Seeing the sites

I had some work in upstate New York and I used some frequent flyer miles to take my eleven year-old son. We stayed the weekend to visit, Niagra Falls, the Church Historic Sites and the Seneca Falls Historic Sites. He is a smart kid and we had a great time.

This is the time of year to do it. The weather wasn’t bad and there were so few people that we got private tours. I think that the Grandin Press is the most impressive of the historic sites. The historical narrative presented there is clearer and less refracted through the Missionary Department’s prism. Sure we got the same pitch as the other sites to suggest a friend to contact, and the decontextualized Moroni’s promise was a missed opportunity, but when the missionary asked my son if he had ever prayed to know that the Book of Mormon was true, and he responded that he didn’t need to—that he knew from what it said—I choked up as I told him that I didn’t need to either.

I also choked up at the Whitmer home when the missionary from Hong Kong mentioned Mary Whitmer’s witness of the plates and at the National Parks movie depicting the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention. Don’t get me wrong, the Smith Family Farm and Hill Cumorah are deeply meaningful to me. The narratives and details they share there simply aren’t the ones most poignant to me. Still, I enjoyed walking through the homes and the deserted forest paths with my son.

Perhaps the most surprising moment of the trip was the Hill Cumorah Visiter’s Center. The missionaries were very gracious. At the end of the brief tour, we were escorted to a circular room focused on a Christus Statue. The missionary indicated that it was different from other visitor center Christus statues in that it was backed by a mural of a forest, invoking Joseph Smith’s boyhood vision. I immediately noticed, however, that there was another important difference. While I thought that Ed Blume’s comments describing the Mormon use of the Christus as a tool of white supremacy to be sort of ridiculous (see Turner’s measured response here), the American Jesus that met me in Palmyra was a little startling (I guess I just prefer the Scandinavian Lutheran Jesus). Someone apparently thought that defacing (literally) Thorvaldsen’s original was a good idea.

Palmyra Christus

Regular Christus

I’m grateful to be Mormon, and to have a shared history with my people. I recommend the historic sites to everyone, and my hope is similar to that of the Missionary Department: that it kindles a desire to know more.


  1. Thorvaldsen’s original is truly a masterpiece. I’ve not seen the Palmyra Christus in person. In fact, your picture is the first time I’ve seen it. For me it is powerful in that it shows a very happy Savior. On that day in the the woods, I think it’s safe to say the Lord would have been wearing a big smile.

  2. The Grandin Press is probably my favorite of the New York sites.

  3. That sounds like such a lovely trip to share with your son!

    The contrast between the Palmyra Christus and the original Thorvaldsen Christus is a little unsettling to me. I can’t help but think of the “Buddy Christ” from the movie Dogma. The Lord’s message to Joseph in the Sacred Grove was one of hope, but also of condemnation of current religious leaders, that “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” So I don’t know that he would have been wearing a big smile the entire time. I do like that our theology and iconography emphasize Christ’s love to a greater extent than His suffering.

    In addition to the difference in facial expression, the difference in where he is looking is also interesting to me. The original is looking down at us (with compassion, I like to think), while the Palmyra Christus appears to be looking straight ahead, as if at someone who is more or less at eye-level. I need to think more about why and whether I might prefer one to the other.

  4. @ Carole
    Looking up vs down . . . interesting. Eye to eye would be nice (ie – confidence before God [D&C 121:45]). But given that ‘every knee will bow’, I suspect your anticipation of looking up at the Lord is fitting.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    I was interested in the whole Christus angle. I hadn’t heard the white supremacism take on the Christus before. The color of Jesus is a big deal right now, and it’s a subject that needs work in the Mormon context to be sure, but throwing around the specter of white supremacism vis-a-vis the Christus is hardly helpful. I agree with Turner that Mormon adoption of Thorvaldsen’s Christus is rather an expression of the Church’s aspirational “Christianess.” To me the white medium is less a statement about race than it is classicism, something else the Church aspires to. It’s like all those white marble temples in Greece and Rome (which originally were painted garish colors, but now that the paint is gone we tend to associate the pure white of those buildings and statues with classicism). I think seeing the whiteness of the statue as an expression of white supremacism is a pretty bad misreading.

    All of that said, I want to know what idiot signed off on this defacement of the Thorvaldsen classic. Look Missionary Department or whoever, if you don’t want a reproduction but something different, like a smiling Kentucky backwoods Jesus, then by gum actually produce something artistically different, don’t mess with a classic. That is the aspect of this that I find truly offensive.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Smiling Kentucky backwoods, FTW.

  7. john willis says:

    did you go to the Susan B. Anthony house in Rochester??? The first thing you see when you into the house ia dress the Releif Societies of Utah made for Ms. Anthony out of silk they had grown themselves. (See Daughters in my Kingdom for a description of the Relief Society Silk growning program)

  8. Thanks for this, J.

  9. It’s been about seven years since I was at that visitors center but I remember that the representation of the woods in the mural (just a bit is shown in the picture here) was so strange that I didn’t even notice the statue. (I seriously sat there wondering if that was supposed to be a stand of oaks or beeches, and if so, why they looked like that.)

    My family also went during a quiet time of the year, and it was such a beautiful experience that we’ve never wanted to battle the crowds and go back during the pageant.

    And I must say, I am a big fan of anyone who takes a break from the church history sites (lovely as they are) to visit the historical sites in Seneca Falls. That was an enjoyable part of the trip as well.

  10. Well, as we know, the Savior is Mormon. And Mormons always smile because they never suffer because they are not wicked. Also, they do not contemplate. What they do is go about smiling and doing good. Hallelujah smiling Jesus.

  11. We live about 2 hours from Palmyra and have been to the various sites a few times. I think we take them a bit for granted now. I have seen that Christus inumerable times and never noticed the difference from the original. Not too observant I guess. I do know that it is extremely impressive viewed from the road after dark!

  12. Enjoy Grandin as well. The approach at Cumorah is nicely done. We were recently there in the off season as well (mid-April).

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