White Bar

Pioneer Faith

Brian C. Schmidt

 

Brigham Young University-Idaho Devotional

July 25, 2006

 

Dear Brothers and Sisters.  I am grateful to be with you this afternoon and pray that the Holy Ghost will and attend and teach us.
  
Before starting my remarks, I feel that I should give some explanation about my wheelchair and walker.  Last summer while at a family gathering, I was thrown from a horse.  Parts of my back were shattered, my spinal cord injured, and my legs paralyzed.  I spent months in the hospital and rehabilitation.  Winter semester I returned to Rexburg with my family and resumed working at BYU-Idaho.

 

I am so grateful for the many expressions of encouragement from colleagues and students at this university.  Your cards, emails, visits, and prayers were so helpful in buoying up my soul as I recuperated.  Many have asked me: "how do you keep smiling during this difficult time?"  I must say that part of that optimism comes from supportive family members and friends.  I will be eternally grateful for their dear service.  But as helpful as these wonderful individuals have been, I must acknowledge that most of the comfort and strength I have received has come from priesthood blessings and the assurance that comes through faith in Jesus Christ.  It is only when viewing my situation through the perspective of gospel of Jesus Christ that I am able to make sense of this tragedy and move forward with faith.

 

During this year of recovery, I have appreciated thinking of the examples of early members of the church.  The way they responded to significant physical challenges that were placed before them, were outward expressions of their faith in Jesus Christ.

 

Yesterday, we celebrated the entry of the first Mormon Pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley 160 years ago.  Theirs is an epic story of faith.   Driven from the beautiful city of Nauvoo and the temple which they had just completed, the saints ventured 1,300 miles into the western frontier to find a place where they could live and worship God without persecution. 

 

This was an arduous journey-a difficult trail over plains, rivers, and mountains.  Pioneers were plagued by extreme weather conditions and disease.  Transportation was primitive.  Some three thousand saints lost their lives over the twenty-two years of overland treks to the Salt Lake Valley.  Yet they came.  Over 60,000 pioneers crossed the plains before the railroad arrived in 1869. 1 hy did they risk so much?

 

One pioneer named Hannah Barweel Saunders, answered the question in this way:
I desire to leave a record of those events and scenes through which I have passed that my children . . . may understand what their ancestors were willing to suffer, and did suffer patiently for the Gospel's sake. And I wish them to know too, that what I write is the history of hundreds of others, men, women, and children, who passed through like scenes at the same time we did.  I also desire them to know that it was in obedience to the commandments of the true and living God, and with the assurance of an eternal reward-an exaltation to eternal life in His kingdom-that we suffered these things. 2

 

These men and women had enduring faith in a living and loving God, and it was this faith that enabled them to carry on, and indeed got them where they wanted to go, whether they made it to the Salt Lake Valley, or not. 

 

President Hinckley has said, "Whether you are among the posterity of the pioneers or whether you were baptized only yesterday, each is the beneficiary of their great undertaking."

 

To honor our pioneer heritage today I would like would like to discuss four principles of faith that they exemplified so well.
I.    Faith Requires us to "Step into the Dark"
II.   Faith is a Principle of Action
III.  Faith is a Gift from God
IV.  Faith must be in Jesus Christ

 

I.    Faith Requires us to Step Into the Dark
While early church leaders had consulted with explorers and reviewed frontier maps in preparation for heading west, they did not know their final destination when they departed.  Lorenzo Young, as he prepared to leave Nauvoo in February of 1846, expressed the feelings of thousands of Latter-day saints who faced an uncertain future.  In his journal he noted "now fixing to leave our home and al[l] we have except what too [sic] wagons can draw . . our place of destination we know not." 3

 

Imagine the faith required of these pioneers to leave so much behind.  They had spent years building the city of Nauvoo from the swamps.  It had become the largest city in Illinois.  Its beautiful temple was a landmark that towered over the countryside and the banks of the Mississippi River.  Yet, the saints packed what they could, gave up their comfortable homes, climbed aboard their wagons, and crossed the river not knowing much of what lay ahead.

 

I have tried to place myself in a similar situation.  We have lived in our current home for nearly seven years.  While we hired others to build and landscape our home, we have invested significant amounts of energy, time, and money into our home, and we are just getting it to the point that it is comfortable and enjoyable for us.  Packing up what we could into a small moving van and driving off to some unknown destination in a western dessert would be difficult.

 

Yet the early saints were willing to make such sacrifices.  President Hinckley comments, "Leaving Nauvoo was a remarkable act of faith. There was much of hardship ahead for these pioneers, but they had faith in their leaders and faith in the Lord and His goodness-faith that He would once again lead His people to the promised land, faith that they would not falter or fall. So they walked out into [the] wilderness . . ."

 

This ability to step into the unknown, to step into the dark, is the first principle of faith that I would like to discuss today.   We can learn more about this principle of faith in the scriptures.  Let us first turn to Hebrews 11:1 in the New Testament.  In this verse Paul gives this clear and concise definition of faith to the early Jewish saints. 

 

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen"  We should note in the Prophet Joseph Smith's translation of the New Testament the word "substance" in this verse has been changed to "assurance." Thus, faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the evidence of things not seen.

 

Now I invite you to take a few moments to examine how Paul illustrates this definition with examples from the Old Testament.
Continuing in Hebrews 11 lets begin with verse four:  "By faith Abel offered unto God a more excellent sacrifice than Cain . . . ."  Verse five says: "By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death . . ."  Now let's skip to verse seven. "By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear. . ." Next verse.  "By faith Abraham, . . obeyed; and he went out not knowing whither he went."  In this chapter, Paul continues to list others such as Sara, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and others whose faith enabled them to subdue kingdoms, bring about righteousness and miracles.

 

The point that I would like to emphasize is that at the time their trials these Old Testament figures had no physical evidence or logic for what the Lord asked of them, yet with an inner assurance they proceeded in faith.   Imagine Abraham, who was willing to sacrifice his son without any explanation, Or consider how many nails Noah pounded before it started to rain. 

 

Likewise, the pioneer saints moved forward with faith.  As they approached the Salt Lake Valley, trappers and explorers with whom they consulted encouraged them to proceed to better prospects in California.  Many of these experts questioned the wisdom of Mormon leaders settling a large population in the mountain valleys until it could be proven that crops could grow there.  In an off-the-cuff comment, the well known mountain man, Jim Bridger said, he would give a thousand dollars for the first ear of corn that was raised there. 

 

Yet, when Brigham Young viewed the Salt Lake Valley and said "this is the right place, move on," that was good enough for the Saints.

 

Moroni comments about acting in such faith in the Book of Mormon.  Please turn with me to Either 12:6, "And now I, Moroni, would speak somewhat concerning these things; I would show unto the world that faith is things which are hoped for and not seen. . ." 

 

Observe how the concept of faith is again explained as something that is not visibly discernable yet still known to be true.  Moroni continues: "wherefore, dispute not because ye see not, for ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith."

 

When Brigham Young made his pronouncement to settle, the Salt Lake Valley it was barren.  He had no evidence that crops would successfully grow there.  Yet he knew this was the place the Lord would have his people stay.  We now have the evidence and can witness to the correctness of his decision. 

 

Have you made choices to follow the council of church leaders or parents even though you might not understand all of the reason why?  Maybe it was a decision to:
  • Not to date until you were sixteen
  • Wear tennis shoes and long pants on a hot sunny day on campus rather than wearing flip/flops or capries
  • Return to your apartment before curfew
  
Other times you have probably acted in faith (not knowing why) to follow the promptings of the Spirit in personal such decisions as:
  • Choosing which university to attend
  • Selecting a major or career path
  • Deciding who to date (or maybe more difficult) who not to date
  • for those married (when to have children)
  
In some of these actions you might not have understood the "why" at the time, but you trusted your leaders and the promptings of the Spirit.  In other words, you acted in faith.
  
President Packer has stated that, "Faith, to be faith, must center around something that is not known.  Faith, to be faith, must go beyond that for which there is confirming evidence. Faith, to be faith, must go into the unknown. Faith, to be faith, must walk to the edge of the light, and then a few steps into the darkness."
  
This assurance to proceed without evidence is the first principle of faith that I believe the pioneers exemplified as they left Nauvoo for an uncertain future.
  
II.  Faith is a Principle of Action
The second principle of faith that I would like to discuss today was alluded to in the quote I previously read by Elder Packer.  In describing how faith must go into the unknown he used the analogy of walking to the edge of the light, and then taking few steps into the darkness.  Faith is the assurance that precedes the act which ultimately yields the evidence.  But we must act in faith, otherwise we have only a mental acceptance or belief.  Joseph Smith clearly taught this doctrine in Lectures in Faith when he stated:  ". . . faith is . . . the principle of action in all intelligent beings." 6 

 

Often when we think of faith we recall mighty miracles such as moving mountains, parting the Red Sea, or raising someone from the dead.  While I could retell some dramatic episodes of pioneers encountering wild animals, overcoming the elements, or dealing with hostile Indians, I feel impressed that we can learn as much or more from the mundane aspects of their lives.

 

The daily pioneer schedule was as repetitive as it was grueling.  At 5 a.m. members of the encampment awoke to start their morning chores.  There were fires to be built, water to be fetched, animals to be fed, meals to be cooked, teams to be hitched, and wagons to be loaded.  Then they went five to seven miles until taking a mid-day break to eat a cold lunch, feed and water the cattle, regroup and travel until late afternoon.  At which time they went through the process of unhitching the wagons, setting up camp, cooking supper, attending the stock, making repairs, and then catching a moment to read, sing, and pray before retiring to rest at 9 p.m.  This routine was repeated day after day, except for the respite of Sundays or days with poor weather conditions.

 

The more I've come to understand pioneer life, the more ordinary their days appear to have been.   One immigrant named Oliver Huntington recalled, "every day's travel was about alike and as near a monotony as anything I ever saw, the roads all near alike, each camping place alike."  It really was that glamorous!

 

Traveling thirteen to fifteen miles was considered a good day.  Imagine how insignificant this was to their goal of 1,300 miles.  The ox-pulled wagons that transported their supplies plodded along at less than two miles per hour.  These wagons had no springs or padded seats to lesson the jolts of rocks and rifts of the trail.  Therefore, most pioneers found it more comfortable to walk along the sides of the wagons.  It was slow plodding, step after step, day after day.

 

I thought it might be interesting to estimate how many steps the average person would have to take to get from Nauvoo to Salt Lake.  The Mormon Trail was a distance of 1,297 miles.  According to Robert Sweetgall in his book, Pedometer Walking, a person with a 27" step length takes 2,347 steps in a mile.  So multiplying 1,297 miles against 2,347 steps per miles you come up with the figure of 3,044,059 steps.  Round that off at 3 million, and you have an astonishing number. 

 

Three million steps.  Doesn't that bring a new meaning to Alma's phrase "by small and simple things are great things brought to pass" (Alma 37:6).

 

Sister Virginia Pearce has said:

 

Most of our lives are not a string of dramatic moments that call for immediate heroism and courage. Most of our lives, rather, consist of daily routines, even monotonous tasks, that wear us down and leave us vulnerable to discouragement. . . .  This week-after-week walking forward is no small accomplishment. The pioneer steadiness, the plain, old, hard work of it all, their willingness to move inch by inch, step by step toward the promised land inspires me as much as their more obvious acts of courage.  It is so difficult to keep believing that we are making progress when we are moving at such a pace-to keep believing in the future when the mileage of the day is so minuscule.

 

Do you see yourself as a heroic pioneer because you get out of bed every morning, comb your hair, and get to school on time?  Do you see the significance of doing your homework every day and recognize the courage displayed in asking for help when you don't understand an assignment?  Do you see the heroism in going to church every single Sunday, participating in class, and being friendly to others? . . . Do you recognize the fortitude and belief in the journey's end that are required in order to keep saying your prayers every day and keep reading the scriptures?  Do you see the magnificence in giving time a chance to whittle your problems down to a manageable size? 7 

 

President Howard W. Hunter said, "True greatness ... always requires regular, consistent, small, and sometimes ordinary and mundane steps over a long period of time." Our pioneer forefathers plodded away.

 

In our world of instant gratification it is sometimes difficult to understand the perseverance required to act in faith.  We might think we can take one step in the dark and our prayers will be answered.  While it is occasionally the case, I have found more often, that the first step usually opens the way for the next. 

 

As you take those steps towards your future, please remember the legacy of the pioneers to act in faith-day after day, step after step.

 

III.  Faith is Gift from God
The next aspect of faith that I would like to discuss is illustrated in an experience of President Joseph F. Smith.  At the age of eight he accompanied his widowed mother (the wife of the martyred Hyrum Smith) and family members on the trek west.  Along the way they found it necessary to leave the main pioneer encampment and travel fifty miles south to St. Joseph, Missouri to purchase supplies for the journey across the plains.  

 

On the way home they camped on the prairie near the Missouri river bottom.  Also, camping nearby was a herd of beef cattle that was being driven to market.  As a precaution to not get their oxen mixed up with the neighboring cattle, they left their oxen yoked to feed for the night.  The next morning, to their surprise however, the best team of oxen could not be found. 
President Smith relates:

 

Uncle Fielding and I spent all the morning, well nigh until noon, hunting for them, but without avail.  The grass was tall, and in the morning was wet with heavy dew.  Trampling through this grass and through the woods and over the bluffs, we were soaked to the skin, fatigued, disheartened and almost exhausted.  In this pitiable plight I was the first to return to our wagons, and as I approached I saw mother kneeling down in prayer.  I halted for a moment and then drew gently near enough to hear her pleading with the Lord not to suffer us to be left in this helpless condition, but to lead us to recover our lost team, that we might continue our travels in safety. 

 

When she arose from her knees I was standing near by.  The first expression I caught upon her precious face was a lovely smile, which, discouraged as I was, gave me renewed hope and assurance I had not felt before.  A few moments later Uncle Fielding came to the camp, wet with the dews, faint, fatigued, and thoroughly disheartened.  His first words were: "Well, Mary, the cattle are gone!"  Mother replied in a voice with rang with cheerfulness, "Never mind, your breakfast has been waiting for hours, and now, while you and Joseph are eating I will just take a walk and see if I can find the cattle. 

 

Uncle Fielding continued to protest and argued:

 

We have been all over this country . . . and the oxen are gone. . . It is useless for you to attempt to do such a thing as to hunt for them.  "Never mind me, said mother, "get your breakfast and I will see" and she started toward the river. 

 

In the meantime a cowboy, herding the neighboring herd of beef cattle, approached and noticed Mary Smith hunting for the oxen.  He called out:

 

"Madam I saw your oxen on over yonder in that direction this morning about daybreak," pointing in the opposite direction from that in which mother was going.  We heard plainly what he said, but mother went right on, paid no attention to his remark and did not even turn her head to look at him.  A moment later the man rode off rapidly toward his herd . . and soon disappeared from view. . .

 

My mother continued straight down the little stream of water, until she stood almost on the bank of the river and then she beckoned to us. .  . I outran my uncle and came first to the spot where my mother stood.  There I saw our oxen fastened to a clump of willows. . . perfectly concealed. 9 

 

They had been fastened by the neighboring herdsmen with the intention of stealing them. 

 

President Smith concluded this story by saying how his mother's faith had made an "indelible impression upon his mind" and had been a source of "comfort, assurance, and guidance" throughout his life. 

 

I see two God given gifts in this account.  First, the Lord revealed to Mary Fielding Smith where she should look for her cattle.  The second, gift I believe was just as significant, if not more.  It was the calm assurance that Sister Smith exhibited upon completing her supplication.  She had confidence in the promptings that she had received.  In spite of her brother's arguments and the deceitful directions of the herdsmen, she trusted in the Lord. 

 

Such reliance upon His mercy and grace is a gift that is bestowed upon us.  What a wonderful blessing to have in one's life. 
We can and should appropriately seek after this gift.   Elder James E. Talmage in his book, The Articles of Faith explains:
  
Though within the reach of all who diligently strive to gain it, faith is nevertheless a divine gift, and can be obtained only from God. As is fitting for so priceless a pearl, it is given to those only who show by their sincerity that they are worthy of it, and who give promise of abiding by its dictates. Although faith is called the first principle of the Gospel of Christ, though it be in fact the foundation of all religion, yet even faith is preceded by sincerity of disposition and humility of soul, whereby the word of God may make an impression upon the heart. No compulsion is used in bringing men to a knowledge of God; yet, as fast as we open our hearts to the influences of righteousness, the faith that leads to life eternal will be given us of our Father. 10

 

Think of that quotation in light of Mary Fielding Smith's background.  She had prepared herself to receive this gift of faith over many difficult years and trials.  She had converted to the church, lost her husband Hyrum as a martyr, followed the leadership of Brigham Young and the twelve, and left Nauvoo as a widow (in spite of Smith family members that encouraged her to stay with them and the remains of her husband in Illinois). 

 

Her faith wasn't about praying and getting exactly what she wanted.  It had more to do with a humble, sincere, and obedient heart-willing to go where ever the Lord would have her go-maybe even where she didn't want to go . . . because she trusted him. 
  
Do you have the faith to go where the Lord would have you do?  Do you have the faith to do what He would have you do or say when you get there?  You can seek for this spiritual gift.  Listen to what Mary Fielding Smith's son, President Joseph F Smith taught: "Faith is always a gift from God to man, which is obtained by obedience as all other blessings are . . . faith does not come without works; faith does not come without obedience to the commandments of God. 11

 

In a previous devotional in this very room, Elder David A. Bednar offered this invitation: "May I simply suggest that young people of your age can and will and do receive this supernal gift. You need not be called to a visible or responsible position in the Church and you do not have to be "old" to qualify for this gift.  An 18-year-old student at . . [c]ollege can and should be blessed with great faith."

 

IV.   Faith in Jesus Christ
So far we have talked about faith being an assurance of things hoped for, a principle of action and a gift from God.  I would now like to discuss the greatest gift-faith in Jesus Christ.  We may think that because of our great faith we will be spared trials.  I am beginning to understand, however, that it is faith that gets us through trails. 

 

Elder Robert D. Hales has said:

 

"When the challenges of life come, and they come for all of us, it may seem hard to have faith and hard to believe. At these times only faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His Atonement can bring us peace, hope, and understanding. Only faith that He suffered for our sakes will give us the strength to endure to the end." 12

 

Earlier we read Paul's definition of faith in Hebrews chapter eleven.  If you remember he explained that through faith people were able to work miracles.  Just as miraculously, he also explains that through faith we can endure trials.  Please turn with me to verse thirty-six of Hebrews 11:36-40:

 

And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: 
  
They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented;
  
[Of whom the world was not worthy] they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.
  
And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise:
  
 [Please note the JST translation in the following verse] God having provided some better things for them through their sufferings, for without sufferings they could not be made perfect.
  
These ancient saints kept their faith through torture, captivity, and exile.  And because they turned to Christ through their sufferings they not only endured but became better people. 

 

Pioneer saints also turned to the Lord.  Mary Murray Murdoch, who died on the plains of Nebraska, is just one of thousands examples of pioneer saints who overcame their sufferings through faith in Jesus Christ.

 

Mary Murdoch was known as "Wee Granny" to her descendents because of her small size; she was -4 feet-7 inches tall and weighed about 90 pounds.   A widow, she lost her husband to a mining accident but continued to run the home and raised six of her eight children to maturity in her home in Scotland.

 

At the age of 67 she joined the church along with four of her children (some of whom were married at that time).  In 1852 her son John, his wife, and their two children immigrated to Utah.  Four years later he sent for his mother.  She loved the gospel and had a deep desire to be with her son and the saints in Zion. 

 

Wee Granny was almost seventy-four years old when she started the 6,000 mile journey to Salt Lake. In the company of the James Steel family she sailed from Liverpool, England to New York.  From there they rode a train to the Midwest where the saints were assembling companies to go to Salt Lake.  Because oxen and wagons were very expensive church leaders were organizing saints into handcart companies.   It was argued that pushing these carts could actually be faster than driving the wagons with slow plodding oxen. 

 

Wee Granny and the Steel Family that accompanied her were assigned to the Martin Handcart Company whose departure was delayed until the end of July.  They averaged 13 miles a day pulling their carts over the hills and gullies of the trail.  Unfortunately the hastily constructed carts began to break down.  Other problems plagued the company.  Food was rationed and some immigrants were forced to drink from puddles due to a shortage of water.  In the midst of these difficulties Wee Granny walked every mile. 

 

As the company pushed across central Nebraska, the increasing windy and harsh environment began to take its toll on Wee Granny.  She trudged as far as she could, but eventually her body gave out near of Chimney Rock, the half way mark of the journey. On October 2, 1856 she died of fatigue and exposure and was buried in a shallow grave on the side of the trail.

 

Just before her passing, she requested her friends who gathered round her to "Tell John I died with my face towards Zion."  13
Why was it so important that her son John know that she was facing Zion at her death?  For me this sentence symbolizes so much. 

 

In her 74th year and frail condition Wee Granny probably knew the chances of surviving the journey to the Salt Lake Valley were slim.  But that earthly destination was not as important as her eternal goal.  She was facing Zion.  She was turned towards the Lord, Jesus Christ. 

 

She wanted her posterity to know that in spite of the difficulties of the journey she still believed. What really mattered was her faith in Jesus Christ.  She trusted in Him and in his will and in the wisdom of His timing. 

 

Williams Clayton penned a similar testimony in what became an anthem for many pioneer saints.  In the forth verse of Come, Come, Ye Saints they sang:

 

And should we die before our journey's through,
Happy day! all is well!
We then are free from toil and sorrow, too;
With the just we shall dwell!
But if our lives are spared again
To see the Saints their rest obtain,
Oh, how we'll make this chorus swell--
All is well!  All is well!

 

When we have that kind of trust in the Lord, we have true security in our lives, and all can be well. 
I am so grateful for the example of the early saints of this Church who were willing to sacrifice so much on their trek west.  As we celebrate their legacy, I believe the best way we can honor them is to strive for and develop the aspects of faith that they so aptly demonstrated.

 

Remember that faith requires us to "step into the dark" so to speak.  The pioneers ventured into unknown territory to settle a barren valley.  We can develop the assurance to go and do as the Spirit prompts us.  

 

Keep in mind the millions of steps it took to arrive in Zion.  Faith is a principle of action.  See how your small, consistent, and sometimes ordinary actions can make all the difference over a long period of time.

 

Faith is a spiritual Gift given from God.  Like Mary Fielding Smith, we can appropriately seek and prepare for this gift with a sincere, trusting, and open heart-where the Spirit of God can make an impression.

 

Faith in Jesus Christ is what really matters.  Only faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and His Atonement can help us overcome the physical and spiritual challenges that we face.  Wee Granny understood this principle and wanted her posterity to know of her faith.  I would like you to know of my faith.  I know Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer.  I testify of his power to heal and redeem us in his sacred name, Jesus Christ, amen.

 


 

1 "Where the Prophets of God Live," A Brief Overview of the Mormon Trail Experience by Melvin L. Bashore
2 Slaughter, William W. & Landon, Michael, Trail of Hope (1997), p. 10 
3 Slaughter, William W. & Landon, Michael, Trail of Hope (1997), p. 27
4 (Faith in Every Footstep: The Epic Pioneer Journey," Ensign, May 1997, 62)
5 (Elder Boyd K. Packer, "What is Faith," Faith, Deseret Book Company, 1983, p. 42)
6 Lectures in Faith, (Lecture 1, p. 31).  
7 "Keep Walking, and Give Time a Chance," Ensign, May 1997, 86
8 True Greatness," Ensign, May 1982, 20.
9 Nibley, Preston, Pioneer Stories (1940),  p.13
10 Elder James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith, p. 107.
11 Smith, Joseph F. Gospel Doctrine, pp. 212-213
12 Finding Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ," Ensign, Nov. 2004, 70
13 McDonald, Anne and Young, Gaylen, "Descendants honor faithful ‘Wee Granny'" LDS Church News, July 28, 2001