I was asked to speak in Sacrament Meeting yesterday about pioneers, it being the 24th. I began by recounting my experience of finding Green Flake’s grave following the description I posted a couple of weeks ago (note that some of the latter comments in this post assume that the Flake material is freshly delivered). I then proceeded along this outline:
As a child raised here in Bellevue, the only cousins living outside of Utah, I remember viewing Pioneer Day to be conceit of Utah Mormonism. Cotton candy and parades–silly distractions from what truly mattered in Mormonism: the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. This view of Pioneer Day betrayed my own insecurities and lack of perspective rather than any substantive criticism of Mormon culture.
And there are valid criticisms to make of our approach to our pioneers. For example, only four percent or so of the pioneers pulled handcarts [could be higher or lower, the recent podcast on lds.org stated less than 10%]. We have often made a caricature the most accessible image of our great heros. Asking why we do celebrate our pioneers, however, is an excellent question.
Jewish people celebrate Passover as a memorial of their ancestor’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. They remember the Lord’s dealings with their people and the covenant of Yahweh over them. Nephi invoked the exodus when faced with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of recovering the plates in Jerusalem. Surely if his fathers and mothers could find miraculous strength in the Lord so could he and his brothers. In Joshua’s famous sermon challenging Israel to choose the Lord, before authoring a covenant to serve him, Joshua recounted:
17For the Lord our God, he it is that brought us up and our fathers out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage, and which did those great signs in our sight, and preserved us in all the way wherein we went, and among all the people through whom we passed:…
23Now therefore put away, said he, the strange gods which are among you, and incline your heart unto the Lord God of Israel.
These are some of the same reasons we remember our own exodus and the people whose biological families the Spirit of the Lord tore asunder, and then stitched back together in his Temple. We remember their plight, their suffering, their heroism, their failures, their faith, and their sacrifice, all of which created the foundation for our modern Church. They should inspire us in our moment of desperation and remind us to turn away from the strange gods in our midst.
Only 20 days after we celebrate the birth of our nation, we are celebrating our spiritual progenitor’s rejection of that nation (as well as our nation’s rejection of them). The first pioneers fled the US to create a new nation in the Great Basin. Like them, like the Israelites, we all reside as slaves in Egypt and must be liberated, and must wend our way to the promised land. And where my sons will look back 177 years to the moment when their first ancestor joined the Church of Christ, so too will scores look back to many of you in 177 years from now as their first ancestor to follow the call to wander through the wilderness and find their way home. Despite any biological relation we may or may not have, our pioneers are our archetypes. And their stories have become sacred to me. They have become my friends.
Their stories span the complete spectrum of human experience. Carefree days walking on the plains, dancing to the brass band, sickness, death and occasionally miracles. Hosea and Samantha Stout are in many ways typical and in many ways atypical of the first pioneers. They left Nauvoo with six children. Within a year and a half, they had all perished. Hosea wrote in his diary after the passing of his namesake:
Thus died my only son and one too on whom I had placed my own name and was truly the dearest object of my heart. Gone too in the midst of affliction sorrow & disappointment In the wild solitary wilderness. Surrounded by every discouraging circumstance that is calculated to make man unhappy and disconsolate. Without the necessarys of life, Without even our daily bread and no prospects for the future. There in this wild land to lay him… Discouraged, desolate & such frequent disappointments as had lately been my lot and no reason to expect any thing better in future could now only occupy my mind & the mind of my wife the bereaved mother We had now only one child a daughter left & that was born on the road & what was [her] fate was [she] to be laid by the way side also & we left uterly destitute & disconsolate I have often heard people tell of loosing the darling object of their heart.
…This the darling object of my heart gone seemed to cap the climax of all my former misfortunes and seemed more than all else to leave me uterly hopeless. But I shall ceace to indulge in my feelings any longer
Suffice it to say that every attention and kindness was now proffered to me that I needed on the occasion. There was a good coffin made for him. After which we all moved on and buried him on a hill in the prairie about one mile from the Nodaway where there was the grave of an infant of Br John Smith and then pursued our journey leaving the two lovely innocents to slumber in peace in this solitary wild untill we should awake them in the morn of the resurrection
With a five month old son bearing my name and two other children whom I love, I simply cannot bear to imagine myself in this most hopeless condition. And yet the Stout’s resolution did not appear to waiver; they looked forward to the Resurrection when Christ would make their family whole. They went on to create a new family in the Valley, though I imagine their scars will persist until that great and hopeful day.
Fortunately, we are not called upon to put so much on the altar of the Lord. I honestly do not think that I would be able. Our wilderness is neither so desolate nor hopeless. Yet there is pain as well as joy and many fall by the way. We look forward to the morning of our full restitution. And we are obligated to find our way to the promise land, where we will hail each other as brothers and sisters, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant…to be friends and [kin] through the grace of God and in the bonds of love…forever and ever.