Our Priceless Pioneer Legacy

The historian Lord Macauly said, “The people who do not revere the deeds of their ancestors will never do anything to be remembered by their descendants.”

We hope the present generation will continue to be reminded by sermon, song, eulogy, and family traditions of the noble virtues of their pioneer ancestors and to recognize that it was by and through the hand of God that they were delivered from their oppressors and that the settlement in Ephraim’s mountains took place.

Though others have said more eloquently what my tongue or pen could express, I deeply desire to pay reverent tribute to these heroes of the past, to their faithful deeds, their noble lives, and their lasting lessons of courage, faith, self-reliance, stamina, industry, and integrity. All generations have need of these virtues.

We stand today as beneficiaries of their priceless legacy to us, a legacy based on the solid truth that character is the one thing we develop in this world that we take with us into the next.

And what is that legacy?

The pioneers came to the Salt Lake Valley with credentials that spanned the centuries, a bloodline coursing through their veins from illustrious parentage: Abraham and Sarah; Isaac and Rebekah; Jacob and Rachel. Theirs was a bloodline preserved through four centuries of Egyptian captivity; an exile and exodus from the land of their captivity that lasted forty years—a time necessary for a new, less-enslaved generation to develop; and then a settlement in a promised land, which lasted over seven centuries of migrations that brought their sifted lineage into northern Europe and Great Britain.

When the tyranny of European governments disallowed freedom of religious worship, God prepared a new land of promise—the United States of America—where such freedom was eventually guaranteed by an inspired Constitution. Some of the progenitors of the pioneers came before the gospel’s restoration, such as the ancestors of Joseph Smith, but most came following the restoration. They came with a self-identity that led President Brigham Young to exclaim on one occasion, “You understand who we are; we are of the House of Israel, of the royal seed, of the royal blood.” (Journal of Discourses 2:269.)

They came with the faith that God had “set his hand a second time” to restore the house of Israel; that to accomplish His purposes and design, the Church of Jesus Christ had been restored again on the earth through the instrumentality of a latter-day prophet, Joseph Smith, Jr.; and that following the martyrdom, the keys of the priesthood had been continued through Joseph’s ordained successor, Brigham Young. They believed themselves to be God-directed and prophetled. That was the conviction which inspired their sacrifices.

They came with indomitable courage, following incredible suffering and adversity. Who can forget those almost insufferable conditions during their exodus? While they were encamped at Sugar Creek, Iowa, in February 1846, a raging blizzard left twelve inches of snow on the ground. Following that storm, the temperatures fell to twelve degrees below zero. On one of those cold nights nine babies were born. Eliza R. Snow provides this vivid account:

Mothers gave birth to offspring under almost every variety of circumstances imaginable, except those to which they had been accustomed; some in tents, others in wagons—in rainstorms and snowstorms. I heard of one birth which occurred under the rude shelter of a hut, the sides of which were formed of blankets fastened to poles stuck in the ground, with a bark roof through which the rain was dripping. Kind sisters stood holding dishes to catch the water as it fell, thus protecting the newcomer and its mother from a showerbath as the little innocent first entered on the stage of human life; and through faith in the great ruler of events, no harm resulted to either.

Let it be remembered that the mothers of these wilderness-born babies were not savages, accustomed to roam the forest and brave the storm and tempest—those who had never known the comforts and delicacies of civilization and refinement. They were not those who, in the wilds of nature, nursed their offspring amid reeds and rushes, or in the recesses of rocky caverns; most of them were born and educated in the Eastern States—and there embraced the Gospel as taught by Jesus and his Apostles; and, for the sake of their religion, had gathered with the Saints, and under trying circumstances had assisted, by their faith, patience and energies, in making Nauvoo what its name indicates “the beautiful.” There they had lovely homes, decorated with flowers and enriched with choice fruit trees, just beginning to yield plentifully. (Edward W. Tullidge, The Women of Mormondom, pp. 307-9.)

In March of that same year, four hundred wagons set out toward the Rocky Mountains, but now a spring thaw had turned the ruts into a quagmire of mud.

Under these testing conditions Orson Spencer’s wife, a young woman of thirty-five, succumbed to this inclement life, leaving six children under fifteen years of age. Shortly before her passing, she opened her eyes and, seeing her children huddling by her bed, burst into tears, sobbing: “Oh, you dear little children! How I hope you will fall into kind hands when I am gone.”

Not a murmur escaped her lips. . . . The storm was severe, and the wagon covers leaked. Friends held milk pans over her bed to keep her dry. Her daughter states that shortly before her mother departed this life, that she rallied and whispered to her husband: “A heavenly messenger appeared to me tonight and told me that I had done and suffered enough, and that he had now come to convey me to a mansion of gold.”

After kissing each child in turn, she whispered to her husband: “I love you more than ever!—But you must let me go!” It was enough. Orson Spencer sorrowfully dedicated her to her Father in heaven, and a moment later she was gone to her crown of glory. (Carter Grant, The Kingdom of God Restored, Deseret Book Co., 1955, pp. 344-45.)

But all was not sorrow. “We outlived the trying scenes,” wrote John Taylor. “We felt contented and happy—the songs of Zion resounded from wagon to wagon—from tent to tent.” (Millennial Star 8:7.) It was under these conditions that William Clayton penned the verses to “All Is Well,” a poem that became an anthem of faith for the Latter-day Saints.

We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,Far away in the West,Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;There the Saints will be blessed.We’ll make the air with music ring,Shout praises to our God and King;Above the rest these words we’ll tell—All is well! all is well!—Hymns, no. 13

Little did Brother Clayton realize that his hymn would be sung by the 400-voice Tabernacle Choir before the president of the United States and other dignitaries at the commemoration of our nation’s two hundredth birthday.

The pioneers came west with a devotion, patriotism, and loyalty to the nation that had silently sanctioned their expulsion from their homes and the loss of their possessions. History records no modern parallel to their epic exodus from Nauvoo, so it is little wonder that the situation of these modern Israelites was likened to their ancient ancestors exiled from Egypt. In fact, President Joseph F. Smith said that the pioneer feat of modern Israel exceeded that of their progenitors:

“A wonderful event has occurred in these last days among this people, an event many times more wonderful than the marching of the children of Israel from Egypt to the holy land. It is only a short distance from the River Jordan to the land of Egypt—only a few hundred miles—and yet they wandered about for forty years seeking the goodly land. . . . What has happened in this dispensation? This people have crossed deserts that are beyond comparison with those traversed by the children of Israel. They were not fed by manna it is true, although they were fed with quails in great abundance on at least one occasion, and they performed a journey nearly four times as great as that performed by the children of Israel—which occupied them forty years—in the course of a few months. . . .

“We were led out of bondage by the power of God. The angels of God and the power and presence of the Almighty accompanied us, so much so that notwithstanding the country was covered with sagebrush and crickets, presenting the most forbidding appearance, President Young was enabled to point out where the Temple and city would be built. He said, ‘You may go north and south, east and west, and explore the country all over, but when you have done it, you will come back and say that this is the spot where we are to settle.'” (Journal of Discourses 24:155-56.)

It is ironic that in the course of their exodus, this same government that stood by while they were forcibly expelled from Illinois should now come to them with a request for five hundred able-bodied men to fight in the war with Mexico. So disproportionate, inequitable, and unjust in terms of their numbers and their situation was the request for manpower that President Brigham Young commented later:

“Look . . . at the proportion of the number required of us, compared with that of any other portion of the Republic. A requisition of only thirty thousand from a population of more than twenty millions was all that was wanted, amounting to only one person and a half to a thousand inhabitants. If all other circumstances had been equal, . . . our quota of an equitable requisition would not have exceeded four persons. Instead of this, five hundred must go, thirteen thousand percent above an equal ration.” (Journal of Discourses 2:174.)

But they did comply with the request—an extraordinary example of loyalty to their nation.

And what prompted such loyalty and patriotism? Not fear of reprisal, not servile obedience to their overlords, but a recognition that compliance with this request was the “interposition of that all-wise Being” who was bringing about their deliverance. “Thus,” said Brigham Young, “were we saved from our enemies by complying with their . . . unjust and unparalleled exactions; again proving our loyalty to the Government.” (Ibid.)

During the times of mobbings and persecutions, the revelations of God had prescribed the course of action they should take: importune for redress—at the feet of judges, at the feet of the governor, and at the feet of even the president of the United States. These steps were followed without relief, reparation, or redress. Under these conditions I’m sure they questioned as did Joseph in Liberty Jail: “O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed? . . . O Lord, how long shall [thy people] suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions?” (D&C 121:1–3.)

They, who had suffered so much from oppressors, were to see that God takes His own retribution in His own time and in His own way; for as Lincoln said, “Nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishment and . . . may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins. . . .” (A Proclamation by the President of the United States, March 30, 1863.)

While the Saints dwelt securely outside the boundaries of the United States, the nation was engaged in its most costly war in terms of lives lost, a civil war. No doubt these words of the Lord were recalled: “If the President heed [thee] not, then will the Lord arise and come forth out of his hiding place, and in his fury vex the nation.” (D&C 101:89.)

It is a matter of history how truly those words were fulfilled.

Their loyalty to the nation extended not only from patriotism. It came also from a conviction that God had reserved this land for His purpose. It was a choice land above all others. The Constitution of this country had been established “by the hands of wise men whom [God] raised up unto this very purpose,” and they were under divine commandment to maintain that inspired document “for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles.” (D&C 101:80, 77.) And so, when they settled in this western haven, they fashioned a civil government in accord with the Constitution, which, in the hands of good and honorable men, would afford them and others their rights and liberty.

They came, with faith and industry, and carved an Eden out of a desert. Their promised land has become a prosperous valley. Commodious brick homes and apartment dwellings have replaced the log cabins. Luxuriant greenery, gardens, trees, and flowers flourish where once sagebrush and parched soil thrived. A tabernacle and magnificent temple have replaced the Bowery and Endowment House. Elaborate meetinghouses of worship fill the valley. Schools, seminaries, institutes, colleges, trade schools, and a university provide for secular and spiritual education. Stores, banks, factories abound. Truly, we live in the lap of luxury amid an unbounded prosperity, and all this because of the philosophy of self-reliance, initiative, personal industry, and faith in God.

Our forefathers gloried in hard work, but at the same time they drew liberally upon their prodigious spiritual reserves. They did not place their trust “in the arm of flesh.” They were strong and courageous in the Lord, knowing that He was their defense, their refuge, their salvation. Strengthened by this faith, they relied on their cherished independence, their frugality, and honest toil. And history records that even the climate was tempered for their sakes, and their humble untiring efforts made “the desert to blossom as the rose.”

Their faith was renewed by two of Isaiah’s remarkable prophecies concerning the last days—the days in which they knew they were living. In the first of these Isaiah announces: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” (Isaiah 35:1.) And again: “For the Lord shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving, and the voice of melody.” (Isaiah 51:3.)

And while their natural eyes saw only their log cabins and immediate surroundings, they envisioned the day when the words of Micah would be fulfilled: “But in the last days it shall come to pass, that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established in the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and people shall flow unto it. And many nations shall come, and say, Come, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for the law shall go forth of Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:1–2.)

We have witnessed the fulfillment of these remarkable prophecies. But today, a contrary philosophy has come into the land. It is one that espouses that government benefits should replace the fruits of individual initiative and labor.

Such a philosophy can result only in the shackling of man’s liberties—in the eventual destruction of our freedom. Had the early settlers throughout the land lived by such a philosophy, this glorious nation of ours would be a vast untamed wilderness known only to the Indians who had lived here for centuries before. I earnestly pray that this important lesson of history shall not go unheeded.

Yes, they came to the valleys of the mountains—first a trickle, the advance party on July 21 and 22, and then, on the 24th, the main caravan of 143 men, three women, and two children. The trickle of immigrants was followed by the hundreds, then the thousands, so that by 1869 more than 68,000 Mormon pioneers had crossed the plains. They came with their faith, loyalty, courage, industry, and integrity. Their legacy to us may be summarized in these fitting words by the late President J. Reuben Clark, Jr.:

“God has never worked out his purposes through the pampered victims of ease and luxury and riotous living. Always he has used to meet the great crises in his work, those in whom hardship, privation, and persecution had built characters and wills of iron. God shapes his servants in the forge of adversity; he does not fashion them in the hothouse of ease and luxury.” (Address delivered at dedication of “This Is the Place” monument, July 24, 1947; in Improvement Era 50:573.)

However outmoded some of these standards may be considered today, they are nonetheless enduring truths without which no character worthy of the name can be built. We have respectfully called them pioneers, because they prepared the way for us to follow. May we possess courage to direct our lives in accordance with the enduring values so represented by their lives.

(Source: Ezra Taft Benson, This Nation Shall Endure, published 1977)

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