Sarah Jane Weaver: As Utah honors President Ballard, his teachings about looking back, and forward, have new relevance

On July 22, 1997 — 24 years ago today — President M. Russell Ballard stood near the This Is the Place Monument at the mouth of Emigration Canyon in the Salt Lake Valley and addressed the media.

The event was a wrap-up session for a wagon train reenactment that marked the 150th anniversary of the pioneers entering the Salt Lake Valley.

But President Ballard, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and general chairman of the Church sesquicentennial committee, said it was about so much more than that.

“It is possible that you could be out on the trail and all caught up in the excitement of this 150th year and the celebration of the pioneers coming into the Salt Lake Valley and not fully comprehend what this is really about,” he said. “Our message is a message of the restoration of the fullness of the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Speaking to broadcast and print journalists who may not have been familiar with the Church and its beliefs, he explained that the basic premise of the Church is a declaration to the world that God the Eternal Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to the Prophet Joseph Smith in the year 1820.

He called the reenactment of the pioneers’ arrival in the Salt Lake Valley a great blessing. “It means a lot to all of us,” then-Elder Ballard said. “We go back and get a lot of strength from thinking about our roots and our pioneer heritage. It has done something spiritually for our people all over the world.”

Exactly 24 years later, Utah Gov. Spencer Cox held a press conference declaring “July 23, 2021, as President M. Russell Ballard Day.” In an official declaration, Gov. Cox called President Ballard, who is now Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, a community builder who has “worked hard to preserve the history of the great state of Utah” and is a “a bridge-builder among people of all faiths and walks of life in Utah.”

Read more: Utah Gov. Cox declares July 23 as President M. Russell Ballard Day to honor Latter-day Saint leader

“President Ballard has declared many times that we can’t lose Utah’s pioneer story and has highlighted how Utah pioneers were responsible for settling much of the American West and had characteristics of hard work, responsibility, faith, resilience, vision and perseverance, and has encouraged all of us to emulate those traits,” wrote Gov. Cox in the declaration.

President Ballard is the grandson of two Apostles — Elder Melvin J. Ballard and Elder Hyrum M. Smith. He also has a unique connection to the Restoration of the Church. Three sculpted busts of venerable Latter-day Saint leaders rest prominently atop a credenza in President Ballard’s office — Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith and Joseph F. Smith. President Ballard is a great-great-grandson of Hyrum Smith, who is the brother of Joseph Smith and the father of Joseph F. Smith.

He is the Church’s longest-tenured General Authority — sustained to the First Quorum of the Seventy in 1976 and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1985.

During four and a half decades as a General Authority, President Ballard’s duties have taken him to most of the countries in the world, allowing him to minister face to face to countless members and missionaries along with government and religious leaders.

Gov. Cox praised President Ballard for his “untiring efforts and work” on behalf of the development and enhancements of This Is the Place Heritage Park.

The governor also praised President Ballard’s efforts to help “with the creation of the Walk of Pioneer Faiths that highlights the contributions of members of the Catholic, Jewish, Congregational, Episcopal, Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and Greek Orthodox faiths, alongside The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” and support “the growth and development of Utah and co-founded the Alliance for Unity in Utah.”

On July 20, 1997, President Ballard spoke at a pioneer devotional held in the Dee Events enter in Ogden, Utah.

Even then, almost a quarter of a century ago, his life was reflective of a modern-day pioneer speaking of the past, but ever looking to the future.

“You can see that there are different challenges that we face today — different mountains to climb, different rivers to ford, different valleys to make ‘blossom as the rose’” (Isaiah 35:1).

The wilderness “we’ve been given to conquer is decidedly different from the rough and rocky trail to Utah and the barren landscape that our pioneer forebears encountered in 1847, it is no less challenging and trying for us than it was for them. And it is certainly no less important for all of us to keep our eyes on the prophet, our shoulders to the wheel, and our feet firmly planted on the trail of faithfulness.

“Our struggle is found in living in a world steeped in sin and spiritual indifference where self-indulgence, dishonesty, and greed seem to be present everywhere. Today’s wilderness is one of confusion and conflicting messages.”

He said the pioneers had to battle the wilderness of rocky ridges and dusty mountain trails with their faith focused on Zion and the establishment of the Church in the Salt Lake Valley.

“We too must focus on Zion and put our faith to work in building up the kingdom of God in our wards and branches. We must have the same kind of faith, the same willingness to give our all, even our lives if necessary, to the great cause of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“Somehow each one of us needs to commit to the service of the Lord with the same diligence and faith that our forefathers did.”