A little less than a month ago, I visited the Huffington Post to browse for any recent coverage of the Church. I found an article from July 23, 2010 by Holly Welker about the Mormon (and particularly Utah) tradition of celebrating Pioneer Day. That’s the commemoration of July 24, 1847 when the first Mormon pioneers reached the Salt Lake Valley. Her comments sparked some reflections that have stuck with me for a few weeks. I’d like to share those here.
First of all, let me preface that I’m not a partisan when it comes to politics. In my writing as a columnist for the Examiner and on my blogs, I have come under attack equally from the religious Right and the secular Left. A latter-day saint who truly lives his religion will find himself ill-at-ease in the camps of modern political partisans. Corruption is so rampant and widespread that a healthy distance should be maintained with the Democrat and Republican parties. I have been personally and viciously attacked by conservatives on Free Republic and, though my name has not graced the pages of the Huffington Post, it’s readers have excoriated me on the Examiner and my blogs. Being a pariah on both sides of the aisle makes me officially “neutral” in the political world.
There are LDS folks on both sides of the aisle politically. I am pleased to count all of them friends and I express my admiration for those who live their religion under the inevitable pressures from their political comrades who don’t share our faith. I am occasionally disappointed by those who abandon the practice of our religion because of pressures to conform to the values of others. A Mormon who lives his beliefs will attract interest and some of that interest will be negative. It will appear in the form of sarcastic remarks, ridicule, exclusion, and outright persecution. Such behaviors are to be found equally from our detractors, whether they be secular progressives or conservative Christians.
Unfortunately, there are those Mormons who will surrender their faith for the praise of the world and acceptance among those who set the trends in popular culture. Ms. Welker, sadly, appears to be one of those.
On July 24th, Mormons celebrate “Pioneer Day.” It is the day that our founders entered the Salt Lake Valley, after having been driven out and persecuted by their neighbors in the more civilized areas of 19th century America. Their story is one of miracles. It includes the accounts about flocks of quail descending from the skies into the camps of poor, starving Mormon refugees and of seagulls that appeared out of nowhere to devour the crickets that were about to consume the first harvest that would ensure the saints’ survival in the Valley. Pioneer Day remembers those hearty souls who pulled handcarts across the plains, many of them dying in the attempt to find a place where they could worship God unmolested.
We honor the sacrifices of those Mormon pioneers. We remember how much they suffered and how much they gave up to achieve a dream. The individual and collective sacrifices made are something sacred. Yet in our comfortable surroundings, there are those among us who set aside those sacrifices casually, simply for the purpose of finding acceptance among their non-Mormon associates.
Ms. Welker wrote:
“As far as I’m concerned, my activity in the Mormon church is irrelevant to my identity as a Mormon. Mormons call themselves saints; I suppose these days I’m a secular saint rather than a devout one. But that indelible mark made on the collective Mormon psyche by the trek across the plains? It’s as vivid and deep on my psyche as on anyone’s. What it marks is not my relationship to orthodoxy but to sacrifice, landscape, the unknown, and change.
“I am proud of and humbled by the actions of my ancestors. They abandoned the familiar and strode bravely into the unknown, confident that doing so would enable a better future. They gave up possessions, relationships that no longer nurtured them, ideologies they had outgrown. They did the hardest thing they could, both because they could and because they had no other choice.
How sad! Ms. Welker has missed the point if she thinks the Mormon pioneers had no other choice. There was always another option–the one Ms. Welker chose: abandonment of faith for convenience and acceptance by the unbelievers.
In the period from 1844, the year the Prophet Joseph Smith was brutally murdered by a mob of 200 men, to the evacuation of Nauvoo, Illinois in 1846, the saints faced two choices. On one side, the intolerant bigots of western Illinois, incited by sectarian clergymen, demanded that Mormons leave their state, leaving lands, homes, farms, and a glorious temple they had constructed. The mobs burned homes and farms, killed livestock, and harassed the Mormons. There would never be peace so long as the Mormons remained Mormons among these foes.
On the other side, the United States government believed ridiculous accusations that the Mormons, driven from the United States by the mobs, would form an alliance with the Indians and wage war on the western frontier of the nation. The government ordered the U.S. Army to march to Nauvoo to prevent the Mormons from evacuating their city. One side refused to let us stay, another refused to let us go. The only option that would have satisfied the two sides was for the Mormons to abandon their religion and forsake their God. If we had just stopped living Mormonism and proclaiming it to the world, the world would have been happy to grant us acceptance.
There have always been latter-day saints who prize the “goodies” the world offers instead of the rich spiritual blessings that come from faithful gospel living. They want money, prestige, degrees, and career success. They want the praise of the people the world considers important: politicians, academics, the wealthy, the connected, the elite. These unfortunate Mormons-in-name-only are willing to let go of any distinctive beliefs that might possibly offend somebody. They step back from the Lord’s declaration to Joseph Smith in the First Vision, that all the other religious sects are wrong, that their creeds are abominations, and that the professors of those creeds are all corrupt. Is that offensive? Yes. It is a declaration of spiritual “war” on priestcraft and man-made religion. Rather than face the onslaught of hostility that results from standing with the very words of Christ to his Prophet Joseph, these saints equivocate and seek to apologize for them. Do we think the Lord cares if he ruffles the feathers of those who preach false religion? My studies of the life of Jesus don’t show me any sign that this would be the case.
The “secular” Mormons seek the praise of the world by being tolerant of things the Lord has clearly forbidden, such as homosexuality and sexual promiscuity. They are lukewarm on keeping establishments of vice, bars, liquor stores, lotteries, gambling, and adult entertainment businesses our of our communities. They praise the secular values of “diversity” while embracing a culture that says we may look differently, but we must all think the same thing. Unlike the Mormon pioneers, when confronted with opposition to their faith, they would rather acquiesce to those who oppose us rather than stand firm in their beliefs that revealed religion is from God and cannot be surrendered without forfeiting his approbation.
Pioneer Day celebrates the unvanquished spirit, faith, and endurance of those who went beyond and gave all. It is a demonstration that victory is assured if we simply refuse to give in or to give up. It is an expression of wonder and admiration for those who refused to compromise their principles. Pioneer celebrates the glorious and successful transformation from victims to victors.
Ms. Welker also wrote of her fundamental ignorance of the principle of faith:
“I cannot count the number of people who have said to me,”I have profound doubts about the church — its politics, its doctrines, its social structures. I don’t always feel at home. But I’ll never stop attending or voice certain doubts in public because that would render the sacrifices of my ancestors null and void.”
Paradoxically, doubts are a part of the faith experience, because we are mortals who can’t, don’t, and probably won’t see the end result of our choices and actions clearly. The prophet Alma said in the Book of Mormon, “…if a man knoweth a thing he hath no cause to believe, for he knoweth it.” (Alma 32:18) Alma goes on to explain that, “faith is not to have a perfect knowledge of things; therefore if ye have faith ye hope for things which are not seen, which are true.” (Alma 32:21)
We move forward with confidence in a set of principles and we have faith that the outcome will be good and worthy. When the pioneers set out for the west, they didn’t know where they’d end up. Some thought they would go to California. Others thought Oregon Territory was their likely destination. Even Brigham Young was not one hundred percent certain. Some two months out on the trail to the Salt Lake Valley, he received inspiration that clearly told him where they were going–but they were already on the trail. They had expressed faith in God by going, not knowing fully where they’d end up. Did they have doubts? I’m sure they did every time they had a wagon get stuck in a rut, or when an ox died, or when they had to pull the handcarts up a steep hill or a long incline. The key is that they never quit.
When Ms. Welker’s friends express these “doubts,” but say that they’ll never stop attending the Church, they are expressing faith–not doubt. They are moving forward, trusting that the end result will be positive. That is the faith of the Pioneers. It’s something that Holly Welker doesn’t seem to understand, because she allows her doubts to prevail. While she has chosen to sit down on the side of the trail, the rest of us modern pioneers are soldiering on, with a vision of a promised land that is just beyond the horizon. Hopefully she’ll figure that out and come along. We’ll get there if we keep the faith. That’s what Pioneer Day is all about.
To learn more about the Mormon pioneers, please visit The Pioneer Story.