This is a Pioneer Day talk/speech I delivered today in my LDS ward (congregation) on July 24, 2016 in Orem, Utah.
With wagons yearning West, they had been driven from a country that feared and mistrusted them. They were exiles and refugees who saw an extermination order placed upon them from the Governor of one state, urged by mobs and the populace; and had the Governor of another state betray them and orchestrate the circumstances that murdered their Prophet and once again forced them out, again with the support of the citizenry. The leader of these unfortunates, a man named Brigham Young, had seen his predecessor shot down in cold blood, and had lived in that same fear ever since, hiding and disguising himself from assassins before yet another Exodus; striving to protect his people, but also being protected by them.
The Exodus this time was not from one state to another, but into the wilderness, away from American civilization, abandoning their unsold houses; far away from General Stores, or streets, or theaters, or any convenience offered by mid-19th century society. It was a prospect daunting enough that not everyone in their religion came with them. Emma Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Lucy Mack Smith, William Marks, William Smith—once luminary names in their faith but, for one reason or another, did not follow their brothers and sisters into the West. So some were left behind to walk their own difficult, tragic, and often beautiful paths, while this “nation of heroes,” as the New York Times called them, heard a voice calling them West, further West into the desert, into the wilderness, into the mountains. A Voice, the Voice of God, the Voice of their Redeemer beckoned. How could they deny it when they had heard it so clearly in their hearts?
These were a people who had already endured hardship; had seen their friends, neighbors, and families massacred, raped, pillaged, and maimed for their faith. Their skin was more sun burnt, their hands rougher, their hearts heavier than when they had begun this journey of faith. Some of them bore scars they did not have before; some of them suffered from post-traumatic stress; some of them were divided from their families, whether through alienation caused by joining such a new and foreign faith, or through death; some of them were now wary of their former countrymen and government that had forced them out; some of them suffered from disillusionment, even doubt. But that Voice continued to call nonetheless, call them by name, and those who know that Voice, know their Shepherd, and are known by Him.
We call these people Pioneers. Here among the Mormons in Utah, we celebrate them on this day, the 24th of July, the day Brigham Young’s Vanguard Company rolled into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847 and beheld their new home. From their temporary stopping place in Omaha, Nebraska (what we now call Winter Quarters and where they suffered great privations after being exiled from Nauvoo, Illinois), to their final stopping place in the Salt Lake Valley, the Mormon Trail is 1,300 miles long. It had taken the Vanguard Company from April 5 to July 24 to make the distance. That’s over three and a half months. That’s more than a mere camping trip, that’s more than a long walk—that’s a whole season. That’s a quarter of a year in the elements, in the wilderness, among danger, heat, wildlife, storms, wind, dust, and death.