This is a talk I gave in Sacrament Meeting today.
I love the old pioneer anthems:
Ye elders of Israel, come join now with me
And seek out the righteous, whereâ€™er they may be â€“
In desert, on mountain, on land, or on sea â€“
And bring them to Zion, the pure and the free.
O Babylon, O Babylon, we bid thee farewell;
Weâ€™re going to the mountains of Ephraim to dwell.
… Weâ€™ll now go up and serve the Lord,
Obey his truth and learn his word.
For there we shall be taught the law that will go forth,
With truth and wisdom fraught, to govern all the earth.
Forever there his ways weâ€™ll tread,
And save ourselves with all our dead.
These lines poetically express our irresistible longing to gather with each other, to learn the ways of God, to be â€œno more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God,â€ and to obey the command â€œto build unto the Lord an house whereby he could reveal unto his people the ordinancesâ€ of his temple.
We have been a gathering people since the earliest days of this dispensation: early converts gathered near Joseph Smith in New York, and moved as a body from Colesville, to Kirtland, to Missouri, to Nauvoo, to the camps of Israel in Iowa, to Winter Quarters, and finally to this valley.
My own family did not follow the main body of the Church in its movements. For ten years after their conversion, my Taylor ancestors remained in Batavia, New York. Yet still they gathered, in the sense that they and other converts formed a branch there, hosting traveling missionaries, sending their offerings to the church, and sharing news through letters. In December 1847, an elder brought them word that Brigham Young had reached the Salt Lake Valley that summer and returned to Winter Quarters, to prepare for moving the entire church westward. That elder, speaking of my family and their branch, wrote in his diary, “There was a noble few whose hearts beat quick to gather to Zion … often speaking to me about going.”
My family sold their farm that winter, and in April, as soon as the ice broke up, they took the earliest possible boat on a long and hazardous river journey, from Lake Erie through the Pennsylvania canals, down the Ohio River to St. Louis, and up the Mississippi to Winter Quarters. There the same missionary recorded one of the few personal notes I have about my earliest convert ancestors:
I spent the time in helping Bro. Taylorâ€™s family to move into a small log hut, a great disparity from what they had been used to. Yet they seemed happy and content, intent upon getting to the valley at the sacrifice of all things, and on Thursday he went to Brigham and gave him all the money he had desiring only he would give him a fit out for the valley.
Another pioneer, a woman, recorded the next great event in my ancestorsâ€™ lives:
While we lay encamped a sister by the name of Taylor died with the measles. It was a sorrowful affair. She left a husband and four children to bewail her loss. To make a lone grave by the way side at the beginning of our journey caused our hearts to flow out with sympathy for the poor young girls, left to pursue the wearisome route over the desert without a mother.
Representative of the tens of thousands of pioneers whom we honor this week, the rest of the family stayed on the path, gathering with the Saints in the west. Also representative of the early Saints committed to helping the righteous to gather â€œout of Babylon,â€ my grandfather went East a few years later as a missionary; after completing his mission, he died near Fort Laramie on his return toward his family in Utah.
The physical hardships and the deaths on the trail are often all we remember of the pioneer experience. It is worth remembering that many wagon companies came through without any loss of life, and that there were joyous experiences on the plains as well as sad ones. Josiah Gibbs, one of my favorite pioneers, was a 12-year-old boy when he pioneered in 1857, and all his life he remembered the trail as a 12-year-old boy would notice it. He remembered huge, uncomplaining oxen pulling the wagons, and how the dust would fill their eyes until, as he put it, “almost human tears course down their drawn and wrinkled cheeks.”
He recalled chasing prairie dogs, and catching sand lizards to scare the girls with. He carried a vivid mental picture of the end of day on the plains:
Water is procured, tents are pitched, cooking utensils and food are taken from convenient places in the wagons and soon the gathering twilight … is relieved by a score or more of cheerful camp fires. … the notes of a bugle call the pilgrims together for evening worship. … out upon the evening air, rising and falling … float the words and music:
â€œOh, My Father, thou that dwellest
In thy high and glorious place,
When shall I regain thy presence
And again behold thy face.â€
We then hear the voice of prayer invoking the protection of the Almighty …
The lights are extinguished, the camp fires burn low … and in a short time … not a sound is heard except, perhaps the moan of some sick brother or sister, the wailing of an infant … or the soft footfall of the camp guard as he paces his lonely vigil.
We also honor pioneers whose journey to Zion began before they hitched up wagons or put their shoulders to handcarts. Before they reached that point, many had already crossed an ocean by ship, and half of North America by rail, all of which travel had its own challenges:
A missionary guiding a company of European converts in 1868 wrote of having to stand in the July sun at Albany, waiting to change from one train to another. â€œ[T]he heat was such as I never witnessed before.â€ Conditions were no better once the emigrants boarded the train cars.
[A] sister by the name of Mary Watson, died through the effects of the heat … she was left at Albany arrangements being made for her burial.
At … 6:30 a bro James Caldwell aged 70 died through sun strok[e].
At about 8 P.M. our hearts were made sad by the death of Elder Ezra P. Clark [through] sun[stroke] … His body was brought on to Fonda Fulton County …
At about 11. the same evening a young sister named Margrett Boulton died aged 19, through Sun stroke. 11.30 Margrett Jones, aged 30 (a Welsh sister) also died leaving a husband & 5 small children these two Sisters bodyâ€™s were left at Cyracuse …
When historians compile the lists of those who died while trying to reach Zion, the record is limited to those who died at sea, or on the trail. There is no monument to these forgotten pioneers â€“ those who died in between the sea and the frontier, or those who had the grief of leaving the bodies of their loved ones on railroad sidings, praying that strangers would keep a promise to bury them after the train moved on.
And pioneering did not end with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Twenty years later, a chartered train carrying 156 English converts and 9 returning missionaries left Norwalk, Virginia. It was raining when they left, and continued to rain all afternoon and into the night. In the darkness, the engineer did not see that a flooding creek had washed away a bridge. The engine shot across the chasm and wrecked on the far side of the creek. The baggage car carrying the emigrantsâ€™ luggage almost reached the far side, but smashed, with the destruction of all their belongings. Two passenger cars plunged 30 feet into the water below, with passengers, seats, heating stoves, and other wreckage landing atop each other in the waist deep creek. Missionaries from the third passenger car, which derailed but did not wreck, scrambled down the bank, fearing the worst when they heard no sound of human voices in the wreckage.
Mary Clayborne, inside the wreck, reported:
I was awake … when the car went over, but most of the party were asleep. I was thrown about ten feet on top of a dozen people, and it was several minutes before any of us realized what had happened. Water was running into the car, and we all thought that we had been plunged into a river, and expected every minute to be our last. Not a word was spoken, and the only whisper I heard was from a poor woman near me who murmured, â€˜My babies! May God take care of my babies!â€™ It seemed an age after the accident occurred to when Elder Payne called out to us, and then the silence was broken, and oh, how glad we were to say that we were alive.
Everyone was alive, although there were injuries and broken bones. Twenty-four hours later, the Saints were still alive, after a second train wreck, when the relief train sent to their rescue was rear-ended by another train. What commitment did it take for those Saints to board a third train to carry them to Zion? What courage was displayed by the next company to emigrate, after hearing the news of such hardships? They were all pioneers.
We also honor the pioneers who gathered in other places, in other times, after the call went out to build Zion throughout the world.
LÃ©on Fargier was a former sailor and a carpenter when he and his wife joined the Church in Valence, France, in 1932. Missionary work had always moved slowly in France, especially during the Depression years when few American Saints could afford to serve foreign missions, but there were a handful of Saints scattered throughout the country â€“ an elderly woman in this city, a young mother and her children in that one. Elder Fargier was called as a local missionary, and traveled with the American elders to hold services in various cities, so that these isolated members could gather in twos and threes, and partake of the Sacrament.
In June 1940, Elder Fargier received a letter from the mission office in Paris:
I have just received a letter from the First Presidency telling me to close the office in Paris and return to the United States. …
My departure leaves you as the only active priesthood holder in France. I know that you will do your best to use the talents the Lord has given you.
For six years, until the European relief tour of Ezra Taft Benson in 1946, Brother Fargier shepherded the isolated French members under wartime conditions. He traveled throughout the country, sometimes with the train pass he held as a government worker, and by foot and by bicycle when trains werenâ€™t available. He blessed the sick, he blessed babies, he baptized children. He took the Sacrament to women who had no other contact with the Church. He kept track of members as they became refugees. And he remained faithful after the war, serving until he was a very old man in Grenoble. He and his wife Claire passed away in 1981. One year later, the Geneva Stake of Zion was organized, including a ward in Grenoble. I was a missionary in Grenoble then, and know the esteem in which Brother Fargier was held, as the pioneer in that corner of France.
Sometimes we have pioneers who race ahead of the missionaries. When Zion is too slow to spread her stakes, the pioneers call us to gather to them. As early as 1946 and frequently thereafter, the First Presidency received letters from citizens of Nigeria, pleading for missionaries and Church literature and baptism. It would be 40 years before these pioneer Saints received those blessings, and weâ€™re probably all familiar with the response once the way was opened for the gathering of the Saints in Africa.
If we had a screen, I would show you pictures of another pioneer trek I read about this week. A missionary couple serving in the African nation of Cameroon posted a letter and photographs on the Internet, documenting the travel in 2005 of 43 Cameroonian Saints to the newly opened temple in Nigeria. … (see this link from our sideblog for this story)
[Removed here are remarks personal to our very international ward, referring to members of the congregation who have shared their dramatic and highly intimate stories of â€œcoming to Zionâ€ from East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Sierra Leone, and other places.]
With Pioneer Day, we honor those who, no matter the hardships, accepted the gospel, were baptized, and gathered with the Saints. The best known crossed the plains to build the community we live in now. Less well known, but just as worthy of honor and remembrance, are those who gathered with the Saints in later years, or in places far removed from this valley. The pioneers are all those who have blessed Zion with their unity and commitment. That includes very many in this congregation â€“ those who, in Neal A. Maxwellâ€™s phrase, with â€œquiet heroism [made your] way across the border into belief.â€
May we remember with love and respect those who blazed the trail we all follow …