Few people in the world understand and appreciate pioneers more than do the Latter-day Saints.
Pioneers are those who go before, to tread first on new terrain, whose critical moments of decision must be based upon faith alone. They are those who face trials with no experience, only resolve — the stuff of which raw faith is made. And when such trials lead to irretrievable heartache, it is the true pioneer who still plunges forward. It is a proverb that pioneering and sacrifice go ahead hand in hand.
A pioneer can be one who blazes a trail into a new territory, or one who ventures into a newfound faith, a spiritual pioneer.
One of the former was Elder Wilford Woodruff, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, who, after a difficult cross-country road-building trek, arrived in the Salt Lake Valley July 24, 1847.
"This is one of the most important days of my life, and in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. . . ." he wrote. "We came in full view of the valley of the Great Salt Lake; the land of promise, held in reserve by God, as a resting place for His saints.
"We gazed in wonder and admiration upon the valley before us, with the waters of the Great Salt Lake glistening in the sun, mountains towering to the skies, and streams of pure water running through the beautiful valley. . . . Pleasant thoughts ran through our minds at the prospect that, not many years hence, the house of God would be established in the mountains and exalted above the hills; while the valleys would be converted into orchards, vineyards and fruitful fields. . . ."
It was many years before Elder Woodruff's optimistic hopes were fully realized. Seeds planted by the first company as they flooded, then plowed the parched ground at City Creek proved only that the land was fertile but failed to provide a harvest except as provender to foraging livestock of later arriving companies.
Pioneer Priddy Meeks wrote that his family lived on crows, thistle and sego lily roots during the first winter. "I would dig until I grew weak and faint, then sit down and eat a root, them begin again," he wrote of surviving the first winter in the valley.
While pioneers continued to arrive, times remained difficult. "The crops failing that year, flour was ten cents a pound, and very little to sell," wrote pioneer Louisa Decker of 1857. "It was a pitiful sight to see women selling their trinkets, rings and relics that they had held almost sacred, for something to feed their hungry families, children out asking for crusts of bread; men begging for work at any price, and again the grasshoppers stripped our gardens and trees of every vestige of green, leaving them in a few hours as bare as in a winter day" ("Reminiscences of Nauvoo," Woman's Exponent 37:7 April 1909).
Despite these hardships, the next decades saw Elder Woodruff's vision realized as the population of Utah doubled, and doubled again. The coming of the railroad in 1869 coincided with the diminishing of want.
As we of today look back on those years, we rightfully feel inclined to venerate the hardy souls who went before.
President Gordon B. Hinckley observed: "I wish to remind everyone within my hearing that the comforts we have, the peace we have, and, most importantly, the faith and knowledge of the things of God that we have were bought with a terrible price by those who have gone before us. Sacrifice has always been a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ," he said during the October 1991 general conference.
More than a century later, we still grieve at the loss of a pioneer child. It is sadly true all our grieving can't take us back or change the historical concrete of the past. But it is wonderfully true that we can go forward and change the yet-plastic future as we help spiritual pioneers of the present, so filled with optimism and hope.
Who among us are more pioneers than recent converts so soon cut away from the moorings of their past, as they cross a religious frontier and settle into a life filled with new ways, new standards and, yes, new challenges? These spiritual pioneers are blazing the way for their yet unborn descendants — who will one day venerate them for going on before. No, they do not face the physical hardships of the 19th century pioneers. Yet their more subtle challenges are equally daunting.
"With the ever-increasing number of converts, we must make an increasingly substantial effort to assist them as they find their way," said President Hinckley in the April 1997 general conference. "Every one of them needs three things: a friend, a responsibility and nurturing with 'the good word of God.' It is our duty and opportunity to provide these things. . . . The challenge now is greater than it has ever been."
Are not the vulnerable pioneers of the present as important, as save-worthy as those of the 19th century? Let us harness our appreciation for our pioneers of the past and put it to work for the spiritual pioneers of the present. And keep the true pioneer spirit alive and well among us.