In the News

Episode 91: Managing Director of the Church History Department Matt Grow on the importance of celebrating past and present pioneers

This is the place.” These four simple words have become synonymous with the valley that headquarters The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young spoke those words as a company of pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley where the Church finally settled — building a community and a temple. As the 175 anniversary of that event approaches this July, Latter-day Saints celebrate the pioneers who made that journey possible and their spirit and legacy.

This episode of the Church News podcast features historian Matt Grow, the managing director of the Church History Department, to explore this pivotal point in Church history 175 years after the pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley.

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Matt Grow: I mean, the pioneer story for Latter-day Saints is a story of heroism, and a story of tragedy and a story of people doing really hard and remarkable things. These people were motivated by a sense of gathering and building a community, right? That this is a religious enterprise. These are people who feel called by God. Of course, it’s not enough just to arrive at the location. The actual migration was a matter of months. The staying here in the building, the kingdom, in some ways, that was the hard part and that took years, and year, after year, after year of working together and working to build the Zion that they had envisioned, right, and most of our lives is the staying and then continuing and the building.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News. Welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


Sarah Jane Weaver: “This is the place” — four simple words uttered by a prophet that confirmed visions, gave people their home and have become synonymous with the valley that headquarters The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On July 24, 1847 Brigham Young spoke those words as a company of pioneers arrived in the Salt Lake Valley where the Church finally settled, building a community and a temple. Now, 175 years later, we celebrate that momentous occasion, the pioneers who made that journey possible and their spirit and legacy that continues today. This episode of the Church News podcast features Matt Grow, managing director of the Church History Department. He joins us today to talk about this important anniversary. Welcome Matt to the Church News podcast.

Matt Grow: Thanks for having me, Sarah.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, as we mentioned, this year marks the 175th anniversary of the pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley. What is so remarkable about that journey?

Matt Grow: Well, as a historian who does Church history, you can’t help but be excited as Pioneer Day comes, especially an anniversary Pioneer Day. It really is a remarkable achievement that between the years 1847, when Brigham Young led the Vanguard company, until 1868, the railroads going be completed the next year, some 60-70,000, Latter-day Saints crossed the plains to Utah. It’s a remarkably successful overland migration. It’s one that’s focused on bringing an entire community.

Visitors gaze at This Is the Place Monument through a giant window in the Pioneer Center at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021.

Visitors gaze at This Is the Place Monument through a giant window in the new Pioneer Center after President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offered the dedicatory prayer for the center at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City on Friday, March 26, 2021.

Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

This isn’t a settlement of the West where it’s single men heading out first to seek their fortune and to begin settlements. This is a settlement of entire communities, the old and the young, men and women, children, people with disabilities, the entire community moves. I think that’s one of the most remarkable things and then that is done by faith, right? That this is a religious enterprise. These are people who feel called by God to gather into a community and to build the kingdom of God.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And Brigham Young was sick on July 24 in 1847. If he had been well we might have celebrated that day on the 22nd. Is that correct?

Matt Grow: That’s right. When Brigham arrives in the valley they’re already exploring and beginning to plant some crops and he’s a little bit behind.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And yet, from that moment, there grows a legacy that we still celebrate today. What is it about the pioneer legacy that matters so much to us?

Matt Grow: Well, first of all, I think it’s just a remarkable story. It’s a story of heroism, and a story of tragedy and a story of people doing really hard and remarkable things. So, first of all, there’s just this narrative power to the story. Second of all, I think, for us as Latter-day Saints, there’s the spiritual power of the story and for me, it really emphasizes the idea of gathering. These people who are motivated by a sense of gathering and building a community and we do that differently as Latter-day Saints today, but that idea of gathering, as President Russell M. Nelson teaches us, that idea of gathering Israel is still so central to who we are as Latter-day Saints.


Sarah Jane Weaver:  And everyone wanted to come to Zion. What was it about this idea of Zion that compelled them forward?

Matt Grow: Well, so people of one heart and one mind, people where there’s righteousness and there’s no poor among them, right? So, the scriptures and the modern prophets gave Latter-day Saints at the time a vision of what was possible, of a community where there would be cooperation and love and the gospel and these are people coming from all areas of the United States, lots of areas of Europe, some areas beyond and these are people who have experienced many of the real difficulties of life at that time, the difficulties of what it meant to be caught up in the early Industrial Revolution in England, the difficulties of what it meant to be caught in the United States that was undergoing really significant economic changes and religious changes. These were people, many of whom would experience real upheaval in their life, like many of us, right? It’s a universal story, in some ways, and that longing to gather with a righteous people really drove them ahead.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I think sometimes we think of the story of all of the pioneers moving West and we forget what was happening at the same time in the United States.

Matt Grow: Yeah.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Can you give us some context for everything that was going on as the pioneers were moving westward?

Matt Grow: Yeah, that’s a great question. So, of course, the Vanguard company led by Brigham leaves in 1847. This is a time of tremendous economic change in the United States. The United States, in some ways, is growing closer together with better communications and better transportation, the beginnings of industrialization. It’s also real time of division. There’s a war with Mexico going on at this time. There’s storm clouds on the horizon over the issue of slavery and anti-slavery of North and South and so, there’s real upheaval already going on in the United States and a sense of more to come.

Sarah Jane Weaver: When I think about my own pioneer relatives, when I read about my ancestor story, the thing that surprises me the most, they came from England and from Scandinavia, and of course, I expected the journeys to be hard and them to make sacrifices. What surprised me was how much fun they had.

Matt Grow: Yeah

Sarah Jane Weaver: The joy they had in gathering and being together and having a common goal.


Matt Grow: And that is really true of the pioneer trail itself. I mean, sometimes as Latter-day Saints we have in a very appropriate way honored those who lost their lives on the trail and sometimes, I think that has made us feel as if the trail was just one day of arduous danger after another, but really, the mortality rate of pioneers on the trail wasn’t much higher than if they had all stayed at home.

This isn’t a trail where people are, you know, just dying every day and there are very much those stories, and they’re important to remember, but if you read pioneer journals, they’re often filled with accounts of awe, of the natural beauty. They’re passing the bison they see on the plains, the sense of excitement. You find practical jokes among each other in pioneer journals, as well. You find singing and dancing from the very first company all the way through.


Sarah Jane Weaver: As you’ve studied this period of history, is there a favorite part or is there something that stands out to you?

The reconstructed Nauvoo Illinois Temple looks similar to the original.

The reconstructed Nauvoo Illinois Temple looks similar to the original.

Credit: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Matt Grow: That’s a great question. One of my favorite pioneer stories begins before the trek and I think it helps put the whole story in context and that’s what’s going on in Nauvoo in the winter of 1845 to 1846. They know they’re going to be driven from Illinois at this point. They know that this beautiful temple they’re constructing is not going to be theirs, that they’re going to lose it, and they spend that winter day and night in the temple, sealing families together endowing, the Saints with power so that they would be prepared for the trek ahead and in early February, Brigham Young and the Twelve Apostles, there’s a moment where they basically say, “OK, we’ve done what we can. There’s real danger of some of the Church leaders being arrested on false charges and so there’s a sense that we need to leave” and one day as they’re about to do that, they see a crowd of Saints outside the temple and Brigham just can’t leave quite yet, right?

There’s more Saints to be endowed. There’s more Saints to be sealed together, but that’s so powerful to me, that the preparation for the trek West. Of course, there was, “Do we have the supplies in the wagon and do we have the flour and do we have the salt and the sugar?” But the core preparation, I think, was that spiritual preparation. “Let’s go through the temple. Let’s complete our temple ordinances for ourselves so that we have the power and the spiritual vision to do what needs to be done” and then, of course, what’s one of the first things they do in the Salt Lake Valley?

Sarah Jane Weaver: They plot out the temple.

Matt Grow: They plot out the temple. “Here we will build the temple to our God,” says Brigham, right? So, the temple very much is what prepares them for the trek and is on their mind as they get to the Salt Lake Valley. “We just lost one temple. We’re going to build another.”


Sarah Jane Weaver: I was so touched in October general conference of last year when President Nelson actually showed us the temple foundation.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tours the Salt Lake Utah Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tours the Salt Lake Utah Temple in Salt Lake City on Saturday, May 22, 2021.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Matt Grow: Yeah.

Sarah Jane Weaver: He actually said, “Look, this is what the pioneers laid. This is the foundation upon which this structure is built.” Certainly we’ve learned a lot about the temple as we’ve taken it apart in recent years.

Matt Grow: Indeed.

Sarah Jane Weaver: But it actually does give all of us a glimpse of the great sacrifice. You know, you can’t look at that building without just being so grateful for people who built it without the help of modern construction, tools and machinery.

Matt Grow: And that was recognized so early on as other people came through Salt Lake City. They consistently commented on, “This is a beautiful city. There’s order and cleanliness and great achievement here in terms of the buildings and in terms of the streets.” Our people, the Latter-day Saints, always had this great sense of how to build a community.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And one of the things that stands out to me about the pioneers, as I read about them, are the strength of pioneer women. Can you speak to that?

Matt Grow: Oh, certainly. One of the things that set the Latter-day Saint migration apart was the participation of women, was the participation of families, old and young. They came together. And some of my favorite stories are really about the pioneer women and their strength. I was reviewing a story last night that my mom has written on one of our ancestors. Her name was Anna Rosina Stookey and she was baptized in a little town in Switzerland and married a widower there and brought him into the Church and they had three children. And after he died in 1882, she comes to the United States with an 8-year-old who is suffering from epilepsy and if you can imagine the sort of faith, and vision and fortitude that that would take. And then she comes and settles in Providence and remarries and has another child who’s going to be our ancestor. And oftentimes, we don’t hear the women pioneer voices as much as we do the voice of the men and part of that’s a matter of record keeping.

Men tended to keep better journals, more public discourses, but one of the things I’ve really loved at the Church History Library, where I work, is that we have hundreds of minute books from the 19th century from the Primary and the Relief Society. And these minute books have the voices of these pioneer women, because you would have a secretary of the Relief Society meeting and she would say, “Sister Sarah Jane Weaver stood up and testified the following,” that they would share their faith in their devotion. And for so many of the pioneers, both men and women, this act of migration was central to their lives. It was sort of, you know, everything was, before the migration and after the migration. It was such a moment of faith. Such a moment, for many of them, the first big moment was a conversion, right? I’m going to convert notwithstanding what my family thinks, notwithstanding what my neighbors think. So, the first big step was conversion. The next big step was the gathering.

Read more: These 9 women in Church history rose to face their challenges. Which ones have you heard of?


Sarah Jane Weaver: And certainly our members do this all over the world today.

Matt Grow: Yeah.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I love “Saints, Vol. 3,” because it talks about the internationalization of the Church and how you have, in essence, pioneers in every single country where we have membership today. All of us must have points in our life where we make those same choices. First, we’re going to convert and now we’re going to join the gathering. In fact, as you pointed out earlier, President Nelson has enlisted all of us in the gathering of Israel.

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Matt Grow: Yeah and as I’ve been thinking about it this week, of course, it’s not enough just to arrive at the location. The Saints couldn’t just arrive here. The actual migration was a matter of months. The staying here and the building the kingdom, in some ways, that was the hard part and that took years, and year, after year, after year of working together and working with people can be hard, you know, and working together to build the Zion that they had envisioned. And to me, I think that’s a real parallel to our lives, right? I mean, sometimes we have these moments of something dramatic in our life, a dramatic conversion, a dramatic, you know, we’re going on a mission, or something like that, but we can’t just have those moments, right? Most of our lives is the staying and the continuing and the building.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I had an experience while traveling and covering President Nelson’s ministry tour in the South Pacific. We had gone from island to island to island in all these different countries. He would do these devotionals and before the devotionals, the rain would stop and he did speak about this in general conference, but we get to Tonga and the rain did not stop, you know. I kept waiting for the rain to stop and the amazing dignified Tongan Saints had been sitting in the rain for like three hours by the time the devotional began. And you start to wonder, “What’s wrong? Is his faith not strong enough here to stop the rain?” And President Nelson stood up and, in essence said, “Sometimes our faith stops the rain. Most of the time, it helps us endure the storm.” I think that that is such a pioneer legacy thing that even though we have great faith, it doesn’t mean that we won’t be in the middle of some pretty hard storms.

Matt Grow: Absolutely, and I love what you’re saying about the international pioneers, the pioneers all over the globe, and for us who work in Church history and thinking about how we explain the history of the Church to Latter-day Saints all over the globe, it’s always this balance between emphasizing this original pioneer story, right? The pioneer story that in many ways made us who we are as a people and also emphasizing, at the same time, these remarkable pioneer stories from around the world. I learned a real lesson on my mission in Brazil. I was in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1997. That was the 150th anniversary of the pioneers and that was a big deal. For the 175th we’re just doing a podcast, right?

Sarah Jane Weaver: That’s right.


Matt Grow: For the 150th we pulled wagons across the plains again. It was a huge, huge deal and in this ward I was in, outside Porto Alegre, Brazil, they made a handcart. They celebrate the 24th of July, this pioneer story. Sometimes I think Latter-day Saints, in the United States think that maybe this pioneer story doesn’t resonate all over the world, but it does and at the same time, we need to make sure that we’re learning the pioneer stories from around the globe so that those stories can resonate and teach us. That’s one of the things I love about “Saints” is that Latter-day Saints in Brazil can read about pioneers in Japan and be strengthened and fortified by them. And the pioneers in Japan are going to read about pioneers in Ecuador and on and on and on. And I think there’s a unifying principle in that for us.

The 1997 sesquicentennial wagon train arrives at This Is the Place Heritage Park.

The 1997 sesquicentennial wagon train arrives at This Is the Place Heritage Park.

Credit: Jeffrey R. Allred, Deseret News

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you know, we can link to it from this podcast, but we have done Church News interviews with both Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf and Elder Ulisses Soares on them talking about the pioneer legacy which is not part of their actual ancestor heritage, but is a legacy that they both claim. Elder Uchtdorf talked about wanting so much to actually be a missionary in Nauvoo before he was called as a general authority and so certainly, we all have something that we can learn to appreciate from this legacy.

Read more: Elder Soares’ message to international and modern-day pioneers — Thank you for ‘paving the way’

Read more: Elder Uchtdorf: The global church blessed by the voice of the prophets


Matt Grow: Oh, for sure. I mean, the pioneer story for Latter-day Saints is a universal one and one thing to remember is that it began by revelation. I mean, we have this founding revelation for the pioneer trek [Doctrine and Covenants] Section 136, right? And in that revelation the Lord says, “I am He who led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt. I’ve done this before,” right? And my arm is stretched out in the last days to save my people, Israel. And the Saints at that time, Brigham Young and the other Saints, they so identified with this concept. They were the camp of Israel. If you received a letter from Brigham Young’s camp, the place on the letter said, “Camp of Israel,” right? They literally saw themselves as Israel and identifying with the children of Israel and with the Lord who led the children of Israel out of captivity into the promised land and that the Lord would do the same for them, that He would lead them to a land where they could practice their religion in the way they wanted.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I’m glad we’re talking about this. Earlier this year I was with Elder Jeffrey R. Holland in England. We visited Benbow Pond, where he has ancestors that actually entered the waters of baptism. This is a lush, green, beautiful, beautiful area. Those ancestors came to Salt Lake and were ultimately sent to settle in St. George. I have to think that that must have been a disappointment to them. I can’t even imagine what they thought when they realized, “Wow, this is, this is where I’m, I’m supposed to farm?”

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Sister Patricia Holland walk at the Benbow family farm in Castle Frome, England on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Holland’s 4th great-grand parents owned the farm and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1840 through Wilford Woodruff.

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and his wife Sister Patricia Holland walk at the Benbow family farm in Castle Frome, England on Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. Holland’s 4th great-grand parents owned the farm and converted to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1840 through Wilford Woodruff.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News


Matt Grow: Yeah. Yeah, no, I mean, sometimes we think about the migration as the actual pioneer trek, right, leaving Winter Quarters [in Nebraska] arriving in Salt Lake City, but we have to remember on the front end, these people are leaving a little town in England, traveling to Liverpool, sailing across the ocean, either going to New Orleans or New York City, traveling by land or water to Winter Quarters. So, by the time they get to Winter Quarters, they’ve already been on a trek, right? And then after they, of course, after they arrive in in Utah, most of them don’t say in Salt Lake City, right? And most of them were asked to go places that they’re operating totally by faith.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah.

Matt Grow: They’ve never seen this place and yeah, you can imagine some of them had some difficulties.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I suspect many of the communities in the pioneer quarter, as they settled, it might have felt like a whole new trek.

Matt Grow: Yeah.

Sarah Jane Weaver: To try and get water and establish communities.

Matt Grow: Absolutely, yeah. The pioneer moment wasn’t just the three months on the plains.


Sarah Jane Weaver: So, let’s break this down as we celebrate this pioneer moment. What are the principles that we should be applying to our lives today?

Matt Grow: Well, one, I think, harkens back to the saying at the sesquicentennial. You can see this saying on many of the pioneer grave sites today, “Faith in every footstep.” And I think that was profound of President [Gordon B.] Hinckley led the Church to think about at that time, “Faith in every footstep.” I mean, it really is remarkable to think how they were motivated by faith, right, not knowing what it was going to be like. Even the Vanguard company led by Brigham Young had a general sense of where they were headed, but not a lot of specifics and every Latter-day Saint who started that had a general sense of where they were headed, but not a lot of specifics. And I think that’s like most of us in so many aspects of our life, right? We may have a general sense, but we have to have faith to keep going every step of the way.

Handcart and wagons set up camp at Independence Rock, Wyoming, during the 1997 sesquicentennial reenactment of the pioneers crossing the plains.

Handcart and wagons set up camp at Independence Rock, Wyoming, during the 1997 sesquicentennial reenactment of the pioneers crossing the plains.

Credit: Jeffery D. Allred, Deseret News

You know, I think another principle that you touched on earlier is this idea of the storms in their lives. And the pioneers, we joked a little bit about the fun they had and that was true. You need to find the joy in the journey, as well and they did, because that will help you as you face the storms, as well, right? I mean if we’re just focused on the storms of our life and we’re not doing what they did and the singing and the dancing and the community building and the join the families then, then we’re not going to make it usually.

Then I think another principle is that idea about staying once you’ve arrived, right? I mean, the Latter-day Saints in the 1800s, we sometimes forget how they had a choice after they got here. They could leave. California beckoned. The Gold Rush beckoned for many of the early ones. And we forget how many people were passing through Salt Lake City that weren’t Latter-day Saints, reminding people of opportunities elsewhere and so, the ancestors of our people, they had a choice. Are they going to stay? Are they going to continue to build the kingdom or is something else going to beckon? Are they going to head to, using the metaphor, are they going to head to California? Right? Where might we head if we don’t choose to stay? I think that’s, we obviously have that same choice in our lives.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And I think this is a time in history that also has people feeling like there’s major obstacles in front of them. You know, we’re dealing with a pandemic, the Saints in Europe, as well as the rest of the world feeling the ripple of war. We have a whole generation of missionaries who are actually living this “Faith in every footstep” thing. They start their missions, maybe in a reassignment, and they don’t know if they’re going to get there and they don’t know what that’s going to look like, but certainly this story has unfolded before for all of us.

Matt Grow: Absolutely, you know, we as a people have done really hard things before. We’ve endured war, and we’ve endured pandemic, and we’ve endured uncertainty, and we’ve endured economic chaos. And I think there is real power in looking at the examples of the past. You know, I love the story that I shared earlier about Anna Rosina Stookey. You know, the choice of a woman, who’s now a widow to take her 8-year-old son, across an ocean in search of a better life and I think it’s really the vision that the gospel gave her of who she was and an eternal sense of who she could become. And I think that’s the same core that we need to cultivate, hang on to.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and I think there are some people who look at our history and pick it apart.

Matt Grow: Sure.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And they pull out things that may be troubling to them about this story or there maybe things that are worrisome. What advice do you have for someone who may not be looking at this pioneer journey or early church history through the same lens that maybe the Church does?

Matt Grow: Oh, it’s such an important question. I mean, so many people today do have questions. I mean, we all have questions. I’ve studied Church history, since I was a teenager, you know, 30 years now, and for the last 12, I’ve worked at the Church. I’ve seen all sorts of documents. I’ve read just about everything you could read. And there are times when I look at the document I say, “That’s weird. … They sure thought about things differently than I do.” But I can really testify that as, as I’ve read the documents, as I’ve devoted my life, the vast majority of our story is a story of faith, is a story of God leading a people. It’s a story of God intervening in history and people being willing to listen and hear.

So, one piece of advice would be don’t miss the big picture by pulling on the thread. You can find disquieting things, you can find ugly things, in the history of every people and you’re gonna find things that don’t set right with your modern sensibilities, because it’s the past, right? So, don’t miss the big picture. Allow the big picture to continue to speak to you about how God works with people, about how people exercise faith and try to do their best. And yes, there’s going to be mistakes along the way and there’s going to be things that we don’t totally get. So, at the core, that would be my first piece of advice. See the big picture.

Elder Stephen Snow, who was the Church historian some time ago, would compare Church history to a tapestry. He would say, “The tapestry is beautiful, but you can pull a thread out and it’ll look weird.” You know, it’ll, it’ll look strange and, but if you’re doing that, you’ve really missed the boat. You know, another piece of counsel that I would have is don’t be too quick to judge people in the past. Sometimes I’ve used the metaphor about people being tourists to the past, right, and there was a British novelist who said, “The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there” and of course, when we travel, when we’re tourists, we go to foreign countries where they do things differently and if our first impulse is to say, “Oh, that’s weird,” or, “Hey, we don’t do that, like that, where I’m from.” If we take an attitude of condescension or an attitude of quick judgment then we’re going to miss the beauty of the past, because we’re going to see things that we disagree with. Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t condemn things that we find in the past, right? That doesn’t mean that we can’t look at racism in the past and say that was wrong, right, but it does mean that we do need to try to understand people, in their culture, in their time. Have some empathy for them. Don’t be too quick to judge and to try to get that big picture.

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Sarah Weaver: Yeah, no one wants to be the ugly tourist.

Sarah Weaver: Right.

Matt Grow: Where’s the where’s McDonald’s?

Sarah Jane Weaver: Now we’re in July and this anniversary is upon us. So, how do we celebrate?

Matt Grow: I think the ideal way would be to think some about the pioneers in the past. We have such tremendous resources now to learn about the pioneers. If you had an ancestor who went across the trail, we’ve got a database at Church history, it’s on the Church’s website, it’s called the Pioneer Overland Database and it has records of 57,000 people who made the trek. And if you find your ancestor on there you might find a journal they kept or if they didn’t keep a journal, someone on their company kept a journal and you can read that journal. Because that’s what your ancestor’s experiencing and you can kind of travel the trek with them. Or spend some time with some of the pioneers in the “Saints” series.

If you want the classic pioneer stories, it’d be in the second volume as the Saints make the migration West, but volume three, as you’d mentioned earlier, tells great stories about more modern pioneers. So, I would hope that people would spend a little bit of time reflecting on the past. I would also hope that they have some fun, right? The pioneers, they began to celebrate July 24 in 1849. They had a sense that they had done something historic. So, two years later they get the band together, and they dance, and they feast and they have a party, right? So, fun, family, friends, good food, I think they’d all be part of an ideal Pioneer Day celebration.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Great. What can you tell us about the leadership of Brigham Young? I think as a Church, we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Sacred Grove experience with Joseph Smith. We’ve talked a lot about him. What is it that we should learn or understand about Brigham Young?

Brigham Young’s statue in the foreground of the Salt lake City Temple, Oct. 4, 2002.

Brigham Young’s statue in the foreground of the Salt lake City Temple, Oct. 4, 2002.

Credit: Tom Smart, Deseret News archives

Matt Grow: That’s a really interesting question. Brigham led the Vanguard companies, we know, in 1847 and the first company, it’s almost all men in the prime of their life. So, they move fast and they explore. They get here. He only spends about three weeks here and then he’s headed back to winter with the rest of the Saints and that’s something that sometimes we forget. And he does that, in part, so that the next year he can lead a big company across. Those aren’t going to be 150 people like he did the year before. They’re gonna be a couple thousand Saints and totally different challenge. This company can’t move as fast. You have old people, you have people with all sorts of challenges and Brigham is just such a remarkable leader.

He is an organizational genius, right? He really is good at organizing and making things happen. But as he does that, he doesn’t forget the people. I mean, the people loved Brigham Young. The people who traveled with him he was Brother Brigham. There’s real significance in that they call them Brother Brigham and not President Young. There’s not a distance there. And there’s great stories about this big company he’s leading, about how one woman gets injured and Brigham is there to both give her a priesthood blessing, and then figure out kind of a hammock system in her wagon. So she recovers, she can be in this hammock in her wagon and not feel, as severely, every jolt of the wagon, right? So, he’s, he’s just very practical and he’s very people minded in his leadership.

The other thing I would say about Brigham is that sometimes we think about him, just what I said, he’s, he’s great at organization and making things happen. He’s a practical leader and sometimes the implication of that is that he’s not a spiritual leader and that’s just not so. Brigham was a spiritual leader. This is the camp of Israel. “We’re gonna build a temple as soon as we get there” and the temple and bringing the people to the temple was so important to Brigham and so, he would often give sermons both on the pioneer trek and after they arrived and a classic Brigham sermon is a little bit of everything. He’s got some practical advice, you know, he’s got some opinions on how you should raise your children, what you should be eating, what you should be wearing, but at the core of his sermons, and really at the core of who Brigham is, it’s, “We are building Zion. We’re building a community” and he was very attuned to questions of economic inequality.

He had served a mission in England, you mentioned Elder Holland and Benbow Farm earlier. Brigham’s experience in England had shown him what it meant to be truly poor. He’d worked with the truly poor and really just some of the worst effects of the Industrial Revolution and he always kept that with him. His design that they would build would be a place where you would not exploit people as he had seen people be exploited. And so, Brigham, I think, is this wonderful mix of the practical and the spiritual.


Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and so he is such an important part of the legacy we celebrate when we celebrate the founding of this area.

Matt Grow: Yeah, and I love both the idea of focusing and celebrating Brigham and Parley Pratt and John Taylor and these great leaders we shouldn’t forget, as well as remembering the other Latter-day Saints. The other day I was reading one of the great sermons in Church history ever, I think, is J. Reuben Clark. It’s at the centennial in 1947 and is called “To Them of the Last Wagon” and he describes what it meant to be in the last wagon. If you’re in the last wagon you’re going through mounds of dust every day, right, and you’re sort of falling behind and you’re doing the best you can and he said, “We need to honor and remember all of the Saints.”


Sarah Jane Weaver: Yeah, I’m sure I would have been in the last wagon. That’s my legacy. Well, as we conclude today we always wrap up each of our Church News podcasts by giving our guests the last word and by having them answer the same question.

Matt Grow: OK.


Sarah Jane Weaver: And the question that we ask everyone to answer is, what do you know now? So Matt, what do you know now after studying the legacy of the pioneers?

Matt Grow: What I know now about the pioneers, as I’ve read their records, as I’ve thought about what it meant for them to take this leap of faith, is really how remarkable it was for God to take average people from across the globe and bring them together, to gather them together, and have them do something extraordinary, which was both the pioneer trek, and then to build Zion, right, and what I know now is that that’s what He’s trying to do with us — take us where we’re at, with our flaws and our limitations and, and our desires to do good and be righteous and contribute. He takes us where we’re at and He gathers us together and He asks us to build Zion and I think there’s great power and looking at the past. The past, for me, is so faith affirming. As I see what they did and what God did with and for them, there’s real power in the spiritual concept of remembering and as we remember, we tap into some of that spiritual power they had. It gives us a little bit of boost in our own lives.


Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast and if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer KellieAnn Halvorsen and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on

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