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.