July 24th, 2010

Mormon Pioneers and their Modern-day Counterparts


photo credit: dustmopjaguar

Today, Mormons worldwide memorialize the unjust and oppressive expulsion of their forbears from their homes in Illinois, and their subsequent migration westward to what is now the Salt Lake Valley. Utah’s government has, since its existence, recognized July 24th as a holiday, and Utahns of all faith and backgrounds join together in celebration, along with Latter-day Saints in other states and countries.

The pioneer trek was a direct result of mobocracy, and the forceful aggression of the Saints’ former neighbors and fellow citizens. Tempers flared, rhetoric exploded, and violence resulted far too often—and the government was a culprit, either looking the other way and ignoring the Saints’ pleas for protection, or sanctioning and sometimes instigating the violence, as was the case with Missouri Governor Boggs’ extermination order a few years prior.

The Saints were made to involuntarily leave their homes and leave behind many of their belongings, acquiescing of necessity in the face of forceful mobs demanding their departure. In a letter to U.S. President James K. Polk in 1846, Brigham Young formalized the Saints’ farewell by summarizing their intent.

We would esteem a territorial government of our own as one of the richest boons of earth, and while we appreciate the Constitution of the United States as the most precious among the nations, we feel that we had rather retreat to the deserts, islands or mountain caves than consent to be ruled by governors and judges whose hands are drenched in the blood of innocence and virtue, who delight in injustice and oppression. (quoted in B.H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 3:89-90).

Five years later, Brigham Young would similarly state: “I love the government and the constitution of the United States, but I do not love the damned rascals who administer the government.” For all the tyranny making the exodus necessary, though, the Saints’ travel to and congregation in the West was a foretold and foreordained reality. Though the aggressive actions prompting the Saints’ pioneer journey are vile and deplorable, few will disagree that the isolation and concentration of the Mormons in the west allowed them to strengthen and prosper in ways that otherwise may never have been possible. Even the darkest of days, with God’s providence, can be turned into something good.

And yet, looking back on these events, not everybody applies history in the same way. Whereas I and others look to the pioneers’ actions and see submission to oppression, unjust government extending its evil influence, and a concentrated and magnified faith in God, some choose to see a generalized “rejection of authority” and “rising up” and interpret this resistance as justification for their own defiance—not necessarily of political authority, but of theological authority as well.

So it is with one Holly Welker, whose article in the Huffington Post today titled “Latter-Day Saints and Modern-Day Pioneers” recounts some of the pioneer story as pretext for what later becomes an ode to supposed modern-day pioneers who, in the author’s eye, “challenge and remake the ways Mormons live their day-to-day lives.”

The ensuing list is comprised of homosexual (and other gender-bending) activists, “edgy” and “leftist” authors and producers, feminists, and others who, the author explains, “challenged the status quo in one way or another”. We are left simply to wonder what connecting characteristics the two groups have; the author apparently conflates Mormon pioneer, somehow, with progressive activist.

If the very individuals who were forced to leave “footprints of blood across frozen rivers and an untamed prairie floor” observed our state of affairs, for whom would they feel more kinship, and in whom would they see echoes of themselves? Would they feel any solidarity with the individuals lobbying government and God’s prophet to change the nature of the marital relationship? Would they find common ground with those who seek to steady the ark and mock Church authorities, regardless of their imperfections?

From my vantage point, I cannot fathom any clear bridge between these two groups. It feels, rather, that the author’s self-described status of “secular saint rather than a devout one” leads her to somehow tie her past to her present, and the persecuted nature of these distinct minority groups is enough for her to grant “pioneer” status to her progressive heroes. Both groups, she feels, faced “sacrifice, … the unknown, and change.”

To me, the modern counterparts of our Mormon pioneer ancestors are those who fight for “the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.” They do this by participating in and changing government, defying regulations or policies that restrict this privilege while submitting to whatever consequences external forces may be imposed, and by moving forward, whatever the obstacles, in building the kingdom of God on the Earth.

This is a sharp contrast, of course, to our author’s attempt at promoting a progressive political agenda on the cloudy memories of our common ancestry. Whereas she desires defiance of the “status quo” and the promotion of policies which run contrary to established doctrine and revelation, a more reasonable pioneer parallel finds itself in the lives of the average “status quo” member—or at least those who consciously are living up to the label of “Latter-day Saint”.

On this pioneer day, I feel we best memorialize our pioneer ancestors by picking up where they left off, and by learning from the experiences they were forced to endure. As Elder M. Russell Ballard has said:

Our pioneer ancestors were driven from place to place by uninformed and intolerant neighbors. They experienced extraordinary hardship and persecution because they thought, acted, and believed differently from others. If our history teaches us nothing else, it should teach us to respect the rights of all people to peacefully coexist with one another.

We become pioneers, in the Latter-day Saint vernacular, by doing our part to help the “truth of God… go forth boldly, nobly, and independent” regardless of what others may think, how they may react, or what they may do to us. As one of our hymns states, “do what is right, let the consequence follow.”

The key part is doing what’s “right”—not pushing boundaries and promoting “change” for its own sake, but firmly grasping onto what’s right and true, and doing whatever it takes to promote that agenda. “Our duty,” as Joseph Smith once said, is “to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good, and unpopular that which is unsound.”

4 Responses to “Mormon Pioneers and their Modern-day Counterparts”

  1. Ryan Smith
    July 24, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    Well said, Connor. What a weak connection and argument by Holly.

  2. July 25, 2010 at 11:01 am #

    Elder Ballard was quite correct that “Our pioneer ancestors were driven from place to place by uninformed and intolerant neighbors. They experienced extraordinary hardship and persecution because they thought, acted, and believed differently from others. ”

    The reason that those neighbors were uninformed and intolerant was because of their religious beliefs, particularly their belief that marriage was ordained by God to be between one man and one woman. The mid-19th century saw the rise of a wide variety of religious sects but most were tolerated, but the early Mormons “threatened” the “sanctity of marriage” with their doctrine of plural marriage. The parallels of that intolerance and that of today’s Christian’s toward homosexual marriage are inescapable.

    From the earliest Colonial times, the freedom of religion sought by early European settlers was for the most part a freedom they were unwilling to extend to others. Certainly there was never any tolerance for the religions of the native peoples of the Americas, and the Salem witch trials, the anti-Papist laws, and the banishing of religious dissenters were as much a part of our national fabric as the high-minded freedoms enshrined in the Declaration and the Bill of Rights.

    If we only had less ignorance and intolerance now than we had in the 19th century, but unfortunately that does not appear to the case.

  3. July 26, 2010 at 11:34 am #

    Tolerance vs Intolerance. This battle has taken on so many different players and meanings that it’s hard to keep track of what people are talking about when they refer to it.

    Many in the older generations bring a person down to the level they esteem their behavior to be at. Many in the younger generations elevate someone’s behavior to the level of love, “tolerance”, that they have for that person. Both are in the wrong. We need to separate the person from their behavior when we refer to tolerance.

    In other words- “Love the sinner, not the sin.”

  4. July 27, 2010 at 5:51 pm #

    Connor,
    The problem with the 11th LDS article of faith is that it sounds different when read by non-LDS people. Lds political activities often appear to interfere with other peoples ‘moral agency’. Although I am sure you have a different understanding.

    Governor Boggs’ extermination order is an interesting topic. Upon reading about it from a third party account, it sounds like the LDS people were in conflict with a lot of people in the state of Missouri. The account made mormons sound very dangerous, and threatening to Missouri residents. Its probably difficult to appreciate because history only occurs once. The LDS church is a different body now then it was then, so is with the state of missouri, the country and the world.

    What is often overlooked in this story of the LDS migration westward is the displacement of Native American people. A brief commentary is mentioned in the Huffington post article link.

    “…Their joy at being able to claim a secure home (as its only other inhabitants were Native Americans whom they had few qualms about displacing…”

    Online there is an article by Sondra Cosgrove detailing LDS conflict with Native American tribes in Utah.” Mormons and Native Americans: A Historical Overview”. Its interesting and sad to read.

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