The historical basis for Pioneer Day celebrations is the 1847 arrival in the Salt Lake Valley of wagon trains of Mormon pioneers fleeing religious persecution in the United States. They first left their prosperous city of Nauvoo on the banks of the Mississippi River in Illinois in the Winter of 1846 and traveled a 1,300 mile route on foot and with covered wagons through the inhospitable American outback to reach an isolated desert valley on the western edge of the Rocky Mountains. Mormon pioneers from around the world continued to make this or other similarly arduous journeys of migration from their homelands in the heart of civilizations to this far flung frontier settlement throughout much of the rest of the nineteenth century. Theirs was a pioneer spirit, as evidenced not only by how they accepted their lot as refugees forced from civilization into what was, at the time, a remote, harsh, virtually uninhabitable wilderness, but also by virtue of their conversion from among many nations to the truly radical religious movement known as Mormonism, which laid claim to a Restoration of Christ’s Gospel and of all things.
The Sabre Rattlers, “All is Well (Come, Come Ye Saints),” Twixt Me and the Peaceful Rest (2010), Hymn 30, LDS Hymnal (1985).
The Mormon pioneer, as William Mulder observed, “crossed more than an ocean and a continent — his traveling was, in John Ciardi’s phrase, ‘across the sprung longitudes of the mind, and the blood’s latitudes.'” When Lehi “departed into the wilderness . . . he left his house, and the land of his inheritance, and his gold, and his silver, and his precious things, and took nothing with him, save it were his family, and provisions, and tents, and departed into the wilderness” (1 Nephi 2:4). Mormons fleeing Nauvoo in 1846 did much the same, perhaps taking comfort in this and other scriptural episodes recounting the plight of unintentional pioneers. But the destination of these intrepid travelers was their Zion, prepared for them by God, though impossibly distant and initially inhospitable. There, they believed against all odds, that “Zion shall flourish, and the glory of the Lord shall be upon her; And she shall be an ensign unto the people, and there shall come unto her out of every nation under heaven” (Doctrine & Covenants 64:41-42). And it did and was.
Robust Restorationism and Millennialism — both integral to early Mormonism — shaped their belief in their own identity as the literal seed of Abraham, thus heirs with Isaac to God’s promise to Abraham, which they read self-referentially: “I will make thy seed to multiply as the stars of heaven, and will give unto thy seed all these countries; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Genesis 26:4). How natural, then, that “[t]he wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose” (Isaiah 35:1). Even the wilderness rejoiced at the prospect of Zion’s coming, at the promise that it would “blossom as the rose.”
But at the same time, the wilderness was also unforgiving. It was a place of long wandering, long error, sometimes death. “Harden not your heart,” admonishes the Psalmist messianically, “as in the provocation, and as in the day of temptation in the wilderness: When your fathers tempted me, proved me, and saw my work.” (Psalm 95:8-9). The Psalmist voices the Lord’s lament about his people who should be, but were not, Zion: that “I grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people that do err in their heart, and they have not known my ways” (Psalm 95:10). His people, no different than the wilderness, looked forward to the coming of Zion in their hearts as a transformation from waste place and wilderness to a blossoming rose in their own moral being. Like the physical Zion, this metaphysical Zion too would need to be constructed painstakingly, stone upon stone, precept upon precept.
Thankfully, though as humans even they as his people erred constantly with the rest of fallen humanity, God showed them in their necessity the “highway” which was “The way of holiness” leading to a promised land in the waste places; walking this road, “the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein” (Isaiah 35:8). It’s just that, having arrived in their promised land, things did not look so promising at first — making both the desert and the soul blossom as the rose was going to take a lot of work. Good thing Mormon converts had plenty of experience starting over in remote wildernesses. We are still working through this new beginning in our promised land.
* * *
The Promised Land. Unified in their common goal of survival and Kingdom building in a way that is completely lost to us today, the pioneers laid the foundation of their Zion with the promise that “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). It might be true, as George Handley muses, that “promised lands are never permanently given, only provisionally loaned,” but if these Mormon pioneers did not view themselves as owners of their promised land, then they at least shouldered the burden of an eternal stewardship which they discharged with “Holiness to the Lord” as their mission statement. Earth and God came together in their promised land, a concept that after about half a century of relative isolation began to lose its geographical character and became located in those “sprung longitudes of the mind” invoked by Ciardi as Latter-day Saints began to establish Zion in their stakes all across the world.
Though lands of promise have often been geographical havens of peace and prosperity for a chosen people, the ultimate Promised Land accessible to each of us regardless of our present geographical location is surely the Kingdom of God. Many a pioneer in all ages and from all peoples has left a home country — whether physically or metaphysically — in search of this. The difficulty of the way has often taken the wanderers by surprise precisely because of this sense of being a chosen people. Jacob wearily recounted that “the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26). The mourning and sadness of Jacob’s reflection should not eclipse the fact of his people having indeed arrived in their promised land, guided by the Lord, and their quick work to establish Zion there, complete with building a replica of Solomon’s temple. Though life in a promised land can be coterminous with sojourning in the Kingdom of God, this has not and will not always be the case. The often terse recollections left behind by Mormons in their Deseret, later the Utah Territory, brings this home. There is a certain loneliness in the prospect of such a new beginning — one that could be ameliorated through fellowship. Pioneers are those who begin such a new life in a new land.
As Christians we believe that the ultimate beginning of a new life is through baptism. In Paul’s words,
3 Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? 4 Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. 7 For whoever has died is freed from sin. 8 But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. (Romans 6:3-10.)
The death of the old, worldly self is necessary in order to begin a new life in and with Christ. And is not death the ultimate “undiscovered country,” ripe for pioneering? But only the bravest of moral pioneers ventures there — the same perplexing contemplation surely accompanies the voluntary death of the worldly, sinful self that troubled Hamlet about the death of the physical self:
To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. . . .
Who would these Fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered Country, from whose bourn
No Traveler returns, Puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have,
Than fly to others that we know not of.
God expects every individual to become such a pioneer of that Undiscovered Country, a final “wilderness” that can only be approached through this death of the old self in baptism: “And he commandeth all men that they must repent, and be baptized in his name, having perfect faith in the Holy One of Israel, or they cannot be saved in the kingdom of God” (2 Nephi 9:23). Thus we learn that this Undiscovered Country is the much sought Kingdom of God, not a moral wilderness at all (like many of the geographical promised lands have initially been), and we are pleased to know that the same ordinance of baptism that brings new life also brings such a pioneer into this new land of the Kingdom of God, the ultimate Promised Land. Knowing the uncertainty, the fear and anxiety facing those “Travelers” who have not yet embarked on this journey at the prospect of crucifying their old self with Christ, we must give comfort and “Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence; he will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4).
May each of us who through baptism have become pioneers in the blossoming Kingdom of God “strengthen the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees” (Isaiah 35:3) of those who have not yet done so. Let us therefore believe Christ’s words that “many shall come from the east and west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 8:11) and do our best to help guide them home.
The Collect: Heavenly Father, who through Thy Son hast led Thy Chosen People into many wildernesses with the promise that they will blossom as the rose, make us pioneers willing to crucify our old self in Christ’s death to find life with Him in that Undiscovered Country that is Thy Kingdom so that we may then speak peace to those in fear, strengthen the weak hands and confirm the feeble knees, through Thy Son Jesus Christ, who reigns with Thee in Thy Kingdom, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
 William Mulder, Homeward to Zion: The Mormon Migration from Scandinavia, University of Minnesota Press, 1985 (2000), p. xi.
 George B. Handley, Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River, University of Utah Press, 2010, p. 88.
 As Emmeline B. Wells movingly expressed in a poem set to music as “Our Mountain Home So Dear,” Hymn 33, LDS Hymnal (1985):
In sylvan depth and shade,
In forest and in glade,
Where-e’er we pass,
The hand of God we see
In leaf and bud and tree,
Or bird or humming bee,
Or blade of grass
 William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act III, Scene 1 (ca. 1599 – 1602).