Our heritage


My first (and so far, only) sacrament meeting talk came when I was about eleven.  I was allotted five minutes on a hot Sunday afternoon in late July to talk about my ancestors.  I was baffled.  I was eleven; I didn’t know anything about my ancestors.  How was I to make such a seemingly esoteric topic relevant to a group of people who, in my eleven-year-old mind, couldn’t have cared less that (as my confused inquiries with relatives taught me) one of my maternal great grandfathers was once Davis County Commissioner of Education?  After grappling for weeks to find terms that would make these people fit into what I dimly perceived to be the parameters of Mormon discourse, I stepped to the podium and said, “I’d like to tell a story about modern-day pioneers.”

Then I told the story of my grandmother’s family, who converted in Holland soon after World War II and traveled across the Atlantic to Zion.  And I could see it in the faces of the audience — this resonated.  It spoke to something in them, tapped into a deep sense of communal identity.

It was – and remains – natural for me to think about being Mormon in the terms of pioneer narrative.  As I grew up on the fringes of Salt Lake City, Brigham Young always seemed more familiar than Joseph Smith; Brother Brigham had a statue on Main Street, imitators at the This is the Place State Park.  His name was on plaques; he had a chapter in my Utah history textbook; we took field trips to his house, where we learned about the challenges of building a city from the dust.  He and his handcart pulling legion had their own holiday, which was up there with Christmas for parades.  The Prophet Joseph lived at church, a spiritual role model like Moses or Paul, but almost as distant.  Similarly, the log cabins and farms dotting the Salt Lake Valley were more real than Nauvoo or Fayette or Cumorah.  Those places were names, sacred symbols, icons; their abstract meaning could not compete with the Hogan cabin, erected in the 1850s, and sitting three blocks from my childhood home.  Mormonism for me was a cultural story of exile and settlement as much as a religious restoration.  It meant something to be a pioneer, and as I wrote that talk, I wanted to claim that identity for my Dutch grandmother, and maybe myself.

Of course, exile is a meaningful theological story as well — it resonates with scriptural archetypes that provide us with a sense of ourselves as a community and additionally, a powerful way for us to think about our own individual sojourns on earth.  Indeed, I think that the experience of the trek west is a major reason why Mormonism has developed a quasi-ethnic religious identity, and have thus survived as a coherent community.

But I wonder, as the church slowly begins to shed its deeply American identity, how meaningful might the pioneer legacy be for Saints who have never seen Utah? The church leadership and bureaucracy is dominated still by children of the Wasatch Front who grew up in much the same culture as I did.  Will symbols like the handcart or Pioneer Day or youth treks be as widespread or useful at all when this is no longer true?  We still look to the children of Israel, I think, but as an extended sacred object lesson; the intimate cultural identification I felt with the pioneers is decidedly not there.  The Israelites are a they; the pioneers are us.  Will that be the fate of Brother Brigham and his company?


  1. I think the pioneer legacy is rapidly dwindling in places as close as California. I have memories of huge California pioneer day celebrations as a child; large picnics, stirring speeches and blow out carnivals with dunking booths, shattering plates with baseballs, confetti eggs, etc. And even though I had little regard for anything Utah I embraced the pioneers and the day in late July we celebrated them.

    Forty years later pioneer day in my California stake comes and goes with barely a whimper. Usually the only mention of it is an obligatory announcement of the pioneer day satellite broadcast.

    We used to sing “Come, Come Ye Saints” regularly when I was a child and there were many adults who would get quite emotional each time they sang it. We even had one sister who would admonish us that rather than using the celebretory anthem voice of the other verses, we had to sing quietly and reverently the verse that began “And should we die…” Years later CCYS was reduced to a once yearly performance on the Sunday closest to July 24. And now, in my experience, it has almost completely disappeared as an LDS hymn, even in July. It is fading fast.

  2. My husband has a wonderful story about a Pioneer Day parade in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Local members, most of them very recent converts, made handcarts out of bamboo and palm fronds, and then they pulled the carts through the streets. But most of the members weren’t really sure what they were commemorating, or why it was important.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    July 24th has lessened in importance in Illinois over the years. When I was young there was always something planned to marke the occasion: a primary activity, or a ward campout. These days usually nothing is planned at all, or if it is, it is an afterthought kind of thing.

    As a descendant of pioneers, I am tied to the pioneer narrative, and it will always resonate for me, but I understand that it’s relevance to the church as a whole will decrease over time with further internationalization.

  4. Mark Butler says:

    Matt, are you referring to George Q. Knowlton, by any chance? I went to Knowlton Elementary in Farmington and have heard of him by reputation, but do not know any details.

  5. John Cline says:

    I grew up in Maryland. My parents were born and raised in Maryland. My grandparents were Marylanders. My ancestry goes back into northern England and Germany. My maternal grandparents were converts. I have no Mormon pioneer blood in me whatsoever and therefore I always feel like an outsider and sometimes even put-off by the devotion the church pays to the pioneers. I simply can’t relate. I can only imagine what the saints from other nations think about this obsession. The church threw a bigger party to celebrate the 150 anniversary of the settling of Utah (remember all that hoopla!!!) than I’ve ever seen them throw for any other anniversary of this church.
    We certainly need to remember the pioneer sacrifice, but we also need to find some new stories. Really.

    It isn’t that non-pioneer Mormons don’t care, it is just that we don’t relate.

  6. Costanza says:

    My ancestors on both sides joined the church in the 1830s and 1840s. For all of that I often still feel, like you do, like “an outsider [who is ]sometimes even put-off by the devotion the church pays to the pioneers.” Like most people I appreciate my ancestral heritage but my “pioneer blood” has nothing–NOTHING–to do with my relationship to God. That’s why I love J. Rueben Clark’s address “To them of the last wagon.” It’s brilliant.

  7. rleonard says:


    Where in Chicago did you grow up?

    I grew up in Lake County in the Lake Villa ward

  8. I’d love to read that J. Rueben Clark talk. While I was searching for visual aids for my Sunday School class recently, I went through several years’ worth of Ensigns and New Eras. I was truly surprised by how many illustrations depicted pioneer life and times–Haun’s Mill, Nauvoo, etc. It seemed odd to me (and I’m all pioneer in my heritage) to see more depictions of 19th Century Mormon life than of the Savior’s life (or so it felt). I didn’t do an actual count, but it got to the point where I was saying, “Oh my. Another pioneer.” I love history, and I find the pioneer stories compelling. But their lives are not the gospel. I’d have to say that I get more inspiration from Harriet Tubman than I do from Eliza Snow.

  9. Costanza says:

    At the risk of incurring the wrath of my ancestors that died at Haun’s Mill and in the Handcart debacle of 1856, I will tell you that Clark’s talk may be found in the July 1997 Ensign.

  10. Mark Butler says:

    Costanza, why then is it important for children to be sealed to parents in a patriarchal chain extending back to Adam and then to God?

    I would like to direct my remarks to you parents and grandparents. I would like to share with you what I would hope you would teach your children about the temple.

    The temple is a sacred place, and the ordinances in the temple are of a sacred character. Because of its sacredness we are sometimes reluctant to say anything about the temple to our children and grandchildren.

    To enter into the order of the Son of God is the equivalent today of entering into the fullness of the Melchizedek Priesthood, which is only received in the house of the Lord.

    Because Adam and Eve had complied with these requirements, God said to them, “Thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity.” (Moses 6:67.)

    Three years before Adam’s death, a great event occurred. He took his son Seth, his grandson Enos, and other high priests who were his direct-line descendants, with others of his righteous posterity, into a valley called Adam-ondi-Ahman. There Adam gave to these righteous descendants his last blessing.

    The Lord then appeared to them.

    The vast congregation rose up and blessed Adam and called him Michael, the prince and archangel. The Lord himself declared Adam to be a prince forever over his own posterity.

    “The order of this priesthood was confirmed to be handed down from father to son, and rightly belongs to the literal descendants of the chosen seed, to whom the promises were made.

    “This order was instituted in the days of Adam, and came down by lineage in [order] … that his posterity should be the chosen of the Lord, and that they should be preserved unto the end of the earth.” (D&C 107:40–42; italics added.)

    How did Adam bring his descendants into the presence of the Lord?

    The answer: Adam and his descendants entered into the priesthood order of God. Today we would say they went to the House of the Lord and received their blessings.

    The order of priesthood spoken of in the scriptures is sometimes referred to as the patriarchal order because it came down from father to son.

    But this order is otherwise described in modern revelation as an order of family government where a man and woman enter into a covenant with God—just as did Adam and Eve—to be sealed for eternity, to have posterity, and to do the will and work of God throughout their mortality.

    If a couple are true to their covenants, they are entitled to the blessing of the highest degree of the celestial kingdom. These covenants today can only be entered into by going to the House of the Lord.

    Adam followed this order and brought his posterity into the presence of God. He is the great example for us to follow.

    Enoch followed this pattern and brought the Saints of his day into the presence of God.

    Abraham, a righteous servant of God, desiring as he said, “to be a greater follower of righteousness,” sought for these same blessings. Speaking of the order of the priesthood, he said: “It was conferred upon me from the fathers; it came down from the fathers, from the beginning of time … even the right of the firstborn, or the first man, who is Adam, our first father, through the fathers unto me.” (Abr. 1:2–3.)

    (Ezra Taft Benson, Ensign, August 1985)

    Also worth noting:

    Therefore, thus saith the Lord unto you, with whom the priesthood hath continued through the lineage of your fathers— For ye are lawful heirs, according to the flesh, and have been hid from the world with Christ in God—
    Therefore your life and the priesthood have remained, and must needs remain through you and your lineage until the restoration of all things spoken by the mouths of all the holy prophets since the world began.
    Therefore, blessed are ye if ye continue in my goodness, a light unto the Gentiles, and through this priesthood, a savior unto my people Israel. The Lord hath said it. Amen.
    (D&C 86:8-11)

  11. Mark Butler says:

    One must not forget the Law of Adoption, of course.

  12. KLC – I am a big fan of Come Come, Ye Saints. I think that I identify as much with Mormon history as I do with the doctrine. That hymn – along with other such distinctive entries as The Spirit of God and If You Could Hie, really speaks to me.

    SV – That is a fascinating story; my impression is that John or Kevin’s experience is more typical for Saints outside of Utah. Anyone know anything about how (or if) other non-American Mormons observe Pioneer Day?

    Margaret – Looking back, what you describe seems particularly true in my own experience, particularly in Primary and the Sunday School classes I had as a teenager. I’ve often thought that Mormons treat the early history of the Restoration as a type of scripture; we mine it for inspirational, didactic stories the same way we do the Old Testament or the Book of Mormon. Interestingly, the acceptable range seems to end with the arrival in Salt Lake; I’m not sure why that is.

    Mark – nope; it was Hubert Burton. :)

  13. Matt,

    I should note that most of the members RT met couldn’t read; it influenced their understanding of LDS religion and culture more than I would have expected.

  14. Mark Butler says:

    No doubt who Burton Elementary in Kaysville is named after…

  15. Kevin Barney says:

    I loved your story about RT, SV.

    Rleonard, I grew up in DeKalb, two hours west of Chicago. When I moved there it was a branch in the Wilmette Stake; eventually it became a ward and is now in the Rockford Stake. I’ll be visiting that ward for the first time in many years in a couple of weeks, as I am going back for my 30-year high school reunion.

  16. Costanza says:

    I’m not sure what your point is.

  17. Mark Butler says:

    Costanza you said that your relationship to your pioneer forebears had NOTHING to do with your relationship to God. Like most absolute assertions that is radically untenable, particularly in LDS theology, where we have a patriarchal (family) order and believe they cannot be saved without us, nor we without them.

    I quoted a couple of authoriatative sources to establish this fact, which is definitely in the running for the least known doctrine of the Church. People participate in temple sealings for years and this apparently never crosses their minds.

  18. [Sigh] I’m descended from the pioneers, but I have an extremely vexed relationship with them, partly because I find Mormon history boring and partly because I just can’t stomach the pioneer hagiography any more than I can stomach Ideal Woman talks. As a person whose footsteps seem more or less constantly dogged by doubt and sin, I don’t want to hear about people who had faith in every single footstep. I always have to fight the urge to tell people extolling someone or other’s perfection to please take it down the hall to the Sunday School for Translated Beings, so that the rest of us grubby humans can talk freely about how to deal with our grubby problems.

    Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think any of this is the pioneers’ fault. I have no doubt that they were as grubby and complex and sin-ridden and interesting as any set of people are. I just can’t listen to the stories we tell about them anymore.

  19. Mark Butler says:

    I have to admit the pioneer thing, especially the hagiographic aspects got a little old circa 1997. I am much more inspired by stories of people who overcame their faults, or even struggled to overcome them, than stories that imply that they had none worth mentioning.

  20. Interesting take on 7/24 from Elder Robert S. Wood, who recently spoke at our stake conference — he said that because we are all members of the Church, 7/24 matters to us because we inherit the fruits of their sacrifice, even if we didn’t have ancestry that was involved in the pioneer migration.

    In his opinion, this is similar to how July 4 matters to all US citizens, even if we arrived from Europe post-1776.

    I’m not saying I agree with his point completely, but it’s an interesting take, nonetheless. [I *do* have direct ancestry involved with many events in early Church history, including the exodus, but that doesn’t make me any more or any less Mormon.]

  21. Man, I must be a square but I love Pioneer Day celebrations. And I loved all of the 1997 Hoopla that others have referred to. I was able to attend the Days of 47 parade that year and it was awesome to see the wagon trains coming in from the group that participated in the recreation. Later that year I moved to Germany and in October, the ward there (Koeln 1) celebrated Pioneer Day by talking about Karl Meiser.

    I think the pioneer narrative can be very powerful because, in a way, we can all be “pioneers.” New converts are often called pioneers because they are the first members in their family, etc. and I think that is okay.

    Viva La Pioneer Day!

  22. I always get frustrated by having to work on July 24–I grew up in Utah, and I know in my heart of hearts that Pioneer Day is the biggest holiday after Christmas and Thanksgiving. I always want to play hookie, go to a street festival, and eat hot dogs.

  23. Floyd the Wonderdog says:

    When I was hired at my current employer, they asked what religious holidays I might need off. I stated that we Mormons are Christians and that we celebrate the normal Christian holidays. Only later did I realize that i could have requested and recieved Pioneer Day as a paid holiday. Dang!

    When I was bishop, we dedicated the Detroit Temple. I was given the task of choosing two people to sit in the Celestial Room during the dedicatory session. When asked who I was going to choose, I replied that that this church has a long history of honoring those who sacrificed to establish and build the kingdom. I gave three tickets (after extensive begging to the SP) to members who had worked to establish this ward. One passed shortly thereafter. His wife said that the dedication was one of the highlights of his life.

    We honor pioneers whether their efforts were in 1830, 1950, or 2006. This 24th do something special for your local pioneers.

  24. Costanza says:

    Radically untenable? A little hyperbole of your own–nice touch. The patriarchal chain seems to be pretty well known, at least in my experience. The Law of Adoption, set aside in 1894, and to which you allude obliquely, would probably be a better candidate for the title of least-known doctrine. Your argument only proves that the fact that I have ancestors at all has some bearing on my existence and, hence, on my relationship to God. Such an observation is so obvious as to be almost worthless. The fact that they were Mormon pioneers, however, is irrelevant. Your quotes would apply equally well if my ancestors were goat-roasting Satan worshippers. God would not punish me for my relationship to the latter, nor does he provide me special favors because of my relationship to the former. I can imagine a counter argument along the lines of “if not for them, you wouldn’t have been born into the church, etc.” That is partially true, but again the issue is what I personally do with my life. If your understanding of LDS theology is that any broken link in the chain negates the potential exaltation of everyone else in the chain, which would be a radically untenable reading of the whole “we can’t be saved without them etc,” doctrine, then I guess your right about my ancestors. It would also mean that no one, oops, there I go with my absolutes again, make that almost no one, would be exalted. I, however, do not accept your premise.

  25. Bro. Jones says:

    #5: Same situation here, and I feel the same way. I really, really don’t care about the pioneers more or less than any of my other spiritual forebears, including Old Testament prophets and Early Christian martyrs. There are lessons to be learned from their stories, but I’m tired of hearing about “our pioneer heritage.” However, I am seeing a lot more talk–especially in the Ensign–about “modern-day pioneers” in other countries, and I both welcome and appreciate such inclusion.

  26. Kristian says:

    I’m a convert who was baptized in MIchigan and just moved to Utah. When I first joined the Church, I used to find myself feeling, like others, a bit put out when members from “Pioneer Stock” would regale tales of their ancestors.

    At some point (I can’t pinpoint when) that began to change. I found myself relating to the stories with my own conversion experience. I became the pioneer. My children are from “pioneer stock”. Even my story of joining the Church in the midwest and moving across the Utah has a pioneer ring to it.

    In an interesting note-now that I’m in Utah, in a ward primarily composed of pioneer children and people born & raised in Utah-I feel like my being a convert almost ups my status. That’s not the most elegant way to put it, I know, but the reaction of people when I tell them of joining the Church in MI, about living in a Stake that is literally 3 hours wide, about driving 50+ miles round trip to the chapel, is one of “Wow, I can’t imagine what that’s like”. I FEEL like a pioneer out here.

    I don’t know about members outside the US, but I hope they feel the same way. I noticed in this month’s Ensign the article about Cambodia. What caught my eye was that they referred to those first members in that country as “pioneers”. I thought that was cool.

  27. John Taber says:

    I always get frustrated by having to work on July 24–I grew up in Utah, and I know in my heart of hearts that Pioneer Day is the biggest holiday after Christmas and Thanksgiving. I always want to play hookie, go to a street festival, and eat hot dogs.

    My wife took out her endowments on (Saturday) July 24, 2004. Given that that temple (Columbia River) was open that day, I thought it most appropriate.

    For the record, I’m an 8th-generation member and Alisa is at least that. We both had ancestors in Nauvoo, and she did in Kirtland as well. But her mother, my father, and her father’s father are all converts.

  28. Chad Too says:

    Floyd, my boss gives me Pioneer Day off each year as a Religious Holiday every year. The funny thing is that it was her idea. She had lived in SLC for a few years early in her career and, despite being a Brooklyn-born devout Jew, thought Pioneer Day was the BEST HOLIDAY EVER. It’s right when you need a holiday, she says, in the height of summer between the 4th of July and Labor Day. She often threatens that she’s going to take it off with me.

    I tried to protest the first year, saying that July 24 was more of a state holiday than a religous one and she replied, “I don’t recall there being much difference between State-run and Church-run things when I was in Utah, so you’re taking the holiday. Touche.

  29. Floyd – what Ward in the metro-detroit area are you from? I am in the Ann Arbor 1st Ward. I might have met you Floys when the Dtrtoit Templw was dedicated, becasue men from our YSA Ward were tasked to do a lot of different things that day.

    And coming back to the point fo the discussion, as a convert, who converted from being a wild and rowdy, and frequently drunk, fraternity member at the Univ of Michigan, I too feel like a “pioneer” of sorts. I have lost all contact with my Hindu family, who have disowned me, and it is like I struck out on a new path and on a wonderful and rewarding adventure when I was baptised.

  30. JA Benson says:

    I love Pioneer Day. The way I see it is everyone in the Church is a pioneer or descended from pioneers. I think that culturally we LDS are a pioneer people. Unfortunately many think that pioneers have nothing to do with them. How many of us still celebrate 4th of July and do not have a Revolutionary War soldier in our lines or Thanksgiving when we don’t have a pilgrim ancestor? Those holidays are part of being an American, just like Pioneer Day should be for LDS people. Traditions and holidays are what bring us together and make us a PEOPLE.
    I have been so proud to know many modern day pioneers. Pioneer Day should be celebrated whole-heartily in the church honoring not just the 1847 pioneers but the pioneers in the various regions of the world, and the recent pioneers that are so many of us.

  31. I agree that many Mormons feel we are a pioneer people. I am interested, though, in what this means. How do we define the concept of a “pioneer people” to, say, a convert family in Japan and make it relevant to their religious experience? Sixty years ago, we might have encouraged them to come to Zion; however, this happens no longer. Should we use the stories of the American West as abstracted didactic fables, or is there a way – and reason – to make the concept more real? I was touched by sid’s story – perhaps, as Zion has become wherever the true in heart gather, a pioneer can be redefined as one who travels a religious path.   I wonder, though, about any connections such an application of the terminology might have to the cultural phenomenon of Pioneer Day.

  32. JA Benson says:

    Great discussion Matt. I agree that Sid has it. To be a pioneer is to give up much of the world and make tremendous sacrifice. Modern day pioneers go through many of the same struggles as 1847 pioneers. This thought should be all rolled into one. The old and the new respected each for their sacrifices. The Gospel would not be with us today if not for the 1847 pioneers and the future will not be with us if not for our modern day pioneers.
    I think that to celebrate Pioneer Day around the world is not an event that can be correlated. The only thing that should be strictly Pioneer Day celebratory fare for the LDS world culture is to sing _Come, Come Ye Saints_. Each culture needs to retain what it is that makes them Asian-LDS, African LDS, intermountain-west LDS etc… What this would probably be is the food of that region. A good celebration always has food.
    If they put me in charge (HA HA)… I would tell the different LDS leaders around the world could come up with different ideas that could include a big ward potluck, firesides that honor their own LDS pioneers as well as the 1847 lot, go to the Temple and do work for their own kindred dead. If they want to pull handcarts and wear bonnets that is great too. I think that Pioneer Day should be inclusive not exclusive and we should do whatever it takes to accomplish this feeling. The important thing is for a tradition to be established. This is one way we can become a Zion people

  33. I like tying the pioneers to the Anti-Nephi-Lehis — that way I can dress my Primary students in pioneer outfits and hand them decorated swords to “bury” when we do our Sharing Time in August (on the theme of “We can have faith like the Stripling Warriors did.”) And everyone wins — you’re either a pioneer/Anti-Nephi-Lehi or you’re a 2nd+generation Mormon/Stripling Warrior. Either way you’re just like major Mormon heroes. Yay!

    (I’m seriously contemplating mixing face paint and bonnets for this Sharing Time, incidentally…)

  34. Mark B. says:

    Back to Comment 1 and the reference to Come, Come Ye Saints:

    First, it was the Mormon Tabernacle Choir that spread the disease of singing the “And should we die . . .” lines as if they were a funeral dirge. I don’t know if it was Richard P. Condie or one of his predecessors who started that. The good news is that the choir seems to have completely abandoned it. Thank goodness!

    Second, “quiet” should not be confused with “reverent” (as in singing “quietly and reverently”). One can, of course, sing reverently and quietly, but one can as well sing loudly and reverently. Don’t let the Primary “shhhh” get you down!

  35. I can tell you that our stake’s trek last week was quite significant for a young woman who joined the Church last year and is about to be kicked out of the house by her parents. Stories of sacrifice seemed to hit home with her. We’re in central California.

  36. Mark Butler says:

    Costanza (#24),

    Where did you ever get the idea that the Law of Adoption has been repealed? Indeed it is practiced nearly every day in the temples. Whenever any adopted child is sealed to their non-birth parents, that is an instance of the Law of Adoption every bit as real as being sealed to Joseph Smith or Brigham Young. The only change in 1894 was in the rules governing when this power should be exercised.

    Now the reason I mentioned it is nescience of the Law of Adoption causes some people to be uncomfortable with the patriarchal, or family order of things, particularly if their parents / ancestors were of questionable character. The LoA comes into play in patching family links when some person or persons does not qualify for celestial glory. See:


    Now I have provided ample source material from President Benson and the D&C on the transitiveness of blessings in the patriarchal (family) order, I can’t see the usefulness of pursuing the point except to ask what in the world Malachi was talking about here:

    Behold, I will reveal unto you the Priesthood, by the hand of Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord.
    And he shall plant in the hearts of the children the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children shall turn to their fathers.
    If it were not so, the whole earth would be utterly wasted at his coming.
    (Malachi, as quoted by the Angel Moroni, D&C 2)

    Why should the earth be wasted unless the children become aware of the promises made to the fathers, and the hearts of the children turn to their fathers if the relationship of the children to the fathers (and vice versa) has absolutely nothing to do with their relationship to God?

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