SAN DIEGO, CALIF. – Addressing thousands gathered in Old Town San Diego to celebrate the arrival of the Mormon Battalion on the same day 175 years ago, Elder D. Todd Christofferson spoke Saturday, Jan. 29, of the historic 2,100-mile march and why it still matters.
“Their legacy is one of exceptional faith and sacrifice and service as they accepted the call to serve God and their country,” said the member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Elder Christofferson’s remarks were part of a commemorative program honoring the more than 500 men and women who, at the request of the United States government and with the encouragement of the Prophet Brigham Young, made the grueling march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, California, in 1846 during the Mexican-American War. The same number of missionaries and volunteers marched Saturday in remembrance of the battalion’s companies.
“As you stand here in their place, you are heirs of that great legacy,” Elder Christofferson said. “You too are capable of that kind of faith and sacrifice and service. You too are capable of doing hard things. You too have great things to do.
“Now, go forth and make a difference.”
Elder Christofferson shared those thoughts from a stage full of local political and religious leaders from the San Diego area — who praised the Church’s Mormon Battalion Historic Site and its contributions that strengthen the Old Town San Diego Historic District. Many of them also shared their appreciation for the examples left by the battalion.
Rosilicie Ochoa Bogh, a Latter-day Saint who serves in the California State Senate, said the Church is an important community partner. The Mormon Battalion landmark not only preserves and promotes the historic significance of the area, but also supports economic impact as an important tourist destination in California, she explained.
Visitors to the site often leave with an “emotional connection” to the battalion’s “heritage and to their legacy,” she said.
Ochoa Bogh joined California Assembly members Chris Ward and Tom Lackey in presenting a framed copy of a California legislature resolution congratulating the battalion for its “numerous contributions to the Golden State.”
Noting the “faith-infused actions and patriotism” of early Latter-day Saints, the resolution lauded the significant role the Mormon Battalion played in America’s westward expansion, in opening a southern wagon route to California and in the early development of the area.
Learning from history
The 175th anniversary of the Mormon Battalion’s arrival in the pueblo of San Diego was more than a reason to enjoy the beautiful weather typical of Southern California in January.
Elder Christofferson said, “Part of the reason we focus on history is because the Lord commanded it.”
In regard to Latter-day Saint pioneers and others who have faced difficult challenges in their lives, he said, “We see what others have lived through and say, ‘I can do that.’”
Newly arrived president of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site, President Brent L. Top, said it is important to learn from history and to move forward because of those lessons.
“We’re not here to fight,” he said of the Church’s continued presence in San Diego. “We’re here to serve.”
He also emphasized the importance of the Mormon Battalion, not only for San Diego, but also for the Church. The money sent home by the battalion helped purchase needed supplies and wagons and supported early Latter-day Saints in their trek to the Salt Lake Valley.
“It’s possible,” President Top said, “that without the Mormon Battalion’s work in January of 1847, there might not have been a July 24, 1847, in Salt Lake City.”
Civic and religious leaders in San Diego joined in celebrating the legacy of the Mormon Battalion at a small reception at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site following the public commemoration on Saturday.
During the reception, Church leaders recognized the Most Rev. Robert W. McElroy, bishop of Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, for the support given by Catholic Charities to build the community.
“Catholic Charities has aided in the relief of thousands of families,” said Elder Christofferson.
For his part, Bishop McElroy said the team effort between the Catholic Church and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is part of what the Lord would have wanted and expected.
“It is natural that the faith community join together in mutual collaboration,” he said. “This propels the work forward and signals to society our common bond of faith.”
Bishop McElroy said, “This is the heritage of faith we share.
“We could do these things independently, but that would betray the Lord’s call to work together.”
The bishop noted that two of the biggest challenges today involve helping refugees coming to the area and providing relief and support to many who are homeless.
Whether the challenge is helping refugees or aiding the homeless, Bishop McElroy said it is easy to “fear them as ‘others’ or of being ‘different.’”
Being feared for their differences was a challenge also faced by members of the Mormon Battalion.
Some of the same soldiers who had fought against the Latter-day Saints in Missouri had also been sent to San Diego to fight for the United States. When the Mormon Battalion arrived, the soldiers from Missouri spread the same lies and misinformation in San Diego that they had spread nine years earlier when the Saints were forced to flee Missouri.
Greg Christofferson, president of the Mormon Battalion Association, said the response of the members of the Mormon Battalion was to find ways to work and serve in the community.
“They were paid to white-wash adobe buildings. They fired bricks. They dug wells,” he said.
Previous “wells” in the area were as shallow as one foot, he explained. Meanwhile, Mormon Battalion wells were 30 feet deep and lined with fired bricks to keep the well walls from collapsing.
While honoring the Mormon Battalion, Elder Christofferson calls for continued preservation of historic overland trails
These acts of service and hard work were noticed and appreciated in California. When the Mormon Battalion was called to return to Utah, more than 100 people in San Diego signed a petition requesting that the battalion stay or be replaced by a similar group.
New challenges require new solutions
President Top related the actions of the battalion’s members to today’s efforts to serve under unprecedented circumstances.
As promised by Brigham Young, the battalion didn’t fight one battle in the Mexican War, but they did travel more than 2,000 miles and served the San Diego and Los Angeles communities before returning home.
Missionaries and other members of the Church haven’t been called to fight in a war, but they have battled against COVID-19 in many ways for the past two years. “Even when you can’t serve the Lord in traditional ways, you can serve the Lord in some way,” President Top said.
That feeling was shared by President Ricardo Giménez, a General Authority Seventy, and his wife, Sister Catherine Giménez as they looked back at the missionaries they have been serving with in the California San Diego Mission for nearly two years.
“We’ve been pushed to do work in new ways,” President Giménez said.
“With COVID-19, some missionaries thought they needed to enter survival mode. But God’s plan didn’t change.”
People still need the hope of the gospel of Jesus Christ he said.
Sister Giménez agreed.
“It all starts with strong faith in Christ,” she said.
With that faith, missionaries can reach those who might not have been reached under previous circumstances, she said.
The work didn’t just change for the missionaries. It changed for President and Sister Giménez, as well.
“We meet more regularly with the entire mission now,” President Giménez said. “When we meet with them each week by video, we see them. We cheer them on.”
Many of the missionaries serving under President and Sister Giménez participated in commemoration events honoring the Mormon Battalion.
During his visit, Elder Christofferson also met with a group of service missionaries, thanking them for their contributions. “Any time people interact with you, they feel better,” he told them. “You open hearts, and only good things come from that. I want you to know that we pray for you, and we know you pray for us.”
Before leaving on their 2,000-mile journey, the Mormon Battalion was given strong counsel from President Brigham Young, who told them to “live [their] religion” while in the U.S. Army.
“Hold sacred the property of the people, never taking anything that does not belong to you,” President Young said.
“Always spare life when possible. … Teach chastity, gentility, and civility.”
After quoting President Young’s counsel, Elder Christofferson told those in attendance that they also have “the Lord’s will through the prophet.”
And while what the Lord asks may be challenging, “He never abandons His people,” Elder Christofferson said.
Just like the Mormon Battalion, when the Lord gives us a commandment, “We put our concerns to the side.”
“They did it, and we can do it.”
Following the Spirit
Sunday morning, Jan. 30, Elder Christofferson spoke to a group called to serve as Living History Missionaries. Meeting in the Mormon Battalion Site, Elder Christofferson taught about the Savior’s first call to His apostles to take the gospel to the world.
“They had already had three years of personal tutoring from the Savior,” he said. “But He asked them to wait a little longer for the Holy Ghost before preaching.”
“He knew they needed that to help them remember.”
Elder Christofferson talked about the importance of always seeking to have the Spirit at all times in life.
“We need further light and knowledge,” he said. “We need the Spirit to guide what we say, what we do.”
In addition to seeking the guidance of the Holy Ghost, Elder Christofferson also encouraged the missionaries to learn as much as possible.
“It is extremely useful to know as much as you can,” he said.
“We need to see examples of faith in action and to be reminded that the Lord is in it.”
Knowledge and the guidance of the Spirit work together, he said. But knowledge can’t supersede the influence of the Holy Ghost.
“Don’t try to do it without the Spirit, no matter how good you are at something,” he said, adding that the Lord “lets us help when we listen to the Spirit.”