In his dissertation, Mormon Meccas, Michael Madsen discusses the creation of “sacred space” by the institutional Church through its restoration of Mormon historical sites. He sees an increasingly top-down effort to anchor and root Mormonism to its history. Ambitious projects in and around Palmyra, Kirtland, and Nauvoo are taken to be evidence for this thesis.
Madsen and others have observed that Mormonism’s past is its theology. By nurturing the Saints’ historical memory and thus Mormonism’s theology and sense of identity, the Church historical sites create a sacred geography that can be shared by all members:
LDS Church leaders evidently feel that the Church needs more than just theology and history to maintain cohesion and unity, it needs a geography as well; sacred space that all Mormons–whether in Utah or Uganda–can feel a part of, thus rooting the religion in place. 
For Madsen the deliberate creation by the Church of Mormon Meccas has had one eye on the international Church, so that Saints in “Uganda” have inculcated within them a greater sense of where the Church came from, where they came from. The fact that such Saints will probably never visit Palmyra or Nauvoo is held as irrelevant; the creation of a sacred historical geography can be a symbol to be reverenced from afar, the Jerusalems of the diaspora Mormons.
Whilst I believe Madsen to have captured the meaning of the attempts by the Church to create sacred space through historical shrines in North America, its model of a top-down enterprise need not be taken as the only way Mormons can sacralize their history. Indeed, one important Mormon historical site–the Gadfield Elm chapel in England–is an interesting example of a local, bottom-up effort to create a Mormon Mecca. [Read more…]