«As a missionary in France and Belgium, I frequently encountered devout Catholics who would describe their journeys to Lourdes or Fatima. “Ah, oui! ...»
In Lieu of History:
and the Shaping of Memory
The farther I go the more certain I am that the path towards my object does
not exist. I have to invent the road with each step, and this means that I can
never be sure of where I am. A feeling of moving around in circles, of perpetual back-tracking, of going off in many directions at once. And even if I do
manage to make some progress, I am not at all convinced that it will take me to where I think I am going. Just because you wander in the desert, it does not mean there is a promised land. —Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude As a missionary in France and Belgium, I frequently encountered devout Catholics who would describe their journeys to Lourdes or Fatima. “Ah, oui! J’ai vu la grotte, la grotte où la Vierge s’est apparue à Bernadette! J’étais lá!” While these humble women, dressed in robin-egg-blue housecoats, could not bring home a piece of the cross, they could show me their holy water, rosary beads, or skinned knees, emblems of their devotion and commitment. Their pilgrimage was no trite tourist trip. They didn’t watch the spectacle with ironic detachment, rolling their eyes at the commodification of sacred space. Non! They walked on holy ground. I nodded and smiled. But I confess that the stories amused me. Holy water indeed.
Those fanciful narratives were a counterpoint to the dull sermons I heard preached in off-white cinder-block chapels as a child. Speakers would often disparage such pilgrimages, emphasizing the holiness that is available to all of us here and now. What these sermons expressed, with an almost uncanny echo of nineDIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, 43, no. 4 (Winter 2010) teenth-century nationalism, was the core American myth. Emerson himself would have nodded in agreement, for the advice I heard as I sat on my oak pew merely echoed the Transcendentalist’s observation that “the soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home.”2 We need not travel to Jerusalem and walk the paths of Jesus, gawking into empty tombs, imagining the voice of angels proclaim, “He is risen!” And we shouldn’t feel compelled to place our Nikes in the footsteps of our pioneer ancestors whose wagon wheels carved ruts through limestone in Wyoming. I eventually realized that these sermons were earnest attempts to create identity by emphasizing difference. Like seventeenth-century Puritans, Mormons like to separate themselves from Catholics and their “Popish rituals.” Ironically, this particular difference has dwindled in recent years as the LDS Church pours money into historical sites that serve as Mormon pilgrimage destinations. The development of these places encourages families to visit, take guided tours, serve missions, and read about these sites in the Ensign, the New Era, and the Friend. Perhaps those Catholics were on to something.
I recently took my own pilgrimage to New England, visiting not only nationalist monuments like the Freedom Trail, Lexington and Concord, and Plimoth Plantation, but also Sharon, Palmyra, and Fayette, the Ur-locations of Mormonism. Of course, I’m not the first to make this pilgrimage, even with academic lenses. LDS geographer Michael H. Madsen provides a useful history of these sites, noting that in 1880 the Church largely ignored the eastern sites and didn’t attempt to commemorate them during Mormonism’s fiftieth anniversary. But twenty years later, Joseph F. Smith began to reacquire key historical sites, ultimately deciding that they could be “potential proselytizing hubs.”3 Following the model of heritage tourism sites like Williamsburg, leaders like David O. McKay, Joseph Fielding Smith, Harold B. Lee, and Spencer W. Kimball became more aggressive in acquiring the sites. Madsen reminds us that these sites initially had historical value, not an inherent spiritual value. In fact, some leaders, Bruce R. McConkie in particular, resisted the idea of sacred places or shrines, insisting that the Sacred Grove, for example, “is not a shrine in the sense that many denominations have shrines, nor is Laga/Mormon Monuments and the Shaping of Memory there any sanctity now attached to the trees and the land there located. But it is a spot held sacred in the hearts of those who believe in the truth of salvation, because they glory in the transcendent event that took place there.”4 As Madsen summarizes, “Only the event that transpired there is sacred.”5 This attitude changed, and “by the end of the twentieth century,... this historical emphasis began to give way to a more spiritual interpretation of Mormon historical sites.”6 President Gordon B. Hinckley led the movement, investing enormous sums in acquiring and restoring land, homes, barns, stores, and other buildings. Also, “the post-1995 emphasis has definitely focused on members of the Church, deepening and strengthening their commitment to the Church through their personal spiritual experiences,”7 a change due to the fact that more members visit the sites than nonmembers.
During his site-visits, Madsen observed that the “rhetoric currently employed by the missionary guides at Mormon historical sites is a contributing factor in the sanctification of these places and... the missionaries often quote President Hinckley to authenticate the site’s holiness.”8 Madsen quotes one missionary who confirmed: “They’ve changed the focus of these sites from what happened here to what it means to us.”9 Madsen further notes that many claim that the building of LDS temples near these historical sites contributes to the sanctification of the landscape.
These Church sites are very different from, say, sites like Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, or Concord in that civil monuments are not only sites of veneration, but, as battlefield historian Edward Tabor Linenthal reminds us, sites of defilement and redefinition.
They are “civil spaces where Americans of various ideological persuasions come, not always reverently, to compete for the ownership of powerful national stories.”10 Linenthal insists that, “at a time in which Americans—often grudgingly and all too haltingly—recognize the strengths of cultural pluralism, no one can be allowed to win the struggle for exclusive ownership of these places. Indeed, no one should.” He asserts that Americans demonstrate their “ideological maturity” once they recognize that “there is more than one story to be told, and that these stories convey diverse, often conf licting interpretations of cherished patriotic orthodoxies.”11 As a result, the National Park Service, 134 DIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, 43, no. 4 (Winter 2010) among other organizations, often invites multiple interpretations, and Linenthal hopes that this clash of voices will be creative and more inclusive. For example, Native American voices respond to those who honor Custer, guardians of the Alamo contest with Tejano ancestors, and Pearl Harbor is both a cautionary tale and an opportunity for reconciliation. The combination testifies to the complexity of the sacred places.
In contrast, the orthodoxy of one official story is what the LDS Church seeks. Perhaps it’s a sign of immaturity and a rejection of pluralism, but the LDS historical and missionary departments use their sites to unify, define, and limit. One of the most important insights in Madsen’s work is his observation that the Church is “using the physical places in which Mormon history occurred to nurture the ‘geographic memory’ of Latter-day Saints, hoping to promote a common sense of identity among an increasingly diverse membership. Place does matter in establishing and maintaining a Mormon identity tied to a prophetic and sacrificial past, perhaps even more so for those Church members who have no familial link to that past.”12 An identity rooted in geography makes sense, for this nexus of texts, geography, and spirituality—all packaged within a Restoration framework—should resonate with Mormons, given the connection among spiritual visions, books in mountainsides, and nearby woods. There is no Mormonism without reference to the Sacred Grove, the Hill Cumorah, or the Susquehanna River.
What interests me is how the LDS Church seeks to harmonize the potential conf licts, limiting the number of narratives available to visitors. This article explores the ways the Church prevents visitors from gathering the information they collect at the sites into stories that are at odds with officially sanctioned stories. It also probes the paradoxes and contradictions, the dilemmas and problems, embedded in the Church’s constructions of its spiritual landscape. While I don’t deny that the Church “promotes Mormon historical sites as sacred places,”13 I’m also interested in the ways these sites construct Mormon identity by denying the very historicity of these sacred places: Place, it turns out, doesn’t really matter in the way we think it does.
Laga/Mormon Monuments and the Shaping of Memory Geography as Memory As my eighteen-year-old daughter and I visited the Grandin Press in Palmyra, Joseph’s boyhood home in Manchester, and the Peter Whitmer home in Fayette, what struck us is the fact that so little remains of the original structures. In a nod toward authenticity, workers used period tools to work bits of old and new materials to reconstruct from scratch the Joseph Smith log home.
Eighty-five percent of the frame house his brother Alvin began is a reconstruction. The Peter Whitmer home was rebuilt from scratch. The Grandin Press shell is largely intact, but the Church acquired property next door and built around the back to make room for a visitors center. Nearly all the items within the press are facsimiles. The displayed copies of Charlotte Temple, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Aesop’s Fables, for example, are full of blank paper. The same is largely true at other sites I’ve visited recently: The Liberty Jail, aside from a few stones found at the lowest level, is a replica.
Nothing remains at the Joseph Smith birthplace at Sharon, Vermont, beyond holes and the semblance of foundation stones. In short, the buildings—these structures where key spiritual events took place—are approximations and reconstructions. But there is nothing sinister about this, and the missionaries and guides do not hide the fact that we are looking at restorations and reconstructions. There is no deception here.
I ponder the significance of these pseudo-artifacts. While these simulacra may disappoint some visitors eager to walk where Joseph walked, I expect nothing more. As Plato insisted and as postmodern theorists, New Historicists, and anti-foundationalists of many stripes have reminded us, we do not have unmediated access to the past. Literary theorist Linda Hutcheon, among others, points out that we need not deny the existence of the past, but we should question whether we can ever know that past other than through its textualized remains. “Past events existed empirically,” Hutcheon insists, “but in epistemological terms we can only know them today through texts.”14 We not only learn of the past through incomplete representations (language and images being the most common, of course); but the narratives and reconstructions, no matter how helpful and informative, shape the meaning and significance of those events as well. Images of Joseph translatDIALOGUE: A JOURNAL OF MORMON THOUGHT, 43, no. 4 (Winter 2010) ing the Book of Mormon, finger running across the characters inscribed on the golden plate, plumed quill pen in hand, makes an extraordinary event almost homey and familiar, while an image of Joseph, face down in a hat peering at seer stones, unsettles us, casting the act of “translation” as bizarre and unseemly, even embarrassing. And there is no direct route. We cannot escape the “textual traces” and “mediators” that come between us and the empirical events and figures. Artists and historians become our docents.
And the missionaries certainly inserted themselves between us and the events. While we were keenly aware—told even—that we were staring at reconstructions, what I find interesting is the apparent disregard for this fact. As my daughter and I visited the second f loor of Joseph’s cabin, Sister North, a young sister in a white shirt and light-blue skirt (all names are pseudonyms) proclaimed, “It was right here that the Angel Moroni appeared to Joseph Smith four times in one night.” As we visited the Smith home in Palmyra, Sister South pointed to a facsimile of a toolbox and explained that Joseph hid the plates in it. She pointed to the reconstructed fireplace and explained that Joseph buried the plates beneath the hearthstones when a mob approached. Referring to the reconstructed shed, she explained that the plates had been hidden there, too.
As I stood in Smith home on that friendly summer afternoon, watching the missionaries use these physical objects like cue cards, I recognized a relationship between memory and a particular place. That our experience of the past is mediated is especially relevant when we discuss personal and cultural memory, for memory is the result of this filtering and shaping process, a connection that has its roots in classical oratory. Loci mnemonics uses the structure of a place—real or imaginary—to recall people, places, events, and speeches. In fact, the connection between our idea of “topics” and its Greek root “topoi” (or place) should be familiar to anyone who has ever taken freshman composition. Following the Roman tradition, loci is Latin for “place,” as in our “location,” and the mnemonic is based on a famous story in which the Greek poet Simonides was at a large dinner party.