I come from a split, but complimentary, background. My father comes from hearty pioneer stock dating back to Kirtland days. Those ancestors walked with early Mormon leaders from Kirtland to Missouri to Nauvoo before eventually crossing the plains to the Salt Lake Valley. That heritage is rich and one I’m immensely proud of.
My mother is a convert. Growing up Catholic, she joined the Church in her early twenties after two young missionaries knocked on her door. In joining the Church, she will say she did not leave behind the faith of her parents. She often talks about the important gospel principles her parents taught her. It was that faith-filled foundation that prepared her to eventually join the Church. In this way, like so many others, she is her own pioneer.
The pioneer spirit is not something we only can claim if biologically related to trekking converts. Rather, it is an integral part of the cultural identity that binds us together. Whether born into the Church with pioneer ancestors, from more recent converts or a convert yourself, we all have claim to pioneer heritage.
Early Mormon pioneers braced criticism from family and prosecution from strangers. They defended their faith in word and deed. As they trekked across the West, they became both geographical and religious pioneers.
Now, as we celebrate that legacy, we need to remember pioneers should not exist only in the past.
In 1976, President N. Eldon Tanner, then First Counselor in the First Presidency, wrote, “Pioneers are still needed. A pioneer is described as one who goes before, preparing the way for others. He is a leader, first in his field in discovery and invention. He will be followed by settlers and developers who expand and exploit his discoveries. Anyone seeking to become a pioneer will take care to fill his mind with what is known about the route he plans to take. Some of the qualities needed in pioneering are interest, intelligence, imagination and determination. A pioneer must investigate, plan, experiment and work. As we pioneer into any endeavor, we have the benefit of those who have pioneered before us.”
Today, we can have profound influence as to how the world sees us and how we see ourselves. As we seek to be modern pioneers, we can learn much from the example of our pioneer forebearers.
In 1998, Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve, stated, “It is not enough to study or reenact the accomplishments of our pioneers. We need to identify the great, eternal principles they applied to achieve all they achieved for our benefit and then apply those principles to the challenges of our day.”
Pioneer men, women and children were actively involved in shaping the culture of the Church. Women like Eliza R. Snow and Louisa Lula Greene, editor of the “Women’s Exponent,” were active members of Church dialog. Women promoted progressive contemporary women’s rights, including suffrage, while still defending their religious belief — yes, even polygamy. Men and women were actively vocal in both defending the Church to the general public and shaping it into the community they thought best encompassed the principles of the gospel.
For all these reasons, we look back on the pioneers with awe. But we can — and need to — continue living these principles today. In the current “Mormon Moment,” news outlets are attempting to pin down what we are. Are we Christian? Oppressed? Enlightened? A corporation?
If we want others to see us as we see ourselves, we need to reflect that vision. If we want to be seen as inclusive and welcoming, we need to be inclusive and welcoming. If we don’t want to be misunderstood, we need to be willing to articulate and openly discuss our beliefs. We cannot passively let minorities — inside or outside of the Church — define us.
We must be the pioneers Walt Whitman writes of: “We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger, / We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend, / Pioneers! O pioneers!”
Katie Harmer is the issues and ideas editor at The Universe. This viewpoint represents her opinions and not necessarily those of BYU, its administration or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.