In 1846, more than 10,000 people left the thriving city of Nauvoo, which had been built on the banks of the Mississippi River. With faith in prophetic leaders, those early Church members left their “City Beautiful” and struck off into the wilderness of the American frontier. They did not know exactly where they were going, precisely how many miles lay ahead, how long the journey would take, or what the future held in store for them. But they did know they were led by the Lord and His servants. Their faith sustained them. They hoped “for things which [were] not seen, which are true” (Alma 32:21). Like Nephi of old, they were “led by the Spirit, not knowing beforehand the things which [they] should do” (1 Ne. 4:6).
Fearing more of the mob violence that had claimed the lives of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum on 27 June 1844, Brigham Young, leading the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, announced in September 1845 that the Saints would leave Nauvoo in the spring of 1846. Most of those in Nauvoo believed fully that when Brigham Young announced that they must leave, they were hearing what the Lord wanted them to do. They responded in faith to the direction of the Lord. Throughout the fall and winter months of 1845–46, Church members set about vigorously making preparations for the journey.
When Newel Knight informed his wife, Lydia, that the Saints would have to leave Nauvoo and move yet again, she responded with tenacious faith, saying, “Our place is with the kingdom of God. Let us at once set about making preparations to leave.”1 Brother Knight had moved his family several times already as many of the Saints had moved from New York to Ohio to Missouri and to Illinois. Lydia Knight’s devoted submission to what she knew was God’s will typifies powerfully the faith of those heroic early Saints.
Though winter’s chill was not yet past, heightened fear of mob attacks and swirling rumors of government intervention compelled President Young to set things in motion to get the Saints under way. He directed the first company of pioneer families to leave Nauvoo on 4 February 1846, a cold winter day. They drove their laden wagons and their livestock down Parley Street to a landing where they were ferried across the river to Iowa. Chunks of ice floating in the river crunched against the sides of the flatboats and barges that carried the wagons across the Mississippi. A few weeks later, temperatures dropped even further, and wagons could cross the river more easily over a bridge of ice.
Sister Wirthlin and I visited Nauvoo in early March 1996. The weather was bitterly cold. As we stood in the chilling wind, looking out across the broad expanse of the Mississippi, we felt a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude for those Saints as they left their beloved city. We wondered how they ever survived. What a sacrifice to leave behind so much for the uncertain future that lay ahead! No wonder so many tears were shed as the fleeing pioneers drove their wagons rumbling down Parley Street to cross the river, with no hope of ever returning to their “City Beautiful.”
Once across the river, they camped temporarily at Sugar Creek before starting their trek west toward the Rocky Mountains. The journey had begun.
When President Brigham Young joined the departing pioneers at their campsite in Iowa on 15 February 1846, the Lord revealed to him to begin organizing a modern “Camp of Israel.” On the first of March the advance company began its push westward across Iowa. Hardships caused by cold, snow, rain, mud, sickness, hunger, and death challenged the faith of these hardy pioneers. But they were determined to follow their leaders and to do, no matter the cost, what they believed fervently to be the will of God. Their faith was challenged, and for some it faltered in especially difficult times. But it did not fail them. Many were sustained by the assurances they had received in temple ordinances performed in the Nauvoo Temple.
One of the more difficult hardships endured by many of the sisters was delivering their babies under harsh, extreme conditions along the trail. Eliza R. Snow wrote that as the pioneers “journeyed onward, mothers gave birth to offspring under almost every variety of circumstances imaginable, except those to which they had been accustomed; some in tents, others in wagons—in rainstorms and in snowstorms.” Sister Snow went on to record that she “heard of one birth which occurred under the rude shelter of a hut, the sides of which were formed of blankets fastened to poles stuck in the ground, with a bark roof through which the rain was dripping. Kind sisters stood holding dishes to catch the water … , thus protecting the [little one] and its mother from a showerbath [on its entrance to] the stage of human life.”2
What a sacrifice these good sisters made! Some mothers lost their own lives in childbirth. Many babies did not survive. My wife’s grandmother, Elizabeth Riter, was born at Winter Quarters in the back of a covered wagon during a rainstorm. Fortunately, both the mother and the newborn infant survived. With great love for the woman who gave life to her, Elizabeth often lovingly recounted how an umbrella was held over her mother throughout the ordeal to shield her from the water leaking through the wagon’s cover.
Let us never forget the faith of our fathers and the selfless sacrifice of our mothers, those pioneering Saints who set such an inspiring example of obedience. Let us remember them as we strive to be valiant servants in our work to “invite all to come unto Christ” (D&C 20:59) “and be perfected in him” (Moro. 10:32).
We who have been blessed to know the fulness of the restored gospel owe a debt of gratitude to those who have gone before us, who have given so much to build the kingdom into the worldwide miracle that it is today. Our debt of gratitude to our forebears is a “debt that can best be paid in service to this great cause.”3
No matter who we are—no matter our talents, abilities, financial resources, education, or experience—we all can serve in the kingdom. He who calls us will qualify us for the work if we will serve with humility, prayer, diligence, and faith. Perhaps we feel inadequate. Maybe we doubt ourselves, thinking that what we have to offer the Lord personally is too slight to even be noticed. The Lord is well aware of our mortality. He knows our weaknesses. He understands the challenges of our everyday lives. He has great empathy for the temptations of earthly appetites and passions. The Apostle Paul wrote in his Epistle to the Hebrews that the Savior is “touched with the feeling of our infirmities” because He “was in all points tempted like as we are” (Heb. 4:15).
President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency, taught the importance of being willing to serve in this great cause when he asked: “Are we sufficiently in tune with the Spirit that when the Lord calls, we can hear, as did Samuel, and declare, ‘Here am I’? Do we have the fortitude and the faith, whatever our callings, to serve with unflinching courage and unshakable resolve? When we do, the Lord can work His mighty miracles through us”4 (see 1 Sam. 3:4).
President James E. Faust, Second Counselor in the First Presidency, has reassured us that whatever our abilities, faithful service not only is acceptable to the Lord, but it also qualifies us for great blessings bestowed by Him, blessings that enrich and expand our lives. President Faust explained “that this church does not necessarily attract great people but more often makes ordinary people great. …
“A major reason this church has grown from its humble beginnings to its current strength is the faithfulness and devotion of millions of humble and devoted [members] who have only five loaves and two small fishes to offer in the service of the Master.”5
The exciting global growth of the Church has focused our attention on the prophesied glorious future of the kingdom. At the same time that we look ahead with optimism, we should pause and look back on the faith of our humble pioneer forebears. Their faith built the foundation on which the Church continues to flourish.
Let us dedicate ourselves to doing the Lord’s work to the best of our abilities. May we honor the faith of our fathers by giving our own faithful service to this great cause. May we follow the prophet and by so doing “come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God” (Jacob 1:7).