Spoken Words by Natalie, my sister, to her congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Utah, USA 07.21.2019
When July 24th rolls around every summer, too often the word “pioneer” is defined as someone who walked west across the Great Plains. This gross misconception is perpetuated by otherwise innocent factors like handcart reenactments, visits to the historic Mormon Trail, and songs that go “Pioneer children sang as they walked, and walked, and walked, and walked…”
I would like to emphasize the fact that walking a great distance did not make anyone a pioneer; not 160 years ago and certainly not today. Going across the plains is just one tiny facet of the pioneer character.
When we think about the middle of the nineteenth century, there were tens of thousands who walked across the plains who would certainly not qualify as a “pioneer:” beaver trappers who came, decimated natural populations, and left; gold and silver miners who came to plunder the earth, then leave; fortune seekers, con men, and women of ill repute who came to take advantage of the worst traits of humanity for their own temporal gain. Such do not deserve the hallowed moniker of “pioneer.”
Today I will talk about three traits that made pioneers in “olden days” (when everything was black and white) and that continue to make pioneers today (even without bonnets and bandanas). These three characteristics are first, cooperation with others. Second, overcoming obstacles through faith in Jesus Christ. Third, consecrated work to build up Zion and endure to the end. In this talk, I will give examples of nineteenth century and modern pioneers so that we all–regardless of ancestry–can be blessed by the heritage of pioneering.
Last week, I was talking with my grandma and asked her to share her feelings about the pioneers. She looked at me with a straight face and said, “Well, after the mobs drove us out of Nauvoo and Brother Brigham and I walked to the Valley…”[laughing]
Although she was exaggerating, the time in which the pioneers of the 1800s lived is not so far from our own! Grandma proved this to me as she reached her hand towards me. As I took her hand in mine, she told me, “You are holding the hand of someone who once held hands with a pioneer.” She was referring to her own great-grandmother, Hannah Mariah Green, who crossed the Plains sometime between the ages of 11 and 13. In fact, they used to have pioneers sit on the stand during Sacrament Meeting and Stake Conferences, well into my grandma’s life as a young married woman!
The first characteristic of a pioneer is their ability to cooperate with others, regardless of circumstances. In the early days of the State of Deseret and then the Utah territory, if you didn’t cooperate and get along with your neighbors, you would die. You couldn’t just drive your 2 horse power wagon to the nearest Walmart.
Think about the environment from which the Saints had just been driven: if someone disagreed with your politics, your religion, your race, or your way of life, the common practice was to get a mob together and drive you away or kill you. Remember, for example, the times Joseph Smith was beaten, tarred, feathered, and then eventually murdered in cold blood?
In Europe, where many of the early converts came from, ethnic tensions frequently brimmed over into brawls and warfare. In America, distrust of foreigners was so deep-seated that immigrant communities were frequent targets of terror and abuse. Sounds a lot like today too, sadly.
But such hatred certainly would not work for true disciples of Jesus Christ. I love the story of the ship International, which carried my fourth great grandfather Richard W. Green. On the occasion of a Festival, held April 6th, 1853, in commemoration of the organization of the Church, a song was sung to the tune of Yankee Doodle.
On board the International
All joyful, and lighthearted,
Bound Zionward, four hundred Saints,
From Liverpool we started.
We’re English, Irish, Scotch, and Welsh
Assembled here together;
Resolved to do the will of God,
Whate’er the wind and weather.
Then, sing aloud, ye Saints of God,
In one united chorus;
Old Babylon we’ll leave behind,
For, Zion is before us.
Upon their arrival in Utah, people from all nationalities, ethnicities, and languages had to learn to live together in harmony. With the sad exception of the massacres and tragedies caused by the Utah Valley settlers, even relationships with the Native inhabitants were very good, comparatively speaking.
In modern times, we live in a very complex and increasingly small world wherein we are going to have to get used to living in close proximity to people whom we may find disagreeable. We must overcome personal prejudices and preferences if we are to have any hope of surviving spiritually. “Perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). Elder Dale G. Renlund spoke of two dear friends, Julia and Thoba, who were “among the early black converts in South Africa. After the apartheid regime ended, black and white members of the Church were permitted to attend church together. For many, the equality of interaction between the races was new and challenging. One time, as Julia and Thoba attended church, they felt they were treated less than kindly by some white members. As they left, Thoba complained bitterly to her mother. Julia listened calmly until Thoba had vented her frustration. Then Julia said, ‘Oh, Thoba, the Church is like a big hospital, and we are all sick in our own way. We come to church to be helped.’”* Almost 30 years later, modern pioneers in that country have learned to cooperate in love and unity. Over 60,000 members, 26 stakes and districts, and the upcoming dedication of a second temple, all underscore this progress.
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland said, “With the complex issues [of today], may we remember pioneers of an earlier day.” He noted that early pioneers “persevered against injustice, misunderstanding, some intolerance, bigotry, racism, against differences of custom and traditions and faith, [and] labored against all of that to carve out for us, their descendants, the wonderful day and the marvelous miraculous time in which we live…. We owe the same pioneering, persevering legacy to our children and our children’s children. People working together are more successful, more prosperous and much more happy than neighborhoods or ethnic groups or religious faiths that are suspicious of one another, threatened by one another, and all too often hostile, even violent, toward one another,” he said. Pioneers cooperate in love and unity with each other.
The second characteristic of pioneers ancient and modern is that pioneers overcome obstacles through their faith in Jesus Christ. My third great-grandmother Anna Bitta Stromberg exercised her faith many times in joining the Church, coming to this country, and joining with the Saints. Here’s a story that the young women should definitely pay attention to. Anna’s parents died when she was a teenager, leaving her to care for her five younger siblings. She took them from Sweden to Denmark for work, and when they saved enough money she took the children to Zion.
When they arrived at the mouth of Emigration Canyon, a group of horsemen told the 24-year-old immigrant and her teen sisters, “’When you get into Salt Lake City, you will be lined up, and Brigham Young will have first choice for a wife, and then others will choose, but no matter who gets you, it will be for a second or third wife. And after you are married, they will hitch you up to a plow and use you as horses or oxen.’”
This “frightened Anna and she went out in the brush, knelt down, and prayed. She told the Lord, ‘I am willing to work, but not be a slave. If you will open up the way for me to get a good husband, and work and earn my own living, I am willing to work all my life and will never complain.’”
After praying, she said that she felt a peace of mind that drove away all her fears. Of course, the terrible scene of forced marriage never occurred, and she ended up marrying Andrew Jens Isgreen. She was the second wife, but this was her own choice.
Here’s another story to help show that pioneers rely on Jesus Christ. Primary kids, listen up! This is a story about a little girl named Tranquilla Ann Brady, my third great-grandmother. She was only 4 years old when she walked across the plains to Utah. I am going to quote several times from the story my aunt wrote for the Friend.
“Tranny had lost the sewing needle! Her mother’s only sewing needle – and Tranny had lost it! What, oh what was she going to do? She had borrowed the sewing needle for just one very short minute to try to mend a small hole in her doll’s dress. When Tranny had finished, she snipped off the thread with the scissors, just as she had seen her mother do many times before – but when she put the scissors in the sewing box, the needle slipped out of her hand into the dust, and though she looked and looked, the small, thin needle could not be found. “Oh whatever shall I do?” She worried. “Mother will punish me for sure, I should have known better than to use it when she wasn’t here.” Back then, they were so poor they could only afford to have one sewing needle, and in the middle of the plains, there were no stores to buy more! “So it was serious when Tranny lost the needle… So she decided to go hide! She could still see the wagons, so she went a little father and a little farther and – guess what? You’re right! She got very hot – and very thirsty – and very, very lost. When she finally realized she was lost, she tried to find her way back, of course, but she only got more tired and more lost. At first, she thought someone would come looking for her, but as the sun grew hotter and hotter she began to think that maybe if she couldn’t find anyone from the wagon train, none of them could find her, either.” Tranquilla fell down on her knees and prayed that someone would find her and she could see her mama and papa again. While she was praying, a man looking for lost cattle spotted her little red dress. Tranquilla had been crying too, so he picked her up and brought her back to her family. For little Tranquilla and for Anna, they both prayed in the name of Jesus Christ, and with their faith in him, they overcame their obstacles, one spiritual and one physical.
A modern pioneer whom I love dearly is a woman I taught on my mission, Luz Maria. She loved our Savior and was willing to follow all of His commandments, but her husband refused to listen to us or allow her to be baptized. She had a deep desire to follow the example of Jesus Christ, but this obstacle seemed insurmountable. Her husband really was a mean, bigoted man. It seemed impossible.
However, when we taught her the Law of the Fast, Luz Maria immediately added fasting to her already potent arsenal of prayer and scripture study. After a few weeks, the husband suddenly reversed his position. Luz Maria and her kids are still wonderfully active members of the Church. These true pioneers acted on their faith in Jesus Christ to overcome the obstacles set before them.
The third trait that makes a pioneer in any day and age is their consecrated work to build up Zion. Once they crossed the plains, the pioneers of yesteryear didn’t just say, “Oh wow, that’s a lot of sagebrush. Okay, moving on.” NO! They stayed put and built families, livelihoods, and communities that have endured.
Brigham Young sent my ancestors to settle all over the territory, where they built their homes and livings from scratch. I am always especially touched by the life of my third great-grandparents, Allen Joseph and Melvina Fisk S—-. Not only did they both suffer from incredibly painful ailments—rheumatoid arthritis, pleurisy, and on-again-off-again cholera—they were sent by Brigham Young to settle the farmer’s paradise of Rockville, Utah. Imagine trying to be a farmer in a place called Rockville! Today, it is the town at the southern entrance of Zion National Park.
Allen Joseph and Melvina raised 12 kids here, in addition to the three who died as young children. They built houses, built a chapel, planted orchards, planted corn, cotton, and wheat, fought plagues and droughts, and did it all in the desert of southern Utah. From 1848 when he left Nauvoo, IL until 1877 when the St. George Temple was finally dedicated, there was no temple in operation. Yes, there was an Endowment House where live ordinances were performed, but vicarious ordinances were supposed to wait for the temple. This 29-year gap tormented Allen Joseph, who was working so hard to teach the Gospel to his children and grandchildren so that they could make covenants with the Lord through baptism, the endowment, and eternal marriage. He understood the sacredness and importance of such ordinances for his dead ancestors as well.
At a moment when he thought he would die in 1863, he made this profound plea to all of his descendants, at least 15 of whom are in this very room right now: “…to ever keep with the Church and observe the order of the Church. In all things obey council to the best of your ability. You must attend to the ordinances of the Priesthood for our dead parents, for we have not yet done our work. And if we do not live to attend to the holy ordinances, we want you to finish our work. We have worn out our bodies in laying the foundation for you to build on; we have grappled with the powers of darkness to help to commence a work which we know will never be destroyed, but we do not expect to live to enjoy much of the fruits of our labor: but we have labored for you that we might leave a rich reward with you. Be strong in the work of the Lord, and whether in life or death, your reward will be sure, and you shall conquer at last.”
He died in 1889, after serving in the St. George temple—a 14 hour walk from his home in Rockville—more than 300 recorded days. This is a man who could barely walk, whose lungs burned with every breath, and who lost an eye in his orchard. My husband and I have now visited all of the pioneer-era temples, and each time we are struck with the sacrifice that must have transpired to build these houses of the Lord. Elder L. Tom Perry of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles tells of an experience visiting the Manti, UT temple: “There is a special spirit in these older temples, which were constructed at great sacrifice by the early pioneers. … As we progressed through the temple session, I could hear in every room those early pioneers saying, ‘Look at what we built with our own hands. We had no power equipment. No contractors or subcontractors were involved in the construction, no fancy cranes to lift up the heavy stones. We performed this labor under our own power.’”
My final examples are of modern pioneers who consecrate their work, time, and talents to build Zion. My ancestor said that the old pioneers “wore out [their] bodies laying the foundation for [us] to build on” and so we shall. Sister Karen F_______ spends almost every morning at the temple. Bishop B________ is here counseling, praying, listening, and blessing every day. Brother and Sister B___ are serving people in our ward almost full-time! I think of all of the Primary teachers, Cub Scout leaders, quorum and class members, and everyone else in this ward who is working to build Zion. A pioneer is “a person who begins or helps develop something new and prepares the way for others to follow.” It is my humble prayer that we can all be pioneers today, tomorrow, and forever. To do so, let us first, cooperate with others; second, overcome obstacles through faith in Jesus Christ, and third, consecrate our work to build up Zion and endure to the end.
[I found so refreshing many of my sister’s thoughts and examples and conclusions regarding the embodiment of a pioneering spirit that I asked her if I could dub her “guest blogger” for the statewide holiday here in Utah called Pioneer Day. It also makes my vacation feel a little more productive.]
*At this juncture, my husband turned to me during the worship service and whispered, “Can you imagine the humility that woman must have had?” In a world full of injustice, humility whispers of compassion toward each soul in need of healing, not just our own, but that even of our oppressors.
PS–As a disclaimer, my sister wrote this talk for non-academic purposes. Please don’t be alarmed at the lack of citations. She’s on summer vacation:)