Remembering the captivity of our fathers: A Rant

Today was High Council Sunday in our sacrament meeting. Our ward is going on trek come summer. If you know me, you know that I am not a fan of trek, but that I generally just ignore it.

The high councilor’s speaking companion said, “I know that those noble pioneers suffered what they went through in order to inspire the youth of today.” Martyrdom ain’t what it used to be, folks!

I suppose that there is a possibility that our Father in Heaven decided to put a group of handcart pioneers through hell in order to give the youth of today a good, if temporary, spiritual high. After all, Christ taught that the man who was blind from birth was blind that the works of God might be manifest in him. For that matter, God is remarkably casual when it comes to the death of the faithful. They are promised deliverance in the Book of Mormon, but, as the Anti-Nephi-Lehis can attest, deliverance is spiritual, not temporal. That the number of Lamanites who joined the people of God exceeded the number they had killed might look great on the rolls, but I’m skeptical that the families of those lost didn’t mourn.

So, maybe God is a utilitarian. So long as the numbers go up and general joy increases, a few spilt lives here and there don’t matter that much. Sure, this sort of callous disregard for human suffering might make a human seem monstrous, but this is God we are talking about. Our ways, His ways, etc.

Which is why, even if it is conceivable that our martyred dead are martyred by choice in order to inspire the feckless youth of the days to come, we should never, ever make that argument. Because where God might have the insight, the knowledge, the righteous judgment to pull that trigger and make that call, we do not. If we really are meant to remember the captivity of our fathers (which we clearly are) it is because we are to remember what God did for them. Unfortunately, as the speaker suggests, we have a tendency to turn the captivity of our fathers into a story about what God does for us.

There are, at least, two reasons why we shouldn’t argue that they died or suffered for us. First: it cheapens their deaths to make them about us, rather than about them. It is perhaps a dirty secret that Joseph Smith didn’t particularly want to die. Jesus asked that the cup be removed from him. While both eventually underwent a trial of their faith above my ability to comprehend, to treat those deaths as a foregone conclusion or necessary in the grand order of the universe makes them mechanical. Our martyrs become robots, driven by forces beyond their control to throw themselves into the gears of history. Rather than thinking of our martyrs as a series of noble suicides, we should consider why they made the choices that put them into danger. Putting the emphasis on their life, not their death, actually results in our remembering them as people, not symbols.

Second: it is prideful to assume that they did all they did for us. To remember the captivity of our fathers is to remember that they wanted to get themselves out of captivity. Yes, they wanted us, their descendants, free, too, but they were suffering and dying. They needed relief and making their death about our faith renders whatever relief they did receive beside the point. Those men and women on that frozen plain did not die because they wanted their great-great-great-grandchildren to believe (although they did). They definitely didn’t die so that other people, unrelated to them, could make a ritual of their suffering in order to manufacture testimony. They died because they wanted to live with God. They were driven into the maelstrom by their passion for God, not by some prescient desire to die a good death for be-ear-budded youngsters.

When Alma counsels the people of Zarahemla to remember the captivity of their fathers, it is because they have started to lose the thread of their faith. They have become prideful. They have become intolerant. But they were also the children of their fathers, not the great-great-great-grandchildren. The captivity of their fathers wasn’t meant to be abstract. It couldn’t be abstract. Alma was a child of the city of Helam, where people had toiled and suffered in slavery. If that failed to prick his heart as a youth (as it did), then expecting the terrible deaths of our long, long departed to do the same for our youth is too much. Alma only began to understand the suffering of his father when he felt that suffering himself, which suffering was the suffering of sin. I have a feeling our youth will come across that without our sending them to bed on the trail one night and having them wake up with a youth leader missing.

Of course, for some people trek or Especially for Youth or some youth conference or some morningside or seminary or something else is the thing that gets them on a mission and then home again in the gospel. Of course, after that, they are on their own again (and how are those youth retention numbers looking?). Maybe we should encourage some genuine soul-searching, repentance, and communion with God, instead of something that we can, relatively easily, mass-market?


  1. Hear, hear.

    Any chance you’ll be speaking or teaching with an opportunity to teach your stake youth these lessons?

  2. I completely agree and I would argue that so does Nephi in my favourite chapter in the Book of Mormon, 1 Nephi 17. It is when Laman and Lemuel don’t want to build the ship and Nephi tells them the history of Israel and makes the point that if God did all that with them how and why is it not possible to help Nephi build a ship? In our day rather then feeling inferior to pioneers and thinking that if we think of them and their trials then all our problems will go away because they went through worse then what we did, I say as did Nephi that God is the only constant in the two different time periods. I think that Nephi saying that if God can help them do their thing then he can help us here and now to do our thing. So we don’t need to compare ouselves to the pioneers or anyone else, God helped them and he can help us.

  3. I love rants.

  4. John, this post is really disrespectful to the narcissistic and the self-absorbed, so on behalf of all of us, I demand an apology.

  5. This may be a rant – but it is a well-crafted rant (and right on the money).

    I will think of this post the next time someone in church says that today’s youth are the most valiant souls saved by God for the latter days, etc., etc.

  6. John,

    Unfortunately, as the speaker suggests, we have a tendency to turn the captivity of our fathers into a story about what God does for us.

    This idea, though, runs through every single chapter of every single manual in the church. “What does it mean for us that Jesus walked through Samaria instead of going around?” and so on…It’s now ingrained strongly in our culture to apply the events of the past as somehow connected to our lives today, no matter how obscure.

  7. wait…are you telling me that “liken the scriptures” doesn’t mean that every event up to this time predestined to be for my benefit?

  8. “Everyone thinks that the Sun was never so fine as the day he saw it shine. We all relate the adventures of the world to ourselves, and think that what was done in centuries past was only done for us. As if God was not wise, foreseeing, admirable and jealous of His glory until this hour!”

    -Michel Hurault, sieur de Belesbat et du Fay, Discours sur l’Estat de la France (n.p., 1591), p. 8 (my translation, 1979).

  9. Love it, Rick. You don’t speak up very often, but when you do — wow!

  10. I am kind of suprised that they are still doing treks. We did one a couple of years ago and it was so expensive – our stake said no more, that the church was telling everyone to cut back and scale down.

  11. Thank you! Well said.

  12. to treat those deaths as a foregone conclusion or necessary in the grand order of the universe makes them mechanical. Our martyrs become robots, driven by forces beyond their control to throw themselves into the gears of history.

    To paraphrase Lord Keynes, “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct theologian”. Theological quirks underlying more casual assumptions than we can count about foreknowledge, divine purpose, providence, and predestination can be traced by heritage through Protestantism, Calvinism, Augustinianism, the Essenes, and who knows how many schools of thought before that.

    This particular one is still orthodoxy in much of the Protestant world, and I can only assume that casual ways of approaching some theological questions are being absorbed by osmosis from other denominations. How wide the divide? In this case, apparently not wide enough.

  13. I don’t know, but I think Jesus’ main goal was to refute the idea that the man was blind as a result of premortal misdemeanour. I’ve never thought to read so much into his next comment about the works of God. I thought it was simply preparatory to the miracle he goes on to perform. It does make sense in that way.

    I guess I thought he was saying “It’s not because of sin, but it does give me an opportunity to heal him.” I guess you’re saying that he said that so you could have this rant? POV I suppose.

    I don’t think the blind man was made blind simply to serve as a visual aid. If he was it would not be unwarranted.

    As for the talk. Do you really think the speaker meant what they said literally? That they intended the full meaning of that sentence? Very few people choose their words with sufficient care to warrant that assumption in my experience.

    It certainly sounds as though they were trying to encourage the youth (and other listeners) to remember the suffering of those who have gone before as a source of perspective and hope. A reasonable aim?

    I’d have shrugged his comment off as a set of poorly chosen words.

    That said, if they clearly really meant it literally then I would be nonplussed.

    I suppose I’m wondering if a poorly chosen sentence warrants this sort of reaction. I’m a recent subscriber to your blog, I’ve only been reading for two or three weeks so my opinion is untempered, but I think you’re being a little heavy handed. You could have had your rant without using that reference.

    Otherwise it’s a decent rant, but I think youe off tempo when you try to cite historic sources when you talk about something you want to complain about. It comes over as egocentric… Which is ironic if I’m not mistaken.

  14. As for the care the original speaker took in choosing his words: fair enough, it wasn’t much. Correlation does not equal causation. I do doubt that any pioneer struggling towards Zion was thinking in their final moments, “I hope my great-great-great-grandson and his friends think of my life and keep hold of the iron rod!” or “This suffering will pay dividends when my story keeps some youth in the church 166 years from now!”.

    That said, I think it’s fair to say that because of the apparent lack of consideration given to the full implication of the wording “in order to”, what this speaker probably meant might be: “They suffered for their faith. We should try to emulate that sort of faith”. We should remember that their testimonies helped them to endure, but that endurance wasn’t for the sake of a good testimony-building story, it was for the sake of salvation through faith and obedience. At least, that’s how I see it.

  15. How thoughtless of the rest of the pioneers not to die for us.

  16. Don’t take anything a HC speaker says seriously, unless the Spirit tells you to. All too often they are just filling time.

  17. John Mansfield says:

    The speaker may have been vaguely remembering one of Paul H. Dunn’s war buddies, as was Elder Dunn.

  18. Gareth,
    When it comes to trek, I’m on a perpetual low boil, so it doesn’t take much for me to boil over. That said, the reading I gave that passage from John isn’t one I necessarily agree with (I guess it would depend on how deterministic I’m feeling on a given day; which may coincide with my levels of self-pity), but it is a possible reading.

    Although I think we tend to take likening the scriptures unto ourselves too far (obviously), it can be a useful exercise. Just remember that we are to put ourselves in the shoes of our honored past, rather than assume that they are past for our future.

    Everyone else,
    You appear to agree with me and you are saying smart stuff. Yay on both accounts.

  19. nice rant… since we’re living ‘in the end of times’ and have been for the past several thousand years, I agree that this was a poor characterization of the suffering endured by the early pioneers.

    Also, while we’re ranting, the correlation dept. does a good enough job ensuring that pioneer struggles and trials are sufficiently represented in the manuals, so much so that I’d be fine if we dispensed with the modern interpretations from over the pulpit.

  20. So, God can be utilitarian, but we can’t?

    I understand the rant, but don’t we make such judgment calls in many things religious? How many of us think we understand how the atonement works, for instance? Or should we ask President Packer not to quote “the Touch of the Master’s Hand” or Blake Ostler to stop writing about his Compassion Theory of Atonement? Isn’t this all in the same vein, just by apostles and philosophers?

    Each of us tries to make sense of life, past, present and future, as best we can. The speaker expressed it in terms he understood. The trek may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does provide a benefit to us today. President Hinckley asked those in attendance at the Nauvoo Temple dedication to walk down Parley Street and get a feeling of how the pioneers must have felt as they left Nauvoo, with the temple at their backs. Seems like the speaker may have taken such thoughts from modern prophets.

    While I personally believe the pioneers suffered for their own faith, and not for ours per se, we get the indirect benefit. History benefits us, if we learn from it, and learn to “liken it to” ourselves. We avoid global warfare, because we learn how tragic and terrible it is. Thousands of British and American youth rushed to the trenches of WWI, seeking glory and fun in what they thought would be a quick and exciting adventure. What they found was intense boredom splashed with frequent moments of sheer terror and death.

    The Nephite and Jaredite wars and final destructions WERE written down FOR us. Mormon and Moroni did not write for their own people, but for a future generation. How is that for utilitarian?

    And so perhaps their folly was, in some ways, meant for us, if we will but learn from it.

  21. I like pioneer treks. I see them as an opportunity to better understand what other’s have suffered and recognize that God will most likely ask us to do hard things.

    I think it cheapens the pioneers deaths to think they didn’t at the very least hope their children would have a better life. All for us…nope, but at least partially for their posterity…probably.

    Treks have also made me more grateful for what I have.

    But I don’t think one size fits all…and treks aren’t for everyone.

  22. Why make someone an offender for a word? It’s not the best worded sentence. Instead of interpreting his sentiment in the most jaded way, when I hear something like that I’d think his sentiment was something like, “God wants us to remember and honor these pioneers and share their stories to inspire us.”

    And trying to sum up any form of pioneer sentiment in one sentence is doomed to failure, so I don’t even think my shot at it adequately says what needs saying. I don’t know why we’d take shots at anyone over this.

    I’m pretty sure he doesn’t actually believe the sole purpose of their sacrifice was to inspire youths who go on mini-treks at summer camp. If you’d agree that he probably doesn’t believe that, then why interpret his remarks in that light?

  23. #13 says, “I do doubt that any pioneer struggling towards Zion was thinking in their final moments, “I hope my great-great-great-grandson and his friends think of my life and keep hold of the iron rod!”

    Then you probably haven’t read very many journals that they wrote. That is exactly the sentiment many of them expressed – that they prayed fervently that their sacrifices would have a lasting legacy.

    Sure, they didn’t suffer and die just for us – but they absolutely saw that as one of the reasons for it. In fact, they saw it as one of the most important reasons for it.

    I keep a journal of my thoughts and feelings about the Gospel for that exact reason – in the hope that somewhere, sometime, some of my descendants down the road will read them and be helped as a result. I hope they benefit someone in the here and now, but to paraphrase Nephi, I write for my children’s sake. I’m sure they will smile and shake their heads at some of it, since I’m sure some of it will have changed in the decades to come, but I also hope they can see my faith in what I write – and that they are strengthened by it.

    That’s nothing like the sacrifices my children’s own ancestors made, but that sentiment is obvious in their journals.

  24. Why make someone an offender for a word?

    chris, you have to understand where John is coming from, after having read other discussions about “trek.” Comments like this are never “a word”; they don’t stand in isolation. They’re a common part of the over-the-top rhetoric about these youth treks, the manipulative emotionalism, the Disneyfication, the doctrinal falseness, the distorted historical narrative, the whole kit and kaboodle of trek. When John zeroes in on this line, it’s not because the speaker tripped over his tongue and said something a little less elegantly than he might have done, and it’s not because John has any malice toward the individual speaker. It’s because the line is one aspect of a much broader picture of the way these treks are abused.

  25. What Ardis said.

  26. it's a series of tubes says:

    Ardis, that’s a bold series of statements in some consistently harsh language. I’d be interested in hearing more rigorous support for some of those claims. Appreciate, of course, that I’m inclined to weigh any anecdotal evidence you present lightly at best, as I can provide plenty of the same that would likely take a contrary position.

    It takes little effort to cast aspersions, particularly unsupported ones. After supporting yours, perhaps you might chime in with some constructive suggestions as to how you believe things might be improved. And if you have already done so elsewhere, my apologies in advance (and please provide a link)

  27. jkimballcook says:

    The whole trek thing seems to be mostly a Western U.S. phenomenon, so I’ve never experienced it myself. But I’ve always been a bit puzzled at the idea.

    First, it isn’t anything like what the pioneers actually went through except in the most superficial way, so I’m not sure that it actually helps anyone gain a greater appreciation for their sacrifice any more than than actually reading their histories would. So the benefit is minimal.

    And the cost is pretty high, from what I’ve heard. My understanding is that it isn’t cheap to put these events together.

    Finally, this reaction is similar to that expressed in the OP, but is slightly different. My understanding of the pioneers was that they hoped their sacrifice would create a better life for their posterity, both spiritually and temporally. They hoped, in part, that because they went through hell on the plains, that we would not have to. So why do we voluntarily do the one thing that they did so we wouldn’t have to? It seems weird.

    I guess I’m just not all that big on socialized spirituality, like EFY and treks and other big, emotionally charged events. Seems like flash in the pan emotion rather than real testimony building.

  28. tubes, appreciate, of course, that I am not inclined to be your gopher to search the bloggernacle for previous trek discussions of which you were not a part, nor to be impressed with your claim to be able to prove a negative. Especially that.

  29. “It takes little effort to cast aspersions, particularly unsupported ones.”

    Actually, I put a lot of work into it when I do it.

  30. Rameumptom,
    “Isn’t this all in the same vein, just by apostles and philosophers?”
    I’m not seeing the parallel, but I’m dim. Please clarify.

    I’ve also never denied that it apparently is helpful for some people. I just wish that, if we are going to turn the pioneers into symbols, we go whole hog instead of engaging in pantomime. Maybe we should have a memorial annual meal and then poor ice down the backs of our youth so that they can learn the value of their sacrifice? (Note: I know the temple and symbols and pantomime; I just don’t think that trek has achieved sufficient spiritual status to warrant that treatement).

    The Book of Mormon is a good example of the effect of correlation on history. Mormon and Moroni found the journals and evidence that supported their understanding of history. Which is just fine, of course, because that is what historians do. But I don’t think each individual Nephite and Lamanite were thinking, “Wow! Those Latter-day Saints are really going to appreciate our sacrifice.”

    I don’t doubt that those folks on the plains thought about their posterity. I just doubt that it is the only thing they thought about and this treatment renders it that way.

    I’m glad that you’ve had good interaction with trek in the past. I’ve never been, have only heard about it from nephews and nieces. But I do think they told me the truth of what happened.

  31. Trek is most certainly among the very strange rituals that we place upon the youth of the Church. Here is my assesment of the positives and negatives:

    1) it gives the youth an opportunity to do a very hard thing. 2) It gets them away from TV, cell phones and Facebook just long enough for them to realize that there is a bigger, grander world out there.
    3) when used properly you can have some very spiritual experinces that strengthen testimonies of Christ.

    Can all those purposes be accomplished in other less expensive settings? YES.

    Trek requires a monumental effort to plan and execute. I would argue that if that same effort were applied to almost ANY other activity that you’d have a similar spiritual result.

    1) Trek paints a very distorted picture of real pioneer life. Only a very small number of pioneers traveled via handcart, the vast majority came in Ox drawn wagons. Of those that did travel via handcart, most companies had a relatively safe journey. Most pioneers had a very pleasant journey and the ‘hardships’ were merely facts of life to them…they were used to hard work.
    2) Too often the focus in on pioneers and not on Christ. We narrow our focus on the suffering of the people and not on why they put their lives on the line for their testimony of the Savior.
    3) Expense. The last time our stake did a Trek the cost was upwards of $30,000+. Stakes that head out to Martin’s Cove (from SLC) are looking at around $50,000 for a three day trek.
    4) Risk. Many kids have to be hooked up to IV’s for dehydration and there have been deaths associated with these trek events.
    5) Anger vs. activation. You hear stories all the time about kids whose lives were changed by Trek, but I also know of kids who were embittered by their experience. The question becomes ‘is it worth it?’. Are more testimonies gained or lost on trek? That is something that can’t be measuered, but if my ward is any indication, our youth retention is terrible and every single one of them went on trek as youth…most of them two or three times. (EFY Too…every summer).

  32. Ardis #24 – we each approach things our own way. I guess I’m arrogant in assuming I have something to add that could be considered as yielding better results.

    What I’d add is when someone is speaking in church we are on a continuum of at least two opposing principles — 1.interpreting/internalizing with the help of the spirit
    2 interpreting/internalizing without the spirit.

    I think most discourse, even that of the prophet if they are speaking, is doomed without an audience doing #1.

    When someone says something in church, and the spirit conveys they have the right sentiment (instill a sense of honor and inspiration of the pioneers in today’s youth) I can choose to take what that individuals says and combine it with what the spirit says and let it into my heart.

    I know of no other way to approach a meeting without my cynic-of-a-natural-man self digging into their statements for inaccuracies.

    I think to the degree that we hear something a person says, and we know they are sincere in their believe and trying to put into words what the spirit wants said, but failing too, and even perhaps saying something else, we can combine that prompting of the spirit to learn what we need to learn and be edified by it.

    Again, in my arrogance, that’s at least how I approach it and present it to you. So when someone says something, which the spirit says, “that’s not quite right… this is really what the Lord wants you to learn.” I don’t feel like I need to shut out of be bothered by what was said but I’m happy the process worked.

    I may be reading into this post too much, and doing what I suggest the author is doing, but it seems like the role of the spirit and speaker is working properly, with perhaps the post-reaction.

    Speaker says something not quite correct, but is sincere.
    Spirit corrects the speaker in your mind.
    You can combine the sincerity with the correction of the spirit and be edified or be annoyed at people for saying such dumb things.

    I really can’t fathom how a church service can work with imperfect people who not only stick their foot in their mouth quite frequently when speaking in public, but also have an imperfect knowledge to begin with. The spirit is what makes the difference. Rely on it in an uplifting way and the meetings will be better.

    Arrogantly yours,
    Chris ;)

  33. I just did one of these Treks last summer, and I don’t remember anybody ever implying that the handcart pioneers did what they did for us. Maybe I just missed it or I was just employing my “look-for-the-good” filter. There was a big emphasis on remembering the examples of those who have gone before and considering the effect of our examples on those who follow us, though.

    I’ve felt very critical of things like EFY and Trek as well, and I very much felt like we were trying to “manufacture” an artificial spiritual experience. But on the other hand, teens are pretty myopic and self-centered, and the Trek definitely opened their eyes and minds a bit. Certainly their interaction with each other was more authentic than normal life.

    I’ve also decided not to dismiss “artificial” EFY-like experiences as being without real value. You can claim the “rush” doesn’t last, but even the effects of “authentic” spiritual experiences don’t seem to last. Only repeated exposure seems to really change people long term.

    My wife and I served as Ma and Pa for a group of 11 youth, and there’s no doubt that some kids were really influenced by the experience, and some got nothing out of it at all. Had I been a youth, I would have been one of the latter. But I’m the type of person who reads Mormon blogs, too. Most kids aren’t like that.

  34. Warning–heresy follows:

    The handcart experiment was an ill-conceived disaster. So much so that Church leaders put a stop to it after only a few companies crossed the plains that way. It makes me wonder if we should be celebrating ill-conceived (reckless?) disastrous experiments.

    Here is a hypothetical analogy in modern times. Suppose the missionary department, to save money, decided to transport missionaries in the U.S. to and from their missions in the back of open pickup trucks. True, many missionaries would arrive safely. When the trucks got into accidents, the missionaries in the open back of the truck would not have much of a chance. After the deaths of a few hundred missionaries, the missionary department decides to return to safer and more expensive forms of transportation. Would we want to celebrate that pick up truck transportation experiment (and the consequent deaths of hundreds) a century and one-half from now?

    Of course, such an experiment would not occur today. It would rightly be regarded as reckless. On the other hand, maybe a century or two from now, our descendants would view such an experiment as noble rather than ill-conceived.

    Warning–satire alert: Were it up to me, we would celebrate the coming of the pioneers by the safest most logical means possible, and ride the train for a couple of days each way.

  35. chris, yes, as you say, it’s the teeniest weeniest bit arrogant to assume that I (or John, or anybody else) reject or are immune to the spirit while attending worship services. Frankly, I think the spirit is offended when false doctrine is offered — maybe maybe that just my own arrogance.

    DavidH, the handcart system was not abandoned because it was an “ill-conceived disaster,” but because a better way — the down and back companies — was conceived. The extreme poverty of the Saints in 1856 would not have permitted such down and back companies, but a surplus of cattle by 1861 made the idea feasible.

    And we don’t celebrate — or wouldn’t, if the emotionally manipulative element were omitted from trek — a “disastrous experiment.” What we honor is the dedication of Saints who were determined to come to Zion even if they had to walk to get there. Big difference.

  36. ugh. typos abound. read at your own risk.

  37. For those concerned that Trek “paints a distorted picture of pioneer life”, may I ask how we could do it better? Instead of 3 days walking with handcarts, perhaps we should make it all summer long, and ensure they get caught in an early Wyoming snowstorm, where a good percentage of them either die or lose body parts to frost bite?

    The treks are not designed to be historically accurate nor to give an entire experience. I think most would consider giving such a complete experience, child abuse.

    But in a world of technological ease, it gives the kids a few days of intense experience. No, they cannot fully understand what the pioneers actually experienced. But they can at least understand how 3 days in the lives of pioneers may have been (somewhat).

    Over the 35 years I’ve been a member, I’ve met many solid LDS who have gained their testimonies from such experiences. Our stake YM president told me of how as a youth, his Scoutmaster took him up to the top of a mountain ridge, and had him spend some quiet time up there thinking about his testimony. You can imagine how nature’s grandeur may affect a testimony, whether it is because it is a magnificent view or the Spirit, who knows? But such events provide an opportunity for youth to find their testimonies. It places them in a unique position that most/many will not get at home or in Sacrament meeting, where they can perhaps have a personal spiritual/emotional experience that can change them.

    I totally recall the spiritual event that converted me to the gospel and Church at the age of 16. It was not something I planned or prepared for. But it was totally real to me then, and now. After talking with dozens of youth after our trek this past year, I’d hate to think we chose not to do it, because it was historically inept or hokey. Because, for the kids involved, it helped many of them find a testimony, choose to go on a mission, or to step up in their activity in the Church.

    I tend to be results-based when I consider the things the Church does. And these are decent results.

  38. I do believe it is important to remember the sacrifices made by our forefathers and foremothers were done for complex motivations, which first included their own immediate concerns, and secondly for their posterity to hopefully live in a better situation. I regret statements like the one you refer to in the speakers talk. I suspect that they had not really thought through the wording, and would be somewhat chagrined at how it is perceived. But that is part of the problem when these sacrifices are seen only as symbols, and not the work of individuals who put themselves in these situations for reasons that may at the same time seem familiar to us, and also very foreign to our own experiences.

    I thoroughly dislike “manufactured” and emotionally tainted false experiences for our youth and that sometimes are offered up to us as adults as well. Fortunately, my own two experiences with Trek have been relatively benign, Yes, it was hot, hard work and troubled with ticks and concerns about dehydration, but our Stake President then (and subsequent stake presidents as well) were adamantly opposed to creating false suffering or contrived vicarious experiences for our youth. Instead, it reflected I think a philosophy of getting the youth (and adults involved) a little bit outside their normal comfort zone. No one was required to wear all wool clothing, or to kill chickens with their bare hands; safety and positive experiences were emphasized, and three days was the limit. For some kids it was a great experience. For others, not so much. I knew we had failed one young laurel in our group when she spent the last two hours of her final day on trek applying makeup and doing her hair instead of participating in some of the final meditative and sharing experiences. It may be prideful and hypocritical on my part, but it seemed to me that the whole experience was lost on her.

    And Ardis is right; the handcart experiment was meant to fill a specific need, and by 1858, the down and back companies were tried out for the first time, turning out to be a better plan than the handcarts. People still died in the down and back companies, and huge sacrifices were still made. It just worked better than handcarts for the poorest of Saints who could not outfit themselves on their own.

  39. it's a series of tubes says:

    tubes, appreciate, of course, that I am not inclined to be your gopher to search the bloggernacle for previous trek discussions of which you were not a part, nor to be impressed with your claim to be able to prove a negative. Especially that.

    Just a few thoughts in response:

    1) You offered various conclusory statements. I requested support for them, in the interest of approaching the topic with a bit more rigor. Perhaps you might clarify that your statements were reflections of your own opinion, as opposed to assertions of fact; we all remain entitled to our opinions.

    2) I never asserted to be able to prove a negative. Rather, I noted that we would likely both be able to provide anecdotal evidence in support of our respective positions, and should weight such evidence accordingly – namely, lightly.

  40. So what was the experience of the average emigrant? Left their European home in the spring, got on a ship in Liverpool, met an emigration agent in the American port city, traveled by train to the Midwest and then joined a down and back wagon train to Salt Lake City?

    From what I’ve read that was more likely to be a social event than a starving-on-the-plains event. How can the stakes recreate that experience for the youth?

    How about instead of recreating the Martin and Willie handcart companies, the stakes have their youth recreate polygamous wives hiding from the federal marshals? Talk about character-building experiences! Or the settlement of the Little Colorado River region? The youth would never forget crossing the Colorado at Lee’s Ferry and making their way up Lee’s Backbone and going from salty or alkaline waterhole to waterhole. Even better, how about recreating the San Juan settlers making their way down Hole-in-the-Rock?

  41. john Harvey says:

    I don’t like Trek (but my oldest son went 4 years ago, and my middle daughter will go this year). I would prefer to hear about what these early saints went through rather than try to reproduce some small part of it. Hearing about the three young men who ultimately sacrificed their lives to carry some of the survivors across the near frozen river over the conference pulpit has more impact on me than any amount of re-enacting.

  42. #30 – “I just doubt that it is the only thing they thought about and this treatment renders it that way.”

    I agree – and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. I was responding to one particular statement, not your post.

  43. Ardis,

    How dare you not fulfill the demands of tubes.

  44. Huh. $30-50,000 dollars for one stake? Interesting. Good thing we don’t have our youth doing something productive like building homes via Habitat-for-humanity (or possibly a church-sponsored equivalent) helping their fellow man, having real spiritual experiences that are “manufactured” by their own hands on a hammer. And reading scriptures at night while they talk about their experiences.

    I’ve felt very critical of things like EFY and Trek as well, and I very much felt like we were trying to “manufacture” an artificial spiritual experience. But on the other hand, teens are pretty myopic and self-centered, and the Trek definitely opened their eyes and minds a bit. Certainly their interaction with each other was more authentic than normal life.

    It seems like creating a spirit-inducing experience which solely focuses on the youth and their spiritual well-being is a good way to reinfore myopia and self-centeredness more than reverse it. You don’t spray water on a sheet to dry it out. You shouldn’t indulge the youth if you want them to be less self-centered.

  45. Church members are not asked these days to leave their homes and travel thousands of miles by foot or by wagon across deserts and mountains to build a new Zion. But they are called to get off their couches and serve each other and their community. A few days of walking in the woods or the desert or the plains seem to offer little that would teach a young person what the church and the Lord need now.

    How much better if we actually expected the young men of the Aaronic priesthood to take seriously their duties as set forth in D&C 20! And that the young women be taught that their responsibilities to their brothers and sisters are essentially the same. And those duties aren’t completed in three days or in one day each week–or ever. Why don’t we take seriously our duties as adults to teach them those things?

    Or why don’t we teach them to preach (isn’t that one of the priesthood duties in Section 20?), rather than allowing them to give warmed over “talks” about what someone else has said? And teach them that what they say matters–and then the odds that people will say foolish things might decrease.

    Of course, that would require that we adults get to work. As Hamlet would have said, “Ay, there’s the rub.”

  46. #39 – tubes, just a thought:

    When Ardis speaks about Mormon history, it is recorded in heaven as Truth – and I’m not saying that facetiously or sarcastically. If she says it in public, the fact that it’s fact is a given. “Rigor” is a lenient word for the work she does.

    Knowing that might help in the future.

  47. Oh, and what Ardis has said.

    And Ray.

  48. Researcher says:

    And when Ray and Mark B. say that Ardis is speaking the truth, they’ve fulfilled that little requirement for two witnesses, and all discussion can end. : )

  49. How about instead of recreating the Martin and Willie handcart companies, the stakes have their youth recreate polygamous wives hiding from the federal marshals? Talk about character-building experiences! Or the settlement of the Little Colorado River region? The youth would never forget crossing the Colorado at Lee’s Ferry and making their way up Lee’s Backbone and going from salty or alkaline waterhole to waterhole. Even better, how about recreating the San Juan settlers making their way down Hole-in-the-Rock?

    Did I miss the eleventh commandment that requires us to reenact anything? The civil war was probably the most important event in American history, I still think the dorks that carry bayonets and dress in civil war garb every year are tools.
    Reenacting doesn’t deepen the meaning of an event. Its like a “token” black friend. ‘I know what black people deal with because I have a black friend . . .’
    Similarly I don’t know what the pioneers went through just because I’ve gone on Trek. Thats the point, I will probably never understand what they went through, and that is part of the mystique, part of the power of the history. I can’t relate with it.

  50. The pioneer stories are very powerful for me, probably more powerful now than they ever were when I was a youth. Back then I was pretty sure of my beliefs. As doubts have crept in over the years, I haven’t been able to get away from the miraculous faith the pioneers exhibited. I think of them as my mothers and fathers even though I don’t know of a particular genealogical tie to them. I can’t help but wonder if they knew something that I don’t know. Their stories are among the things that keep me tethered to this tradition, even when it feels like an ill fit.

    That said, I would never want to go on Trek. No offense to it. I’m just not into hardship.

  51. B. Russ: There may not be that Eleventh Commandment (although if you’ve been to church recently you may recall that we re-enact something every Sunday), but when the train left for Irony, it appears that you missed it.

  52. Yesterday, I spent over an hour reading Wikipedia’s write up on the Oregon Trail. 400,000 people made that trip. It includes the Mormons, who made only half the trip (1,000 miles to 2,000 miles), and were only a small % of the 400,000.
    If you want to know more about what life was like on that trek, I recommend reading it.

  53. it's a series of tubes says:

    #39 – tubes, just a thought:
    When Ardis speaks about Mormon history, it is recorded in heaven as Truth – and I’m not saying that facetiously or sarcastically. If she says it in public, the fact that it’s fact is a given. “Rigor” is a lenient word for the work she does.

    Ray, I appreciate your feedback and I am aware of her extensive scholarly endeavors re Mormon history. It’s that detail-oriented background which caused me to be so surprised by the sweeping and conclusory nature of the statements she made; statements not regarding history but regarding the spiritual value of certain contemporary youth activities. Forgive me for not viewing her opinion in this area – one markedly different from her area of expertise – as automatically Truth with a capital T, particularly when I have been directly involved with numerous youth who countradict her assessment (but again, that is anecdotal, so I weight it accordingly).

    41, you might be interested in reading the article available here:
    It’s of particular interest to me due to the presence of my 4x great grandfather as part of the rescue party at the Sweetwater that day.

  54. it's a series of tubes says:

    eh, “contradict”

  55. but when the train left for Irony, it appears that you missed it.

    It’s possible.

    I just re-skimmed the comments and noticed that comment was the first from Researcher, and that I had mistakenly thought it was Rameumtom making a comment, who had previously in the thread argued very much in favor of treks. Given that incorrect assumption, I didn’t read Researcher’s comment for irony, I took it at face value that he/she was arguing that a trek – while not a “average” experience for a pioneer – was a good representation and something that could be well re-enacted, and was worthwhile (and better than many of the other possible reenactments we could do). If I missed the tone of what they were actually trying to say, that is my mistake.

    The eucharist is not a “re-enactment”. We don’t put on robes, we don’t drink wine. It is an ordinance with symbolism tied to a past event. Just a teensy little difference, but an important one IMO.

  56. #55: B. Russ, It is a re-enactment. It is an Altar where the blood and body of Christ are cover with a death shroud to remember his death.

  57. Symbolic Ordinance > Re-enactment

    Enough said.

  58. “Our” forefathers? “Our” foremothers? I was born into the church. I grew up in a branch in northeastern North Carolina. I was the only Mormon in a high school of 2600. Those of us in my branch grew weary, even insulted, at the church-approved lessons that incessantly mentioned “our” pioneer ancestors. We had no genealogical or emotional ties to these (admittedly extraordinary) people. I cannot count the times, since moving to Utah, I have felt the subtle superiority of those who make sure I know they are descended from such-and-such pioneer company, and then be condescendingly told that my ancestors, who pioneered the church in the hostile south, were “kind of like pioneers, too.” I fail to see how the suffering of early church pioneers helps us to better understand the good news of the gospel. Yes, they suffered for their beliefs. So did countless others who did not make the trek to Utah. There is no contest about who suffered most (or, at least, there shouldn’t be).

  59. Their would not have been an LDS Church in NC when you grew up without the pioneers coming first. We may do strange things in their memory, but we should still have a deep appreciation for those people.

  60. Latter-day Guy says:

    jsf, I hear your pain (especially when it comes to some of that “believing blood” nonsense). Not that I don’t like pioneers as much as the next fellow, but sometimes I just feel like quoting Kate Winslet’s line from Extras [she was speaking of the holocaust]: “How many more [pioneer treks do we need]? I mean, we get it, it was grim.”

    It’s interesting that we don’t apply this same gratitude=reenactment calculus elsewhere. To appreciate what Jesus did, must I be nailed to something? I mean, there are some Filipino Catholics

  61. JSF, since I brought up the “Forefathers and foremothers” thing, I would have to say I agree. The LDS folks in our ward here near Seattle who came out of the death camps in Cambodia in the early 70’s suffered as much if not more than the handcart pioneers. I was making a case for not viewing anyone’s historical experience as a symbol only. Your point about the LDS experience in the South is well taken.

    That doesn’t devalue anyone else’s experience. I had some ancestors who came in the first company that traveled the whole route by railroad in about a week. I don’t think they ended up any less faithful than folks who came via wagon train or handcart Suffering is not a merit badge; courage to come west in the 1850’s is not any more significant that the courage for an LDS family to move to North Carolina in the 1950’s.

    I would hope that we all, however, are the heirs of the courage of committing to the gospel by everyone, regardless of the circumstances.

  62. #53 – tubes, I read Ardis’ comment as saying, essentially, “There are some MAJOR problems with the way these treks often are handled.” You then said, essentially, “I have had good experiences with treks” – implying that not ALL treks are mishandled. You then said, again essentially, “Give me proof of what you claim – but I’m not going to accept it anyway.”

    Ardis then responded by saying, “No thanks.”

    My comment, btw, was in support of her scholarship on the actual crossing of the plains – the real “treks” of the pioneers. That certainly fits within her expertise, and it certainly influences her “opinion” about how many of the modern treks are handled.

    Fwiw, I agree with what I think both of you are saying at the most fundamental level. Some treks are handled really badly; some are good experiences for those involved – at least a large majority of them. It’s not worth arguing about, imo, when that seems to be the only issue causing potential argument.

  63. Observer (f.k.a. Eric. S.) says:

    Great post, especially the paragraph on the “first” reason. Its hard to relate to treks or any reenactments of any kind. We used to watch reenactments of the crucification in Ecuador and it felt more distasteful than beneficial or reflective; it was more a tradition that weaved elements of local custom into it. The aesthetic made it worth it: the cucuroochoos in Ecuador wear purple KKK outfits! check it:

  64. Wow! I come on here and there are a ton of comments already. Obviously, the speaker pushed one of your buttons. I have buttons, too, so I know the feeling. I’m prone to think the speaker just said something awkward without intending to offend anyone.

    As far as the treks go, we were in a ward that did one last summer. I bribed my kids to go on it, but circumstances prevented them from actually going.

    The issue I had was that it wasn’t pioneer-like at all. They required for us to buy a lot of stuff (pioneer clothing, sunscreen which my children don’t need though I understand blondes needing it, and a host of other things the pioneers never had access to, which we couldn’t afford). The trek was very short. There were a lot of safety nets. The pioneers had hardships. This was a lark in comparison. The youth suffered because of lack of cell phones, and if they hadn’t practiced walking before the trek began, they got sore feet and blisters.

    I’m not saying we should put our children in danger of death, but to play at being pioneers and pretend one then knows exactly what the pioneers went through doesn’t make sense to me.

    I believe the pioneers went through what they went through because they had no choice. We have trials that are just as difficult for us. Neither do I buy into the idea that my generation (and that of my children and future grandchildren) are somehow more holy or valiant than previous generations. We all muddle through life as best we can. Some appear to do it more successfully than others.

  65. I don’t think the Pioneers would want to be remembered as victims, sufferers, or only sacrificers. I think they would want to be known as hard workers, as mem/women of strenght, character, and hope. Yes, even faith.

  66. What Bob said.

  67. “Their would not have been an LDS Church in NC when you grew up without the pioneers coming first.” I don’t know. I believe some families in the south trace their pedigrees as far back as pioneer times–ancestors who were Mormon but may not have made it to Utah.

    BTW, I agree with jsf. I do have pioneer ancestors on some lines but not on others. I am as grateful to my ancestors on nonpioneer lines as on pioneer lines–without them I would not be who I am. I have family who fought and died on both sides of the Civil War (had they been converted as Mormons and gone west, they would have avoided that tragedy). Yes, it was a hardship for pioneer ancestors to go west–more physical hardship than I have ever faced. Yet I think those nonMormon, nonpioneer ancestors who were caught up in a horrible Civil War also faced tremendous hardships as well. I appreciate them all.

  68. Really? Are there LDS units in the South that go back prior to 1847?

    Is this really now a pissing match about who suffered worse. Freak…I agree with John C in the OP but the insufferable whiners in post are as bad as the talks about trek.

  69. BTW, none of you likely really have any Jewish heritage. The Old Testament really has little to do with the NT or the Christian gospel. We should likely cut that out. As a native of Maryland, I am offended by all the attention given to the history of countries I do not belong to. What gives?

  70. We live in an age of unparalleled prosperity, peace, and freedom. We can all expect to live long lives, make plenty of money for our needs, never go to war, never go hungry, travel the world, and learn millions of amazing facts about it.

    But to whom do we owe this blessed state? Did we build this beautiful world we live in? Did we invent the cars we drive, the lamps we read to?

    We owe everything to our ancestors. Every step we take in this blessed world was paid for by their blood, sweat, and tears.

    I don’t know what fire burned in the bosoms of the pioneers that inspired them to make the sacrifices they did, but I think a big part of it was a vision for the future. They believed they were going to build Zion where there would be peace, plenty, and freedom from oppression for them and their children.

    They did what they did for Zion. And Zion is the future. Zion is the prophetic dream of peace, prosperity, and freedom. We have all those things today. We are halfway to Zion already. We are waxing fat in the land, and glutting ourselves of the sacrifices of our ancestors.

    The least we can do is remember them once in awhile as we travel the roads they once carved out with wagon wheels. As imperfect and selfish as those attempts may be, they serve such an important purpose.

    I’m sure the pioneers were also concerned about their own well-being, spiritual and temporal. But I’m sure they thought of us! Look at all the modern pioneers, like the immigrants who risk everything to come to the US, take terrible jobs at great sacrifice. Why do they do this? The answer is universal:

    “So that my children will have better life than I had.”

  71. Then you probably haven’t read very many journals that they wrote. That is exactly the sentiment many of them expressed – that they prayed fervently that their sacrifices would have a lasting legacy.

    Fair point. I haven’t read pioneer journals. And while I agree that they may have hoped they could be an example, I think my hyperbole muddled the point I wanted to make that while they certainly had pretty pure motives for their commitment to the gospel, they weren’t as superhumanly selfless and focused on us as we as a church can sometimes make it out to be. And while we should be mindful of getting through our own journeys and learning from the lessons of those who have gone before, as the children, we should remember to turn our hearts to our fathers (and mothers), not just back onto ourselves in assuming that everything is about us.

  72. Chris H — at the same time the Church was thinking about heading west, a number of groups went places in the South, including Texas. As a result, they have a heritage that predates the Utah pioneers. No need to get so Utah-centric about things …

  73. jsf,

    D&C 84:33-35 tells us that as we receive the priesthood, we become the sons of Moses and Aaron, and the seed of Abraham. How different is that than to consider the Mormon pioneers the ancestors of all Mormonism today?

    I was baptized at 16 years of age by others who were members because of their Mormon pioneer ancestors. My priesthood lineage includes some pioneers (including Brigham Young). They are, therefore, MY Mormon pioneer heritage, as much so as they are for those who are literal DNA descendants.

    Are there idiots in the Church who think they are better for their pioneer ancestry? Sure. But let’s not blame the pioneers for modern day Mormon snobs. We can be inspired by them, even as we are inspired by the great prophets in the scriptures.

    I am also grateful for my ancestors, who were not Mormon pioneers, but many were pioneers in their own right. Leaving the bleakness and harshness of Ukraine around 1900 and settling in the bleakness and desolation of North Dakota, does not sound like my cup of tea. But I wouldn’t be here today without them doing that.

    As I’ve done their temple work, I think it was my best way of thanking them for their sacrifices of the past.

    We can never duplicate past experiences of others. But we can remember them as best we can, and learn to appreciate them. We have monuments to pioneers, soldiers, scientists, and presidents. We have monuments to the Mother Teresa’s of the world. And we should have Mount Rushmores to our past heroes, even though the monuments pale in comparison.

  74. it's a series of tubes says:

    Some treks are handled really badly; some are good experiences for those involved – at least a large majority of them.

    Agreed 100%.

  75. I am in my mid-sixties. I grew up knowing some of my Idaho ancestors who lived in the 19th c. They knew persons who had made the trek. As I type this, I hold in my hand a gold neck watch giving by Solomon Hale to his wife Anna on their 50th wedding anniversary. ‘Soli’ as a boy, was an errand runner for Joseph Smith. The world is small, and time can be short.

  76. I went on trek in the mid 80s. I thought it was great. There were no manufactured spiritual experienced. My testimony didn’t significantly change. It was, however, a great experience.
    If we get rid of it, it won’t be replaced with something better. This is a chance for them to put themselves (briefly) in someone else’s experience. These are kids whose lives are very different than the lives of most of the human race. There is an educational benefit for doing this even without a spiritual aspect.
    I love history. I think doing this is a once in a lifetime type of opportunity that I am glad my children will have. My daughter is only 13 so she won’t go this year. Our stake does it every 4 years so she and her brother will go the next time I hope.

  77. If we get rid of it, it won’t be replaced with something better.

    I’m not sure why you would think this. For one, I’m sure it would indeed be replaced with something else. If anything the church, and especially the youth programs, get more bloated with activities every decade. If anything – when taken away, it would be replaced with two new ideas.

    I guess whether or not they would be “better” is subjective. But I doubt that Trek is the pinnacle spiritual experience that our youth could have. I doubt that very much.

  78. jsf — I know it’s been touched on, but I wanted to continue the thought a bit. The Pioneers are our Mormon cultural ancestors, just as the pilgrims & framers are our American cultural ancestors. I hope that you can enourage the change of heart in your branch. When I lived in NC for a few years (nice coincidence!) the members there had plenty of love for the pioneers because they took the concept of “spiritual brothers & sisters” to heart. They loved the pioneers as their own family because they *are* their own family. I hope that you can learn about them and love them too.

  79. (Of course, there was a divide among some members there who were descended from Harker’s Island and those who weren’t — comparable to the whole Pioneer Stock Mormon vs. convert bit that is prevelent elsewhere. People will be vain and foolish, though. :) )

  80. Just want to say that my older two children attribute the “manufactured/artificial social spiritual experience” of EFY with increasing and strengthening their testimonies every year. My third child is going for the third time this summer, and one day we will send our now 10 year old triplets. Why? Because we live in a world full of genuine anti-spiritual experiences, both social and non-social, that attack their testimonies on a daily basis. We never know which experiences will be the ones that strengthen them, so we try to provide plenty. Do some kids who go to EFY still leave the church? Of course. Is that a reason to not send my kids? No way.

    I am a descendant of South Carolina pioneers. (One my mother, others who joined the church 4 & 5 generations ago.) I grew up feeling “less than” for not having pioneer ancestors. As I have learned the stories of my own pioneer ancestors and the sacrifices they made I have felt gratitude for my own heritage. At the same time, the more I’ve learned about the incredible sacrifices made by the early saints who traveled to Utah, the more gratitude I’ve felt for them as well. Both groups deserve my respect and appreciation.

    (My kids have had great trek experiences as well. Though I seriously doubt our stake ever spends anything like 30,000…)

  81. Funny thing, I wonder why nobody ever invited me on a trek. One crucial aspect of the pioneer experience that tends to be forgotten is widespread dysentary. This could quite reliably be duplicated on these treks with a variety of herbal or pharmacological remedies, or just ordinary poor sanitation. Learning to deal with this might be excellent physical preparation for what metaphorically the youth are going to have to deal with both in and out of the church, and more especially some of the stuff on the Internet. I just call it like I smell it.

  82. Just for a comic relief: After our stake’s last trek, a priest was asked to speak in sacrament meeting about the faith-promoting experiences he just enjoyed. He didn’t have much to say except to ask the audience if Jewish parents send their children to Holocaust camp.

    The congregation responded with nervous, uncomfortable laughter.

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