International Archetypes; or, Mormon Pioneers in Taiwan

By November 4, 2007

As a follow-up to my last post (see below “Going global but not imperial: conversion without deculturation”), and heading in what may seem to be the complete opposite direction, I’d like to qualify my concerns with the Americanization of foreign converts with what I see as a positive American influence. When living in Taiwan, I was surprised at how often Taiwanese Saints would speak about the Mormon pioneers and their difficult exodus to the Desert of Utah. It came up frequently in Sacrament meeting talks. Speakers would often speak of the persecutions the early Saints endured and then naturally move into speaking about Brigham Young, the difficult journey across the desert, and the final settlement in Utah where they established Zion. This seemed to be a very meaningful narrative that was shared or alluded to over and over.

I’ve wondered since just what it was about this story that makes it so meaningful. I’ve always figured it was so meaningful to so many Utah Saints because of a sense of ancestral heritage; it links them to their ancestral past with a sense of continuity: they continue the legacy at least to some degree out of gratitude for what their ancestors did—so their sacrifice is not in vain. But what of these Taiwanese Saints? Why is the same narrative so meaningful to them?

Perhaps it has to do with the universality of the pioneer archetype. As converts to a church that is still relatively young in their country–a church that requires (or at least encourages) some major changes in lifestyle, beliefs, and worldview–the pioneer symbol resonates. Each convert has to cross their own desert in the process of conversion. The ward community becomes their Zion settlement in that new, unfamiliar land. Themes of sacrifice, displacement, transition, endurance, dedication, and community really resonate with their own experience.

Perhaps it is partially because the Church is young in these areas that stories from the American past are so prominent. Maybe with time more stories of the establishment of the LDS Church in Taiwan will become more prominent in their meetings. Maybe stories of certain individuals from among the Taiwanese Saints will become more well-known and will share pulpit time with Brigham Young and the early pioneers. Maybe some of today’s Saints’ own children will relate more and more their own parents’ conversion experiences for the same reasons the exodus to Utah gets told so frequently. Even then, the exodus narrative will probably not die out completely, nor does it really need to. Some symbols are universal: there will always be new beginnings and new pioneers; thus genesis and exodus themes will always be meaningful. It will be interesting to see if new, more local narratives gain prominence as the Church grows. If recent trends in Ensign article selection serve any indication, perhaps they will.


Comments

  1. Stan: This is a fascinating question—one that I think is deserving of several posts. Eric Eliason has done some work on the image of the Pioneer in our memory and ways in which that image has changed over time (Eliason, “Celebrating Zion,” chapter 3). Initially, only those that came with BY’s vanguard of 1847 held the title of pioneer. With the founding of the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, the definition of the pioneer expanded to include all Saints that came to Utah prior to 1869 (the year the railroad was completed). With the twentieth-century expansion and internationalization of the church, we’ve redefined the pioneer to include those that are new converts.

    This redefinition coexists and competes with the notion that some Latter-day Saints are descended from “pioneer stock,” which some in the Church that I’ve come in contact with see as an elitest term that constructs difference. I don’t think that this is intentional, but it still comes across that way.

    Comment by David Grua — November 4, 2007 @ 4:20 pm

  2. Although I am surprised by the degree of use of the narrative if you are correct, the use doesn’t surprise me. It is more than an historical event in the history of the Church, but a spiritual event equal to the desert travels of Moses and Lehi. Still, I am curious how they interpret those events in relation to themselves.

    Comment by Jettboy — November 4, 2007 @ 6:16 pm

  3. I don’t mean to exaggerate how often the narrative is shared–it’s not it every talk or even in every meeting. But in the five months I spent in Taiwan, I remember hearing it several times.

    Comment by stan — November 4, 2007 @ 10:12 pm


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