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Ancient Testaments: Pioneers and Hebrews

The route of early church history was a path of filters. For most of the travelers, it meant wrenching decisions, heroic moves, deep changes. It was a sifting and healing of souls.

We might suppose that those who made it as far as Nauvoo — who had survived "the first cut" — didn't need any further proving.

But the Lord was putting together a dream team. Those who would eventually reach the Great Basin were to be a root stock, a foundation — a kind of spiritual gene pool.

Early on, he had called them "the first workers in this last kingdom" (Doctrine and Covenants 88:70,74). They were narrowed down again and again, then isolated for a while, "far away in the west." There, the color of the restoration could set into the fabric. There, they would build a heritage.

In the Hebrew language, there is a word that relates to those first workers. It is the very word "hebrew" itself. The root, eber, means to make a crossing, to pass over, to conquer a barrier.

"Abram the Hebrew, the man of God," lived 175 years, surmounting obstacle after obstacle. From him the ancients inherited the "hebrew" legacy of facing trials, breaking trails and making transitions (JST Genesis 14:12). The people of Nauvoo inherited that legacy when they were told, "Let each company … go as pioneers" (Doctrine and Covenants 136:7).

Most of the pioneers — latter-day Hebrews — placed everything on the altar. And even when the going got tougher and went slower than they could have imagined, they did not withdraw their offer.

For example, Wilford Woodruff, who was expected to keep a detailed journal, wrote at night while others rested. In the dim flicker of candle or lantern light, he squinted to see the page, dipping his quill in the ink well every half line or so. On some nights, his vision was further blurred by the little cloud of mosquitoes that swarmed around his head. He was a hebrew of the genuine kind.

Nellie Unthank, a 9-year-old orphaned on the Wyoming plains, was certainly another. She wore out her moccasins and forged through the snows with her little feet wrapped in rags. When at last the cloth was removed at her destination in the west, the flesh sloughed off with it. "They laid her out on a board, and with no anesthetic, nothing but a carpenter's saw and a butcher knife, they cut off both of Nellie Unthank's legs" below the knee (LeRoy Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, 137-138.)

Nellie faced her filters and somehow passed through them. She grew to maturity, raised a family and kept the faith. Like all her associates who succeed in mortal trials and gospel trails, she left a legacy. She became a daughter of Abraham in the highest sense.

This year of church history study has pictured forests, valleys, snowfields, frozen rivers, muddy ravines, prairies, high plains and mountains. They have something in common with the forbidding barriers of the ancient world we will consider in the coming year of Old Testament study. They were all veils that sifted and transformed those who crossed them.

Of course, some cures have to be of the "timed-release" variety. Changes must be gradual enough to remodel each molecule, one at a time. Quick change can be too shallow, too easily reversed — not really change at all.

The legacy is renewed in every generation that rises, in every gospel covenant that is made. There are many kinds of crossings that invite us to leave impurities behind, that sift and heal, that bind us to Abraham, Wilford, Nellie and all the other pioneers.

Wayne E. Brickey, who lives in Gallatin, Mo., is a retired Church Educational System teacher and curriculum writer and has been a tour guide to Holy Land and Mormon history sites.