Pioneer Meaning

July 25, 2011 | 52 comments
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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.

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52 Responses to Pioneer Meaning

  1. Amy on July 25, 2011 at 8:26 am

    It seems to me like our definition of “pioneer” (either ancient or modern) involves some idea of suffering for one’s faith, or struggles ot trials to blaze a path for those who follow. It’s not just that one is doing something new, but that one is doing something new *and hard.*

  2. SusanS on July 25, 2011 at 10:43 am

    “Most of those who traveled west to Utah weren’t creating a new trail and weren’t creating infrastructure for those who followed….” Quite the contrary, the pioneers were constantly improving the trails for those who followed. And they did blaze new treacherous roads like the one through East Canyon where willow spikes could pierce and lame their oxen’s feet. Everyone who walked the trail was kicking rocks out of the way for those who followed, doing what they could to make the trip easier for later emigrants. Individual heading to California and Oregon didn’t have anyone following and had no reason to clear the trail of boulders, build and man ferries, or blaze new trails. The Mormon trail west was heavily trafficked because they basically turned it into a road.

    I think the real issue people have with Pioneers is they feel uncomfortable with the lay canonization of the group as a whole, with scores of youth “trekking” on annual handcart pilgrimages. A pilgrimage is supposed to reaffirm one’s faith, but in many cases it makes us feel inadequate to the task, putting the pioneers on some perfected tier of sainthood that is unattainable. Perhaps that’s why many pioneer talks try to stress the notion of “modern pioneers,” to breach the divide between us and our 19th century forbears.

  3. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 25, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    My understanding was that, as soon as you hit Salt Lake City, you were eligible to be sent out to “pioneer” new settlements up in Idaho and down in Arizona and Nevada. Even those who stayed there on the Wasatch Front were building infrastructure, including roads and irrigation canals and then railroads, for decades.

    For this reason, making a distinction between those Mormon immgrants who walked across the plains and mountains, and those who rode on the railroad in 1869, is arbitrary. After all, the vaunted handcart pioneers who immgrated from Europe got to Iowa City and then to Kanesville/Council Bluffs/Omaha/Winter Quarters/Florence by a combination of steam powered river boats and steam powered trains. Many who rode trains to Utah ended up taking wagons down to Mexico and up to Canada, distances as great as the trek from Omaha to Salt Lake.

    Anyone who lives in one of the settlements founded by pioneers, and those with ancestors who did, should be celebrating and commemorating the real pioneers of their heritage in the first instance, and only secondary the generic pioneers of 1846-1869. While it is a valuable experience to understand how physically challenging it was to pull a handcart through sand and over Rocky Ridge, it would also be valuable to actually learn the details about the lives of those pioneers, many of whose greatest challenges happened after they arrived in Salt Lake.

  4. Bob on July 25, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    @ SusanS: I too honor the efforts of those who made the hard trip across the plains. But yes, sometimes it’s overstated.
    I believe the Church built 42 stopover and resuppling stations on the Mormon trail for it’s members. While 12,000 left Nauvoo, tens of thousands had already made the longer trip on the Oregon Trail.

  5. Jennie on July 25, 2011 at 1:20 pm

    I think Pioneer Day is the perfect opportunity for a branch or ward to commemorate its own pioneers and history. I suppose it will always be a day of tribute to those who crossed the Plains, but when I have lived far from SLC I most appreciate those use the occasion to speak, teach, or have some activity commemorating local Church history as well.

  6. Jared T. on July 25, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Jennie, I’m sure that would be a good step toward raising awareness of local history, but I’m coming more and more to the realization that if the goal is to raise awareness of local pioneer efforts, then it would probably be better for communities to choose a date that was more significant for local history and create a point of memory around that date rather than tying the local narrative back to July 24 and thus perpetuating the central nature of the Utah Pioneers. And this need not be a matter of forgetting July 24, but in decentering it if the idea is to make an emphasis on local pioneers. As I’ve conducted oral histories and research on the Church where I grew up and where my grandmother was one of these local pioneers in the 1950s, I’ve grown more and more aware of how that history is virtually unknown locally and of the desire of the people there to know it and draw spiritual strength from it. People are hungry for those stories. I’d be surprised if that was not the case in countless areas Church wide. Fortunately, the Church history department is taking steps to increase attention to documenting the history of the Church on the local level in all the world and in encouraging stakes and areas to become acquainted with that history. Hopefully those immense efforts will be discussed more publicly as they unfold.

  7. Alison Moore Smith on July 25, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Kent, I enjoyed the post, especially the history of the word.

    It’s hard for me to understand your ambivalence about it all, I think it’s great fun.

    Of course they did something new, by joining the church early and, yes, dealing with the persecution and suspicion and travel and leaving behind everything, etc., that entailed. And if you believe the church is important, then you can see the value in those who actually engaged in the “novelty” to join the church, to make it an actual organization. Why would it be “unfortunate” if it included little more?

    Of course they built infrastructure. Even if you ignore the work along the way, they arrived in the valley, they built houses and businesses and churches and temples and mills and roads where there were none. Sam’s great grandparents were called (in the (in?)famous General Conference shout outs) to go settle the Big Horn Basin. More infrastructure.

    And what of those of us who can’t stretch the definition of “pioneer” to include US, who cares? I don’t consider myself a pioneer in any respect, but I appreciate those who were and can celebrate their contributions wholeheartedly.

  8. SusanS on July 25, 2011 at 3:31 pm

    RT Bob: Yes, a lot of people heading to Oregon had already gone west. However, they followed a trail that went along the south side of the river; the Saints chose the north trail. Consequently, their improvements to the north trail caused it to become the preferred route for emigrants afterwards.

  9. SusanS on July 25, 2011 at 3:32 pm

    When I mention “the river” I mean the Platte. Sorry.

  10. Jared T. on July 25, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    “It’s hard for me to understand your ambivalence about it all, I think it’s great fun.”

    So I don’t like Church basketball, primarily because I just don’t like playing basketball in general. What’s there not to understand? If what it comes down to is having “great fun” then why is it surprising that some people might have a different idea of what constitutes “great fun” as you? I’ve been an avid reader/researcher of Church history for much of my life, but I’ve never been drawn to the Utah Pioneer trek or story. I haven’t actively avoided it. My parents didn’t teach me to steer away from it, it’s just never interested me. I’ve published on Mormon history topics and will continue to. It’s just not a part of the Mormon story that interests me. What’s not to understand? But that’s not really why you don’t understand the ambivalence, and “great fun” is not why people think they value Pioneer Day and “great fun” is not why people expect others to value Pioneer Day:

    “And IF [emphasis mine] you think the Church is important, then you can see the value in those who actually engaged the “novelty” to join the church…And what of those of us who can’t stretch the definition of ‘pioneer’ to include US, who cares? I don’t consider myself a pioneer in any respect, but I appreciate those who were and can celebrate their contributions wholeheartedly.”

    Reading between the lines here we see the strategy–The implication is that well,*I* think the Church is important and *I* celebrate the contributions of the pioneers and thus *I* like Pioneer day. As if somewhere Kent wrote that he didn’t appreciate the Pioneers or didn’t think the Church was important. In the minds of such, an ambivalence to Pioneer day celebrations is tantamount to having an ambivalence to the contributions of the Utah Pioneers, which, in extreme cases, is tantamount to having an ambivalence to the Church, it’s growth, and history. I’m convinced that most of the time there isn’t a conscious effort to make those connections, but it’s just “common sense.” The problem with common sense is that there’s often not much sense about it. It’s a construct that is used to regulate thought and behavior. If you don’t fall into these traditional patterns of thinking about things, then you can easily be identified and categorized as an “other” or found to be otherwise enigmatic.

    So, when I talk about “decentering” Pioneer Day, it’s about breaking down these types of constructs and breaking the “common sense” and false link between caring about Pioneer Day and caring about the contributions of the Utah pioneers or the Church.

  11. Bob on July 25, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    @SusanS: Yes, the Mormon emigrants kept to the north of the Platte.
    400,000 used the older Oregon Trail.
    I agree with Jared__ a lot of good ‘founding’ stories of Mormon Villages go untold.

  12. chris on July 25, 2011 at 5:03 pm

    Kent – I’d think one could evaluate and consider the experiences of the children of Israel being led out of Egypt and the various books of scripture in the same sense as the Pioneers. There are a lot of really great parallels over the early decades of the entire Church and those in the Old Testamant. Obviously not exactly the same patterns…

    Viewed in the increasingly common light over the world in the church, which seems to be, “why do we talk so much about those people who moved to Utah in America, when this is a world church?” it doesn’t seem to make much sense. But from that perspective, I think one could be just as ambivilant about reading about delivernce from Egypt in the OT as they could about the Pioneers. Viewed in that light I would argue ambivilance doesn’t make as much sense.

  13. Jared T. on July 25, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Sure, Chris. Also, how many Exodus of Israel Day parades have you been to lately? I guess nobody really cares about the Exodus of Israel after all if no one puts together a parade and sets aside a day for it, right?

  14. BCE on July 25, 2011 at 5:29 pm

    #13 no parades per se but a couple of seders

  15. Jared T. on July 25, 2011 at 6:13 pm

    That’s a joke, right? Outside of annual BYU Victor Ludlow-led seders (which is more of a curiosity than anything we’re enjoined to do as a people), where is the seder celebrated in the LDS Church in any sort of systematic or culturally significant way that in any way resembles Pioneer Day?

    My point of course in #13 is that if the Pioneer Trek is so much like the Exodus and thus if ambivalence to Pioneer Day and attendant celebrations equals ambivalence to the Pioneer story, then ipso facto, failure to have similar celebrations for the Exodus must constitute ambivalence to the Exodus story. This, of course, is hogwash.

  16. Bob on July 25, 2011 at 6:54 pm

    @ Chris: I think more Mormon Pioneers came from Europe than America__but I don’t have the numbers.
    I know a large number came to Utah from around Liverpool in the early 1860s when the textile mills closed down when the North blockaded the South from sending England cotton during the Civil War.

  17. Alison Moore Smith on July 25, 2011 at 8:04 pm

    My, Jared T., you do take this seriously!

    What’s there not to understand?

    Ambivalence includes both positive AND negative feelings about something, not just general disinterest. I wouldn’t characterize Kent’s post as nine paragraphs of meh. Would you? I do not understand why someone would have negative feelings about celebrating early LDS pioneers.

    Kent started with that bit, but didn’t really explain it, other than to seem bothered by them being called “pioneers.” (Which I can’t understand either.)

    So, when I talk about “decentering” Pioneer Day, it’s about breaking down these types of constructs and breaking the “common sense” and false link between caring about Pioneer Day and caring about the contributions of the Utah pioneers or the Church.

    I didn’t make a connection between caring about Pioneer Day and caring about the pioneer contributions. I made a connection between the “novelty” of joining a new church and the good that those who joined the church did — by the very act of that “novelty.” In other words, while I agree that novelty for it’s own sake isn’t necessarily good, the novelty the Mormon pioneers engaged in (and that tends to be celebrated) was. Kent wanted to think there was more (I think there is and addressed that with infrastructure), but I think joining early on was, itself, significant.

    P.S. Kent, if it helps, I was always taught about European and non-US pioneers growing up. One of my great grandfathers was name William Tapscot Gillman — because he was born on the ship William Tapscott crossing the Atlantic. :)

  18. SusanS on July 25, 2011 at 9:58 pm

    Bob: 400,000 is the total number of people who walked the trail from 1846/7 until the railroads came before the war; all of the 60,000 Mormon emigrants that came are a part of that figure. I’m not claiming that the Saints opened the way west, I’m just contesting that they did nothing to improve the infrastructure of the way for themselves and others, which they certainly did.

  19. Jared T. on July 25, 2011 at 10:35 pm

    Alison, you are correct that ambivalence means conflicting feelings, and in that way I was being imprecise in using the word above. I think my confusion is due to the fact that when I have those conflicting feelings, it often in the end results in something of a “meh” feeling in me. That having been said, you “do not understand why someone would have negative feelings about celebrating early LDS pioneers.” That’s fair. I can’t speak for Kent, but I do feel ambivalence to Pioneer Day for a number of reasons. First, I of course, as a historian love history and I love Church history. Much of my own research and writing deals with Church history. I’m glad that there is a Pioneer Day and that people take history seriously and learn about it. I think there’s nothing wrong with participating in the festivities and getting caught up in that spirit if that’s what one feels to do.

    On the other hand, when Pioneer Day rolls around, it’s also a reminder to me that the memory of the Utah Pioneer story is held up to a degree that no other group of people and no other event is held up. It feels disproportionate. There are literally dozens of events, movements, and peoples that could be argued to be at least as essential to the survival of the Church, but it’s the Utah Pioneer story that towers over the other stories. Focus on the Utah Pioneer story also means that often the stories of pioneers in other contexts and lands go unheard and, most galling, every year there are those who insist that the world church make it a special point to observe a special day and utilize resources to pay homage to these Anglo American Saints. This, to me, smacks of arrogance and the exportation of American exceptionalism. Plus, the emphasis on the Martin and Willie handcart companies (and the perpetuation of attendant myths) and the focus on suffering as validation troubles me not only as a historian, but as a Latter-day Saint. So, yeah, conflicting feelings. I think things will eventually “balance out” and by that I mean that Church-wide, we’ll have a healthier knowledge of and appreciation for the stories of one another in different contexts and cultures, but it will take some time and some overt efforts to “decenter” the traditional narrative.

  20. Bob on July 25, 2011 at 11:48 pm

    @ SusanS: Yes Mormons did a lot to build a trial and kept it up. I do not question this.
    But the Oregon Trail opened 1840. Mormons started out in 1848. The railroad came to Utah after the Civil War, in 1869.
    But it sounds like you follow this stuff(?) My ancestors controlled the “Hudspeth Cutoff” (from the Oregon/Mormon Trails to the California Trail), until the railroad replaced them.
    There is a book yet to be written, about all of things that happened to Utah/Idaho Mormons when the railroads came.

  21. Kent Larsen on July 26, 2011 at 12:01 am

    SusanS (2), you left out the next sentence, “Some did, of course, but I think the vast majority didn’t fit the above definition.”

    I do agree that some, perhaps even many of the “Mormon pioneers” were actual pioneers — they created infrastructure and did novel things. But I am not at all sure that the majority did anything more than follow the instructions of their leaders. IMO it is a stretch to call “kicking rocks out of the way for those who followed, doing what they could to make the trip easier for later emigrants” as building infrastructure — let alone something that was novel. These things were novel when the first pioneer company traveled the trail. Later companies not so much.

    But I really like your observation about the canonization of the whole group. I do think that is a bit of what is going on with the recognition of “Mormon pioneers” today.

  22. Kent Larsen on July 26, 2011 at 12:18 am

    Raymond (3) wrote:

    My understanding was that, as soon as you hit Salt Lake City, you were eligible to be sent out to “pioneer” new settlements up in Idaho and down in Arizona and Nevada. Even those who stayed there on the Wasatch Front were building infrastructure, including roads and irrigation canals and then railroads, for decades.

    Yes, I thought of mentioning this fact in the op, but didn’t manage to fit it in. But again, I can’t see this being more than a small portion of those who went to live in these settlements. Yes the first 25 or 50 or however many initial settlers were pioneers, as in they did something novel AND built infrastructure. But when subsequent settlers arrived, was there still something novel being done?

    But, I think all this is a little beside the point. I’m not trying to denigrate the service that these early Church members provided. I AM looking at the definition of Mormon Pioneer to understand exactly what we are talking about, and perhaps help me get through the ambivalence I feel.

  23. Kent Larsen on July 26, 2011 at 12:36 am

    Jared T. (6, 10), you rock!

  24. Kent Larsen on July 26, 2011 at 12:54 am

    Allison (7) wrote:

    Of course they did something new, by joining the church early and, yes, dealing with the persecution and suspicion and travel and leaving behind everything, etc., that entailed. … [snip]

    Of course they built infrastructure. … [snip]

    I agree on the infrastructure, but I don’t see the new part. By the 1840s many, many thousands of people had joined the church, dealt with persecution and suspicion and travel and etc.

    As I indicated in the op, I can see how these would be new for an individual, family or small group. But they aren’t particularly new among Church members or among society at large.

    Again, I am NOT suggesting that their efforts weren’t valuable and admirable. I’m just quibbling with the definition of them as pioneers.

  25. Kent Larsen on July 26, 2011 at 1:03 am

    Jared T (19), you’ve basically caught the gist of most of my ambivalence.

    One of the additional issues that trips me up is that I didn’t grow up in Utah, and didn’t really experience any pioneer day celebrations until I was an adult. The whole thing seems kind of alien to me.

  26. Bob on July 26, 2011 at 10:43 am

    Kent: “I can’t see this being more than a small portion of those who went to live in these settlements. Yes the first 25 or 50 or however many initial settlers were pioneers, as in they did something novel AND built infrastructure. But when subsequent settlers arrived, was there still something novel being done?”.
    Did you mean the first 25 or 50,000? I would think that would be closer to the number placed in the Mormon Villages. But maybe you meant the number first sent to each village(?)
    Also, these people could be very independent of Salt Lake and each Village did have it’s own novel ways of setting it’s up that took many years.

  27. Kent Larsen on July 26, 2011 at 10:49 am

    Bob, I meant the number sent to each village/settlement.

  28. Bob on July 26, 2011 at 10:58 am

    “Until the railroads made the journey too easy, and until new generations born in the valley began to outnumber the immigant Saints, the shared experience of the trail was a bond that reinforced the bonds of faith, and to successive generations who did not personally experience it, it has continued to have sanctiry as legend and myth.” (Wallace Stegner)

  29. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 26, 2011 at 12:55 pm

    Kent, I did grow up in Salt Lake, and during that entire time, and for decades afterward, my Dad was the drum major leading the Salt Lake City Letter Carriers Band as they marched in the Pioneer Day parade every year. One year we watched from the second floor of the Utah Power & Light Company building where my grandfather, who had originally been the sole electrical lineman west of the Jordan River, was working as a bookkeeper. Other years, when we lived just a block north of the parade route on 9th South near the terminus at Liberty Park, we sat on the curb. Later on when I was in law school we watched on TV, and KSL would always mention that one of their cameramen, my brother Mike, was playing drums in the band. We would often go down to take cold sodas to the band as they demobilized at the park.

    So the parade, and my family’s participation in it, were always the centerpiece of Pioneer Day for my family. In 1997, the Letter Carriers Band played at the official welcoming ceremony for the Sesquicentennial Wagon Train at This is the Place Monument. The story of the pioneers has always been a distinctive identifier for me of what it means to be a Mormon.

    While my own Swedish ancestors didn’t arrive in Utah until 1896, they still had the core experience of making the long trip from Malmo to the little Scandinavian settlement in Linden, giving up their flour mill and bidding their non-Mormon family members goodbye and settling in an alien country for the Gospel’s sake.

    The point of the whole exercise for the original pioneers of 1846-1869 was the same: not to put themselves through some kind of marathon of suffering to demonstrate their dedication to the Gospel, but to gather to Zion and become part of a distinctive community with temples linking them to heaven. It was plugging in to God’s power and blessings. Walking 1100 miles was simply a way of measuring the value of the destination.

  30. Kent Larsen on July 26, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    Bob (28), I greatly respect Stegner, and I agree with his assessment. However, I don’t think it is on point. He doesn’t address whether what they did was always novel and always building infrastructure. Without both of those factors, we don’t have pioneers, we have settlers.

    Admittedly those settlers did suffer a lot for the sake of the gospel, and they built the Church in Utah like no one else. But that doesn’t make them pioneers.

    Raymond (29), thanks for that. I can see how the day is very important for your family. And not having experienced what you did growing up is part of why I feel ambivalent about the holiday — it just doesn’t have much meaning for me.

    Again, I don’t want to rob your ancestors or mine (more than half of whom, like yours, arrived after the railroad) of anything. I’m just exploring what we mean when we say “Mormon Pioneers” — and I have to say that it isn’t really about being a pioneer, but about the faith that they had and the suffering they passed through. For that I do see a debt of gratitude.

  31. Bob on July 26, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    Kent: I don’t know how you separtate the Settlers from the Pioneers.
    Stegner wrote two books: one about Trail, and the other about the Settling. “Mormon Country”, is all about the efforts to build a Zion in many ‘novel’ and ‘infrastructure’ ways that took more than a generation. Both are great books.

  32. SusanS on July 26, 2011 at 9:19 pm

    Amen on the Stegner nod Bob.

  33. Bob on July 26, 2011 at 11:31 pm

    SusanS: Wallace Stegner is underappreciated by the Mormon Church. As to what the Church meant to him, and what he meant to the Church. I have, I think, every book by him or about him. If the Church ever had a bridge to the outside world__it was him.

  34. Chadwick on July 27, 2011 at 1:35 am

    Jared writes: “Focus on the Utah Pioneer story also means that often the stories of pioneers in other contexts and lands go unheard and, most galling, every year there are those who insist that the world church make it a special point to observe a special day and utilize resources to pay homage to these Anglo American Saints. This, to me, smacks of arrogance and the exportation of American exceptionalism.”

    I’d love to know where you witness the overseas Saints downgrading their own pioneer stories to glorify the arrogance of the Western church. I currently live in Bangalore and I can promise you, what with the 24th falling on Sunday, that nobody in the 3rd Branch was at all concerned. The only mention of Pioneer Day was a last minute change of the closing hymn to be “Come Come Ye Saints” which irked me as the pianist because I had not practiced that hymn during the week.

    But since Bangalore is it for the South Indian Saints (there are no LDS churches south of Bangalore) the members greatly appreciate and always give shout outs to those outlying members when they make the bus trek up to Bangalore to commune with the Saints. I won’t call them pioneers, since they simply ride a very bumpy bus all night to get here, but I like to think of them as great people setting a great example for the rest of us, if not pioneers.

    Obviously the dealings of the Bangalore 3rd branch do not speak for the rest of the church, but what you describe did not occur here on the Deccan Plateau.

    As for Kent not “getting” Pioneer Day, I was born and raised in SLC but have never once attended the parade. My parents weren’t into that sort of thing and, now as an adult, I don’t get work off that day. The only benefit I’ve seen on Pioneer Day is our boss lets us work from home to avoid the mess getting downtown, what with all the closed roads, and maybe some firework displays, though those also are few for me because my house is on the mountain in Draper where fireworks are banned. So it’s not a part of me, even when I’ve lived in Utah. But I still think it’s a nice holiday nonetheless. You don’t have to “get” it, or actively participate, to see the value in remembering the great things these people did, as long as we remember the caveats SusanS gave about turning them into more than human.

  35. Jared T. on July 27, 2011 at 5:22 am

    Chadwick, thanks for the report. I’m glad no one in Bangladore felt imposed upon. But reading my comment closely, I’m not making a blanket statement that this is happening everywhere. Mileage will certainly vary, but I have anecdotal examples from different parts of the United States and Latin America (particularly Mexico) that speak of that one zealous person or group of zealous people in a given ward that feel it their solemn duty to educate the rest of the ward about the Utah Pioneers and adjure them to dress up in bonnets and parade around with handcarts “just like we do back home.”

    But there’s a deeper issue in that the Utah Pioneer story is the story that still has exceptional institutional strength. It’s the story that often gets taught by Mormon Corridor missionaries to converts. It’s the story that gets made into movies and distributed around. It’s the story that gets into the manuals and translated into a hundred languages. Take the example of the place where I’m from in South Texas. Those first “Pioneer” members were taught the Utah pioneer story and that’s the story that’s remembered to the detriment of their own historical legacy. I’ve been at work recovering the stories of these pioneers and the legacy of faith they have left. And as I’ve shared those stories, it’s clear that not only were those stories lost to the local Church members, but no one had ever taught them that their stories mattered or were worth preserving. That they were worth telling. They were always taught to look to the Utah Pioneers for their legacy of faith. And that is the core of what I find unfortunate. The hegemony of the Utah Pioneer story, often leaves limited room for validation of alternate narratives about local pioneers.

    However, as your example shows, this is not necessarily the case everywhere and as Church membership becomes increasingly diversified, I think one natural result is that the Utah Pioneer narrative will lose some of that centrality. I think that Church curriculum and other venues will increasingly look to include these non-Utah Pioneer stories. Thanks again for your comment, it gives me hope.

  36. Bob on July 27, 2011 at 9:04 am

    Chadwick: My GGGfather (Wm. Draper) settled Draper. My other GGGfather__Tooele.

  37. Kent Larsen on July 27, 2011 at 11:53 am

    Chadwick (34) wrote:

    You don’t have to “get” it, or actively participate, to see the value in remembering the great things these people did

    I hope I didn’t give the impression that I don’t see some value in Pioneer Day. I am ambivalent about it, and I do think that the contribution of the Mormon pioneers and settlers is worth recognizing. But I don’t get worked up about it the way I do other holidays — mostly because of my ambivalence. When I’m home in NYC for this holiday, I generally prefer that my stake NOT celebrate it, mainly because it seems so incongruous and like some non-gospel element of Utah culture is being imposed on us.

    BUT, I am glad that there is at least one holiday that is Mormon in some way. I wish there were others that weren’t so geographically oriented.

    Just don’t rope me into celebrating it outside of the Intermountain West.

  38. Kent Larsen on July 27, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    Jared (35), we are basically on the same page.

    One of the elements that annoys me a little in all this is that even when the story is of crucial importance to the history of the Church, the Utah story overwhelms it.

    I hinted at this in the op. New York City, where I live, played a huge role in the populating of Utah, as the major transit point for the converts arriving from Europe. During the first few years after the arrival of the first converts in 1840, and subsequently from the late 1850s through the 1890s, virtually all the nearly 100,000 Mormon converts from Europe passed through New York City.

    Like Preston, England, New York City has had an official LDS presence far longer than Utah — since Parley P. Pratt opened missionary work in the city in 1837. Even when the Eastern States Mission was closed, the Church still had immigration agents stationed in the city to help the arriving companies of converts.

    But, even most Church members in New York City don’t realize these facts because they are largely absent from the story the way that the Church tells it.

    So, without institutional support for celebrating what happened locally in so many places around the Church, the geographical bias annoys a bit.

    Since the timing is about right, perhaps in New York City we could rename the holiday “Parley P. Pratt Day” and celebrate his arrival to open missionary work in the city. [GRIN]

  39. Alison Moore Smith on July 27, 2011 at 4:18 pm

    Jared T., thanks for the explanation.

    #19

    On the other hand, when Pioneer Day rolls around, it’s also a reminder to me that the memory of the Utah Pioneer story is held up to a degree that no other group of people and no other event is held up.

    Are you saying that you feel ambivalent because you think pioneers are honored too much in comparison to other groups? I assume you mean within the church? What other groups do you think we should celebrate?

    Focus on the Utah Pioneer story also means that often the stories of pioneers in other contexts and lands go unheard

    I don’t think that is necessarily true. If you have a story to tell, tell it.

    most galling, every year there are those who insist that the world church make it a special point to observe a special day and utilize resources to pay homage to these Anglo American Saints. This, to me, smacks of arrogance and the exportation of American exceptionalism.

    Galling? That we honor the people who sacrificed everything so that there could even be a church? It just so happens that they WERE largely Anglo Americans. Pretending that isn’t so is just pretending, even it’s an attempt to somehow “equalize” things. I don’t even understand the last phrase. The founding of the church simply was what it was.

    There weren’t any women who signed the Declaration of Independence and we don’t get very far trying to define “founding mothers.” (Betsy Ross?) Still worth celebrating IMO. (Yikes, is that more Anglo celebrating!)

  40. Alison Moore Smith on July 27, 2011 at 4:43 pm

    Kent #24:

    I’m just quibbling with the definition of them as pioneers…Without both of those factors [novelty; building infrastructure], we don’t have pioneers, we have settlers.

    Here’s my dictionary definition:

    • a person who is among the first to explore or settle a new country or area.
    • a person who is among the first to research and develop a new area of knowledge or activity
    • (also pioneer species) a plant or animal that establishes itself in an unoccupied area.

    I haven’t found one that has a requirement of “always novel and always building infrastructure.” As people point out both novelty and infrastructure (even though occupying is a much lower standard), the definition seems to get more demanding.

    So you’re quibbling about whether the first thousands to build houses and roads and farms in formerly uninhabited acreage were “among the first”? Or that since SOME of the “pioneers” only built their OWN house and didn’t contribute COMMUNAL infrastructure they weren’t real pioneers? Or that maybe a handful of them bought someone else’s house, not EVERY SINGLE PERSON who is sometimes referred to as a pioneer REALLY was? Or that moving to, say, Wyoming, where there are already 200 people, and homesteading on a former piece of wild land, and building a home and a barn, and blasting rock, and building a road, and digging a well, and getting water to your land, isn’t pioneerish enough to be a real pioneer?

    I didn’t grow up in Utah, and didn’t really experience any pioneer day celebrations until I was an adult.

    ??? I didn’t grow up celebrating Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur or Chanukah, either. But I’m not ambivalent about them. I found the customs interesting, some less, some more (I don’t really love a good bris). But if I felt negative about them, there would be a stronger reason than “well, I didn’t grow up with them.”

    I don’t expect anyone to get “worked up” over a holiday. It’s the NEGATIVE aspects of the ambivalence that I don’t understand.

  41. Jared T. on July 27, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    Alison, your comment provokes one big forehead slap. I don’t think there’s much chance of me helping you understand the issues here when you end your comment asserting that since there were no women who signed the declaration of independence then we don’t get far trying to define “founding mothers.” Wow. Maybe down the road I’ll have to post on the JI about poststructuralism, postcolonialism, hegemony, and the notion of discourse, etc., to help introduce the theoretical quandaries comments like that (and your views on Pioneer Day) represent. In the meantime, I’m sincere in believing that there’s little to be gained from continuing this conversation.

  42. KLC on July 27, 2011 at 5:34 pm

    Kent, you seem hung up on your precise definition of pioneer. And you’ve convinced me that according to that definition many if not most were not actually pioneers. But you haven’t convinced me that your definition must therefore be the guiding principle behind any discussion or celebration of Mormon pioneers and pioneer day. It seems a semantic argument about something of no great consequence.

  43. Alison Moore Smith on July 27, 2011 at 7:24 pm

    Chadwick #34:
    Loved your comment. I grew up mostly in Utah, but the only time I ever attended the parade was the two years I rode a float in it. Still, like you, value remembering their contribution to the state and the church.

    Jared T. #35:

    The hegemony of the Utah Pioneer story, often leaves limited room for validation of alternate narratives about local pioneers.

    The Utah pioneer story dominates because it WAS the dominant story of the founding of the church as the prophet directed the members there.

    Write about Texas pioneers! That’s a great idea. But it you expect those stories to become the dominant stories of the founding, it’s probably not going to happen. Because they weren’t the dominant influence.

    We deal with that sort of reality in every corner of life. To take offense at it isn’t reasonable unless the history is wrong, as Susan alludes to.

    Kent #38:

    …the Utah story overwhelms it…I hinted at this in the op. New York City, where I live, played a huge role in the populating of Utah

    Doesn’t it seem reasonable that “the Utah story” overwhelms the New York story “in the populating of Utah”? Of course there is “geographical bias” since it’s a migration story that ends up in Utah. It is a story about the founding of the church and the creation of a new state. And it’s Utah history. (Are Catholic’s in American bothered on Vatican Day? ;) )

    If you want to have the New York part of the story told with a New York bias, instead of a Utah one, that might be a beef to take up with New Yorkers. :) But I like your Parley P. Pratt Day idea. :)

    Jared T. #41:
    I did’t say that “since there were no women who signed the declaration of independence then we don’t get far trying to define ‘founding mothers.’”

    I said that there were no female signers (there weren’t) and that we don’t get very far trying to call out founding mothers. For example, take a look at the literature on that. One book titled Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation is about “the wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers of”… wait for it…”the founding FATHERS.” A popular website is “Founding Mothers – The Women Behind the Men Behind the Founding of Our Nation.” Uh, yea.

    It’s simply true that women did not often play large, visible leadership roles in US or church history. Of course that doesn’t mean we didn’t contribute and it doesn’t mean we aren’t important, but when you talk about political and church history leadership — the hegemony of the male story is obvious and accurate.

    Now I can get all offended that women aren’t the center, because I’m a woman and I’m special and it’s not fair and women SHOULD have been the presidents and prophets and generals. Or I can recognize that theses MEN actually did some great things and celebrate that without getting my pantyhose in a knot. And then work to, say, tell stories of women in the past that I do think are important and create opportunities for women in the future.

    An example: my husband, Sam, is on the board of the Samuel Smith Foundation. Everyone knows about Joseph and Hyrum. And hardly anyone knows much about Samuel. Maybe they know he was the first official missionary, but that’s about it.

    In other words, the hegemony of the MARTYR BROTHERS JOSEPH AND HYRUM leaves limited room for validation of Samuel narratives.

    And there’s a reason. Because the Joseph/Hyrum story is more influential in Mormon history. And, you know, that thing about Joseph being the prophet.

    Does that mean Samuel (sometimes referred to as “the forgotten martyr”) has been disrespected or that we need to change the actual history so he can dominate? Does it mean we are ambivalent about the other brothers getting more air play? Or that in this postjosephhyrum era we need to stop paying so much attention to those guys? No to all three.

    Instead , we are working on leaving a solid record of what Samuel actually did. So far we have done some research on his life and death, dug up a couple of graves, had an article published (“Samuel H. Smith: Faithful Brother of Joseph and Hyrum“), and we spent years raising money and commissioning a statue of Samuel Smith that is now in the MTC in Provo. (In that first picture of Elder Ballard, my husband’s head is right under his elbow.)

    Too much time posting this past couple of days. Back to real life but always appreciate a good discussion.

    Jared T., I realize I’m too stupid to discuss this with you. Or maybe you just can’t respond postoriginalpost. Either way.

  44. Jared T. on July 27, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    *Sigh* It’s certainly not about someone being stupid and the other smart, but its interesting that that’s what you reached for. Seriously, though, this is a waste of time. My first clue is that you seem to think that I want to replace the Utah Pioneer narrative with some other narrative that the Church will then rally around. This is so far from what I’ve been talking about that it really gives me pause. Plus, hegemony is not about direct domination and it’s not as simple as some “reality” about influence. Hegemony, as outlined by Gramsci describes a myriad of social constructs that work together to create a grand or “common sense” narrative that upholds a status quo, dictated by a central authority in order to exert cultural dominance over a subordinate group. It sounds malicious, but the intent behind it is on something on a sliding scale but also largely beside the point. And if there was ever an example of this, it’s in your comments. Finally, a little hint–randomly putting “post” before stuff isn’t helping your case. And the rest, I really don’t know where to start. It’s like watching an episode of hoarders. Maybe we can try again next July 24th and in the mean time I can think about how to better translate this stuff for the benefit of a wider audience. Cheers.

  45. KLC on July 28, 2011 at 9:02 am

    Jared, I give Alison huge props for actually trying to engage you in a discussion. She gives examples, she gives explanations, she is trying hard to say something and to understand what you are saying.

    You seem unwilling to even make the effort to respond, providing little more than precious “head slaps” and “sighs” and then claiming that it is a waste of time to even try and engage with someone so clueless. So here’s a little hint for you, stop dropping names in internet discussions to give your non-arguments heft. Create some content and then be willing and able to explain that content when people call you on it. And if you can’t do that then stop hiding behind the academic skirts of Gramsci and any one else you think you cant toss out as a smoke screen to cover your ineptness.

  46. Kent Larsen on July 29, 2011 at 2:26 pm

    Allison (40):

    Here’s my dictionary definition:

    Ah, so the definition I gave in the op isn’t good enough? If you are going to attack my definition, you should probably reference the explanations in the op about that definition.

    I think my reasons in the op for looking at novelty and infrastructure are sound.

    But regardless, I’m NOT suggesting that the term we use should be changed from “Mormon Pioneer” to something different, even though I think it might lead to confusion. I AM exploring the issue so that when I write a definition of “Mormon Pioneer” for Mormon Terms I can give a definition that reflects what we actually mean. I think that the op shoes that simply leaving it to the public to put the words “Mormon” and “Pioneer” together and come up with the right idea isn’t going to work. Instead we’ll need to say something like “One of the early Mormon settlers of Utah who traveled there under great hardship.” [not a great definition, but perhaps in the ballpark.]

    But if I felt negative about them, there would be a stronger reason than “well, I didn’t grow up with them.”

    Certainly. “I didn’t grow up with them” is more about ambivalence, and why I’m not really excited to celebrate the day. I think Jared has discussed the negative reasons quite well in his comments and I’ll try to address a little in replying to some of your other comments.

  47. Kent Larsen on July 29, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    KLC (42):

    Kent, you seem hung up on your precise definition … But you haven’t convinced me that your definition must therefore be the guiding principle behind any discussion or celebration of Mormon pioneers and pioneer day. It seems a semantic argument about something of no great consequence.

    I don’t think I’d use the term “hung up” — its not what I’m eating, sleeping and dreaming about this week.

    I’m not trying to convince anyone that this should be the “guiding principle behind any discussion or celebration of Mormon pioneers.” Did I somewhere suggest that I was?

    In fact, it IS a semantic argument — about a dictionary definition. But I disagree with the characterization that it is “of no great consequence.” They aren’t the most important issue in the world — no one’s life or eternal salvation is in the balance — but the meaning of words can be very important, especially when we don’t see how, as in this case, the ‘on its face’ definition is quite different from what we mean.

  48. KLC on July 29, 2011 at 2:54 pm

    No, but it’s certainly what you’ve spent a lot of time explaining and defending in this thread and it seems to be one of your guiding principles in writing this post about pioneer day. Sure the meaning of words is important, but are you saying that as a mormon you have never noticed that the term pioneer as used in church talks, lessons and discourse has a common meaning not nearly as rigid as you want to make it?

  49. Kent Larsen on July 29, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Allison (43) wrote:

    Doesn’t it seem reasonable that “the Utah story” overwhelms the New York story “in the populating of Utah”?

    I think you and your husband’s own actions are an example of what I’m talking about (and I suspect of what Jared is talking about also). The Samuel Smith Foundation is, I think, just trying to get Samuel Smith the attention he’s due. Its a matter of balance.

    Of course I think that it is reasonable that the Utah story is of primary importance. BUT, I think that what story gets told is WAY out of balance. How many general conference talks mention in a significant way the trek from Nauvoo to Salt Lake versus how many talk about the pioneer sea voyages that usually ended in New York City? To look at Jared’s areas of study, compare these to how many talk about the early saints in Mexico? Or my own issues — how many talk about historical stories of Mormons in Brazil or Portugal?

    [Note, I'm NOT arguing for some geographical balance in general conference addresses or even the total of what the Church produces. BUT I do think that if members like Jared and myself don't feel a strong connection to the trek stories, how much less must members in Latin America (for example) find the imbalance in the narrative between the "Utah story" and stories they can identify with?]

    Let me give one example of what I mean that is outside of Church administration and where I think steps should be taken to make a change. Each issue of the Journal of Mormon History I look at the contents for articles about the international church. This past issue there was just one — and it was a book review. Is the first 50 or 75 years of the Church really that much more important than anything else that it is practically the ONLY thing discussed in Mormon history?

    For me, since the international issues is something important, I can’t help but be slightly annoyed that it gets such short shrift.

    No one is suggesting that the “Utah Story” not be the most important. The problem is that too often it seems like it is the only or main story we tell, when even in evaluating the history Church, the story of its international expansion is arguably much more important than the pioneer trek.

    And as a result, when our stake in New York, with a rather tenuous connection to the pioneer trek from Nauvoo or Iowa on to Utah, tries to celebrate pioneer day there, complete with pioneer bonnets and handcarts, it leads to a little annoyance, and I’m not very interested in showing up.

  50. Kent Larsen on July 29, 2011 at 3:09 pm

    KLC (48)

    No, but it’s certainly what you’ve spent a lot of time explaining and defending in this thread and it seems to be one of your guiding principles in writing this post about pioneer day.

    I’m funny that way. I’m willing to spend a lot of time on what interests me, even when others think that it is a waste of time or obscure. At the moment, I’m very interested in definition and in producing a dictionary of Mormon Terms. I think the feedback that I get from discussing the definition here helps me reach a better definition.

    Sure the meaning of words is important, but are you saying that as a mormon you have never noticed that the term pioneer as used in church talks, lessons and discourse has a common meaning not nearly as rigid as you want to make it?

    I’m not sure that I want to make it rigid. Words are rarely rigid, and their meaning clearly can change significantly over time. The thought process here helped me understand that the “pioneer” in “Mormon Pioneer” isn’t quite the same as the dictionary definition.

    To be honest, I never thought about how we used the term in church and in Mormon discourse before I did this post and before I started to put together Mormon Terms. But pioneer day came along, and I wanted to write about the day (in part because of my ambivalence), and the op is what I ended up with.

    Best of all, I think it has got commenters here thinking about pioneer day and the Mormon Pioneers in a different way, even if their opinions didn’t really change. I’m happy with that.

  51. Raymond Takashi Swenson on July 29, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    Back when I was a missionary in the Sapporo, Japan, mission office, we had a visit from James Heslop, an editor of the Church News, and his wife. My companion drove us out to the airport (WAY out of town) to pick them up; he was so excited that he locked the keys in the car, and Brother Heslop ended up pulling a coat hangar out of his suitcase and jimmying the door lock.

    Borther Heslop told us that he was looking for stories about the local members that would help members in the US and other countries what it is like to be LDS in Japan, with their own stories of how they found the Church and how they have sacrificed for their faith.

    I think the Church News is still doing that. There have been several cover stories about members in Japan since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The Liahona in Japan features stories about Japanese members and their roles in the establishment and progress of the Church in Japan.

    A number of histories about the early Japanese saints have been published in Japan. Several articles have been written in Japanese and English, some published in BYU Studies, written by Takagi Shinji, an economist at the IMF, about the early history of the Church in Japan. There is also one biography, in English and Japanese, of Tatsui Sato, the chemical engineering professor who was converted by LDS servicemen right after World War II, and ended up being the principal translator of the scriptures and important Church books into Japanese for many years. He produced the first temple ordinances translation and moved to the US in 1966 to translate family history records.

    I think the saints in Japan have a good sense of their own unique history as Japanese members. I am sure that saints in other countries are doing the same thing. But I am guessing that language barriers and publication and distribution hurdles make it harder for members in the rest of the Church to know about those histories so we can cherish their stories alongside the classic American and European ones. Perhaps this is where the internet could really help. Perhaps the Church News could sponsor a web page where stories from Liahonas around the world could be posted each month, in both the original languages and English translations, and even indexed so they could be researched based on similarities (stories about family history, about children in Primary, about family home evening, about temple worship, about missionary work, about service and leadership, about the unique challenges of living the Gospel in each culture). Stories that evoke extra interest could be marked and featured.

  52. Chadwick on August 3, 2011 at 3:53 am

    I’m a little late coming back to the thread, as I was in Thailand for the weekend.

    Kent, would the term Mormon Pilgrim be acceptable to you? Or do we not fit that bill either?

    I can second what Raymond says above. I served my mission in Hong Kong and we had a film (ie VHS, dating myself) we could show members about the church history in China. My first mission president was the first native mission president who also served a mission in Hong Kong. He loved Hong Kong something fierce and was always telling us about church history there, including how President Hinckley picked the temple site. I remember one move he pulled me aside and told me my new ward had more of the original members than any other ward and I had better appreciate them for who they were. I think there is an underground movement in many parts of the world where the stories of the early saints in those areas is told, if verbally only.

    Maybe it’s different because I had ties to Asia and nowhere else, where the church is more “new” and the members are much less, so meeting the original superstars is a reality.

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