Pilgrimage sites and their significance in Mormonism

December 21, 2009

Above are four of the major religious centres of worship for Christians, Buddhism, Islam and Judaism.  These sites have significants for different people.

For followers of Islam making the Hajj is seen as important part of fulfilling religious observance.  For various reasons people go to these sites seeking to build a relationship with their deity, or with an enlightened state.   In each case worshippers have their ways of showing that devotion.  In the Hajj one of the important points is to stone the devil or Ramy al-Jamarat as a part of their purification ritual.

In Judaism praying at the Western Wall of the temple, the Wailing Wall, is seen as a way to achieve more purity, the prayer there is worth more than a normal prayer.

In Christianity, especially in Catholic and Orthodox circles, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has taking on a holy pilgrimage point since the early medieval period.  It is considered the traditional site of Jesus Christ death and burial place.  (in Protestant and Mormon circles the Garden Tomb is more popular)

This Sunday while sitting in Priesthood one person brought up the idea of following the pioneer trail.  I know there are other mentions of the sense of pilgrimage for Mormon sites.  The way this person described the ideal of touring the pioneer trail, it reminded me of this need for pilgrimage.  I am not ridiculing anyone who wants to visit these sites or find meaning in them but I recognized within them the beginnings of a similar process created by other faiths.

In Kathleen Flake’s book there was an active discussion about the concept that the First Presidency in early 1900s began this process of focusing on the places of early Mormon history as sites for holy places.  In a way they became modern versions of these other places, though my example of the Great Buddha was put up in the 1980s apparently.

I think of Carthage jail and see similarities to the visiting of the St. Thomas Becket’s shrine and relics by medieval pilgrims in England as having a similar sense of relation.  The idea of visiting the sites of martyrs is a ancient tradition.  In this people find a sense of meaning and purpose which transcends the death of the martyr, it builds of sense of unity with that martyr to visit the place.  Certainly as a youngster I still remember the visit I made to the Carthage Jail and to the hill Cumorah.  They left indelible impressions on me in how I feel towards Joseph Smith.

So if one was to project this forward will these significant sites develop within the church that it becomes critical site for pilgrimage in the same way that the more ancient sites have been for other faiths?   Will it be seen as a test of faith to go see the grave of the prophet?

In North America the repeating of the pioneer trek has been something of modern pilgrimage given for youth to experience.  We talk often of the times we have gone to the early church sites, in Britain this is also been developed with the Preston site.   For me this confirms the argument that the dedication of the monument in 1905 to mark Joseph Smith’s birth 100 years previous brought the church out of its beginnings and into the a different more establishment phase.  With it created a series of marking points of pilgrimage which Mormons across the world could develop a sense of unity.

In the end is that very different that the establishment of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by Constantine in 325.  It too was used to mark the place of Christ’s death and create a point for Christian pilgrims to travel to from across the Roman world.  I see in these parallels a sense of unity, and a sense of purpose for the faithful.


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