Heritage Tourism and LDS Church History Tours
In addition to genealogy tourism, a similar travel niche is becoming increasingly popular. It is known as heritage tourism. LDS Church history tours are part of this specialty tourism segment. According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, heritage tourism involves “traveling to experience the places, artifacts and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past.” While similar, ancestral tourism involves visiting places significant in the lives of your ancestors (such as the old homestead, village, or cemetery). Heritage tourism, on the other hand, includes visits to places with cultural, religious or historical significance. Of course, religious travel has been occurring for centuries and we often refer to it as a “pilgrimage.”
Many religions attach spiritual significance to particular places. Usually these places include the place of birth or death of its founders or saints. Other places include locations of miraculous events or divine connection. For example, to followers of Islam a pilgrimage to Mecca is considered mandatory at least once in their lifetime. The Holy Land, with Jerusalem as its focal point, is a place of deep religious significance for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Visits to these places are often a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and leave a deep impression on the traveler.
Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, increasingly travel to sites with religious significance as well. Although they don’t typically refer to such travel as a “pilgrimage,” the purpose is very similar.
Some travel in their older years, but often they travel as families when their children are still young. Some travelers visit a single location. Others take a regional tour. The truly adventurous make the trip from upstate New York all the way to Utah. There are many ways to experience historical sites from the early days of the LDS Church. But first, let’s review some of the most popular locations visited on LDS Church history tours.
Popular LDS Church History Locations
Popular LDS Church history tour locations fall in to three major geographic areas. These are 1) New England and Ohio, 2) Midwestern States, and 3) the Rocky Mountains.
New England and Ohio
Mormonism’s founder, Joseph Smith, Jr. was born in Sharon, Vermont in 1805. The Church has a birthplace memorial near the farmhouse where he was born. In 1905 an obelisk monument Church leaders erected in honor of his life. Although he spent only a few years of his early life in Sharon, it is a place of deep significance to Latter-day Saints.
The Smith family struggled financially including failed attempts at farming and storekeeping. They moved around the area several times until 1811 when the family moved to upstate New York. In the small village of Palmyra, they tried their hand an farming once again. It is here that events dear to Latter-day Saints took place.
Palmyra, New York
In the Spring of 1820, at the tender age of 14, Joseph Smith there was a great religious revival in the area. Joseph was confused by the differences between churches that all claimed to be Christian. So young Joseph went to a wooded spot near his farm to pray. He records that as a response to his prayer that God the Father, and Jesus Christ appeared to him in vision. They told him that in time he would be an instrument to restore many truths that had been lost since Jesus Christ first established his Church.
This occurrence is known by Mormons as the “First Vision.” The special place where this took place is called “the Sacred Grove.” The LDS Church has restored several buildings on the property. This area is one of the most popular destinations on LDS Church history tours.
In addition to the Sacred Grove and the Smith farm, other sites are located in the area. For example, farmhouses of early and prominent Mormons like Martin Harris and Peter Whitmer are nearby. Lastly, a visit to the area would be incomplete without stopping at the Hill Cumorah and the Grandin Press. The latter being where the first copies of the Book of Mormon were published.
Each summer the Church produces a great outdoor pageant, called the Hill Cumorah Pageant. In fact, tens of thousands flock to Palmyra each July to view it. The Pageant recounts the delivery of sacred records – later known as the Book of Mormon – and the stories of the ancient american inhabitants chronicled there. The pinnacle of the pageant and the book is the portrayal of the visitation of the resurrected Christ to these people.
Another cluster of popular historic sites is found in the Midwestern states of Illinois, Missouri, and the border of Iowa and Nebraska.
The most popular destinations in this region are Nauvoo and Carthage, Illinois. Nauvoo was a gathering place for the early saints (as members of the LDS Church are called). The city was built out of the swampy land on the eastern bank of the Mississippi river. In just a few short years it became a thriving city. After being driven from Missouri, Mormons arrived in this area. Most members living in Ohio also relocated here.
The site is now an amazing attraction with dozens of restored buildings, visitors centers, and activities geared towards families. It is staffed mainly by volunteers in period dress which reenact life on the frontier in the early 1840s.
Down the road is the jail in Carthage, Illinois. On June 27, 1844, Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr. and his brother, Hyrum, were killed by a mob. This site is considered sacred and there is a special feeling when you visit. Guides explain the history of the building. They tell of the circumstances which led to Joseph being held in this jail to await trial. Afterwards, you walk upstairs to the bedroom where he and his friends stayed. Observe the bullet holes which are visible in the solid wood door. Hear a dramatization and see in your mind’s eye the horrific events that took place on that day. Here, in this room, Joseph and Hyrum were killed and others were wounded. Many consider this location a “must-see” for all LDS Church history tours.
Missouri is home to many destinations for LDS Church history tours as well. The most popular locations include:
- Independence, Missouri – designated as the “center place” of Zion and of Mormon settlements in Missouri
- Far West – location of the largest Mormon settlement in Missouri
- Liberty Jail – site where Joseph Smith was imprisoned for about 6 months in deplorable conditions and where many revelations were received and recorded.
- Haun’s Mill – location of a terrible massacre at the hands of vigilantes determined to drive the Mormons from the area.
- Adam-ondi-Ahman – revered by followers of Mormonism as the future site of a gathering where Jesus Christ will meet with Adam and his righteous prosperity
Council Bluffs, Iowa and modern-day Omaha, Nebraska, are two additional sites in the region. This area is commonly referred to as “Winter Quarters.” Following the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, persecutions continued to increase. In the winter of 1846-47 thousands of Mormons fled to Winter Quarters. Finally, leaders determined they must head west to the Rocky Mountains. They wintered in this location, then prepared for the trip westward to what would later become Salt Lake City, Utah.
There is a wonderful visitors center, and a pioneer cemetery where many were buried that winter. Because of its proximity to I-80, this is one of the easiest locations to visit for people interested in LDS Church history tours.
Visiting sites along the Mormon Pioneer Trail from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City can be more difficult. This is simply due to the distance that must be traveled. Many of these sites have little more than a historical marker to relate the events that took place there. Nonetheless, some intrepid travelers enjoy following in their footsteps across the plains and the mountains. About half of this journey follows I-80, but upon reaching Western Nebraska veers off to less traveled regions.
Two of the most popular destinations are Martin’s Cove in Wyoming and, of course, Salt Lake City itself.
Martin’s Cove, Wyoming
Martin’s Cove is the location of a dramatic rescue of two companies of beleaguered and starving handcart companies. The Martin and Willie handcart companies experienced tremendous hardship and loss of life in 1856. This tragic situation was the result of a combination of factors. Among these were a late start and an early winter. Rescuers from Salt Lake heard of their plight and sent relief to this location.
A visitor’s center helps travelers understand the events that transpired here. In addition, many youth groups come to re-enact the pioneer trek by pulling handcarts for 2-3 days.
Salt Lake City, Utah
Salt Lake City is home to world-class museums that tell the story of the early LDS Church. A visit to This is the Place Monument and State Park is a fun for the whole family. In addition, Temple Square and its surrounding museums receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Guided LDS Church History Tours
For members and non-members of the LDS Church, visits to these locations can be instructive and deeply moving. You can certainly plan your own travel to any one or several of these sites and have a wonderful trip. However, taking a guided trip can allow you to focus more on the experience and less on the logistics.
A leading provider of LDS Church history tours is Living Heritage Tours and tour guide Tom Pettit. Tom is a wonderful tour guide with great knowledge and personality. His unique focus is help people draw closer to the Savior and apply these historical lessons in their own life.
If you are considering LDS Church history tours I highly recommend Tom and Living Heritage Tours. There are even a few spots left for the ultimate ten-day tour October 3-13, 2016. On this tour, you will see sites in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois. If you need more time to plan then book your trip for 2017!
In addition Tom also leads several tours in the summer geared just towards older teenagers (16-18). These Youth Church history tours have become very popular. The young men and young women that participate have a great time. They better understand their heritage and gain strength for their own lives. Living Heritage Tours has 3 tour sessions scheduled for Summer of 2017, but they will fill up fast.
Share Your Experience
If you have been on LDS Church history tours please share your experience with us? What was your favorite destination and why?