The sesquicentennial celebration is about more than a pioneer trek re-enactment, it is about the basic beliefs that set the Church apart from other faiths, Elder M. Russell Ballard said to media representatives from across the world July 22.
"It is possible that you could be out on the trail and all caught up in the excitement of this 150th year and the celebration of the pioneers coming into the Salt Lake Valley and not fully comprehend what this is really about," said Elder Ballard, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve and general chairman of the Church sesquicentennial committee.During a media briefing that served as a wrap-up session for the wagon train activity at This Is the Place State Park, Elder Ballard explained that the basic premise of the Church is a declaration to the world that God the Eternal Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the year 1820.
"Our message is a message of the restoration of the fullness of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ," explained Elder Ballard to broadcast and print journalists who may not have been familiar with the Church and its beliefs. "We declare it now in 160 nations, with over 55,000 full-time missionaries."
Elder Ballard added that the message of the Church is moving across the entire world - through missionary efforts and through increased interest in the Church - as evident by the media coverage of the pioneer trek re-enactment.
"We have never had such a time, in the history of the Church, where the media has been more interested in what this is all about."
He called the re-enactment of the pioneers' arrival in the Salt Lake Valley a great blessing. "It means a lot to all of us," Elder Ballard said. "We go back and get a lot of strength from thinking about our roots and our pioneer heritage. It has done something spiritually for our people all over the world."
During the press conference - attended by local, national and international media representatives covering the sesquicentennial wagon train - Elder Ballard and other Church leaders answered media questions about the pioneer celebrations.
Also in attendance were Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve and Elder Joe J. Christensen of the Presidency of the Seventy - both co-chairmen of the sesquicentennial committee - and Elder Robert L. Backman, General Authority Emeritus and vice chairman of the committee.
In his remarks, Elder Holland explained that the wagon train has had a "profound effect on elevating the visibility of the Church in the eyes of the media," and has increased interest among Church members to conduct family history research.
Speaking of the effect the trek has had in promoting the Church, Elder Holland said: "We didn't set out to do it as a publicity matter, we set out to do it to pay tribute. We wanted to salute the faithful, devoted pioneers of 150 years ago. But it has been an attractive story - we think an inspiring story - and we are delighted for that."
Elder Holland also noted that the trek and other sesquicentennial activities have also had other positive effects - such as an increase in family history research among Church members.
"People have gone back in great numbers, even massive numbers, in the last several months - really in the spirit of the sesquicentennial activities - to do family history research," Elder Holland said, explaining that Church members want to know if their ancestors journeyed to the Salt Lake Valley with other early Church members.
Elder Christensen, who worked with the wagon train as his primary responsibility on the committee, described his feelings as it rolled into This Is the Place State Park earlier that day.
After feeling a great deal of relief that the wagon train had arrived safely, Elder Christensen said his thoughts turned to his great-great-grandmother who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in October 1847. Her husband had joined the Mormon Battalion and left her to care for their four children - three of whom died at Winter Quarters.
"She, without her husband, crossed the plains. She walked most every step of the way," he said. "As I saw those people come in and I saw those women who had made the trek and walked every step of the way,
sheT was who I was thinking of."
Elder Christensen said he wouldn't be surprised if there were tens of thousands of other people greeting the wagon train who also have ancestors who came to believe in the Church so strongly that no sacrifice was too great for it.
Elder Backman, in answering a question on sesquicentennial service projects, explained why it was important for members to give service - on Heritage Service Day July 19. (See related article on page 8-9.)
"As a people we believe that sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven," he said. "We felt that one of the great characteristics of our pioneer forefathers was the fact that they were willing to make the sacrifices that they did."
Elder Backman continued that one difficulty today is that Church members have to sacrifice less than their forebears.
Serving in communities around the world "unified us and caused us to work together, to sweat together and in the process cemented a brotherhood that our pioneer forefathers had and which this group on the trek feels . . . . We felt it was a way to say thank you to our forbears and to demonstrate that we too can render meaningful service."