It is that time of year again, when members all over the world are asked to give talks honoring July 24, 1847– the official date when a company of Mormon pioneers led by Brigham Young entered the Salt Lake Valley via Emigration Canyon. For Mormons, this is a significant date of historical and spiritual meaning: it marks the moment of relief after years of persecutions in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois; it represents finding formal safety in their exile, freedom from religious persecution, distance from the oppressors, and arrival and rebirth in a land of spiritual and physical possibility. In Utah, Idaho, and other western states where members might be more likely to trace some ancestry back to the original pioneers, the third Sunday in July is usually set aside to honor the pioneer experience in a religious setting. Often, talks are centered around telling family histories or in narrating some dramatic and compelling pioneer story for the purpose of finding a larger spiritual meaning. And because members are asked to wade into the waters of historical research and narrative, it comes with some possible pitfalls. This post is not trying to address the area of Pioneer Day commemorations, parades, and celebrations, although some of these suggestions will work for those, as well. So, for help on your Pioneer Day research, see Christopher’s “Pioneer Day: Recommended Readings from JI’s Archives.” And for excellent analysis of Mormon youth Trek reenactments, see Tona’s “Youth Trek, Public History, and Becoming ‘Pioneer Children’ in the Digital Age.” and her 2015 repost with updates here.
Some members bristle at the annual Pioneer Day Sunday– it can appear to privilege those members who are direct descendants of “pioneer stock”– as a kind of spiritual pure breeding claim to Super-Mormon status. Pioneer Day talks can run the risk of causing members of recent conversion or of countries outside the United States to feel excluded. Don’t get me wrong– pioneer ancestry is a significant and valid historical legacy for so many LDS, and even members around the world love Pioneer Day. I remember feeling oddly baffled at watching Brazilian children dancing around pretend campfires in their bonnets and dresses or suspenders and knee pants. It seemed on the one hand like an embracing of the whole Mormon history narrative for their own religious identity, while on the other hand, an erasure of their own pioneering contributions to the body of Zion. (Many historians have addressed the importance of memorializing historical events as a way of forming shared group identities.) Some even question whether Pioneer Day commemorations have their place in Sunday worship services. They often take on distinctly Wasatch Front-centric tones. My own concerns with Pioneer Day talks are that they tend toward the devastating and defeatist, especially if the Willie and Martin Handcart story is told and retold– as it often is– as a one-size-fits-all depiction of ALL pioneer experience. Further, I struggle with the sometimes conflation of Pioneer Day as the “Fourth of July, Part II.”
So, whether you are first-time Pioneer Day speaker or an old veteran, here are some handy tips to guide you on your way to having the audience weeping and laughing in their pews, and perhaps even feeling greater resolve in their dedication to the faith.
- For those of you tackling the traditional 1847-1869 pioneer stuff, remember to study your historical context, verify facts and avoid sloppy generalizations.
- Try not to superimpose your leftover patriotism from the Fourth of July onto the Twenty-Fourth of July: they are two entirely different events, with entirely different meanings. Remember that the Mormon pioneers in 1846 and 1847 were actually LEAVING the United States to flee to Mexico. They were refugees, seeking asylum in another country, because their home country had failed to protect their religious freedom. It was only by accidental timing and circumstances that Mormons found themselves right back in the United States with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. A majority of the overland migrants to Utah Territory were also first-time immigrants to the United States, and many of those spoke very little English.
- Try not to overinflate the tragedy of overland migration. For the most part, pioneer travel, while difficult, was not full of death and destruction and tragedy at every turn. It was mostly uneventful: Yes, there was heat and exhaustion and walking and thunderstorms and babies born and accidents and sickness and even some deaths. But the death rate was low for overland Mormon migrants, around 3.5% (just above the national average), and only 1.75% for pioneers under the age of 20. Read this before giving the congregation dire descriptions of pioneer deaths. Overland death were more about diseases like cholera and scurvy, falling out of wagons, drowning, and many, many accidental shootings. So many, in fact, that wagon train leaders often banned loaded weapons from within camp. P.S. I triple dog dare you to mention pioneer “gun control” efforts in your talk, and then report back to me how that went over.
- The Willie and Martin Handcart Companies Disaster: Handle this one with extreme caution. If you even feel like you need to tell this story again, don’t let it characterize the whole overland story: first understand that this tragedy was an anomaly, a really rare exception to the otherwise safe and uneventful Mormon migration over a 20-year period. That it even happened at all was because of a combination of poor choices by leaders, overconfidence and zealousness, a ridiculously late season departure, and unfortunate but not unexpected early mountain storms. Indeed, there are many myths associated with the tragedy, the kind of faith-promoting but historically dubious narratives that often make their way into public Mormon discourse. To understand the accurate history of the event, you need to do some mandatory homework. Start with this reading that explores the myths and facts associated with the overall handcart experiment and the tragedies themselves. Then read Chad Orton’s seminal work in BYU Studies on the historical myths of the Sweetwater rescue. Or this pictorial summary on the Church website. And JI’s own Ben P has a fantastic summary of the Willie-Martin narrative in the Mormon imagination, problems with how the story has evolved over time, and appropriate ways of its use.
- Joy in the journey: Many diarists remember the experience with the fondness of both the new and the mundane: camp associations, singing and dancing, cooking, eating, and hunting, enjoying the new flora, fauna, and scenery and beauty of the West. People found time to keep diaries– not as many as we would like, especially by women, but they are a rich trove of beauty and sentiment and joy along with all the hard stuff. Many were new converts who were so excited just to meet and associate with other Mormons. And there were marriages and babies born and children playing and longtime friendships formed.
- Indian attacks happened very rarely, if ever. Historian Mel Bashore found only four (4) deaths reported to be by “Indian attack” in 20 years of Mormon pioneering. In fact, it is important to remember the perspective of Native Americans in all of the Mormons’ pioneering efforts, or what Church Historian Marlin K. Jensen in 2010 referred to as a story that is “seldom given adequate prominence.” For starters, the Omahas of eastern Nebraska pretty much saved the Mormons’ poor, starving keisters when they got to Winter Quarters, by feeding them and letting them stay on Omaha land. Then, as these groups of Euro-Americans entered the Utah, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona territories, other groups of Utes, Shoshones, Paiutes, Goshutes, and Navajos gradually became dispossessed through land struggles, war, reservation policies, and physical and cultural assimilation. Freedom for one group meant dispossession for another. Or, as Jensen has reminded members in their commemorations of Pioneer Day: “Regardless of how one views the equities of Indian-Mormon relations in those times, the end result was that the land and cultural birthright Indians once possessed in the Great Basin were taken from them . . . What we can do, the least we can do from a distance of 160 years, is to acknowledge and appreciate the monumental loss this represents on the part of Utah’s Indians. That loss and its 160-year aftermath are the rest of the story.” For more on how Utah’s Indian history has been memorialized or not memorialized, see JI’s David G. on “Pioneer Day and Remembering/Forgetting Utah’s Indian Wars.”
- Broaden your definition of “pioneer” to international pioneers, later pioneers, your own personal pioneers, and pioneering in things like missionary work, education, and the contributions of underrepresented groups like women and people of color. Historian Ardis Parshall has devoted much digital ink to the pursuit of “non-traditional” pioneer stories, and her trove is rich: As a sampling, here is one on a pioneer in Ceylon; a Swiss-Russian; and a young man from Takaroa, in the Tuamotu Islands; a Japanese widow who worked in the mission home in Tokyo; this on the first missionary from Czechoslovakia and this on a Croat woman convert in Yugoslavia. Her ongoing series on the triumphs and tragedies of Armenian saints is carefully researched and compellingly important Here, here, here, here, with relevant comparisons to modern refugees here, and here. Parshall’s work reminds us that in the context of an expanding group narrative centered on pioneering stories, individuals hope for belonging within that narrative. Recent converts need to be reassured that their stories are important, too, that pioneering experiences come in every decade, and country and continent.
- Find relevant comparisons and meaning. Of course, you can always tap into the usual faith through hardship theme, but branch out into topics like showing compassion for refugees and immigrants, finding cheer in the journey, mourning with those that mourn, or the importance of families– leaving families, staying with your families, adopting families, suffering with families, surviving with families, finding diversity in families, church families, community families, and immigrant families. And of course, try to bring it around to how pioneer narratives- both historic and modern– are good for finding faith and in seeing our own faces in the historical past. This post by Keepa guest blogger Emily Gilliland Grover, models how to find much-needed gender and racial diversity in our pioneer stories, as well as to personalize pioneer stories for others. Show that you understand why pioneers made the choices they did. We don’t honor anybody merely because they suffered, but because they had the faith to come.
I hope that some of these tips are helpful as a framework for writing Pioneer Day talks, and I look forward to readers’ comments on what you would like to hear or not hear in these July Sunday meetings. What have been some of your favorite pioneer talks, or least favorites? Have you given a successful Pioneer Day talk, or do you revolt completely against the idea? Share your tips and ideas here.