Each summer, thousands of LDS youth travel to the historic site of Martin's Cove, Wyo., or other locations. Clad in 1850s garb — or the closest they can come thereto — they honor their pioneer forebears by pulling handcarts many miles over dusty trails and stopping in the evenings to rest, take their meals, dance, engage in games of yesteryear and talk of the courage, sacrifice and obedience of those whom they honor.
For many of these young people, it is a life-changing experience. Typically, at tear-filled devotionals and testimony meetings they relate spiritual experiences and speak of a renewed, if not new-found, appreciation for those who laid the foundations for the latter-day work of establishing the kingdom of God on earth.
But there is perhaps a less obvious benefit to be gained from these youth excursions: an understanding of a recurring symbolism in the history of God's dealings with His covenant people.
An epic journey through a trackless wilderness to a promised land, generally involving an exodus from oppression and wickedness, to a destination of promised blessings and rest is a theme that pervades scripture ancient and modern.
It is present, of course, in the Lord's deliverance of the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage "unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey" (Exodus 3:8). But we see it also in the departure of Lehi's family from persecution at and the impending destruction of the city of Jerusalem and their arrival in a land of promise where they are assured they and their descendants will prosper so long as they serve the God of Israel.
The motif has its expression in the latter-day dispensation, in the en masse movement of the Lord's people from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and, eventually, across the frontier plains to their haven in the Rocky Mountains.
In these accounts there are common themes. If we compare the journey-to-the-promised-land imagery to our journey through the wilderness of mortality to the promised destination of eternal life and exaltation with God and Christ, these typical themes can be instructive and comforting.
Each of the journeys, for example, is characterized by divine guidance through an anointed servant of the Lord who receives revelation, sometimes in a sacred space or locale.
In the case of Moses, the divine directives were given on "holy ground" at the burning bush (see Exodus 3:5) and later from atop Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19, 20).
After Lehi's family had departed from Jerusalem and journeyed in the wilderness, arriving at the land of Bountiful, Nephi was commanded, "Arise and get thee into the mountain" (1 Nephi 17:7). There, he was commanded and given guidance to build a ship that would be the means for the family to cross the ocean to their promised land.
As we journey through mortality, we are blessed by revelation from God given through prophets called to lead us. As in ancient days, prophets often receive revelation in the temple, metaphorically called "the mountain of the Lord" in scripture. As we follow their divinely inspired leadership, we are protected in our journey and eventually arrive safely at our destination.
In the scriptures, the journeying of God's people is attended by the performance of sacred ordinances and entering into covenants with God. Moses' followers observed strict commandments to protect them from the plagues that were visited upon their Egyptian captors.
The Latter-day Saints in Nauvoo, facing threats from mobs, delayed their departure for the West until they completed the temple, therein to receive the ordinances of salvation and exaltation, knowing they would need these to sustain and support them through the hardships of the journey that was before them.
In our mortal journey, we are sustained by the covenants we receive with the ordinances of baptism and confirmation, and ordinances received later in the temple. These represent our fully coming unto Christ and provide us with the spiritual strength we need to see us through our journey.
In all three of the above mentioned journeys — the exodus from Egypt to Canaan, the departure of Lehi's colony from Jerusalem to their promised land and the trek of the pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley — there were those who murmured and complained. On one occasion, "the whole congregation of the children of Israel murmured against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness," saying, "Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots and when we did eat bread to the full" (Exodus 16:2-3). Nephi's brothers, Laman and Lemuel, similarly complained, saying they would have been better off had they remained in Jerusalem (see 1 Nephi 17:21-22).
Having commenced on the mortal journey to eternal life, some lose heart. The glorious end goal vanishes from their vision, their resolve is weakened, and they return to old habits and behaviors that hinder them in their journey. Lest we are so tempted, we can remember the goodness of God in the past to His children who remain faithful and follow Him.
The Israelites under leadership of Moses were led in the wilderness by a cloud and a pillar of fire (see Exodus 13:21). Lehi's family was provided with the Liahona, a divine instrument that pointed the way they should go and functioned according to their faith (see 1 Nephi 16; Alma 37).
We today, in our wilderness journey to eternal life, have the light of the gospel and a living prophet — President Thomas S. Monson — to guide us and the instrumentality of the scriptures, patriarchal blessings and personal revelation.
As we journey to our ultimate promised land and joyful reunion with our Father and those who have gone before us, may we draw inspiration and fortitude from these accounts of the wilderness journeyings of God's people.