Come, Come, Ye Saints: the International Version

By January 25, 2013

As part of my dissertation on the ritualization of Mormon history, I have been researching the use of pioneer symbolism in both mainstream American and Mormon public memory. I’ve put together some basic thoughts on this subject for this post today, my third guest post here at Juvenile Instructor. You can find the others here and here.

The concept of public memory is central to what I want to talk about today. By this, I mean the ideas that a people may have about their history, ideas that help a society not only understand its past, but more importantly also its present and future. It reveals essential issues present in every society: issues of organization, of power structures, of the actual meaning of past and present as experienced by different societal groups. I’m operating on the premise that ultimately, how we think about the past is grounded in how we think about the present. Shaping public memory is a contested practice and involves a struggle for authority and domination between ideologies (Bodnar 13), often expressing itself as a conflict between ‘official cultures’ (civic and business leaders, for example) and ‘vernacular cultures’ (‘ordinary people’) [2].

According to Bodnar, the pioneer became a popular symbol during a time of economic centralization and urban and industrial growth, especially in the Midwest. For ordinary people, the pioneer came to symbolize their (fictionalized) ancestors: people who worked hard, overcame many hardships, preserved traditions, and ultimately founded the (ethnic) communities they were living in. Towards the end of the 19th century, civic leaders (often representing business interests) began trying to regulate and shape commemorative behavior and public memory. In the 20th century, the move towards centralization meant that public memory would be shaped even more by state power–not ignoring pluralistic interests, per se, but certainly privileging its own position over more vernacular ones. In this manner, we can see how vernacular interests celebrated their pioneer ancestors for achievements relevant to life in their community, while official interests began to honor them for patriotic ideals and contributions to nation-building, co-opting commemorative value. In return, ordinary citizens acknowledged this ideal of loyalty but privileged the personal dimension of patriotism over an overly public dimension. In essence (I’m painting with very broad strokes here, bear with me!), the story of the pioneer symbol in American culture is an at times uneasy dance, in which the pioneer was typically used as a local, vernacular symbol that competes with nationalistic symbols of more powerful interests, occasionally appropriated by official interests and re-appropriated by locals. [3]

This is all still fairly straightforward. For me, it gets interesting when we think about the use of the pioneer symbol in LDS culture, not because Mormons use the pioneer symbol in radically different ways (although sometimes they do), but because the vernacular gets flipped on its head, so to speak. We can find many instances in which Mormon public memory is constructed much along the lines of their Midwestern counterparts. However, as Madsen points out, the LDS Church, a “powerful institutional hierarchy” (60) has appropriated the symbol. [4] So we have a vernacular symbol, appropriated by an institution, and given a transnational bent (more on that later).

In many ways, the same strategies used by American official culture can be seen in the LDS Church’s deployment of this symbol. Bodnar argues that aspiring leaders clothed themselves in pioneer garb in order to legitimize their own positions, for example by organizing commemorations focusing on pioneer heritage (Bodnar 123). [5] I would argue that statements such as these, “My mom was a descendant of pioneers who sacrificed everything for the Church and the kingdom of God,” made by Elder David A. Bednar inĀ  General Conference, function in much the same way. [6] Though pioneer ancestors are definitely not a prerequisite of being a worthy member of the LDS Church, they certainly function as a kind of shorthand, a code, if you will, with some legitimizing power.

Where it gets fascinating for me personally is the transnational element I alluded to earlier. What does it mean when Mongolian Saints, so far from Utah and/or the United States, engage in a handcart trek? These Mongolians, pulling handcarts and dressed in aprons and bonnets or suspenders and cowboy hats, passed self-made signs designating the Mongolian terrain as “Illinois”, “Nebraska”, “Wyoming”, and the “Sweetwater River” and met yaks along the way in an interesting juxtaposition of realities. [7] Along similar lines, what does it mean when an art project meant to capture the life of members in Ghana encapsulates them (and their “amazing stories”) as pioneers? [8]

It will come as no surprise that the Liahona makes frequent references to non-American Saints as pioners, or that German-born Dieter Uchtdorf says this about himself, “I have no ancestors among the nineteenth-century pioneers. However, since the first days of my Church membership, I have felt a close kinship to those early pioneers who crossed the plains. They are my spiritual ancestry, as they are for each and every member of the Church, regardless of nationality, language, or culture.” [9] Here, pioneer heritage transcends genealogical boundaries, allowing all that feel a kinship to claim it.

This transnational element illustrates the complexity of the pioneer symbol. In this transnational context, I would argue that the cultural power of the comparison lies in the very fact that it can serve both the needs of a smaller space (a branch in Mongolia, say), and larger structures (the LDS Church as a whole). It allows communities to band together, to rally around a common symbol, whether their need comes from a feeling of being a ‘peculiar people’ in a differently-peculiar culture, or the reality that being a non-American Saint often does place you in a minority position on several fronts. This symbol is so powerful because it does all that, and yet also serves as an important reminder that the hardships you are facing now are nothing new. You will overcome them, this too shall pass. And in the meantime, “Come, Come Ye Saints” is there to keep you company along the way–pioneer clothing optional.


[1] See John Bodnar, Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, 1992.
[2] Bodnar makes this distinction not based on class (with ‘ordinary people’ referring to working class Americans) but on access to the kind of power structures and/or actual organizations that have a hand in shaping public memory from an official perspective.
[3] See Bodnar, chapters 1-3 for a more detailed description of this process.
[4] Madsen, “The Sanctification of Mormon Historical Geography.” Geographies of Religions and Belief Systems 1.1 (2006): 51-73.
[5] Bodnar meant this figuratively, but I can’t help but think here of the practice of buying or making pioneer clothes in order to have a more “authentic” trek experience as well as the ‘subversive bonnets’ raffled off by fMh to benefit a single mom scholarship fund. Same root idea, two radically different outcomes.
[6] Elder David A. Bednar, “The Powers of Heaven”, General Conference April 2012.
[7] Full disclosure: the Mongolians did the trek, but the story only made it onto the LDS Church New website by dint of being told by an American serving in that mission, Elder Hunt. Not a single Mongolian voice was directly recorded in that article.
[8] “Pioneers in Ghana”, Ensign, July 2009. The artwork is worth viewing here.
[9] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Heeding the Voice of the Prophets,” Liahona and Ensign, July 2008.

Article filed under Cultural History International Mormonism


  1. As a convert (but American) I feel no connection to the mormon poisoners. I think that they have an incredible story, but it is not a religious one and from an international perspective I find it damaging. I think that it is just another way that the church makes the wards in the rest of the world too American. I find a human connection to struggle, but what some saints face in the rest of the world in a daily basis makes the western migration seem like preschool.

    Comment by Jessica F — January 25, 2013 @ 7:15 am

  2. …the mormon poisoners. I think that they have an incredible story, but it is not a religious one

    Besides the amusing auto-correct, I must be misunderstanding this comment. What part of the Mormon pioneer story is not religious?

    I know some have tried recently to explain the early Mormon experience — at least part of it — as an economic experience, but that’s a stretch. The early Mormon converts came out of deeply religious societies and everything they did was connected to their religious life. There is no way to draw a line and say, “This part was economic and this part was religious.” It was all religious.

    It may be difficult to understand that in today’s secular society, but if you don’t understand the extent to which the experience was — and still is — religious, it’s possible that there may be a lot about the Church that will puzzle you.

    The pioneer story is a classic exodus story and as such it echoes themes in the Bible and in the Book of Mormon. The pioneers used religious language to describe and understand their experiences. (See the ongoing Women of Faith in the Latter-Days biographical series for many examples.) The experience generated church music that we still use today — Saskia provided a link to one of the better known hymns. The experience generated scripture which is found in the Doctrine and Covenants, and in a very real way the experience itself became scripture.

    Comment by Amy T — January 25, 2013 @ 9:09 am

  3. Jessica, I hear you, especially if you’re a convert. I can understand how the story might work in an international perspective, but then I read the article about the Mongolians–in which the trek is thought of by an American and an American declares it an unmitigated success, and the youth dresses in American clothes, and the only piece of cultural senstivity was the fact that they sang Come Come Ye Saints in Mongolian, not English. So I am definitely critical about this.

    Amy, I haven’t had a chance to look through Women of Faith, but I look forward to. Thanks for your comment.

    Comment by Saskia T — January 25, 2013 @ 10:29 am

  4. At what point do international Saints mark the difference between “this is faith history that belongs to me” and “this is merely American history to which I feel no direct attachment”? That is, we probably all claim the memory of Joseph Smith, and the First Vision, and the publication of the Book of Mormon as our personal LDS heritage, no? What about the events surrounding the Kirtland Temple? Missouri? Nauvoo? The martyrdom? Are any of those rejected as “too American” or “not mine”?

    What makes the pioneer (historical or symbolic) different?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — January 25, 2013 @ 10:34 am

  5. I wonder to what extent we have posthumously Americanized the idea of being a pioneer. Native Hawaiians (who at the time who not Americans) referred to themselves as pioneers when they settled Laie and later, when Iosepa. Many of the pioneers were also not Americans – most British saints who emigrated to the United States did not cease to see themselves as British even after they had lived in the United States for decades. Although I haven’t done much research on Scandinavian Saints, I assume that Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish Saints felt the same way. It’s only posthumously that we have created these people as Americans and made them part of a distinctly American history. In the nineteenth century, most Mormons and non-Mormons wouldn’t have labeled all (or even most) pioneers American.

    Also, I would like to point that when we are talking about American here. We are ignoring the extent to which this can also be cast as white American. I am guessing that the pioneer experience might mean something different to an African American, Native American, or Latino Saint.

    Comment by Amanda — January 25, 2013 @ 10:50 am

  6. This is great, Saskia. I think this topic provides a great case study for the new transnational/transcultural approaches to cultural memory, as advocated by Astrid Erll. Tracing how cultural memories of American/Mormon pioneers have “traveled” across borders (both physical and cultural) and have been reinterpreted and reappropriated by groups with no direct connection to nineteenth century pioneers, such as the Mongolian Mormons you mention, opens up new ways of thinking about memory across nations and groups.

    Within Mormonism (and American culture more broadly), the “pioneer” has always been a contested category with porous boundaries. As you doubtless are aware, initially only the members of the (mostly male and white) 1847 vanguard were considered pioneers, or “those who prepared the way for others.” Gradually over the nineteenth century, in part due to the Pioneer Day parades, who could be considered a pioneer was expanded to include all Latter-day Saints who arrived in Utah prior to the 1869 completion of the transcontinental railroad. More recently, the pioneer category has been expanded even more broadly to include first generation converts in various parts of the world. So while it certainly is true that pioneer discourse reinforces power, its boundaries expand rather than contract. It is also true that a lot of converts and their descendants do not find the category all that useful and dislike what they perceive as a heavy emphasis on Utah’s pioneers.

    Another interesting angle are the controversies over representations of American/Mormon pioneers in a post-1970s world. Global discourses of indigeneity challenge and contest the ways that pioneers and their descendants have disavowed and forgotten the violence against Natives inherent in the establishment of European settler colonies. Marlin K. Jensen, emeritus Church Historian, attempted to address this issue in his Pioneer Day talk a few years ago by suggesting that white Mormons needed to acknowledge the traumatic impact the pioneers had on the Great Basin’s indigenous population. The talk received a mixed response, as might be expected. For your purposes, it would be interesting to consider the implications of this issue for the internationalization of cultural memories of Mormons pioneer.

    Comment by David G. — January 25, 2013 @ 10:52 am

  7. One reason why pioneers are seen as “more American” than Mormon history through 1847 is due to the ways that Americans have used the “frontier” for nationalistic purposes. Frederick Jackson Turner, in his famous 1893 talk on the significance of the frontier in American history, pulled together ideas that had been used by Americans for a long time. Dating back to the pre-revolutionary period, colonists had argued that they deserved special rights because they had toiled and subdued a “howling wilderness” full of “hostile” Indians. Americans argued that this experience of “pacifying” the wilderness made their new nation exceptional and pioneers were seen as the heroes who had created civilization that their descendants enjoyed. Into the twentieth century, the idea of the frontier continued to shape American self-conceptions and provided a rationale for internationalism throughout the century. Latter-day Saints have tied the migration to Utah to this broader American narrative as a way to claim inclusion in the national story, as Paul Reeve, as I understand it, will discuss in his forthcoming book.

    Comment by David G. — January 25, 2013 @ 11:12 am

  8. David, excellent points. Ardis’ comment, though, also made me think of a podcast on Mormon Matters on Pacific Island Mormon Identities. One of the women that the host was interviewing suggested that the Priesthood Ban and polygamy weren’t huge issues for non-American Mormons because they were seen as distinctly American issues. Although the politics of settler colonialism may be responsible for some aspects of Mormon history appearing more “American” than others, it would seem that’s not the only rubric at play. I’m guessing that the church’s attempt to downplay polygamy might have something to do with the disavowal of polygamy as American in other parts of the world and that the perceived distinctiveness of American racial politics might play a part in the first.

    The Americanizing of the idea of a pioneer might also have something to do with the decision to de-emphasize gathering. Before the 20th C, all Saints were expected to emigrate at some point and gathering was an important of Mormon identity for Tahitian Saints in the 1840s, for British Saints in the 1860s and 70s, and for Scandinavian Saints in the 1880s. After that policy was disclaimed, the idea of being a pioneer, of gathering to Zion, became part of a particular history rather than an essential part of Mormonness.

    Comment by Amanda — January 25, 2013 @ 11:26 am

  9. My dad who grew up LDS in Georgia always resented the pioneer stories. I think it was a resentment toward Utah Mormons who he said would be condescending when they visited. (He’s now lived in Utah most of his life.)

    This reminds me of a funny exchange I saw in a ward I was in in Sacramento. A Filipino man taught a lesson on the pioneers in elders quorum and asked one of the white guys what his pioneer ancestry meant to him. After this a guy of Mexican descent chimed in saying that pioneer-ancestry talk really bugged him and that his ancestors had made great sacrifices that ought to be recognized. Then the visiting high councilor who was Polynesian shot back saying that the pioneer heritage was all of our heritage as church members.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — January 25, 2013 @ 12:25 pm

  10. Perhaps Jessica’s resentment of the stories of the 19th century Mormon pioneers has stopped her from recognizing the real suffering they endured. The food and water were bad, and there wasn’t enough. Disease from polluted water, like cholera, caused substantial suffering. Women died young, often in childbirth, and large numbers of their children died before reaching maturity.

    And arriving in the valley of the Great Salt Lake didn’t mean the end–one ancestor, a relative newlywed when he left Nauvoo in 1846, lived for two years in Winter Quarters (with a several-month sojourn, separated from wife and son, in Fort Leavenworth where he found work), several years in the Salt Lake Valley, then to St. George, and on to Las Vegas to work in ghastly conditions in the lead mines (think the sulfur mines scene from Barabbas), then back to St. George, and then Pine Valley, and finally to Eastern Arizona. Oh, and his wife gave birth three months after arriving in Utah. Four months on the trail–whether walking or riding in a spring-less wagon–while pregnant sure sounds easy, doesn’t it? Not preschool. More like Romper Room, wouldn’t you say?

    I don’t know that we should play “Queen for a Day” and try to weigh the relative hardships of different peoples, with a faux ermine robe and tin crown going to the teller of the saddest story, but suggesting that the Mormon pioneer experience was all a walk in the park, or a schoolyard, does not do justice to their experience.

    Comment by Mark B. — January 25, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  11. Wow, these are great comments. Let me start off by saying I recognize the limitations of this model and many (most) of the concerns stated here. One of the things that does interest me is the reception by non-white Americans and non-white non-Americans, so all these comments are great. (And, also, here I can tell I’m not Mormon and only partly American! It’s not all new to me, per se, but these suggestions really helps me get a grip on this material.) So thank you all.

    Ardis–I’m thinking in the direction that the Mormon pioneer narrative fits into the American pioneer narrative (though definitely not seamlessly, and sometimes only at first glance), which allows for an Americanization perhaps more than a Mormonization. But I’m still thinking about that.

    David–I am definitely drawing on Erll on all this. Her work got me started down this path. Thanks for your suggestions!

    Amanda–yes, Gathering, definitely. Good point.

    Steve–that’s a great story. And I can definitely see people resenting all the pioneer hoopla outside of Utah!

    Mark B.–I don’t think anyone is trying to play Queen for a Day as much as wanting to recognize that the pioneer experience was not the be all and end all of hard experiences. Both of you have a point.

    Thanks, everyone, you’ve given me so much food for thought.

    Comment by Saskia T — January 25, 2013 @ 3:25 pm

  12. Great post, Saskia. Have you read Eric Eliason’s dissertation? It seems very relevant to what you’re doing and I highly recommend it. I used it in thinking through some tangentially-related issues a few years back (see my post here).

    Two quick thoughts:

    1. I wonder what role popular debates within the church today play in shaping the attitudes of those both critiquing and defending the continued veneration of the 19th century western pioneers in regular reenactments, sermons, etc. Is it possible to understand these debates outside of the context of quite pointed feelings on the (perceived?) packaging of “Utah/American/Western culture” as “the gospel” and being exported to Mormonism at large?

    2. My wife, a Salvadoran-American, embraces the pioneer story and happily participated as a “ma” in our stake’s reenactment three years ago. But she also embraces her grandparents’ conversion to Mormonism in El Salvador int he 1960s as an equally valid pioneer story. That’s entirely anecdotal, but my guess is that her attitude and approach to these issues are fairly common.

    Comment by Christopher — January 25, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

  13. Jessica F.,

    I don’t mean to “pile on,” but I’m genuinely curious how you see the Mormon pioneer migration to Utah as anything other than a “religious” story.

    Comment by Christopher — January 25, 2013 @ 5:00 pm

  14. Christopher, I haven’t read Eric Eliason’s dissertation–I just added it to my pile of things to read now sooner than later. Thanks!

    Comment by Saskia T — January 26, 2013 @ 3:18 am

  15. Saskia, This whole post jogged an awkward memory for me when a senior migration studies scholar visited my grad program to discuss his migration theory in a seminar. I asked him a question along the lines of “How does the term ‘pioneer’ and current day usages of the term in public history fit into current (meaning his) migration theory.” He basically scoffed at my question and dismissed the term altogether, which surprised me given that Mormons are not the only groups who regularly use that term to remember and discuss their histories. I wonder if you have found any objection to usage of the term being used in an academic context?

    Comment by NatalieR — January 28, 2013 @ 6:39 pm

  16. Natalie, I don’t think so. But I haven’t really presented my work on this yet–I’ll be on the lookout when it’s my turn to present in our weekly research seminar.

    Comment by Saskia — January 29, 2013 @ 5:08 am


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