Pioneer Day: The Cost of Religious Freedom

Imagine a mob waiting to beat and expel you everywhere you go. Imagine fearing for your life, liberty, and family all in the name of faith. Imagine being hated, scorned, and ridiculed…all because of your faith.

How long would that faith last?

When Joseph Smith, Jr. revealed the Book of Mormon and his call by Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ to restore the church, many in his community and the surrounding area of western New York state converted and joined him. The church, despite rising tension among other Christian communities, grew rapidly and soon Joseph Smith was called to gather the Saints in Independence, Missouri where the Saints were to build Zion (New Jerusalem). This mission and journey marked the beginning of the most arduous and tragic years of LDS history.

In settlement after settlement, mobs of anti-Mormons and apostates violently harassed, threatened, and attacked the Saints. Just as members of the church built their sacred temples, first in Kirtland, Ohio, and Nauvoo, Illinois, in order to receive special ordinances and receive the priesthood keys from heaven, they were soon driven out by unsympathetic communities. The persecution of the LDS church reached its zenith when the prophet Joseph Smith, his brother Hyrum Smith were martyred in Carthage Jail on June 27th, 1844, after being arrested on false charges.

Soon after Brigham Young was confirmed and sustained as the new president and prophet of the church, the Saints began their famous 1500 mile exodus from Nauvoo, Illinois toward the Rocky Mountains in search of peaceful settlement. Several groups numbering in the thousands abandoned the city and locations around the country, including England, to settle out West. One such group left their home in New York state and set sail for California aboard the Brooklyn.

Because of the difficult terrain, poverty of the saints, and unimaginable distance, these pioneers sold or abandoned all except what they could carry on a small handcart.

A replica of the handcarts used by the Saints on their 1500 mile exodus to the West

Each cart could hold between 80 and 100 pounds. Imagine fitting your whole life, everything you and your family owns, in this one little cart. Imagine crossing the great American Plain, 1500 miles of rivers, grassland, harsh winters, and mountains suffering unimaginable hunger, fatigue, and pain…all for the freedom to believe.

One man recalled the hardships of the journey,

“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. … I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.”

Many people died due to hunger, exposure, and illness along the way. Many abandoned their faith. Other endured until they reached the Salt Lake Valley. When President Brigham Young, sick with mountain fever, looked out on the valley on July 24, 1847, he is reported to say, “It is enough. This is the right place.”

The trail blazed by this first group of pioneers led the way for over 62,000 LDS members from all over the world to settle in what would become Salt Lake City, Utah.

This is, of course, an abriviated history of the church’s exodus west. For a full version, complete with the trials and suffering of the people, visit this page of the official Latter-day Saints website. 

As I participated in the Pioneer Day celebration with my local LDS branch last Saturday and watched members of the church load down those replica hand carts, I caught a glimpse of what these people went through for freedom. They endured persecution everywhere they set foot. We see many cases throughout history where people migrate to escape religious persecution. The first settlers to America in fact came, in large part, to find land where they could worship freely. Such trials force me to consider my own faith and the faith of those around me.

Could I endure such hardships for my beliefs? Would I leave my home and property and travel across inhospitable terrain, suffer potential harm from unsympathetic mobs, and risk the safety of my family, all for faith? Could you do it? I think we take our freedom to worship (and for some of us, the freedom from worship) for granted. We inherited our rights and therefore did not have to pay them with sweat, blood, and suffering. How easy it is to wake up on Sunday and take a leisurely drive to church or wherever your place of worship is. If you had to face an angry mob or a deadly storm just to attend services…would you go?

How strong is your faith today? Could you be a pioneer?

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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Art Sherwood

    My Mom told us a story of one of my ancestors (I don’t remember the name) who was crossing the plains with one of these groups. One old member of the group got so weary along the way that he sat down and refused to go any further. Many in the group tried everything they could to convince him to keep going but he just wouldn’t budge.
    Finally, my great great great (not sure how many greats) grandfather went over to talk to him. The other man told him that it was no use and not to even bother trying to get him to move on. The rest of the group was already pulling out and on their way. My grandfather just said something along the lines of “I’m not going to ask you to come along. I am going to give you a lickin’ though.”. My grandfather then punched this man square in the face, knocking him off his seat and then took off running. The other man was so surprised and infuriated at my grandfather that he too got up and started chasing him. By the time he caught up to him, they had also caught up with the rest of the group and since he was already up, he decided he might as well continue on. The both ended up making it to the Salt Lake Valley.

    • abowen

      I actually laughed out loud with that one, Art. Amazing what a little tough love can do.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment EmiG

    The one that still makes me shake my head every time I think about it is the Extermination Order issued by Governor Boggs of Missouri in 1838. It said, in part, “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.” The “outrages” included gaining political and economic power in the area because so many Mormons were moving into the state and weren’t staying confined to Caldwell County, the one county the other settlers in the area “allowed” the LDS to settle. They were expelled from the state at gunpoint and, to add insult to injury, many were forced to sign over their land and other property to help pay for the cost of their own removal.

    I have to point out, though, that there were many non-LDS folks in the press and military who were horrified by the Extermination Order and refused to go along with it. And it was officially rescinded in 1976.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marco

    well, i am still confuse whether this action is called exodus or free will departure…
    why i’m thinking so?
    simply if the mob had trouble with the new concepts which were brought by JS, then why they didn’t persecute the part of Mormons who prefered to stay and not go…

    So, my question is: Is it cause of the violence or just a choice…
    remember Emma and part of the believers remained there in safe and nobody killed them!!!

    it seems to me it’s just “young” who decided so, he wanted to start his mission and built his own branch of Mormonism without having conflict with Emma, or may be just to built the Zion far from her.

    if you see that my view is wrong, then plz try to help me by providing some resources and correct my vision.

    Thank you.

    • abowen

      Thanks for writing, Marco,

      An exodus is simply a mass migration or movement of people. The motivation does not alter the word. Remember, the migration west lasted over two decades, so of course there are those who stayed behind because the journey was conducted in waves. My impression is that, due to years of constant conflict and harrassment by local populations, the LDS members felt compelled to leave. In this case, it’s a choice because of violence.

      Of course there are many LDS members in the Project Conversion community happy to fill in the gaps of my general explaination. You present a dichotomy between Emma’s version of the faith and that of President Young. What, may I ask, is your understanding of this supposed difference?

      It is not my purpose to argue the finer points of this historical events or religious principles, but only to introduce them for further discussion and exploration. My information comes from and the Book of Mormon itself.


      Andrew Bowen

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marco

    Hello Andrew,

    well, my concern is to know the real motivation why “young” branch left or as the call, Exodus.
    as you have mentioned JS Zion camp, the motivation was clear.
    but what comes to young’s Exodus, the motivation being fear from mob, which i can’t see it the reality (i might be wrong).

    i’ll be happy if LDS ppl help me, and share thoughts with them :)

    Coming to Emma, i feel it was a huge hatred between Emma and young, mainly cause of polygomy issue, and of course leadering the new born faith.
    so these two points, and may be some other things made the together living in one place impossible.

    young had his own view in many issues, like G-d was Adam, polygomy, being the true successor…
    and i think in his discourses he made some other thoughts which became accepted from the LDS followers,
    but then by the time and gradually they started to decline…
    from LDS POV young was like Moses of ancient times, but even though they don’t accept all what he publicly talked.

    As you said it’s not the case of debating, i’m not here to do so, and even not interested to respond to any debate form questions,
    my idea is to search the historical fact, and try to wear different glasses to see others view, and learn from them :)

    • abowen

      These are great questions, Marco and I appreciate your willingness to discuss these issues with an open mind. I’ll see if I can’t round up a few folks to offer some further insight. Thanks!

      Andrew Bowen

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Mama Lynnie

    The conflict between Emma and Brigham was far more complex than the issue of polygamy. Joseph’s personal finances and property had not been kept separate from the church’s. As a pregnant widow with young children, Emma was concerned about being able to support her family. Brigham’s focus was on being able to finance the by then inevitable exodus to the West. They quarreled over money far more than polygamy.

    There is an excellent biography of Emma by Linda King Newell and Valerie Tippets Avery called Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith. I highly recommend it.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Richard Grove

    Like much of the LDS Church’s early history, it’s difficult to simplify the complex reasons why things happened. The tense and emotion-filled months following the martyrdom of Joseph Smith are among the most interesting and complex but I’ll try my best to summarize as objectively as I can (and welcome any comments or questions that my thoughts generate).
    The Church doctrine and structure developed over time as the needs of the early saints changed and questions came up that needed addressing. One of the results of this “development” was that the “rules” or method of doing things in, say, 1830 (the year the church was organized) were markedly different than in 1844 (the year Joseph Smith and his brother were martyred). This makes sense because in 1830 the church had 280 members, almost all of whom were living in the New York area. In 1844 the church had 26,146 members, mostly living in the Nauvoo, Illinois area but also in many different states, Canada and England (and some were in the process of leaving these places to gather in Nauvoo). Due to the different needs of managing 280 people in one location to managing 26,146 in many locations, the policies and procedures of the church necessarily changed.
    To make things MORE interesting, the developing doctrine of the church meant that a belief or practice in 1830 was not necessarily the same belief or practice in 1844. This developing doctrine gets hard to identify completely because, unlike many other historic religious organizers, we have multiple contemporary records of Joseph Smith and his actions. Remember, Joseph Smith lived only 180 years ago and many of the journals, newspapers, letters and court documents from that time are readily available now. But because different people were writing about the same things that happened, we get different accounts and it gets difficult to ascertain which account (or combination of accounts) most accurately records the event. Additionally, we have many people who wrote about something Joseph said or did in public (or private) with no other record besides that one account. Are we to believe that these single recordings are completely accurate? How can we take into account the prejudices (both favorable and unfavorable) of the authors?
    Enter Brigham Young. He joined the church in 1832 and was ordained as a member of the original Quorum of the Twelve Apostles in 1835. Most records clearly indicate that Brigham and Joseph were opposites in almost every way. Joseph was charismatic, warm, friendly, passionate, gregarious and even hot-headed at times. Brigham was austere, reserved and vastly more objective. But both men used their talents and abilities to spread the message of Mormonism.
    After Joseph was killed in 1844, the church was in crisis. They needed a new leader (or prophet) and a new game plan. Sidney Rigdon, the most senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve claimed that Joseph could have no official successor and submitted his candidacy, not for prophet, but for “protector.” Brigham used previous revelations from Joseph as evidence that the Twelve collectively had the power to lead the church and eventually select a new prophet. Emma, Joseph’s wife, wanted William Marks (another church leader) to become the church president (not necessarily the prophet). But William wanted Sidney to be the “protector.” Eventually the majority of the church leadership and members chose Brigham’s plan. This made things difficult between Emma and Brigham. Another sore point was the fact that since Joseph was the “trustee-in-trust” for the church, dividing personal property and debt from that of the church was contentious. Emma had spent her life dragged around the country, facing mobs, poverty, and illness. She buried most of her children along the way and now buried her husband. She was pregnant and widowed and needed to support herself and her family. When Brigham gave the direction to move, yet again, I can hardly blame her for staying in Nauvoo.
    The reasons Brigham directed the move West are also complex. Some historians say that much of the tension between Mormons and their neighbors came not from religious but political factors. When the saints chose a new place to gather, they unfailingly became the majority of that community. That meant that local elections were stacked heavily in the favor of the Mormon candidate (mostly Joseph). The original inhabitants of the areas knew little truth about this new religion (for instance, many believed that Mormons actually had horns, nearly a genetic impossibility). The Mormons also worked together which meant that they bought up huge tracts of land and quickly improved them, outstripping their neighbors and creating more tension.
    Right after Joseph was killed the persecution abated for a few months. The locals thought the Mormons might retaliate or maybe collapse/disband. Instead the leadership of the church called for peace and more Mormons relocated to Nauvoo from all over and the construction of the temple in Nauvoo continued. Finally, the locals had enough and sieged the city. The Mormons defended themselves but had no hope, really. A treaty of sorts was reached and the Mormon church agreed to leave. They were given a few weeks to try and sell their property and then crossed the Mississippi into Iowa. Those who stayed behind were largely ignored by the locals because the bulk of the Mormons had left, abandoning much of their well-developed farm land. Since the political threat was gone and the locals had “won,” they didn’t care about the scattered and unorganized stragglers.
    It is true that Brigham Young went on the make many statements, both in public and private that are now controversial and a few, like the Adam-God theory, are rejected by the church. Again, because there are so many contemporaneous accounts of what Mormon leaders have said t gets confusing to pin-point when they are speaking in the capacity of the prophet (laying down lasting doctrine) and when they are speaking about their personal beliefs (amateur spittin’ like open mic night).

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Marco

    Hello all,
    Thank you Andrew for giving us this chance to make a spot light through an interesting historical event.

    Richard your comments and tiny details are really nice, i enjoyed reading them.
    seems this issue will remain attractive to me, and i’ll read more about it.

    Emma made a lot of sacrifices, in both personal life, and as a servant of the church. but what goes to young i’m not sure… i need to read more

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment janine

    My brothers and sisters in the Bahai faith in Iran face this all the time. They fear for their lives, they cannot attend university and when they started higher education facilities for Bahai students they are accused of conspiring against the state. The organisation of Bahais is forbidden in Iran and Bahais cannot be certain of their possessions and the houses they live in, any moment they can be arrested just for being a Bahai. This situation started in 1979, many Bahais were killed, their properties taken from them, dismissed from their jobs. Due to pressure on human rights from other countries the killing has eased off a bit but still the situation is highly dangerous for Bahais, often spending years in jail without a proper trial. Can you imagine having to fear for your life, for being arrested, for being banned from higher education just because of your faith? And that this situation started before you even were born? And that it is still lasting? Many Bahais have fled, spending months, even years in refugee camps in Pakistan or Turkey. Do you know what a refugee camp is like? Religious persecution is still happening and it is as gruesome as it was in 1830 or 1844…

  • Melanie

    What a beautiful tribute to the mormon pioneers and religious freedom in general. Thank you for what you are doing–what an inspiring journey you are taking.