“Anniversary of Beginnings of Great Pioneer Trek Celebrated,” Ensign, June 1996, 77–78
In a scene similar to that of 150 years ago, hundreds of Latter-day Saints and others gathered in Nauvoo, Illinois, on the icy shore of the Mississippi River as part of a two-day commemoration event. Approximately 1,100 people braved the cold temperature and even colder windchill to retrace the steps of Saints who traveled down Parley Street to the riverbank to begin the 1846 exodus to the Rocky Mountains.
“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 beneficiary,” said Elder Hugh W. Pinnock of the Seventy, a counselor in the North America Central Area Presidency. Elder Pinnock presided at the outdoor meeting, held in a tent not far from the river’s edge where, a century and a half earlier, the first wagons were ferried from Nauvoo to Montrose, Iowa, starting the mass migration of faithful Saints westward.
Elder Pinnock spoke of the indomitable will and the spiritual strength of the pioneer Saints. “This tremendous example provides 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,” he said.
Focusing on the self-reliance and determination of the early pioneers, Elder Pinnock encouraged those in attendance to strive for growth in their personal pioneer journey. “May we seek a level of living that transports us beyond the circumstances and situations of today,” he said. “As the 20th century will soon close, we dwell in a time when science, government, and medicine leave us well protected and cared for, yet if we don’t stretch to a higher life and better way of living, how can we find the true joy that could await all of us? A loving Heavenly Father wants us to become even better, to live our own special glory.”
Also speaking at the chilly outdoor meeting was Brigham Young University professor Susan Easton Black, who described the noble qualities of the pioneers who willingly made the great trek west despite the unseen obstacles and fears they faced. “They were not exactly your sunshine Saints,” she noted. “They were those willing to leave when it’s not convenient. They were those that knew that a prophet of God had spoken, and they heard the whisperings of the Lord. … Why would they leave? The answer is because they were following a prophet of God.”
The 3 February meeting was the first in a series of events celebrating the 150th anniversary of the westward trek of the Latter-day Saints.
The Saints’ departure from Nauvoo was symbolically recreated during the festivities, and on the evening of 3 February several Iowa communities along the Mormon Pioneer Trail simultaneously lit bonfires marking the sites where the early pioneers passed. Many of these towns trace their own origins to the first groups of Saints who developed the early communities to provide food and shelter for those who followed them.
Dr. Loren N. Horton, senior Iowa state historian, spoke at another gathering the same day, reading pioneer journal entries describing personal accounts of daily life during the Mormon trek across Iowa. “It looked like the movement of a nation,” said Dr. Horton, who explained that amid the logistical challenge of moving an entire city of people, the daily task of living continued.
The commemoration events continued on Sunday, with more than 900 people gathered for sacrament meeting, followed in the afternoon by a fireside held at the meetinghouse in Nauvoo. Several descendants from Nauvoo pioneers spoke, sharing moments from their ancestors’ lives. In addition, Elder Bruce Bingham, an Area Authority, spoke of hearing the gospel as a 12-year-old boy when his family visited the Nauvoo Temple site during a vacation. After returning to their home town in Illinois, Elder Bingham’s parents listened to the gospel message and the family was baptized. “I am eternally grateful for Nauvoo,” he said.
As the concluding speaker at the Sunday commemoration, Elder Pinnock spoke of people living in the nearby communities who were not members. “I hope we can understand just a little bit the feelings of those who lived here and nearby,” he said. “We were considered so different from anything they knew.”
Elder Pinnock talked about the future growth of the Church, mentioning predictions that Church membership will grow remarkably during the coming decades. “And so it shall be,” Elder Pinnock declared. “When we only want to do what the Master wants us to do, … then these great things will come to pass.”
Other events to commemorate the history of the Mormon Trail have been scheduled throughout this year. An Iowa Mormon Trail Historical Symposium is planned for May. Two different groups will be recreating the wagon trek across Iowa. The Kanesville Tabernacle is being rebuilt with private donations and will become a local site of historical significance.