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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Pioneer Day




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,[1] 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.

And at the end of that trail they are blazing was—what? Were they traveling from one civilization to another? No. They were traveling through the wild only to end up in the wild. If they wanted cities, theaters, hotels, stores, newspapers, and homes, then they would have to build it themselves. They would have to draw water from a desert rock.
The man who was supposed to lead this motley, dust covered, half-starved caravan was himself desperately sick, “nigh unto death,” with what they called “mountain fever.” He was laid out in a wagon when they approached their barren destination. On July 17, because of this sickness, the group of exiles stopped and formed a prayer circle on Brigham Young’s behalf. Although he improved a little over the next day, it was decided that one of the apostles, Orson Pratt, would bring an advance company, while a small group stayed behind with Brigham.[2]
Pratt would record his first view of the valley as follows:
Brother Erastus…and myself proceeded in advance of the camp down Last Creek four and one-half miles, to where it passes through a canyon into the broad, open valley below. To avoid the canyon, the wagons last season had passed over an exceedingly steep, dangerous hill, from the top of which a broad, open valley, about 20 miles wide and 30 long, lay stretched out before us, at the north end of which the broad waters of the Great Salt Lake glistened in the sunbeams, containing high mountainous islands from 25 to 30 miles in extent. After issuing from the mountains among which we had been shut up for many days, and beholding in a moment such extensive scenery open before us, we could not refrain from a shout of joy which almost involuntarily escaped from our lips the moment this grand and lovely scenery was within our view.[3]
Brigham Young would eventually view the valley himself, drawn in Wilford Woodruff’s carriage, still very sick. He would write about the event on July 23: “I ascended and crossed over the Big Mountain, when on its summit I directed Elder Woodruff…to turn [the carriage] half way round so that I could have a view of a portion of Salt Lake Valley. The spirit of light rested upon me and hovered over the valley, and I felt there that the Saints would find protection and safety.” [4] Wilford Woodruff would report decades later that Brigham Young said the now famous words, “It is enough. This is the right place. Drive on.”
However, not everyone was pleased with the view they got of the valley. Anyone who has ever gone back East to visit Nauvoo, Illinois, Independence and Far West, Missouri, Adam-Ondi-Ahman, and the gorgeous places where the Saints were driven from, they know that those lands are green, lush places with lots of trees, the Mississippi River, fireflies—truly the Garden of Eden that Joseph Smith proclaimed it was. Few places have impressed me as much as those sites did when Anne and I traveled there for our honeymoon. As beautiful as Utah can be, especially with its grand mountainscapes, in comparison with where the lush, paradisiacal Zion they had come from, many of the Saints considered this dry, lonesome prospect a “lone and dreary wilderness.” 
For example, Lorenzo Snow wrote, “This day we arrived in the valley of the great Salt Lake. My feelings were such as I cannot describe. Everything looked gloomy and I felt heartsick.” His wife Harriet certainly could describe her feelings, and voiced them to Lorenzo. Having been distraught by the barren lack of trees and barren in Utah, and the scraggly surroundings, she said: “We have traveled fifteen hundred miles to get here, and I would willingly travel a thousand miles farther…”[5]
Indeed, upon discovering the Pioneer’s intent Jim Bridger and other mountain men familiar with the area had little praise for the Valley, considering the Saints’ prospects for planting and living there to be in question. Samuel Brannan, who had led a number of the Saints to California by ship, traveled back overland to tell Brigham Young that they should keep going to that luscious land! Having recently lived in San Diego where a number of the Mormon Battalion and a number of Saints ended up, I can certainly see Brannan’s point! I still feel heartsick for our old home in San Diego, especially the reassuring ocean that so calmed my nerves.
But Brigham refused Brannan’s pleas. He had something else placed in his heart. The Church had fought over paradise before and lost. Despite some of its drawbacks, the land that would become Utah had a distinct advantage that their other homes had not: nobody else wanted it! They could practice their faith here in peace. They had not come so far for good weather or sandy beaches—they had come for the freedom of worship and the freedom of conscience.
Also, Brigham had another reason to stay in the new state of Deseret that they were planned to build: he had seen it in vision. In Nauvoo Brigham had a vision of the place the Saints were supposed to end up in. He said it was “in the west [with] many beautiful hills. & barren & [a] valley skirted with timber.”[6] So when Brigham Young said that this was the right place, he wasn’t guessing. He claimed to have been shown it by God.
Now Brigham Young has the reputation for not being a very spiritual person. Many of us, myself included, have often not given him enough credit in this regard. Joseph Smith was the visionary with the spiritual gifts, the narrative often goes, while Brigham Young is the more practical prophet that is able to bring his organizational skills and practical leadership to enact Joseph Smith’s visions. Brigham himself often said he felt like he wasn’t as visionary as his mentor and predecessor Joseph Smith, or his dear friend and fellow apostle Heber C. Kimball, who prophesied as naturally as some people eat cereal. There may be some accuracy to this generalization, but it’s certainly oversimplified—Brigham Young had experienced a number of deep spiritual gifts in his life, ones which many members of the Church would love to have experienced themselves.  
Early in his ministry as an apostle he was well known for speaking in tongues, including the first day he met the Prophet Joseph Smith. He had a number of prophetic and inspired dreams, which came true in their details, such as the dream-vision that showed him the Salt Lake Valley. During the Kirtland Temple dedication, he claimed to have seen angels. In Southern Utah, he completely healed a woman who had been paralyzed by a stroke. Brigham’s close friend Heber C. Kimball claimed that Brigham had seen Jesus Christ and ancient prophets and apostles from the Bible. He received a number of written revelations, inspired by the Holy Ghost.[7] In one particularly dramatic instance, while traveling to his mission to England, the ship Brigham and the other apostles were traveling in was being buffeted by a fierce storm. He related the events that followed thus:
I went upon deck and I felt impressed in spirit to pray to the Father in the name of Jesus for a forgiveness of all my sins. And then I set to command the winds to cease and let us go safe on our Journey. The winds abated and Glory & honor & praise be to that God that rules all things.[8]
Our Savior and Redeemer Jesus Christ said that if we had the faith of a mustard seed, we could imitate many of the miracles he did on the earth. Brigham Young proved our Savior right by stilling the sea in no less dramatic of a fashion than Jesus did.
Brigham may have felt that he had a high spiritual bar to jump over, having observed the miracles, revelations, and wonders Joseph Smith was blessed with for the decade that Brigham knew Joseph before his martyrdom. However, over the couple of decades that I’ve made a serious study of Church History, it has become clear to me that Brigham was a good student of the spiritual mentor he had chosen in Brother Joseph, and that God wrought many mighty miracles and works in his servant and friend Brigham Young.
And Joseph Smith, with his particular prophetic knack, saw this early on. One historian gives this account of one of Joseph Smith’s early reactions to Brigham Young:
Brigham Young began to develop rapidly toward his own foreordained role as a prophet the night in October 1832 when he first met Joseph and began to “subject [himself] to his counsel.” He and Heber C. Kimball were invited to stay for supper and for a regular, informal gathering of the Church leaders in Kirtland. There they “conversed together upon the things of the kingdom.” Brigham was asked to give the closing prayer, during which he was moved to speak in tongues. This was a spiritual gift the Prophet had not witnessed before; in fact, he had strongly warned against certain over-enthusiastic and unedifying cases of such expression at frontier camp meetings he had heard about [and probably witnessed personally], and the brethren thought he would condemn this manifestation. But when they asked him about it after Brigham left, he said, “No, it is of God, and the time will come when Brigham Young will preside over this Church.”[9]
And that wasn’t the last time Joseph Smith would a powerful manifestation about Brother Brigham. In 1836, Joseph Smith received a vision, part of which is recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants, section 137. The part of the vision recorded there relates how Joseph Smith saw his deceased brother Alvin, who had died before receiving baptism, in the Celestial Kingdom of God. The voice of the Lord came to Joseph, relating the following interpretation of the vision:
All those who have died without a knowledge of this gospel, who would have received it if they had been permitted to tarry, shall be heirs of the celestial kingdom of God; Also all that shall die henceforth without a knowledge of it, who would have received it with all their hearts, shall be heirs of that kingdom; For I, the Lord, will judge all men according to their works, according to the desire of their hearts. And I also beheld that all children who die before they arrive at the years of accountability are saved in the celestial kingdom of heaven.[10]
That’s the part of the vision most Mormons are familiar with, from which we derive a beautiful, compassionate doctrine in our Church. However, most members of the Church are not familiar with the rest of the vision that happened on that occasion. Joseph Smith then saw in the vision the Latter-day Saint apostles, Brigham Young included, in a distant land “standing together in a circle much [fatigued], with their clothes tattered and their feet swollen, with their eyes cast downward, and Jesus standing in their midst, and the Savior looked upon them and wept.”[11] This part of the vision would be fulfilled when most of the 12 apostles would travel together to England together on a very difficult, but also one of the most successful, missions in LDS history, literally converting thousands of people in the United Kingdom to the faith.
            The vision then continued to show another of the apostles, William McLellin, healing a crippled man in the Southern United States, and then the vision turned specifically to Brigham Young. Brigham Young was in a Southwest desert (remember that this vision was given in 1836 in Kirtland, Ohio, long before Joseph or the Saints had any inkling pioneers would end up on the other side of the country). So in this vision Joseph Smith received Brigham ends up in the very place we know he will eventually be, in the Southwest, and Brigham was shown preaching on a rock to a number of Native Americans, who appeared hostile. In the vision, Brigham was protected by an Angel of God with a sword, standing above his head. [12]
            This vision is remarkably prescient enough, but it gets better. This occurrence would be literally fulfilled decades later in a meeting Brigham Young had with the Utes, and once again incorporates Brigham Young’s ability to speak in tongues. This is how historian John Turner relates the story:      
As the meeting continued, Young showed one way in which he was different than other white American "Big Chiefs." The Mormons in attendance sang two hymns, and Young then gathered the Utes into a circle for a sermon. At the close of his sermon, Young spoke in tongues, and the Utes responded that they understood his words. Young now rarely spoke in tongues, the practice so fundamental to his first ten years in the church. That he did so in front of the Ute chiefs suggests that the church president felt unusually strong emotions--or an unusually strong sense of the divine—at the meeting. Joseph Smith had a vision in 1835 that Young would speak to hostile Indians in the Southwest in their own tongue. If Young believed that Smith's prophecy was now being fulfilled, he kept such thoughts to himself. The following month, 126 Indians were baptized into the church, probably with little understanding of the religion they publicly embraced. [13]
            Now I have focused on Brigham Young much more than I expected when I first began writing this speech. I was initially planning on writing about a more diverse set of pioneers, including black Mormon pioneers Jane Manning James and Elijah Ables; as well as more modern pioneers like 15-year-old Helmuth Huebener, who resisted the Nazis in World War II Germany and was martyred for his bravery; and the African Saints who prepared themselves to receive the Gospel in the decades before the priesthood ban was lifted in 1978. The stories around those courageous Saints are full of miracles, heroism, tragedy, joy, and sacrifice.
            Yet as I wrote this, I felt a prompting to keep pushing along with this narrative about Brigham Young. In recent years, I have heard a lot of people express a lot of doubt and discouragement about Brigham Young, even among faithful Latter-day Saints. Along with all these beautiful stories I have told you today, there are also disturbing things about our history, including uncomfortable, but true facts about Brigham Young. He was a polygamist with 55 wives, and was even divorced from some of them. As not only the prophet of an exiled and persecuted people, but also the Territorial Governor of Utah and Superintendent of Indian Affairs, he had to make many tough calls to protect his people, and not all of them ended well, and some even ended in violence. As a product of his time and environment he held now controversial views about race, gender, and other discomfiting issues which would be far from PC today. As a result of those evolving views, he implemented a ban against black people having the priesthood, a ban that did not exist in Joseph Smith’s day, and which affected generations of faithful, black Mormons like Elijah Abels and Jane Manning James. He was sometimes coarse and roughhewn. He swore and used colorful language. He wasn’t always terribly patient, and could have a temper. He was a man which many had a hard time seeing as a prophet of God.
            Yet I do believe he was a prophet of God. I feel it deep, like a fire in my bones. I love him deeply, even feel a kinship with him. I love him for his virtues, and in many ways I also love him because of his imperfections. In him I see my own weaknesses, and am both repulsed and attracted. And that’s the paradox, the contradiction. These pioneers showed forth very human foibles as well as tremendous faith and integrity. In them were exhibited tragedies as well as miracles.  And that is part of the point, for we all have fallen short, we are all sinners, we all have grieved and mourned for how stupid, short sighted, and even cruel we can be.
            But if we endure through our sin, and cling to the garments of Yeshua the Mashiach, Jesus the Christ, our Lord and Redeemer, then something remarkable begins to happen to us. Grace and Forgiveness descend upon us, even upon that person who you thought was such a bad example, or held such offensive views, or was such an embarrassment to the Church, or you thought was a hopeless cause. Perhaps that person is even a high leader, or on the bishopbric, or a local Relief Society President, or that Sunday School teacher or Young Women’s advisor who you keep criticizing in your head—I know you all have done it, and I have done it too. Or perhaps it is that person in the mirror, the person you really have a hard time forgiving. Whoever that person is, no matter how sinful or tawdry they may seem to you right now, they can be, and probably will be, a recipient of the Grace of Jesus Christ. And when they receive that Grace, bit by bit, line upon line, here a little and there a little, you will start seeing them become more heroic, more kind, more wise, more generous, more forgiving, more brave, more courageous, more loving. They become pioneers You become a pioneer. I become a pioneer.
            Being a pioneer isn’t about reaching some pinnacle of perfection. It isn’t about becoming more righteous than your neighbor. It isn’t about being guiltless, or even innocent. It’s about forging ahead, even forging ahead through grief and pain and sin and corruption and self-hatred and self-pity and depression and tragedy and things that weren’t even your fault but sometimes even often they were your fault. It’s about forging ahead of all of that and claiming your inheritance in the Body of Christ, inheriting your Divine Nature, inheriting a better future in the city of Zion and the glory of the Celestial Kingdom with our Heavenly Father, our Heavenly Mother, our Redeemer Jesus Christ, our family and friends and loved ones.
But sometimes we get to that initial destination we were promised and it’s like when the Saints came to Utah and not all of them were too pleased about it. All of that sacrifice—for this? All of that pain—for this?! We left the Mississippi River and beautiful trees and gardens for scrub oak and fly infested salt water?! Let’s skip this place and just keep moving onto California!
Yet if we endure it well, eventually we may see the Divine Hand in ways that will startle and amaze us. As it says in Isaiah, the Lord will “give unto them beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, the garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness; that they might be called trees of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, that he might be glorified.”[14]
I say these things with my testimony that God is good, even when we are not; that prophets are real, even when they are not perfect; and that though we may now live in a desert, it will blossom as the rose. In the name of Yeshua the Mashiach, Jesus the Chris, Amen. 


[1] Orson F. Whitney, A Popular History of Utah (Deseret News, 1916), p.157.
[2] Leonard Arrington, Brigham Young: American Moses (Illinois: University of Illinois Press), P. 143.
[3] Ibid, 143-44.
[4] Ibid., p. 145.
[5] Ibid, 145-146.
[6] D. Michael Quinn, “Brigham Young: Man of the Spirit,” Ensign, August 1977. https://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/08/brigham-young-man-of-the-spirit?lang=eng
[7] See Quinn, “Brigham Young: Man of the Spirit”; as well as John Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet.
[8] Quinn, “Brigham Young: Man of the Spirit.”
[9] Eugene England, “Brigham and Joseph,” http://www.eugeneengland.org/brigham-and-joseph .
[10] Doctrine and Covenant 137: 7-10.
[11] Richard Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books/Random House, 2005, p. 312.
[12] Ibid.
[13] John Turner, Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, p. 214.
[14] Isaiah 61:3

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