As Latter-day Saints, the word “pioneer” tends to conjure mental images of handcart companies trudging toward the Utah desert and all the suffering that accompanied such journeys. Perhaps some people also think about modern-day pioneers—Saints who are the first or only members in their families. Still, what exactly is the definition of a pioneer? Can any Latter-Day Saint become one?
Fear not, friends! This question need not keep you up at night any longer. In the fourth chapter of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley, we can read about the reflections of our beloved former prophet on this very subject. He believed that “each of us is a pioneer in his own life, often in his own family.” Basically, honoring and becoming pioneers requires that we actively nurture the following five essential characteristics within ourselves.
Faith in Jesus Christ
This is the solution to almost every problem that arises in our path from mortality to exaltation, so we’re used to hearing it. However, President Hinckley offered some revealing insights into what it means by recounting the experiences of the pioneers.
He pointed out, “It was through eyes of faith that they saw a city beautiful [Nauvoo] when they first walked across the swamps of Commerce, Illinois.” After persecution and the death of Joseph Smith, he remarked, “Again, it was by faith that they pulled themselves together under the pattern he had previously drawn and organized themselves for another exodus.” President Hinckley further noted that when the pioneers trekked across the American Midwest, it was “with faith [that] they established Winter Quarters on the Missouri [River]” and continued moving west despite the suffering and death that defined their stay. Finally, President Hinckley observed, “It was by faith that Brigham Young looked over [the Salt Lake] valley, then hot and barren, and declared, ‘This is the place.’”
Quoting Paul explaining that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1), President Hinckley extolled the pioneers’ ability to bring their faith to reality through hard work and confidence in God. Faith is more than simply acknowledging that the Lord is able to do what He says He can do. Living with eyes of faith means being able to perceive the “evidence of things not seen”—a thriving city in a swamp, new beginnings in death, springtime in a horrible winter, and Zion in a desert. Pioneers have faith to see what can and should be, guided in their optimism by their conviction that if the Lord could create wine out of water, prophets out of common folk, and saints out of sinners, then He can surely make a beacon out of a barren valley and a rolling church out of a few struggling handcart pullers.
The Lord Himself embodied this kind of faith. For example, He was able to see world-changing apostles in lowly men, including humble fishermen. His Atonement attests to the enormous potential He saw in each person for whose sins and afflictions He suffered.
Faith means to see what cannot be seen—and then to act upon it. Pioneers have this kind of faith.
Active Involvement in the Building of Zion
The hardships endured by the pioneers are nearly unimaginable to us. Many of us live in a time and place in which modern conveniences are commonplace, and we rarely feel the stings of plague, starvation, and fatal exhaustion.
Expressing his admiration of Brigham Young and the pioneers, President Hinckley remarked, “They were tired. Their clothes were worn. Their animals were jaded. The weather was hot and dry—the hot weather of July. But here they were, looking down the years and dreaming a millennial dream, a grand dream of Zion.”
Consider everything that you own and enjoy—your job, house, furniture, electricity, plumbing, entertainment center, social prestige, etc. Imagine leaving every single shred of it behind. What would compel you to do that? What could possibly be worth giving all of that up?
If you would do it for a place where people are “pure in heart” (Doctrine and Covenants 97:21) and “of one heart and mind and [dwell] in righteousness” with “no poor among them” (Moses 7:18), then you may be a pioneer. If Zion—the City of Holiness, in which all things are consecrated for the kingdom of God—is your ultimate goal, then you may be a pioneer.
As President Hinckley observed regarding the pioneers’ westward movement, “It was an arduous and fearsome journey. They had doubts, yes. But their faith rose above those doubts. Their optimism rose above their fears. They had their dream of Zion, and they were on their way to fulfill it.”
Zion represents the pinnacle and the ideal of Latter-Day Saint life. Pioneers dream of and prioritize Zion.
Willingness to Sacrifice
Closely related to the concept of Zion is the principle of sacrifice, especially with regard to your materials, time, and even life, so that you can benefit other people. President Hinckley used the example of the plight of the Willie and Martin handcart companies to illustrate this point.
When they were nearing the Salt Lake Valley but in real danger of perishing, President Hinckley recalled that Brigham Young organized rescue efforts while declaring, “That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people… I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains.”
Although he was grateful that many of us don’t have to pass through the same kinds of afflictions that the pioneers did, President Hinckley was quick to remind us that we should not rest comfortably. He said, “There are so many who are hungry and destitute across this world who need help… We have some of our own who cry out in pain and suffering and loneliness and fear… There are so many young people who wander aimlessly… There are widows who long for friendly voices… There are those who were once warm in the faith, but whose faith has grown cold.” Fervently, he encouraged us to be a church where “strong hands and loving hearts will warm them, comfort them, sustain them, and put them on the way of happy and productive lives.”
Like the pioneers who risked their own safety to help their struggling brothers and sisters in the Willie and Martin handcart companies, we are called to make sacrifices to reach out and improve the circumstances of those around us. Dangers must be braved, luxuries must be disregarded, and pride must be extinguished in favor of being a source of light and hope to others.
Sacrifice is the spirit of Zion and the legacy of our Lord. Pioneers exemplify it.
Honor Those Who Came Before You
Imagine working diligently to create something beautifully and passing it on to your posterity as a special heirloom, expecting them to cherish and perhaps improve upon it. Instead, they simply neglect or even destroy it.
No doubt this was a concern for the pioneers. They persevered through persecution, poverty, sickness, and death to preserve the gospel and find a place to live the ways of God peacefully, praying that their descendants would carry on their work. Nevertheless, the church continues to deal with enemies and see precious souls of infinite worth become discouraged and fall away.
The Church has grown miraculously against all odds, but it could still grow much faster and become stronger if we make greater efforts to respect our pioneer heritage. That’s not limited to people who can trace their genealogy to anyone who pushed a handcart across the plains. President Hinckley explained, “Whether you have pioneer ancestry or came into the church only yesterday, you are a part of this whole grand picture of which those men and women dreamed. Theirs was a tremendous undertaking. Ours is a great continuing responsibility. They laid the foundation. Ours is the duty to build on it.”
The pioneers themselves were building on foundations that had preceded them. The Bible and Book of Mormon abound with the teachings of prophets and disciples who passed on their wisdom and knowledge of doctrine to anyone who would listen and take heed. They broke the cycle of apostasy, refusing to dishonor the saints of the ancient past by letting the gospel become lost. Even at the cost of their lives and comfort, they were determined to uphold the cause of the Lord.
Keep building on what has already been built so far. That’s the pioneer way.
Share Your Testimony Through Word and Deed
Of course, the best way to build upon that which came before you is to be a missionary. Those who can serve formal missions are encouraged to do so, but everyone is expected to do something to keep the work of the Lord rolling forward with a growing momentum.
With reverence toward the example of the pioneers, President Hinckley declared, “As great things were expected of them, so are they of us… We have a charge to teach and baptize in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The Lord Himself commanded, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).
Their willingness to bear the scorn of the world and the harshness of the elements constituted the bearing of the pioneers’ testimonies to the children of God. If you are to be a pioneer, the question is not whether you will share your testimony with the world, but rather how.
Carrying the gospel to every nation, kindred, tongue, and people is our duty and privilege. Pioneers accept that responsibility with humility and courage.
Do You Have What It Takes?
Handcarts were heavy. So is the mantle of discipleship. However, when we learn from the early pioneers of this dispensation, we will find our hearts and spirits changed enough to wear that mantle well.
Do you have the faith to see what cannot be seen? Do you dream of Zion above all else? Will you sacrifice everything for that dream and the betterment of your brothers and sisters around the world? Will you honor your predecessors and share the gospel with all who will listen? Can you be a pioneer?
Thanks to President Gordon B. Hinckley and his inspiring direction, we may be able to pass Pioneering 101 and start on our way toward becoming pioneers in our own right.
Frequently whimsical and overly optimistic about how much time it will take to do things, Ashley Morales is deeply passionate about the gospel and all kinds of creativity. Her hobbies include philosophically analyzing nearly every book, play, video game, and movie that she consumes, writing music and short stories, promising herself that she will finish writing her novels, going to sleep too late, eating foods she's never tried, putting off cleaning her house, browsing Zillow, spending as much quality time as possible with her wonderful husband, trying to be a good mother to her fantastic children, and never finding the balance between saying too much and too little. One day, she hopes to leave a positive mark on the world and visit every continent (except Antarctica) with her family.