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MORMON ROOTS GROW DEEP IN VERMONT

MARK E. RONDEAU
Staff Writer
 
From The Bennington Banner, June 20, 2008

SOUTH ROYALTON — Founded in America, Mormonism today is a global faith, with about 13 million members in 176 countries and territories, more than half of them outside the United States.

Just 4,236 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — as the church is formally known — were living in Vermont as of 2007.

But about a dozen of the first Mormon leaders were born in the Green Mountain State, including the two most influential. These were the founding prophet Joseph Smith Jr. and his successor as head of the church, Brigham Young.

Smith was born on Dec. 23, 1805, in a small house that straddles the boundary between Sharon and South Royalton, in east central Vermont, about 40 miles south of Montpelier. Sharon is traditionally given as his birthplace.

The hillside site is memorialized today with a visitors center, picnic grounds and a large memorial monument made of granite from the Barre quarry.

Working onarticles about Mormons in the Bennington area, I decided on Saturday to visit the birthplace of the man who started this global religious movement, now headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah. The Joseph Smith Memorial is about a 100-mile drive from Bennington.

One of the first things I noticed after getting out of my car was music from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir being piped into the outdoors at the well-manicured site. As I made my way to the memorial monument, an older man in a suit approached me, offering to lead me on a tour.

He was Gary McKinnon, a retired business professor at Brigham Young University, where for a time he headed the MBA program at the Marriott School of Business.

He is a missionary currently serving as the volunteer site director with his wife, Linda. Before coming to the Joseph Smith Memorial they served as missionaries for 16 months in New Bedford, Mass.

Some 45,000 people visit the memorial per year, 80 percent of them Mormons, McKinnon said.

The visitors' center offers a 70-minute film about Joseph Smith Jr. and the church. The rest of the center includes paintings and sculptures of Smith, the hearthstone from the house where he was born and a genealogy chart showing that Joseph Smith Jr. shared a common ancestor with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Richard M. Nixon and both presidents Bush. This was Henry Howland, who died in 1635.

Pointing out a recent metal sculpture of Smith, larger than life, McKinnon said, "He was a very handsome man with blue eyes, of all things, and stood 6-foot-1."

Joseph Smith Jr. lived the first decade of his life in Sharon and environs — his most formative years, McKinnon said.

Outside, the base of the granite monument weighs 60 tons. The shaft, 38.5 feet tall — one foot for every year of Joseph's Smith's life — weighs 40 tons and is one of the largest single pieces of flawless granite in the world. A railroad carried the granite 35 miles from Barre to Royalton, but transporting it the remaining 5.5 miles uphill to the site required 33 days and a colossal effort from men, horses and oxen.

Church officials dedicated the monument on Dec. 23, 1905, 100 years after Smith's birth.

A few paces away from the monument is the site where the Smith house sat. The actual foundation is now covered over with soil. A bench beneath a shady tree marks the spot, as do the original doorstep and a small model of the house atop a pole.

Smith's family moved from Vermont to Palmyra, N.Y., in 1816. This is where God the Father and Jesus Christ appeared to Smith in the early spring of 1820, when he was 14. This is commonly known as the First Vision.

Mormonism teaches that Smith was a prophet who received visions from God about how to restore the true and original Christian Church. Receiving revelations, gathering followers, kmoving westward and suffering persecution, Smith, along with his brother Hyrum, were killed by a mob in Carthage, Ill., in 1844. Smith's successor as head of the church was Brigham Young, the man who led the Latter-day Saints from persecution in the East to freedom in Utah.

Young was born in 1801 about 100 miles south of Sharon in the town of Whitingham, in Windham County, just east of Readsboro. He was the ninth of eleven children born to John and Abigail Young. John Young was from Hopkinton, Mass., and had served in the army during the Revolutionary War. When Brigham was 3, the family moved to central New York.

There are at least four simple public reminders in Whitingham that Young was born here. The most visible are the signs at the entrances of town along Route 100 noting that it is the birthplace of Brigham Young.

A state historical marker on Route 100 in the center of town provides more information:

"The leader of the Mormon Pioneers, Brigham Young was born up the steep hill to the south on June 1, 1801. He eventually led his people from Illinois to Utah where he founded Salt Lake City in 1847 and 500
communities throughout the West. Young became the first territorial governor of Utah and the second president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."

Set on the green grass of Town Hill Field back against a line of trees is the Brigham Young Monument, made of Vermont granite. The monument was erected by descendants of Young with the cooperation of
the Mormon church.

The monument identifies Young as a church leader, colonizer and statesman. It notes that a statue of him occupies a place in Statuary Hall in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.

George Albert Smith (1870-1951), the seventh president of the church, came to Whitingham in May 1950 for the unveiling of this monument.

As a boy, he had met Brigham Young in Salt Lake City.

Standing at the Young monument on a quiet Sunday morning in Whitingham, it was tempting to think that this is all ancient history. But memories from Saturday's visit to the Smith birthplace reminded me that this is still a dynamic faith on the move:

In fact, not far down the hill from the site of Smith's birth is a reminder of his global legacy: a large satellite dish.

In December 2005, then church president Gordon Hinckley came to the Joseph Smith Memorial and recorded a message on the 200th anniversary of the prophet's birth. It was broadcast by closed-circuit television to Mormons around the world.

While many religious groups use technology, Mormon outreach has a human component unmatched by any religious movement of which I am aware.

Before I left the Smith memorial, McKinnon introduced me to Michael Jensen, a lean and friendly attorney from Price, Utah.

Now serving as mission president for one of the 349 Mormon mission territories around the world, he is based in Bedford, N.H., and is working with his wife, Camille.

His territory includes parts of New York and New England, and there are currently 108 young men and 18 young women, ages 17 to 25, serving in his territory.

There are also 15 married couples serving, and they had come to the memorial on Sunday afternoon to join the Jensens for a social.
 
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Religion

Men on a Mission: Mormon Missionaries in Bennington


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Whitingham town sign at the eastern entrance on Route 100 notes that Whitingham is the birthplace of Brigham Young. (Whitingham photos Mark E. Rondeau)
 
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Sign in the center of quiet Whitingham tells the story of Brigham Young.

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The Brigham Young Monument in Whitingham.

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Close-up of the text on the monument.

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The Smith Memorial monument seen from a tree at the site of the actual house he was born in. (From vintageviews.org).