Elder Holland shares his own family pioneer heritage in speech to Sons and Daughters of Utah Pioneers

Credit: R. Scott Lloyd
Credit: R. Scott Lloyd

Though he is a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s Mormon and Utah heritage is about as diverse as it can get in one person, he said.

Elder Holland’s comment came in a July 17 address in the Bowery at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City to a joint gathering of the Sons of Utah Pioneers and Daughters of Utah Pioneers and their family members. It was during the second annual SUPer DUPer Day, an occasion for the two groups to join together with their families for park activities and picnicking.

“First, a comment about my Holland family, who clearly were not Utah pioneers,” he said. “They were a rowdy, but loveable, bunch of Roman Catholic miners born in Ireland who made their way to Montana and Colorado, ending up in Park City at the turn of the 20th century.”

Widowed at the age of 26 with two little boys, Elder Holland’s father being the youngest, his grandmother eventually made her way to Salt Lake City, where she was blessed by the friendship of John Fetzer, the kindly bishop of the old Salt Lake City 8th Ward.

“The rest, as they say, is history,” Elder Holland said. “My grandmother and my father, he by then a 14-year-old boy, joined the Church in 1924.”

Stricken by smallpox, he was taken out of school by his stepfather, “a loss of opportunity and a blow to his self-esteem that he never fully overcame,” Elder Holland related.

“But heaven had its hand on him when, as a Civilian Conservation Corps recruit, he found himself in southern Utah in the early 1930s during the Depression, where he met and married my mother.

“What a union! A gleeful, Irish dance hall piano-playing convert from Roman Catholicism who went through life with a smile on his face and a shine on his shoes marrying a very proper, stay-at-home, quilting and canning, canning and cooking, genuine and thoroughly domestic daughter of Utah pioneers. What a marriage!

“I am the product of that union!”

He said he has one-half of one generation in the Church on his father’s side (“a half that barely ‘took’”) and “four full generations of dyed-in-the-wool, true-blue, rock-ribbed Latter-day Saints” on his mother’s side.

“This will help you all understand the many peculiarities and various peccadilloes in me; if I seem to be on any given day (or in any given general conference) sort of a smiling Irish, hale, fellow well-met, the-world-is-my-oyster sort of chap and a rock-ribbed, no-nonsense, it-is-the-kingdom-of-God-or-nothing Latter-day Saint in the next instant, it is because I come by that mix rightly with that kind of blood coursing through my veins.”

In contrast to his father’s side, he said his mother’s family were “truly the stock of which the early Mormon Church and the beginnings of the state of Utah were made, in our case the southern Utah branch of that state.”

They were members of the Cotton Mission in St. George, Utah’s “Dixie,” which is a vacation mecca today but wasn’t much back then, he said.

He shared the words of a poem written by Charles Walker, the poet-laureate of Dixie, one verse of which reads:

‘Twas said the land it was no good

And water was no gudder,

The bare idea of living here

Was enough to make one shudder.

Against that backdrop, Elder Holland shared a glimpse of his Dixie-settling grandparents.

Among the stories he told was that of Robert and Leonora Cannon Gardner, his second-great-grandparents who lived in both St. George and Pine Valley, Utah. He recounted a story that “represents the spunk and character of Utah pioneer women.”

“Living in Pine Valley, expecting her first child, and with Robert away on a Church assignment, Leonora felt the need for a proper bed for the delivery of this new baby,” he recounted.

Using aspen poles she had gathered and with hammer, auger and saw she went to work. By nightfall, the bed was finished: boards fastened to the wall on one side and to aspen poles on the other. The straw tick she had been using to sleep on the floor was hoisted on the boards to be her mattress.

Just after midnight, Elder Holland’s great-grandmother, Mary Alice, was born on that bed.

Elder Holland remarked: “I’m not so brazen as to think I will have much to talk to my pioneer grandfathers about. … But if the setting is right and I can summon my courage, I might one day inquire of Robert why, before leaving on that Church assignment that week, did he not at least make a bed for his wife who was 24 hours away from delivery. But on second thought, I probably won’t ask, lest he ask me about my own husbandly shortcomings.”

Earlier in his talk, Elder Holland paid tribute to the two organizations sponsoring the event, held in connection with Salt Lake City’s annual Days of ’47 celebration. He said they “do such a marvelous job of keeping the stories, traditions, values and contributions of such valiant ancestors fresh in our memories.”

He added, “We owe it to those pioneers to do that, but we owe it every bit as much to ourselves and to our children. It isn’t just about those people back in the middle of the 19th century but it is about who we are — here, now, moving well into the 21st century and beyond. The meaning of their pioneering contribution is timeless, as important today as it was yesterday and will be tomorrow. We must never let those stories, documents, photographs and memories die, lest we wake up some morning and don’t have an answer to the questions of eternity: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you stand for?’ ”

Concluding his speech, Elder Holland said, “If I have one caution for all of us … it is that the honor and glory of those courageous lives belong to them. I am in no way exalted in my character simply because they were exalted in theirs. When I stand before God to account for my life, it won’t help me much to pull out my family history … and then ask for admittance to those grand, celestial realms on the basis of a pedigree chart. …

“I need to live a life as exemplary in its own way as those pioneer ancestors’ lives were in theirs. I need to live so my children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren will want to remember me and tell stories of my faith, just as we tell these stories of our earlier generations.”

From Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, he quoted, “What from your father’s heritage is lent, earn it anew to really possess it.

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed