Sometimes Less Is More


My family moved to DeKalb, Illinois, where I would grow up, when my father got a job at Northern Illinois University as a professor of education. That was in 1965, and I was six about to turn seven. Every year for vacation we would drive to Layton to visit my maternal grandparents and other relatives.

My dad was interested in history, and so every year as part of our vacation trips west we would make a detour and spend a couple of days in Nauvoo and Carthage (we would stay at the Prairie Winds motel between the two towns). So I have visited Nauvoo dozens of times in my life, starting when I was a young boy and Nauvoo Restoration Inc. was just getting started (it was incorporated in 1962).

I remember one year, when I was about ten, we got a personal tour with T. Edgar Lyon, whom my dad had taken classes with at the University of Utah Institute. Even as a young boy I sensed how cool this was. Among other insider things most people didn’t get to see, he showed us where my dad’s ancestor (and thus my own as well) Samuel Lee had lived. Today anyone can find the parcels where their ancestors lived, but back then that wasn’t generally possible.

As an adult there was a period of years where I didn’t make it back. And then one year I took my daughter, who was then a young woman, maybe early twenties, I think. And I was disheartened by the experience.

My impression from all of my early trips there was that there was a lot of focus on history in the tours and presentations. I thought it was appropriate that Nauvoo was sometimes called the Williamsburg of the Midwest. And my impression was also that the tours given by the competing RLDS (now CoC) and LDS were fairly comparable.

But on this trip I noticed that the historical content at the LDS sites had been dialed way down. And further, I could not help but notice that the docents at every site now made it a practice to bear their testimony as part of the tour. I found this quite strange, and I could not help but wonder what non-LDS visitors would think about it. For my sensibilities, the quality of the LDS tours had nosedived, whereas the CoC tour was actually much better than I had remembered. There was no comparison; my daughter and I both agreed that the CoC tour had totally pantsed the LDS tours.

I don’t have any insider knowledge, but I’m guessing that this change in presentation style was engineered by the Missionary Department. We have these historic sites, they attract many thousands of visitors every year, and we need to leverage them for missionary work. That’s a pretty predictable train of thought.

But turning these tours into a naked, direct proselyting grab is, it seems to me, unlikely to work very well. As a faithful Saint even I found the repetitive testimony bearing quite off-putting; a fortiori, I’m pretty sure non-LDS visitors would find it an even bigger turn-off. The direct, go for the jugular missionary appeal is to my mind unlikely to be very effective.

For my money, the place had a much stronger appeal to visitors when it was focused more extensively on the history. You don’t need in-your-face testimony bearing to make an impression on visitors, and such testimony bearing to me seems counterproductive. I honestly can’t imagine someone visiting, hearing 25 formulaic testimonies borne by docents throughout the day, and thinking, “Wow, this must be the true church, I need to learn more!” But I can imagine someone coming and being immersed in the history (well told and displayed) and the story of the Saints and thinking to herself, “This is fascinating! I really need to learn more about these people.” What is moving about the place is the history, not the manufactured testimony meeting.

I know we’re a missionary oriented church. But sometimes the direct, in your face approach is counterproductive. Sometimes a little more deftness is called for. Sometimes less is more.


  1. I understand your feelings, and tend to agree. My first experience in Nauvoo and similar places was in the 1980s. I understand and respect the goals of the Missionary Department, and I know things sometimes work out throughout trial and error. Like you, I don’t want to condemn the Missionary Department — but we can over-do a good thing in a worthy zeal for the work. Sometimes, less is more. And there is value in history.

  2. I went to Nauvoo last year and my take away was similar to yours, (although I thought some of the lds missionaries did a good job.) I think you may overestimating how many non-Lds visitors the site has though. A senior missionary told me 90 percent of the visitors were LDS and their goal was to mostly strengthen LDS families. Understanding their goal made their presentation style make more sense to me. one thing that bothered me was that some church leaders who had many polygamous wives in Nauvoo were depicted as having one. When you don’t talk about people you forget them and if we can’t talk about people where they lived, how will they ever be remembered? When I heard the church history museum was being changed in salt lake to match the Joseph Smith papers I immediately hoped Nauvoo would be next. A girl can dream…

  3. Agree completely, Kevin. It’ll be interesting to see how exhibits, etc., are handled in the newly remodeled Church Art/History Museum in Salt Lake City once it reopens later this year/early next year.

  4. I’ve had similar experiences recently at church history sites around Kirtland, OH, and Palmyra, NY. I generally love going to historical sites, but it was strange to be asked how different information made me “feel,” hear testimony after testimony from *history* tour guides, and be asked to share my testimony on the tours. It felt quite manufactured, and I’m active LDS. I have a testimony and I share it regularly, but I like to do it when the spirit prompts me, not when it’s requested as part of the tour script. I am less likely to bring non-member friends to church sites as a result of these experiences.

  5. As a non LDS who is very interested in the history of the church, I am disappointed to hear this. My friends and I have been planning a trip along the Mormon trail in a year or two. Reading of your experiences, I am now hesitant to go to the sites as I feel very uncomfortable with the thought of being proselytized at every stop.

    When we were in Salt Lake a couple of years ago, I was impressed with the missionaries that we did meet as they were polite and helpful but did not attempt to share with me more than I was comfortable hearing. I do hope that things change before our trip.

  6. John Mansfield says:

    Gordon Hinckley speaking in General Conference in 2002: “The headquarters of the Church are in this city which recently hosted the 19th Winter Olympics. We made a deliberate decision that we would not use this as a time or place to proselytize, but we were confident that out of this significant event would come a wonderful thing for the Church. [ . . . ] Well, it all worked out. The visitors came by the hundreds of thousands. Some came with suspicion and hesitancy, old and false images persisting in their minds. They came feeling they might get trapped in some unwanted situation by religious zealots. But they found something they never expected. They discovered not only the scenic wonder of this area, with its magnificent mountains and valleys, they found not only the wonderful spirit of the international games at their best, but they found beauty in this city. They found hosts who were gracious and accommodating and anxious to assist them. I do not wish to infer that such hospitality was limited to our people. The entire community joined together in a great expression of hospitality. But out of all of this came something wonderful for this Church.” (link)

  7. John Mansfield says:

    Gordon Hinckley speaking in General Conference in 2002: “The headquarters of the Church are in this city which recently hosted the 19th Winter Olympics. We made a deliberate decision that we would not use this as a time or place to proselytize, but we were confident that out of this significant event would come a wonderful thing for the Church. [ . . . ] Well, it all worked out. The visitors came by the hundreds of thousands. Some came with suspicion and hesitancy, old and false images persisting in their minds. They came feeling they might get trapped in some unwanted situation by religious zealots. But they found something they never expected. They discovered not only the scenic wonder of this area, with its magnificent mountains and valleys, they found not only the wonderful spirit of the international games at their best, but they found beauty in this city. They found hosts who were gracious and accommodating and anxious to assist them. I do not wish to infer that such hospitality was limited to our people. The entire community joined together in a great expression of hospitality. But out of all of this came something wonderful for this Church.” (link omitted to avoid the appearance of evil)

  8. I visited Nauvoo several years ago, and I thought there was plenty of interesting history presented, but hearing every presentation end with a testimony did get old after a while. What I thought was interesting (and surprising) was that two of the missionaries mentioned Joseph Smith’s polygamy on their own initiative, although one prefaced her remarks by saying “I’m not really supposed to mention this, but …”

    I wonder if the approach to that issue has changed since the church started publishing its historical essays. In any case, Nauvoo and Carthage are well worth the visit, although I’d recommend going off season to avoid the crowds.

  9. Last Lemming says:

    A senior missionary told me 90 percent of the visitors were LDS…

    Could that be because non-LDS have been tipped off and are taking the CoC tour?

  10. Also, there is the loud outside church music blasting through the trees at the Joseph Smith birthplace monument. Ugh.

    Not to thread jack: the Christus statue at the Hyde Park chapel in London. So tragic to use that statue that way.

  11. Peter Yates says:

    This is akin to the comment posted in Tracy M’s OP from a few days ago concerning a Mother’s funeral that ended with the Bishop hardly referring to the lost loved one, in favor of a sales pitch to call the missionaries. As a church, we are so stupid sometimes. Is it ever appropriate to simply let people come unto Christ?

  12. blueridgemormon says:

    Good heavens, I couldn’t agree more with this. A funeral being more about proselytizing.. ugh. (For what it’s worth: I’m lifelong active, bishopric member, high councilor, returned missionary, etc etc… in other words I’m not disaffected) But I find myself increasingly uncomfortable or out of place in missionary-oriented discussions, be they during the three-hour block, or elsewhere. Incidentally there’s also a recent fever pitch to “hasten the work” that seems to have ramped things up even more… it always feels to me like cheerleading everyone into a frenzy of crazed testimony bearing etc.

    At any rate, bummer that the historical sites/tours have devolved into just the simplicity of testimony bearing; I find that a shame. And though it doesn’t have to be so, I don’t find this phenomenon unrelated to the Disney-fying of all these sites in general. While it’s great that the church has taken better care of (and invested in) the historical sites in recent years, I personally find it a shame that it’s often not readily apparent which are original structures and which are replicas… that always used to be made clear.

    I recognize that much of this is personal style and preference – – some in the church seem to enjoy the proselytic zeal. My 87-year-old father, for instance, is the kind of guy who always takes a Book of Mormon on a plane to give to the person sitting next to him. I can’t imagine doing that. I suppose there’s room in the church for all of us… but it does seem that the institutional church generally orients more toward the type of missionary behavior like my dad’s – – hit ’em hard with your testimony at every opportunity. Which, candidly, I find baffling in general – it feels manufactured and contrived to me, consistent with Kevin’s view in the OP.

    Isn’t it better (and ironically even more effective, missionary-wise) to just be yourself and live your standards? And be willing to articulate them and not shy away from talking about them – – without necessarily always working overtime to club everyone around you with your claims about what you “know”? (While we’re at it, why can’t we exterminate the very convention of a testimony simply being about “knowing” a certain truth claim? Isn’t that kind of weird on its face? But I digress..)

  13. A Happy Hubby says:

    I went on a mission back several decades ago to where the church was established, but still a small minority. Almost all of my entire mission was spent knocking on doors. Out of that entire time there was one baptism from knocking on doors, and I can’t say I left that area with a great feeling he was rock solid. I did my mission because I knew it was a good way to serve others and the Lord. I really wish we were allowed more time to just help people – with no strings attached. I sure would have felt more productive to be helping “habitat for humanity” or many other good causes. And I think in the end it would have helped the image of the church in a more significant way than for me to be seen riding a bike around and bothering them at their homes.

  14. I always enjoy going to Nauvoo, but I find that I have to work really hard to envision it as an antebellum river town and not the artificial museum it has become. I can certainly live without the smell that such a town would have had. It would be nice if Nauvoo Restoration did some recreations of normal people’s pine slab shanties. Not everyone lived in two story brick houses, nor were all of the residents church leaders.

  15. In 1976, I went with some friends on a road trip back east to celebrate the bi-centennial by visiting some of the places where the history of this country began, we also visited various church history sites along the way. I will never forget our visit to the Sacred Grove. The day before our arrival there had been a big storm and some of the trees, including one they called the “Patriarch” tree were felled by lightening. The missionary couple there bore humble but powerful testimonies and prayed for our safety as we left the farmhouse to visit the grove. That kindly old gentleman had tears as he prayed and told us that the day before he had also prayed for the safety of a group that was visiting the grove during the storm. He felt that he had been remiss in his sacred duties as he had not also prayed for the safety of the grove. I was moved by his testimony and by his feeling that he should have done more to prevent the destruction of the grove. everything he and his wife said was heartfelt. They did also relate to us some of the history of the grove and Joseph Smith’s prayer and vision, But we already knew about that. What touched us he most were the testimonies they bore. I would not have wanted the experience of the grove without them. We had also visited Nauvoo and Carthage. I don’t remember testimonies being born to us in those places. But that was nearly 40 years ago. Maybe they didn’t do it so much then. In fact, I remember very little about our visits to Nauvoo and Carthage. I just remember Palmyra and the Sacred Grove, where we heard testimonies. Don’t put down the Spirit.

  16. Kevin Barney says:

    Sharee, they weren’t doing the testimony thing in Nauvoo in 1976; that came much later. And I’m not putting down spontaneous expressions such as you describe; I’m putting down requiring docents to testify as part of the script. That to me is not the Spirit at all.

  17. I went to Kirkland a few years ago. We were told to wait in the main building where proselyting cards were handed out as the missionaries waited expectantly for them to be filled out. I made the mistake of giving them my phone number and they called me twice after I got home trying to get names out of me. We then had to watch a film. Finally we got out for what we came for. Two nice young ladies testified in every single room. They couldn’t answer questions and their testifying was sometimes longer than their historical information. When we were in the School of the Prophets, one of the sisters read some guy’s diary entry relating that Jesus had blue eyes and fair skin and then …. testified. I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I did send in a complaint after being urged by the older missionary couple on the Johnson Farm. They evidently weren’t too happy about it either.

  18. I went to nauvoo a couple of years ago. We took a horse drawn carriage ride that was about a half hour long with another couple I think we’re not members. We went through a wooded area and the missionary driver stopped the carriage, talked for a minute about his testimony then asked that we all sing I am a child of God. My husband and I sang with the two missionaries and the other couple sat there. Painful.

  19. Left Field says:

    I’ve had similar recent experiences and reactions at Kirtland, Independence, and Liberty Jail. By far, my most spiritual recent experiences were at Far West (where the visitor’s center was unmanned at the time of my visit), Adam-ondi-ahman (self-guided), and especially Haun’s Mill (minimally accessible and undeveloped). Haun’s Mill could use a better historical marker/memorial, but I fear it being developed and made accessible to tour buses.

    As for the others, stop asking how I feel, stop prompting me for a testimony, stop preaching, and stop shaking me down for referrals.

    I was amused 20+ years ago when I visited Hill Cumorah with a date. They didn’t say anything directly, but it was obvious that the tour guides were flummoxed and uneasy by a thirty-something man and woman who said they were LDS, but who had different last names, no wedding rings, and who were traveling together from out of state. All that plainly adds up to two single Mormons on a date, but it was obviously well outside their common experience. They were very gracious, but I definitely got the impression that they really wanted to quiz us about our relationship.

  20. Sharee’s story about the storm reminds me of an article in the Deseret News a few years back on this topic of “Sometimes Less is More.”

    For many years the Sacred Grove was carefully maintained, “brush” cleared, dead trees and fallen branches removed, only the healthiest trees let grow, until the forest resembled a park. It was a pretty park, but there were few birds, few or no wildflowers, little to no new growth. The falling of a tree would have been seen as a tragedy, not a normal part of the lifecycle of a forest.

    Then the Church hired a forest manager, Bob Parrott, and created the Sacred Grove Conservation Program. Parrott slowly returned the Grove to its natural state. Now there are ferns, wildflowers, moss, fungi, fallen trees, vibrant bird life. It smells like a forest, and feels like a forest.

    It takes work, and a lot of it, to maintain a forest in its natural state when it is as heavily visited and loved as the Sacred Grove is, but skill and a light hand make it possible, and it’s pleasant to visit when tourist traffic is low and you can wander through the woods and feel the spirit of the place.

  21. I grew up going to Nauvoo regularly because of its close proximity. My grandparents were even missionaries there. The missionaries treated us wonderfully, and did all sorts of things to make us excited about the place. When I visited with my 3 year old, and was extremely pregnant with my second, I experienced the same disappointment as the author. (Plus, it was incredibly humid and hot.) In addition, my family was visiting with a bunch of little kids, but they did not gear their presentations for our situation. We would have to sit through longwinded (an unfortunate but accurate word) testimony after testimony. We did not have the experience that we hoped for with our restless and crying children, and were a little turned off by it.

    Still, I want t o go back. :) I loved it so much as a child.

  22. A few seconds with Google brought up this talk by Elder Marlin Jensen in which he tells of the forest management of the Sacred Grove and explores several other lessons from the story:

  23. This past summer we went to Palmyra for the first time in many years and had a mixed bag. The Smith farm and Grandin building were great, but I think that’s because the “script” allowed the sisters to talk about farming/printing. Both have a hands-on presentation that was particularly appealing to my young kids. The sisters were knowledgeable and could answer most of the questions I had about the sites. I think it also helped that we hit both sites early and there weren’t many others there, so we could take it at our pace without feeling rushed. The Sacred Grove was also very pleasant — again because you’re left to do it on your own (and one of the sisters talked about the recent forestry management that Amy T has pointed out).

    The Whitmer farm felt much less satisfying. They insisted that we watch a movie that boiled down to “The Church was started here, but let’s spend much more time talking about how it’s really big now and these are all our temples, and missionaries, and charitable services,” followed by testimonies. I felt like our time at the farmhouse itself was very rushed, and we were just another bunch that had to be take through the motions, even though we were the only ones there at the moment. I ended up spending a few minutes with just my family in the parking lot, explaining why the farm was important in the Book of Mormon translation process and the formal establishment of the Church, because the sense of significance was deeply lacking in the presentation.

    At the Hill Cumorah visitor center, I think I offended the staff when I declined to see any of the offered films and said we just wanted to look around. To get to the “looking around” part, they still took us to a room with a cheap knockoff of the Christus statue, and again had sterile testimony born. A sister never left our side as we wandered through the rest of the center. Honestly, we really just wanted to walk up to the monument at the top of the hill.

    A few general observations. The sisters who were at each of the sites were clearly trying their best to work with what they’ve been instructed to use. I just think that what they’ve been given is very flimsy. I made a point of getting into discussions with many of them about their missions, how their time is split between regular missionary work and manning the historical centers, how the proselyting itself goes in western NY, etc. In every case, it was a much more authentic, edifying experience. They seemed relieved to go off script and have real conversations.

    I’m a history buff who’s passionate about hitting historical sites along the east coast whenever possible (we live in VA and there’s so much to do right here alone). Maybe that’s spoiled me because I’ve had many fantastic, knowledgeable guides to educate me. I don’t expect us to churn out a bunch of sister missionaries with degrees in early American history, but we can do so much better at presenting the history itself. That’s why I’m there, because I want to better understand the events that happened at that place. If up to me (and obviously this is why things are not), I’d just hand the sisters excerpts from the first few chapters of “Rough Stone Rolling” and have them learn to speak about the early Smith family experiences from that. And I’ve never felt pushed to rush through a visit like I was at certain points in Palmyra. It’s great that we’ve built some nice visitor centers at our historical sites, but I felt that the buildings were intended to be the central focus, overshadowing the actual historical sites themselves. It’s the equivalent of being hurried through the visitor center at Gettysburg and then being told I should spend 5 or 10 minutes at the actual battlefield on my way out of town.

    Is it too extreme to say that the attempt to make everything a missionary moment cheapens the experience? I can’t help but think that being at a historical venue means that we should emphasize the history first to build better understanding of events We can include use the spiritual accounts of our early Mormon forebears as part of that. Letting the Spirit work on us organically as part of being there, and listening to the testimonies of those who came before us rather than a sister bearing testimony on cue would be so, so much more helpful than insisting that everyone have missionary work thrust on them at every turn.

    And as a post script, none of the spiritual force feeding I felt in Palmyra compared with assault of overeager testimony-bearing I’ve experienced at Temple Square….

  24. I think the content in Nauvoo has changed, and as the OP indicates not for the better, since the late ’80s/early ’90s, and that sad process was accelerated by the rebuilding of the Nauvoo Temple. Since then, an event which pretty much overwhelmed the city’s ability to cope with visitors for a few years, the quiet, contemplative nature of the historic city has been overwhelmed by The Mormon Multimedia Experience (TM). Why, the second to last time I was there, the nice little old lady at the Browning gun shop told me that Jonathan Browning had invented the rifled barrel. Once in a blue moon, I find someone who knows some history, usually in the boot shop or something, but there’s rarely time to talk because the next group is coming.

    Nauvoo is a travesty, and if it ever was “the Williamsburg of the Midwest,” it isn’t anymore. I’ve done good history, and that ain’t it. The hired guns of the CoC, many of whom are college students with no background in Mormonism at all, do a much better job.

  25. The Church is going to thoroughly screw up Haun’s Mill. I spent the night out there in the back of my truck once, about 15 years ago; it was an intensely spiritual experience. I shudder to think how bad it’s going to be in a few years when the geniuses responsible for Nauvoo get hold of it.

  26. Amen, brother. Who knew that when Joseph said, “No man knows my history,” it was a prophecy? The incessant missionary focus, especially at the cost of alienating people who are there to learn history and could be engaged by someone who actually knew something about it, is a huge mistake. I would guess that the results, in terms of referrals and baptisms, are not impressive. At Church sites, we’re either preaching to the choir (the 90%+, for example, of Nauvoo visitors who are LDS) or we’re pushing away people who want to know something besides the feelings of the nice missionary about the Church.

  27. I think that anytime we try to manufacture a testimony experience, the effect is much less powerful than simply living our lives. I have not gone on a mission, and while I have always assumed that I would later in life, I am coming to realize that God may have other plans for me. I do come in contact with missionaries and church public relations specialists a fair amount. (I know that this is a little tangential, but it does apply.)

    I am not sure what to make of the dichotomy in how the Church approaches “regular people” and reporters. I do know that non-LDS reporters get so many things about the church wrong, partially because we don’t trust regular members to talk to reports, and even bishops and stake presidents generally are told to hand things off to a public affairs officer. I interviewed a reporter who was working on a story about the new LDS Meetinghouse being builtin her town. She works for a weekly newspaper, and ended up blowing through 3 deadlines, (you a reporter never wants to go through 1 never mind 3) because the public affairs officer for the stake was on a cruise. Even once he came back she was not able to set up appointments with any ward or stake leadership, and apparently members were warned not to talk to her when she came to the 3 hour block with the public affairs person. For almost all questions about doctrine or how the church works, she was referred to the missionaries in the area.

    She finally negotiated a group of questions to ask the missionaries, and set up an appointment/interview. She sent the list of questions ahead, and silly reporter, she thought she would get answers. She might have, but both missionaries were transferred the day before the interview, so she had to sit through the 1st discussion and show the letter from the PR people to get answers to questions about how and why LDS meetings and buildings are the way they are.

    I will admit that I chose to interview her because she got so many things right, while also getting some things really wrong. By the time we finished talking, I promised to help translate the next time she had anice assignment that involved Mormons. At least I can translate for her.

    Tof bring it full circle, she had 26 “testimonies” on her recorder, but no one who would explain where missionaries come from, or what missionaries do most of the time, or what several phrases of “Put Your Shoulder to the Wheel” meant to those people singing it at the dedication.” It took me about 15 minutes to explain the things that she had gotten wrong, and more than an hour to clear up the confusion from all the testimonies in response to direct questions.

  28. Thank you so much for this, Kevin! I have had a similar response to the way things are being done in the LDS sites at Nauvoo.

    Dear Missionary and Historical Departments:

    This post and the comments are a free focus group for you! Isn’t that wonderful?

  29. The mention of plans for Hauns Mill remind me that I also stopped at the Hale farm and priesthood restoration site in PA last summer. Although not far from the highway, it gets very Off the Beaten Path very quickly. It’s a tranquil place (ignoring the train tracks between the church’s monument and the Susquehanna river), but the church is at work restoring the Hale home as well as the cabin where Joseph and Emma lived for a time. I’m completely on board for that, but several yards off there were construction crews clearing out several acres of trees and leveling the ground for yet another visitor center. Based on my experiences and those of other commenters here, I don’t have much confidence that the site will be any different at conveying a significant sense of history. Maybe it’s the history preservationist in me, but it hurts that we’re so intent on giving our historical sites a Disney-esque treatment.

  30. Left Field says:

    I haven’t heard any specific plans for Haun’s Mill, but I’m not hopeful if they start thinking about development. Other than a tasteful marker, there’s almost nothing they could do to Haun’s Mill that would make the experience better. Let’s respect the victims and not exploit the site for our own benefit.

    Liberty Jail would benefit from tearing down the whole visitors center, rethinking the concept, and starting over. In some ways, things have gotten worse at historic sites, but at least they no longer do the Liberty Jail thing. I’m happy with the reconstruction they did in Fayette, and the restoration of the Palmyra Smith home to it’s 1820’s form (though I haven’t been there since they did that).

  31. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    I wanted a little more history at Liberry Jail. There were other less known members of the church that were confined there with Joseph. I wanted to know each of their names, their conversion story, and what happened to them after the jailing.

    I remember Nauvoo in the 70s where hosts told historical information and funny anecdotes about ‘going straight to bed’ up a very steep staircase. Then they thanked us for coming and sent us on. Honestly, if I had a name to refer, wouldn’t I tell the local missionaries and not fill out a referral card in another state? Totally agree with the message of this post.

  32. OK, personal application time. If you were shanghaied into taking kids (ages 8 to 16) on an extended-family trip to Nauvoo this summer, how would you prepare?

  33. Do you have family connections to Nauvoo, sba? If your kids have ancestors who lived there, help them learn how to find out about them. Where did they come from? How did they get to Nauvoo? How long were they there? Where in the area did they live? When did they leave? Were they sealed in the temple? Are there any family graves in the area? The script practically writes itself.

    In any case, I’d suggest getting to know some of the people who lived there. There are so many possibilities. Vienna Jacques, Parley P. Pratt (is there an audiobook of his autobiography? that’s great for kids), Jane Manning James, John Bernhisel, or how about one of my favorites, Cyrus Wheelock. Every history needs a Cyrus Wheelock character, complete with an Ethan Allen dragoon-style pepperbox pistol. How about exploring some Eliza R. Snow poetry? Some of her poems are funny. You could search Keepapitchinin for Nauvoo content. Lots of good stories there.

    Have fun! It’s great to see middle America, and whatever the missionaries have in their script this year, it’s an impressive place to visit, whether your ties to the place are familial or religious, or both.

  34. Great ideas, Amy T–thanks!

  35. It’s apropo you used a picture of the Browning Shop because many if not most non-LDS visitors who aren’t local come to Nauvoo to see the Browning Shop (military history buffs, machinery buffs, etc).

    It’s enough to tell the story of the original inhabitants. Their lives -their stories are the ultimate testimony. A policy that mandates a borne testimony at each location is duplicative and doesn’t fully respect the testimony that speaks “from the dust”. One’s personal testimony should be spoken when inspired.

    In the case of Jonathan Browning, the non-lds history buff is interested not only in the workshop and a recounting of the various inventions and models crafted there, but what made the one-of-a-kind prodigious inventor “tick”. Partly this is examined by his inventions, his history, his shop and his past. But it is also examined by his inner-most feelings, his spiritual thirst and quest, and his meticulous style and willingness to unload his material possessions and reputation again and again and again in “holiness to the Lord, our preservation”. When one answers the question of “who was this family” and “why were they here”, a testimony naturally unfolds. That is the “rest of the story” told in Nauvoo and at the Browning home.

    That very testimony bears witness of the restoration and man’s greatest questions.

  36. Apologies for posting again.
    On sites critical to the LDS religion there are people who brag about causing problems when they visit the church historical sites. They think it is funny to disrupt the “script” and mock the testimonies of the guides, and ask difficult questions on purpose just to embarrass the guides.
    If the church leaders are aware of these issues they are slow in doing something about it.
    The church needs to get away from the scripts and really educate the guides about the sites and let the guides use their own judgement for each situation, and allow the guides to answer questions, and allow the guides to be themselves. If the guides can’t answer then admit they don’t know and refer the people to an Internet site site or something.
    More damage is being done with the way it is now, unfortunately. And I am a defender of the LDS religion.

  37. the other Marie says:

    I had a similar experience at the Beehive House a couple months ago. My 8-year-old niece, who is not being raised LDS, was visiting me in downtown SLC and I thought that a tour of the Beehive House would interest her. I remembered on my last tour of the place (maybe 10 years ago) that there was quite a bit of historical information given, as well as taking us to upstairs see the rooms of BY’s children, with porcelain dolls in cradles, old fashioned toys, etc. She’s growing up in Utah, so I felt that it shouldn’t offend her parents to have her go on a tour focused on the historical facts of a family that so influenced the development of the state she lives in. What we found instead was missionaries giving a schpiel containing only those historical facts that could be used to steer the theme toward Brigham Young as [presumably monogamous] family man and builder of temples, with awkward testimony bearing and appeals for missionary referrals.

    So many interesting parts of the house were left uncommented on, we were not taken up to see the children’s bedrooms (maybe because they wanted to avoid questions that would lead to a discussion of polygamy?) and when I asked a couple of questions about the history of the house the missionaries didn’t have answers–not their fault, I’m sure–they probably just weren’t educated much about the house, but rather how to use the house as a missionary tool. My niece was bored by the tour, and I’m not going to attempt to take her to other church sites if an organized official tour is the only way to experience it.

  38. I may have a little bit more insight into the modern Nauvoo experience than most people.

    Each location has a site leader – a senior missionary dedicated to preserving the script presentations, word-for-word, as much as possible. Testimony may be personal and unscripted, but the rest of the presentation is carefully managed. An extended family site leader I got to know rather well told me how the missionaries serving there have a bad tendency to modify and personalize – sometimes telling personal family history stories, sometimes relating what they may have heard from visitors over the weeks and months. These accounts are to be culled out. Nothing may be presented that has not been approved, correlated, and has verifiable canon sources known to Salt Lake.

    In some respects, I can see why this would be needed. I went and represented our Bishopric last year when our Scouts did a bike ride from Nauvoo to Carthage, the “Martyrdom Trail”. We had the non-member father of one of the boys with us when we went through the Carthage Jail tour, and he was as shocked as anybody when the sister missionary told us “We worship Joseph Smith”. I quickly corrected her, but sadly, that single statement is now what stands out most in the minds of all the boys after that trip. This is probably the most extreme example of how things could go wrong, and I can see why SLC would want to prevent it, but the experience is rather sterile.

    I almost wish there could be a behind-the-scenes tour, one where people get to hear the outrageous and unproven things about church history – things out of journals and letters that would never make it to the pages of the Ensign, things that would show these pioneer ancestors were human and imperfect, but they kept at it.

  39. Builderwill says:

    I was very enthusiastic to visit the new Mormon Battalion museum in San Diego a few years ago. I remembered my visit to the old museum with fondness and thought my children would enjoy learning the history of the Battalion. Instead they got a scripted, set piece, diorama version with hardly any history and lots of forced, “How does that make you feel?” questions.

    I decry the ‘Disneyfication’ of of church history. People know when they are being manipulated and that is exactly what is happening. Instead of allowing space for authentic discovery and emotion the church has decided people need to be guided to the ‘appropriate’ feelings and facts. Sad indeed.

  40. I think the source you are looking for, for those kinds of stories and records about real people is at

    Probably finding stories there, to read while you visit historical site would be the best way to get stories that are well sourced, but not on the tour. ;-)

  41. For all of those who are interested in the history behind the current Missionary approach at Nauvoo, you’ll want to check out the book, “Excavating Nauvoo” published by the University of Nebraska Press (2010) []. It details a significant shift in the management and interpretive approach that took place in Nauvoo after David O. McKay passed away.

  42. Annon, 9:04 pm, perfectly said. “It’s enough to tell the story of the original inhabitants. Their lives -their stories are the ultimate testimony. A policy that mandates a borne testimony at each location is duplicative and doesn’t fully respect the testimony that speaks “from the dust”. One’s personal testimony should be spoken when inspired.”

  43. jennifer rueben says:

    missionaries do not give a historical presentation at these site because most know nothing about the history of the area or the people. Last time we visited the guides dressed in semi-historical outfits with zippers, tennis shoes and modern phone and gave a set presentation with no knowledge of the time period or area they were attempting to represent. one of our guides could not answer any question because of limited language skills. Not impressive. Between the testimonies and the “re-inactions” it was not that great. We did enjoy walking the area including the cemetery and finding things for ourselves However.

  44. Builderwill, I’m saddened to hear that the Mormon Battalion site doesn’t sound much better. I went at least 20 years ago with a non-LDS friend. There was another couple there. It all looked very interesting in the lobby area and there was no indication that there would be anything but a chance to look around the exhibits. But we couldn’t get there without going into a movie room to watch a missionary pitch that had nothing at all to do with the historical site. I was so embarrassed. The couple behind us walked out. My friend and I endured. I don’t remember there being a tour, although the horror of being tricked into that awful film might have clouded my memory. I suspect they just let us walk around a pretty basic exhibit by ourselves after the film. I’ve never been back.

  45. We took the kids to Nauvoo a while back, and enjoyed it so little that we ended up going home early (something we NEVER do on vacation). Part of the problem was that it completely failed to engage my children, though they were entranced by the team of oxen.

    On the other hand, we spent 4 full days in Colonial Williamsburg last fall and are already discussing when our next trip will be (which will be our 3rd). There’s probably a lesson there somewhere.

  46. Lew Scannon says:

    I would like to bear my testimony that what Kevin says is true.

  47. Ugh. This makes me sad. We’re a group of mostly introverts, I and a couple of my kids being the moderate extrovert exceptions. This kind of hard sell completely would shut down any possibility of experiencing any of this as a family.

  48. One note on sticking to a script of some kind. When it doesn’t happen at historical sites and homes run by volunteers you get all kinds of bad history, however well-intentioned (see

    I’ve noticed the same changes at all church historical sites I’ve visited in the last 5 years or so. It was fairly awkward for my parents and I in San Diego to go through the new Mormon Battalion experience with just us adults (and active LDS) and some very nice sister missionaries. We probably just mumbled through any required responses or answers.

    The one I was most disappointed with is in St. George. We’ve visited a lot over the years and so I’ve been to Brigham Young’s Winter Home and Jacob Hamblin’s home several times. It’s all missionary-oriented now. I felt helpless and annoyed especially when we and one other couple was made to sit outside the Hamblin site in full sun for like 30 minutes to listen to testimonies. I burn easily, didn’t bring a hat, and was very grumpy when finally “released.”

  49. [off topic] Hrm. It makes me irritable for Left Field to be writing about a date with someone other than me.

  50. Lisa writes on the 21st, I am now hesitant to go to the sites as I feel very uncomfortable with the thought of being proselytized at every stop.

    No, don’t worry too much about that. It isn’t too aggressive; you’ll find it much like the Temple Square experience you mention. It’s simply that you’ll need to learn the history on your own; the on-site missionaries will rarely know it or have time to share it.

    I’d recommend, as good, basic guidebooks for walking/driving tours and good overview and context history, Holtzapfel and Cottle’s Old Mormon Nauvoo and Southeastern Iowa.

  51. I’m a trained public historian and was absolutely horrified by my most recent experience at Nauvoo. I could barely stand all the testifying, historical half truths, and uplifting “feel good” anecdotes and I’m a lifelong member. I shudder to think how a non-LDS visitor would experience the place. I think so much could be rectified by putting all the church’s historic sites under the management and direction of the Division of Historic Sites in the Church History Department. They currently only oversee a few sites while the rest, like Nauvoo and Palmyra are under the jurisdiction of the Missionary Department. Please let the professional historians do what they are trained to do.

  52. I’m sorry so many of you had bad experiences with Nauvoo tours and docents. I always make sure my tour guide is John Johnson. He tells the stories the other tour guides won’t tell you. And everyone calls him Vicky.

  53. site missionary says:

    I am a missionary serving at some of the historic sites commented about above. At this site, there is a weekly training meeting for the missionaries serving. This last week, we used some of these blog comments to review how some feel about their historic site visits. Our training focused on how do you discern the needs of our guests and respond. We do this by asking questions, receiving feedback and by watching body language. Many (certainly those with comments above), come for an understanding of the historical events. We have specific materials which go into the historical information of the sites and we are expected to master it so that we can provide that information to those wanting that. We have a lot of material so we can go beyond the light and fluffy to the detail if required and if we master it. And as missionaries, we invite people to come unto Christ, but on the terms of the guests. I have found that if I can meet the needs of our guests they more often come away with a good impression or with a deep spiritual feeling than by banging them over the head with formulaic scripts and testimonies. The events, locations and history do the testifying.

    Thanks for your honest comments, they have helped the missionaries at this site have better understanding.

  54. A Happy Hubby says:

    @site missionary,

    Thank you very much for not only responding to the blog (in a very non-defensive way I might complement you), but also sharing it.

    Our church isn’t known internally for taking feedback well. This seems to be counter to that and it is refreshing.

    Your commends have made me think harder about the task before you and needing to read the visitors. My family all has BYU shirts on, so we make it easy! :-)

    Thank you for taking time out of your life to serve the Lord and the visitors (of all types).

    Pass on a thanks and thank you again for being able to take the not always the nicest comments as a way to improve.

  55. Kevin Barney says:

    Site missionary, thank you so much for coming her and commenting. And I’m thrilled that your group incorporated comments here into your training. I love church historic sites and want nothing but the best for them.

  56. That’s great! Thanks for letting us know.

  57. Angela C says:

    I raised some of these same questions in 2008. Glad if someone is going to take it to heart. Even as an active member, I am extremely uncomfortable being asked to testify or sing on the spot.

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