One of my favorite Scotsmen is named Jose. His mother is from Spain, but he is a true 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 in his native land. “You don’t have castles in your land? That’s a shame,” he would say.
Although he is a first-generation Scot, he knows the stories of Scotland’s great historical figures, and feels that they belong to him. His dark curling hair, dreamy eyes, and olive complexion aren’t the typical image of most Scots; 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 the pioneers who traveled to Utah in the nineteenth century, few Latter-day Saints would deny that there is much we can learn from them. 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 great challenges, commitment, cooperation, and endurance.
The early Saints plowed and tilled the ground as they crossed the plains, 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.
To many, the story of the pioneers is not just a story of people migrating to Utah. It is also the story of the gospel and the growth of the kingdom of God throughout the world. 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.
Others, like Rose Thompson, who was born in England, feel a kinship with the Mormon pioneers despite the fact that their ancestors were not among those who emigrated to Utah. Rose 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 being in a comfortable bed with a doctor near by,” she says. “I decided 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 in the Young Women program. The woman had lost her husband and two sons to the sea.
Rose says, “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.’ She didn’t have any stories to tell me, but she shared her strong 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 joined the Church after marrying a Latter-day Saint. He 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 raised eleven children while she plowed the land in the morning, and did the laundry in the afternoon. In the evenings she kept the accounts and recorded minutes of meetings for the Brigham Young Academy,” he says. “That’s a powerful example for me, and I want my children to know that in this family, we can find strength to face hard times if they come to us.
Jeff and Sherry Burger, who joined the Church in America 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 he 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 direct relations 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 while driving in the country, 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’ faith and courage. “I admired their determination 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 bank,” she recalls. “But I never knew how much I would benefit from the skills my parents taught me—how to work, how to preserve fruit, how to bake bread, how to sew, how to make do with what you have,” she says.
Recently, Karen’s husband had to give up a job with a good salary so they would be able to relocate and 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 been an absolute necessity for us, not just an experiment in following a Relief Society lesson on provident living.”
“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 read 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 had an understanding of the great work they were involved in 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 personal 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.