They Belong to Us All

The early pioneers are our shared heritage.

They Belong to Us All

One of my favorite Scotsmen is named Jose. His mother is Basque, but he is a dyed-in-the-tartan Scot and a member of the Church. He was born in Scotland and, during the time our family lived there, he delighted in showing us the castles dotting his native land. “You don’t have castles in America? That’s a shame,” he would say. Although he is a first-generation Scot, he knows the stories of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Mary, Queen of Scots, and feels that they belong to him. His dark curling hair, dreamy eyes, and olive complexion belie the prototypical image of the Scot; nevertheless, no one who knows him doubts his allegiance.

Like Jose, many members of the Church live in lands different from their ancestors. For some, the change was made one or two generations ago; for others, only a few weeks or months have passed since they began life in a new culture. Though many have kept some of their native customs and beliefs, it is likely that they will also adopt some of the ideals and traditions of their new homelands. Similarly, many converts to the Church have found that joining the Church means “adopting” the Church’s pioneer heritage as a part of their own.

Although more than half of all current Church members have no personal connection with pre-twentieth-century pioneer Utah, few Latter-day Saints would deny that we can learn much from those nineteenth-century pioneers. They offer us a multitude of lessons about provident living, about sacrificing for the building up of Zion, and about creating beauty and peace wherever we may live. From the pioneers, we can also learn much about sacrifice, courage in the face of formidable odds, commitment, cooperation, and endurance.

The early Saints plowed and tilled the ground at Winter Quarters, planting seeds and weeding for those brothers and sisters in the gospel who would follow. In addition, Brigham Young chose the site for the Salt Lake Temple within a week of the Saints’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley. But the construction took forty years, and he died many years before the temple’s dedication. More than one of the workers and craftsmen who worked on the temple must have thought, “I hope I live to see this completed.”

But whether or not they were personally able to enjoy the blessings of the temple they were building, they knew that it deserved their best effort—that they were building for eternity and for those who would embrace the gospel after they were gone. They were building for us. In that sense also, the great pioneer heritage belongs to all of us.

Many members of the Church are their own “pioneers”—the first in their family to accept the gospel, or some of the first members to help build up the Church in a particular area of the world. One of my Scottish friends told me that during the sesquicentennial celebration of the Church in the British Isles, their family realized for the first time how many Saints had emigrated to Utah in the nineteenth century. Their family identifies more with those Saints who stayed, put up with persecution and misunderstanding, and helped build up the Church in the British Isles. Indeed, though they didn’t cross the plains, they were “pioneering,” too!

Beth Hakanson is another “pioneer”; she was baptized as a young woman in Chicago. Although she has also lived in Oregon, far from where the pioneers settled in the Salt Lake Valley, she has a great deal of respect for the pioneers. “I definitely feel a kinship with them because I am a pioneer in my family. The story of the pioneers is not just a story of people coming to live in Utah. It is also the story of the gospel and the growth of the kingdom of God.”

Like Beth, Rose Thompson, who was born in England, feels a kinship with the Mormon pioneers despite the fact that her ancestors were not among those who emigrated to Utah. She recalls being ill at age ten, and thinking about the pioneers’ courage in the face of hardship. “I wondered what would have happened to me if I had been a pioneer crossing the plains instead of tucked up in a bed with a doctor only a phone call away,” she says. “I concluded that I would have died along the way. I gave thanks that I belong to this generation and determined to bear up under my problems as the pioneers did under theirs.”

After her marriage, Rose and her husband moved to Edinburgh. There they often visited an elderly sister who had served as a “pioneer” in the Church for many years—in both the Relief Society and the MIA. The woman, who lived in an old folks’ home, had lost her husband and two sons to the sea.

“When I asked her what life was like when she was young and what she did in the Church, she just said, ‘We did what needed to be done,’” says Rose. “She told me no stories, but she left me her stalwart pioneer philosophy. When I faced new and difficult situations with my children and Church assignments, I found it helped me considerably to remember: just do what needs to be done.”

Tom Russell, who was born in St. Louis and joined the Church in Texas after marrying a Latter-day Saint, feels much the same way Rose does about his “adopted” pioneer heritage. Though he does not have pioneer ancestors, his wife does. “My daughters’ great-great-great-grandmother reared eleven children while she plowed in the morning, did the laundry in the afternoon, and kept the books and minutes for the Brigham Young Academy in the evening,” he says. “That’s a powerful example for me, and I want my children to know that in this family, we hang in there when the going gets tough.”

Jeff and Sherry Burger, who joined the Church in Florida and currently operate a family business in Europe, enjoy the pioneering spirit they feel among European Latter-day Saints. The Burgers find accounts of the early Saints’ lives faith-promoting. “I love to read or hear about the experiences of the pioneers,” Jeff says. “I am very affected by their trials and triumphs. I feel that they are my ‘pioneer’ ancestors whether they are blood relatives or not.”

Richard Van Hagen, currently president of the Edinburgh Scotland Stake, owes his Church membership in part to the pioneers. He first became interested in the Church because of a radio program. One day, on his way to Glen Clove in the Grampian Mountains to go hill-walking, he found that the car radio signal was so faint that he couldn’t hear it. He changed stations to find one he could hear better.

“The only program I could hear loud and clear was about the Mormon pioneers,” he says. “I was absolutely spellbound, and I remember sitting and listening long after I had arrived at my destination, quite unable to switch the radio off and get out of the car.” Until hearing the program, Brother Van Hagen knew nothing about the Church. But he was impressed by the early Saints’ tenacity and faith. “I admired their determination and pluck and felt great respect for them,” he says. He feels that it was no accident that he heard the radio program. “I have sometimes wondered if it was actually broadcast at all,” he says. A few weeks later, missionaries knocked on his door, and he accepted their message and joined the Church.

Karen Reynolds does have pioneer ancestors—who settled in Utah and in the colonies of Mexico. “I can remember having Pioneer Day celebrations on July 24, followed by pageants about the journey to Mexico. We recounted the early years there, complete with stories of living in caves dug into the river sand,” she recalls. “But I never knew I would have to use the skills my parents taught me—how to work, how to can, how to bake bread, how to sew, how to make do with what you have,” she says.

Karen and her husband have worked in ranch management in Oregon, Florida, and New Mexico. Recently, they gave up a job with a good salary and moved to Wyoming to help with a family farm because of her father-in-law’s illness. “We don’t regret our choice, but our pioneering skills have really been put to the test,” she says. “Careful budgeting and wise buying have not been an exercise in provident living stimulated by a Relief Society lesson. They have been an absolute necessity for us.”

“Making do” is not the only thing Karen has learned from those nineteenth-century pioneers. Last year, she and her husband lost a baby. “I thought my heart would break when we laid him in that cold grave,” she recalls. Days later, confined to bed because of medical problems, Karen was still grieving. A ward member brought her a stack of books—including one of pioneer stories. “As I skimmed through that book, I was reminded how many of those women had left their little ones in shallow graves by the trail. My baby has a coffin and a marker, and I can visit the spot. It wasn’t easy, but I started to count my blessings. They went forward in faith, and I can, too.”

I, too, am grateful for our pioneer heritage. Stories about my own family are a frequent source of inspiration, courage, and blessing. And as I read about the early Saints, I feel as if I know many of them. I believe that they caught the vision of being engaged in a great work that was not limited by the mountains surrounding their own small valleys or the blood of their own lineage. I believe that they may empathize with us as we face our own problems as latter-day pioneers.

Today, the Church is led by first-generation converts from the far corners of the globe as well as by sons and daughters of great pioneer families. But, regardless of our unique biological heritage, we are brothers and sisters in the gospel of Jesus Christ, and we are engaged in his work together. The pioneer heritage belongs to all of us.

[illustration] “Covered Wagon Pioneers,” by Minerva Teichert; courtesy of Temple Square Hotel

[illustration] “Pioneer Woman with Wash,” by Minerva Teichert; courtesy of Susan Stokes Griffeth

Sydney Smith Reynolds, a great-great-granddaughter of Hyrum Smith, is a Primary teacher in the Orem Twenty-third Ward, Orem Utah Sharon Stake.