Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Trek 2018: Who Were the Mormon Pioneers?

The youth of my Philadelphia-area LDS stake are participating in "Trek" this year and I am helping prepare historical information and serving as a historical advisor for the different activities. Here are my remarks for an opening fireside this past Sunday.

One hundred and sixty-four years ago, a young Irish immigrant named Samuel Linton picked up the Philadelphia newspaper and saw a notice that said, “Elder Samuel Harrison of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would preach at ten o’clock on Sunday at 7th and Callow Hill.” Seventh and Callowhill is just a few minutes’ walk from the Liberty Bell and a few minutes’ drive from the temple. Samuel Linton said, “They were the most presumptuous people I had heard of, to style themselves the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I thought I must go and hear them first. I was there on time.” He heard the missionaries preach the gospel and said, “I was convinced that the Lord had restored the Gospel and the authority to administer the Ordinances thereof, [so] I applied for baptism.”

In those days the Latter-day Saints would move to live with other Latter-day Saints, so a few months later, Samuel left Philadelphia for Utah.

The first Mormon pioneer company had entered the Salt Lake Valley just seven years earlier. Every pioneer was either a convert to the Church, or a child of converts, and in the twenty years before the railroad connected the east and west, around 70,000 Mormon converts made their way to Utah from the United States, Europe, and as far away as India, South Africa, and Australia.

The Church organized 250 companies of emigrants. Most of them traveled by wagon. In the mid-1850s, thousands of European Mormon converts streamed toward Zion each year. Most of the European converts did not know how to drive wagons, and most were too poor to buy and outfit their own wagons anyway, so the Church came up with a plan to have them walk across the plains with handcarts, with teamsters taking extra supplies in wagons. One pioneer named J. D. T. McAllister wrote a song for the handcart pioneers. Here’s a bit of it. I won’t sing it, but you may know the melody.

Ye Saints who dwell on Europe’s shore
Prepare yourselves for many more
To leave behind your native land
For sure God’s judgments are at hand–

For you must cross the raging main
Before the promised land you gain
And with the faithful make a start
To cross the plains with your handcart!

For some must push and some must pull
As we go marching up the hill
So merrily on the way we go
Until we reach the valley-o!

In 1856, two handcart and two wagon companies set off across the plains too late in the year and ran into bitterly cold weather and snow. They were stranded and dying in the high mountain passes in Wyoming, so hundreds of Latter-day Saints set out from the Salt Lake Valley to rescue them. Two of the rescuers may be of interest; one was an enslaved African American man and Mormon convert named Thomas Bankhead or Coleman, and another was our Philadelphia convert, Samuel Linton. After the handcart disaster, only a few more pioneers traveled west by handcart. In total, about four percent of the pioneers traveled by handcart. The Church replaced handcart emigration with Down and Back Companies. Young men would drive wagons east across the plains and pick up the emigrants at way stations and then take them to Utah.

Susan Arrington Madsen: “Historians have called the Mormon migration the best-organized movement of people in American history. The Mormons were transplanting an entire people, a culture, not just … individuals. They moved to the Salt Lake Valley as villages on wheels.

“Church leaders organized each company into groups of tens, fifties, and hundreds, and provided leaders for each group. Some men were appointed to scout out the trail ahead and others to ride along the front, sides, and rear—guarding and enclosing the moving camp in an orderly formation. For safety’s sake neither people nor animals could be allowed to stray from the group.”

Samuel Linton knew how to handle an ox team, so he drove a heavy Church wagon pulled by many oxen, loaded with iron, window glass, and a woman and her four children.

There are many wonderful stories about the Saints’ migration across the Plains. I have been preparing some stories for the Trek and have found myself alternately laughing out loud, or sometimes wiping away tears. These stories belong to each one of us. These are stories of our fellow brothers and sisters, fellow believers in the Book of Mormon, and fellow converts to the gospel of Jesus Christ. They were attended by the gifts of the Spirit, as well as the gifts of song and dance, community and friendship. They had many trials and there were deaths from illness or accident, but all in all, the Saints followed the revelation now known as Doctrine and Covenants 136, and it was one of the safest mass migrations in history, and provided us with many stories of faith and devotion. 

Samuel Linton summarized his story of crossing the plains by mentioning that some merchants wanted to hire him for high wages to take cattle to California. “I made the choice to stay with the Saints,” he said, “and work for the Church, and I have never regretted it.”

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