Episode 69: Elder Christofferson and President and Sister Top emphasize drawing courage from history to face modern challenges

Elder D. Todd Christofferson addressed thousands gathered in San Diego, California, on Jan. 29, 2022, in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion to the city. In a Church News interview, recorded on the streets of Old Town San Diego that day, he spoke of the battalion’s historic 2,100-mile march and why learning about history matters.

This episode of the Church News podcast features that interview with Elder Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It also features an interview with Mormon Battalion Historic Site leaders, President Brent L. Top and Sister Wendy C. Top. Elder Christofferson and President and Sister Top emphasize drawing courage from the faith-infused actions of the past to face modern challenges.

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Transcript

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: The Mormon Battalion and other pioneers here, I think, helped lay a very strong foundation of freedom, of worship, of service to one another. And then, I think it’s important to recognize the mutual support. We’re not in this alone, any of us really. One of the main reasons we have a church, for example, is that we have a support system. We can work together, hold each other up. Sometimes we’re weak and others help us, and sometimes we’re strong, we help others. But we have a community of Saints as they had a battalion, a military unit that they served with, and they helped each other, they lifted each other to the end.

Sarah Jane Weaver: I’m Sarah Jane Weaver, editor of the Church News, and welcome to the Church News podcast. We are taking you on a journey of connection as we discuss news and events of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson addressed thousands gathered in Old Town San Diego on Jan. 29, 2022, in celebration of the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion to the city. In a Church News interview taped on the streets of Old Town San Diego moments later that day, he spoke of the battalion’s historic 2,100-mile march, and why it still matters to each of us. This episode of the Church News podcast features that interview with Elder Christofferson, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It also features an interview with Mormon Battalion Historic Site’s director, President Brent L. Top and Sister Wendy C. Top. Each look at history, and in the process, help us find answers to some of the problems we all face today. We’ll start this episode of the Church News podcast with the interview with Elder Christofferson, then go directly into the interview with President and Sister Top. 

Elder Christofferson, we’re here on the 175th anniversary of the arrival of Mormon Battalion in San Diego, and you’re here too. What brought you here? Why was it important to you to make this a priority to come?

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion in San Diego at Old Town San Diego Historical Park on Jan. 29 2022.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion in San Diego at Old Town San Diego Historical Park on Jan. 29 2022. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

2:32  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Well, I appreciate it and do appreciate deeply the invitation I got to come. It’s not something I get to choose or volunteer for — I guess I did volunteer a bit — but it is an assignment, along with the other assignments we get as members of the Twelve, and this was perfect for me. My own brother Greg is the current president of the Mormon Battalion Association, so I had a chance to do something together with him, and that made it that much more special. But think for a moment: 175 years ago, after a march of over 2,000 miles, the battalion arrived here 175 years ago today, very little in the way of clothing and a lot of them quite sick. They had performed arduous labors, and this was the end. They finally reached the end of the trip. It marks for all of us, I think, a milestone, in a sense of men, and some women, who truly made a difference in the life of the country, but also in the life of the Church: their income — Brigham Young said a temporal salvation for the Church at that critical juncture — as they began the trek west. So they did a marvelous thing, and they did marvelous work here in San Diego after they were here for a while.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And we all can look back and say, “Well, that made a huge difference then.” How does it apply to us today?

4:03  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Well, to me, it’s a very apt example of doing hard things, and doing them well. They had challenges that we can barely comprehend: physical challenges and some spiritual, I’m sure, but they handled them. They didn’t complain; they went to work. And to me, that’s something we need very much in this day and time. We need to work. We need to work through a lot of things. Each one has his or her own challenges and opportunities to face, but they did. Theirs were mostly physical, overcoming a wilderness and carving a road, really, out of a wilderness. But they didn’t give up. They didn’t stop. They found a way. And to me, that’s the primary lesson I take away from this. When the Lord calls, especially, find a way, go to work, keep working.

Sarah Jane Weaver: The proclamation that was read today used a phrase that I really love. It was “faith-filled action.”

5:03  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: That’s a good description, faith-filled action. I think that’s the right title for what I’m trying to say.

Sarah Jane Weaver: How do we incorporate that faith-filled action into our lives?

Sister missionaries carry a banner as Members of the battalion march in the street as they take part in the Mormon Battalion celebration in Old Town San Diego on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, joined in the festivities.
Sister missionaries carry a banner as Members of the battalion march in the street as they take part in the Mormon Battalion celebration in Old Town San Diego on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, joined in the festivities. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

5:14  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Well, it starts with faith, obviously. It’s, I would say, faith-filled, and also faith-based. We can’t really accomplish much without faith. We wouldn’t act at all without some degree of faith. But the deeper our faith, the more we can achieve on the basis of that faith. And to me, it’s an interesting thing that it takes faith to begin to do something, but when you do act on faith, it increases the faith. So it’s a wonderful, virtuous, upward cycle, that faith leads to work, which leads to greater faith and greater works and so on. It’s just the way life ought to be. And I salute them, the members of the Mormon Battalion, for a tremendous model of faith-filled and faith-based action.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You know, in your remarks, you read some of the quotes that Brigham Young said to them when he enlisted them. 

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Yeah.

Sarah Jane Weaver: We have a Prophet today that’s also enlisted our young people. He said, “I want you to join a youth battalion.” 

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: That’s right. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: Are there some similarities between a Prophet asking men to do something hard and President Nelson asking young people to gather Israel?

6:24  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Well, I think it’s the same thing. It’s hard in both cases, but it’s worth the effort. I mean, if it weren’t hard, it probably wouldn’t be worth it. But to enlist in the battalion, this battalion, today’s battalion, really does have some similarities, and is analogous. I think we have real challenges to gather Israel. It takes effort, it takes putting your own preferences, I guess, or concerns, to the side, not worrying so much about what people may think of you, but focused on what the Lord wants them to have through you. And I believe if our focus is outward like that, as these battalion members were, and as President Nelson is asking us to be outward-focused, then indeed, great things are accomplished, both for the living and the dead.

Sarah Jane Weaver: In past interviews, we talked about moral relativism in a secular society. It seems like for the Mormon Battalion the course was so clear and direct, and nothing changed, and maybe it’s a little harder today.

7:30  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: I suppose it is in some ways. There are influences and cultural aspects of life that they didn’t have to face. They had support from all sectors of society for what they were doing, and that’s not always true today. We have opposition in many sectors of society, and so, people do have to be willing to stand, even as President [Thomas S.] Monson used to say, if they stand alone. We stand either way. And so I recognize challenges may be different, in many ways, and some of them are a little more individual than group challenges like the battalion faced, but they did it. We can do it, whatever the nature of it may be. That came by their focus on the will of God, the desires of the Almighty in their lives as expressed by the Prophet. That’s what we have today: We have the Lord’s will expressed through the Prophet. And if our focus is there, our loyalty is there, we can overcome challenges — material, temporal, spiritual, emotional — it’s that focus, that focus on outside yourself, again, on what the Lord wants.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Last night, you spoke about historic trails, and why we care about history. Can you talk a little bit about that? Why as a church do we spend so much energy preserving and embracing our history?

9:01  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Part of the reason we focus on history is that the Lord has commanded it. He made that a commandment in the very first day the Church was organized, to keep a record. Part of it is to honor those who have gone before but also to take courage from their example. Remember them, as Prophet Brigham Young said, that battalion members would be remembered through all generations, and that memory inspires us. We see what others have done; we say: “I can do that. Others have, I can, too.” But it also shows the hand of God all the way through our history, and I think that’s tremendously important for building faith. He’s been there from the beginning. He’s been there all along. He’s with us. And He never abandons His people, whatever their trials or challenges. So remembering the past, the history teaches us lessons about what to do, about how to do, it inspires us; but more than anything else, it teaches us that God is with us.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And what are some of the traits of the battalion that we can take courage in?

10:10  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Some of the traits that mean a lot to me from the Mormon Battalion as a whole was their humility. They were willing to accept the direction of the Lord through His servants, even when it was very difficult, though it meant separating families for a year or more, in many cases. So, they had the humility to accept something that they would probably prefer not to do. A number of them expressed, “But for the commandment coming through the Prophet, his counsel, I wouldn’t have chosen to do this.” But they were willing to be obedient. That’s another characteristic, I think, that we learn from them. 

And then, I think it’s important to recognize the mutual support that they had for one another. We’re not in this alone, any of us really. One of the main reasons we have a church, for example, is that we have a support system. We can work together, hold each other up. Sometimes we’re weak and others help us, and sometimes we’re strong, we help others. But we have a community of Saints as they had a battalion, a military unit that they served with, and they helped each other, they lifted each other to the end. Those are some of the things I think are important to remember. Their honesty — Brigham Young told them not to pillage, as sometimes armies will do, or soldiers, in a time of war. He said: “You’ve got to respect other people, whoever they are, even if they’re your enemy. Respect them, their property, their families.” And so the way they lived, even in a time of war and time of crisis, they were still true to the principles, the moral principles that ought to govern us in all situations, peace, war, anywhere else.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And you just came from a pretty tough assignment: You had to judge a Dutch oven cooking contest. Tell us about that.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helps to judge dutch over food at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion in San Diego at Old Town San Diego Historical Park on Jan. 29 2022.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints helps to judge dutch over food at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion in San Diego at Old Town San Diego Historical Park on Jan. 29 2022. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

12:07  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Well, judging is tough, but the tasting was wonderful. The hard part is trying to decide which one you would choose, because they were all very good. I was really surprised. This is my first experience in judging things cooked in Dutch oven competition, but they were all really good. I didn’t know you could do that that well with a Dutch oven: Desserts, entrees, the whole thing. So I’m going to volunteer for the next time around too.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Great. Is there anything else you wanted to say or that you want members to know about this weekend or these experiences?

12:47  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: Well, it’s appropriate to pause from time to time and recognize these very significant anniversaries of great things that have happened. The Company B of the Mormon Battalion that stayed in San Diego for months did tremendous work. They made bricks. People had never had anything made out of bricks. They dug wells. They endeared themselves to the people by hard labor and service and care day after day over the course of those months. It’s amazing what they accomplished in that short period of time, and it’s because they respected, loved those they were with and wanted to serve. So it’s appropriate, I think, to remember that on these kinds of occasions, and just recommit ourselves. That’s the nice thing about anniversaries, you can step back, recommit yourself and go forward.

Sarah Jane Weaver: How did the pioneers help this state?

13:45  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: The Mormon Battalion, and other pioneers here, I think, helped lay a very strong foundation in California of freedom, of worship, of service to one another. It carries on. It was interesting to me today to see people from all walks of life, some government representatives from the state and the county, the Mexican consul general, serving here, the imam who leads the Muslim congregations in this area, a representative from the Church of God in Christ, just a wide variety of the community. And to me, it shows what kind of unity can come in a community with people of very different backgrounds and even beliefs when they honor an example of doing good for the sake of doing good.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks to members of the Oregon-California Trails Association in the Temple Beth Israel synagogue in San Diego, California, on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. His address was part of the San Diego Historic Trails Symposium — one of numerous commemorative events celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Mormon Battalion’s 2,100-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, Calif., in 1846.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks to members of the Oregon-California Trails Association in the Temple Beth Israel synagogue in San Diego, California, on Friday, Jan. 28, 2022. His address was part of the San Diego Historic Trails Symposium — one of numerous commemorative events celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Mormon Battalion’s 2,100-mile march from Council Bluffs, Iowa, to San Diego, Calif., in 1846. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Sarah Jane Weaver: The folks I talked to who were all here sitting with you on the stand, talked about what a great community partner the Church is. That’s the case now; that was the case in the early days when the battalion was here.

14:52  

Elder D. Todd Christofferson: I hope we can continue to be as good community partners as those initial battalion members were when they arrived here. The march was over. Essentially, the war was over, at least as far as needing to face any enemy. There was a rumor of an army coming from Mexico — it never materialized — but they were basically stepping down from the military role and focusing on the community role. That example, I think, for me, is the one I’ll remember most.

Sarah Jane Weaver: President and Sister Top, we’re here at the historic Mormon Battalion site. You’ve been here for 12 whole days. 

President Brent L. Top: Twelve days exactly.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Tell us what is significant about this place, and the story that you and your missionaries tell the world from here.

President Brent L. Top and Sister Wendy Top of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site do an interview after the parade and celebration in Old Town San Diego on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022.
President Brent L. Top and Sister Wendy Top of the Mormon Battalion Historic Site do an interview after the parade and celebration in Old Town San Diego on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

15:52  

President Brent L. Top: The Mormon Battalion is still the only church religious army unit in the history of the United States. It is one of the longest marches in the history of military work in the United States. The Mormon Battalion did so much good, and this historic site is to honor them, but also to be a springboard to do good in the community, and help others have a greater appreciation for the history of California, the history of the United States and the history of the Latter-day Saints.

16:29  

Sister Wendy C. Top: And they made it possible for the Latter-day Saints that were in Iowa starving and dying of sickness and without enough equipment to come to Utah, made it possible for them to buy food and wagons and oxen and mules and horses and cattle and all of those things, so that they were able to make that trek. They were, as Brigham Young said, the salvation of the Church financially.

President Brent L. Top: Without the Mormon Battalion of Jan. 29, 1847, there may not have been a July 24, 1847, in Salt Lake City.

17:13  

Sister Wendy C. Top: We consider it holy ground, not because it’s the exact spot, but because of the sacrifice that was made by the Mormon Battalion to leave their families in Iowa, in the midst of the wilderness and without enough food and many of them sick, and to enlist in the army as Brigham Young asked them to do, even though the government had just kicked them out. But Brigham Young, you know, encouraged it as a way to bless the Church, because they were going to join the Army for the Mexican American War. And the money that they made could be sent back to help the Church prepare to be able to go west into the Great Basin. Their sacrifice is very holy to us, and such a great example for their descendants and for the Church. And Brigham Young did say that they were the salvation of the Church financially, and I’m sure there were many blessings that came to the Church because of their sacrifice.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion in San Diego at Old Town San Diego Historical Park on Jan. 29 2022.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints speaks at the celebration of the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion in San Diego at Old Town San Diego Historical Park on Jan. 29 2022. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

18:21  

President Brent L. Top: Well, not just the Church, but blazing the trail that becomes the road that then future pioneers are able to go, that they blazed a road that had never been done in that southern part of the United States and in the Southwest. For me, personally, this place has become very, very significant, just in the short time that we’ve been here, because I can relate to it right now in my life, in that we were called to preside over this mission and to be the site leaders here, and I wasn’t really thrilled about that. The call didn’t come at a really convenient time, and it was not really comfortable. We had family circumstances that we were struggling with a little bit. And I just thought: “Holy cow. The Mormon Battalion took the call of the Prophet.” We’re called by a Prophet of God as well, and yet we get to live in an apartment, we have food, we have clothes, but those men and those women followed the direction of the Prophet even when it wasn’t convenient for them. Even when they didn’t really want to go. They refused to go when General Allen invited them to go. It wasn’t until the Prophet said, “We need you.” And so for me personally, when I was thinking: “I’m not sure I want to go on a mission right now. I’ve got other things in my life that are pressing on me, and family concerns,” and I just think when the Prophet of God asks, we go, and so the message of this place is faith in God. Trust in the Prophet’s call, and then recognizing that our sacrifices are really in similitude of the sacrifice of the Only Begotten. And so, every day when we talk about the Mormon Battalion, in a way, we are also talking about Christ, because it’s their faith, their faith in the Lord, their faith in the Prophet. I am touched every single day that I’m here and see those young sisters talk about outfitting them in that little box that they carried on their back. They had all their possessions in that small little container; and yet, in that container, was a Bible and a Book of Mormon, and again, it shows their faith and devotion. And it became much, much easier for me to respond to the call from the Prophet of God and Apostles in this dispensation and this time, when I think of what message we’re giving to the people right here.

Sarah Jane Weaver: This very day is a historic day. It was 175 years ago to today,

Sister Wendy C. Top: Jan. 29.

Sarah Jane Weaver: That they arrived in San Diego. We’ve celebrated it all kinds of ways this weekend, but talk about the celebration, the anniversary, the significance of this day for this city.

Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints talks with a group of service missionaries as they celebrate the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion in San Diego at Old Town San Diego Historical Park on Jan. 29 2022.
Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints talks with a group of service missionaries as they celebrate the 175th anniversary of the arrival of the Mormon Battalion in San Diego at Old Town San Diego Historical Park on Jan. 29 2022. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

21:23  

Sister Wendy C. Top: The thing that we are celebrating today is not just the march of the battalion and how they were the financial salvation of the Church. It’s a community celebration. We’ve had many different dignitaries from the community that we work with down here, because when the battalion came here, they were put right to work. I mean, they volunteered, and they didn’t want to sit around. And so they established the first brick kiln, and they made all kinds of bricks that they used to line wells with.

President Brent L. Top: Yeah, and they dug the first wells.

Sister Wendy C. Top: Right, dug the wells, and they lined them with brick, because the people had had to go and get their water from the river, and so it was a real blessing to them. They were very thrilled with it. They built the first courthouse, that’s still standing.

President Brent L. Top: Which was the first brick building in all of California.

Sister Wendy C. Top: And some walls and some homes and different things with the brick. They became good friends with the people in the community, the Californios, and the Kumeyaay Indians, and they improved their life greatly. In fact, when they came, the people here had been warned by people from Missouri to watch out for the Mormons because they’re bad people, and the battalion became so involved in helping the people here that when they had to leave after about four months, the people here signed a petition asking their officers to reassign them here, let them stay here. And they just begged them, and as they left town, they wept, and they followed after them, and were hugging them, and they just didn’t want to let them go. So in four short months, they left this place a better place than it was when they found it.

President Brent L. Top: And I think, while the commemoration is done each year, today was something extra special, and especially having an Apostle, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve with Elder Christofferson, here. I think it represents the role that the Mormon Battalion Historic Site has for the entire Old Town community. That just like 175 years ago, that the battalion pitched in and served. Today, our sister missionaries and senior couples are engaged in community service, in addition to telling the story of the Mormon Battalion. The people of Old Town love us; we love them. It really is a daily representation of what happened 175 years ago, that while they were called to war, it was really the peace-building, the bridge-building that we commemorate.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I was surprised at the events this morning. So many people spoke about this community partnership that they value, and I loved that, actually, you know, you have community leaders who are saying, “The battalion’s still here, it just looks a little differently.” It’s this force of sister missionaries that work at the historic site.

24:36  

President Brent L. Top: I’ve been teasing our sister missionaries since we’ve been here. I say since Mormon is no longer in our vocabulary, they are the Top Battalion of the Church now and so they do remarkable things, and people love them.

Sister Wendy C. Top: You know, there were also women with the battalion. Quite a few women came along. They originally hired 20 as laundresses, but many women did not want to leave their husbands or be left in the wilderness of Iowa with no husband, and so some of them even brought their children and they came and followed along. But in several places along the way there were many that were sick, or couldn’t keep going, and so there were three groups that left the battalion and went to Pueblo, Colorado, for the winter. But there were actually, I believe, five women who made it to California across the Sonoran Desert, without water sometimes for three or four days, and without food. It’s remarkable what they did. And when the battalion returned to Salt Lake, most of them returned to Salt Lake, even though there was gold here in California, and they were there when the gold was discovered. But they blazed trails coming and going, and so there are trails that were used by many of the immigrants and really helped in the growth of California.

President Brent L. Top: And, you know, I think the blazing trails, we would say blazing trails both temporally and spiritually. And I just think of that, particularly the last part of the trail, where they had basically no food; they were having to kill mules and things like that to eat. They didn’t have shoes, their clothes, they said they were half-naked, and I just think that even in the midst of suffering, they’re providing incredible service and salvation. And in that suffering, they then have even a greater view of their role as husbands and fathers when they’re reunited with their families, When the women are back together. I mean, the suffering sanctifies them, and I really think this is a place not only that commemorates the suffering and the sacrifices, but I think we would also say it commemorates the sanctification that took place through their service here.

Sister Jessa Lethbridge and Sister Hannah Van Holten welcome virtual visitors to the Mormon Battalion Historic Site in San Diego, California.
Sister Jessa Lethbridge and Sister Hannah Van Holten welcome virtual visitors to the Mormon Battalion Historic Site in San Diego, California. Credit: Courtesy Mormon Battalion Historic Site

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, I was so touched yesterday, I went on a tour of your historic site with some of your cute sister missionaries, and I learned that even those who were sick, who ended up in Pueblo, actually learned irrigation techniques that then blessed the Salt Lake Valley.

27:21  

President Brent L. Top: Exactly. That’s why I say it’s the blazing trails in ways that they didn’t even imagine. And so out of the adversity of the sick detachments comes an incredible blessing for the Saints themselves. 

There’s one other thing that I thought was really a great lesson for us personally and for our missionaries, is that many of the battalion, when they get back to Salt Lake, find out their families are back in Winter Quarters [Nebraska]. And so now they start again, to go back and reunite with their families. And I think just sometimes in our lives, when we think we’ve gone far enough, that we then find out that the great blessings are, we’ve got to go a little bit further to do that.

Sarah Jane Weaver: And I have to confess: I’ve worked at the Church News for 27 years. In that time, I’ve written a lot about the Mormon Battalion, but I’m not sure I appreciated it. I actually maybe would describe my feelings as one of ambivalence. I did not understand anything about that historic march. But I hope that that will be different now, because there’s some really beautiful lessons. What are some of the traits of the battalion that you want to carry on or that will influence you?

28:37  

President Brent L. Top: Well, for me, faith, the faith to accept the call, to serve. Faith to follow the direction of a living Prophet, even when it may be hard or inconvenient. That’s the faith each day that I think when that alarm goes off every morning, and I’m here at the call of a Prophet of God. I want to have that kind of faith. Now, I certainly don’t make that kind of sacrifice, and my service is small in comparison, but I hope I can have faith to match that call.  

Sister Wendy C. Top: You know, the thing for me is — it’s also faith and sacrifice, of course — but as you read the stories of their journey, they have many journals, and that is sometimes a day-by-day account. And just the faith to put one foot in front of the other when you can barely drag yourself along because of heat, and not having enough food, not having enough water. And they went through some really, really rough days, and I suppose there were some who complained, but many times in the journals it was remarked that no words of complaint were spoken. And there were times when they couldn’t even speak they were so thirsty, their tongues were so swollen in their mouths. And it’s a marvel to me that they didn’t desert or just say, “That’s enough, that’s it,” but they were just worn till there was almost nothing left of them. And so just the faith to keep going through the desert, was so hot in the daytime, so cold at night, no blankets, they had to shed so many comforts and things. And they, just because they just couldn’t, the mules were giving out, the oxen were giving out, and they just couldn’t make it. I mean, they couldn’t carry the loads anymore, because they were so weak, but they just kept putting one foot in front of the other. And that’s what will keep me going on hard days.  

President Brent L. Top: And sometimes that is just one foot in front of the other, one hour, one day. 

Sister Wendy C. Top: You may not be feeling that great spirit of, you know, faith and sacrifice. You may just be surviving, you may be numb,

President Brent L. Top: Or just doing mundane tasks that you don’t think are life-changing or monumental. But that is the faith that you keep doing it. 

Sister Wendy C. Top: They also proved their loyalty to the United States, who had not protected their rights. They proved their loyalty to the Prophet in the Church, but they helped create good feelings. They honorably behaved for the most part. Of course, they were not perfect. But overall, the United States Army was very impressed with the service of the Mormon Battalion and all that they had done in the trails that they had blazed, and that’s kind of what we tried to do here is give people the impression of what we stand for and what we, even though we don’t actively proselyte here at this site, it’s mostly historic because we’re part of historic Old Town San Diego, we try to help them feel that love, the same kind of love the battalion members showed to the people of the small village of San Diego, and leave a good impression in their minds so that someday they will think favorably, when they hear about the Mormons or the Mormon Battalion or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. 

President Brent L. Top: In fact, I think, on this 175th anniversary, the thought that came to my mind today was the prophecy of Brigham Young, where, not only did he prophesy that they wouldn’t enter into battle, except with wild animals, he said, wild bees. That prophetic statement, little would they have known that they were going to go to battle with wild bulls. But then he said that their name and legacy would be had for generations, and I think anything we can do on this 175th anniversary to help their names be known, and their sacrifices to be known, because they deserve that. In fact, when we left to come on our mission, I just said that I hope that my service can honor them and their service.

The Mormon Battalion Historic Site opened January 29, 2010, after 20 months of renovation. The opening commemorated the arrival of the battalion to modern-day San Diego exactly 163 years after the battalion arrived. January 30, 2010.
The Mormon Battalion Historic Site opened January 29, 2010, after 20 months of renovation. The opening commemorated the arrival of the battalion to modern-day San Diego exactly 163 years after the battalion arrived. January 30, 2010. Credit: Shaun D. Stahle

Sarah Jane Weaver: When I think of all they went through, all the struggles, you detailed them with such care. And then you think of even what your own missionaries have gone through: The pandemic hits when they’re seniors in high school. Many of them probably did home MTC. If they were able to come straight to the mission, they certainly know other missionaries that were reassigned. I mean, this is a time that requires great flexibility and great faith of all of us, but I think especially our missionaries.

33:59  

President Brent L. Top: And you talk about flexibility, with COVID affecting missionaries today, I sat next to the San Diego Mission president, President Giménez, and we were talking about how his mission almost doubled in size overnight, because missionaries were coming from international areas or were being reassigned, and that took flexibility. Well, I think one of the things that our sister missionaries struggle with a little bit at that is because they’re called here for just a short period of time, some for four to four and a half months, and then they go out into their teaching mission or proselyting mission. And now the new sisters that have just arrived will be here six months and then spend a year out in that mission. And I think one of the things that they are struggling with a little bit as I have interviewed all of them is that finding their place as a missionary in a setting that was totally and completely foreign to them, different than anything they expected. Most of the sisters, when we interviewed them, we asked them, “What did you think when you opened up your mission call, and it said ‘to serve a period of time at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site?’” Most of them said, “I never even knew there was a Mormon Battalion.” And then, what do they do and where is it? And so they come here, fired up out of Preach My Gospel training in the MTC, and then they’re coming here and doing tours and talking history, and I think one of the things that in their personal struggle, that is part of that sanctifying process, is they’re having to find that they are real missionaries as much here, as they’re going to be in Louisville, Kentucky; or Omaha, Nebraska; or San Diego, California; or Virginia Richmond, and we have them all going out next week. And I think that is part of their faith building exercise, is to find their purpose right here and now, and not just be in a waiting mode, to say, “Well, I’ll go on a real mission in a few months.” No, you’re on a real mission now in ways, and you need to study and prepare and trust in the Lord as much at the Mormon Battalion Historic Site as you will in Osaka, Japan. 

Sister Wendy C. Top: And that’s one of our challenges, is to help them understand that they are missionaries now, and that they have the light of Christ. They have testimonies that they can bear in indirect ways, and just the way they love people, the way they serve people, because we don’t openly proselyte, and they struggle with that, because they came out of three weeks in the MTC where they were fired up.

President Brent L. Top: They’re ready to take on the world. They were gonna be the next, you know, Dan Jones to convert all of England. And so it’s been hard in that regard for them, and I think that is part of what we might call their sanctification process, of having to find themselves. And it’s their relationship with service to the Lord, not the actual day-to-day operations, that determine our missionary success. Our missionary success is between us and God. Not in how many tours they lead, not in how many people they baptize; it is that faith, that sacrifice, that service, that love. They are so filled with love. They are so filled with faith. They want to serve, and it’s just helping them to realize that, boy, they are real missionaries, more than they know. Helping them to see who they really are is one of our greatest challenges. 

Sister Wendy C. Top: And our sisters have to wear masks all the time, and that’s been very hard for them to give a tour through a mask, but we use parallels with the battalion all the time and the sacrifices they made and how sometimes giving the tours over and over again. We also have the virtual tours that people can go to our Facebook page and arrange for a virtual tour, so they’re repeating the tour many times a day, and we encourage them with the thought that at least they’re not marching one foot in front of the other, trudging through the desert. That tedium and boredom are tough, but the battalion certainly had plenty of that. I mean, day after day, traveling through the same geography for days and days and days.  

President Brent L. Top: The Area Seventy for this area, Elder David Clark, called me the other night and he said — it just totally surprised me — he said that the Mormon Battalion Historic Site is in the top seven attractions in San Diego. And when you start to think of all the things that are in San Diego, and you think we are in the top seven, that tells you there’s a lot of interest in the Mormon Battalion. Maybe the interest is, “What is the Mormon Battalion?” And then on the other end of the continuum, there are a lot of people that come that say I have two great-great-grandfathers, and today, as our missionaries marched in the commemorative parade, many of them were having a lanyard on with a name of an ancestor that they were marching in behalf of. I just think that’s wonderful. It’s so many families. But also COVID has produced a way whereby people, members of the Church and those not of our faith, in various parts of the world, can experience the Mormon Battalion Historic Site. We have had virtual tours and tours on site from people from 78 different countries, and had the pandemic not closed down, maybe we never would have figured out how to do virtual tours, and that people all over the world can experience Church history and feel that kinship to pioneer ancestry in some way.

Sister Wendy C. Top: One other thing is we’re the only electronic — I’m not sure what you call it, audiovisual — it’s the only one that’s kind of high-tech. In the other Church history sites, it’s all conducted by the sisters, and they don’t have memorized scripts like our sisters have to do.

40:49  

President Brent L. Top: Well, and I had a family who were not Latter-day Saints came through, and they said: “This is the most interactive, high-tech, historical exhibit I’ve ever been to. Who does your high-tech?” I said, “Well, we’ve got a pretty good institution that does the backing for this and does the high-tech,” and he says, “What’s that?” And I said, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” and he said, “Your church did all of that technology?” And I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Man, that’s amazing.” So yeah, that was great. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: I was unaware that the site was so popular, but it makes sense. You know, everyone that we talked to today talked about you, the site, the work you do, and called you, repeatedly, great community partners. 

President Brent L. Top: Yeah, that’s right. 

Sarah Jane Weaver: It feels like this place is a very important part of this Old Town community.

41:38  

President Brent L. Top: Well, and I think we contribute to their economy because Sister Top and I have been to a lot of Mexican restaurants, just in the short time that we’ve been here. When you speak of community partnership, it may be a little different than what the original battalion had to deal with.

Sister Wendy C. Top: And to add to the fact that the battalion was among the very first ones here, and they sort of always had a presence here, whether physical or not, they’re very much a part of the founding history.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, and you had the opportunity to be with Elder Christofferson today. Is there something that you learned from him?

42:21  

President Brent L. Top: As a mission president, having an Apostle come is not always the most relaxing experience that you might have. So it’s been a little stressful, but Elder Christofferson is so gracious, and I just always enjoy being with him, because he’s so calm and peaceful in so many ways. You just feel a sense —

Sister Wendy C. Top: He doesn’t assert himself in a proud way or anything. He’s just very humble and, you know: “Where do you want me to go? What should I do?”

President Brent L. Top: We had a lot of fun today judging the Dutch oven cook-off, and that was a lot of fun with Elder Christofferson and President and Sister Giménez. But I think that the highlight today of our visit with Elder Christofferson — and we still have events to go, he will be speaking to our missionaries tomorrow — but today when he came into the meeting with community leaders and religious leaders, and he had just come from visiting with the service missionaries that, because of special needs or handicaps or other kinds of things, can’t serve a regular full-time mission. And he got really choked up talking about them and their spirit, that even when you can’t serve in traditional ways, you can serve the Lord in other ways, and I was deeply touched by that. I was deeply touched that God honors humble service, no matter how great or how small. And if you give your best, that’s all you can give.

Sarah Jane Weaver: Well, you know, we often asked the same question at the Church News, and you’ve had 12 whole days here. 

President Brent L. Top: We’re no longer green.

Members of the battalion march in the street as they take part in the Mormon Battalion celebration in Old Town San Diego on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, joined in the festivities.
Members of the battalion march in the street as they take part in the Mormon Battalion celebration in Old Town San Diego on Saturday, Jan. 29, 2022. Elder D. Todd Christofferson of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, joined in the festivities. Credit: Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Sarah Jane Weaver: The question is, “What do you know now?” What do you know now after being in San Diego and at this site, celebrating the 175th anniversary of the Mormon Battalion?

44:18  

President Brent L. Top: When Elder Quentin L. Cook and Elder [Dale G.] Renlund first talked to us about accepting this calling to go and preside here, Elder Cook said: “This is a wonderful experience. It’s going to be almost like a two-year vacation.” And so what do I know now? I think that Elder Cook was trying to get me to say yes. We’ve discovered it’s more work than we anticipated. When I presided over a mission before, the joy was serving with the missionaries, the miracle of missionary work in the Church is the missionaries, and I think that I know now, as I knew before, that we love those missionaries, even when we’ve only known them 12 days, we love them like our own.

Sister Wendy C. Top: There is just that missionary spirit that goes with you, and today we met some of the sister missionaries from the San Diego Mission, and there’s just that instant kinship with that missionary spirit. And as we marched in the parade this morning, I heard people saying, “We love the missionaries.” And it’s just such a joy to be serving as a missionary and going to bed every night totally exhausted in the work of the Lord. It’s just such a great feeling, and then to get up the next morning and do it again. We’re just so grateful to be here.

President Brent L. Top: And the commemoration has taken a lot of time and a lot of work, and those sister missionaries, and our senior couples, they made it happen. They have the spirit of service, and just like 175 years ago, these battalion members here made the commemoration happen today.

Sarah Jane Weaver: What do you know now that you’ve learned from studying about the Mormon Battalion? 

President Brent L. Top: A lot.

Sister Wendy C. Top: Suffering, sacrifice, just like the pioneers. I mean, it’s just unthinkable to us today, what they suffered and went through, and yet, they stayed with it. And it’s all because they’d had that witness. That witness just makes all the difference.

President Brent L. Top: I’ve studied so much about the Mormon Battalion before we came, and now since we’ve come, and I think the question that comes to me all the time is: “Could I have done it? Could I have done it?” And yet, I’ve made the exact same covenants, and so I may not be asked to do it that way. And so, I guess I will prove whether I could have done it by whether I can do it now, and I think that’s what I learned from the battalion.

Sarah Jane Weaver: You have been listening to the Church News podcast. I’m your host, Church News editor Sarah Jane Weaver. I hope you have learned something today about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by peering with me through the Church News window. Please remember to subscribe to this podcast. And if you enjoyed the messages we shared today, please make sure you share the podcast with others. Thanks to our guests, to my producer, KellieAnn Halvorsen, and others who make this podcast possible. Join us every week for a new episode. Find us on your favorite podcasting channel or with other news and updates about the Church on TheChurchNews.com.