I have been very blessed in that, when I was sent to this world, it was to a family where there is a lot of love, strong intergenerational relationships, and a lot of people worth remembering and honoring when they’re gone. I’ve been known to say that most of the flaws I have and mistakes I’ve made I own myself, but many of the good things that I am and have done, I owe to the people who have loved me, and set an example for and laid a foundation for me.
Three of my four grandparents were members of the church, with family histories that go right back to the beginning. All three of them have grandparents or great-grandparents who crossed the plains. Some of those forbears joined the church in the early 1830s in upstate New York, others marched with the Mormon Battalion. Some crossed oceans to heed the call to build Zion, others hid in the bushes at Haun’s Mill and prayed for the safety of the children huddled around them. As I’m sure is true for many of you, my family history is woven inseparably with the history of the Church in this dispensation.
So if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to tell you briefly about a just a couple of those ancestors whose stories have always resonated with me. The first is Isaac Washington Pierce. He and his wife, Phebe Baldwin, joined the church in St. Lawrence county, New York when they were about 23 years old. Just a few months later, they left the majority of their extended family behind and, with their three young sons in tow, moved to Kirtland to join the body of the Saints. After only a few years there, they commenced a move by wagon from Kirtland to Far West, Missouri, just a week after Phebe gave birth to a little girl, Ruth, who would not survive their 3-month journey. After only a few months in Far West, they were compelled by violence and persecution to leave for Illinois. During the arduous trip, Phebe was pregnant with their last son, Isaac Washington Pierce, Jr--my mom’s great-great grandfather--who was born shortly after they arrived in Jacksonville. When little Isaac was 2, his parents began the move to Nauvoo, as the Saints in outlying areas had been asked to gather closer to in order to help build the temple. Isaac Sr, sick with tuberculosis, did not survive the trip to Nauvoo, leaving Phebe alone to care for their children alone. In all, she spent five years in Nauvoo, where she remarried, had several more children, and where her children spent time playing in the Prophet’s home and being bounced on his knee. That is where, ultimately, they mourned the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum. During those years, Phebe lost three more children to mob violence, illness, and adverse weather. In the spring of 1852, after years of saving and planning, the family began their trek to Salt Lake City, and Isaac Jr was baptized along the way in the Platte River. They arrived in Salt Lake City in October of that year. Isaac, now about 13, began to help support his family, as well as give of his time and means to assist in the building of the Salt Lake Temple. He learned and grew to adulthood under the nurturing of many good women and prominent Priesthood leaders in the Salt Lake Valley.
In 1862, when Isaac Jr was about 23, he was among the young men sent out to rescue the Murdock Pioneer Company, which had encountered early, heavy storms. Among that company was a young woman named Elna Carlson. Elna had joined the church in her native Sweden, along with her mother, brothers, sisters, and husband. Her step-father had forbidden the family to join or attend meetings, so they did so in secret. Her brother also had to keep his membership a secret in order to keep his job. Her family made plans to leave the country and immigrate to Utah without her step-father’s knowledge. They saved and planned diligently so that they could sail to America, but when they reached the US, Elna’s husband lost heart and chose to stay behind as the rest of the family made their plans to move west. Pregnant with her first child, Elna must’ve been heart-broken as she set off across the American wilderness, but she faithfully pressed on with the rest of her family. She was a petite woman with fair skin, dark hair and bright blue eyes, who learned English rapidly, and was known for cheering others along the way by singing upbeat songs in her beautiful soprano voice. She walked all the way across the American plains large with child, and gave birth to her first son shortly before entering the Salt Lake Valley. She named him John Murdock, after the company’s captain. A friendship had developed between Elna and the handsome young Isaac, and they were married shortly after she arrived in Salt Lake, and Isaac adopted her oldest son and had him sealed to them. They built homes and ranches together, Elna somtimes spending years at a time running them on her own while Isaac served missions. She was known throughout the area for being a hard worker, a witty conversationalist and a gracious host. Traveling General Authorities often made the Pierce family’s home their headquarters, as the family was called to settle in southern Utah, and then in Mexico. She aided her husband in running a lumber yard, a farm and ranch, all while raising children--including my great grandpa--and helping to feed workers and friends and visiting authorities. In her waning years, she was often cared for by my mom’s grandmother, her daughter-in-law, with whom she had a warm friendship.
I could tell dozens more of these stories just from my own family, and I love them, because while they are “mine”, they are yours as well. These stories are really rather typical examples of the sacrifices and faithfulness of those who went before us in laying the foundation of this work, and giving all of us--whether we are their direct descendants by blood, or simply their heirs in faith--a base on which to build.
Some of them were like Isaac: belonging to a family that had already been on the American continent for two centuries, himself a descendant of William Bradford and other Plymouth settlers, he and his family followed the Prophet from New York to Ohio to Missouri to Illinois, burying children along the way, and ultimately losing his own life. Others were like Elna: leaving their home country for a place that was utterly unfamiliar in both culture and language, and forging a new way--often over the opposition of members of their own family--successfully making their way to Salt Lake City, only to continue to push into the wilderness, building new settlements and raising their families to live the Gospel and follow the Spirit. All of them shared one peculiar trait that we see in many faithful Saints today: unyielding trust in their Father in Heaven. As Brother William Walker said in a recent General Conference, “Although they were uncertain of the future, they were certain of their faith.”
Elder Ballard counseled, “We much be sure that the legacy of faith received from the pioneers who came before us is never lost. Let their heroic lives touch our hearts. . .so the fire of true testimony and unwavering love for the Lord and his church will blaze brightly within each one of us as it did in our faithful pioneers.” That’s the legacy that they’ve left to those of us who follow them. The buildings and cities and programs that they built would be incredible in their own right, under any circumstance, but ultimately what is important is the driving force behind all that they did and created: their faith. A pioneer is one goes before to find and make the way for others. Though the particulars of our hardships and trials may be very different, they showed all of us how to forge ahead with faith when trials and temptations seem to block the way. That is the heritage we must honor--so much more than canning skills, physical feats, or making rugs out of old clothes--the heritage of obedience to the Lord and his prophets, of choosing to follow the Spirit when we are asked to do hard things, rather than rationalizing away the hard choices.
During the miserable winter of 1846-47 in Winter Quarters, where the Saints were beset by disease and extreme weather in hastily constructed shelters, the Lord told President Brigham Young, “My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.”
That requirement and that promise apply just as much to those of us bearing the slings and arrows of the modern culture as it did to those shivering pioneers during that long ago winter. We are not called to build Zion by leaving our homes and making an arduous trek in unfamiliar country, we are called to stand for righteousness and defend truth in all places that we may be in. We cannot allow truth to be pushed out of the world by contention and persecution. The map has been filled in, there is no wilderness left to flee to, and so the Lord expects us, in this late hour, to defend the Gospel and build Zion where we stand. In a recent address, Elder Holland explained, “For more than 4,000 years of covenantal history, this has been the pattern: Flee and seek; run and settle; escape Babylon; build Zion’s protective walls. Until now. Until tonight. Until this our day. . . the Church of God will never flee again. It will never again leave Ur, in order to leave Haran, in order to leave Canaan, in order to leave Jerusalem, in order to leave England, in order to leave Kirtland, in order to leave Nauvoo. . .as Brigham Young said for us all, ‘We have been kicked out of the frying pan into the fire, out of the fire onto the middle of the floor, and here we are, and here we will stay.’” The time for casual discipleship is over. The world is getting noisier. Gird up your loins. Fresh courage take. Our God will never us forsake. We need to commit our whole selves to the Lord and his Gospel and the building up of his kingdom.
That being said, we will all have times when we stumble, when trials overwhelm us or our faith has faltered. But just as the Saints did not leave their fellow pioneers whose supplies had dwindled or who encountered unexpected storms to perish out on the plains, the Lord offers rescue to all those who sincerely seek it. As Elder Holland said, “To every one of you who worry that you are stranded somewhere on the wintry plains of life and have wrecked your handcart in the process, we call out Jehovah’s unrelenting refrain, ‘My hand is stretched out still’.”
This is the Lord’s work. I believe with all my heart that this church is the Lord’s kingdom on earth, and that those brave pioneers who left such a mighty legacy of faith did so because the Spirit confirmed to them the same thing it has confirmed to me: Jesus Christ lives, and is leading his people. Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, and through him the fulness of the Gospel has been restored. The Book of Mormon is the word of God. Thomas S. Monson is the Lord’s prophet on the Earth today, and he is leading the worldwide church with an eye single to the glory of God. I believe that through the power of the Priesthood and obedience to sacred covenants, we can be with our families forever, bound generation to generation, and so I trust that someday I will see these pioneer ancestors and be able to thank them for the ways they shaped my life and faith.