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Trek by Mormon pioneers helped create identity

Steve Sorensen (cq) prepares to pull a handcart carrying Mary Gillmore (5) in the Days of '47 parade in Salt Lake City, Utah July 24, 2007.  Photo by Keith Johnson
Steve Sorensen (cq) prepares to pull a handcart carrying Mary Gillmore (5) in the Days of '47 parade in Salt Lake City, Utah July 24, 2007. Photo by Keith Johnson
Keith Johnson, Deseret Morning News

The "Mormon migration" from Nauvoo to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake, along with the other pioneering experiences associated with it, was essential to making The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints what it is today.

And not merely in the sense that, by escaping from their persecutors, the Mormons survived.

No, by giving them a heroic epic, a founding myth, to celebrate, the trek westward helped to forge a people. ("Myth," here, doesn't mean "fiction," but, rather, refers to a story whose meaning is larger than itself.) Furthermore, the decades of relative isolation in the distant Great Basin, their sheer separateness, granted Latter-day Saints time to create a unique identity that continues to mark them today, even though very many of them have no actual biological connection with the original Mormon pioneers.

The greatest threat to early Israel was assimilation to the culture and religions of its neighbors. "Make us a king," they said to the prophet Samuel, "to judge us like all the nations" (1 Samuel 8:5). "Go not after other gods to serve them, and to worship them," said the Lord (Jeremiah 25:6). Yet they created a golden calf, and they bowed down to Ba'al and worshiped the stars of heaven. And today, yet again, the existence of Judaism is threatened by assimilation.

Long ago, I came across the 1980 "Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups" and was fascinated to see the Mormons discussed in it as one of those groups.

This seemed to me profoundly significant. To be a Latter-day Saint isn't merely to belong to a particular religious denomination such as the Methodists or the Episcopalians. It's to belong to a people. In some significant ways, it's rather like being a Jew. It brings with it its own unique and powerful history, and even, in a sense, a territory and a profoundly distinct landscape.

Just as Jews around the world are citizens of their respective countries but have a special interest in the historical land of Israel, most modern Latter-day Saints live outside of Utah. But many of them nonetheless feel a singular bond to what Charles W. Penrose, an English convert whose dream of immigrating to "Zion" was frustrated for many years by calls to missionary service but who eventually rose to the First Presidency of the church, called the "sacred home of the Prophets of God." (His popular hymn "O Ye Mountains High" eloquently expresses the spirit of "the Gathering," which brought tens of thousands of converts from Europe and elsewhere to the Rocky Mountains.)

Today, we're spread around the world. Partly because Utahns and their descendants have settled, in a kind of "diaspora," across the United States and sometimes even beyond, but primarily because, unlike most contemporary Jews, Latter-day Saints are a missionary-minded people, and a successful one. As converts enter the church, its history becomes their history, and they become part of "a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvellous light; which in time past were not a people, but are now the people of God" (1 Peter 2:9-10).

In 1994, Joel Kotkin wrote a book titled "Tribes," in which he argued for the significance of ethnic ties in international commerce. Armenians and Jews, living in their "diasporas," have often had a brother in New York, a cousin in Paris, and another cousin in the Levant, and this has helped to create an atmosphere of trust that furthered long distance trade.

Kotkin identified some emerging modern tribes, including the Palestinians — and the Mormons, who are beginning to play similar roles.

And this is true. Not long after encountering his book, I heard the story of three American lawyers, representing firms in, respectively, Japan, Hong Kong and Korea. Their employers wanted to collaborate, and these attorneys had been assigned to work out the details. Their relationship became immediately more trusting and their task was greatly eased when they realized that they were all Latter-day Saints who had served missions in the countries where they now worked.

As we emerge from our isolation, though, we must be wary of the urge to be "like all the nations." While participating fully "in the world," we must never be "of" it.

Daniel C. Peterson is a professor of Islamic studies and Arabic at BYU, where he also serves as editor in chief of the Middle Eastern Texts Initiative and as director of outreach for the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship. He is the founder of