Should Mormons in the “Diaspora” Celebrate Pioneer Day?

It has only been in recent years that I have slowly become aware that not every convert to the Church shares my deep identification with the Mormon pioneers. I have loved the epic story of the trek to the Salt Lake Valley. I appreciate its archetypal connotations. My heart thrills with the stories of the pioneer heroes and heroines, and I consider each of their stories part of my legacy as a Mormon, though my LDS heritage begins with myself.

In the last few years there has been some grumbling by members who don’t have Mormon pioneers in their genealogy that it annoys them to celebrate the July 24th holiday, a commemoration of the day the first company of pioneers entered the Salt Lake Valley. I think partly to appease these voices, there has been an emphasis on “modern-day pioneers”–those who lead the way for others to follow and who blaze trails in other ways than traditionally recognized. There’s a new Primary song, “I Can Be a Modern-Day Pioneer,” there are more talks given by General Authorities on the subject, and there are articles such as the Mormon Times “Pioneer Journeys of a Different Era” and the latest Church newsroom feature.
There is a sudden dearth of Pioneer Day activities in wards outside of Utah. And in many wards today any talks which do mention pioneers will emphasize modern-day contributions rather than those who crossed the plains.

I just want to register a caution to those who wish to move away from the traditional veneration of these honorable forebears. I want to remember their devotion to a faith that meant more to them than life itself. Social scientists often point to the Jewish culture and theorize that the reason it survived through so many years and the scattering of the people to so many different places was the very persecution which caused them to band together in small groups, and their longing remembrance of their homeland.

By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof.
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?
If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.
If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth;
if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.
Psalm 137)

This Psalm is a poignant lyrical device for recalling the story of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and its arrival in the promised land. It acts as an earnest reminder both to the exiled Israelites and to later biblical readers of the importance of the promised land for the celebration of the Jewish faith.

Now that we Latter-day Saints experience little real persecution, and the importance of our history and sacred places is beginning to wane, are we in danger of losing some valuable aspect of our culture? Are we losing our Psalms, our legends, our traditional customs and stories?

I’d like to hear what our readers think. Do you feel a connection to the Mormon pioneers? Or do you think the holiday is unnecessary, especially to LDS of other cultures living in many different countries of the world? Should we attempt to graft new converts in to the Utah Mormon pioneer heritage, or should we transfer our loyalties to “modern-day pioneers?”

30 Replies to “Should Mormons in the “Diaspora” Celebrate Pioneer Day?”

  1. I agree with you. As a convert who grew up in New Jersey in the late 80’s/early 90’s our ward had rather robust pioneer commemorations every summer. That however may be in part due to the fact that our ward had a large number of Utah transplants.

    In recent years, living in another part of the country, pioneer commemorations have been much less frequent. The principle of adoption has in the past welcomed converts into the Church who can then accept the pioneer heritage as their own; perhaps it is the converts who are changing. Maybe the pioneer heritage is a little too “white bread”, so to speak, for some modern converts’ tastes. Or, perhaps converts descended from pioneer stock have lorded it over converts for so long that converts seek to move on from this sort of thing. Either way, the problem is probably traceable to pride.

    I personally think that honoring our pioneer heritage is vital to maintaining our identity as a cohesive Church body.

  2. Isn’t this a repost from last year at Mormon Matters and the year before at He Said She Said? And you still use “diaspora” to describe non-Wasatch front LDS? Really? My and many other comments seem to have been deleted from last year’s thread, but in essence, I commented there that I personally find that identification problematic. I, for one, do not count my “homeland” as Utah and imposing that identification on me and others like me is not correct. Are Japanese LDS “in diaspora?” Are Mexican LDS “in diaspora”? Is the majority of the Church “in diaspora”? Are we “in Babylon” while the rest of “you” are “in Zion”? It’s precisely this type of cultural arrogance that is part of the reason why there is the type of push back you describe in your post. It’s bred from the same insensitivity that continues to refer to the world outside of Utah as “the mission field” as if Utah didn’t have five or six missions in it. And even if it didn’t have missions, the “us-them” separation of such a statement is the persistent thread.

    “Disapora” is a term that has traditionally referred to those who left Utah in the early 20th century to pursue economic and educational opportunities elsewhere. Checking FPR’s own archives, this post properly states that “A Mormon diaspora properly refers to Utah Mormons and their children. Converts who remain outside of the cultural and geographical centers of Mormonism cannot be considered to be members of a Mormon Diaspora. For this reason and others, it seems that diaspora is not a useful way of thinking about the changing geographical centers of Mormonism. While this might be a helpful concept for understanding the migration of Utah Mormons to other locations, it ultimately cannot be said to describe the character of most congregations around the country.”

    Furthermore, a conference at UVU a few years back properly placed the Mormon “outmigration” in an early 20th Century context, again, of those living in Utah and identifying with it and then leaving it.

    An added set of terms that I find to be problematic is to refer to those that crossed the plains as “The Mormon Pioneers” which you also use in your post. Using the general terms “Mormon Pioneers” and the definite article “the” before it signifies that this is the only body in the Church that can claim the Pioneer title. This is incorrect and marginalizes the contributions of the thousands of others who may be claimed as pioneers in other contexts and lands. A more precise rendering like “Utah Pioneer” (as in the Daughters (and Sons) of the Utah Pioneers organization) would be more appropriate.

    Finally, if one desires to take on that identity and embrace the Pioneer epic and the Utah homeland, that is perfectly fine. One may sing and praise it and hold parades for it and gush and whatever. All of that is perfectly fine. Nobody, not me to be sure, is saying that it’s wrong to feel and participate in these celebrations. But what is not ok is turning and insisting that the rest of the Church feel that way as well. It is not ok. There are many reasons to be appreciative of the Utah Pioneers and their sacrifices. The story of the Church’s move from being headquartered in Nauvoo to Utah (and of course, the narrative obscures anyway the thousands of LDS who did not take that journey and with quiet persistence built the kingdom in their own states and lands, but well, no surprise there) is important to the Church’s institutional history. But in the scheme of things of importance to the Church’s institutional history, I can think of at least a half dozen other events that would, to me, better merit a celebration, not the least of which is the First Vision. However, there is no yearly First Vision Day, First Vision Parade, First Vision Celebration, First Vision Tabernacle Choir Commemorative Broadcast. Yet, by not going to any such thing, am I looked at as being any less appreciative of the First Vision? No. However, once I feel a disinclination to the festivities of Pioneer Day, all of the sudden I’m not properly respecting the Utah Pioneers or their sacrifices? I’m failing to remember their contributions? Balderdash. I observe a quiet respect for the Utah Pioneers and their achievements in the same way I observe a quiet reverence for other peoples, events, and processes that makeup our shared legacy of faith and history, and I don’t have to go to a parade or have an identity imposed upon me to do so.

  3. I’m a second-generation member of the church on the east coast and for years was resentful of frequent pioneer veneration. I’ve recently outgrown that, but I think I can explain a little where the feelings come from.

    1. Pioneer stories and talks are often shared in the form of family history. Most everyone knows neat things about their ancestors, but only those who descend from the pioneers share their family history in church on a regular basis with the expectation that the rest of the congregation should equally admire their ancestors. After being subjected to this for years, one starts to feel, rightfully or wrongfully, that many descendants of pioneers think they are “special” because of their ancestors.

    2. The story is often Utah-centric. For those living far away, the story seems to re-enforce the perception that Mormonism is a Utah or Western religion and the rest of us really are “diaspora” (or less, since we weren’t scattered here but are from here!) rather than legitimately building up Zion itself where we live.

    These problems are easily remedied – the story should be told as Saints (not necessarily ancestors!) from different locations and backgrounds that were willing to sacrifice all they had not to build Utah, but to preserve and grow the church. That is a legacy that we can all be grateful for and hope to carry on.

  4. My experience is similar to Craig’s. In my experience talk of pioneers always went hand in hand with talk of family history. The most common pioneer day activity at church or mutual in my childhood consisted of filling out pedigree charts and sharing stories of pioneer relatives. I never had a pioneer relative to share a story about so I very often struggled to know if I should bring a story about a pioneer or a story about a relative. Neither was entirely appropriate and I quite often felt rather conspicuously left out.
    I actually felt relief upon learning that my husband had pioneer relatives so my kids wouldn’t have the same problems I did.

  5. Now that we Latter-day Saints experience little real persecution, and the importance of our history and sacred places is beginning to wane, are we in danger of losing some valuable aspect of our culture?

    Nope. I’ve never considered that a part of my culture, nor do I consider it particularly valuable. What inspires me are examples of faith as a principle of power, not as a principle of action. The scriptures are full to the brim of the former for a reason. We ought to be celebrating the works of the Father, not the works of men. Only the miraculous works of the Father are useful in engendering power faith. So, if a particular account contains such works, record it and tell others about it and, if wanted, celebrate the miracle, but if not, let it be remembered by the posterity of the people in the account as part of their heritage and let’s not celebrate it.

    Are we losing our Psalms, our legends, our traditional customs and stories?

    Nope. They were never mine, or at least, I never considered them mine. I’ll take two living witnesses of miracles over 10,000 dead witnesses of the works of men any day.

    Do you feel a connection to the Mormon pioneers?

    Nope. I don’t care about the lengths a man has gone to in order to live his faith. What impresses me is if the works of the Father have been manifested in his life. In not, well, there are plenty of people of all religions who sacrifice for their faith and religious, but who also have no works of the Father in their lives. I don’t discriminate in this manner just because I happen to be LDS.

    Or do you think the holiday is unnecessary, especially to LDS of other cultures living in many different countries of the world?

    Yep. Each country, culture, and region needs to have their own body of the works of the Father among themselves to celebrate.

    Should we attempt to graft new converts in to the Utah Mormon pioneer heritage,

    Nope. Again, it is dangerous to celebrate non-miraculous works and call it “faith.” All this does is encourage drudgery, or non-miraculous works of men. This is counter-productive.

    or should we transfer our loyalties to “modern-day pioneers?”

    Neither. We should just celebrate the miracles, nothing more, nothing less, and with an emphasis always on the newest miracles. The heritage of the Jews was miraculous. Were the saints crossing the plains accompanied by anything near approaching what happened to the Israelites? Not by a long shot! Yet they had the law of Moses, while the saints had the more excellent law of Christ. You would think the saints would have also had a cloud and pillar of fire attending them. But no such luck. So why are we celebrating?

    I say let people celebrate whatever they want to celebrate, when they want to celebrate it. Every local congregation should do what it wants to do. They can tailor their celebrations to the region and miraculous history of Mormons there, or choose to celebrate something miraculous that happened elsewhere, but everyone should just do their own thing, whatever that may be.

  6. Oh goody, the grumblers are out…

    I like the word “diaspora.” I don’t know what its connotations are to anyone else, but to me it carries the sense of a scattering of a people with the hope of a future gathering. And I do LOVE the idea of a future gathering! I don’t think any other word can give the sense of pathos and simultaneous hope — especially not “outmigration.” (I was at that UVU conference!) The word may fit, but it doesn’t carry the same weight.

    I agree that Mormonism shouldn’t be solely a “Utah religion,” but that doesn’t preclude us having some special sacred and symbolic locations, such as SLC or Jackson County. I remember the first time I ever arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, on my way to the MTC after being a member barely a year. The words “O Ye Mountains High” thrumming through my head accompanied the sense of excitement I felt at an allegorical homecoming. Reverence of this important historical location doesn’t lessen the sacrifice and contributions of modern-day pioneers.

    Lastly, if you know me, you know I’m not one for “quiet reverence.” I love me a good exuberant parade! I was sooooo disappointed today in Sacrament Meeting when we sang “Jesus the Very Thought of Thee” as a closing song, rather than “They the Builders of the Nation,” or better yet, “Firm as the Mountains around us.”

    I don’t insist anyone else feel the same way, Jared. But the story is heavily archetypal and it hits me in the stomach. There’s nothing like seeing saints in South Carolina, the Midwest, the Philippines, Canada, and Saudi Arabia dress up in little bonnets and vests and pay homage to an human urge to sacrifice for deeply-held beliefs. Our Utah pioneer story isn’t the only place this has happened, but it is one of them.

  7. Silly me for anticipating a thoughtful response rather than name calling and a complete dodge. I’ll adjust my expectations for next time. But I’m particularly dumbfounded by the stubborn insistence on failing to understand the definition of “diaspora” and why it is misapplied in your post. Hint: it has nothing to do with some ethos you personally feel. That’s not good enough reason for using it to mislabel the majority of Church members. Etc. Etc.

  8. I guess I’m a grumbler. Pioneer Day is a Utah thing. Mormons are not a Utah thing.
    I love the stories of the sacrifice, commitment & determination of the early Saints in their desire to protect & preserve the Church. I feel that those stories are my stories. One fast Sunday in SE Texas a good man stood to express his thanks for his Pioneer Heritage. I was touched by his expression of gratitude. I, too felt thankful for his family history. In my testimony I mentioned that my fore bearers made the trip West possible.

  9. Also a grumbler. I guess I’m not a big fan of hearing people talk about people their pioneer ancestors they never met, or hearing the same old pioneer stories that get repeated over and over again. Especially when there are people in the audience who are pioneers or who have known pioneers.

    I’d much rather hear about someone’s grandfather, someone who went fishing with them and had a relationship with them, who traveled by sea and by train to reach (what was at that point) the promised land. I’d much rather hear about someone’s friend in a foreign country or even in the U.S. who became LDS at great sacrifice. I’d much rather hear personal conversion stories. These stories feel so much more real and personal than stories about someone’s great great great great grandfather.

  10. I love the history of the Church and love, love Mormon pioneer stories. I hope people can stand to indulge that love once or twice a year. Some here seem very angry. Chill.

  11. Kris, if you’re referring at all to my posts, you’ve completely missed the point of what I’m trying to get across and are trying to paint yourself as a lover of Church history and Utah pioneers while implying that the “angry” ones can’t stand to hear about it. Nice try. Maybe you should read my first post more carefully. Further, mischaracterizing someone as “angry” because they feel passionately about something you don’t feel passionately about is classic deflection. It’s easy for you to smugly tell someone to chill and avoid understanding the deeper issues they’re trying to get across than to actually engage those issues substantively.

  12. If “diaspora” is a scattering from an ancestral homeland, I would say that the “Mormon Diaspora” ought to refer to the scattering of saints after the expulsion from Jackson County. Utah is just one of the earliest places to which a large number of saints were exiled.

  13. Left Field, I’m afraid I don’t find that very convincing. How is Jackson County any more of an “ancestral” homeland than Utah given that very few if any Saints identified as Missourians (similarly, that no Mormon settlers could claim ancestry in Utah) when Joseph Smith designated it a gathering place? With four headquarters (and myriad branches away from these central locations) in the 17 years from church founding to trek west (and not to mention gathering and migration from a host of areas in and out of the United States and not to mention those who didn’t gather), I think we’d be hard pressed to come up with an “ancestral” (whatever that means) homeland in the Church’s early years.

    Which is why, I think, positing about 50 years of Utah settlement and thus time to form something of a more stable regional and perhaps more culturally homogenous identification, those that use the term “diaspora” use it in the way I described above. And if one were to use that term, that way makes a lot more sense to me than Jackson Co. or any pre-1847 sites.

  14. To me Pioneer Day has nothing to do with Utah. I don’t care about Utah. I’m not into genealogy. Genealogy bores me. I am interested in the pioneers. I couldn’t care less if any of them are related to me or not. (My mother was a convert, and not being into genealogy, I have no idea when my father’s side of the family joined the church.) But I like that we celebrate Pioneer Day and honor the pioneers. They are part of my faith heritage. Can’t say I enjoy dressing up in a bonnet or doing taffy pulls, as that just isn’t my thing. But I will be sad if we stop observing Pioneer Day outside of Utah. Where would the church be today without the faith and sacrifices of the pioneers? They deserve a day of remembrance.

  15. Well, the 24th has come and gone. I read some interesting articles about the pioneers and Brigham Young in the newspapers. I listened to a fascinating Sacrament meeting talk about the logistics of the trek (from a relatively recent convert who was a Jehovah’s Witness) and feel fulfilled and gratified by the celebration. I hope the day wasn’t too burdensome for most.

  16. Rebecca, the thing is that your comment as well as the op take the stance that since you feel this way about Pioneer Day, then everyone else should, and something is lost if others don’t feel the way you do. I maintain that that’s simply not the case. You’ve shown us in your comment why you value the day–for you Pioneer Day is a way to connect with a “faith heritage” that you value. That’s great! Participating in Pioneer Day for you is a way to remember the sacrifices and faith of the pioneers, without which we wouldn’t have the Church that we have today. Fantastic! However, the implication is that by not celebrating Pioneer Day, somehow we are 1) not giving these pioneers the honor they “deserve” and 2) by not honoring their sacrifice, we are thus uncaring about the Church, it’s history, and progress. Again, this is simply not the case.

    Kris, I’m happy for you, but your comment is unfortunate in perpetuating a false dichotomy between enjoying Pioneer Day on one hand and finding it “burdensome” on the other. Why can’t you just enjoy the day without casting a judgmental glance at everyone else for how they may or may not have passed it themselves? I think you’re confusing a desire for space for alternate narratives and space for greater balance in our ideas about the place of Pioneer Day in the world wide Church with a displeasure with the traditional narrative.

  17. I think the way Mormons honor the pioneer heritage has transformed from the annual ward pioneer day celebrations and talks to (1) the handcart treks that are put on every few years for youth in most places in the US, and some in outside the US and (2) we now have a satellite broadcast each year associated with Pioneer Day. I don’t mind that we no longer have the ward pioneer day parties==in fact it seems consistent with a general reduction in the number of formal celebrations/parties the many wards carry out.

  18. Jared, I guess it depends on what you think constitutes an “ancestral homeland,” doesn’t it? Scripturally and theologically, Utah has no special status. Jackson County does. That’s the place the saints always intended to return, even after they arrived in Salt Lake.

  19. I agree about the comments regarding Jackson County. After all to us it should have the function Jerusalem does for Jews. It is interesting that especially the last 20 years or so it’s kind of lost that “specialness” a lot. Despite the Church doing a lot in the area.

  20. Aside from the US in general, I don’t have any particular homeland personally. I lived all over the country growing up. But if I had to identify a “homeland” for Latter-day Saints, I could think of many reasons why it wouldn’t be Utah. To me, Jackson County is the only thing that qualifies. I’ve never lived there myself, and my ggg grandparents’ family was there only briefly. However the center place of Zion is a symbolic homeland for all Latter Day Saints (whether or not they have a personal connection), in the same way that Israel is a homeland for Jews who have never been there.

  21. LF and Clark, if that’s how you all feel, that’s great. Far be it of me to argue against how you all personally feel about what constitutes a Mormon “homeland.” There’s nothing wrong with making your points, and you can feel diasporic about JC till the cows come home and I’ll be happy for you, but I personally don’t view Missouri or Utah as a “homeland” and I am not “in diaspora” of either and I’d be surprised if more than a small percentage of the Church in our day didn’t feel the same. So even though I respect your personal idea about how you characterize “homeland” for yourselves, I’d strongly argue against the idea that either Utah or JC “ought” (comment 14) to be viewed as a “homeland” by the world wide Church. Again, I think that would be, as the op does, imposing your personal ethos about it on wide swaths of people who likely don’t feel that way, and it doesn’t have a lot to do with my points about how the term has been used historically as I describe above.

  22. I think celebrating pioneer heritage can be a good thing, if a)those with pioneer heritage are sensitive to the fact that not everyone else has it and don’t give the impression that it somehow makes someone more “special” b)we emphasize the “modern-day pioneer” theme.

    So, if pioneering is more of a general theme than a specific, exclusive, one-time event, I think everyone can participate.

  23. I promised Jared I would put my thinking cap on and try to provide a more substantive reply to his comment. I’m going to start by trying to identify some of the reasons we are talking past each other.

    1. The Definition of “Diaspora”
    Jared objects to the use of this word because it posits Utah (or alternatively, Jackson County) as a “homeland” of the Saints, with those who live elsewhere as displaced.
    I have already admitted that my definition is an emotional one, including connotations of scattering, gathering, tragedy and hope. In short, the Mormon story. This includes our identification with OT Israel and their epic travels through the wilderness as well as the scattering of the ten tribes. I like to think symbolically that we LDS are all scattered about from our “home” until we are at last gathered to Zion. Whether or not this is a specific geographical location is debatable.

    The earlier FPR post Jared linked to opines that the word diaspora is not a useful way to think of mormon migration or modern-day location, but several thoughtful comments on that post disagreed. It seems to me that there are valid arguments either way.

    2. Cultural Arrogance and Insensitivity
    I am sure that the use of “Diaspora” could engender this type of thing. However, I am a convert from the East Coast. I have no pioneer ancestors. I do not live in Utah. I make no “us and them” judgments by wanting to appropriate the pioneer story into my spiritual legacy. If the story doesn’t appeal to you, fine. I have just had good personal and spiritual experiences relating to pioneers and wish to see this legacy carried on in the Church.

    3. Imposition of the Pioneer epic upon others
    Perhaps the rhetoric chosen in my post is offensive to those who do not wish to take upon themselves a strong identification with Utah Pioneers. I am sorry for any rift this might cause. However, I retain the right to express my desire that Mormons continue to revere and keep alive this historical legacy. I did ask for input as to whether others felt this way, and I appreciate those who were willing to weigh in.

  24. “If the story doesn’t appeal to you, fine.”

    Well, if this had been the position of the OP, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

    Otherwise, this is thoroughly unsatisfying to me, and I’ll bring up a few new points like the audacity of the op in referring to those who don’t share this with you as “grumblers” and also in implying that the Church is just patting us on the head and “appeasing” us, not that the Church would actually take this “modern” pioneer business seriously, it’s just to appease the grumblers. Oh, and note that the Utah Pioneers were the only “traditional” (read: authentic) pioneers. The rest are “modern” (read: not authentic). Egads.

    If you want me to go on and respond to your 3 points, I will, but I’d just as soon let it go there and maybe reconvene next July 24. That is, if you post this again as is. Thanks for trying, though.

  25. “There is a sudden dearth of Pioneer Day activities in wards outside of Utah.”

    It’s not sudden. I grew up outside the Mormon belt and didn’t even know about Pioneer Day was until I served my mission in Europe and there was a big thing planned for the 24th. Even then, it was not clear that this was a regular Mormon (read: Utah) holiday because it was a really big big event in the mission, a one-time thing.

    Where I grew up, it simply wasn’t ever mentioned. Oh we talked about pioneers plenty, as I recall, but never in association with July 24.

  26. I also recall seeing a Q&A in what must have been the New Era in junior high or high school, with an Asian girl looking troubled. The question was something like this: “Some of the people at school make fun of me, because they have pioneer ancestors, and I’m only a 2nd generation member…”
    This was not an issue outside the Mormon belt, and I thought it laughably ridiculous at the time, but perhaps it’s the cultural result of heavy focus on Utah pioneers.

  27. My LDS heritage starts with myself, too. Still, I identify strongly with the pioneer stories of faith. I have needed the same kind of faith as those Pioneers who walked across the prairie, though it has probably been physically less demanding.

    However, the way Pioneer Day is celebrated, especially in Utah, seems to have little to do with real pioneers, and it kind of hits me in the wrong way. Sometimes I wish to remind people, that if their g-g-g-grandfather pushed/pulled a handcart to SLC and then went to Cotton Mission, it doesn’t make you anything special, unless you think in terms of having greater expectations.

    But I identify with the longing for Zion demonstrated in Psalm 137. But mostly I long for the Utopia of having people not to be afraid of difference, to be accepting of those, who don’t fit the norm, who march to the beat of a different drum.

  28. Mind you, the trek to Utah was not about going to “promised land” as much as it was a safe haven outside the States and somewhere, where nobody would feel the Mormons threatened their status quo.

    The “promised land” is not, as I meant to say, as much one specific location, as it is any place, where you feel safe. Zion can be built in any place, because it’s not in the soil. It’s in the pure hearts of the people, and that’s how we should be: Pure in heart.

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