In Lieu of History: Mormon Monuments and the Shaping of Memory

By Laga, Barry | Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought, Winter 2010 | Go to article overview

In Lieu of History: Mormon Monuments and the Shaping of Memory


Laga, Barry, Dialogue : A Journal of Mormon Thought


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 Solitude1

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 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 amusedme. 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 nineteenth-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."2We 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 there any sanctity now attached to the trees and the land there located.

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