The relevance of the pioneers

Today is Pioneer Day, celebrating the arrival of Brigham Young and the first mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Why do we need to remember the pioneers? What relevance does this date have for Church members outside of Utah?

The Church would not exist without the pioneers, it’s true. Without the trek to Utah, we would have lingered in the midwest, become surrounded by the world and filtered into nothingness. By leading the Saints to an unsettled, unknown land, Brigham Young was able to set up a Kingdom of God in miniature that preserved the faith and established a mormon culture that persists today. For this I’m grateful, but I am not sure that this theme is what Pioneer Day celebrates. The day strikes me as something more akin to Civil War re-enactments: more concerned with the accuracy of historical minutiae and personal anecdotes than with the reasons for the pioneers’ sacrifices or the lessons of their history. Of course, it has always seemed odd to me to perform re-enactments and Treks and similar pioneer experiments. The whole of them strike me as a kind of PBS reality show without the cameras or difficulty. But I wonder how we ought to celebrate Pioneer Day.

Here’s my list of Pioneer Day events I’d like to see (or at least read about in the Deseret News, since no Pioneer Day events will likely occur outside of Utah):

1. Celebration of Foreign Pioneers. Let’s see more history of the Church in its international expansion, with more stories of the first members in new countries and cultures. Even better, stories of the first members that remained in their homelands, founding Zion abroad.

2. Celebration of Modern Pioneers. Unfortunately, the idea of pioneering today seems irretrievably tied to technological advancement. That’s an important element, to be sure, but I’d like to see more stories of mormon philanthropists, micro-entrepreneurs, service missionaries, and infrastructure-builders that are physically engaged in founding new lives.

3. Less history, more history. I would dearly love to leave behind period garb and buggy rides, in favor of reading more of the political and economic themes of the pioneer exodus and the new Zion in the West. I’d like to replace BYU annually making its pioneer odometers with BYU annually showing us the political and religious structure of the intermountain West and how Brigham Young set up and structured the colonies and their missions. Admittedly, we need some of the hay rides and rodeos — that’s part of our cultural history — but in my opinion we need less of those trappings in favor of understanding the world of 1847.

4. New Pioneer Stories. I would like to hear more stories from the personal journals and newspapers of the day, more narratives that haven’t been repeated to death in the Ensign and elsewhere. I feel saddened in particular that the stories of the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies have been subject to such vain repetition that they have lost much of their original potency. In order to preserve the magic and vitality of the Pioneer era, we need to broaden our source material beyond what is merely dispensed to us.

Final note: many, many people already engage in each of these four ideas. I don’t mean to belittle their efforts. But I think the concept of the Pioneers needs to be broadened and made more relevant to the Church membership as a whole if July 24 is to remain a meaningful celebration.


  1. Yep. All four are fine suggestions and we, the church and individuals, would be better for it. I think the best way is to find those stories on as individuals and share them. Perhaps, we wait to much to receive our information from the dispenser.

  2. rleonard says:

    Good post,

    I like number #1. Its more relevant for today. The adults in my TBM ward here in the bible belt are probably 40% converts. I sat one of the sides and there was an adult convert in every family 5 rows behind us and 4 rows in front of us on Sunday.

    What is intersting is that as the church grows less and less people are aware of the history of the pioneers.

    2 weeks ago both of my home teachers who are converts from the Southern Baptists came over and said that they knew little about the pioneers and what is the story with July 24th? My ward is full of former Baptists (three more were baptized in May) and they all have really sweet “pioneer” stories to tell

  3. Thanks for the comments. Here is an example of what I like to read on Pioneer Day.

  4. Pioneer day is part of our creation myth, it is more like Independence Day than Civil War reenacting. Do you have to have a colonial ancestor to celebrate (and enjoy celebrating) the 4th of July?

  5. I disagree that Steve’s first suggestion is more relevant for today. The fact that most current members of the church are converts or do not have pioneer ancestry does not make the pioneers any less relevant just as the history of the American revelutionary period is not less relevant or diminished because of of subsequent immigration.

  6. Mat, maybe “relevant” isn’t the proper word. It would at least make the topic of pioneers a little more original and a little less warmed-over.

  7. And actually, if we’re talking about relevance, then strictly speaking having direct ancestry to the pioneers (or to americans in the revolutionary war, or what have you) WOULD be an additional data point tending towards relevance, wouldn’t it?

    I mean, I’m not a big city litigator, but it seems to me that if person A has pioneer ancestors and person B doesn’t, then all else being equal the pioneers are more relevant to person A

  8. The Church would not exist without the pioneers, it’s true. Without the trek to Utah, we would have lingered in the midwest, become surrounded by the world and filtered into nothingness

    Untrue. I’m sure they would have found someplace to gather and maintain their sense of community. Someplace like, I don’t know……..Beaver Island?

    since no Pioneer Day events will likely occur outside of Utah):

    I’m not sure about the Mexican Colonies, but in Southern Alberta, Pioneer Day still has some traction in many of the small towns. I’m in Calgary, and I can tell you that we were getting requests (all from older members) for a Pioneer Day stake picnic this year, because “some of us still care about our pioneer heritage/ancestors”.

    I’d rather see a picnic to celebrate all of the new converts in the stake in the last year.

  9. Talon, where are you at in Calgary? I’m an old Maple Ridge vet.

    LOL re: Beaver Island.

  10. Steve,

    I am speaking of relevance to the church, not the individual.

    As it so happens, in my ward yesterday we had a talk titled “The Pioneers–A Heritage For All Members” and a talk given by a South African convert titled “Honoring Our Ancestors.” So my bishop is probably your kind of I’m-OK-you’re-OK, kumbaya singing, tree hugging kind of guy.

    As for the Martin Willie handcart companies–yeah, they were mentioned, but I’m certain a significant percentage of the people in the congregation had never heard of them. Looked at from that perspective, it may be that the pioneers are less relevant only to over-educated elites.

    That isn’t to say your four suggestions aren’t good ones (I was originally responding to rleonard BTW), but that you need to quit hating on the days of 47.

  11. hay man, I’m not hating on them, I just think that if the well of pioneer spirit is limited to the Days of 47, it will run dry soon enough — and it shouldn’t.

    Your bishop sounds like a touchy-feely fella. No doubt he secretly beats his wife.

  12. Tomorrow, my parents — Church service missionaries at the Gadfield Elm chapel in England — will be dressing up as “pioneers” to host a group of English Primary children. Pushing handcarts in middle England. Utterly Mormon.

  13. rleonard says:

    Steve is just advocating expanding the idea of pioneers to include our current membeship which is I would say a large majority not of pioneer descent. You can do this without ignoring our pioneer heritage.

    Our ward had a “handcart pull” on Saturday here in the bible belt. I always find the focus on handcarts a bit strained since most of the pioneers came across in wagons and it was not always as difficult as protrayed. My wifes family had servants helping them and brought a grandpiano and other luxury items in one of their wagons!!!

    My own family also traveled across and had no real issues to speak off since they also had some $$

  14. Steve,

    Fairview. I drive by the Maple Ridge golf course on Deerfoot all the time. We looked at houses in Maple Ridge two years ago and decided we couldn’t afford it as they were $225k+. Now they are $425k+. Stupid economy.

    Tomorrow, my parents — Church service missionaries at the Gadfield Elm chapel in England — will be dressing up as “pioneers” to host a group of English Primary children. Pushing handcarts in middle England. Utterly Mormon.

    LOL! Sometimes I wonder: if the Church had been restored in Africa in the 1800’s, would we all dress like English explorers on July 24 and pretend to hack our way through the jungle with machettes on our way to the promised land? And would we be regaled with tales of the poor Willie/Martin company that were eaten by Lions because they didn’t leave Cape Town at the right time of year?

  15. Mark Butler says:

    Most of those handcart pioneers were English, as I am sure you know, Ronan. [edited for length]

    It would be hard to study the heritage of just about any country and not come up with pioneers and role models worthy of remembrance on Pioneer Day. I agree that we should expand our focus, but I don’t think we need to slam the door too hard on the pioneers of 1847. They were just fore-runners for many to follow, spiritually and temporally, and examples of the spirit of many who long preceded them.

  16. Mark, you ought to get a blog of your own.

  17. Star Trek is, of course, the ultimate pioneer story. For them, space was the final frontier. Personally, I’d like to see them replace all the western-pioneer themed stuff in Mormonism with Star Trek themed stuff. For one thing, it would make the youth activities a lot more fun.

  18. DKL, space pioneers? You’ve been chatting it up with Adam Greenwood!

  19. “LOL re: Beaver Island”

    What the heck is that supposed to mean? They were the crazy ones? As opposed to the ones who made it out west? Yes they were much more in touch with reality….honestly, man, everyone was just trying to do what they thought was right

  20. Jothegrill says:

    How about we all celebrate pioneer day by helping people move in? If they’re not moving too far, we could even use handcarts! =)

  21. Steve, not space pioneers. Space cowboys. (You may not know this, but some people call me the space cowboy. Yes. Thats right. And some people call me the gangster of love.)

  22. DKL, are you speaking of the pompitous of love? I think I’ve heard about that somewhere. I’m all for space cowboys so long as it doesn’t mean another geriatric NASA movie.

    In a vain effort to tie this to the post, I do think that space exploration remains a field of pioneering distinct from raw technological advancement. However, I think that kind of exploratory pioneering is secondary in importance to the socio-economic pioneering underway with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other entities that are approaching old problems like disease and education with new methods. For example, the recent forced sharing of AIDS research as a condition to funding by the Gates Foundation struck me as a relatively pioneering concept.

  23. Well, yes, Steve. I do speak of the pompitous of love. In fact, here’s a link to an article explaining exactly what the phrase “pompitous of love” means.

  24. DKL,
    Are you sure you didn’t mean Battlestar Gallacta (the original) :D

  25. Pioneer Day is as valid of acknowldgement to a convert of 10 years as July 4th/Independence Day is to a recent (legal) immigrant to the US.

    Note I said “acknowledgement”, not “tacky celebration”.

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