The Convert Files: I Never Understood The Pioneers

Winter Quarters Cemetery
I've always struggled with how much time we focus on our pioneer ancestors. I had no connection to them. But Nebraska changed everything.

Okay, I’m going to be open and honest here. I’ve always struggled with how much time we focus on our pioneer ancestors.

I’ll put my shield up now to try to block the arrows that are no doubt being readied for me.

I’d tend to zone out a when people would speak of their ancestors who crossed the plains with handcarts, many facing what seemed like insurmountable odds. (Though number wise, more people crossed in wagons than handcarts.) I’d silently cringe inside when’d sing “They the Builders of the Nation.” I would think, it’s admirable what these men and women did, but what does this have to do with Jesus Christ? Why aren’t we singing songs about him? After all, this is HIS church.

I’ve never lived in Utah, so when I would hear friends speak of Pioneer Day, it didn’t mean anything to me. The only thing I did know was that pioneer children, walked, and walked and walked.

But my ancestors didn’t cross the plains with handcarts. I do have a few members of the church in my ancestry who joined the church in England then migrated to the Wyoming. But none came west with the majority of saints. I have no claim to any pioneer companies or pioneer heritage.

There have been many that pointed out that I’m a pioneer in my own right as a convert. I get that argument, but I still felt a connection missing. And honestly I felt horrible about it, because the pioneers are an important part of the Latter-day Saint story.

This has been my experience for most of my life in the church. But that all changed when my family hijacked our friend’s vacation, joining them in an epic cross-country church history road trip.

We started in New York and made our way west, following the migration of the Saints. What I discovered has changed my view forever.

The First Several States

I don’t think you can fully appreciate the magnitude of the Saints migration until you actually follow the same pathway. Or at least as close to it as you can get. Our family flew to upstate New York where we rented a van and began our adventure. The first thing that struck me was the distance between the Smith Family Farm and the Whitmer Farm. In a car it took us about 35-40 minutes to travel the 30 miles. As we pondered the mode of travel at the time, we began to see the effort Joseph and the early saints went through in traveling between places. Couple that with multiple trips back and forth to Harmony Pennsylvania which is about 4 and a half hours from Palmyra, you began to see something very clearly.

Joseph and the early saints must have believed with their whole soul that the Book of Mormon was worth the sacrifices. Otherwise, why would they go to such effort and expense?

Leaving New York and traveling through several states to get to Kirtland Ohio gave us even more perspective. Here the saints were commanded not to just visit, but  possibly uproot their lives and move there. What would they find in Ohio? What opportunity awaited them? Certainly not everyone understood the “why” behind the move westward, but many Saints followed because they had faith that they were being led by a prophet of God.

Pushing further on what could be a 12 hour car ride, crossing over two massive rivers, the Mississippi and the Missouri, the saints trudged further westward to the edge of the country. The road to Missouri and life there would prove to be a testing ground for the Saints. I can only imagine how they felt, as they finally arrived in Zion, believing you have finally made it to where God wants you to be, only to find a backwater frontier town. Then to top it off, they were ultimately driven northward into the unknown.

Illinois Broke Me Down

I didn’t know what to expect in Illinois, but I what I found was one of the two most impactful of all the sites we visited. Not only could we see first hand this beautiful city that the Saints had built, and subsequently had to flee, but we could see the long road before them. Standing near the mighty Mississippi, I could imagine what those Saints might be feeling as they prepared to cross a frozen river, heading west into the unknown again.

But it wasn’t just the city that made me ponder on the Saints and their faithfulness. Sitting in the upper room in Carthage Jail, I completely lost it. I sobbed uncontrollably into by daughter’s shirt, whom was sitting on my lap. (Yes, I tend to cry easily at things like this.)

As the sister missionaries recounted the events of the Joseph Smith’s martyrdom, I couldn’t hold back the tears. In that very room, two men, who had given so much for the kingdom of God, had finally given everything they had. These men, pioneers in their own right, epitomized what it meant to consecrate their lives to the Lord.

Nebraska Changed Everything

As we moved on to Nebraska, I wasn’t sure that much would top that experience in Carthage, but I was wrong. We were lucky enough that the President of the Winter Quarters visitor center gave us a tour. This was a treat in and of itself, but he also took extra time to walk us over to the Pioneer Cemetery and talk to us about those buried there.

This was another solemn moment for me, as I realized the thousands of saints who had perished just waiting for a chance to head westward to a new home and hopefully safety. A bronze statue stands as a memory of all those who died, some very, very young, and others very late in life.

Of the few headstones left with an inscription, this one stands as a tribute to the faithfulness of the saints to give all.

As I listened to the stories of the saints in Winter Quarters, I realized something. My view on the pioneers was changing. Though I could never experience what they had been through, I could begin to feel the spirit of those brave saints who gave all to follow the Prophet. Some of them would never live to see a place that they could finally rest. As I now ponder and reflect on the journey from unknown to unknown, relying solely on their faith, I have a renewed respect for those brave forbearers of our church. Their diligence and willingness to sacrifice to see the Kingdom of God established is something to be admired. It’s something I strive to emulate. That’s not to say they were perfect, but they gave us examples of what it means to consecrate everything, including your lives, to the Lord.

While I don’t have a physical connection to the pioneers, I think my spiritual connection to them has grown in leaps and bounds. That same journey across the country, even though I was in the cushiness of a mini-van, gave me perspective. Perspective tends to change things. It helped me to better understand the magnificent heritage of our faith. It helped me appreciate the great examples of consecration. If you ever get a chance, I would encourage you to visit Winter Quarters. Maybe for someone else who has thoughts like me, it will give you additional perspective.

Beyond everything, I will never forget that Nebraska changed me.

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