Thursday, July 23, 2009

She Said: Should Mormons in the Diaspora Celebrate Pioneer Day?

It has only been in recent years that I have slowly become aware that not every convert to the Church shares my deep identification with the Mormon pioneers. I have loved the epic story of the trek to the Salt Lake Valley. I appreciate its archetypal connotations. My heart thrills with the stories of the pioneer heroes and heroines, and I consider each of their stories part of my legacy as a Mormon, though my LDS heritage begins with myself.

In the last few years there has been some grumbling by members who don't have Mormon pioneers in their genealogy that it annoys them to celebrate the July 24th holiday, a commemoration of the day the first company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. I think partly to appease these voices, there has been an emphasis on "modern-day pioneers"--those who lead the way for others to follow and who blaze trails in other ways than traditionally recognized. There's a new Primary song, "I Can Be a Modern-Day Pioneer," there are more talks given by General Authorities on the subject, and there are articles such as the latest Mormon Times article "Pioneer Journeys of a Different Era."
There is a sudden dearth of Pioneer Day activities in wards outside of Utah, and in our ward last Sunday the only talk which mentioned pioneers emphasized modern-day contributions rather than those who crossed the plains.

I just want to register a caution to those who wish to move away from the traditional veneration of these honorable forebears. I want to remember their devotion to a faith that meant more to them than life itself. Social scientists often point to the Jewish culture and theorize that the reason it survived through so many years and the scattering of the people to so many different places was the very persecution which caused them to band together in small groups, and their longing remembrance of their homeland.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Psalm 137)

This Psalm is a poignant lyrical device for recalling the story of Israel's exodus from Egypt and its arrival in the promised land. It acts as an earnest reminder both to the exiled Israelites and to later biblical readers of the importance of the promised land for the celebration of the Jewish faith.

Now that we Latter-day Saints experience little real persecution, and the importance of our history and sacred places is beginning to wane, are we in danger of losing some valuable aspect of our culture? Are we losing our Psalms, our legends, our traditional customs and stories?

I'd like to hear what our readers think. Do you feel a connection to the Mormon pioneers? Or do you think the holiday is unnecessary, especially to LDS of other cultures living in many different countries of the world? Should we attempt to graft new converts in to the Utah Mormon pioneer heritage, or should we transfer our loyalties to "modern-day pioneers?"


  1. I do feel a connection. My great grandfather was one and I would be very ashamed of any thought of 'doing away with' the 24th of July. But I, too, have noticed a dimishing of that day and it makes me extremely angry. I don't care if others do not like it. They do not need to ruin it for the rest of us who do cradle that day in our hearts. Those people cannot and should not be forgotten for what they did. But eventually, they probably will be. I haven't seen a ward representation of that day in years and last Sunday was the first time that not one song was sung in remebrance of them. How sad and so totally unnecessary for this to happen. They deserve more respect than that.

  2. BiV: Name another holiday where ancestry is at issue. No one would say they are reluctant to celebrate Independence Day because they don't have a signer of the Declaration of Independence on their Family Group Sheet. Likewise, it would be a small soul indeed who would begrudge Martin Luther King his day in the sun, all because they are not black or biologically related to King. Holidays provide a time for us to stop and ponder the lives of great people, people whose tough choices helped created the institutions and liberties we prize today. We honor the pioneers not because they are our relations, but because their deeds cut the ideological and institutional ruts we walk in today. Think about it for a moment. Without Utah, where would the church be today? Isn't the miracle of building a kingdom in the desert worth celebrating?

  3. We Mormons have probably overemphazied the idea of "crossing the plains." If we don't have an ancestor who walked all that way, we can all too easily fall into the trap of saying the event need not concern us. But is it really an event like pulling handcarts we are celebrating? Isn't it rather an idea? The idea of sacrificing all for the kingdom of God, leaving behind all--reputation, family, friendships--and being willing to suffer the shame of them all seems to me to be an idea that unifies the 19th c pioneer experience with the 20th c church. Mormons may be more integrated into modern society than they once were, but they are no less despised in some parts. That makes the choice to become a Mormon a pioneering experience worthy of celebration.

  4. I am not so sure crossing the plains makes one a "heroe" and "heroine," as you put it. They were just trying to survive, putting one foot in front of the other, just as we would do were we walking in their shoes. Heroism requires great moral courage, the capacity to chose the right despite all odds. I'm not sure the pioneers were doing that. They may have done it when they decided to convert to Mormonism or leave for Zion. The trek itself was more instinctual.

  5. Lucy takes understandable pride in celebrating Pioneer Day. Her ancester was a pioneer, and that makes the day more meaningful to her. But it is explanations like run the holiday into the ground for those who do not have such ancestry. We should develop a way of talking about Pioneer Day that draws lessons that are common to all. The lessons may derive from a personal connection like our own ancestry, but the lessons cannot be reduced to our own ancestry, as Lucy's explanation is. Something universal should emerge out of the particular.

  6. Is the holiday "unnecessary"? Are you serious? What, you mean drop the only Mormon holiday on the calendar when Jews and Catholics have scads of them? Why would we want to cut off any resason to remember our religion?

    That is the key, isn't it--we remember our religion through Pioneer Day, not our ancestors.

  7. I joined the church at age 18 and my husband at age 23 (in 1973). He was surprised, when he started doing genealogy to find he had pioneer ancestors. The story was that his ancestor, after crossing the plains, was sent to San Bernardino and was asked by Brother Brigham to take a second wife. He refused and it was downhill from there. So there you go - a convert, still the only member in his family, with pioneer ancestors!

    I like the way Anon and Lolita put it. I think it is good to remember the early history of the church and the contributions and sacrifices of the Pioneers. I think the updating of the definition of "pioneer" is a little silly - kind of like the watering down of the term "hero". And I love digging up stories of my own, non-Mormon ancestors. It's just fun to know who they were, where they came from, what they did in life. I am descended from Rebecca Nurse; I love that! I have ancestors that were farmers, seafaring men, political refugees from Ireland... all sorts of ordinary/exceptional people who were each fascinating in their own way.

  8. BiV: Do you guys ever comment on other peoples' comments? What is the point of us commenting unless you engage in a discussion with us?

  9. Buddy, yes. Here goes:

    I appreciated the comments you all made on this thread. Lucy, I'm not really angry, I understand that not all members will have the deep feelings I do for the pioneers, but I think there are many reasons we should keep them as a vital part of our history, even if it is true that some of their stories are morphing into legend. As anonymous says, building a kingdom in the desert was an amazing accomplishment. It fits into the prophetic aegis of the Old Testament.

    Woodruff, not everyone knows they are fulfilling prophecy while they are doing it. Jack, I agree that applying the pioneer legends and making them universal to all LDS is important. But in my ward, the one speaker who spoke on the pioneers kept saying that she disliked their stories, and focused on modern-day pioneers. I regretted the tone this brought to the meeting, and hope it will not become general throughout the Church.

  10. BiV: What accounts for your deep feelings for the pioneers? You are a convert, which is often the crowd for whom pioneer stories are a non-starter. Are your feelings related to your feminism? After all, crossing the plains is one of the places where women's contributions are most notable and visable.

  11. Bored: Why is the fulfillment of prophecy the grounds for veneration? The apostles often say the wickedness we see around us fulfills Paul's ancient prophecy about the last days. But wickedness is no cause for veneration.