For the 24th, Feet Upon the Mountains

I remember as a kid thinking that the following verse was a little weird:

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth! (Isaiah 52:7)

I recognized that it was poetic and felt the Spirit when pondering it, but it still seemed an odd teaching.

I have been thinking a lot about feet lately. Last week, I took a load of books over to the house of a widow in the ward for my wife when she was out of town. I almost choked up when this woman opened the door, bent with age and able to move only with great difficulty. I had to keep from staring at her ankles and feet, swollen grotesquely at the ankles, shriveled at the toes, and shaking as she leaned heavily on the door frame. I thought about my own wife’s feet, and all that they do in furthering righteousness and virtue in this world, and in procuring salvation on a daily basis for this little family — literally. Thinking about the myriad sacrifices made by the enduring feet of that LDS widow standing in the doorway invited a sense of profound gratitude for the heritage of this people, and for the sacrifices of their feet.

The foot works as a powerful literary metaphor for Enlightenment or action. This is how Kant used the metaphor in his 1784 article “Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist Aufklärung? (“An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?”), published in the Berlinische Monatsschrift:

Dogmas and formulaic ideas . . . are the shackles on the feet of an eternal immaturity. . . . Thus, there are only a few who have succeeded, through the excercise of their own minds, to emerge forth from such immaturity, and nevertheless to take sure steps. [“Satzungen und Formeln . . . sind die Fußschellen einer immerwährended Unmündigkeit . . . . Daher gibt es nur wenige, denen es gelungen ist, durch eigene Bearbeitung ihres Geistes sich aus der Unmündigkeit herauszuentwickeln, und dennoch einen sicheren Gang zu tun.”]

It takes conscious decision to get up and move anywhere. It certainly takes conscious choice to engage one’s feet in publishing peace and the message to Zion that its God reigns even amidst its trials. “Voting with one’s feet” was taken very literally by our own ancestors in the faith, who took the steps necessary to ensure themselves the basic human rights of religious freedom that they should have been able to find in their own country by leaving their country with profound sadness and wandering into the wilderness in search for their new Zion.

Our stake recently had a trek activity for the youth, which has been in preparation for over a year. I participated on the committee level, behind the scenes, in making arrangements for the trek to happen successfully. Unfortunately, obligations at work prevented me from participating in the trek itself. But the day after the youth and other participants of the trek returned from Wyoming, where they followed in the footsteps of the Martin and Willie Handcart companies, our ward had a wonderful testimony meeting in which many who participated bore testimony of their thoughts and feelings as they did so.

The mother of one of the youth participants, who also participated as the “ma” of a company during the trek, bore her testimony and talked about feet — an important topic of all who had made the trek over the last few days. She told of the severe blisters that she herself got and how those blisters turned her mind painfully to the experience of one particular woman in the Martin Handcart Company, who suffered from severely frozen feet on the journey in 1856. Alice Strong Walsh’s feet froze so severely that, as she recalled later, “at one time in taking off [her shoes], some of the skin and flesh came off with them. Some of the bones of my feet were left bare and my hands were severely frozen.” (November 1856, Alice Strong Walsh Account, quoted in Stewart E. Glazier and Robert S. Clark, eds., Journal of the Trail [3d ed. 2005], 89.)

Soon after this testimony including this experience from Alice Walsh, the meeting came to an end and, since it was the weekend after the Fourth of July, we sang “America the Beautiful” and the second verse stood out profoundly in that context:

Oh, beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare of freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine ev’ry flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

Although this verse most certainly is not meant to describe the LDS pioneers in their search for liberty in law, this verse speaks presciently to the experience of the Latter-day Saints in traversing the wilderness in search of a thoroughfare of freedom where they could worship God according to the dictates of their own conscience without the persecution, derision, or trampling of their human and political rights under the feet of their neighbors. Their establishment in their Zion of Salt Lake City, a green town created out of desert wasteland, much like their previous home of Nauvoo was a lush town created out of fetid swampland, was a miracle for them that allowed them to live in the community of their choosing and their own creation. They were also blessed in the strength of the Everlasting Hills for their sacrifices:

And blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day, for they shall have the gift and the power of the Holy Ghost; and if they endure unto the end they shall be lifted up at the last day, and shall be saved in the everlasting kingdom of the Lamb; and whoso shall publish peace, yea, tidings of great joy, how beautiful upon the mountains shall they be. (1 Nephi 13:37)

It is hard not to be nostalgic for the day when such a “Great Basin Kingdom” of Zion actually existed. I find myself mourning it periodically on the streets of this city I now call home.

9 Responses to For the 24th, Feet Upon the Mountains

  1. Anonymous says:

    Nice thoughts, John. It is a lovely verse, although I’m drawn to the mountains, good tidings, and peace more than to the feet. 

    Posted by Dave

  2. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for the great essay. 

    Posted by J. Stapley

  3. Anonymous says:

    That was my second child’s favorite verse of scripture, still is, as she is still with us. I love it too.

    Posted by Stephen M (Ethesis)

  4. Anonymous says:

    Your essay — what an amazing feet! But seriously, very nicely done. Thank you. 

    Posted by pete

  5. Anonymous says:

    A great tribute to one of my favorite Isaiah passages! I also thought it kind of weird as a kid but came to understand it through study as a teenager and on the mission. I came to love it through song. One version from “The Redeemer” by Robert Cundick and the other from “The Testament of Paul” no. 12 by David Zabriskie (both I was fortunate enough to sing at BYU-I) which is adapted from the same-type verse by Paul in Romans 10:15–“How beautiful are the the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!”  

    Posted by Bret

  6. Anonymous says:

    I suspect that the swampland from which Nauvoo arose was fetid, rather than tepid (although the water in the swamp may well have been tepid during the summer.


    Posted by Mark B.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks all. Here’s to Utah’s LDS pioneer heritage. May we never sully the sacrifice of our own ancestors by denying the faith or breaking our covenants. May we make their sacrifice of every worldly thing, including in many cases their own lives, worth every minute in our observance of the principles and ordinances of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. May we always be respectful and attentive to the role of the Prophet Joseph Smith in revealing God’s eternal truths to the world. And most of all, may we never crucify Jesus anew unto ourselves through rejection of his sacrifice and Atonement, the knowledge of which drove our pioneer ancestors to refuse to deny the faith and flee into the wilderness instead upon the order of their extermination, and may we always strive to live righteously under the mandate of our Savior  that “[i]f ye love me, keep my commandments.” 

    Posted by john fowles

  8. Anonymous says:

    Mark, thanks for noting the typo. I have changed the body to reflect your better vocabulary. 

    Posted by john fowles

  9. […] the remote wilderness of the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. It is a solemn thing to ponder the feet of those who made the trek, whether those who sacrificed by burying children along the way in the vanguard company or who did […]

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