A Pioneer Day Reflection on Americana at the Salt Lake Tabernacle

On July 3 my oldest daughter and I were fortunate enough to attend our Uncle Jim’s organ concert in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. We were in Salt Lake City for a family funeral but the Fourth of July atmosphere and its expression in the organ concert lifted our spirits as we enjoyed a fantastic performance of a variety of celebrations of America in music in what is, for us, a special place.

M at Tabernacle Organ3We enjoyed not only classic American songs traditional for the Fourth of July but also traditional American hymns of devotion and faith, including Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing and Amazing Grace (and others), all of which were resplendant on the Tabernacle organ. Our Aunt Barb, Jim’s sister, also sang America the Beautiful with Jim accompanying on the organ as part of the concert. While listening to this and the other patriotic songs booming from the powerful Tabernacle organ, as well as the American devotional songs, my mind turned to our pioneer heritage and the upcoming July 24 celebrations, even though we were on the eve of the Fourth of July.

Giving it a try: up close and personal with the famous Tabernacle organ

Giving it a try: up close and personal with the famous Tabernacle organ

The Fourth of July and Pioneer Day, July 24, really go hand in hand as holidays of the same stripe. Despite having been ousted from the boundaries of the United States of America in the largest forced migration in American history, our Latter-day Saint ancestors made a point of celebrating the Fourth of July as “loyal Americans” (even though a great number of them had recently emigrated from England and elsewhere, “across the sprung longitudes of the mind”) from almost the very beginning after settling in 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 so later in the successive waves of Mormon and other pioneers who made the incredible journey across America’s wildernesses.

Pioneer Day is, simply, an expression of gratitude that our ancestors arrived in a place far away from the severe persecutions and suffering at the hands of fellow citizens and neighbors that they experienced in Nauvoo and in Missouri before that. The Fourth of July is a reminder that such persecutions and suffering should not have occurred in the first place in a land that exalts individual freedoms. It took a Civil War — not fought for religious freedom but with immediate effects for the personhood and freedom of those incomprehensibly enslaved on American soil because of their race — for the Bill of Rights to begin being incorporated against the states so that, as a derivative blessing of that emancipating struggle, the First Amendment could become the robust protection of religious freedom and liberty of conscience, for both religious and non-religious people, that it became throughout the twentieth century.

Appreciating both holidays together as I sat in the Tabernacle listening to both classical patriotic and devotional Americana, I felt deeply grateful for the protective hand of Providence in our daily lives, in the course of the Church, in the progress of our country, and in the blessings that abound in our current country of residence, the United Kingdom, whose history, culture, political system and philosophies and countrymen so profoundly influenced the rise of my own native homeland in the United States of America.

M at Tabernacle Organ2On this Pioneer Day my prayer is that we, as Latter-day Saints who are U.S. citizens, may always remember the need for a robust First Amendment and always engage ourselves in its protection. May Latter-day Saints in other countries and societies always raise their voices in favor of such protections of freedom of conscience and religious expression and devotion, whether under the European Convention on Human Rights or the individual constitutions of nations around the world. Above all, may we American Latter-day Saints give pause before joining forces with elements that would hope to weaken the separation of church and state that has been established in our inspired political system and which protects us in our freedom to worship as we please from the aims of those of other religions or of no religion who are not favorably disposed towards Mormons and who would expressly prefer the Church to cease its very existence or who would desire to greatly restrict our ability to practice our religion as our conscience dictates. May we always be free to rejoice, as my daughter in the picture above, in the sight of the Tabernacle organ and what that represents for us as Latter-day Saints.

2 Responses to A Pioneer Day Reflection on Americana at the Salt Lake Tabernacle

  1. Equality says:

    “Despite having been ousted from the boundaries of the United States of America in the largest forced migration in American history,…”

    Not exactly. “Ousted”? “largest forced migration”? Not even close to accurate. I think that “honor” goes to the Trail of Tears, an actual forced migration of the Cherokee Indians. The Mormons who went to Utah chose to go; they weren’t forced. Many Mormons stayed behind (including Emma Smith). Some eventually settled in places such as Iowa and Wisconsin. Nobody forced Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and other Mormon church members to engage in the secret and illegal practice of polygamy that raised the ire of their law-abiding non-Mormon neighbors. And nobody forced Joseph Smith to order the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor (I note the irony in your praise of the incorporation doctrine with respect to the First Amendment, since the fact that the extension of First Amendment principles to state and local government action is the linchpin in Dallin Oaks’s defense of the Nauvoo City Council’s destruction of the Expositor). The notion that the Mormons were completely innocent victims of “religious persecution” who were forced to flee the United States by evil, Satan-inspired Americans, is pure Mormon propaganda. I think you know better than that, John. Why do you insist on perpetuating such misrepresentations of the historical record? The Mormon Church opposed the incorporation doctrine, and the Utah Mormons, led by Brigham Young, supported the institution of slavery. The Utah Pioneers, under the direction of Brigham Young, did not believe in freedom of religion, but instead established a theocracy in “Deseret,” which was anything but lovely for those who failed to give absolute fealty to Young.

  2. john f. says:

    Hi Equality.

    I agree that the forced migration/relocation of approx. 45,000 Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw was an abuse on a worse scale than the expulsion of Mormons from Missouri and then Illinios because of the horrible racist element involved. (The abuses in that episode were simply worse in the outright depravity with which the Native Americans were treated; the total numbers might well also be higher too come to think of it — and the number of those who died along the way of deprivation and exposure was very likely much higher.) The racist element and the horrible acts, such as giving the Native Americans blankets infected with smallpox, alone are sickening to read about. I would never want to deny the Native Americans involved in that episode (and other episodes) their narratives of abuse at the hands of the American citizenry of the nineteenth century and beyond. This post certainly does not intend to do so. Reflecting on the abuses suffered by my own ancestors does not detract, I would hope, from the memory of Native Americans suffering during the same period.

    You might be right that the Choctaw and Cherokee numbers might be higher if you aggregate them from all the years of relocations (I think it comes to around 45,000) — perhaps one reason why the Mormon expulsion is referred to as the largest forced migration in American history also results from such an aggregation of the numbers over the “Mormon Trail” period? Not sure but I agree that the Trail of Tears numbers might very well be larger in which case I certainly cede to the Native Americans the “honor” of being the victims of the largest forced migration in U.S. history.

    As you know, the expulsion of Mormons from Illinios (and from Missouri before that) is widely referred to as a forced migration or expulsion by historians. Most Mormons who experienced it, including my own direct ancestors, certainly viewed it that way, particularly given the hardships they suffered as they had to make the 1,300 mile trek in extreme conditions and with great difficulty. As a side note, the Illinios General Assembly also referred to it as a forced expulsion when expressing regret for the episode in 2004. This is all to say that I am not playing any kind of rhetorical game or misrepresenting anything when I refer to my ancestors’ experience in striking west as a forced migration or expulsion. They would have preferred to stay in Nauvoo, the city they had built up, enjoying the temple that they were then building, over having to abandon their homes and make that arduous journey in order to escape violence and persecution directed against them. They did not see themselves as having any other choice considering the severity of the persecution they were exposed to and the imminent threat that they could lose the freedom to worship according to the dictates of their own conscience.

    I agree that it is ironic that the absence of incorporation of the Bill of Rights against the states weighs in favor of the argument that, although the actions of the Nauvoo Council and Joseph Smith in ordering the destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor newspaper were certainly unwise, they were not illegal at the time. There is a lot of room to debate this particular argument (that the destruction of the newspaper was or was not legal at the time) but this post isn’t about the Nauvoo Expositor. Even if the destruction of the newspaper were illegal at the time, I still would not likely agree that repealing the Nauvoo city charter and constructively forcing Mormons from their homes was a justified response (or the assassination of the Smiths). I understand that there are many people who disagree with me on this though, and I am comfortable with that (at least to the extent that it does not put my own family in danger in a scenario in which someone who thinks it was a justified response then might seek to justify similar actions against us based on our choice of religion now). As you might guess, like any other American, I wish to retain the freedom to worship God according to the dictates of my conscience forever, even if that means that I worship in a way that many Americans do not like, i.e. in the Mormon fashion according to Mormon principles and doctrines, which I believe based on my own religious conviction.

    For my part, I am grateful for the incorporation of the Bill of Rights against the states. On the religious level, I do not want a state government to have the freedom to deprive me or my family of the freedom to worship in the Mormon way just because policymakers in that state don’t agree with the doctrines of my religion, don’t like Mormons on a personal level or think that, in their opinion, my religion is bad for me, or any combination of the above. On many other levels (aside from the religious level) I am also very grateful for the Incorporation Doctrine and its implementation for many of the other rights enumerated in the Bill of Rights. I am grateful for the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments that correct horrible injustices that should never have been the case, in the case of slavery, in a land built on these supposedly enlightened principles. My prayer in this post just refers specifically to the First Amendment because that’s where my train of thought was as I reflected on the relationship between the Fourth of July and the July 24 holiday of Pioneer Day while sitting listening to an organ concert in the Salt Lake Tabernacle.

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