takes a picture, actually a mile down from the Hale farm, a place called Red Rock, and says in the caption, “Joseph Smith received the Aaronic Priesthood on the banks of the Susquehanna River,” and that picture becomes iconic. And it helps shape our understanding of the events of priesthood restoration and of the location.
And so, from that point on, from about ten years after he took that picture, it’s published and people are thinking about that. From that point on, priesthood restoration starts to come into greater focus for Latter-day Saints and we start appreciating that more as an event and want to know more about the location where it took place.
Spencer: In the mid-twentieth century, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acquired the property with the help of a businessman and church member in Utah named Wilford Wood.
Mark: Wilford Wood is very interested in church history, collecting artifacts and collecting sites. He’s out buying property for these sites, wants to see them celebrated and understood. In 1948, he buys some of the property where Joseph and Emma Smith had lived and over the next few years he acquires much more of that property.
Spencer: That additional property included the home of Emma Smith’s parents, Isaac and Elizabeth Hale. Eventually, Wood gives all this collected property to the church. And this triggered a major shift in how visitors interpreted the site.
Mark: And immediately it shifts to priesthood restoration, largely because Wilford Wood sees that as the significant event of this location. The Book of Mormon doesn’t get as much attention. And from 1952 up to 1960, there’s a real focus on this as the place where the priesthood was restored. In 1960, sixty thousand Aaronic priesthood holders and their leaders contribute some money to erect a monument on the site.
Spencer: Mark explained to me that there were actually two monuments erected. One on Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, and the other, a relief sculpture at the priesthood restoration site. The Smith and Hale farms in Pennsylvania were dedicated as a historic site that same year. Then, in 2005, work got underway to more fully restore the historic site.
Mark: About 2005, major efforts developed to restore Joseph and Emma Smith’s home on that site and interpret the restoration of the priesthood more fully.
It’s officially the Priesthood Restoration Site in Pennsylvania. It does include a visitors’ center. It includes the Hale home and the Joseph and Emma Smith home, there are walking path where you can go and visit a location where the Aaronic priesthood was probably restored, or you can go down to the Susquehanna River where the baptisms took place. But we also interpret in that site the production of the Book of Mormon because most of the book was revealed there as well.
Spencer: In 2015, President Russell M. Nelson, then the president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, dedicated the updated historic site. A 2019 biography of President Nelson recorded his thoughts and feelings about that occasion. President Nelson said, “Of all the priesthood assignments I’ve received in my life, the opportunity to dedicate the Priesthood Restoration Site was perhaps the most important.”
In that dedicatory service, which was recorded, President Nelson explained what he saw as a key part of the significance of that place to Joseph Smith and the church.
[Audio from Dedicatory service 41:17–41:54]1: “Harmony provided Joseph with spiritual solitude and protection, allowing him to focus on the translation of the Book of Mormon. Through this period, the Lord tutored Joseph in his divine role as prophet, seer, and revelator. Receiving the priesthood empowered Joseph Smith to function fully as the Prophet of this last dispensation. Here he worked during a remarkable and formative season of translation, revelation, and restoration.”
Spencer: To President Nelson and so many other Latter-day Saints, the Priesthood Restoration Site does more than preserve the location of where the restoration of the priesthood started. It also preserves a place of learning and spiritual growth for Joseph Smith; a place that was essential to the events that would follow in his life.
Spencer: To better understand how the history of the restoration of the priesthood influences the way church members today think about priesthood, I spoke with Elder Dale G. Renlund. Elder Renlund is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. At the outset of our conversation, I asked Elder Renlund how the history of the restoration of the priesthood influences the that way he thinks about priesthood authority in the church today.
Elder Renlund: The restoration of the priesthood by heavenly messengers signifies that the priesthood that we have is not man-made. It isn’t derived from studying things out and then having an “aha” moment and then claiming the priesthood. It is from heaven, and so it’s been given to priesthood bearers on earth to then use. And because it came from heaven, it is not man-made, and it is pure and it’s powerful. But that leads to another point is that it’s delicate. We know that no power or influence can or ought to be exercised by virtue of the priesthood except using Christlike attributes. And so, it’s a very delicate power to use. Man can corrupt it, and if man does corrupt it by doing anything for self-gain, it shifts it from being real priesthood to being priestcraft. It’s delicate.
Spencer: As our conversation turned to the restoration of the priesthood as a process, specifically Joseph Smith’s understanding of the priesthood developing with time, experience, pondering, and revelation, Elder Renlund compared Joseph’s developing understanding to an account of the apostles in the New Testament. He referenced the story in Acts chapter 10 of Peter receiving the revelation to bring the gospel to the Gentiles. That revelation to Peter came in the form of a vision in which a great sheet was let down on the earth and upon it were all manner of different animals.
Elder Renlund: You think of when Peter had a vision of the tablecloth and the unclean food. He saw that vision clearly more than once. He didn’t quite get it until messengers from Cornelius and others, and as he shows up at Cornelius’s place, he finally understands the meaning of that. The complete meaning did not happen right away. It took time. Well, the same thing happens here is that we have things that are revealed that become clearer over time as to how the work should be done, so that it’s ongoing and that our understanding improves and we receive further light and knowledge—line upon line, precept on precept.
Spencer: And Elder Renlund explained that for church members today, revelation still often occurs as a process, including for the men who are called as prophets and apostles.
Elder Renlund: I know better than anyone else that you can be a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and not be perfect. I know that about me, and yet I know that receiving revelation continues to take work. I wasn’t, when called to the Twelve and ordained an apostle, I wasn’t given a hard wire to heaven. It still takes work to be inspired, it takes the studying it out and sorting it out and working it through.
Spencer: So, if the restoration of the gospel in the latter days occurred as a process, it’s natural to ask if that restoration continues today. Elder Renlund explains that it does.
Elder Renlund: The ongoing restoration, I think, has two parts. One is we need to realize that God has given to us on earth that portion of his power that’s necessary for the salvation of the human family. He has restored the priesthood. He has given all the keys to the Earth that we need to accomplish that task. That part of the restoration of the priesthood has been completed. But because he’s given that, it creates the foundation upon which further revelation can come. More revelation can come, and how it is then ordered, that part of the restoration continues. The reason it’s ongoing is that this is a living church, and it’s a living church, because it’s led by the Living Christ who’s intimately involved in what happens, and so that revelation will happen so that we engage more people, more individuals, in the work of salvation. So, all of the keys have been restored and they remain on earth. How it’s ordered, how it’s structured, continues because of the Savior’s intimate involvement in the ongoing work of salvation.
Spencer: So how do changes in the priesthood organization fit into this ongoing restoration? In talking about the changes to priesthood organization in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as well as more recent adjustments to the way priesthood holders are organized in their respective congregations, I asked Elder Renlund how such changes fit into this ongoing restoration.
Elder Renlund: This is not a willy-nilly process. For any adjustment to be made, it requires the unanimous voice of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve. That’s a high threshold. And as you mentioned things that have changed, I recall several times when the Spirit of the Lord rested on us all as a group and led us to unanimity. And when that came, when that was, it was so clear that it was being directed by the Lord Jesus Christ. But from the threshold of everyone being on the same page and everybody being in agreement—and it doesn’t happen by negotiation or compromise, it happens as the Spirit of the Lord works on all of us—we end up with the mind and will of the Lord. It’s not willy-nilly. It’s not negotiation, it is everyone coming at the question and seeking the Lord’s direction. So much of what’s happened is trying to help, I think, individual priesthood bearers become more outwardly directed and serve in the Savior’s way of being outwardly directed, and I think that’s part of what Heavenly Father wants, is he wants the organization that’s founded upon priesthood keys, priesthood principles, to bless all of his children, and He is very willing to modify the organization to have that happen.
Spencer: Near the end of our conversation about how the history of the priesthood restoration can influence the way that church members today understand the role of priesthood in their lives, I asked Elder Renlund what he hoped people got out of their study of this history.
Elder Renlund: I hope everyone gains clarity on what the priesthood is and its function. For too long, the power of the priesthood has only been taught to men in priesthood quorums. And yet, the sisters of the church have the same need to come to understand that the power of the priesthood applies to everyone who has received ordinances and made covenants with God. And, in fact, those who do not bear the priesthood by virtue of ordination, derive as great a blessing as do the priesthood bearers from the exercise of that priesthood. So, we know that the power of godliness is manifest in the ordinances of the priesthood. I think what that means is that those who have made covenants with God through priesthood authority, as they keep those covenants, the power of godliness is manifest in their lives.
Spencer: As we bring this episode—and the entire podcast miniseries—to a close, let’s take a moment to recall where we started, in 1829. Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery, aware of the shifting and competing views of priesthood in the religious culture of the day, were inspired by their translation of the Book of Mormon to ask God about the authority to baptize. In response to their prayer, an angelic John the Baptist appeared and conferred upon them priesthood power. And thus started the restoration of the priesthood.
Yet, as we have mentioned throughout the podcast, the restoration of the priesthood was more than a series of heavenly visitations—visitations that Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery recorded in revelations and histories. The priesthood restoration also included the introduction of temple ordinances; it included the development of Joseph Smith’s understanding of the role of priesthood in the church and in the lives of its members. And the process by which Joseph’s understanding of the priesthood expanded can be illuminating—and inspiring—to Latter-day Saints today.
Joseph’s question in 1829 was about priesthood as it pertained to baptism. And some of the earliest revelations he recorded on priesthood were about organizing the leadership of the church. But it wasn’t too long after the founding of the church in 1830 that Joseph’s teachings and the revelations that he published began to demonstrate an expanded view of priesthood. This view went beyond the ordination of men to priesthood offices. It went beyond ecclesiastical administration. Those things mattered, of course. But priesthood was about something more. In his teachings and revelations over time, it became clear that—as Joseph Smith understood it—the priesthood was about blessing the lives of all men and women, of enabling them to better understand God, and to bring the power of godliness more fully into their lives.
This has been The Priesthood Restored: A Joseph Smith Papers Podcast. I’m Spencer McBride. Thank you for listening.