Viewpoint: Remember and Emulate LDS Pioneers

Contributed By From the Church News

  • 12 July 2013

“Let us not only remember the past and its required sacrifice; let us also remember that we are responsible to build a legacy for the generations which follow us.” —President Thomas S. Monson

The lives of Latter-day Saint pioneers Jens Neilson and his wife, Elsie, demonstrate sacrifice, faith, and charity.

A member of the Willie Handcart Company, Jens—a relatively prosperous Danish farmer—heeded the call to bring his family to Zion. The family had enough money to buy wagons, horses, and other supplies, but instead they chose to help others with less means travel to Zion. In Iowa, Jens wrote that he gave all his money to the Church, except enough to buy and stock a handcart.

So Jens and Elsie, their 6-year-old son, Neils, and a 9-year-old girl in the family’s care, Bodil Mortensen, set out for the Salt Lake Valley.

During an early Wyoming blizzard, temperatures plummeted below zero. The Neilsons consumed their last pound of flour but still made it over Rocky Ridge. However, 13 in the company—including Neils Neilson and Bodil Mortensen—died later that night while taking refuge at Rock Creek.

“Jens arrived at Rock Creek, 11 miles beyond Rocky Ridge, with both feet frozen,” recounted Elder M. Russell Ballard during the October 1996 general conference. “He was unable to walk another step and pleaded with Elsie, ‘Leave me by the trail in the snow to die, and you go ahead and try to keep up with the company and save your life.’ Elsie, with her unfaltering pioneer courage, replied: ‘Ride, I can’t leave you, I can pull the cart’ ” (“Faith in Every Footstep”).

Such was the strength and faith of many early pioneers. This July, as the Church celebrates the 166th anniversary of the first pioneer company entering the Salt Lake Valley, may we remember and emulate the strength, as well as the sacrifice, faith, and charity, of early Latter-day Saints.

“In the heroic effort of the handcart pioneers, we learn a great truth,” said President James E. Faust during the Church’s April 1997 general conference. “All must pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. There seems to be a full measure of anguish, sorrow, and often heartbreak for everyone, including those who earnestly seek to do right and be faithful. Yet this is part of the purging to become acquainted with God” (“Faith in Every Footstep: The Epic Pioneer Journey”).

President Thomas S. Monson said we really have few ways today to comprehend the difficulty, the sacrifice, the hunger and deprivation that were required to build the basis of civilization in the Salt Lake Valley. “But we should never forget it. … Let us not only remember the past and its required sacrifice; let us also remember that we are responsible to build a legacy for the generations which follow us. Good character, craftsmanship, spirituality—these are among the precious things we can leave as our addition to the heritage of sacrifice and hard work that was left to us by those who pioneered before” (“The Legacy Continues,” Days of ’47 Video, May 1994).

In doing so, we add meaning to the lives of the pioneers—including the Neilsons and Bodil Mortensen.

While crossing Rocky Ridge, nine-year-old Bodil was assigned to care for some smaller children. “When they arrived at camp, she must have been sent to gather firewood. She was found frozen to death leaning against the wheel of her handcart, clutching sagebrush” (see James E. Faust, “A Priceless Heritage,” Ensign, Nov. 1992, 84–85).

In the biography Gloroius Victory, Jay P. Neilson writes about his ancestors Jens and Elsie Neilson. “It is not known how far Elsie pulled the cart that day, but in other sources it says the total distance traveled between camps was 16 miles with some steep slopes,” he wrote, noting that Elsie was 4 feet 11 inches and under 100 pounds and Jens, whom she pulled in the handcart, was 6 feet 2 inches and 230 pounds.

During the Church’s October 1856 general conference, President Brigham Young announced that handcart pioneers—including Jens and Elsie Nielsen—were stranded hundreds of miles away. He declared: “Your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains, and attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties, otherwise your faith will be in vain” (in Daughters in My Kingdom: The History and Work of Relief Society [2011], 36).

Rescuers met Jens and Elsie at the very campsite where Elsie had pulled her husband.

Decades later, during the October 1991 general conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley said he was grateful “that today none of our people are stranded on the Wyoming highlands. But I know that all about us there are many who are in need of help and who are deserving of rescue. Our mission in life, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, must be a mission of saving. …

“It is not those on the high plains of Wyoming that we need be concerned today. It is with many immediately around us, in our families, in our wards and stakes, in our neighborhoods and communities. …

“… We must rise above our love for comfort and ease, and in the very process of effort and struggle, even in our extremity, we shall become better acquainted with our God” (“Our Mission of Saving”).