In August of last year, I walked in the footsteps of our pioneers along the Mormon Trail through Wyoming and Utah. I wondered why our dedicated ancestors suffered so terribly and yet willingly faced such tremendous obstacles. Perhaps one reason they sacrificed and endured was to leave a legacy of faith for all of us to help us feel our urgent responsibility to move forward in building up the Church throughout the world. We need the same dedication today in every one of our footsteps as the pioneers had in theirs.
President Joseph F. Smith, who walked the pioneer trail to Utah as a nine-year-old boy, said in the April 1904 general conference, “I firmly believe [that] the divine approval, blessing and favor of Almighty God … has guided the destiny of His people from the organization of the Church until the present … and guided us in our footsteps and in our journeyings into the tops of these mountains” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1904, 1). Our pioneer ancestors sacrificed virtually all they had, including their lives in many cases, to follow a prophet of God.
The vast majority of the Utah pioneers got their first glimpse of the sagebrush, sego lily, salt-flat desert landscape of this Great Salt Lake Valley on foot. Some even arrived barefoot after having suffered extreme hardships in traversing more than 1,300 miles of prairie, desert, and mountain wilderness. Before the railroad reached the Utah Territory in 1869, approximately 70,000 pioneers, 9,600 wagons, and 650 handcarts made the trek from Winter Quarters in present-day Iowa and Nebraska to the Salt Lake Valley (see Stanley B. Kimball, Historic Resource Study: Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, 1991, 40, 49, 62–63).
Each pioneer who walked from the Mississippi River to the Great Salt Lake took millions of steps to travel that distance. Under favorable circumstances, the trek took a little more than three months. Traveling 15 miles in a day was considered a good day. In total, billions of footsteps of faith were taken by our pioneers.
The pioneer exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois, began on February 4, 1846. Nearly four years earlier, in August of 1842, the Prophet Joseph Smith shared his foreknowledge of the trek west: “I prophesied that the Saints would continue to suffer much affliction and would be driven to the Rocky Mountains, many would apostatize, others would be put to death by our persecutors or lose their lives in consequence of exposure or disease, and some [would live to] build cities and see the Saints become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith, 1976, 255).
President Brigham Young received a vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith in which Joseph showed him a mountain and an ensign upon its peak. Joseph said, “Build under the point where the colors fall and you will prosper and have peace” (see George A. Smith, in Journal of Discourses, 13:85).
The identification of this mountain peak, as the Saints entered Salt Lake Valley in July 1847, confirmed to President Young that the pioneers had found their destination, their Zion, in the tops of the mountains. We know this conical, dome-shaped mountain today as Ensign Peak. It rises above the valley near downtown Salt Lake City.
As the pioneers traveled across Iowa, their worries centered on food and forage, wood and fire, and ceaseless snow, rain, and mud. “A broken axle or a missing ox became a crisis” (Reed C. Durham Jr., “The Iowa Experience: A Blessing in Disguise,” Brigham Young University Studies 21:463; see also 474). Tragic illness overcame many who were wet, chilled, weak, and malnourished.
The 265-mile trek from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters took 131 days. By comparison, the trek from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley, which was about four times the distance, approximately 1,032 miles, took only 111 days (Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, 35).
Perhaps the most memorable pioneer stalwarts were the Saints who made the journey in handcart companies. These companies brought nearly 3,000 pioneers west between 1856 and 1860 (Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail, 66).
In 1856, two handcart companies, with 1,075 pioneers under the leadership of James G. Willie and Edward Martin, left later in the year than planned, and they encountered early winter storms in present-day Wyoming (see Kate B. Carter, comp., Heart Throbs of the West, 6 vols. (1939–51), 6:360–61).
Peter Howard McBride, then but a boy of six years, was a member of the Martin Company. His father, after helping push handcarts through the icy river, died in the snow and freezing cold that night. Peter’s mother was sick; his older sister Jenetta watched out for the younger children. Her shoes had worn out, and her feet left bloody tracks in the snow. On the banks of the Sweetwater River the wind blew their tent down during the night. Everyone scampered out as the snow covered the tent—everyone except little Peter. According to his account: “In the morning I heard someone say, ‘How many are dead in this tent?’ My sister said, ‘Well, my little brother must be frozen to death in that tent.’ So they jerked the tent loose, sent it scurrying over the snow. My hair was frozen to the tent. I picked myself up and came out quite alive, to their surprise” (Peter Howard McBride, quoted in Susan Arrington Madsen, I Walked to Zion, 41, 43, 45–46).
Truly the Lord encourages us to walk in faith to the edge of the light and beyond—into the unknown. After the trial of our faith, He once again shines the light ahead of us, and our journey of faith in every footstep continues. Now it has swelled into billions and billions of footsteps throughout the world.
In my 20 years as a General Authority, I have seen the worldwide expansion of the Church, and I marvel at the results of the work of our pioneers in every country where they, through their faith and sacrifice, established the Church.
We must be sure that the legacy of faith received from the pioneers who came before us is never lost. Let their heroic lives touch our hearts, and especially the hearts of our youth, so the fire of true testimony and unwavering love for the Lord and His Church will blaze brightly within each one of us as it did in our faithful pioneers. Their accomplishments were possible because they knew, as I know, that our Heavenly Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, restored the gospel of Jesus Christ through the Prophet Joseph Smith and that this Church will continue to roll forth until it fills the whole earth.