Friday, July 24, 2009

He Said: Reverencing Pioneers: I Don't Relate

I am a convert to the church and don't really have any members of my family that walked across the Plains in 1847 nor in fact associated with it until 1974. The fact is my relatives didn't get off the boat until 1914 at Ellis Island and none of them had anything to do with the LDS Church. I am a first generation Mormon. I am a pioneer by this interesting modern desire to want us all to be pioneers. I don't consider myself a pioneer nor do I consider joining the church as a reason to chronicle my life events.

Even living in Utah and hearing people go on about their Pioneer relatives I just see it as an exercise in self-promotion, as though having a righteous relative makes you righteous. I would just grin and bear it and would feed it by feigning interest. It made a small minority of the ward members happy to think they were from righteous stock.

My heritage is really the antithesis of the Mormon experience. I don't even recognize my Italian Catholic upbringing as being a defining thing nor did my ancestors reverence their Mafia relatives as examples of righteous living. They were glad to get away from one another. Reverencing the early Mormon Pioneers is really a foreign concept to me and my family. We didn't even reverence each other. We hardly talk to one another let alone tell our children much about our family. I don't think that we are that out of the ordinary. I would say we were typical lower working class people.

As the church grows millions of us have nothing in common with the Pioneers since in no way are we related to them nor have we been brought up hearing stories about them unless we work in the Primary. With the correlation of the manuals we only hear a few of the selected stories over and over and not in any detail since most of us don't have a lot in common with pioneers only in the fact they were also members once. The only connection is that they came before us and preserved the church. As I go around the world all of the members can tell stories of how the church developed but none the members in other countries know much other than about the former Church Presidents let alone apostles, seventies, or Utah pioneers.

Even as a member all of adult life I still don't relate with the pioneers. I put up with it in Sunday School but I mostly just tune out the one or two lessons when members go on about how they are the descendant of this polygamous person or general authority.

Even as a history major I never could buy in to the stories of the Pioneers and the Utah experience. I thought they were just telling us the stories so a few people could feel good about their forebears and justify why a small group hold the top spots in leadership positions. It helped me to situate myself in the culture.

I always viewed the stories as a form of instruction and parallel in some way to the Jewish experience of when they were close to God good things happened and when they weren't bad things happened. It was akin to the Jews wandering the the wilderness with all dying off before being allowed in the promised land. The Pioneers died out of hardship. I can't really relate to either group and only in abstract terms understand any similarities to the life we live today.

The only Utah story I could relate to was Orrin Porter Rockwell gunning down the desperadoes on the streets of Salt Lake City. I thought of him as a cold-blooded killer like some of my family members and the westerns I watched as a kid. I had a hard time swallowing the Mountain Meadow Massacre. I felt sorry for Joseph Smith and how he was treated and felt I would have been a better friend than the ones he had in Kirtland and Nauvoo. I know I couldn't have handled Brigham and the life in the Utah territory where men wrestled over polygamous wives and chewed tobacco for teeth problems. I was glad I lived today not then. I did respect Brigham's business acumen but couldn't understand how his kids fought over the estate with the church corporation.

The Pioneer stories were ones that made for revisionist faith-promoting tales where people who would have died meaningless deaths are elevated in to martyrs for the cause who died wending their way to Zion. I don't get goose bumps when I think about the stories of people who did dumb things like walk across the ice and have their toes cut off or were laid in shallow graves and the wolves ate their bodies because they went too late in the year. I see their stories as moral lessons like George Washington cutting down a cherry tree or my father wearing burlap sacks on his feet as shoes during the depression when he went to school in the snow. I wonder every time I heard Pioneer stories why did they go out so late in the year and why would anyone get so choked up about it and try to glamorize something that was well tragic and ill-advised. One consolation was that they didn't eat each other like the Donner party. It served a purpose that thousands of people came to Utah and colonized the west. There were thousands more who came and colonized the West then even us Mormons.

My family conquered the entire world but unfortunately no one glamorizes how they were involved in the conquest of the world. The only story I know is that my family took care of the olive groves for the Mafia. My grandfather was a bag man and collected self-insurance on Saturdays from local businesses.

I don't have any relatives to justify why I am a leader today in the church nor do I ever believe that I will be a leader. My ancestors lived their lives and did nothing extraordinary other than live normal lives. I am not my father nor his father nor his father's father. I am not a gambler, killer, or adulterer. I am not a sinner or a saint. I am just a Joe blow Mormon who joined the church and makes minor contributions. If you want to make me feel good by pretending I am a modern pioneer that is your business but me I don't consider what I did anything but ordinary.

I have to choose to live my life by a certain moral compass. No one that came before really inspires me today. I have always seen history as learning from the lessons or failures of the past. We use pioneer stories as a tool to try to emulate the Saints of the past and get our members to live heroic lives. Unfortunately most of us are just ordinary people. I live in the present not the past. No person is an island but when it comes down to it only living people affect me from general authorities to family. I really can't relate with the Pioneers and see them as being just ordinary people who got in a jam. Once they got to Utah they were no different than any other God-fearing person other than they were members of the Lord's church.

As Latter-day Saints we like to tell stories about why a man or woman rose to be a leader. It is like reading Horatio Alger stories. It is the story of how God had a special mission or they were so righteous or dragged themselves up by their boot straps.

I never met my Grandfather B. I hear all kinds of bad things about him. I am suspect when I hear about past people--people who knew them have filters good and bad. People tend to remember the extremes good or bad. Most of us aren't sinners or saints totally. We are a bunch of people who make decisions based on our experiences some good and some bad. The term pioneer just means one who came before. It renders our lives meaningless when we glamorize and twist events to make them more than they are.

Most of us are just common ordinary people. The majority of Mormons today aren't related to the Pioneers. Our stories are the same oh same oh. We get up, go to work, mow the yard, go to church in a never-ending cycle. Our family ancestors traveled by the same modes of transportation of the Pioneers some died making their way to better opportunities. It is nice they have a monument to them and we can stop off if we want and find out about them.

When my life is over and done with, I doubt people will care one way or the other about my being a modern pioneer. I say if it makes you feel good to think you will be remembered idealistically then fine. The truth is we remember so little about even close relatives like our grandparents as we grow older. The only way we live on is that we had children and they had children. By the time you get to the third generation even those who remember us will know very little about us.


  1. "My heritage is really the antithesis of the Mormon experience."

    Is this really true? You are a convert to the church, for heaven sakes. What is more Mormon than that? Breaking free from a powerful, venerable, mammothly-rooted organizing force like Catholicism in order to join a small, fragile, persecuted, American-born sect is not a small feat. It does not put you outside the mainstream of Mormonism. It puts you into the heart of what all Mormon converts face. This is true whether you adhered to the traditional religion before converting or not. There is something respectable about being Catholic that being Mormon does not yet quite share. Yet.

  2. Gosh,
    I'm a convert to. Actually I converted to LDS and after 30+ years, I converted to fundamentalism. At any rate, I am very grateful for those individuals who risked, and sometimes lost, all to keep the Church alive.
    I admire and revere the faith it takes to build a handcart, take out walking across a wilderness, bury a child or two along the way, etc. If anything, I think we should study the pioneers and their sacrifices more. We owe it to them IMHO.

  3. Very negative post, Dr B and a bit repetitive. My daughter, who is serving a mission at Temple Square, asked my husband and me to write out our conversion stories for her. She says that it helps to bridge to a gospel discussion to be able to say "Oh, you are from Ohio? Ohio is very special to me because that is where my mom first learned about the gospel." So our stories are important. I hope you and BIV have written your conversion stories for your children. I bet they are really interesting!

  4. My family talks about our history. I always loved hearing stories about my parents when they were kids, or when they were dating or before I was born. When we get together we talk about our family. We have a family identity. We are unique. We honor our grandparents for their good qualities.
    My husband does not have this family identity or family history. His family does not gather. His family does not mention the past. His family members do not care about each other.
    As a Mormon I have felt that the pioneer stories were the history for all of us, not just the descendents. I belong to the church so church history is my history. While I'm sure a few people think it elevates them to have certain ancestores, I tend to think that whether we are related or not, I want to hear the stories and remember the sacrifice of those who went before us (similar to honoring the sacrifices of those who have given their lives or fought for our country).
    I wonder about my children. Will they have a sense of family? Will they see their father's example that family isn't important? Will they follow my example that family is important?
    I tell my kids about their own history. When you were a baby......... Perhaps they will be willing to come home to visit me when I'm old. Perhaps I'll they'll want to see their parents and brothers and sisters. Perhaps they will want their kids to know their cousins. Perhaps they will think that belonging to this family really means something.

  5. If you do not know nor care to know the history of something you are involved with, how can you know the truth of it. It works that way with anything. I don't have any ancestors that were involved in the Revolutionary War. But I cherish what those people did and humbly thank them for their involvement with the reward that I am reaping today. If you have no importance for the Pioneers, you need to do some vast soul searching about a few things. They were important then and they will always still be important to the Church. Too bad you don't care about them.

  6. Wonderful post. Thanks for sharing.
    The Church and the membership do seem to strip out the bad from the history. There is also a bit of speaking from both sides of the mouth when it comes to the past too.

    "Look at how we were persecuted by everybody for our beliefs, and do not forget the murder of our Prophet Smith 150 years ago. There shall be atonement."

    "Look, the Mountain Meadows Massacre was a long time ago, why do you people live in the past? Please drop the whole blacks and the mark of Cain thing, too. That is so 30 years ago, thank you very much."

    Oh, and the family history books that are ripe with revisionist righteousness and glory. Give me the full picture, warts and all please! Thank you for acknowledging the less shiny bits of your own family history. It is refreshing.

  7. I'm not surprised at your inability to relate to the early members of the Church. How can you relate to a people in which you share almost nothing in common?

  8. I like the saying that we can all be pioneers, especially converts who are the first people in their family to join. So in that sense, both Dr. B and BiV are pioneers.

    And yes, I'm using the definition of "pioneer" to mean "first" or "among the first or the early ones", not in terms of "crossing the plains" and suffering hardship.

    I was the first person in my family to join too.

    You might be the first LDS in your city (or first in a long time).

    You might be the first LDS in your neighborhood, or street.

    You _are_ the first (and maybe only) LDS that many many people will ever meet.

    Dr. B was likely the first LDS librarian to work in Saudi Arabia. BiV was the fist LDS woman to have contact with those girls in that sports program over there.

    I was the 3rd LDS missionary to serve in a new area in Ecuador.

    We can all find our adventures in being the first or an early participant in something related to the gospel.

  9. I did like the point about not undermining the prosaics