We are in the midst of observing the 200th birthday of the United States of America. Just three months ago we noted the 146th anniversary of the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which event occurred in America. This month also we commemorate the historic trek of the Mormon pioneers who, 130 years ago, left the beautiful city of Nauvoo, Illinois, and their comfortable homes to escape their persecutors and march 1,400 miles across a hostile wilderness in order to worship their God according to the dictates of their own conscience. In July of 1847 they reached the Great Salt Lake Valley and founded the city which is now the headquarters of Christ’s church on earth. In January of this year as Utah officially opened its bicentennial celebration, we also commemorated the 80th anniversary of Utah’s statehood.
These events did not occur by accident, nor without significant relationship to each other. In fact, the record is not complete without mention of another noteworthy anniversary which took place 484 years ago, in October of 1492, when Columbus rediscovered America. We attribute the discovery to Columbus, although others had landed on her shores but made no permanent settlements—except the Jaredites and Nephites thousands of years earlier.
There are biblical references to America, and we are all aware of Nephi’s vision wherein he sees “a man among the Gentiles, who was separated from the seed of my brethren by the many waters; and I beheld the Spirit of God, that it came down and wrought upon the man; and he went forth upon the many waters, even unto the seed of my brethren, who were in the promised land.” (1 Ne. 13:12.)
This of course refers to Christopher Columbus, and we have this further scripture foretelling the coming of the Pilgrims or Puritans:
“And it came to pass that I beheld the Spirit of God, that it wrought upon other Gentiles; and they went forth out of captivity, upon the many waters.” (1 Ne. 13:13.)
At the close of the fifteenth century there had been a great falling away from the gospel as taught by Jesus Christ. There was no religious freedom anywhere in the known world. Everything was under the domination of dictators and absolute monarchs. And yet the prophets had foretold the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. How could this be accomplished except in a new land, with new concepts of liberty and religious freedom?
It was all part of God’s plan—the coming of Columbus, the colonization, wise men raised up to frame the Constitution, Joseph Smith prepared for his part in the restoration of the gospel, even the persecution which drove the Saints to the Rocky Mountains where the Church could continue to grow.
What does all this mean to you and me as individuals? It means that God, as our Father, made all these arrangements for you and me. We were part of his eternal scheme. And so it is not enough merely to observe these various anniversaries, but we must recommit and rededicate ourselves to uphold the convictions and the principles upon which the blessings we enjoy are predicated. We too must be prepared to sacrifice, where necessary, to keep our freedoms inviolate. My father used to say: “The true way to honor the past is to improve upon it.”
Therefore, we should love God more. We should serve our fellowmen better. We should keep all the commandments. We should be better prepared as parents to teach our children to pray and to walk uprightly before the Lord, and to assume their responsibilities. It would be tragic if for fear of the challenge involved the descendants of those who gave so liberally and sacrificed so much shrank from the duties of their day and time.
On the other hand, a willingness to work for needed reforms and a better world would guarantee for us a special place in history as it did for them. We should be constantly striving for improvement of ourselves and our surroundings.
In introducing a beautification program back in 1940, Elder Stephen L Richards said:
“What if our great and wise pioneer leader, Brigham Young, should return on the … anniversary of his entrance into this the Salt Lake Valley? How it would please him and thrill his noble soul to find the cities, the towns and villages which he planned so well and strove so diligently and courageously to found, all in the bloom of midsummer, with farms and fields laden with maturing crops, with pastures and hills dotted with flocks and herds, with factories, business blocks, public buildings, schools and churches reflecting a vast development in enterprise, culture and religion which he so earnestly advocated; and then too, most thrilling of all, if he could find thousands of contented homes, nestled in the shade of myriads of trees, growing out of lawns, shrubs and fragrant flowers, all neat and clean, the habitation of an honest, thrifty, God-loving, joyous people, and all this in the desert valleys which he first saw, now transformed and beautified by the enterprise and the idealism of the generations that followed him! Surely the cup of his gratitude would be running over.
“Why may it not be so? What more worthy and fitting tribute could we offer to those patient, devoted men and women whose courage, whose intelligence and whose labor have bequeathed to us the priceless heritage we now enjoy?
“God grant that our love, our gratitude and our veneration may find tangible expression in beauty—beauty of life and surroundings.” (Conference Reports, April 7, 1940, pp. 129–30.)
Pioneers are still needed. A pioneer is described as one who goes before, preparing the way for others. He is a leader, first in his field in discovery and invention. He will be followed by settlers and developers who expand and exploit his discoveries. Anyone seeking to become a pioneer will take care to fill his mind with what is known about the route he plans to take. Some of the qualities needed in pioneering are interest, intelligence, imagination, and determination. A pioneer must investigate, plan, experiment, and work.
As we pioneer into any endeavor, we have the benefit of those who have pioneered before us. We have the gospel plan to follow, which needs no experimentation, but we must plan and work to accomplish the goal we seek—eternal life.
We express gratitude to our Father in heaven for the gospel, which shows us the way. We are grateful to all who were prepared and came forth to accomplish his purposes and establish his truths, which are the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Elder Orson F. Whitney, in October of 1918, speaking in general conference, said:
“The Latter-day Saints believe Columbus was inspired to discover this land in order that a free nation, dedicated to the maintenance and preservation of the rights of man, including his right to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, might arise here; a nation founded upon the proposition that all men have equal rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed—a doctrine diametrically opposed to the old autocratic notions prevalent in European and oriental lands. And we further believe that this nation was established so that the great work of Israel’s God might come forth under its protecting aegis, and not be crushed out by the tyranny of man; to the end that the gospel, ‘the power of God unto salvation,’ might be preached in all the world as a witness before the end comes; that the House of Israel might be gathered in from their long dispersion, that Zion might arise, and the glory of God rest upon her, and the world be prepared for the coming of the King of kings, the Lord Jesus Christ, in his glory. We believe this fervently. It is our message to the world.” (Conference Reports, Oct. 5, 1918, pp. 42–43.)
We preach this same message today and testify to its truthfulness.