“We all worked very hard to make a living for such a large family,” wrote Hannah Romney of her pioneer life, “but work is what keeps the world moving and the people living and progressing, expanding our minds so that we will be more able to cope with the bigger things in life.”
Hannah and her husband, Miles, and their nine children understood the value of work and enjoyed the results of their industry. Their lifestyle and work ethic were typical of many Latter-day Saint pioneers. Married in 1862 in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City, the Romneys settled in St. George in southern Utah in 1867, St. Johns in east-central Arizona in 1881, and the Latter-day Saint colonies in northwestern Mexico in 1886. Each new settlement required commitment and hard work as these settlers not only built houses, plowed unbroken fields, and planted gardens, but as they also built churches, stores, and roads.
“We began our first housekeeping with a great deal of pleasure although we were poor,” Hannah wrote of their Salt Lake City home. “We bought a piece of land … and my husband began to build us a house. I moved into it before it was finished. My husband worked in the shop all day, came home, ate his supper, then worked on our house for several hours before going to bed; then got up and went to work at six in the morning. … We enjoyed [our house] for we built it together and thanked our Heavenly Father that we had health and strength to work.”
This was the first of six houses that Miles and Hannah built during the course of their marriage. “I sewed carpet rags and carried my warp and rags five blocks to the weavers to have it woven,” said Hannah of her house in St. George. “After it was done I went after dark and carried it home. When I got home I was exhausted. The next morning I washed and dressed my little children and gave them breakfast, then sewed my carpet, tacked it on the floor, cleaned the furniture, pictures and curtains and arranged them to suit my taste, as I was very particular about my house and took great pains in having everything in ‘apple pie’ order.”1
Like the Romneys, we too can find satisfaction as we incorporate a strong work ethic into our lives. Whether at church or at home, in the workplace or in the community, we find purpose, progress, and fulfillment as we shun idleness and direct our energies toward worthwhile pursuits. In this way we can accomplish much good while “improv[ing] our time in this life” (Alma 34:33; see also Alma 34:32).
Work has been a part of the human experience since the time of Adam, who worked by “the sweat of [his] face” (Gen. 3:19). Yet, for our pioneer predecessors work was more than a mere necessity to provide for their physical welfare. It was far from being an unpleasant fact of a stern, cheerless existence to be avoided whenever possible. Rather, and typical of the attitude of the times, work was viewed favorably as a divinely appointed means for people to engage in worthwhile endeavors and to bring about joyful accomplishments. An all-wise Heavenly Father made honest toil a vital part of our mortal condition and a key factor in our personal growth and development. A healthy work ethic is as much the mainspring of human progress and satisfaction in life now as it was in pioneer times. No matter what our careers are, the nature of our work, though likely quite different from that of the pioneers, can still be demanding and difficult. Meeting the challenges of our work with the same commitment, tenacity, and intensity of our pioneer counterparts is reflective of the unchanging high ideals inherent in devotion to the gospel.
Perhaps no other culture or people has a pioneer preamble offering a greater model of the virtue of work than do the Latter-day Saints. During this sesquicentennial year, we can honor their inspiring example and achievements by emulating or reemphasizing their work ethic. William Clayton captured the spirit of their work and its rewards in the words of his well-known hymn: “Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear; But with joy wend your way” (Hymns, no. 30).
The prevalence of the pioneers’ work ethic is realized in these words of England-born Lorenzo S. Clark, who arrived in Utah in 1853 as a baby with his parents. Describing his youth in Salt Lake City, Utah, he wrote: “My earliest impression is one of work; the idea and ambition of everyone around me seemed to be to accomplish more and do it better than anyone else. Work was more conspicuous than play, even among the young children who were expected to carry wood and water, run errands, feed the chicken and pigs, kill crickets and grasshoppers on sight with sticks, gather lucern seed, and help as far as possible with the gardening. … Though we … enjoyed and remembered the willow whistles and spool tops made and put into our hands by older persons, the real spirit of the pioneer group was industry and everyone scorned the idler.”2
In April 1982 general conference, Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles said: “There is great dignity and worth in any honest occupation. Do not use the word menial for any labor that improves the world or the people who live in it. There is no shame in any honorable work.”3
Honest work is and always has been an instrument of provident living and a vital component of our religion.
President Spencer W. Kimball, who grew up on a farm in Thatcher, Arizona, learned at an early age to work. Though he said that when he was a boy he would rather play basketball than eat, often playing until the last possible minute before running home to milk the cows, he said as an adult that it was through his farm experiences that he learned to work.4 He often expressed gratitude to his father for the opportunity to work on the farm. “I see no disadvantages in work,” he said. “I believe it was one of the clever and most important and necessary creations of our Father.”5
President Kimball told a group of missionaries serving in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1975 that “the worthwhile things of life are not the thing you just want to do. They’re the things you should do. You’re headed for a total loss if you only do the thing you want to do.”
He continued by telling the missionaries of his boyhood work experiences. “I’d milk the cows, and then I’d go in and do the washing … of the cans and of the bottles. We’d use scalding water. … Then when I’d go to milk the cows the next time, my fingers would crack and bleed. … It hurt terribly, so I walked [holding my hands up in the air]. … My fingers bled every day, but every night I went back and milked the cows (somewhere between 20 and 28). … After we’d turned the cows out into the field, … we’d clean up after [them]. You know, I never did like to clean manure. It was about the filthiest job I ever had. But … it was part of my job.”6
In Big Horn, Wyoming, at the turn of the century, we see the extraordinary accomplishment of Latter-day Saints who possessed a positive attitude and the desire to work together. Here the 37-mile Sidon Canal was literally dug out by a comparative handful of men between May 1900 and October 1903. The result? Enough water to irrigate from 12,000 to 15,000 acres of land.
In the beginning, it seemed an overwhelming task. Workers with many different abilities were needed—planners, engineers, clerks, and manual laborers. A stranger said to the leader, “You cannot make the canal.” The leader answered, “We are united and can build it.” The stranger replied, “Well, if you are united I guess you will build the ditch alright.” And build it they did. The manual laborers were organized into gangs, each with a supervisor, and these gangs were spread out along the canal so they could work effectively in small groups. Some men had their own scrapers, but 104 scrapers were hauled in from Bridger, Montana, for those who did not. Three large grading plows and quite a number of hand plows were also put to use.
It was a “grand sight to visit the canal and see the sturdy men with their fine teams tugging away at the stubborn earth and gravel, and to witness what is accomplished in a single day,” wrote a resident of the area. “We have a fine colony of Latter-day Saints, who are not afraid of work.”
During the construction, these workers dug a 125-foot tunnel, built a section of the canal 12 to 15 feet in the air by building up the land and then digging the canal on top of that, and cut a 12-foot rock out of a mountain and allowed it to fall into a hole they had dug to catch it.
On 12 July 1902, the night the water from the river came to the town of Cowley through the canal, everyone went out “serenading, beating tin tubs, cans, and anything that would make a noise.” One resident reported: “How we rejoiced, and who doesn’t over the successful accomplishment of a task! Yes and the successful completion of a dream!”7
President Francis M. Lyman, President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the turn of the century, said: “In labor, there is salvation; in labor there is safety. The skill that may be obtained, the experience and the love for skilled labor, is a training that is most valuable for the children of men. The Latter-day Saints, of all people, should be industrious.”8
Naturally, adult Latter-day Saint men and women bore the brunt of the work required to keep the family body and soul together during the primarily agrarian 19th century. My great-great-grandfather Lewis Barney, after having previously built homes and grubbed land in four Utah settlements, returned to Spring City, Utah, after laboring on the transcontinental railroad in 1869 to provide for his family. “I then got a city lot and 10 acres of farming land, I went into the canyon in the winter, cut, scored, and hewed a set of house logs and put me up a house and moved my house out of the fort on the lot. … I also cleared off my 10 acre lot, made the water sects [courses], and raised grain and vegetables sufficient for the family supply.”9
Those in rural settings usually had no alternative but to work the land to sustain life. One of Lewis Barney’s contemporaries was Hamlin Garland, who described in verse the labor of preparing the land:
A lonely task it is to plough!
All day the black and clinging soil
Rolls like a ribbon from the mould-board’s
Glistening curve. All the horses toil
Battling with the flies—and strain
Their creaking collars. All day
The crickets jeer from wind-blown shocks of grain.10
It was muscle-straining labor for man and beast.
Women handled the home side of life. Emma C. Seegmiller’s recollection of living in Orderville, Utah, describes the scope of this requirement for many. “The first two or three years … proved a tremendous struggle for life’s necessities and as a result of that necessity women as well as men had to work hard. In fact work always seemed to be waiting for them in spinning, weaving, carding, tailoring, dyeing cloth, and sewing, knitting, making straw hats. … For years women washed, carded, and spun wool into yarn and wove it into cloth on the hand loom.”11
For some women the already rigorous work routine was compounded by even more difficult circumstances: “I worked very hard while my husband was away [on a mission]. I worked in a harvest field. … I was not the only woman who worked in the field. But it came hard on me because I was not used to that kind of work. … It was always late at night when I came home.”12
A strong work ethic is evident in these accounts. Life then was not easy, but it was satisfying, for doing something that needs to be done, whether routine or extraordinary, feels good. There is genuine satisfaction in work, especially in work done well and for a good purpose. No sociological case studies need be conducted to demonstrate this cause-and-effect phenomenon. It is as true now as it was in the last century.
Lorenzo Hill Hatch, returning to Utah in 1858 from his mission in England, stopped at what he called the “Burlington [Iowa] LDS House.” There, preparing for the next leg of the journey, he summarized a week’s work. The obvious satisfaction of his labors, despite fatigue, is apparent in his journal entry: “Fixed a wagon for Brother J. Y. Green to start to St. Louis … and helped take care of the stock. Sunday, I ate my dinner, prayed to the Lord and wrote in my journal. … On Monday and Tuesday … Seymour [B. Young] and I went for hay. Took us all day; our loads fell off. Wednesday, went for hay and had good luck. Thursday, I fixed stalls for twenty horses. Worked very hard all day. Friday, I went and got some hickory for axe-handles and whip stalls. Made some and put the boxes on two wagons. Saturday, I worked at the wagons fixing provisions boxes in the wagons. It was rainy all the afternoon. I finished a hard week’s work.”13
President Brigham Young said that it was “nonsense to talk about building up any kingdom except by labor; it requires the labor of every part of our organization, whether it be mental, physical, or spiritual, and that is the only way to build up the kingdom of God.”14
The example of Mary Ann Rowbury Brown captures the spirit of work and gratitude that typified the Latter-day Saint pioneer era. Mary Ann and her husband, Charlie, brought 10 bushels of wheat (which she had earned by doing house work and washing clothes) with her to Castle Dale, Utah, in what is now Emery County, Utah. Charlie “planted it that spring on what is our old homestead … in the north fields of Huntington.”
In the fall, Charlie left to work the harvest in the more settled regions of the area with hopes of earning enough flour to keep them through the winter. “While he was gone, I harvested our group of grain grown from the ten bushels of wheat,” said Mary Ann, who placed her baby on a quilt in the field so she could watch her while she worked. “This is how I did it. I turned the water down a row at a time on the patch to loosen the soil, then pulled up the grain by the roots and stacked it by hand, for it was too short to cut. … [The thrasher] said my grain stack looked like a mound of mud.”
Mary Ann Brown and her family lived in a one-room dugout for nine years. Six of her 10 children died in infancy or childhood. Yet in the personal history she dictated near the end of her life, she said, “We endured willingly many hardships and cheerfully made many sacrifices in order to carry on what we sincerely believed to be God’s works in subduing a desert and advancing civilization, and in this God acknowledged us and made us feel His approval and His guiding supporting hand.”15
President Ezra Taft Benson added his admonition to our generation of the blessings of a strong work ethic: “Energetic, purposeful work leads to vigorous health, praiseworthy achievement, a clear conscience, and refreshing sleep. Work has always been a boon to man. May you have a wholesome respect for labor whether with head, heart, or hand. May you ever enjoy the satisfaction of honest toil.”16
This article may furnish material for a home evening discussion or for personal consideration:
How can we incorporate the pioneer virtue of work into our modern-day lifestyle?
What benefits have come into your life as a result of your own work ethic or that of your parents, grandparents, or other ancestors?
In what ways is idleness destructive?