Before the early Mormons ever began speaking of "the far west" as a place in the Rocky Mountains, the term referred in a general way to wherever they might be headed next in their frequent migrations.
In reading ancient scripture, they may have wondered what it was like for a prophet in some bygone time to travel afar on some sort of mission. But this was not a bygone time. And they weren't just going away for a while, soon to resume their familiar lives.
To Eastern born-and-bred folks, it must have seemed strange to keep uprooting themselves, pushing farther and farther from everything they had known, never to return — all as an expression of their faith in Christ. They left their polite and streeted cities to gather at rough settlements on the fringe of civilization, and later plunged onward to an unmarked wilderness.
The Missouri wilderness was about as "far west" as one could go in the United States — the westernmost part of a westernmost state.
In the fall of 1836, church members were gathering on a remote, rolling prairie in northwestern Missouri. It had a striking beauty — sometimes placid, sometimes wild — as most places in that region did and as many still do. But some of the Saints sensed something special at this spot in particular. One of them wrote:
"To the writer of these lines this land seemed to be a heaven. … Everything seemed to smile with blessings too numerous for my pen to describe or my tongue to express. … I rejoiced exceedingly … and felt to give God the praise and to bow before him on my bended knees and to call on his great name for his blessing and to thank him for the light of the gospel and for the many great blessings which he was blessing on us within that goodly land" (George W. G. Averett Autobiography, p. 4, in BYU Special Collections).
Those who felt the area was sacred were right. The Lord himself would later call it "a holy and consecrated land unto me," declaring to those who came there, "the ground upon which thou standest is holy" (D&C 115:7).
As far as we know, not many places on earth have been given the distinction of "holy" by the voice of Deity, but here was one of them. The term "far west" — the description that had been used for other stops along the way — finally stuck. Far West, appointed to be a holy land, in due time became church headquarters.
We may notice a special theme that unfolded with Far West and subsequent settlements. After "the keys of the gathering" were restored at the Kirtland Temple in April 1836, the gathering places had a new distinction. They were not, as Kirtland had been or as Independence had been, communities that existed before the Saints arrived and went on existing after the Saints left.
Instead, a settlement or city would be created out of essentially nothing! It would blossom like a rose, as it were. And then, should the Saints find it necessary to move on, taking their revealed religion and those sacred priesthood keys with them, the place would shrink back to near-vacancy again.
That miracle calls to mind another one — more important, personal and magnificent to us: If the keys that gather are that decisive and powerful, so must be the keys that seal. As Far West was a gem for a time, so may the faithful family be a gem for all eternity. (See Doctrine and Covenants 110:11-16.)
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. His novel "Before His Manger: The Long Wait for Christ's First Coming" is serialized in weekly segments Fridays on MormonTimes.com.