“The Faith of the Pioneers,” Ensign, July 1984, 3
It is proper to contemplate the pioneers whose arrival in the Salt Lake Valley 137 years ago we commemorate this month. The tremendous progress of the Church in which we, as all members, share today is but the lengthened shadow of the faith and sacrifices of those devoted early Saints.
It is good to look to the past to gain appreciation for the present and perspective for the future. It is good to look upon the virtues of those who have gone before, to gain strength for whatever lies ahead. It is good to reflect upon the work of those who labored so hard and gained so little in this world, but out of whose dreams and early plans, so well nurtured, has come a great harvest of which we are the beneficiaries. Their tremendous example can become a compelling motivation for us all, for each of us is a pioneer in his own life, often in his own family, and many of us pioneer daily in trying to establish a gospel foothold in distant parts of the world.
Can a generation that lives with central heating and air conditioning, with the automobile and the airplane, with the miracle of television and the magic of the computer understand, appreciate, and learn from the lives and motives of those who had none of these and yet accomplished much of tremendous consequence?
In the environment in which many of us live, there is need for reminders of lessons learned in the past. In our times of abundance, it is good occasionally to be taken back to earlier days, to have our minds refocused on the struggles of the early Latter-day Saints, to remind us of the necessity for labor if the earth is to be made to yield, of the importance of faith in God if there is to be lasting achievement, and of the need to recognize that many of the so-called old values are worthy of present application.
Oh, how much is faith needed in each of our lives—faith in ourselves, faith in our associates, and faith in the living God.
Those pioneers who broke the sunbaked soil of the Mountain West valleys came for one reason only—“to find,” as Brigham Young is reported to have said, “a place where the devil can’t come and dig us out.” They found it, and against almost overwhelming adversities they subdued it. They cultivated and beautified it for themselves. And with inspired vision they planned and built a foundation that blesses members throughout the world today.
May I review some aspects of the faith of our early pioneers, a faith which carries such tremendous impact for all of us—faith in self, faith in our associates, and faith in God.
Faith in self. One hundred and thirty-seven years ago the pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley. They had traveled from the Missouri River, taking three months to cover the distance we cover in two hours by airplane. With faith in their capacity to do what needed doing, they set to work. Theirs was a philosophy of self-reliance. There was no government to assist them. They had natural resources, it is true. But they had to dig them out and fashion them. Their workmanship is a miracle to me. They had little more than their bare hands. Their tools were simple and relatively crude in comparison with ours. Of machinery they had little, and for the most part it was self-improvised. But they had skills, patiently learned, in masonry, the working of wood, the making and application of plaster, the setting of glass. The quality of their craftsmanship is not excelled in our time. In many respects, it is not equaled. Those who look upon it today are quick to agree that it was inspired.
Many years ago I had a remarkable teacher at the University of Utah, a Jewish scholar, the first Jew to teach at a university in the state of Utah. He was from the East and came west with trepidation. As he walked up Main Street in Salt Lake City, his eye caught sight of the temple with the gold figure atop the highest tower. That temple was a thing of beauty and wonder to him. He spoke in years that followed of standing and looking at the temple, at the beauty of its symmetry, at the upward reach of its towers, at the strength of its design, at the remarkable detail of its workmanship. During all of the years that he lived in Salt Lake City it never became commonplace to him.
I walked through that temple the other day. There was renewed in my mind a tremendous appreciation for its remarkable beauty and for the capacity of its builders.
A short time ago the Church had as guests in the Salt Lake Tabernacle some of the great leaders of America. They marveled at that magnificent and unique building. It was constructed more than a century ago in a spirit of self-reliance by a people who had faith that they could do great and remarkable things, notwithstanding serious handicaps, if they put their minds to doing them.
In that spirit of self-reliance they believed in education to qualify their children for responsibilities in the society of which they would become a part. Their library resources were extremely limited. But there was no limit on the inspiration of their teachers.
Read the letters, read the writings, read the journals of those early pioneers who were the products of the simple schools of the day. They may have had some problems with capitalization and punctuation, but their powers of expression were tremendous.
Their textbooks were few. They had the McGuffey readers, those remarkable books put together by William Holmes McGuffey beginning in 1836. The McGuffey reader used works by Shakespeare, Thoreau, Tennyson, and others considered too difficult to read today. But added to the wonderful language of these master writers, those simple textbooks unabashedly taught lessons on honesty, fairness, morality, and the work ethic.
Faith in others. Our pioneer forebears worked together for the common good. I am profoundly grateful for the essence of that spirit of helpfulness which has come down through the generations and which has been so evident in the troubles Latter-day Saints experience in time of disaster and difficulty. The mayor of Salt Lake City told me that when the Salt Lake City flood situation became serious one Sunday afternoon in 1983 that he called a stake president. Within a very short time 4,000 volunteers showed up. The story of such mutual helpfulness caught the attention of many individuals and publications across the nation. Latter-day Saints, working together with their neighbors of other faiths, have labored with one another in times of distress and have been heralded on radio and television, in newspapers and magazines. Writers have treated it as if it were a new and unique phenomenon. It is not new, although it may be unique in this time. I noticed with interest the quoted comment of a Federal Relief official who said that those sent to Utah to offer government aid had received far fewer calls than they had anticipated. The fact is that many people simply said resolutely, as their forebears before them might have said, “We will work together and do what we need to do to restore our homes and farms.” May God bless all who work unitedly with such faith and love and appreciation one for another in times of difficulty.
Faith in God. The pioneers regarded their coming west as a blessing divinely given. Said Brigham Young on one occasion: “I do not wish men to understand I had anything to do with our being moved here, that was the providence of the Almighty; it was the power of God that wrought out salvation for this people, I never could have devised such a plan.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, ed. John A. Widtsoe, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1954, p. 480.)
The power that moved our gospel forebears was the power of faith in God. It was the same power which made possible the exodus from Egypt, the passage through the Red Sea, the long journey through the wilderness, and the establishment of Israel in the Promised Land.
It was by this power that our gospel forebears left Nauvoo and the beautiful lands of the Mississippi to travel to the shores of the Great Salt Lake. To me, it is a thing of never-ending wonder that Brigham Young and his associates had the faith to move to the mountain valleys of Utah. Of course, there were others who traversed the continent, but for the most part they were small groups. The movement of our people involved an exodus of many thousands to a land which others thought barren and unproductive. Nevertheless, they went west, putting their trust in God that he would rebuke the sterility of the soil and temper the climate that they might be sustained and grow and become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains in order to send from its bastions the word of truth everywhere.
It was by the power of faith that they threaded their way up the Elkhorn and along the Platte, past Chimney Rock, and on to South Pass, down the Sweetwater to Independence Rock, and finally over Big Mountain and into Salt Lake valley.
I have often read the words of a thirteen-year-old girl, my wife’s grandmother. I regard them as something of a classic. Her family was converted in Brighton, England, in 1856. They sold their possessions and sailed from Liverpool with 900 others on the vessel Horizon. After six weeks at sea they landed at Boston and then traveled by steam train to Iowa City for fitting out.
There they purchased two yoke of oxen, one yoke of cows, a wagon, and a tent. They were assigned to travel with and assist one of the handcart companies.
At Iowa City their first tragedy also occurred. Their youngest child, less than two years of age, suffering from exposure, died and was buried in a grave never again visited by a member of the family. My wife’s grandmother, then a thirteen-year-old girl, wrote of their experiences:
“We traveled from fifteen to twenty-five miles a day … till we got to the Platte River. … We caught up with the handcart companies that day. We watched them cross the river. There were great lumps of ice floating down the river. It was bitter cold. The next morning there were fourteen dead. … We went back to camp and had our prayers and … sang ‘Come, Come Ye Saints, No Toil Nor Labor Fear.’ I wondered what made my mother cry that night. … The next morning my little sister was born. It was the twenty-third of September. We named her Edith. She lived six weeks and died. … She was buried at the last crossing of the Sweetwater.
“When we arrived at Devil’s Gate it was bitter cold. We left many of our things there. … My brother James … was as well as he ever was when we went to bed that night. In the morning he was dead. …
“My feet were frozen; also my brother’s and my sister’s. It was nothing but snow. We could not drive the pegs in our tents. … We did not know what would become of us. Then one night a man came to our camp and told us … Brigham Young had sent men and teams to help us. … We sang songs; some danced, and some cried. …
“My mother never got well. … She died between the Little and Big Mountains. … She was forty-three years of age. …
“We arrived in Salt Lake City nine o’clock at night the eleventh of December, 1856. Three out of the four that were living were frozen. My mother was dead in the wagon. …
“Early next morning Brigham Young came. … When he saw our condition, our feet frozen and our mother dead, tears rolled down his cheeks. …
“The doctor amputated my toes … while the sisters were dressing mother for her grave. … That afternoon she was buried.
“I have often thought of my mother’s words before we left England. ‘Polly, I want to go to Zion while my children are small so that they can be raised in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.’” (Mary Goble Pay, ms. in possession of author.)
Polly’s story is representative of the stories of thousands. It is an expression of a marvelous but simple faith, an unquestioning conviction, that the God of Heaven in his power will make all things right and bring to pass his eternal purposes in the lives of his children.
We need so very, very much a strong burning of that faith in the living God and in his living, resurrected Son, for this was the great, moving faith of our gospel forebears.
Theirs was a vision, transcendent and overriding all other considerations. When they came west they were a thousand miles, a thousand tedious miles, from the nearest settlements to the east and eight hundred miles from those to the west. A personal and individual recognition of God their Eternal Father to whom they could look in faith was of the very essence of their strength. They believed in that great scriptural mandate: “Look to God and live.” (Alma 37:47.) With faith they sought to do his will. With faith they read and accepted divine teaching. With faith they labored until they dropped, always with a conviction that there would be an accounting to him who was their Father and their God.
Brigham Young’s words concerning his own death and burial are worth noting. After giving instructions concerning where he should be buried, he said, “There let my earthly house or tabernacle rest in peace, and have a good sleep, until the morning of the first resurrection; no crying or mourning with anyone as I have done my work faithfully and in good faith.” (cited in Preston Nibley, Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1936, p. 537; italics added.)
As we reflect on those who have gone before us, and as we consider our present labors for the good of ourselves and others, would that we all might say each day, “I am doing my work faithfully and in good faith.”
Let us look again to the power of faith in ourselves, faith in our associates, and faith in God our Eternal Father. Let us prayerfully implement such faith in our lives.
Some Points of Emphasis. You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussion:
1. The tremendous example of the pioneers can become a compelling motivation for us all, for we are all pioneers in our own lives.
2. The pioneers had faith in themselves—in their capacity to do what needed doing.
3. Our pioneer forebears worked together for the common good, especially in time of disaster and difficulty.
4. The pioneers spoke with appreciation for—and never lost faith in—the nation of which they were a part.
5. We need a similar strong faith in the living God and in his living, resurrected Son—for this was the great, moving faith of our gospel forebears.
1. Relate your personal feelings or experiences about the faith of the pioneers. Ask family members to share their feelings.
2. Are there quotations in this article that the family might read aloud and discuss?
3. Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the quorum leader or bishop to the household head?