I’ve always felt quite ambivalent about Pioneer Day, although in recent years I’ve spent it in Utah rather frequently and am descended from the gentleman who proclaimed “this is the place.” In my case, I’m not only separated from the Mormon pioneers by more than 125 years, but also by 2,200 miles (I live in New York City). [Often ignored is that more than 1/3rd of the Mormon pioneers who crossed the plains did so after arriving at the port of New York.]
Of course, we are told that we are our can be pioneers in our own day, that our own sacrifices and faith can overcome the challenges of today. We are told that we are ‘Modern Pioneers’ and that by avoiding the ways of the world we are following the example of our pioneer ancestors. While I think that is generally true, I’m not sure that has anything to do with being a pioneer.
The word pioneer comes from the middle French word pionnier, meaning a laborer employed in digging. In English it initially referred to the foot soldiers (in French a peon or pion was someone on foot) who traveled ahead of an army to dig trenches and build roads. They literally blazed the trail for those who followed. This definition later turned metaphoric, and a pioneer became someone who goes before others to prepare or open up the way. So when he said, “prepare ye the way of the Lord, John the Baptist was seeking pioneers.
What I like most about this history is that the soldier pionniers weren’t just going first, they were building infrastructure for those coming behind. If we are to be modern pioneers, exactly what infrastructure should we be building?
As we use the term today, pioneer also conveys a sense of novelty, of doing something new, going to a new place or being otherwise innovative. Using this definition, I don’t think that being a pioneer is very common. But in another sense, novelty might be considered relative to what we or our families have experienced instead of to what our society has experienced, making pioneers out of the first in a family to go to college, or the first in a community to join the Church.
Regardless of which sense of novelty you mean, novelty has its drawbacks. Some seem to focus on novelty for novelty’s sake, instead of for any inherent value in what is new. And focusing too much on what is new can lead us to ignore or under appreciate the old and traditional. An unwarranted preference toward either the traditional or the new is not ideal and could lead to problems.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t really seem like this is what we mean when we talk about the Mormon pioneers. Most of those who traveled west to Utah weren’t creating a new trail and weren’t creating infrastructure for those who followed, at least not metaphorically. Some did, of course, but I think the vast majority didn’t fit the above definition.
So what do we mean by pioneers, then? Our Mormon use seems to be all about the fact that the “Mormon pioneers” crossed the plains and joined the Church early in its history—not unlike, I suppose, the Catholic designation of Saints for those who lived at the time of Christ.
I’d like to think there is more to it than just that. Undoubtedly the idea that these early Church members followed faithfully enters into the definition. But I’m not quite sure what else should be involved. And I’m not quite sure I like the comparison with the earlier definition of pioneer.