Pilgrimages, pageants celebrate Mormonism in its birthplace

Palmyra, N.Y., holds a place in the hearts of Joseph Smith's followers

January 15, 2001|By Winnie Hu | Winnie Hu,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PALMYRA, N.Y. - Many of the world's faithful make pilgrimages to Mecca. Others worship in the holy city of Jerusalem. And some even find their way here to a remote grove where a 14-year-old farm boy claimed to behold God and Christ in 1820.

That boy, Joseph Smith Jr., later founded the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and led an exodus westward that eventually settled Salt Lake City. Now, 180 years after that divine revelation, thousands of church members are trekking back to the Palmyra area, about 20 miles southeast of Rochester, to visit the birthplace of Mormonism.

Guided by faith and road maps, they arrive in cars and charter buses for a few hours, or a few days, of spiritual rejuvenation. They hike along freshly laid trails in the Sacred Grove, and step into the Smith family's re-created log home nearby. A restored printing shop shows where the Book of Mormon was first published, and a visitors center plays a recording of Christ's words in 20 languages including Hungarian, Finnish and Tahitian.

A new temple

A new temple overlooking the Sacred Grove draws so many Mormons that reservations are taken weeks in advance, and walk-ins often have to be turned away. Only church members in good standing - they must present a card - can enter the inner sanctuary. There are 100 Mormon temples around the world, but few have attracted as much attention.

"You come in the front door," said Margaret Fuqua, 66, who moved to Palmyra last year from Billings, Mont., with her husband to live near their grandchildren and the temple. "And you lay all your worldly cares aside. It's just such a spiritual feeling of peace and comfort, it feeds your soul."

The thriving Mormon community has transformed this rural town of 7,690 into a tourist destination. Though only a few hundred Mormons live in Palmyra, their faith is displayed everywhere. Shops on Main Street sell postcards, magnets, tote bags and other souvenirs of the Mormon temple. A busy intersection guarded by four mainline churches - Episcopal, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian - has a large blue sign pointing the way to the Mormon sites.

And Mormon tourists routinely fill the town's restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts (there are no hotels). They are easy to pick out, local residents say, by their dark suits and modest hemlines, polite manners and clean living; Mormons adhere to a strict moral code that prohibits gambling, smoking, alcohol, coffee and tea.

The town supervisor, David Lyon, who is a Methodist, welcomed guests to the Smith log home on a recent snowy night. "The town has worked closely with the Mormon church for years," he said. "It puts us on the map, and it gives the town an economic boost. It helps all the local businesses except the bars and smoke shop, but the rest are happy."

The farm boy who became the town's most famous resident was once one of its most scorned. In the early 1800s, Palmyra - named after an ancient city in Syria - was a stomping ground for preachers trying to win converts. It lay in a stretch of western New York known as the "burned-over district" because religious fires had passed through so many times.

As Mormons tell the story, Smith was agonizing over which church to join when God and Christ appeared to him in the grove. He was told to wait. And three years later, Smith was awakened one night by the angel Moroni and directed to a nearby hillside. There he unearthed gold plates containing the history of an ancient Israelite people who had been taught the ways of the true church by Christ after his resurrection.

Smith later translated part of the gold plates into the Book of Mormon, which is regarded by church members as a testament of Christ; the prophet Mormon himself was said to have engraved the plates. The first edition went on sale for $1.25 in 1830. It was so unpopular that most of the copies were simply given away.

Palmyra residents ridiculed the Book of Mormon as the "gold Bible" and accused Smith of being a fraud, or worse. Less than a year later, the Mormons headed west to settle in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois. But their unconventional beliefs and practices - including polygamy for a while - and their growing numbers were met with opposition and violence.

Murdered by a mob

Smith was murdered by a mob in 1844, and the Mormons split into several factions. The largest of these followed Brigham Young into the desert and built a religious and political stronghold that later became Salt Lake City.

Today, Mormonism has become one of the world's fastest-growing religious movements, with 11 million members. Nearly half of them live in the United States. In New York alone, the number of Mormons has increased by 51 percent in the last decade to 60,516, in no small part because of aggressive recruiting by church members.

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