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Thread: Significance of walking to the Mormon faith

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    Default Significance of walking to the Mormon faith

    I have been involved in academic research for the past few years. In particular studying walking and its impact on creative thinking and processes, coming at it from a distinct cultural perspective. I was asked to include a segment of writing on the importance of Walking to the Mormon faith.

    I am not a historian. There is a need to be concise. In certain regards, it is ironic that the writing was undertaken this past week. It's a long read for a message board, but I enjoyed my readings leading up to its completion:

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    It can be argued a US citizen’s sense of identity can inextricably be linked to Independence Day traditions surrounding annual celebrations on the fourth of July. Correspondingly, in the state of Utah, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly referred to as Mormons, can inextricably link their social and religious identity to Pioneer Day traditions and celebrations on the twenty-fourth of July.

    A state holiday, the twenty-fourth is marked by the Days of 47 parade, rodeos and firework displays that rival those on the fourth. While the day is set aside to commemorate the arrival of the first Mormon pioneers in the Salt Lake valley in 1847, it also represents an opportunity to celebrate the thousands of Mormon pioneers who over many years trekked to and settled not just in Utah, but in much of what is now the western United States. In particular, it is the stories of hardship and heroism suffered by Mormon handcart pioneers on their journey to the Great Salt Lake valley between the years 1856 and 1860 that is fervently venerated.

    Following the assassination of the LDS churches prophet and founder Joseph Smith in 1844, Brigham Young—the LDS churches succeeding leader and second prophet—feared further persecution. A few years prior in 1838, following an extermination order (Missouri Executive Order 44) issued by governor Lilburn Boggs of Missouri, the Mormon Missouri settlement at Haun’s Mill was attacked. Seventeen individuals were massacred including children. These events had driven Mormons to flee the state and establish the city of Nauvoo at a bend in the Mississippi river on flat lands in the state of Illinois.

    After receiving warning from Illinois governor Thomas Ford, “that the United States Army might try to prevent the Mormon exodus from Nauvoo into Indian, British or Mexican territory.” In the dead of winter, Brigham Young organized the immediate Mormon exodus west to territories then held by the Mexican Republic. In the years following the arrival of the first Mormon pioneers in the Great Salt Lake valley, tensions between the US government and Brigham Youngs’ theocratic style government over what was now designated the Utah territory (extending from what is currently much of Colorado to the western edge of Nevada) were high.

    Having suffered oppression and armed conflict, and with the threat of and eventual arrival in the Utah territory of a U.S. Army expeditionary force, Brigham Young established a Perpetual Immigration fund and issued an Epistle for all saints to gather to Zion:

    “‘Let all things be done in order,’ said the Thirteenth General Epistle of October 29, 1855, ‘and let all the saints who can, gather up for Zion and come while the way is open before them; let the poor also come, whether they receive aid or not from the Fund; let them come on foot, with hand carts or wheel barrows, let them gird up their loins and walk through, and nothing shall hinder or stay them.’”

    Due to zealous missionary efforts since its founding, in 1855 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Europe numbered in the thousands. But the Perpetual Immigration Fund, referenced by Young, was woefully inadequate to meet the demand prompted by the Epistle. Unable to fund continual wagon train voyages for the thousands of souls now eager to not only head the prompting of their prophet, but also to embrace the hope of starting a new life in the American west, Brigham Young settled upon a pragmatic plan to bring his Saints to Zion:

    “I have been thinking of how we should operate another year … We cannot afford to purchase wagons and teams as in times past. I am consequently thrown back upon my old plan—to make hand-carts, and let the emigration foot it, and draw upon them [the carts] the necessary supplies, having a cow or two for every ten. They can come just as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper … A great majority of them walk now, even with the teams which are provided …”

    The plan was bold. From a cynical perspective it could also be considered reckless. As a matter of record, as read in a multiplicity of first hand journal accounts, it was a matter of faith. For members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, their travails on the Mormon trail were born of divine edict. This perspective is perhaps best understood as recorded in the dozens of songs and hymns written about and by those who made the trek to Zion on foot:

    How long in the world I have sigh’d
    From the days of my earliest youth,
    When, sick of its sin and its pride,
    I sought and I pray’d for the truth.

    It came, and the Gospel I found,
    To me it was life, joy, and peace;
    Salvation was beaming around,
    With hopes of a happy release.

    And then I was longing to be
    Where the will of my Father is done,
    Where the noble, the pure, and the free
    On the earth are united in one.

    I go where no tyrants dare come,
    Where oppressors would tremble to tread,
    Where the honest in heart find a home,
    While the nations will crumble and fall.

    ‘Tis with joy I am bidding farewell
    To the proud, boasted land of my birth;
    I go with the upright to dwell,
    Where the pure will find heaven on earth.

    It is Faith, ‘tis not fancy, that paints
    The vision of bliss that I see;
    I go to the home of the Saints—
    To Zion, the land of the free.


    In his book, The Gathering of Zion, Wallace Stenger recounts: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet, Seer, Revelator, and President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and his brother Hyrum, its Patriarch, were shot to death by a black-face mob in the upper room of the jail at Carthage, Illinois.” He goes on to declare, “that act of ruffianism, which culminated (though it did not end) the hostility of the middle border toward Joseph’s peculiar people, was expected to scotch the Mormons for good.” Stenger then observes, “instead it did two things: it tempered their already well-tempered steel in the blood of martyrs … and it assured the carrying-out of migration plans that had been fitfully contemplated long before Joseph’s death.
    Last edited by tooblue; 07-30-2019 at 01:25 PM.

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    Looking closer at the Saints trek west, Stenger declares: “a stylized memory of the trail,” lies at the “heart of Mormondon.” He goes on to assert, “For every early saint, crossing the plains to Zion … was not merely a journey but a rite of passage, the final, devoted, enduring act that brought one into the kingdom.” Stenger then profits: “the shared experience of the trail was a bond that reinforced the bonds of the faith; and to successive generations who did not personally experience it, it has continued to have sanctity as legend and myth.”

    From a personal perspective, it is hard to argue against Stenger’s observations. The memories, as passed down and shared again and again of the Mormon trail endure. They are part and parcel of my personal heritage. As a multi-generation member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I have ancestry that was directly involved in and affected by the Mormon exodus. But one does not need to be born into the legacy. The stories of sacrifice, endurance and death on the Mormon trail are, or eventually become, part and parcel of every Member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ personal heritage.

    The LDS church reports a current world-wide membership of close to sixteen million. Active congregations can be found on every continent. With a carefully correlated curriculum and remarkable uniformity in manner of worship among congregations in diverse locations among disparate cultures, stories of the Mormon pioneers, in particular hand-cart pioneers, finds its way into every LDS chapel and classroom the world over.

    Born and raised in Salt Lake City, Utah I regularly attended the Days of 47 parade, rodeos and fireworks displays. Frankly, to a degree, celebrations on the twenty-fourth can be construed as more significant than those on July fourth. But the stories themselves are not merely reserved for telling on a specific day of the year. They are often spoken not just in Sunday worship sermons (talks), but shared as a part of Sunday School lessons, and even in civics classes in grade school. These stories are as important a narrative as any of the foundational narratives of the LDS church and its enduring culture.

    Having lived in France, and now having lived most of my adult life in Canada the twenty-fourth of July is not set aside for celebrations in either location. Regardless, I have heard the same stories of Mormon pioneers, and in particular hand-cart pioneers repeated in sermons and Sunday school lessons, not merely delivered in English but also in the French language among Mormon congregations. I have also witnessed the stories shared in Spanish, Chinese and the Persian language during Sunday services and classes. They truly are, borrowing from Stenger, a means of continually strengthening the bonds of faith. The stories help reinforce the notion, taught again and again, that to be a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is to be a pioneer; to be adopted into and share in a distinct pioneer heritage. It’s an intoxicating idea, supported by harrowing pioneer histories, some tragic and all utterly compelling.

    Fundamental to these faith sustaining stories is the fact thousands of men, women and children walked some thirteen hundred miles, averaging 8 – 10 miles a day, from the banks of the Mississippi river to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Whether a part of the original exodus from Nauvoo that included wagon trains and teams of cattle and horses, or a part of the hand-cart companies, the fact that many of the travelers made the journey on foot is repeatedly emphasized. Walking is a central element in the retelling of events.

    In the book, I Walked to Zion: True Stories of Young Pioneers on the Mormon Trail, Susan Arrington Madsen writes: “between 1847 and 1869, more than seventy thousand Latter-Day Saint pioneers made the trek, seeking religious freedom, with most of them walking every step of the way.” She goes on to state: “Many books have been written about the westward journey of the early Latter-Day Saints … in most of these books, however, children and teenagers are rarely seen and almost never heard.” She then declares the aim of her book is to “[take] a look at the migration from the perspective of young people.”

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    It is through those perspectives that the significance of the act of walking to members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints can, in context to this thesis, thoughtfully be appreciated. Following her preface, Madsen does not offer commentary, but instead allows the journal entries she has compiled to speak sincerely and succinctly of these young people’s personal experience. Some anecdotes capture a sense of wonder and even playfulness. Others are hard to read for their emotional impact:

    “I used to see other children running along barefooted and thought it would be nice to take my shoes off too. But my feet were not accustomed to such rough usage … one day while trying the experiment, I wandered a little way from the road and, getting among a bed of prickly pears, was obliged to sit down and take care of my feet … as the wagons kept traveling on, this threw me some distance behind our team … considerably fatigued [catching up] … I think this must have cured me of the desire to go barefooted.

    Another favorite pastime consisted of walking far enough ahead of the train to get a little time to play, when we would drive the huge crickets … that abounded in some sections of the country, and build corrals of sand or rocks to put them in, calling them our cattle.”—Mary Jane Mount (Tanner), age: 10 at time of journey; Abraham O. Smoot Company.

    “After three and one-half months walking … we finally came out of Emigration Canyon, dirty and ragged. When I saw my mother looking over this valley with tears streaming down her pale cheeks, she made this remark: ‘Is this Zion, and are we at the end of this long, weary journey?’ Of course, to me as a child, this had been a delightful pleasure jaunt, and I remember it only as fun … But to my mother, this long, hot journey with all of us ragged and footsore at the end and the arrival in the valley of desert and sage brush must have been a heartbreaking contrast to the beautiful home she had left in Sweden.”—Alma Elizabeth Mineer (Felt), age: 6 at the time of journey; John R. Murdock Company

    “My mother was sick all the way over, and my sister Jenetta had the worry of us children. She carried water from the river to do the cooking. Her shoes gave out, and she walked through the snow barefoot, actually leaving bloody tracks in the snow. Father was a good singer. He had charge of the singing in our company, and the night he died he sang a song, the first verse reads ‘Oh Zion, when I think of you, I long for pinions like a dove, And mourn to think I should be so distant from the land I love.’”—Peter Howard McBride, age: 6 at the time of journey; Edward Martin Handcart Company.

    “My father, David Reeder, would start out in the morning and pull his cart until he would drop on the road. He did this day after day until he did not arise early on October 7, 1856 … Sister Eliza wrapped a cherished sheet around him, and we placed him in a shallow grave hoping the wolves would not disturb. We must go our way in silent mourning and in a weakened condition.”—Robert Reeder, age 19 at the time of journey; James G. Willie Handcart Company.

    “At Elk Horn River, my feet were so swollen I could not wear my shoes. Then when the swelling went out, my feet were so sore from the alkali that I never had on a pair of shoes after that for the entire journey.

    While pulling this heavy load, I looked and acted strange. The first thing my friend Emmie knew I had fallen under the cart, and before they could stop it, the cart had passed over me, and I lay at the back of it on the ground. When my companions got to me, I seemed perfectly dead. Emmie could not find any pulse at all and there was not a soul around … Captain Rowley came up to us. ‘What have you got there, Emmie?’ he said. ‘Oh my, Fanny is dead,’ she said. It frightened him, so he got off his horse and examined me closely but could not find any life at all.

    When I came to myself, my grave was dug two feet deep, and I was in a tent. The Sisters had sewed me up to the waist in my blanket, ready for burial. I opened my eyes and looked at them.”—Fanny Fry (Simmons), age: 16 at time of journey; George Rowely Company


    These accounts, among many others are etched in the Latter-Day Saint psyche—especially among those born into the faith and hailing from Utah. Before looking at the science of walking it is important to lay them out as a continuation of why, as stated in the previous section, walking was an intuitive response and became my primary research method.
    Last edited by tooblue; 07-30-2019 at 01:26 PM.

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