Pioneers were a `covenant people'

History students will encounter a dead end when trying to ascribe traditional motives to the Latter-day Saint pioneer treks of 1846-47 and thereafter.

Land, wealth, adventure - the attractions that drew other westwarding settlers - generally bore little significance for members of the Church in the 1840s, most of whom would have been content to remain in their comfortable eastern homes had their enemies let them be.Even the typical explanation, "They journeyed to escape religious persecution," is but a tunnel-view of the vast scriptural, doctrinal and historical panorama that gives substance to the gathering of some 60,000 Church members from many lands to the Great Basin between 1847 and 1869.

"The Mormon hegira [flight to safety] was an epoch in LDS history," wrote historian Carol Cornwall Madsen. "It underscored Mormonism's collective purpose and gave the pioneers a religious and historical identity that distinguished them from other western travelers." (Journey to Zion, Voices from the Mormon Trail, p. 7.)

To begin to understand that identity, one must go back many centuries to the prophecies and events of the Old Testament, then illuminate them with New Testament and Book of Mormon scripture as well as the revelations received by Joseph Smith and other modern prophets.

"It's as if the Latter-day Saints saw themselves as the modern version of ancient Israel, being gathered to their homeland, and that gathering represented their fully coming unto Christ and unto Christ's kingdom," commented Robert L. Millett, dean of Religious Education at BYU. "That gathering wasn't completed - as is taught - until temples had been erected and temple blessings had been received by the Saints. The gathering was not just a physical relocation, but a movement to Christ and His kingdom first and foremost, and then, if necessary and appropriate, to lands of their inheritance. The gathering, as is taught in the Book of Mormon, is always spiritual first and temporal second."

Thus, before the first wagons ferried across the Mississippi from Nauvoo in 1846, or before the first immigrant ships left the shores of Europe and the British Isles, the pioneers in a spiritual sense had already "come to Zion" (see Hymns, No. 7) - by virtue of their baptism.

Like their counterparts in ancient Israel, they were a covenant people, or as Hoyt W. Brewster Jr. wrote, "those whom the Lord identifies as `my people,' or the people of God (D&C 42:9, 36). These are they who have accepted membership in the Lord's church and kingdom and have taken upon themselves sacred covenants." (Doctrine & Covenants Encyclopedia, p. 108.)

Having embraced those covenants, the Latter-day Saints were then willing to go anywhere or do anything the Lord commanded through revelation to His servants, come what may.

In Nauvoo, when Newel Knight told his wife, Lydia, that the Saints would have to move yet again, this time to an unknown location in the West, she responded simply: "Well, there's nothing to discuss. Our place is with the Kingdom of God. Let us at once set about making preparations to leave." (Quoted in Church News, Feb. 10, 1996, p. 3.)

And Nancy Tracy, an early convert to the Church, reflected in later years: "My life, ever since I became a Mormon, has been made up of moving about, of persecutions, sacrifices, poverty, sickness and death. Through all of my sufferings I have never doubted but felt to cling to the gospel." (Quoted in Madsen, Journey to Zion, p. 7.)

Such commitment is easier to comprehend when viewed in the light of covenants. So are other things:

The pioneers often referred to themselves in biblical terms, such as "Camp of Israel." And, in accordance with the theology taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith, they regarded themselves as "saints." In so doing, they rejected centuries-old sectarian distortions of the term and applied it in the sense used in the scriptures: to mean those who have entered into a covenant with God through baptism. (See Bible Dictionary in LDS edition of the King James Bible, p. 767-68.)

The Nauvoo Saints hastened to finish the temple before their exodus, knowing full well the edifice shortly would be abandoned. They understood that the temple was necessary to culminate their baptismal covenants and to give them the spiritual strength and knowledge to sustain them through the rigors of the westward journey. From December 1845 to early February 1846, some 5,500 Latter-day Saints received their temple blessings, said Milton V. Backman Jr., BYU professor of Church history. "Nearly everyone who followed Brigham Young [in leaving Nauvoo in 1846] had gone into that temple and received their temple blessings. And thus, the Saints were spiritually prepared to conquer the desert, because they had received a special blessing in the House of the Lord." (From a lecture given at the Sons of Utah Pioneers Church History Symposium, Nov. 11, 1995.)

When the U.S. government called for 500 Mormon volunteers to enlist in the war with Mexico, some in the Camp of Israel understandably viewed the call with resentment and suspicion. The pioneers were in the process of leaving the United States due in part to the federal government's failure to safeguard their rights to religious liberty. However, when they learned that President Brigham Young and the Twelve were in harmony with the proposition, they completely changed their attitude, obediently enlisted and served with honor, knowing such service would aid the cause of building the Kingdom of God.

By the time the 1847 pioneers entered the valley of the Great Salt Lake, it was well understood they were in the act of fulfilling prophecy. Joseph Smith had said on a number of occasions that the Latter-day Saints would become a mighty people in the midst of the Rocky Mountains.

In so doing, they fulfilled prophecies in Isaiah and Micah that the mountain of the Lord's house - meaning the administrative center where God through His servants directs the affairs of His kingdom - would be established in the tops of the mountains and all nations would flow unto it. (See Isa. 2:2-3; Micah 4:1-2.)

They colonized the Mountain West, built temples, and gathered in the faithful from many parts of the world. The physical gathering to this mountain Zion lasted roughly until the turn of the century. Thereafter, the spiritual gathering continued; that is, the gospel was preached and temples were built in many parts of the world. People have continued to make covenants through baptism and temple ordinances. But today, as President Spencer W. Kimball said in April 1975 general conference, "the `gathering of Israel' is effected when the people of the far-away countries accept the gospel and remain in their native lands."

With this special issue, the Church News observes the sesquicentennial of the pioneers' 1847 trek. In the features that follow, no attempt has been made to be historically exhaustive. Rather, they highlight the epoch of the pioneers who went before to establish the Mountain of the Lord's House and prepared the way for the gathering of Israel in this last dispensation.

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