To the east and south of the Tabernacle on Temple Square, marking the entrance to the valley of the Great Salt Lake and standing as a sentinel pointing the way, is located “This Is the Place” monument. Here is featured Brigham Young—his back turned to the privations, hardships, and struggles of the long desert way, his outstretched arm pointing to the valley of precious promise.
Miles that once took months are now traveled in minutes. The many hundreds of thousands of visitors who pause at the monument each year tingle with the spirit of pioneer tradition. Such tradition reaches its high point each year on Pioneer Day, July 24th. A grateful Church membership sets aside the busy cares of our fast-moving world and reflects on the everlasting principles which helped guide those noble pioneers to their promised land.
That first trek of 1847, organized and led by Brigham Young, is described by historians as one of the great epics of United States history. Mormon pioneers by the hundreds suffered and died from disease, exposure, or starvation. There were some who, lacking wagons and teams, literally walked the 1,300 miles across the plains and through the mountains, pushing and pulling handcarts. In these groups, one in six perished.
For many, the journey didn’t begin at Nauvoo, Kirtland, Far West, or New York, but rather in distant England, Scotland, Scandinavia, or Germany. Tiny children could not fully comprehend the dynamic faith which motivated their parents to leave behind family, friends, comfort, and security. A little one might ask, “Mommy, why are we leaving home? Where are we going?”
“Come along, precious one; we’re going to Zion, the city of our God.”
Between the safety of home and the promise of Zion stood the angry and treacherous waters of the mighty Atlantic. Who can recount the fear that gripped the human heart during those perilous crossings? Prompted by the silent whisperings of the Spirit, sustained by a simple yet abiding faith, they trusted in God and set sail on their journey. Europe was behind, America ahead.
On board one of those overcrowded and creaking vessels of yesteryear were my great-grandparents, their tiny family, and a few meager possessions. The waves were high, the voyage long, the quarters cramped. Tiny Mary had always been frail, but now with the passage of each day, her anxious mother saw the little one becoming weaker. She had a serious illness. There was no neighborhood drugstore, no doctor’s prescription, no modern hospital—just the steady roll of the tired old ship. Day after day worried parents watched for land, but there was none. Soon, Mary could not stand. Lips that were too weak to speak trembled with silent but eloquently expressed wonderment and fear. The end drew near. Little Mary peacefully passed beyond this vale of tears.
As family and friends crowded around on the open deck, the ship’s captain directed the service; and that precious, ever-so-small body, placed tenderly in a tear-stained canvas, was committed to the angry sea. Her strong father, in emotion-choked tones, comforted her grieving mother, repeating, “‘The Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.’ (Job 1:21.) We’ll see our Mary again!”
Such scenes were not uncommon. Tombstones of sage and rock marked graves the entire route from Nauvoo to Salt Lake City. Such was the price some pioneers paid. Their bodies are buried in peace, but their names live on evermore.
Tired oxen lumbered, wagon wheels squeaked, brave men toiled, Indian war drums sounded, and coyotes howled. Our faith-inspired and storm-driven ancestors pressed on. They, too, had their cloud by day and pillar of fire by night.
Often they sang:
Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way.
Though hard to you this journey may appear,
Grace shall be as your day. …
All is well! All is well!
(“Come, Come, Ye Saints,” Hymns, no. 30.)
These pioneers remembered the words of the Lord: “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion.” (D&C 136:31.)
As the long, painful struggle approached its welcomed end, a jubilant spirit filled each heart. Tired feet and weary bodies somehow found new strength.
Time-marked pages of a dusty pioneer journal speak movingly: “We bowed ourselves down in humble prayer to Almighty God with hearts full of thanksgiving to Him, and dedicated this land unto Him for the dwelling place of His people.”
The crude homes were described in these terms by one who was there as a small boy: “There was no window of any kind whatever in our house. Neither was there a door. My mother hung up an old quilt, which served as a door for the first winter. This was our bedroom, our parlor, our sitting room, our kitchen, our sleeping room, everything in this room of about 12 by 16 feet. How in the world we all got along in it I do not know. I recollect that my dear old mother stated that no queen who ever entered her palace was ever more happy or proud of shelter and the blessings of the Lord than was she when she entered that completed dugout.”
Such were the trials, the hardships, struggles, and heartaches of a former day. They were met with resolute courage and an abiding faith in a living God. The words of their prophet-leader provided their pledge: “And this shall be our covenant—that we will walk in all the ordinances of the Lord.” (D&C 136:4.)
The passage of time dims our memories and diminishes our appreciation for those who walked the path of pain, leaving behind a tear-marked trail of nameless graves. But what of today’s challenge? Are there no rocky roads to travel, no rugged mountains to climb, no chasms to cross, no trails to blaze, no rivers to ford? Or is there a very present need for that pioneer spirit to guide us away from the dangers that threaten to engulf us, and lead us to a Zion of safety?
In the four decades since the end of World War II, standards of morality have lowered again and again. Today there are more people in jail, in reformatories, on probation, and in trouble than ever before. From padded expense accounts to grand larceny, from petty crimes to crimes of passion, the figures are higher than ever and going higher. Crime spirals upward; decency careens downward. Many are on a giant roller coaster of disaster, seeking the thrills of the moment while sacrificing the joys of eternity. We conquer space but cannot control self. Thus we forfeit peace.
Can we somehow muster the courage and that steadfastness of purpose which characterized the pioneers of a former generation? Can you and I, in actual fact, be pioneers today? A dictionary defines a pioneer as “one who goes before, showing others the way to follow.” Oh, how the world needs pioneers today!
We forget how the Greeks and Romans prevailed magnificently in a barbaric world and how that triumph ended, how a slackness and softness finally came over them to their ruin. In the end, more than they wanted freedom, they wanted security, a comfortable life; and they lost all—security and comfort and freedom. From the confusion of our modern world, sincere persons searchingly ask themselves: “To whom shall we listen? Whom shall we follow? Whom shall we serve?”
Today, chronic strife permeates even the personal province of the Prince of Peace. Contention thrives, though he declared, “Contention is not of me, but is of the devil.” (3 Ne. 11:29.)
But if we have ears that truly hear, we will be mindful of the echo from Capernaum’s past. Here multitudes crowded around Jesus, bringing the sick to be healed. Here a palsied man picked up his bed and walked, and a Roman centurion’s faith restored his servant’s health.
Many turn away from our Elder Brother, who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6), and follow blindly after that Pied Piper of sin who would lead us down the slippery slopes to our own destruction. Satan cunningly calls to troubled souls in truly tempting tones.
Do not yield to his enticements; rather, stand firm for truth. The unsatisfied yearnings of the soul will not be met by a never-ending quest for joy amidst the thrills of sensation and vice. Vice never leads to virtue. Hate never promotes love. Cowardice never gives courage. Doubt never inspires faith.
Some find it difficult to withstand the mockings and unsavory remarks of foolish ones who ridicule chastity, honesty, and obedience to God’s commands. But the world has ever belittled adherence to principle. When Noah was instructed to build an ark, the foolish populace looked at the cloudless sky, then scoffed and jeered—until the rain came.
On the American continent, those long centuries ago, people doubted, disputed, and disobeyed until the fire consumed Zarahemla, the earth covered Moronihah, and water engulfed Moroni. Jeering, mocking, ribaldry, and sin were no more. They had been replaced by sullen silence, dense darkness. The patience of God had expired, his timetable fulfilled.
Must we learn such costly lessons over and over again? Times change, but truth persists. When we fail to profit from the experiences of the past, we are doomed to repeat them with all their heartache, suffering, and anguish. Haven’t we the wisdom to obey him who knows the beginning from the end—our Lord, who designed the plan of salvation, rather than that serpent who despised its beauty?
In the words of the poet:
Wouldst thou be gathered to Christ’s chosen flock,
Shun the broad way too easily explored,
And let thy path be hewn out of the rock,
The living rock of God’s eternal word.
(William Wordsworth, inscription on a rock at Rydal Mount, Cumbria, England.)
Can we not follow the Prince of Peace, that pioneer who literally showed the way for others to follow? His divine plan can save us from the Babylons of sin, complacency, and error. His example points the way. When faced with temptation, he shunned it. When offered the world, he declined it. When asked for his life, he gave it!
“Come, follow me,” the Savior said.
Then let us in his footsteps tread,
For thus alone can we be one
With God’s own loved, begotten Son. …
For thrones, dominions, kingdoms, pow’rs,
And glory great and bliss are ours,
If we, throughout eternity,
Obey his words, “Come, follow me.”
(“Come, Follow Me,” Hymns, no. 116.)
Now is our time to make this decision. Let us follow him.
Some Points of Emphasis. You may wish to make these points in your home teaching discussion:
The Mormon Pioneer epic is one of the great stories of history because it shows persons enduring trials and heartaches with courage and with faith in God.
Like the pioneers, we can endure our trials and heartaches through courage and through faith in God.
Our challenges today often require us to stand firm for truth, rejecting the temptations of the adversary and withstanding the mockings of those who ridicule chastity, honesty, and obedience to God’s commandments.
Our guide for each of us in this earthlife journey is the Lord Jesus Christ, who literally pioneered the way for all of us to follow.
Relate your feelings about the example of the pioneers and how we also are pioneers. Ask family members to share their feelings on this theme.
Would this discussion be better after a pre-visit chat with the head of the house? Is there a message from the quorum leader or bishop?