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?