Tag Archives: Pioneers

pioneers

Hymn #36: They, the Builders of the Nation

pioneers

They, the builders of the nation,
Blazing trails along the way;
Stepping-stones for generations
Were their deeds of ev’ry day.

This hymn is, on the surface of it, an ode to the Mormon Pioneers, a group with a hallowed place in Latter-day Saint lore. This first (or second, depending on how you want to look at it) generation of saints in the latter days heard the gospel message, embraced it and converted, and gave up everything to be with their fellow saints, often having to start anew several times. They were run out of Ohio, out of Missouri, and out of Illinois. They journeyed across the prairie to build a home in the mountains where they could be safe from persecution. It cost them dearly; many of the saints were buried along the trail.

Stories abound in the Church about brave souls who walked across frozen soil barefoot, or who waded through icy water to carry others across a river, or those who felt the supporting hands of angels as they pushed handcarts across the plains. They’re dramatic stories, and they’re inspiring. They remind us the importance of sacrificing for the kingdom. They gave up comforts in order to help build the foundation of the Church for the generations that would follow. They blazed trails for their descendants; literal trails into the Rocky Mountains of course, but trails of faith and courage for their children and grandchildren to follow as well. We tell stories about the Pioneers not just for their drama, but for their ability to promote faith in us.

But setting aside the refrains of “blessed, honored Pioneer!” and “pushing on the wild frontier,” this could just as easily be about you and I. We are builders of the nation, too. The Pioneers helped to lay the groundwork for the kingdom, but it is by no means finished. It’s certainly an impressive feat that a church that first appeared in 1830 (in its modern incarnation, anyway) currently has over fifteen million members across the globe. The thousands of stakes and tens of thousands of wards sprawled across the nations is a testament to how far the Church has come. The nearly seven billion people alive on the earth who are not currently members of the Church is a testament to how far we still have to go.

The Lord’s stated mission for mankind is to “bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” Nowhere in that phrase does it indicate that ten or fifteen million is a pretty good number and that we can stop and take a break. We are to continue to build the kingdom, both from within and without. We are to lengthen our cords and strengthen our stakes, bringing more and more into the fold, and we are also to help to build each other up into fellowcitizens, being of the household of God. There’s a lot to be done.

It’s easy, then, to let those echoes of the Pioneers lull us into sleepiness, thinking that the hardest work is behind us. Listen to these words from the second verse and ask yourself if these can’t apply to you and I as much as they did to the early saints:

Service ever was their watchcry;
Love became their guiding star;
Courage, their unfailing beacon,
Radiating near and far.
Ev’ry day some burden lifted,
Ev’ry day some heart to cheer,
Ev’ry day some hope the brighter,
Blessed, honored Pioneer!

Those aren’t attributes only found in the mid-19th century. Lifting others burdens and cheering others hearts aren’t deeds limited to Pioneers; they’re deeds asked of everyone who has taken upon themselves the name of Christ through baptism. We are all fueled by service, love, and courage.

The Pioneers laid the foundation for the kingdom in their day, but when you stop to think about the magnitude of what lies ahead of us, we’re still laying the foundation ourselves. There are still “hosts of waiting youth” ahead of us just as there were ahead of the Pioneers. They blazed trails and showed us their faith. We, too, blaze trails for those that will come ahead of us, clearing a path for those to come so that they can walk in faith and righteousness. We are forging onward, ever onward, each of us a blessed, honored Pioneer.

Image credit: “Crossing the Mississippi on the Ice,” C.C.A. Christensen.

Hymn #34: O Ye Mountains High

First published in LDS hymnals in 1871, O Ye Mountains High is written in the context of the Mormon Pioneers and their travels to the Salt Lake Valley. Like a number of LDS hymns from the time, it references imagery from Isaiah 2, placing Zion “in the tops of the mountains.” At a time when the Saints were often driven from their homes and disowned by their families, the image of a strong Zion established in the Rocky Mountains was undoubtedly poignant.

O ye mountains high, where the clear blue sky
Arches over the vales of the free,
Where the pure breezes blow and the clear streamlets flow,
How I’ve longed to your bosom to flee!
O Zion! dear Zion! land of the free,
Now my own mountain home, unto thee I have come;
All my fond hopes are centered in thee.

Times have changed. Today, a large majority of Latter-Day Saints live far from the Rocky Mountains. They may not live near any mountains at all. Is “O Ye Mountains High” relevant to the saints at large? Or does it only persist as a memorial to our pioneer heritage?

In April 2008 General Conference, President Dieter F. Uchtdorf gave a talk entitled “Faith of Our Fathers“:

The faith of our fathers—I love that phrase.

For many members of the Church, these words bring to mind valiant pioneers who abandoned the comfort of their homes and traveled by wagon and on foot until they reached the valley of the Great Salt Lake. I love and honor the faith and courage of those early pioneers of the Church. My own ancestors were living an ocean away at the time. None were among those who lived in Nauvoo or Winter Quarters, and none made the journey across the plains. But as a member of the Church, I claim with gratitude and pride this pioneer legacy as my own.

With the same joy, I claim the legacies of today’s modern-day Church pioneers who live in every nation and whose own stories of perseverance, faith, and sacrifice add glorious new verses to the great chorus of the latter-day anthem of the kingdom of God.

 We may not live in the mountains high—we may not even have clear streamlets or pure breezes!—but Zion is not stuck in the mountains. Zion has spread forth throughout the world. The hymn speaks of Zion as a place of freedom and strength, of temples and triumph. And indeed, eventually the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the lord. Eventually, the peace of Zion will prevail everywhere, not just in the mountains. Some day, Christ himself will personally reign upon the earth, and Zion will fill the whole earth.

Until that time, we can still establish Zion in our own homes. The Lord revealed to Joseph Smith that Zion is the home of the pure in heart. Is your home a place where the pure in heart dwell, where the Lord is welcome?

Just as the pioneer saints had hope in their new mountain home as a place of peace and worship, so too can we hope for our homes, wherever they may be, as a place peace and worship, refuge and rest. We can build our home in spiritual ”mountains high”, and we can build an environment of pure spiritual breezes and clear spiritual streamlets. As bearers of the Gift of the Holy Ghost, revelation and inspiration can be part of our daily lives.

You can bring Zion to you.

Hymn #37: The Wintry Day, Descending to Its Close

Yes, this is a winter hymn, and yes, its summer as we’re posting this. We sing about the snow falling over the night and the accompanying stillness. Snow has a way of muffling sound, creating a solemn silence that “invites all wearied nature to repose.” The whiteness of freshly-fallen snow is lovely, too; it covers everything equally and evenly, smoothing out the roughness of nature and making everything look soft and gentle. There’s symbolism in that. Listen to the first verse:

Pale through the gloom the newly fallen snow
Wraps in a shroud the silent earth below
As tho ’twere mercy’s hand had spread the pall,
A symbol of forgiveness unto all.

New snow makes everything white and clean. It stays that way until we tromp all over it, smashing it down and dirtying it, but for those first few moments, everything is pure. It’s no wonder that the Lord chose snow as a metaphor for repentance when He spoke to Isaiah. ”Come now, and let us reason together,” He said. “Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” The difference between scarlet and white is substantial. Scarlet–really truly bright red–doesn’t appear often in nature, but blood certainly fits the bill. That’s a jarring and unsettling sight, filling the viewer with the sense that something violent and painful has happened before them. And yet, fresh white snow can cover it up in our metaphor. No matter how jarring or gruesome that scarlet is, it can be white again.

As we sing, it’s a symbol of forgiveness unto all. Just as each of us is all too capable of creating those stains of scarlet in our lives, we each have the opportunity to repent and have those stains made white again. And when we take that perfect white snow and stomp it down, filling it with dirt and grime, we can have it made white again and again through the miracle of the Atonement. The miracle is extended to all of us, and new snow, like so many other things in our world, is a symbol given to us to help us remember that gift,

We sing further about the snowy mountains. The author of the hymn writes that these snow-capped peaks remind him of his home in the mountains in the west with the pioneers. It doesn’t come out and say it explicitly, but it sure sounds as though this is a hymn about Utah. Like many Latter-day Saints, I’ve lived in Utah, and while I enjoyed it just fine, it wasn’t a magical land filled with milk and honey for me. We do a perhaps too-good job of glamorizing Utah in the Church, convincing ourselves that everyone there is a faithful member and that things have a way of going right. I’ve heard people tell me that things would be alright for them and that they could live more faithful lives if only they could just get to Utah.

That’s taking things a little too far for my taste, but I don’t think that’s the message this hymn is conveying to us. Rather than setting up Utah as a promised, perfect land, the author is telling us about Utah because that’s where he felt of the Spirit most deeply and came to know his Savior. In this way, it’s like the waters of Mormon as described by Mormon himself. Remember the story? The people of Alma were taught and baptized at the waters of Mormon, where they came to know the gospel. How did they describe it?

And now it came to pass that all this was done in Mormon, yea, by the waters of Mormon, in the forest that was near the waters of Mormon; yea, in the place of Mormon, the waters of Mormon, the forest of Mormon, how beautiful are they to the eyes of them who there came to the knowledge of their Redeemer; yea, and how blessed are they, for they shall sing to his praise forever. Mosiah 18:30

There’s nothing special about the land itself. It’s what happened there that makes it so memorable to the people of Alma. The author of this hymn is no different. It’s not the mountains, or the valleys, or anything else that makes the land stick in his memory. It’s the time he spent with the Saints, and the experiences he had that drew him nearer to his Savior. That makes Utah his “home, the spot [he loves] so well, whose worth and beauty pen nor tongue can tell.”

Our homes and neighborhoods can be like that for us, too. As we come to know our Savior, our homes will become beautiful to us. Our towns will remind us of drawing nearer to our Lord, and they will make us want to sing praises to Him just seeing them. Seeing the snow on the mountains or on the fields reminding us of the miracle of forgiveness is an added kicker that makes it even more beautiful to our eyes.