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Mormon Pioneers

September 18, 2009

In response to the Mormon Matters post on being a pioneer that Jeff Spector wrote, I had a few thoughts that I began to elaborate there, but which I felt I had to be more tactful in the discussion, given the audience.

The basic concept is that Mormonism loves the history of pioneers. As you all should know, Mormonism didn’t have such a great time in its early history in its early settlements. Its leaders and members were tarred and feathered, forced to leave communities, and they even had an extermination order set out against them. Yep, the 1800 were pretty harsh.

But that doesn’t match the hardship that the Saints faced in escaping such trials. When it was a bit too late in a year to travel, the Saints began the trek for new lands westward. They took their trail — in the winter, only with handcarts — from Nauvoo, Illinois, to the as-of-yet unestablished Salt Lake City, Utah.

The lesson that many people get from this is that these Latter-day Saints had such courage, such faith to pursue such an endeavor. Many died. And of course, they were leaving all they had once known for the desert.

So, we traditionally revere the pioneers because of their plight, and because most of us couldn’t see ourselves doing the same thing.

The pioneer motif has of course become more than just this historic movement. Rather, as Jeff pointed out, pioneers can be any convert to the church, because they too must leave the majority of what they have once known for the church. In the process, they may alienate themselves from family and friends. I guess today we don’t have tarring and featherings, but some people still harbor great vitriol against the church.

So, what is there to dislike about this narrative? What did I have to withhold under the demands of tact?

Well…there are certain lines of argument that some members like to use with relation to the pioneers.

Let’s start with something inocuous. Some people say, “Wow, I don’t know if I could’ve done what the pioneers did had I lived in that time.” Ignoring the fact that we don’t know what major changes would have happened to all of us if we grew up in that environment (would leaving everything be as tough in the nineteenth century than it is now? Would traveling by handcart be so tough in an environment where everyone isn’t used to plane and car?), this statement isn’t too harmful.

But the statement that sometimes comes after is.

“If the pioneers could have such exceeding faith to do this, then I owe it to them to stick to the church through my comparatively less extreme problems.”

There seems to be a “guilt trip from the past” that people want to use to keep people in the church. How dare you go against generations of family and tradition?! You are breaking xx generations! Your great-great-great-whomever died to give you the privilege of the Gospel!

I realized that this is not what the pioneers did at all. No, the pioneers did not travel hundreds of miles so that their children would be guilted into staying into the church even though it wasn’t a net positive in their lives. Imagine if the historic pioneers had believed this? Imagine if they had said, “Well, I like this Mormon idea…but my ancestors from way way back fought and died to be Catholic.” or whatever. And yet, most members wouldn’t say they should have stayed in their old churches out of deference to their familial pioneers.

Rather, what the pioneers did was they SEARCHED for what they believed in, and upon finding it, they SOUGHT it. They sought it at great cost, because it was important to them.

So, I think that the more respectful approach to the pioneers would be not to try to “borrow” their faith, but rather to do what they did. Search for what you believe in — and it could be different than the rules and regs of the church — and upon finding it, seek it. In that way — and many people who think that apostasy or atheism are “easier” won’t like this — leaving the church of one’s upbringing is the cultivation of the pioneer spirit. And those there are little to no violent reactions in our more civilized societies, we should be able to recognize that this kind of pioneering leads to trial that an individual works through because they want to be true to themselves and their beliefs.


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  1. I share your view! That we can take courage from their example and search for our own path. That thinking actually helped me begin to “out myself” to myself, and to my family/friends…

    I also agree with your point that it’s unhealthy to give ourselves a “guilt trip from the past,” especially when we tend to see things through such rose-colored, 21st century glasses…

  2. Simplysarah:

    Thanks for the comment and the link. I felt one of the commenters on your article was pretty harsh over there, but I guess this is a painful part of reality — as you also pointed out.

    But what I would hope — and perhaps it’s a naive hope — is that pursuing one’s personal integrity should ultimately bring the greatest joy. It seems terrible that there can be a tradeoff between happiness and integrity, but of course, that could be how things simply are.

  3. Thanks for visiting and for your comments!

    My personal experience supports your opinion – that pursuing personal integrity brings the greatest joy. As I’ve transitioned out of the church this year, there have been plenty of moments of discomfort and pain – but my inner sense of happiness has steadily, noticeably increased.

    [An interesting contrast with my life in the church, during which time I effectively minimized the pain and discomfort of everyday life (whether by avoidance or denial or reasoning), but felt increasingly dead and unhappy on the inside…]

  4. Andrew, I love your perspective on things.

  5. Isn’t that irony, the pioneer spirit …following your heart or mind despite the traditions of our ancestors? History is pretty clear that much if not all moral and human advancement has come from enlightened individuals willing to challenge the current belief or traditions of their fathers. Yet whenever one of these traditions are challenged the powers to be always paint the individual out as some sort of Korihor who is spouting evil such as

    “Behold, these things which ye call prophecies, which ye say are handed down by holy prophets, behold, they are foolish traditions of your fathers.”

    So all those that hang on to the traditions of their Fathers just for the sake of honoring tradition must ask themselves where would Humankind be today if those that challenged in the past and that are now revered as reformers and pioneers would have just submitted to the “Foolish Traditions of their Fathers”

  6. What a great post.

    I’ve always hated the Mormon Pioneer stories because that doesn’t describe my heritage. My family were colonists. They moved to America and colonized in and around Jamestown, VA. The migrated north to Philadelphia over time. I am related to Stonewall Jackson and Danny Boone. These are people who suffered a lot in settling America. But it doesn’t really inspire me with increased patriotism. And the fact that I am related to Stonewall Jackson doesn’t make me want to be a Confederate, or to go back to plantations and holding slaves.

    I was raised Catholic, and I joined the LDS church as an adult. It held some truth for me, and I followed it. I don’t call myself a pioneer or feel that I relate to the pioneer spirit. And I don’t really want to, either. If I choose to leave the church, I leave it – and without the burden of my g-g-g-g-g-great grandparent’s guilt speaking from the grave (wow, there’s some alliteration). They didn’t keep in the the Catholic church, and they aren’t likely to keep me in Mormonism.

  7. FireTag permalink

    Guilt trip? I think my fiery old coal miner Grandfather and his German hausfrau wife would be more likely to torment me with guilt for NOT seeking truth.

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