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 lease 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.”


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