Although the Saints were driven west from Nauvoo, Ill., and surrounding villages, they were also pulled in that direction by longstanding prophecies, said Ronald K. Esplin, director of the Joseph Fielding Smith Institute for Church History at BYU.
Addressing the Iowa Mormon Trails History Symposium May 4, he pointed to comments and prophecies made as early as 1831 when individuals were promised privately that they would accompany the Saints "to the bosom of the Rocky Mountains.""What did they know about the far West (and their intended destination), why was it so important, and why did it have such a hold on them that Mormon leaders came to see their eventual removal west as their destiny?" he asked.
He answered those questions by noting several evidences:
- Brigham Young realized early that the Saints would move west. He came to this conclusion partly through what he called "natural revelation," or that from all he understood he could see perfectly well that this had to be, explained Dr. Esplin. Brigham Young realized in 1838 that the members would eventually be driven from Missouri, and that they needed time and space to mature, neither of which was available locally. Only the far West promised such a refuge, though there were legal and government obstacles, as well as practical considerations, why they could not leave directly for the far West then.
- William Clayton's "Come, Come Ye Saints," expressed the faith that, "We'll find the place which God for us prepared, far away in the West."
- After arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, Brigham Young said, "This is the right spot. I saw it before, Joseph saw it before: this is the right spot."
In 1848, after returning to Council Bluffs, Brigham Young came back to make the valley his permanent home. "Finally he was home and he felt it deeply," said Dr. Esplin. President Young said: "I venture to say that not another person in the congregation has the sensations that I have right now. . . having to guard every moment to keep from bursting into tears and sitting down like a child. We are here! Thank the Almighty God of Israel!"
- "The Book of Mormon taught that the day would come that the Indians would play an important part in God's latter-day work in the Americas," said Dr. Esplin. The largest number [of Indians] were in the West.
- Biblical prophecy, most prominently in Isaiah 2, foretells the "mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains." (Isa. 2:2.)
- In addition, there existed throughout America a feeling to move west. "It is not merely a coincidence that their headquarters city in northern Missouri was called Far West," he said.
Though the understanding of moving to the far West was prevalent among the membership, they didn't talk about it because they didn't want to announce their plans to their enemies, he noted.