The life of Primary General President Joy D. Jones’ great-grandmother Helen Adelia Gibson Ellsworth — or “Aunt Nell” as she was known by family and friends — began on the pioneer trail.
Helen was born in the back of a wagon, 10 days before her parents reached the Salt Lake Valley. As the oldest of 10 children, Helen often took care of the family when her mother — the oldest of 22 children — was in frail health.
“When Helen was 15 years old, she was running the household,” President Jones said. “She was taking care of her siblings and her dear invalid mother. She was cooking over the fire. She was sewing clothing by hand. She was making candles. She was weaving.
“I marvel, just marvel, at the things that she accomplished. I realize today that her DNA is in me. I can do hard things, too.”
Sitting in front of the Pioneer Children’s Memorial at This Is the Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City as Pioneer Day approached, President Jones reflected on the legacy of pioneer women and children and how Latter-day Saints can honor their pioneer heritage.
Pioneer women and children
While reading stories of the early Saints who crossed the plains, President Jones said she has gained strength from the sisterhood among the pioneer women — “how they must have shared their thoughts and encouragement with each other, how they must have laughed with each other, how they must have cried on each other’s shoulders.”
Many women faced difficult challenges, such as burying a child along the trail. But as they did, “they buoyed each other up, they were there for each other,” she said. They shared what little they had. They helped care for one another’s children. They lived their faith.
“I feel that that is quite a legacy for us as women, to look back and realize the love that those sisters shared with each other,” President Jones said. “We’re stronger together than being alone. We need each other. We support each other, we strengthen each other, and we’re better because of each other.”
Pioneer children, too, were strong, she continued. “What a gift that is for our children, to recognize these precious little ones who went day after day, following their parents’ example, doing what they were asked to do, and keeping their faith strong in Jesus Christ.”
Though the challenges of children today are different from what pioneer children faced, “Our children can look to these children from the past and realize it was difficult for them. They did hard things. And our children today do hard things as well.”
President Jones encouraged parents to teach children about the pioneers in their families and how they acted on revelation to guide their journey. Studies have shown that children who know more about their families are stronger and more resilient, she said.
“They realize that they’re part of something bigger than themselves, that they belong, that they have an important place and an important role,” she said.
While traveling around the world, President Jones has met many modern pioneer children “doing hard things.” Though these children live in different countries and speak different languages, there is one thing they have in common: “They’re always smiling.”
For example, “I’ve watched children as they’ve worked beside their parents and then taken their produce to the market. They stay there all day and into the evening with their parents selling produce,” President Jones said.
Over and over again, she’s seen how children are “so anxious to participate, so anxious to serve, so anxious to help. … They have courage. They have faith” — just like the early pioneer children.
Honoring pioneer heritage
While standing in front of the headstone of her third-great grandmother Miriam Angeline Works Young in Mendon, New York, last summer, President Jones said she felt a strong connection to her ancestors.
“Their lives were important. Their lives mattered. I felt deep and tender gratitude. It was a powerful moment,” she said. “I felt the thinness of the veil and realized we are all part of this one work together on both sides of the veil.”
Pioneer Day is an opportunity to “pause” and reflect on “the privilege of being part of a family,” President Jones said. “We get so busy in the present, and we’re always looking forward to the future, but sometimes we forget to look back. Sometimes we forget to remember.”
President M. Russell Ballard, acting president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, offered similar counsel. With many of the traditional celebrations canceled in Salt Lake City and other places this year due to COVID-19, this year’s Pioneer Day presents an opportunity to find a quiet moment and ponder, he said.
“The most important thing people need from time to time is just to ‘be still and know that I am God (Psalms 46:10).’ It’s in the quiet when one can contemplate who they are, what their purpose is, and also find time to be able to read and study the stories of their own forefathers.”
Aside from remembering and sharing stories, Latter-day Saints can honor pioneers by living the principles they exhibited, President Jones said.
“As parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, we can live the characteristics that we so honor and respect in our early Saints — courage and faith, love, resilience and that strength that they exuded every day of their lives,” she said. “As we live those characteristics, we are sharing those things with our children.”
By serving others, the pioneer spirit becomes personal, said Elder Ulisses Soares of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
“I think that’s the best way to honor the pioneer heritage: serving each other, serving in our communities, being good neighbors, helping each other to feel the same joy we feel, even if they don’t join us in our belief. We can help and bless them through our personal example and love,” Elder Soares said.
Another way to honor the early pioneers is by learning from their experiences how to “hear Him,” Elder Soares said. “They heard the voice of the Lord, and they followed it. And we can hear the voice of the Lord in our day, as President Russell M. Nelson has been teaching the whole Church. …
“In doing so, I believe we can really enjoy the miracles the early pioneers experienced when they were crossing the plains and trying to find their place in the world. There are so many miracles in their stories, so many things that happened that can apply in our lives today.”
Today’s pioneers, President Jones said, are “heeding the word of the Lord” and moving forward in faith as they receive revelation. “We’re doing the very same thing that the early pioneers did. We are each experiencing our own journey. We are crossing our own trails. We are moving forward with faith in Jesus Christ just as they did.”