Near the end of his teaching career, LaMar C. Berrett entered his classroom at Brigham Young University on the morning of a new semester to find every chair occupied and students crowding the doorway and clustered along the walls.
"Why don't some of you students enroll in a different Church history class where the professor is probably younger and more good looking?" he said in jest.
To his surprise one student responded, "I want to learn history from someone who has lived through it."
Now retired, Brother Berrett is a gospel doctrine teacher in the Sharon 5th Ward, Orem Utah Sharon Stake, who looks back on years of painstaking effort spent documenting and verifying many of the main as well as obscure places of Church history. His drive was to preserve these sacred sites that future generations of Church members might retrace and relive the drama of the early days of the Restoration.
Those who visit Church historical sites and feel the Spirit of these sacred places have added insight into the rich history of the Church as well as a new found fondness for the scriptures, Brother Berrett contends.
"I'm someone who has to know exactly where events took place," he said. "I visited Palmyra for the first time in 1950 while returning from my mission. Not much was known at that time about the exact location of the Smith family log home. Farmers had long knocked down the house and planted corn over the site where Joseph lived as a young man when he entered the Sacred Grove and where the Angel Moroni appeared."
Years later in 1982, after much research and study, Brother Berrett returned to Palmyra, this time as part of an archaeology team that helped unearth a site later confirmed to be the location of the Smith log home.
"When I was historian and chairman of the Brigham Young University Church History Department, I wanted to know exactly where events took place," he said. "Like in Nauvoo, I wanted to know exactly where the Prophet Joseph Smith stood when he addressed the Nauvoo Legion for the last time.
"I wanted to know where he was in Nauvoo when he said he 'was going like a lamb to the slaughter' as he began his journey to Carthage.
"I wanted to know where in the Mississippi River baptisms for the dead were performed.
By asking questions and poring over many dusty books and documents with discolored pages, this team of researchers gathered compelling details to confirm many locations.
"I wanted to know, for instance, where Joseph and Hyrum and two others launched a rickety boat to escape persecution by seeking safety across the Mississippi River," said Brother Berrett.
It was on this occasion that Joseph received word that some members thought him a coward for running from his enemies. The Prophet said that if his life was of no value to his friends, it was of no value to him.
"We pinpointed the location to be a small dock on the property of Aaron Johnson. The Prophet's group launched at 2 a.m. in a boat so riddled with holes that the Prophet and others bailed water with their boots.
"The Johnson home was located near the Mississippi River, just west of the intersection of Bain and Water Street which was a block west of the Prophet's red brick store," Brother Berrett said.
Brother Berrett's particular passion was the Mormon Trail from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City. He traced the trail for 30 years, "documenting every step" and confirming every detail as much as possible. The results of his research and site exploration now fill his large home library with shelves of books and boxes brimming with data. More than 70,000 photographic slides are also neatly catalogued in trays.
As chairman of the Church History Department, Brother Barrett used research funds to send Church history teachers to major sites during the summer semesters of the 1970s-80s. "They were to become experts of Church history in those areas by researching the local historical societies, university archives and government records for any tidbit of information about the Church," said Brother Berrett.
They also conducted on-site research including aerial photography and archaeology digs.
For 25 years, Brother Berrett and his colleagues, including A. Gary Anderson, Donald Q. Cannon, Larry E. Dahl, William G. Hartley, Max H Parkin, Keith W. Perkins and Larry C. Porter, scoured their areas of responsibility looking for all shreds of information.
"Our early instructions were to gather every stick of information," said Larry Porter. "We were to 'sweep the closet clean,' as we were told, of information from all libraries, historical societies and government records that we could find.
"We soon discovered that it was not entirely possible to 'sweep the closet clean.' There was never a time that I didn't find new information from material that I had already researched. Information keeps coming out of the bushes. The axiom is that we need to keep going back."
In some cases, said Brother Porter, gathering the best information required that a price be paid before librarians understood the earnestness of the quest and would assist. On one occasion, after Brother Porter had spent about 10 days studying in a library, the librarian recognized his commitment and invited him to study material safeguarded in a back room that included, among other things, the doctor's report following the autopsy of Alvin Smith, the Prophet's older brother who died at age 25 in 1823.
On another occasion Brother Porter's perseverance earned a curator's respect. "He gave me access to material that exceeded all expectations," he said. The material included letters from the master typesetter for E.B. Grandin who first printed the Book of Mormon, as well as other uncataloged letters from people such as Brigham Young that offered details and insights into the early Church.
The result of years of study for Don Q. Cannon was the realization that there is more to history than what first appears.
"When you begin researching," said Brother Cannon, "a broadened view appears. We tend to focus on standard Church sites, but there are other places where the Church was involved.
"In Hancock County, for instance, where Nauvoo is located, there were member settlements in virtually every corner, including Ramus where a sizeable population of the Church resided."
It is in these seemingly insignificant details that the insightful events of history unfold, said Larry Dahl. While researching in Vermont, Brother Dahl came upon a building that is believed to be the first meetinghouse of the Church.
"A Baptist congregation of about 40 people built a chapel out of stone near Benson, Vt., about 1826," said Brother Dahl. In 1831, largely through the efforts of Elder Jared Carter, a former resident of the area and convert to the Church, most members of the Baptist congregation joined the Church. With the Baptist congregation disbanded, the newly organized Benson Branch met in the stone chapel until members moved to Nauvoo to unite with the rest of the Church.
The building has since been remodeled and enlarged by a university professor who now uses it for his home. The professor has written a book detailing the history of the building and the early members of the Church in Benson.
"I can't account for the [increased] interest in Church history," continued Brother Dahl, who now serves as director of the BYU Nauvoo Semester program. "There seems to be an added interest in walking where the Prophet walked, and sitting on the site where the Prophet delivered the funeral address of King Follett in Nauvoo." The address is about the nature of Godhood and is now referred to as the King Follett Discourse.
"I wish we could shout what changes happen to students when they visit historic sites. They come away with new feelings for the early members and with deepened commitment and faith."
This influence that the past casts over the present was a main motivator for Brother Berrett in documenting historical sites. From his many tours to the Holy Land over the years he has learned that those who visit sites of spiritual significance have new and profound feelings. They return home as changed people.
For the past decade, Brother Berrett, as the general editor, has been compiling the vast amounts of information gleaned during those 25 years of research into a six-volume series called Sacred Places. The first two volumes, which detail Church history in New England and New York, have been published. The remaining volumes are expected to be published every six months, with the next volume expected in August 2001.
"The first volume begins in New England and each subsequent volume follows the general migration route of the Church from the east to the west," Brother Berrett said. "Historic sites are sacred places. These books are not meant to be merely guidebooks, but more like encyclopedias with precise historical accuracy for the purpose of strengthening faith."
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