Pilgrimage Sites: Palmyra, NY

By now, pretty much everyone recognizes that church has begun to build up its sacred historical sites by dedicating temples, new visitor centers, and redesigning the experience visitors have. This has produced and encouraged increased pilgrimage by faithful members of the church who travel to these sites for special religious experiences. An industry has built up around these pilgrimage sites including hotels, bookstores, and replica relics. For an “aniconic” culture, we certainly have gone 180 degrees. Is the movement to materiality simply an inevitable development in the history of any particular religious movement? Is this particular development religiously neutral, an act of true piety, or a substitute for true spirituality?

While it is often assumed that Mormonism was aniconic (represented in its rejection of the cross), eschewing material spirituality because of its American Protestant background, the use of the Temple produces a certain tension in this theory. In the temple, a more sacred space is created. I think that it is the temple that has provided the impulse to sacralize Mormon historical sites. The birthplace of Joseph Smith, the Hill Cumorah, Kirtland, Independence, Nauvoo, Carthage, etc. all represent something of the sacred to Mormons. They are sacred history and sacred spaces. One can receive more firm answers to prayers in the temple, but also in these locations. Like invisible magnetic fields, they are places where the veil is thin, where this world and that world meet. As such, they will function in the same way as medieval pilgrimage sites.
Will the pilgrimage sites begin to be specialized in particular ways? Will those seeking healing travel to the banks of the Mississippi near Nauvoo? Will those seeking advice about marriage travel to where Joseph and Emma were married? Will the Susquehanna river become a sacred place to be baptized?

The kitsch-industry that has developed around these sites and experiences focalizes the theological question in important ways. This is still in its infant stages, but can we imagine street vendors selling statues of Joseph Smith and the Christus, vials of dirt from the Hill Cumorah or Sacred Grove, bullet necklaces in Carthage, mosquito medallions from Nauvoo, etc? How will these objects contribute to Mormon spirituality? How will they shape the Mormon home or the Mormon body?

The questions of describing the effect of these present and future practices of course leads to reflection on their religious value. Currently, my experience with many LDS that see Catholic, Orthodox, and some Jewish and Islamic material religiosity is that they see it as strange, even a symptom of false religion. I wonder if as these practices develop in Mormonism, what the response will be as the leaders and people are more self-reflective on our own material religion.

2 Replies to “Pilgrimage Sites: Palmyra, NY”

  1. Good questions. Prominently displayed on my book case is my brick from Old Nauvoo. Admit it…you have one too!

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