The Last Wagon

I am a huge fan of the Mormon pioneers.  Our story of exodus is compelling, and you don’t have to live in Utah or be a descendant of the pioneers to appreciate them.  This week, on Thursday, the 24th of July, Salt Lake City will remember the occasion as it always does, with the Days of ’47 parade.  If you are within 100 miles of SLC it is worth attending, if only to see President Monson wear a cowboy shirt with pearl snap buttons, a bolo tie, and a cowboy hat (white, of course).

If you can’t go to the parade, please do yourself a favor and read this speech. To Them of the Last Wagon is the name of a talk given in general conference in October, 1947 by J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who was then serving as a member of the First Presidency. He remembers and honors the pioneers we have never heard of who were heroes in every sense. Here is just a quick sample:

Father took a little longer to yoke his cattle and to gird himself for the day’s labor; last, because his morning prayers took a few more minutes than the others spent—he had so many blessings to thank the Lord for and some special blessings to ask the Lord to grant, blessings of health and strength, especially for his wife, and for little Bill, and for the rest, and then the blessings for himself that his own courage would not fail, but most of all for the blessing of faith, faith in God and in the Brethren who sometimes seemed so far away. For they were out in front where the air was clear and clean and where they had unbroken vision of the blue vault of heaven. The Brethren had really visioned the glory of the Lord, who walked near them, put his thoughts into their minds; his Spirit guided and directed them, petitioned thereto by the thousands of Saints who were back in Winter Quarters, back in Iowa, back in the States, and beyond, even across the waters, for the faithful poured out their souls in fervent prayer to Almighty God that the Brethren should be inspired. The Saints buoyed up the Brethren out in front with encouragement, with praise, and sometimes even with adulation. Knowing the Brethren were prophets of God, the Saints gave them full confidence, daily, almost hourly, expressed. The Brethren lived in a world of commendation from friends and the tried and true Saints. Rarely was their word or their act questioned by the faithful Saints. This was as it should be and had to be to carry out the Lord’s purposes.

But back in the last wagon, not always could they see the Brethren way out in front, and the blue heaven was often shut out from their sight by heavy, dense clouds of the dust of the earth. Yet day after day, they of the last wagon pressed forward, worn and tired, footsore, sometimes almost disheartened, borne up by their faith that God loved them, that the restored gospel was true, and that the Lord led and directed the Brethren out in front. Sometimes, they in the last wagon glimpsed, for an instant, when faith surged strongest, the glories of a celestial world, but it seemed so far away and the vision so quickly vanished because want and weariness and heartache and sometimes discouragement were always pressing so near.

When the vision faded, their hearts sank. But they prayed again and pushed on, with little praise, with not too much encouragement, and never with adulation….

President Clark closes with these thoughts:

God keep their memories ever fresh among us, their children, to help us meet our duties even as they met theirs, that God’s work may grow and prosper till the restored gospel of Jesus Christ rules all nations and all peoples, till peace, Christ’s peace, shall fill the whole earth, till righteousness shall cover the earth even as the waters cover the mighty deep [see Moses 7:62]. Let us here and now dedicate all that we have and all that we are to this divine work.

Happy Pioneer Days, everybody!


  1. Happy Pioneer Days, Mark! I am especially appreciative of a post like this before the inevitable deluge of “why I wish people would forget about that stupid holiday and those boring pioneers” posts.

    To them of the last wagon, and to all the unknown rank and file who did the work, ching ching!

  2. bigbrownhouse says:

    I love pioneers, Pioneer Day, Pioneer Day Parades, and I don’t care who knows it! It delighted me to no end that after crossing the plains in our U-Haul back in 1997, we arrived in the SL valley just one day before the sesquicentennial reenactors. This is the place! :)

    For anyone interested, here a few snapshots taken by my grandparents the 1947 parade, and some Days of ’47 printed programs from 1943. Fun stuff.

    Days of
  3. Classic talk. One of my favorites. Happy Pioneer Day to you and all the pioneers both in the past and present day.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Our theme for Sunday’s talks was pioneers. It wasn’t until near the end of sacrament meeting that it dawned on me that the theme had been chosen because we’re getting close to Pioneer Day. I guess it wasn’t on my radar screen because we generally no longer have a Pioneer Day picnic out here in the hinterlands the way we used to. I miss those picnics.

  5. A parade on a Thursday? Do most Utahns get off work on the 24th? Because I know my wife and I have to work.

  6. The following is an excellent Pioneer Day talk:

    “The Experiences of Converts and Modern Pioneers”

  7. jjohnsen – I think it depends. I work for the state and I have the day off. It is considered a state holiday, so state and city agencies, universities, etc have the day off. Not sure how the private sector handles it, though!

  8. I was seriously annoyed by the idea of a parade in the middle of the week to celebrate a day that nobody else celebrated until I moved to Louisiana. King cake and all the beads you can catch beats Thomas Monson in a white hat hands down.

    Maybe they should start throwing Moon Pies from the Days of ’47 floats. That’ll bring in the crowds!

  9. My kids, raised on small town South Dakota parades, where every tractor and pickup pulling a trailer(aka “float”) throws frisbees, t-shirts, and lots of candy were heartily disappointed with the fancy-schmancy Days of 47 parade. We expect clowns on teeny motorcycles, county political aspirants, and a fire engine that sprays us.

    However, “To Them of the Last Wagon” has always been my favorite pioneer talk.

  10. Mark IV says:

    Karen, you’re right, the Days of ’47 people ought to get a clue and start tossing lots more and lots better loot at the spectators. If there were ever a time when we ought to do something to excess, this is it.
    Throwing out one piece of saltwater taffy every 100 yards doesn’t get it done.

    But still, it has kind of a hometown feel, don’t you think? I always enjoyed seeing the homemade floats from places like the Bountiful 148th ward depicting a giant 25 ft. tall beehive, or the miracle of the gulls and crickets. And now and then you get youth groups who you absolutely know were forced against their will to put on bonnets and dork suits and pretend to be pushing handcarts.