Pioneers honored during sunrise service

Elder Ronald A. Rasband recounts ancestors' trek west in handcarts

Sharing stories from his own family history, Elder Ronald A. Rasband paid tribute to the Mormon pioneers and their sacrifice.

"We celebrate Pioneer Day and all of us express our gratitude for the many pioneers who gave everything to build up this community and many other communities in the western United States," said Elder Rasband of the Presidency of the Seventy.

Gathering in the newly restored Tabernacle on Temple Square on July 24, hundreds attended the Days of '47 Sunrise Service sponsored by the Salt Lake Pioneer Chapter of the Sons of Utah Pioneers.

Music for the service was provided by several combined choirs that sang pioneer and patriotic anthems. First Presbyterian Church Pastor Mike Imperiale narrated the event. International Daughters of Utah Pioneers President Mary A. Johnson introduced the Day of '47 Royalty, Marin Poole, queen; Cristal Johnson, first attendant, and Marianne Stuart, second attendant.

Offering the keynote address, Elder Rasband spoke of his ancestors, John Bennett Hawkins and Sarah Elizabeth Moulton.

Both their stories, he said, "began in the rolling green countryside of England," where they joined the Church.

Born in 1825, John was baptized in 1849 at 24 years of age. He sailed to America and arrived in 1852 Utah where he became a blacksmith.

Sarah Elizabeth's family learned about the Church in 1837 through family friends. In 1841, nine members of the Quorum of the Twelve visited England. Meeting some of those Church leaders strengthened Sarah Elizabeth's and her family's resolve to travel to the Salt Lake Valley. "The spirit of gathering was strong in the hearts of the saints in Europe," said Elder Rasband.

Still the Moulton family — including seven children — did not have the means to make the journey. They saved money in a fruit jar, then news of the Perpetual Emigration Fund buoyed their hopes. Soon Church leaders investigated handcart travel, and "found that handcarts allowed the travel to be faster and less costly."

With their savings, help from the Perpetual Emigration Fund, and a less expensive mode of travel "the dream of emigration became more of a possibility."

The family began careful planning for the trip. Sarah Elizabeth's father thought about delaying their departure. His wife was pregnant with the couple's eighth child. But "she was a woman of great faith and she could not be persuaded otherwise," said Elder Rasband.

Still, before she left England she was given a blessing in which she was promised that she could make the long journey without losing a single member of her large family.

"Sarah Elizabeth, my great-grandmother, would have been 18 years old at this time. The family set sail from Liverpool, England, in 1856," Elder Rasband said.

They welcomed a baby boy three days into journey.

When they reached Iowa City, however, they found handcarts — sent with other pioneer companies — were in short supply. Before the pioneers could leave they frantically constructed 250 handcarts. The women made dozens of tents for the journey.

Due to time constraints, many did not adhere to the strict specifications used on other handcarts. "The more costly error was making carts of green, unseasoned timber," said Elder Rasband.

Sarah Elizabeth's family was assigned two handcarts, her parents pulled one with the three younger children aboard. With the help of two younger brothers and a younger sister, Sarah Elizabeth pulled the other handcart. Her 8-year-old brother crossed the plains on foot, tied to his parents' handcart so he would not wander off.

They began the 1,300-mile journey westward July 18 as part of the historic Willie Handcart Company. At Winter Quarters "several more days were lost as they mended carts and took on new supplies."

Late in the season, a council was held to determine if the group should go on or wait until spring. They were "strongly cautioned against travel so late in the season."

"Short provisions, the Willie company started on their journey in August 1856," said Elder Rasband.

During the journey, Sarah Elizabeth's family — who had already left excess baggage at the port in Liverpool, England, aboard the ship, in New York City, and in Iowa City — now discarded everything left, including badly needed bedding and clothes.

Elder Rasband said it is hard for him, who enjoys all the comforts of life today, to imagine the daily misery, "the blistered feet, the sore muscles, flies and mosquitoes, stampeding buffalo herds" — of Sarah Elizabeth and her family.

"How can we imagine the difficult river crossing in sand or among slippery rocks or pulling handcarts across deep or swift running water?" he asked. "How can we understand the tiredness that comes from a lack of sufficient nourishment?"

They reached Fort Laramie on Sept. 30. "Here they were able to exchange their remaining watches and jewelry, about all they had left, for corn meal, bacon, beans and flour," he said.

But the food did not last long in the harsh, cold conditions. "On a rocky ridge of the sweet water, the company waited against starvation and cold for help to arrive," said Elder Rasband.

From Temple Square where Elder Rasband was speaking, President Brigham Young sent men and supplies to help the stranded pioneers.

"My great-grandfather was in the (old) Tabernacle that day," said Elder Rasband. On Oct. 21, the rescuers finally found the people. "They were greeted with joy and gratitude by the frozen and starving survivors," he said. "This was probably the first meeting of my grandparents."

When the company reached the Salt Lake Valley "gratitude soon blossomed into romance" and Sarah Elizabeth Moulton married John Bennett Hawkins a few weeks later, on Dec. 5.

Sarah Elizabeth's mother's blessing was fulfilled; every member of her family made it safely to the Salt Lake Valley.

"What moved them on, what pushed them forward? I believe it was their testimony of the Lord Jesus Christ," said Elder Rasband.

As a great-grandson, he then added his testimony to theirs. "What they knew, I know. I bear record on this Pioneer Day that Jesus is the Christ."

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