‘Saints’ today: What would early pioneers say or do if facing the COVID-19 pandemic?

When Angela Hallstrom walks around the Salt Lake City cemetery, she often brushes dirt and debris off of one headstone: Emily Grant.

Emily Grant was not Hallstrom’s grandmother or great-grandmother — she was one of President Heber J. Grant’s plural wives. But after reading countless letters written by Emily Grant, Hallstrom said she has “felt connected to her in an interesting way.”

Hallstrom is a writer for “Saints, Volume 2,” the second book in a series published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints outlining the Church’s history. Many pioneers written about in “Saints” are buried in the Salt Lake City cemetery, and Hallstrom feels she has spent time with them as she has gone on walks during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Emily Harris Wells Grant was one of President Heber J. Grant's plural wives.
Emily Harris Wells Grant was one of President Heber J. Grant’s plural wives. Credit: familysearch.org

Of Emily Grant, Hallstrom told the Church News: “She went through a number of challenges, but she was also very strong and spunky and was very able to communicate what she thought and how she felt through writing.”

Early pioneers like Emily suffered grief, loneliness and depression — familiar feelings to many in today’s isolating and restrictive COVID-19 global pandemic. Perhaps the Saints’ perseverance and strength then can inspire Latter-day Saints worldwide today to hope for better days.

“I imagine they are full of advice for us today,” said “Saints” literary editor and lead writer Scott Hales. “If I could talk to a pioneer today, I would just try to glean from their experiences.”

Emily Grant was one of the many Latter-day Saints persecuted for practicing plural marriage in the late 19th century. For a time, she even told her children their father was their “Uncle Eli” to avoid persecution and arrest.

“I think we mythologize our pioneer ancestors as if they could handle everything with a smile on their face, never getting upset, never questioning why, never having a crisis,” Hallstrom said. “But that’s not true. They were very human.”

Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson traveled with her husband and children across the plains in the Martin handcart company. Her husband died on the trail.
Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson traveled with her husband and children across the plains in the Martin handcart company. Her husband died on the trail. Credit: familysearch.org

Recently, Hales has been thinking about Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson, a Martin handcart company pioneer. After crossing an icy river during their trek west, Elizabeth Jackson woke up in the middle of the night only to feel her husband, Aaron, cold and stiff beside her — dead.

But later on their trek west, when she and her children were starving and growing despondent, he appeared in a vision and told her to cheer up: “Deliverance is at hand,” he said.

Reflecting on Elizabeth Jackson’s and other pioneers’ experiences, Hales said, “I am humbled by their resilience and capacity to endure hardship.”

“Unfortunately, we can start to see the world in such a way that if we are righteous and if the Lord loves us, that we should be spared hardship and grief and struggle,” Hallstrom said, adding that many of those featured in “Saints, Volume 2” did not suffer from that fallacy.

“They knew that life was going to be hard, they knew that they were going to have to face challenges. And when challenges came, they didn’t look at them as the Lord not loving them or abandoning them,” Hallstrom said.

Rather than being upset when hard things come, Hallstrom said, one can venture to the Lord and ask for help overcoming them.

When dealing with challenging situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Hales said he considers the stories of those who populate the book’s pages. “I am comforted by the fact that I am not alone. … It doesn’t necessarily make my troubles go away, but it helps me to feel understood and seen. And I hope that ‘Saints’ can do that for people.”