Many years ago, I moved to Israel with my wife and our young family. I was to serve for six months on the faculty of Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem Center for Near Eastern Studies, directing a group of students in an intensive Arabic language study program there. Before our students arrived, I traveled with the Center’s other teachers for two or three days throughout much of northern Israel, hastily visiting all or most of the sites to which we would travel for the ensuing weeks and months. (My Arabic group would be going to most of the same sites as the rest of the students.) The idea was to orient ourselves, to get to know at first hand such small but vital details as, well, where the restrooms were located.
It’s one thing to wander about in an unfamiliar location when you’re on your own. It’s quite another to be fumbling with a map or a site plan when 170 students—or even, in my particular case at that time, just fifteen—were waiting, however patiently, behind you.
Even now, when I lead tour groups in the Middle East or Europe, I feel vastly more confident if I’m taking them to a site with which I’m familiar. Having merely read in a guidebook about a place, while it can be quite valuable, just isn’t enough to put me completely at ease.
Hold that thought. I’ve sometimes reflected on the months that Joseph Smith languishing in cold, dark, dank, depressing Liberty Jail during the winter of 1838 and 1839. Beyond his sheer physical discomfort, he was cut off from his wife and children and uncertain of his fate and that of his friends. His misery was intense. Perhaps even worse, though: While he lay imprisoned there, powerless to do anything for them, his people—who had been called into existence as a people by their belief in him and his claims—were being driven from Missouri to Illinois by armed mobs under the authorization of Missouri’s governor and with the support of state authorities. (See Doctrine and Covenants 121:1-6, which isn’t merely eloquent words.)
Yes, each of the Saints had his or her own individual spiritual witness. They weren’t slaves or serfs. But Joseph surely knew that they would not be suffering and oppressed were it not for him and his teachings. Think of that. In a very real way, he was responsible. But how could he not be crushed by that responsibility? Either the confidence conferred by sincere conviction or the callous indifference of a sociopath would have helped. And I’m quite certain that Joseph was no sociopath.
Back, though, to leading tours. As we approach Pioneer Day, I’ve found myself thinking about my role in them. Very little really hangs on whether I’m competent or not. People might grow impatient at my inefficient use of time. They might be disappointed by my inadequate and perhaps even ignorant commentary. I might be embarrassed. But their lives aren’t hanging in the balance. They’ll survive.
Accordingly, I’m in awe of the self-confidence and the faith that were required when Brigham Young and the other apostles led the Latter-day Saints westward to “the place which God for us prepared.” They did so based on the rather sketchy and not altogether accurate accounts of a few intrepid Western explorers—and based on their trust in divine inspiration.
And they definitely had that trust. Some of you may be familiar with the old 1940 film “Brigham Young—Frontiersman,” a movie that might perhaps be worth watching on Pioneer Day. Two of Hollywood’s then-popular heartthrobs, Tyrone Power and Linda Darnell, enacted the film’s fictional love story; John Carradine took the role of Orrin Porter Rockwell; and, curiously, Vincent Price played Joseph Smith. The title role of Brigham Young himself, though, was taken by Dean Jagger, who would eventually win an Academy Award for his role in “Twelve O’Clock High” and who, three decades after portraying Brigham Young, would actually be baptized into the Church over which Brother Brigham had presided.
As a sympathetic portrayal of the early history of the Restoration by a major Hollywood studio, “Brigham Young—Frontiersman” was a historic landmark for Latter-day Saints. At least one leader of the Church who had personally known President Young said that Dean Jagger both sounded like the pioneer leader and shared some of his mannerisms. In its commendable eagerness to portray a very human and relatable Brigham, though, the film depicted him as vacillating, unsure of his calling and authority—traits that were, so far as I can see, entirely foreign to the actual, historic second president of the Church.
However confident Brigham Young and the apostles might have been, however, there was still no guarantee that the people of Nauvoo would follow them. Alternate voices, including their own entirely reasonable concerns, persuasively counseled the Saints not to go. The journey would be long and difficult, through dangerous and virtually uncharted territory.
Moreover, was it even necessary? If they simply dispersed, if they simply gave up the idea of the gathering into communities of Saints, would they not have been, for the most part, left alone? Those who stayed in the Upper Midwest after the martyrdom, many of whom eventually affiliated after 1860 with what would become the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, appear to have been left largely unmolested. It was the seeming political threat posed by large numbers of Saints gathered together that had driven anti-Mormon mobs to a frenzy. Once that perceived danger had subsided, so did the mobs.
But Saints who were faithful to the vision of Joseph Smith could not abandon the doctrine of gathering. “All that the prophets . . . have written,” he had taught, “from the days of righteous Abel, down to the last man that has left any testimony on record for our consideration, in speaking of the salvation of Israel in the last days, goes directly to show that it consists in the work of the gathering.” ““What was the object of gathering . . . the people of God in any age of the world?” he asked. And he answered his own question: “The main object was to build unto the Lord a house whereby He could reveal unto His people the ordinances of His house and the glories of His kingdom, and teach the people the way of salvation. . . . It is for the same purpose that God gathers together His people in the last days, to build unto the Lord a house to prepare them for the ordinances and endowments, washings and anointings.”
The Saints had been forced to abandon their temple in Nauvoo. Now, though, they would gather in the West to build a new temple—and, in fact, to build many temples.
Another siren’s voice urging the Latter-day Saints not to go west was that of James Jesse Strang (1813-1856), from up in Wisconsin. He still believed in gathering. In fact, he would eventually have himself crowned as king of the earthly Kingdom of God. A talented and ambitious but very recent convert to the Church who is largely forgotten today, Strang was, for roughly a decade until disaffected followers assassinated him, the most successful rival to Brigham Young and the Twelve for the leadership of the confused Saints. And when the time for their departure for the unseen Rocky Mountain West drew near, Strang, a master of words, addressed the people of Nauvoo directly in his newspaper, the “Voree Herald”: “Many of you,” he wrote, “are about to leave the haunts of civilization and of men to go into an unexplored wilderness among savages, and in trackless deserts to seek a home in the wilds where the foot print of the white man is not found. The voice of God has not called you to this.” If they followed Brigham Young, Strang said, they would need to worry about “saving their daughters from Indian prostitution and their sons from the tomahawk.”
The scriptural record is replete with accounts of departures and gatherings of the Saints. The Israelite exodus from Egypt is a classic, archetypal instance, but so is the Lehite journey that is recorded in the early chapters of the Book of Mormon.
Given their faithless worldview, the concerns voiced by Laman and Lemuel when their father asked them to forsake Jerusalem for an unknown destination were entirely reasonable. The dangers and hardships they were being called to confront, like the comfortable home and the wealth they were asked to leave behind, were real. But Lehi trusted in the Lord, and he found a new home for his people in the land of promise—where, among many other things, they built temples and created the Book of Mormon. His son Nephi had learned from him, even if Laman and Lemuel had not: “I was led by the Spirit,” Nephi later recalled of his return to Jerusalem for the plates of Laban, “not knowing beforehand the things which I should do” (1 Nephi 4:6).
The eleventh chapter of the New Testament epistle to the Hebrews provides an excellent basis for pondering both the Lehite exodus from Jerusalem and the trek of the early Latter-day Saint pioneers to new lands of which they knew little or nothing:
“Faith,” says the author of Hebrews, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” He declares it to be a principle of genuinely cosmic importance: “Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear.”
Please note, there and elsewhere, the emphasis on trusting in, and aspiring to, things that are as yet unseen:
“By faith Noah, being warned of God of things not seen as yet, moved with fear, prepared an ark to the saving of his house; by the which he condemned the world, and became heir of the righteousness which is by faith. By faith Abraham, when he was called to go out into a place which he should after receive for an inheritance, obeyed; and he went out, not knowing whither he went.”
And it’s not mere metaphor: Part of Hebrews 11 is about forsaking actual familiar physical places in order to go to hoped-for better ones, taking a trusting step into the unknown. It speaks of people who, like the pioneering Saints, literally “wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.” Of the faithful, the author of Hebrews writes that they
“declare plainly that they seek a country. And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned. But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city.”
“By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter”—which is to say that he abandoned the status and privilege of being a member of the royal house of Egypt—”choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward. By faith he forsook Egypt, not fearing the wrath of the king: for he endured, as seeing him who is invisible.” Likewise, as Newell Dayley’s familiar words have it, heading out into the arid and unsettled West under the leadership of Brigham Young required “faith in every footstep.” So it’s appropriate for us to ask ourselves, today, at this Pioneer Day, whether we ourselves have such faith—and, if not, what we should do if we want to develop it. “Faith,” explained Martin Luther King Jr., “is taking the first step even when you can’t see the whole staircase.”