Pioneer Reenactments

August 5, 2008 | 23 comments
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We saints do pioneer reenactments a lot. Dress up, pull a handcart, dance a little to “whoa, haw, Buck.” I’ve been thinking about that and I need your help.

I’m looking for justifications for the practice from church leaders and church sources. This can be anything from conference talks to GA books to manuals to something someone once told you their cousin’s Stake President said. I’m especially interested in any one or any source who justified pioneer reenactments because they turned the hearts of the children towards the fathers or because they honored our fathers and mothers. I’m also interested in any one or any source who justified pioneer reenactments because they maintained a separate Mormon consciousness and corporate identity. I’m also interested in your justification. I’m interested in any justification that may be out there.

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23 Responses to Pioneer Reenactments

  1. WillF on August 5, 2008 at 10:51 am

    How about, “because Elder Ballard has done it?” (I don’t know if he dressed up though).

    From his October 1996 Conference Talk, “Faith in Every Footstep“:

    This August I walked in the footsteps of our pioneers along the Mormon Trail through Wyoming and Utah. I wondered why our dedicated ancestors suffered so terribly and yet willingly faced such tremendous obstacles. Perhaps one reason they sacrificed and endured was to leave a legacy of faith for all of us to help us feel our urgent responsibility to move forward in building up the Church throughout the world. We need the same dedication today in every one of our footsteps as the pioneers had in theirs.

  2. WillF on August 5, 2008 at 10:57 am

    He goes on to say, “Next year’s celebration will honor pioneers worldwide, in addition to the Utah pioneers. As chairman of the Church sesquicentennial committee, I ask you stake and ward leaders to place the Church sesquicentennial celebration on your next council meeting agenda. Please study the guidelines sent to you in January 1995 and the additional information sent in intervening months. In your councils, choose the activities that will be appropriate and important to ensure a spiritually fulfilling experience for your members in 1997.”
    I wonder if those guidelines are available somewhere.

  3. Kylie Turley on August 5, 2008 at 11:41 am

    Tessa Meyer Santiago gave a forum address a number of years ago at BYU that would help you out–sorry you’ll have to hunt for the name of it, since I can’t remember right off the top of my head. She talks about being a primary child in Capetown, South Africa, and doing the whole dress-up re-enactment around the church parking lot. She, of course, was confused at the time. But the rest of the devotional goes on to talk about what lessons she’s learned from pioneers even though she has no pioneer ancestry. It’s a great talk.

  4. CatherineWO on August 5, 2008 at 11:41 am

    I think you will find many statements by Church leaders that support these reenactments as a form of Mormon Pioneer veneration. Perhaps by putting ourselves in a similar physical situation we are better able to understand their spiritual situations. It certainly has an emotional effect on people.

    But, with that said, I have often thought that if my great grandmother Catherine were to see all of this, she would think it silly. She pulled a handcart from Nebraska to Utah simply because that was the only way for her to get there. She left England, where she had lived in the horrible poverty of factory life in Leeds, to join the only family she had (who were in Utah already) and be able to live a better life among people of her same faith. Pulling a handcart was a means to an end, not an end in itself (as many reenactments would have us believe). If there had been an easier way to get there, I am convinced that she would have taken it. I think we put way too much emphasis on the travel and not enough on the people themselves. I am much more interested in who this woman was, what she thought and what she did for the fifty years after she got to Utah than how she traveled there in the first place.

  5. CatherineWO on August 5, 2008 at 11:44 am

    I should add that I am not opposed to veneration of Mormon Pioneers. I have spent many hours researching my own ancestors and think there is much to be learned from them and the lives they lived. It’s just the whole handcarts and wagons and bonnets thing that doesn’t make any sense to me.

  6. Roland on August 5, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    Pioneer Reenactments are a big missionary tool in California.

    Check out the recent LDS Church News about the article of the Spanish Branch in Vista, California. For three years running they have held a pioneer parade down the main boulevard here. There are mostly 1st generation LDS. All of their non-LDS friends and family are asking “What’s a Pioneer Day?”.

    This year they built a giant replica model of the Nauvoo Temple in the back parking lot from which to start the parade. It is quite visible from nearby schools.

  7. Jacob F on August 5, 2008 at 12:09 pm

    I think we put way too much emphasis on the travel and not enough on the people themselves.

    I’ve thought about this too, and most pioneers spent just 2 or 3 months of their lives crossing the plains — almost a blip in the grand scheme of things.

  8. BruceC on August 5, 2008 at 1:25 pm

    I recall fixing up my red wagon to have a “covered” portion and dressing up like a pioneer. Of course it was back in the early seventies and our ward was doing a mock parade around the church for pioneer day. Did I mention we lived in Boston at the time? I guess it isn’t much of a stretch to making real wagons/handcarts and doing it with older kids. I Don’t recall it being instigated by a GA or anything, but then I was just a kid.

  9. mike on August 5, 2008 at 1:33 pm

    Thread jack warning:

    I always want to go to one of these reenactments dressed up like a Souix Indian on a horse and chase the youth around a bit. Maybe put some ex-lax in the cookies to simulate the dysentery. These activities should be held in the winter months with inadequate clothing to better simulate those conditions that built the most faith.

  10. Bookslinger on August 5, 2008 at 3:13 pm

    Catherine, my take on the use of hand-carts/etc to venerate the pioneers isn’t that the hand-carts are an end in themselves, but are symbolic of the lowliness, humility and tribulation that the early saints were willing to suffer. Granted, the handcarts may have been no more low and humble than some saints’ pre-existing situations. And handcarters were indeed a minority of all LDS westward-travelers, there being only 8 (is that correct?) handcart companies including the Martin and Willie companies.

    If I had been a convert of that time frame, I would likely have refused to go unless I could have gone on a horse-drawn wagon. And there’s a good chance I would have waited even until the railroad went through to SLC.

    Perhaps it’s kind of like tent-camping today. It’s fun to do once in a while with the kids, and to prove we can do it, but it’s not how I’d like to spend a whole summer or a whole year. Nowadays, anything less than a Ramada Inn is “camping out” to me.

  11. sam on August 5, 2008 at 3:44 pm

    I think that since the Church is no longer a Utah church, we need to evaluate entirely our approach to Pioneer Days. I was raised to non-Utah Mormons in Western Maryland. My maternal grandmother joined the Church. She is a pioneer. I served my mission on Okinawa where almost every member living is a pioneer.

    I do not relate to the “official” pioneers. I know so many others who do not relate, either. We just roll our eyes when July rolls around.

    I can empathize with the early Saints’ trials. I can do so because I, too, am a human being. But I don’t see how wearing plaid and suspenders is going to make their life any more real to me than it already is.

    [Ed. There is literally nothing in the Church that a vocal minority aren't willing to gripe about. I'm not asking for gripes, I'm asking for justifications.]

  12. Confutus on August 5, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    The stake I am in sponsored one of these pioneer re-enactements for the youth last year. My bishop at the time did not like the idea at all…I think he would have agreed with several of the posters here, that it’s silly and pointless. Naturally, the Stake Presidency assigned him to be one of the people in charge of it. As he got involved, his attitude changed, he began to see the value and worth of the activity, and became an enthusiastic supporter.

    We live in an well fed, air-conditioned, machined powered society where we can drive in a day over a distance it took our what took our ancesters an entire season of hard work to cross, and take it for granted Just to look back, see where we came from, and merely taste the lives our spiritual if not literal forebears had to live can teach us something important.

  13. John Mansfield on August 5, 2008 at 4:59 pm
  14. John Mansfield on August 5, 2008 at 5:05 pm

    Here is a nice odd New Era account by Elder F. Burton Howard of meeting Elder Kimball at Independence Rock when he was a youth.

  15. John Mansfield on August 5, 2008 at 5:21 pm

    The close of the article above:

    [My father] taught me, and I have learned, that you cannot be a passive member of the Church. I learned that association and fellowship with great men are worth whatever price you have to pay to attain them. They are worth enduring heat; they are worth a long trip; they are worth temporary inconvenience. They are the lasting things of life.

  16. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 5, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    For the Israelites, the journey out of slavery in Egypt to their Promised Land helped to define who they were, and is still commemorated every year in the Passover feast. In the Book of Mormon, many sermon speakers begin their talks by citing both the journey of Israel to its Promised Land and the journey of Lehi’s family to its new Promised Land. Their is no question that the Mormon pioneers understood their journey as being both a real one and a symbolic recapitulation of the journeys led by Moses and Lehi, all organized to reach a Promised Land and establish a new nation, intended to be dedicated to God, and fulfill prophecy.

    Since the first era of pioneer travel was seen as symbolic, as pointing backward in time AND looking ahead to the fulfillment of prophecy, why shouldn’t Latter-day Saints join in the pageant of reenacting the journeys and rededicate ourselves to creating Zion? Every Mormon who has to travel some distance to reach a temple has thought of his trip in those terms.

    There was a commemorative reenactment of the 1847 trek in 1947, of course, using cars, and then in 1997 increased wealth allowed people to reenact the 1847 trek at their leisure with real animals pulling real wagons. The Church went to great lengths trying to purchase the Martin Cove site from the Federal government (which had done nothing to commemorate those events), but opposition from anti-Mormons only allowed a lease, with restrictions on proselyting on government land. Nevertheless, the Church maintains a visitor center there and handcarts that can be pulled along part of the trail to give some idea of what it was like.

    We have restored all sorts of Church history sites so that we can better identify with the past. If you visit Palmyra you can see the Smith family log cabin as it stood when Joseph walked into the preserved Sacred Grove to pray, and where Moroni later appeared as the rest of his family slept. The home where Joseph brought the golden plates has been stripped down to its 1827 core. The house where the Church was organized in Fayette, the Newell K. Whitney Store in Kirtlandd, and other buildings have been rconstructed. The buildings, old and reconstructed at This is the Place State Park, help us understand the reality of pioneer life. And the entire old city of Nauvoo has come to life with the Nauvoo Temple reconstruction as its literal capstone. Summer evenings by the Mississippi are highlighted by a pageant, a reenactment of the city’s founding, blossoming, and abandonment.

    Since the Church has invested so much into recreating past sites of significance to present Saints, why shouldn’t we believe that reenacting part of that experience of the early Saints, whether at Martin’s Cove or Boston, is not a useful reminder of the heritage bequeathed to us by the people who left so much behind in exchange for the gospel and their hopes of building Zion?

    Besides the Passover, the other holidays of Israel commemorated important events and pointed forward to more. The New Year and Feast of Tabernacles and Day of Atonement recalled the time of Moses, but also pointed ahead to the Messiah, such as the giant torches that burned by the temple to point toward the dawn of the rule by the Messiah. When Joseph, Mary and Jesus walked up from Nazareth to Jerusalem for the Passover, they were reenacting the journey of Israel just as much as we reenact the pioneer trek with handcarts.

    Aren’t our religious ordinances conscious reenactments of real events? Our baptism of the death and resurrection of Christ, and the baptisms performed by John and Jesus and the apostles, then by Joseph and Oliver? Our taking of the Sacrament is a reenactment of the Last Supper, and the Sacrament shared around the Bountiful Temple with Christ. Our acts in the Temple, especially for the dead, are recapitulations of the Creation, the Fall, and of Adam’s receipt of the message of salvation through Christ. All of these ordinances not only look backward to past events and convenants, they also look forward to future obedience and blessings.

    All through the scriptures, especially in the Book of Mormon, we are enjoined to remember the Lord and his doctrines and acts. Doing ordinances, pageants, parades, and plays are all ways to remember. We don’t need additional authorization or mandate to do so.

  17. DavidH on August 5, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    The Lord commanded the Israelites to remember and celebrate the Passover and even gave details about how to do so. There is no celebration, to my knowledge, of the 40 year trip itself to the Promised Land.

    I am not sure why the journey of the pre-railroad pioneers is worthy of particular and continued veneration around the world. (I told our bishop during last year’s stake handcart trek that I personally think we would be better off venerating the coming of post-railroad pioneers to Utah and doing so by riding on a train for a couple of days! )

    [Ed. - I simply am not interested in this type of comment. Please carp elsewhere.]

  18. Richard Sopp on August 5, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Our Stake just finished our pioneer trek. We covered 23 miles in 2 1/2 days some of which was at an altitude of over 9,000 feet. The trek followed a portion of the road that was built over the Sierra Nevadas by the Mormon Battalion. While much of it was not historically accurate, it was a great experience for youth. For justifications, it brought the youth of our Stake closer together, got 190 youth away from their cell phones, ipods and video games, gave the participants a sense of accomplishment and a greater appreciation for what the pioneers did, and strengthened testimonies. It was well worth it.

  19. mike on August 6, 2008 at 9:13 am

    The very best activity that my Stake has held for the youth in 10 years was a recent Pioneer Reenactment and my teenage kids were in Utah visiting relatives and missed it. About 50 from our Stake (I didn’t know we had 50 active youth in our stake, only about 10-20 show up for dances) and about 100 from a nearby Stake (who did the lion’s share of planning) hiked around the woods in the Southern Appalachian mountains for several days. I have heard nothing but glowing reports about it.

    This calls to my mind a difficult question that many don’t want to discuss. Why don’t we have excellent youth activities all of the time? What is it about the motivation surrounding the planning of an event to honor Pioneers that allows us to go beyond the mediocre and strive for excellence?I really don’t know the answer to that question.

    One observation is that we had about triple our usual numbers to start with and perhaps this went beyond some critical mass. Another possibility is that the reenactments allow us to not follow some rules (local and general) typically applied to Mormon scouting. This is frustrating to me because I serve as the Troop Committee Chairman in our ward. The reenactments are really an elaborate camping & hiking trip. Examples of rules being stretched include: camping with boys and girls in the same trip, camping with adult women who helped plan and execute it, camping over Sunday, and doing more elaborate trips that last more than 12-24 hours and go beyond simple car camping.

    I wonder if we have gotten so bogged down with rules and so narrow minded when it comes to youth activities that we have become incapable off pulling anything except the most boring and lame event. The reenactment allows us to go just a little bit outside the box, bend a few rules and strive for excellence.

    Any other thoughts?

  20. ESO on August 6, 2008 at 10:42 am

    “Safety” guidelines for treks are online at lds.org; that seems like an implied endorsement: http://www.lds.org/pa/display/0,17884,7995-1,00.html

    Don’t like them myself, but clearly many people do.

  21. Adam Greenwood on August 6, 2008 at 1:59 pm

    I wonder if we have gotten so bogged down with rules and so narrow minded when it comes to youth activities that we have become incapable off pulling anything except the most boring and lame event. The reenactment allows us to go just a little bit outside the box, bend a few rules and strive for excellence.

    I hear you. About 50% of my ideas for the youth get shot down because they’re against the rules or because they would require a boatload of forms and what not. God’s curse on litigious, risk-averse, bureacratic American culture.

  22. Adam Greenwood on August 10, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Next, inspire faith. This sesquicentennial year of the epic pioneer trek to the valley of the Great Salt Lake has inspired more music, more drama, more involvement by youth and adults than perhaps any other occasion in our history. We as families have learned more of Church history, the glory and the suffering, the hardship and sorrow—then victory upon arrival in the valley—than can be estimated. Some years ago, Bryant S. Hinckley, the father of our President, prepared a book entitled The Faith of Our Pioneer Fathers. Accounts which the volume contains are so well written and set forth. This past year they were retold by the score. Countless members looked back on their own pioneer heritage. Hundreds of youth—even thousands throughout the world—pulled and pushed handcarts and walked their own pioneer trail.

    I think that there isn’t a member of this Church today who has not been touched by the year now drawing to its close. Those who did so much for the good of all surely had as their objective to inspire faith. They met the goal in a magnificent manner.

    Thomas S. Monson, “Teach the Children,” Ensign, Nov 1997, 17

  23. Blaine Bachman on August 12, 2008 at 1:13 am

    Scouts (Cubs on up) and Scout Leaders who complete a hike near any of the tracks of the Mormon Battalion should know that the Mormon Battalion Association (with the blessing of the Church Scouting Committee, I believe) sponsor a Mormon Battalion Trail award. See the requirements at http://www.mormonbattalion.com/scouts/scouts.shtml .

    -bb

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