President Russell M. Nelson announced in the October 2019 General Conference that the next conference in April will, “not only be memorable, it will be unforgettable.” Church members worldwide who are dealing with the impact of COVID-19 definitely agree, as the virus has sent much of the world’s population into self-imposed or mandatory quarantine.
As the leader of more than 16 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Nelson invited members to commemorate the bicentennial anniversary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision by encouraging them to, “prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.”
Following this announcement, hotels in Palmyra, New York, were booked out as members made travel plans to be present in the Sacred Grove and surrounding Church sites to participate in the historic General Conference. But due to the COVID-19, Church leaders announced the closure of all Church history sites as well as museums, libraries, chapels and temples until further notice.
While many had hoped to be physically present at these sites, the Church has provided updated resources online and in print to help members experience the power of the First Vision and the Restoration.
Historic sites interactive maps
This feature is found on the Church’s website and provides three main maps that cover various Church history sites in New York and Pennsylvania. The third map includes key locations like the Sacred Grove, Cooper Shop, Threshing Farm, Smith Family Frame Home, Smith Family Log Home, the Palmyra New York Temple and Welcome Center. Each location features photo slideshows along with brief synopses that provides an overview of the sites and their significance to Church history. There are also links to “learn more” in case visitors want a more in-depth reading about the locations.
The First Vision: Joseph Smith Papers Podcast
The Church History Department has sponsored a project called the “Joseph Smith Papers,” which includes six podcasts that explore the history and legacy of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
Kathy Muirhead, a senior missionary serving in the Palmyra historic sites mission, said the podcasts are a great resource for self-guided tours through the Sacred Grove.
“We’re telling people to bring their device, their headphones, open the podcast and listen to it while walking the grounds,” Muirhead said. “They can listen to what the First Vision could have really been like.” Though there are no tours available now, visitors can still walk around the outdoor areas including the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah site and monument.
The grounds of the Church’s Priesthood Restoration Site near Susquehanna Depot, Pennsylvania, are open to visitors, as are the banks of the Susquehanna River there.
Saints, Volumes 1-2 and podcasts
Saints is a narrative history of the Church that tells the stories of men and women who dedicated their lives to the restoration of the Gospel of Jesus Christ from the earliest days of the Church until now.
Palmyra Church Historic Sites Mission President Terry Joe Spallino suggests that readers specifically focus on the first 10 chapters of Volume 1, which go into the history of the Smith family, accounts of the First Vision and the organization of the Church.
A Saints podcast series presents discussions and new insights on the history of the Restoration. An episode is released each week featuring interviews with historians, General Authorities, writers, researchers and others involved with the ongoing project.
President Russell M. Nelson’s invitation to #HearHim
President Nelson released a series of invitations, inviting people to hear the voice of the Savior and follow His teachings. His most recent invitation focuses on sharing the message of the ongoing Restoration by encouraging members to read Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision and to ponder important questions.
“Select your own questions. Design your own plan. Act on any of these invitations to prepare yourself for sharing the important messages of the ongoing Restoration,” President Nelson said in his invitation. “As you seek Jesus Christ in these efforts, God will prepare you to receive further light.”
President Nelson emphasized that personal preparation will help April’s General Conference be unforgettable.
A time of adjustment and change
In Palmyra, President Spallino expected large numbers of visitors this spring — especially around the April General Conference.
“It’s a big disappointment, but there’s disruption everywhere in the world right now,” Spallino said.
The Church history sites in New York and Pennsylvania are largely supported by senior missionary couples who are assigned to give tours, maintain the sites and interact with visitors. When COVID-19 precautions were enforced, some senior missionary couples chose to return home. Those who stayed were instructed to keep their distance from visitors and discontinue tours.
Visitors, however, are still welcome to walk around the outdoor areas including the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah site and monument, the priesthood restoration site and banks of the Susquehanna River. Areas that are closed to the public are indoor structures like the Welcome Center, the Smith Log Home and the Smith Frame Home. While certain parts of the sites remain open, the number of visitors has dropped significantly in the past couple of weeks due to current circumstances.
“People are trying to heed instructions to not travel at this time,” Spallino said, “Normally we would be very welcoming to people coming, but we don’t want to encourage people to come right now.”
The Sacred Grove still stands
While the Church awaits reopening the sites to the public, Spallino has expressed gratitude for the time he spends watching over the Sacred Grove.
“We were in the grove this morning watching it transform as the spring comes to us,” Spallino said. “Buds will start opening up soon and blossoms will be out in the next week or so.”
Spallino said the closures are temporary and people will once again be able to visit the sacred sites.
“These sites have been here since long before Joseph Smith had his vision. The grove was preserved for a visit from the Father and His Son,” Spallino said. “It’s been there, it’s there now and it’ll be wonderful when people can come and enjoy it once again.”