Faith in Every Footstep

Robert L. Backman, "Faith in Every Footstep", Liahona, Feb. 1997, 15


Faith in Every Footstep

This year we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the pioneer trek from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Salt Lake Valley, as well as the invaluable legacy of faith and dedication that pioneers in all times and places contribute to the Church. Every ward and branch in our worldwide Church is supported by faithful Saints who are committed to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. These Saints become latter-day pioneers as they strive to stand up for what is right, keep the commandments, share the gospel, testify of Christ, and act as examples of Christian living.

To encourage this pioneer celebration throughout the Church, the First Presidency has organized a sesquicentennial committee to plan activities to honor pioneers of yesterday and today.

The theme of the yearlong celebration is “Faith in Every Footstep,” reflecting a central virtue of all pioneers. The logo reflects this theme, depicting handcart pioneers trudging along the trail and pulling all their belongings. The committee hopes this theme will produce a wide variety of joyous and unique celebrations in proportion to the talents, abilities, desires, and unique situations of members across the world.

Guidelines sent to all wards and stakes of the Church suggest activities for individuals, families, wards, or stakes. All Church members and units are encouraged to participate in this celebration and to focus on the few activities that will be most meaningful and enjoyable in their areas.

Among the suggested activities is a concert of beautiful music interspersed with readings from pioneer journals. Toward this end, the music on pages 22–23 of this issue of the Liahona can be sung as a hymn or featured as an anthem in a concert. The words represent the theme of this celebration so well, emphasizing the faith of our fathers in every aspect of their lives.

Of all the illustrations of faith in the Lord, few stories are more powerful than that told of the pioneer who years later stood to defend the decision of the Martin Handcart Company to start for the Salt Lake Valley late in the year of 1856. He had been one of the nearly 3,000 Saints who walked from Iowa and Nebraska to Utah between 1856 and 1860 in one of 10 companies pushing and pulling handcarts loaded with their belongings.

In a Sunday School class, there was sharp criticism of the ill-fated Martin and Willie Handcart Companies, which met with tragedy because of their late start on the trek to the Salt Lake Valley.

An elderly man arose and said: “I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts … give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife … too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but … we became acquainted with [God] in our extrem[i]ties.

“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. … I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.

“Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company” (as quoted in David O. McKay, “Pioneer Women,” The Relief Society Magazine, January 1948, 8).

Our pioneer forebears were tried and tested in the fires of affliction. By the time these faithful Saints reached the Salt Lake Valley, their testimonies and devotion had been strengthened from the trial of their faith. They had learned what it means to be completely submissive to God’s will.

Faith to Obey

In August 1852, five years after the original 1847 trek, Heber C. Kimball, First Counselor in the First Presidency, stood at the pulpit during a conference held in the Bowery on Temple Square and read the names of more than 100 men, calling them to serve missions in some of the more exotic places in the world. Without apology for the abruptness of the calls, he said: “I say to those who are elected to go on missions, Go, if you never return; and commit what you have into the hands of God—your wives, your children, your brethren, and your property.”

Elder George A. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles added during that same conference: “The missions we will call for during this Conference are generally not to be very long ones; probably from three to seven years will be as long as any man will be absent from his family. If any of the Elders refuse to go, they may expect that their wives will not live with them; for there is not a ‘Mormon’ sister who would live with a man a day who would refuse to go on a mission” (in Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 28 August 1852, 1).

The response was not to question the call, but to ask, “When do we go?”

In response to the faith of these and even earlier missionaries, a flood of converts joined the Church, many of whom immediately migrated to Zion, evidencing their own faith in leaving their houses and families for the great unknown. Sailing aboard small vessels, cramped in smelly holds, tossed by heavy seas, and journeying across the oceans for weeks and months at the mercy of every wind that blew, they nevertheless exhibited the convert’s zeal and faith in their relationships with shipmates and crews.

An interesting story of one such trip concerns the voyage of the ship International, which left Liverpool, England, on 25 February 1853. She carried on board a Latter-day Saint immigrant company of 425, including a number of unbaptized friends and relatives and a crew of 26.

The ship ran into violent storms, delaying the crossing and making it necessary to ration food. In four weeks, only one-third of the distance to New Orleans, Louisiana, had been covered.

Thanks to the faith and prayers of the valiant Saints, a miracle occurred: favorable winds made it possible to make up time lost. The International docked in New Orleans after a 54-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.

Christopher Arthur presided over the company of Latter-day Saints aboard the International. In his official report to the British Mission president, President Arthur wrote: “I am glad to inform you, that we have baptized all on board except three persons. … We can number the captain, first and second mates, with eighteen of the crew, most of whom intend going right through to the valley. … The number baptized in all is 48, since we left our native shores” (quoted in William G. Hartley, “Voyage on the Ship International,New Era, September 1973, 9).

Faith to Flourish

Other Latter-day Saints demonstrated their own faith by staying where they were converted, providing a nucleus from which the Church might grow and flourish in the following years. Their stories of hardship in the face of opposition and persecution are as dramatic as those of the early Saints who trekked to Utah. Yet they remained resolute and steadfast in keeping the commandments of God.

As a young man, I served a mission in the Northern States Mission, spending a year of that service in Cleveland, Ohio. At that time there was in the area a very small branch that met in a room in the Carter Hotel on Public Square. The branch was made up of a small number of families converted to the gospel, they being the leaven for the growth of the branch. We also enjoyed the brotherhood of a few families from the western United States who had come to Cleveland for employment.

My first assignment as a Seventy was to supervise that area of the Church. What a glorious experience it was to return to Cleveland to find stakes flourishing where the single struggling branch had been during my mission. This dramatic growth had come about largely because of early members of the branch whose strength and faith had helped attract other pioneers who, in turn, remained true and steadfast.

For decades a small group of members in former Czechoslovakia clung to their faith amid the buffeting winds of war and Communism, until the Church came to them again in 1990. For nearly 14 of those years, the Czech membership kept their faith in silence, unable to worship publicly or to enjoy any type of regular contact with the Church beyond Czech borders. Among these Saints was Anna Lukasova, who was isolated from the Church for 45 years. She saved her tithing faithfully during that period. Another was Otakar Vojkuvka, who helped keep the Czech Saints together during that long period of Communist rule and taught the gospel in many quiet ways, bringing many young converts to the Church (see Vernon L. Hill, “The 45-Year Tithing Account,” Tambuli, December 1994, 8; Kahlile Mehr, “Czech Saints: A Brighter Day,” Ensign, August 1994, 46–52).

Modern-Day Faith

Pioneering is not finished! There are so many pioneers among us today. Across the world, I have seen modern-day pioneers who demonstrate the same steadfast faith and courage as did our ancestors. They have made the Church a worldwide movement in fulfillment of the prophecies of the scriptures and our prophets. They pioneer as they accept the gospel of Jesus Christ and are baptized into his kingdom.

Sharon Bradley of the Akron Ohio Stake described that pioneer spirit when she quoted her grown daughter as saying: “Some of you may celebrate your pioneer heritage on July 24. It is only right that you should. My children and my children’s children will always remember November 19, 1974. That was the day my parents were baptized and pioneer blood began to flow in our veins” (“Pioneers Since 1974,” Ensign, July 1988, 27).

Even in a worldwide Church, there are those who exhibit unwavering faith in isolation or without family or congregational support.

Robert Muhile joined the Church while working and studying in Cairo, Egypt. After being ordained an elder, he returned to his home village in Tanzania, Africa, so he could share the gospel with his family. Unfortunately, he was more than 960 kilometers (a three-day bus ride) from the nearest branch of the Church, in Dar es Salaam. He was completely isolated from other Church members. After six months without partaking of the sacrament, he sought permission from his mission president to administer the sacrament to himself each Sunday. His request was granted.

Each Sunday Robert invited his family to join him for worship service, but they chose to attend their own church. So he held his own service—alone. He said: “I prepared water and bread and more water to clean my hands, and a small towel. I sang a song to myself out loud. I had my hymn book. After that, I offered an opening prayer. Because I was alone I didn’t have any business to do, so I sang the sacrament hymn and prepared the sacrament. Then I knelt and blessed and took it. After the sacrament, I covered it, as we respect it always. I offered myself a talk—my testimony. Then I sang as in Sunday School and then read from Gospel Principles. I finished with a prayer. I then attended priesthood [meeting]. After singing a hymn, I’d have a prayer, then read from the priesthood manual the lesson I had chosen for that day. After that, I finished by singing and then offered the closing prayer” (quoted in E. Dale LeBaron, “Gospel Pioneers in Africa,” Tambuli, May 1994, 42–44).

Truly, Robert Muhile is a pioneer.

Our Heritage of Faith

As I reflect on the awesome heritage of faith we enjoy today and the rich blessings that are ours because of the sacrifices of our pioneer ancestors, I understand more clearly the Lord’s message to the children of Israel after they finally settled in the promised land, their parents having tarried in the wilderness for 40 years. After reminding the people of the great miracles and blessings attending their exodus from Egypt, the Lord said through Joshua: “I have given you a land for which ye did not labour, and cities which ye built not, and ye dwell in them; of the vineyards and olive-yards which ye planted not do ye eat” (Josh. 24:13).

In a stirring general conference address given during the centennial year of 1947, President J. Reuben Clark Jr., First Counselor in the First Presidency, reminded us: “In living our lives let us never forget that the deeds of our [pioneer] fathers and mothers are theirs, not ours; that their works cannot be counted to our glory; that we can claim no excellence and no place, because of what they did, that we must rise by our own labor, and that labor failing we shall fail. We may claim no honor, no reward, no respect, nor special position or recognition, no credit because of what our fathers were or what they wrought. We stand upon our own feet in our own shoes” (in Conference Report, October 1947, 160).

Yet the pioneer spirit is represented in us, the inheritors of their faith. We are their finest monument. Upon our shoulders rests the blessing of carrying on the work they started—to build on their faith.

Faith to Sacrifice

I have seen evidence of this abiding faith every day as men and women accept calls to service. Therein lies a test of our faith. We may not be required to make the physical sacrifices our forebears made. Rather, the test of our devotion to the gospel largely comes from within us. We demonstrate our obedience to the laws of the gospel and show our willingness to sacrifice by our acceptance of calls to serve, the quality of service we render, and the faithfulness we exhibit in living the gospel.

I have often seen the response of modern-day pioneers called to make personal sacrifices to provide service to their fellowmen. I have been touched beyond expression at their willingness to give of themselves.

When asked to serve full-time at one of our Missionary Training Centers, a faithful, dedicated couple who in previous years had left their home and family to serve in the mission field and in the temple responded, “We are prepared to serve wherever the Lord wants us.”

Serving as a mission president, I called a brother to lead a mission district. After accepting the call, the new district president was asked what he would do if his job interfered with the call. Without hesitation, he indicated he would find another job! These men and women are modern pioneers.

We pioneer when we quietly and humbly, in large ways and small, follow faithfully and endure to the end. Consider the faithfulness of Yenny Figueredo of Paraguay and her family, who at one time lived five kilometers from the nearest branch of the Church. “Since there were eight of us, it cost too much for bus fare. So we all had to walk—two hours each way. We made that trip every Saturday for Primary and Mutual. And since Sunday meetings were held both morning and afternoon, we would make the round trip twice—a total of twenty kilometers. When it was really hot, we would sometimes take our lunch and sit under a tree between meetings. From the day we were baptized, I don’t remember that we ever missed a meeting” (quoted in Marvin K. Gardner, “Pioneers in Paraguay,” Tambuli, September 1993, 11).

The willingness of Church members to sacrifice everything, even their lives, as evidence of their faith is demonstrated every day in every way, sometimes so quietly that most of us know nothing of their faith or heroism.

Several years ago, while I was serving as executive director of the Missionary Department, two of our fine missionaries were assassinated in a senseless terrorist attack in Bolivia. Of course, their parents and families were saddened by the tragedy. The bodies of the two young men, Elder Todd R. Wilson and Elder Jeffrey B. Ball, were shipped to the United States for burial. Following the funeral service of Elder Ball, an article appeared in the Church News. The account read in part:

“Elder Ball commented before leaving for the mission field, his mother recalled, that he felt the worst possible feeling would be to return home knowing you had not tried as hard as you could. Both parents feel their son did give his full effort, although neither could have known that he would lose his life in the Lord’s service.

“Even so, his father said he is convinced that Elder Ball would have answered the mission call had he known what the eventual outcome would be. ‘And the thing that’s incredible to me is I honestly feel I would let him go again!’” (R. Scott Lloyd, “Elder Ball Touched Lives for Good,” Church News, 3 June 1989, 14).

We are all pioneers who stand by this heritage of faith, serving one another selflessly, sharing the riches of the gospel with all of God’s children, and living in light and truth each day. With those who have gone before, we walk with faith in every footstep. We follow Jesus Christ, the Lord!

[illustration] When the Angels Come, by Clark Kelley Price

[illustration] Martin Handcart Company, Bitter Creek, Wyoming, 1856, by Clark Kelley Price

[photo] Handcart pioneer statue by Torlief Knaphus

[illustration] Promised Land, by Glen S. Hopkinson

[illustration] One pioneering family of eight in Paraguay walked the 10 kilometers to and from the nearest branch each Sunday because they could not afford bus fare. (Illustration by Glen S. Hopkinson.)