“Chapter 4: The Pioneer Heritage of Faith and Sacrifice,” Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley (2016)
“Chapter 4,” Teachings: Gordon B. Hinckley
At the dedication of the Columbus Ohio Temple, President Gordon B. Hinckley reflected on his pioneer ancestors. He later recalled:
“As I sat in the celestial room, I thought of my great-grandfather. … I had recently visited his place of burial in Canada just to the north of the New York boundary line. … He died at the young age of 38.”
When President Hinckley’s great-grandfather died, his son Ira, who would become President Hinckley’s grandfather, was not quite three years old. Ira’s mother soon remarried and within a few years moved to Ohio, then to Illinois. She died in 1842, leaving Ira an orphan at age 13. Continuing this story, President Hinckley said:
“My grandfather [Ira Hinckley] was baptized in Nauvoo and … subsequently crossed the plains in the migration of [the pioneers].” During that journey in 1850, Ira’s “young wife and his [half brother] both died on the same day. He made rough coffins and buried them and picked up his infant child and carried her to [the Salt Lake] valley.
“At the request of Brigham Young he built Cove Fort, was the first president of the stake in Fillmore, [Utah,] and did a thousand other things to move this work forward.
“Then came my father. … He became president of the largest stake in the Church with more than 15,000 members.”
President Hinckley’s thoughts soon turned from his ancestry to his posterity. He continued:
“Reflecting on the lives of these three men while I was seated in the temple, I looked down at my daughter, at her daughter, who is my grandchild, and at her children, my great-grandchildren. I suddenly realized that I stood right in the middle of these seven generations—three before me and three after me.
“In that sacred and hallowed house there passed through my mind a sense of the tremendous obligation that was mine to pass on all that I had received as an inheritance from my forebears to the generations who have now come after me.”1
In addition to expressing gratitude for his own pioneer ancestors and the heritage of the early Latter-day Saint pioneers, President Hinckley often emphasized that Church members around the world are pioneers today. In 1997 he told the Saints of Guatemala: “This year we are commemorating the 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake Valley. They came a long way in wagons and handcarts. They were pioneers. But pioneering continues to go on. All over the world we have pioneers, and you are among those pioneers.”2 To the Saints in Thailand he declared, “You are pioneers in carrying forward the work of the Lord in this great nation.”3 While visiting Ukraine in 2002, he spoke similar words: “The Church had its pioneers in early days, and you are now pioneers in this time.”4
When President Hinckley spoke of the early pioneers, his purpose was much bigger than focusing on those who lived in the past. He looked to the future, hoping that the faith and sacrifices of those Saints would “become a compelling motivation for us all, for each of us is a pioneer in his own life, often in his own family.”5
It was by faith that a small band of early converts [in the eastern United States] moved from New York to Ohio and from Ohio to Missouri and from Missouri to Illinois in their search for peace and freedom to worship God according to the dictates of conscience.
It was through the eyes of faith that they saw a city beautiful [Nauvoo] when first they walked across the swamps of Commerce, Illinois. With the conviction that faith without works is dead, they drained that swampland, they platted a city, they built substantial homes and houses for worship and education and, crowning all, a magnificent temple, then the finest building in all of Illinois.
… Persecution [soon followed], with profane and murderous mobs. Their prophet was killed. Their dreams were shattered. Again it was by faith that they pulled themselves together under the pattern he had previously drawn and organized themselves for another exodus.
With tears and aching hearts they left their comfortable homes and their workshops. They looked back on their sacred temple, and then with faith turned their eyes to the West, to the unknown and to the uncharted, and while the snows of winter fell upon them, they crossed the Mississippi [River] that February of 1846 and plowed their muddy way over the Iowa prairie.
With faith they established Winter Quarters on the Missouri [River]. Hundreds died as plague and dysentery and black canker cut them down. But faith sustained those who survived. They buried their loved ones there on a bluff above the river, and in the spring of 1847 they started … toward the mountains of the West.
It was by faith that Brigham Young looked over [the Salt Lake] valley, then hot and barren, and declared, “This is the place.” Again by faith, four days later, he touched his cane to the ground … and said, “Here will be the temple of our God.” The magnificent and sacred [Salt Lake Temple] is a testimony of faith, not only of the faith of those who built it but of the faith of those who now use it in a great selfless labor of love.
Wrote Paul to the Hebrews, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1.) All of the great accomplishments of which I have spoken were once only “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” But with vision, with labor, and with confidence in the power of God working through them, they brought their faith to reality.6
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. …
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 [1,600 kilometers], from the nearest settlements to the east and eight hundred miles [1,300 kilometers] 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.7
Behind us is a glorious history. It is bespangled with heroism, tenacity to principle, and unflagging fidelity. It is the product of faith. Before us is a great future. It begins today. We cannot pause. We cannot slow down. We cannot slacken our pace or shorten our stride.8
It is proper that we pause to pay reverent respect to those who laid the foundation of this great work. … Their grand objective was Zion [see D&C 97:21; Moses 7:18]. They sang about it. They dreamed of it. It was their great hope. Their epic journey must stand forever as an incomparable undertaking. The movement of tens of thousands to [the] West was fraught with every imaginable hazard, including death, whose grim reality was familiar to every wagon train and every handcart company.
I stand in reverent respect for Brigham Young. He saw the Salt Lake Valley in vision long before he saw it with his natural eyes. Otherwise I doubt he ever would have stopped here. There were greener lands in California and Oregon. There was deeper and richer soil elsewhere. There were great fields of timber in other places, much more water, and climates more equable and pleasant.
There were mountain streams here, it is true, but none of them was very large. The soil was totally untried. No plow had ever broken its hard-baked surface. I marvel, I simply marvel, that President Young would lead a large company … to a place where there never before had been a sowing and a harvest. …
They were travel-worn, these pioneers. It had taken 111 days to bring them from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley. They were tired. Their clothes were worn. Their animals were jaded. The weather was hot and dry—the hot weather of July. But here they were, looking down the years and dreaming a millennial dream, a grand dream of Zion.9
I stood the other day on the old docks of Liverpool, England. There was practically no activity the Friday morning when we were there. But once this was a veritable beehive. During the 1800s, tens of thousands of our people walked over the same stone paving on which we walked. They came from across the British Isles and from the lands of Europe, converts to the Church. They came with testimony on their lips and faith in their hearts. Was it difficult to leave their homes and step into the unknown of a new world? Of course it was. But they did it with optimism and enthusiasm. They boarded sailing vessels. They knew the crossing at best was hazardous. They soon found out that for the most part it was miserable. They lived in cramped quarters week after week. They endured storms, disease, sickness. Many died on the way and were buried at sea. It was an arduous and fearsome journey. They had doubts, yes. But their faith rose above those doubts. Their optimism rose above their fears. They had their dream of Zion, and they were on their way to fulfill it.10
I take you back to … October 1856. On Saturday [October 4,] Franklin D. Richards and a handful of associates arrived in [the Salt Lake] valley. They had traveled from Winter Quarters with strong teams and light wagons and had been able to make good time. Brother Richards immediately sought out President Young. He reported that there were hundreds of men, women, and children scattered over the long trail … to [the Salt Lake] valley. Most of them were pulling handcarts. … Ahead of them lay a trail that was uphill all the way to the Continental Divide with many, many miles beyond that. They were in desperate trouble. … All of them would perish unless they were rescued.
I think President Young did not sleep that night. I think visions of those destitute … people paraded through his mind.
The next morning he … said to the people:
“I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak. … It is this. … Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles [1,100 kilometers] from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. The text will be, ‘to get them here.’
“That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people.
“I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. Also 12 tons of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams.
“I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains” (in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion , 120–21).
That afternoon food, bedding, and clothing in great quantities were assembled by the women.
The next morning, horses were shod and wagons were repaired and loaded.
The following morning, Tuesday, 16 mule teams pulled out and headed eastward. By the end of October there were 250 teams on the road to give relief.11
When the rescuers reached the beleaguered Saints, they were like angels from heaven. People wept tears of gratitude. The handcart people were transferred into wagons so they could travel more quickly to the Salt Lake community.
Some two hundred died, but a thousand were saved.12
Stories of [those] beleaguered Saints and of their suffering and death will be repeated again. … Stories of their rescue need to be repeated again and again. They speak of the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
… I am thankful that we do not have brethren and sisters stranded in the snow, freezing and dying, while trying to get to … their Zion in the mountains. But there are people, not a few, whose circumstances are desperate and who cry out for help and relief.
There are so many who are hungry and destitute across this world who need help. I am grateful to be able to say that we are assisting many who are not of our faith but whose needs are serious and whom we have the resources to help. But we need not go so far afield. We have some of our own who cry out in pain and suffering and loneliness and fear. Ours is a great and solemn duty to reach out and help them, to lift them, to feed them if they are hungry, to nurture their spirits if they thirst for truth and righteousness.
There are so many young people who wander aimlessly and walk the tragic trail of drugs, gangs, immorality, and the whole brood of ills that accompany these things. There are widows who long for friendly voices and that spirit of anxious concern which speaks of love. There are those who were once warm in the faith, but whose faith has grown cold. Many of them wish to come back but do not know quite how to do it. They need friendly hands reaching out to them. With a little effort, many of them can be brought back to feast again at the table of the Lord.
My brethren and sisters, I would hope, I would pray, that each of us … would resolve to seek those who need help, who are in desperate and difficult circumstances, and lift them in the spirit of love into the embrace of the Church, where strong hands and loving hearts will warm them, comfort them, sustain them, and put them on the way of happy and productive lives.13
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.14
We are still pioneering. We have never ceased pioneering from the time … that our people left Nauvoo and came … eventually into the valley of the Great Salt Lake. There was adventure in that. But the purpose of it was to find a place where they could establish themselves and worship God according to the dictates of conscience. …
Now, we are still reaching out across the world into places that [once] scarcely seemed possible to access. … I have witnessed personally the growth of the Church in the Philippines. It was my privilege to open the missionary work there in 1961, when we were able to find one native Filipino member of the Church in a meeting which we held in May of 1961. [In 1996] we were in Manila and had a congregation … of some 35,000 in that great Araneta Coliseum. … To me it is a miracle [from] when we opened the work in that great land of the Philippines [see pages 29–30 for more about this experience].
We are reaching out everywhere, and that takes pioneering. Our missionaries do not live under the best of circumstances when they go to some of these areas, but they go forward and do their work, and it bears fruit. Before long we have a handful of members, then a hundred members, and then five hundred members, and then a thousand members.15
The days of pioneering in the Church are still with us; they did not end with covered wagons and handcarts. … Pioneers are found among the missionaries who teach the gospel and they are found among the converts who come into the Church. It usually is difficult for each of them. It invariably involves sacrifice. It may involve persecution. But these are costs which are willingly borne, and the price that is paid is as real as was the price of those who crossed the plains in the great pioneering effort more than a century ago.16
Whether you have pioneer ancestry or came into the Church only yesterday, you are a part of this whole grand picture of which those men and women dreamed. Theirs was a tremendous undertaking. Ours is a great continuing responsibility. They laid the foundation. Ours is the duty to build on it.
They marked the path and led the way. Ours is the obligation to enlarge and broaden and strengthen that path until it encompasses the whole earth. … Faith was the guiding principle in those difficult days. Faith is the guiding principle we must follow today.17
What a marvelous thing it is to have a great heritage, my brothers and sisters. What a grand thing to know that there are those who have gone before and laid out the way we should walk, teaching those great eternal principles that must be the guiding stars of our lives and of those who come after us. We today can follow their example. The pioneers were people of great faith, of tremendous loyalty, of unthinkable industry, and of absolutely solid and unbending integrity.18
We stand today as the recipients of [the pioneers’] great effort. I hope we are thankful. I hope we carry in our hearts a deep sense of gratitude for all that they have done for us.
… As great things were expected of them, so are they of us. We note what they did with what they had. We have so much more, with an overwhelming challenge to go on and build the kingdom of God. There is so much to do. We have a divine mandate to carry the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. We have a charge to teach and baptize in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Said the resurrected Savior, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” [Mark 16:15]. …
Our forebears laid a solid and marvelous foundation. Now ours is the great opportunity to build a superstructure, all fitly framed together with Christ as the chief cornerstone.19
You are the fruit of all of [the pioneers’] planning and of all of their labors. … What a wonderful people they were. There is nothing like their great effort in all of history. … God bless their memory to our good. When the way seems hard, when we are discouraged thinking all is lost, we can turn to them and see how much worse was their condition. When we wonder about the future, we can look to them and their great example of faith. …
With so great an inheritance, we must go forward. We must never let down. We must hold our heads high. We must walk with integrity. We must “do what is right [and] let the consequence follow” (“Do What Is Right,” Hymns, 1985, no. 237).20
Why was faith essential for the pioneers who wanted to gather in the Salt Lake Valley? (See section 1.) How did they put their faith into action? How can we put our faith into action to help bring about the “great future” ahead of us?
President Hinckley taught that the early pioneers looked to the future, with Zion as their “grand objective,” “great hope,” and “dream” (section 2). Why do you think this was such a powerful motivating force for the early pioneers? What similar hopes motivate us today?
What impresses you about President Hinckley’s story of the rescue of the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers? (See section 3.) How does Brigham Young’s rescue call show his prophetic inspiration? What can we learn from those who responded to his call? What can we do to rescue and lift those who are in need today?
How does looking to the past help you “gain appreciation for the present and perspective for the future”? (See section 4.) In what ways is each of us a pioneer?
Why is it good for us to honor the early pioneers? (See section 5.) In what sense are all Church members blessed by the faith and sacrifices of those pioneers? How can the examples of the early pioneers help us as we face challenges?
“Meaningful discussions are fundamental to most gospel teaching. … Through well-conducted discussions, learners’ interest and attentiveness are increased. Each person present can be encouraged to become actively engaged in the learning process. … Ask questions that encourage thoughtful comments and help individuals truly ponder the gospel” (Teaching, No Greater Call , 63).