General authorities and auxiliary presidents of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, including Sr. Bonnie D. Parkin, Elder Quentin L. Cook, and President Gordon B. Hinckley, have all quoted from Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail. I figured if our leaders found this narrative of the Mormon westward migration worth using in their General Conference talks, it was probably a valuable book to read. And I wasn’t wrong.
President Hinckley described Mr. Stegner as “not a member of the Church but a contemporary at the University of Utah who later became professor of creative writing at Stanford and a Pulitzer Prize winner. He was a close observer and a careful student.” From his perspective as an appreciative outsider, Mr. Stegner compiles this story of our forebears’ journey from Nauvoo to the Great Salt Lake Valley. It spans the years from Joseph’s martyrdom in 1844 to the early 1860s, when the coming of the Transcontinental Railroad changed the face of westward travel and rendered wagon trains and handcart companies all but obsolete.
Stringing together what had been, for me, disparate stories of the pioneers, Mr. Stegner’s narrative explains the necessity of the Mormon Battalion – and most significantly, the money they were paid by the United States government for their service – to the survival of the Saints over the winter of 1846/1847 and to their travel to the Salt Lake Valley. He points out the “recklessly optimistic” attitude of some leaders and Saints that encouraged handcart companies to start on the Trail too late in the season, with carts made of green wood and lacking vital durable metal parts. But then he tempers that criticism with a recognition that “whatever may be said of their excessive zeal in the first place, they were neither indifferent not cowardly once they knew the handcart companies might be in distress.”
Throughout the book, Mr. Stegner uses the words of the pioneers themselves, from diaries, letters, personal statements, to remind us that they were real human beings. “Suffering, endurance, discipline, faith, brotherly and sisterly charity, the qualities so thoroughly celebrated by Mormon writers, were surely well distributed among them, but theirs also was a normal amount of human cussedness, vengefulness, masochism, backbiting, violence, ignorance, selfishness, and gullibility.” He notes somewhat wryly that “piety and ancestor worship are not the best foundation for the study of history…The pioneer Mormons were no more seven feet tall and of a heroic gentleness and a saintly purity than their Gentile enemies were.”
Despite this healthy dose of realism, he speaks highly of the Mormon pioneers. “They were the most systematic, organized, disciplined, and successful pioneers in our history…As communities on the march they proved extraordinarily adaptable.” While other emigrants gave little thought to those coming after them, “the first thought of the [Mormon] pioneer company was to note good campgrounds, wood, water, grass, to measure distances and set up mileposts. They and succeeding companies bent their backs to build bridges and dig down the steep approaches of fords. They made rafts and ferry boats and left them for the use of later companies…By the improvements they made in it, they earned the right to put their name on the trail they used.”
The Gathering of Zion is the story of our forebears, whether our literal ancestors or our spiritual progenitors, and one I am proud to claim. “The Mormon family and the beliefs that sanctify it are…sources of a profound sense of community, an almost smug satisfaction. These people belong to one another, to a place, to a faith.” Reading their story gives me hope that we can draw on their examples and achieve that sense of community and belonging in our own Zions today.
by Wallace Stegner
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