Going back to the subject of Mormon historical tourism, here’s a pretty extensive list of LDS historic sites in the U.S. Some are full-fledged, public history-type institutions, with the usual trappings: visitor centers, guided tours, restored buildings, exhibit areas, and so on.
As far as I’ve been able to tell, this kind of extensive effort to preserve, restore, and interpret a chain of church-related historic sites all over the country is unique to Mormonism. Just about all of the major American denominations have archives and historical societies. But historic sites and museums operated under the aegis of a national church body are few and far between. Some of these churches have episcopal structures that could theoretically oversee this sort of thing, and even de-centralized groups like the Southern Baptist Convention have cooperative programs to fund education and missions, but it seems that no religious group is nearly as active in preservation and interpretation program as the Mormons.
So why is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints devoting so much more effort to running historic sites than other religious groups? I can think of a few possible reasons.
First, there’s a steady supply of enthusiastic volunteers to keep the sites going. As I noted in my review of the Illinois LDS sites, that church actually utilizes its missionaries to work at them. This is critical, because interpreters are the foot soldiers of large historic sites. With lots of young people and retired couples eager to serve eighteen-month or two-year stints as missionaries, and a church organization willing to post them at historic sites, the church has both the human resources and a framework in place to deploy them. Of course, evangelicals are keen on winning converts, too. The Southern Baptist Convention recruits, trains, and supports laypeople who serve on the domestic and international mission fields. They don’t, however, employ them as historic site interpreters. The fact that the LDS church does so says something about the importance of history to this religion.
Second, Mormonism’s origins are both domestic and comparatively recent. That makes its most important historic locations more accessible to preservation. There are plenty of significant places in the U.S. that would make for great Baptist or Methodist historic sites, but none that are as cherished to these denominations as Hill Cumorah or Carthage Jail are to Mormonism. You’d probably have to go to Europe to find a Protestant equivalent, or maybe even the Middle East. (Come to think of it, there actually is a living history site at Nazareth, but we’re getting waaayyyy beyond the scope of this blog with that one.)
Third, and perhaps most importantly, Mormonism has embraced its own distinctiveness. The church has a long history of suffering persecution, misunderstanding, and exile, and this lends itself to historic consciousness. You’re more likely to hold onto your history if it’s a cornerstone of your identity. As I said in a previous post, visitation to Historic Nauvoo is 80% Mormon. This suggests that a lot of the people who go there want to be reminded of who they are and who they used to be, and why their deposit of faith is something significant.
Still, since the church deploys its missionaries to places like Historic Nauvoo, it’s tempting to wonder whether or not historic tourism is an effective means of proselytizing. I don’t have any figures, so I don’t know the answer. I can say from my own recent experience that if it doesn’t win converts, it does at least win interested observers. I doubt I’ll ever become a Mormon, but since visiting Nauvoo and Carthage I’ve become fascinated with Mormonism’s origins as a subject of study—as an interesting historical phenomenon, in other words. That’s generally how it goes with historic sites. I can’t tell you how many Civil War buffs have told me that they owe their obsession to a battlefield visit.
But you can’t use your history to generate interest if you don’t have a platform for doing so. All those church archives and historical societies operated by the bigger denominations are important enterprises, but it’s mostly researchers and history enthusiasts who will use them. Heritage tourism reaches a broader audience, even if it’s the already-converted who need to know more about their own spiritual heritage.