Sacred Space – Sacred places in Mormon history
The Sacred Grove
In 1820, Joseph Smith was a 14 year old boy living in upstate New York, near the town of Palmyra (not far from Niagara Falls). Joseph recalled that at the time, a religious revival was happening there, in what was then known as the “Burned-over District,” because of the plethora of revival meetings staged there. Joseph was caught up in the fervor, seeking to find a religion that seemed right to him. However, as a young man, he was conflicted by the differences and contentions between the various churches. After several months of study and listening, he determined that he would have to pray to God for the wisdom to know which church to join (James 1:5-6).
Joseph chose a solitary grove of trees to ask God in prayer. In his 1838 account of the event, Joseph notes:
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.
Crying ever harder to the Lord, Joseph was delivered from the grasp of the Adversary.
…just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith – History 1:15-17).
In previous articles, I’ve shown where some ancient prophets, such as Lehi, began their vision in a dark and dreary place, only to be delivered from it after prayer. Isaiah 6 suggests the prophet is in distress, as he realizes he is before God in his Holy of Holies, but is unclean. In his cry of despair, he is delivered by an angel that cleanses him with a coal from the sacred incense fire. Once delivered, these prophets were ready to speak with God and/or His angels in the sacred space.
For Joseph Smith, the moment brings him out of Satan’s grasp and into the presence of God and Jesus. In the discussion that follows, Joseph is led to understand that a great work is about to come forth, and he would have a role in that work. Joseph joined a divine council of the Father and Son in beginning the prophetic work in this last dispensation.
The Hill Cumorah
At 17 years of age, Joseph again communed with the heavens, seeking his status and purpose with God. In answer to his prayer, he received several visitations from the angel Moroni, a resurrected being who was an ancient prophet in the Americas. Moroni spoke of a sacred record, which he and his father Mormon abridged, of the sacred events and teachings of their people. This record was hidden in the Hill Cumorah, and Joseph would be the instrument through whom God would translate it.
Having seen the location in a vision, Joseph was able to walk directly to the spot. However, Joseph did not immediately obtain the record. Moroni would spend the next four years teaching and preparing Joseph on the hill Cumorah for the task of translation. When Joseph did get the record, with the assistance of a scribe, Joseph completed the work of translating the 500+ page Book of Mormon into English in about 60 working days.
As we’ve seen in the previous articles, John the Revelator, Isaiah (Ascension of Isaiah), Ezekiel, Lehi and Nephi each received a book from angels, beginning their important prophetic mission.
The Susquehanna River
As the translation of the Book of Mormon proceeded through the spring of 1829, Joseph and his scribe, Oliver Cowdery read of the importance of baptism and priesthood authority. On at least two occasions, the two of them knelt along the banks of the Susquehanna River for direction from the Lord.
In the first occasion, John the Baptist descended as an angel and bestowed upon them the authority to baptize. He invited them into his council of angelic priests with that authority. He then directed Joseph and Oliver to baptize one another. In coming out of the water, both were filled with the Spirit and prophesied. As in the previous discussion of baptism in the Book of Mormon, the ordinance and covenant made connected Joseph and Oliver to important ancient temple themes: ritual cleansing of the priests prior to performing their sacred work, a covenant not only of individuals with God, but of the community.
A few weeks later, Joseph and Oliver were again praying in the same sacred spot. This time, Peter, James and John, Christ’s original apostles, came down and ordained them into the apostleship, allowing the two to again join a divine angelic council.
Other Sacred Spaces
Until the construction and use of the temples in Kirtland and Nauvoo, most of Joseph’s key revelations occurred in a variety of locations that became sacred spaces.
The Newell K. Whitney store in Kirtland, Ohio, became the place for about 17 of Joseph’s revelations. Whitney cleaned the upstairs of his store for use by the Prophet’s family. Rooms were also used to instruction. There was one secluded room in particular, where most of the revelations were given. These revelations include: Doctrine and Covenants 84, where the Lord directed the construction of the Kirtland Temple and taught concerning the priesthood; D&C 87 a prophecy on future wars; D&C 88 the “Olive Leaf,” which discusses key temple concepts; and the Word of Wisdom containing the health code Mormons live by (Doctrine and Covenants 89).
In 1838, Joseph Smith and others were arrested and placed in a dungeon, ironically called, “Liberty Jail”. This jail is known as the “prison temple” for the three major revelations Joseph received (D&C 121-123). In these revelations, the Lord explained to Joseph why he and the Mormons were being persecuted, killed, and driven by mobs and state governments from place to place.
“The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee; While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand….And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good. The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” (D&C 122)
In today’s (2012) “Mormon Moment,” we can see that the earth is now inquiring after Joseph Smith and his religion, if for no other reason than to see the curiosity that it is. To this day, Joseph Smith is held in high esteem by some, and in derision by many.
The Lord also revealed to Joseph concerning the promises of the faithful, and why some people fall away from the truth of the Lord.
Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson— That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness (D&C 121:34-36).
The Lord explained that those faithful to their priesthood would experience the following great blessings:
Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth; and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever (D&C 121:45-46).
Here we see that the righteous who are “full of charity” shall be confident “in the presence of God”, which is a key concept in this discussion of sacred spaces. The “doctrine of the priesthood,” which is God’s power and authority will come down as power from heaven to the individual. The Holy Ghost, a member of the Godhead, becomes a companion for the righteous person (bringing us into the presence of a member of the Trinity). Finally, as noted in previous articles, the person receives a crown/scepter in order to rule under the guidance of God and Christ.
Article was written by Gerald Smith