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LDS priesthood restoration site, new movie, under development

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PROVO — It‘s where most of the Book of Mormon translation took place, but perhaps most memorably, it's the scene of reported visitation by angels to Joseph Smith and his scribe Oliver Cowdery, giving them priesthood authority to baptize each other, to restore Christ’s original church and organize it as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Known today as Oakland Township in Pennsylvania and situated near the Susquehanna River, the location went by the name of Harmony back in 1829, when the events transpired that are memorialized in a church historic site now under development and expected to be open in about a year.

A 22-minute narrative film depicting the events in Harmony is under production, with scenes shot partly on location but largely at the LDS Motion Picture Studio in Provo, where news media were invited on the set Monday to watch scenes being filmed and to get something of a progress report from the managing directors of the church’s missionary and church history departments.

“This new site is extremely important from our standpoint,” said Stephen B. Allen of the missionary department, adding that it is the last of the major historic sites to be developed by the church that pertain to the foundation of the LDS faith, what believing church members regard as the latter-day restoration of Christ’s gospel.

“All of the other sites — the Sacred Grove and the sites around Palmyra, N.Y.; Kirtland (Ohio) and Nauvoo (Illinois) — have been restored. But the Priesthood Restoration Site is now under development."

Reid Neilson, church history department managing director, said it is perhaps the most geographically challenging and complex of any of the church’s historic sites.

It includes the Susquehanna River, in which Joseph and Oliver baptized each other after reportedly receiving authority from an angel identifying himself as the resurrected John the Baptist. The site also includes the log home where Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma, lived at the time, and the neighboring frame house where Emma’s parents lived. A combination visitors center and LDS meetinghouse is being built on the site.

In structuring the historic site, developers have had to deal with a state highway and major railroad running through it, Neilson said. As it stands, the highway and railroad run in between two major features of the site: the log cabin where Joseph Smith and his wife, Emma Hale Smith, lived, and the frame house belonging to Emma’s parents. Both are being replicated on the precise locations where they stood in 1829

To help solve problems, the church secured approval for the realignment of the highway, routing it away from the Smith and Hale homes.

By the time the site opens next year, the visitors center will be finished, where visitors will come first and view the film. An underpass beneath the highway will allow visitor access to the “historic district” where the two homes are located along with the hillside grove, which is deemed to be the location where John the Baptist visited the two men. Historians are less certain about the location of a subsequent visitation the two men received, from Jesus’ resurrected apostle — Peter, James and John — but that event is believed to have happened in the general vicinity.

Finally, visitors will be able to make their way down to the bank of the river, where the baptisms took place.

Research for the site development has brought about a change in traditional understanding about the priesthood restoration narrative. Previously it was believed the angel came to the two men on the riverbank, followed immediately by the baptisms. Now, historians have concluded that the visitation happened on a hillside near the Smith and Hale homes in the “sugar maple bush,” a grove where sap was tapped for making sugar.

“We looked at some of the records of Oliver Cowdery, and we thought about what he was really trying to say about where the priesthood restoration took place,” Neilson explained. “In addition, we were able to look at old newspapers and find out how many boats were going up and down the river and about how busy the site was.”

Researchers determined that in May 1829, extensive river flooding would have precluded the angel’s visitation happening on the spot where it was previously understood to be, Neilson said. “It changed our understanding of what went on. So Joseph and Oliver went up the hillside, received the Aaronic Priesthood and went back down where the water was to do the baptizing.”

“That will be news to many people,” said Allen of the missionary department. “They will be surprised to see that the priesthood restoration took place up in the sugar grove.”

He added, “I walked that grove this summer, just before we started building the visitors center, and I can tell you this site is every bit as pristine and beautiful — and has a spirit about it — as the Sacred Grove (in Palmyra, N.Y., where Joseph Smith’s vision of the Father and the Son occurred).”

The Priesthood Restoration Site, Neilson said, will address three major messages: the Book of Mormon translation, the receipt by Joseph Smith of many of the earliest revelations and the restoration of the priesthood. All are tied together, as Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery learned about priesthood authority while doing the translating and prayed about it, which led to the priesthood restoration.

A precise date has not yet been announced for the opening of the historic site, but it is expected to be in late summer or early fall of 2015.

By then, the movie, which currently has the working title “Days Never To Be Forgotten,” will be finished. Directed by prominent LDS filmmaker T.C. Christensen (“17 Miracles” and “Ephraim’s Rescue”), it is told through the eyes of Oliver Cowdery.

On-location scenes have already been shot in Pennsylvania, including a depiction of the baptisms in the river. Other scenes are being shot at the Provo studio on a soundstage for the interior scenes and with structures on the back lot representing the Smith and Hale homes for the exterior shots.

On Monday, news media representatives watched the filming of a scene that takes place in the Smith cabin as Cowdery converses with Emma while awaiting the return of Joseph.

Cast member Anna Daines, who portrays Emma, said it has been interesting to study and to act in the role of Emma, whom she has admired her entire life and who was 24-27 years old during the time depicted.

“It’s younger than I typically imagine Emma being,” she said. “And Joseph was only 23 at the time he translated the Book of Mormon. It’s kind of mind-blowing for me as a 24-year-old to think about.”

rscott@deseretnews.com