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Pilgrims on a Journey

by Barbara B. Walden, Executive Director of the Community of Christ Historic Sites Foundation on

A few months ago while traveling across upstate New York, I stumbled upon the Hiram Edson Farm in Clifton Springs, New York. As a lover of 19th-century American religious history and looking for a place to pullover to stretch my legs, the Edson farm was an exciting sight (and site) for this weary traveler! For those unfamiliar with this unique site, the Hiram Edson Farm is traditionally known as “the theological birthplace of the Seventh-day Adventist church.”

Edson BarnIt was here where many of the unique doctrines and theology of the church found genesis with a faithful farmer and his fellow believers. Today the historic site is maintained and interpreted by the Seventh Day Adventist Church. Of the original 55 acres owned by Hiram Edson, today there are 17.5 acres maintained and preserved by the church. Volunteers at the site act as missionaries and interpreters for hundreds of visitors traveling through upstate New York.

Many of the visitors that step foot on the historic property come for religious reasons. Although the volunteer guide that met me that day wouldn’t use the word “pilgrimage,” she shared that many of her visitors are members of the Seventh Day Adventist church who often visit the site to be reminded of their church’s unique calling and purpose. These are visitors who are familiar with the historic peoples and events in the farm’s history and know the stories by heart. They return to the historic place to hear the treasured stories again, to reconnect with their historic roots, and to have an experience that involves finding the deeper meaning behind the history. The guide shared that many of their visitors “leave the Hiram Edson Farm feeling their faith has been strengthened and renewed.”

The Hiram Edson Farm is not the only historic site that encounters pilgrims traveling along on a religious quest to reconnect with their historic and religious roots. Many denominations have invested financial resources and staff towards preserving and maintaining their historic roots for past and present pilgrims. The Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Community of Christ, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to name a few. In their book American Pilgrimage: Sacred Journeys and Spiritual Destinations, Mark Ogilbee and Jana Riess help us understand the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim as they relate it to visitors travelling to the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Ogilbee and Riess write, “The visitors’ center highlights the important distinction between a tourist and a pilgrim: The tourist is all about the destination and what can be obtained there…A pilgrim is after another experience entirely. For the pilgrim, Gethsemani is not a means to an end so much as a journey in and of itself. If the tourist is a consumer, venturing forth to acquire something tangible to prove she has been there, then the pilgrim is more like a participant observer, pausing on the path to take stock of where she has been and where she is going.”[1]

For historic site staff and volunteers, meeting the needs of a pilgrim compared to those of a tourist will take a completely different approach in visitor services. What areas need to be considered? What educational boundaries and topics should be avoided?


[1] Ogilbee, Mark and Jana Riess, American Pilgrimage: Sacred Journeys and Spiritual Destinations (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2006), xi-xii.

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