Why Pioneers?

This post is a little different from most of my posts, so I hope you’ll indulge me with this. The following is a talk I gave in my local congregation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints on July 21, 2013.

Why Pioneers?

I’ve experienced that no matter where you are in the church during July, there is going to be talk of pioneers. There will be speakers and lessons and maybe even parties with pioneers being the theme. Some may be frustrated with this and ask why. Some people ask this question thinking to themselves that they aren’t from Utah so they don’t need to study the pioneers who settled there. Others think that their challenges are so different from ours today. And still others are converts and have no idea what’s being talked about or how it concerns them. So, why, no matter where you are in the church in July, are you going to be inundated with pioneer stories? There are many reasons, and it isn’t because Utahans are secretly trying to make Pioneer Day a recognized holiday all over the world. In this talk I will try to answer why we study the Mormon Pioneers who traveled from far and wide to gather in the tops of the mountains. I hope and pray that the Spirit may be with all of us and that, as Malachi prophesied, our hearts may be turned to our fathers. In the Old Testament, the Children of Israel were constantly reminded about their ancestors and those who went before. They even had feasts established to commemorate the great mercies of the Lord such as the Passover. Over and over again, we read in the Old Testament the need to remember the promises made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. For them, these were their pioneers. Those great men and their families were the pioneers of the Old Testament as were the Israelites who fled from Egypt and wandered in the wilderness for 40 years. The Children of Israel had grown up on their stories and were probably tired of hearing them, but they were reminded over and over again. Why? To help them remember the covenants God made with them and that he fulfilled his promises. To help them remember by what power they were freed from bondage, taken care of in the wilderness, and received their land of inheritance. This pattern is also followed in The Book of Mormon. Whom might we say are the pioneers of this scripture? Lehi and his family. As Alma was preaching to the people of Ammonihah about 500 years after Lehi he said:

Do ye not remember that our father, Lehi, was brought out of Jerusalem by the hand of God? Do ye not remember that they were all led by him through the wilderness?

And have ye forgotten so soon how many times he delivered our fathers out of the hands of their enemies, and preserved them from being destroyed, even by the hands of their own brethren?

Yea, and if it had not been for his matchless power, and his mercy, and his long-suffering towards us, we should unavoidably have been cut off from the face of the earth long before this period of time, and perhaps been consigned to a state of endless misery and woe. (Alma 9: 9-11)

Later in The Book of Mormon in Helaman we read similar thoughts from Helaman to his sons as he explained that he named them Lehi and Nephi so they could remember their first parents and remember their good works so that they would also do good works. Helaman then reminded his sons of others who went before, whom we might call pioneers, such as King Benjamin, Alma and Amulek. He then summed up one lesson that we can learn as we read the full accounts of these great prophets and those who followed their teachings:

And now, my sons, remember, remember that it is upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall. (Helaman 5:12)

This is why we study the pioneers. Just as Helaman taught about those who went before in The Book of Mormon, the pioneers of our time who crossed the plains, who left their homes and followed prophets from place to place to place built their foundation upon the rock of our Redeemer. They suffered because of their faith, but they persevered. They were tried over and over again but were constantly saved by the mercy of the Lord. Yes, many suffered unimaginable things and many lost their lives, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have done it. We can say of them what was said of the people of Ammon who repented and turned unto the Lord and then as a means of covenant they buried their weapons of war even though their brethren were coming to battle against them. In Alma 24 we read:

And now, my brethren, if our brethren seek to destroy us, behold, we will hide away our swords, yea, even we will bury them deep in the earth, that they may be kept bright, as a testimony that we have never used them, at the last day; and if our brethren destroy us, behold, we shall go to our God and shall be saved. (Alma 24: 16)

And then after the battle we read:

And it came to pass that the people of God were joined that day by more than the number who had been slain; and those who had been slain were righteous people, therefore we have no reason to doubt but what they were saved.

And there was not a wicked man slain among them; but there were more than a thousand brought to the knowledge of the truth; thus we see that the Lord worketh in many ways to the salvation of his people. (Alma 24: 26-27)

Some may have lost their lives on the journeys to build Zion, but they will receive exaltation in the eternities for their faith and service. They built their testimonies on the Savior Jesus Christ and did not fall when the storms beat down upon them. As they sang on the trail:

And should we die before our journey’s through, happy day! All is well! (Come, Come, Ye Saints hymn #30)

When we study the lives of the pioneers we remember these tender mercies. That the heavens have reopened and miracles happen in our day. This is why we study the pioneers. A couple of months ago when I read the passage of scripture from Alma chapter 9 that I read to you a moment ago, I gained a deeper understanding of the importance of our pioneer heritage realizing it could be directly applied to the early latter-day saints or pioneers. It could say:

Do you not remember that our fathers, Joseph and Brigham, were brought out of New York and Pennsylvania and Missouri and Illinois by the hand of God? Do you not remember that they were all led by the Lord through the wilderness from Harmony to Kirtland to Independence to Nauvoo and finally on to the Great Basin?

And have you forgotten so soon how many times he delivered our fathers out of the hands of their enemies, and preserved them from being destroyed like in Liberty Jail or Haun’s Mill, even by the hands of their own brethren – William Phelps in Missouri, Sidney Rigdon after Joseph’s death and others?

Yea, and if it had not been for the Lord’s matchless power, and his mercy, and his long-suffering towards us, we should unavoidably have been cut off from the face of the earth long before this period of time, and perhaps been consigned to a state of endless misery and woe.

This is why we study the pioneers, so we don’t forget the Lord’s matchless power and his mercy and long-suffering towards us. Now that we understand a little better why we study the pioneers, I’d like to share with you a few examples of how my understanding of a gospel principle has been strengthened by studying the lives and examples of pioneers. This principle is taught in the scripture you can find on the front of your sacrament meeting program, Mosiah 3:19.

For the natural man is an enemy to God, and has been from the fall of Adam, and will be, forever and ever, unless he yields to the enticings of the Holy Spirit, and putteth off the natural man and becometh a saint through the atonement of Christ the Lord, and becometh as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)

I’ve pondered the scripture many times; it is from one of my favorite chapters of scripture. This particular verse has helped me understand so many things over the past couple of years and brought so much peace to my soul. I feel like this is one of the biggest lessons we can learn from pioneers. Most pioneers in the saga of the restored gospel wouldn’t have been pioneers if they gave into the tendencies of the natural man. They would not have led the way nor would they be such profound examples for us to follow if they would have just done what was easy and what the natural man demanded. My great great great grandfather John Watkins lived in England when he heard about the restored gospel and joined with the saints through baptism. He was a builder with a successful business.  He said:

I became convinced of every principle except the gathering which, I could not see, had anything to do with religion… I was getting good wages, and my native land being very dear to me, it was a hard thing for me to ever think of leaving … I thought that I could serve God in one country as well as another … after being baptized and while being confirmed, the elder prophesied on my head in the name of Jesus Christ, that I should want to gather with the Saints as bad as anybody ever did. I … determined in my own mind not to go… but lo and behold, the spirit of gathering as foretold by Isaiah hundreds of years ago, rested upon me so strong that I prayed to the lord fervently to open up the way for me to go under any conditions for I was willing to pay through anything to gather with the church.

John ended up making the journey across the sea leaving his friends, comfort, security, employment and home. When he reached Iowa, his family joined the fateful Martin Handcart Company. As they waited to leave in Iowa John had a vision of the events to come seeing that about half of the 600 people in the company would die on the journey. After reading the account of his trying expedition, you would wonder if it was worth it. Why would anyone keep going with all that happened and the potential for so much loss? He later said:

I have never for one single moment regretted what I have passed through of or the cause for which I came.

John could have stayed in England where he had a thriving business, friends and a home, but he decided to follow the prophet and gather. He could have waited in Iowa for the next season or decided he had made it far enough, especially after his vision of so much death, but he was determined to fulfill the will of the Lord. He put off the natural man with understanding of the bigger picture – the plan of salvation – and was willing to submit to whatever the Lord saw fit to inflict upon him. Christian Fredrick Nielsen Twede, another great great great grandfather was converted in his native land of Denmark. When he found the restored gospel he was engaged to be married. However, when he informed her of his baptism, she broke it off and her parents disowned him. He too would eventually make the journey across the ocean and then the continent to Utah. The natural man probably would have said “but I love her!” “I’ll just forget the church and we can still get married” “There are other churches.” The natural tendency and way of the world is to give up your faith and God to please others because of love, happiness right now, what is acceptable, for security and comfort. Instead he chose to please the Lord understanding the eternal plan God had set out and that it is better to find everlasting peace and joy. Another more recent example is Kim Ho Jik from Korea. While studying for his doctorate at Cornell he was introduced to the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. He felt the truth of it immediately and was soon baptized. After his studies he returned to his native Korea, the only member of the church in the country. He was not ashamed of the truth and boldly shared the gospel with all he encountered as he grew in influence and prominence by helping the country overcome malnutrition and recover from the devastating effects of war. The natural man may still believe, but would not have shared those beliefs for fear of being cast out, made fun of and even counted as fool or traitor of his culture and country. However, Kim was more than faithful to his testimony of the restored truth. Not only did he share the message of the restored gospel, but he also made it possible for missionaries to begin working in Korea, and he led the way for millions to receive and make covenants in a temple later built in Korea. Another modern pioneer whose faith led to great things in the work of the Lord is that of James Wilde and his wife Patricia. In the 1980s they were tracing Hungary’s lines of nobility for the church’s genealogy department. During this same period, President Benson asked members to pray for the restored gospel of Jesus Christ to be able to spread through those countries blocked off by the Iron Curtain – for the way to be opened for the work to go forth. The Wildes heeded this counsel from the prophet and also began preparing themselves for the work when the time came. They decided to start learning Hungarian, so when the time came they might be able to help in whatever way they could. In 1991 when the Hungary Budapest Mission was organized, James Wilde was called as president of the mission. I saw the effects first hand of the Wilde’s pioneer spirit when I served a mission there 13 year later. I met the people who have gained a testimony of the restored gospel and church and sacrificed much as pioneers in that great land. In this month’s First Presidency Message, President Monson wrote:

The passage of time dims our memories and diminishes our appreciation for those who walked the path of pain, leaving behind a tear-marked trail of nameless graves. But what of today’s challenges? Are there no rocky roads to travel, no rugged mountains to climb, no chasms to cross, no trails to blaze, no rivers to ford? Or is there a very present need for that pioneer spirit to guide us away from the dangers that threaten to engulf us and to lead us to a Zion of safety? (July 2013; Ensign; The World Needs Pioneers)

Some of today’s rocky roads, chasms, rugged mountains and rivers may include keeping ourselves chaste by whatever means even though media of all forms derides this virtue and says it is okay to look at porn and have sex before getting married. These challenges may also include overcoming doubts about individual episodes in the church’s history or accepting specific church policies that the world would deride as old-fashioned and bigoted. And still these challenges could include among countless other things dealing with loss of a loved one; having to combat addictions to drugs, alcohol, video games, or something else; or even simply learning to truly forgive and love those who may have hurt us in some way. President Monson continued his message:

Some find it difficult to withstand the mockings and unsavory remarks of foolish ones who ridicule chastity, honesty, and obedience to God’s commands. But the world has ever belittled adherence to principle. When Noah was instructed to build an ark, the foolish populace looked at the cloudless sky and then scoffed and jeered—until the rain came.

Must we learn such costly lessons over and over again? Times change, but truth persists. When we fail to profit from the experiences of the past, we are doomed to repeat them with all their heartache, suffering, and anguish. Haven’t we the wisdom to obey Him who knows the beginning from the end—our Lord, who designed the plan of salvation—rather than that serpent, who despised its beauty?

… Can we somehow muster the courage and steadfastness of purpose that characterized the pioneers of a former generation? Can you and I, in actual fact, be pioneers? (July 2013; Ensign; The World Needs Pioneers)

Brothers and sisters, yes, we can, in actual fact, be pioneers today! Let us learn from those who have gone before. We all have different trials in this life, let us all “muster the courage and steadfastness of purpose that characterized the pioneers of a former generation” to help us overcome those trials without getting lost in the short-lived and often shifting ways of the world. Let us build our foundations upon the rock of our Redeemer, even Jesus Christ. When we come to those points in our lives where we have to decide between the views and ways of the world or the views and ways of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, let us remember who it was that led our fathers out of persecution, out of the mobs and to a place where the Stakes of Zion could flourish and then spread across the globe. In the name of Jesus Christ, amen. To learn more about why I’m a Mormon or to learn more about the beliefs of the LDS Church, click the link on the sidebar.

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