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Pioneer Day is more than handcarts — it’s about the story of the Restoration, President Ballard says


President M. Russell Ballard will never forget sitting beside President Gordon. B. Hinckley and other members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles at the This Is The Place Monument in Salt Lake City in July 1997. 

Together they watched as handcarts and wagons entered the valley through Emigration Canyon after retracing more than 1,000 miles across the plains. It was an emotional moment for the Church leaders and the more than 50,000 people in attendance. 

“Tears were streaming down President Hinckley’s face, down all of our faces really,” recalled President Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. 

President Gordon B. Hinckley, President Thomas S. Monson, President James E. Faust and President M. Russell Ballard sing with participants at This Is the Place Heritage Park during the Latter-day Saint pioneer trek reenactment in Salt Lake City in July 1997. The group traveled from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City over a three-month period, tracing the pioneer trail.

President Gordon B. Hinckley, President Thomas S. Monson, President James E. Faust and President M. Russell Ballard sing with participants at This Is the Place Heritage Park during the Latter-day Saint pioneer trek reenactment in Salt Lake City in July 1997. The group traveled from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City over a three-month period, tracing the pioneer trail.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The reenactment was one of several events honoring the 150th anniversary of the pioneers arriving in the Salt Lake Valley. At the time, President Ballard was serving as chairman of the sesquicentennial committee. He emphasized that the sesquicentennial was more than a wagon train — it was an opportunity to tell the world the story of the Restoration

“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,” he said at a press conference on July 22, 1997. “Our message is a message of the Restoration of the fullness of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Paticipants enter This Is the Place Heritage Park during the Latter-day Saint pioneer trek reenactment in Salt Lake City in 1997. The group traveled from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City over a three-month period, tracing the pioneer trail.

Paticipants enter This Is the Place Heritage Park during the Latter-day Saint pioneer trek reenactment in Salt Lake City in 1997. The group traveled from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake City over a three-month period, tracing the pioneer trail.

Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In his office at the Church Administration Building 25 years later, President Ballard reflected on the sesquicentennial, his pioneer heritage and the global membership of the Church. This month marks 175 years since the first company of pioneers arrived in Salt Lake Valley in 1847. 

When asked what his message is for modern-day pioneers, President Ballard turned again to the story of the Restoration. 

“Whether you’re a new member of the Church in Hong Kong, India or Salt Lake City, it’s the same message, and that is, the Church is true. Jesus is the Christ. The Father and the Son have appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith and have restored the fulness of the everlasting gospel. And the priesthood — the authority and power of God — is once again upon the earth to direct the affairs of the kingdom of God in preparation for the day when Christ will come again,” President Ballard declared. 

“Now, in a few words, that takes it from the pioneers to the Second Coming. That’s what it’s about.”

Pioneer stories: An anchor of faith

The Church has “a remarkable history,” President Ballard said, “and every member of the Church ought to read it and feel [connected to it].” The stories of the early pioneers leaving Nauvoo and coming west are not only for those who have pioneer ancestry but for all Latter-day Saints. 

“No one can really understand The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and not be overwhelmed with love, affection and admiration for our pioneer forefathers,” he said. 

“If people don’t care about their forefathers then they are missing one of the very precious anchors in their lives. Our forefathers were men and women of integrity, faith and courage.”

For President Ballard — a great-great grandson of Hyrum Smith — it is impossible to reflect on the pioneers and not underscore the testimony of truth the Prophet Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum sealed with their blood.  

“One of the things I have tried to do is to have the Church never lose sight of Hyrum Smith, the older brother of the Prophet Joseph. I think Joseph was able to be Joseph in a lot of ways because he had Hyrum right at his side,” he said.

President Ballard remembers speaking at the 2012 Seminar for New Mission Presidents and saying that he knew of “no greater missionary companionship that has served in this dispensation” than Joseph and Hyrum. “Much can be learned by our missionaries in following the example of these prophets. They were men of integrity, loyalty, courage, trust, faith and unwavering testimony,” he said on that occasion.

The Mississippi River is the backdrop for a statue titled “Calm As A Summer’s Morning,” placed near the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. The statue depicts Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum on horseback, riding to Carthage where they were martyred.

The Mississippi River is the backdrop for a statue titled “Calm As A Summer’s Morning,” placed near the Nauvoo Illinois Temple. The statue depicts Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum on horseback, riding to Carthage where they were martyred.

Credit: Provided by RCC Photography

Joseph and Hyrum laid a foundation of faith that prepared the Saints for leaving their homes and journeying more than 1,000 miles through prairie, desert and canyons. 

After his father was martyred, Joseph F. Smith — President Ballard’s great-grandfather and Hyrum’s son — had to become a strong young man at age 7 to help his mother, Mary Fielding Smith, cross the Plains. Young Joseph F. led an ox team from Nauvoo to Winter Quarters. After two years there and at age 9, he led Old Tom, his ox and best friend on the long trail, to the Salt Lake Valley. 

“When you talk about our pioneers, you have got to have your handkerchief in your hand because they were heroic. And the women — the pioneer women — were unbelievable,” said President Ballard, mentioning the women who pulled handcarts when their husbands had died or fallen ill.

Honoring pioneer heritage

When the first company of pioneers arrived in 1847, the Salt Lake Valley was barren, with hardly any trees in sight. But Brigham Young saw what the valley would become.

Too feverish and weak to walk, Brigham Young was lying down in the back of Wilford Woodruff’s wagon when they arrived at a level bench of land opening to a view of the Salt Lake Valley. Brigham could not see the valley clearly, so Wilford turned the wagon to give him a better view.

“This is the right place,” he told Wilford after looking out across the vast desert valley for several minutes. “Drive on” (see “Saints, Volume 2, No Unhallowed Hand, 1846-1893” pg. 64-65).

“And here it is — a beautiful city and the crossroads of the West,” said President Ballard, as he told this story during a July 2020 interview at This Is The Place Heritage Park. “We now are saying it’s the crossroads of the world because of our missionary effort to the whole world.”

President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, leaves the Mary Fielding Smith home at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City following an interview on Monday, June 15, 2020.

President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, leaves the Mary Fielding Smith home at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City following an interview on Monday, June 15, 2020.

Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

President Ballard said those looking to pioneers past and present are really celebrating the Restoration of the gospel. “What we celebrate on July 24th is mainly the life and ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ and His inspired direction for our early leaders and faithful pioneers.”

How can Latter-day Saints better honor their pioneer heritage? President Ballard offered a simple response.  

“Keep the commandments,” he said. “Pay our tithing. Fulfill callings that we are extended. Go to church. Partake of the sacrament. And try to be the kind of people that they gave their lives for.”

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