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Why America needs Pioneer Day this year more than ever

Utah will celebrate the unique, even improbable, balance between individualism and community that pioneers built 175 years ago

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A painting by John Moser features a pioneer wagon train.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

Imagine, for a moment, that you are riding toward a small town in 19th-century Utah. Don’t think of Salt Lake City, the “bustling” city of 20,000; imagine, instead, a quaint community like Brigham City or Eden or Ephraim. Within a few miles of town, the landscape around you transforms from a dusty brown to a faded green: fields of alfalfa and sugar beet open to your left and right, speckled with orchards of cherry and peach and apple. But as homes and shops appear in your view, your eye gravitates toward rows and rows of Lombardy poplars — “Mormon trees,” as acclaimed novelist and historian Wallace Stegner called them, the surefire markers of a Latter-day Saint community.

The poplars line streets and shade the homes. But apart from the massive trees, not much else grows in the Mormon yard. This is an agricultural town, but there’s no agriculture in its center; the prime real estate is reserved for sociality, not farming. Each home is situated on a half-acre plot, and 20 such plots make up each block, a mile-square. At the center of town is the beating heart of the community — the church, the school and the social hall; as you venture out from the center, you find rows and rows of these same homes, aligned on a grid made of straight streets and square blocks.

When compared to other settlements along the western frontier, this arrangement is peculiar. There are no homes with miles of space between neighbor and neighbor. No farmer lives on the land he tills, or even adjacent to it. Most everyone in town has land to till, but it is all outside of the town limits. The town, itself, is a communitarian space, a place to live, and the pattern is the same in nearly every settlement formed by the Latter-day Saints.

“Their emphasis on mutual aid, cooperation and sharing was not unknown among other American communities — and indeed such qualities are vital to survival in a frontier situation — but the Mormons went about it in a far more deliberate, conscious manner, with more successful results,” wrote novelist Edward Abbey, on one of the few occasions he complimented Latter-day Saints. Added Stegner: “Though (the Latter-day Saints) have been called many things, many a hard things, they have never been called bad settlers.”

21st-century America could benefit from some resettling, and the pioneers may provide some insight on where to start. Earlier this month, Americans were dealt a slice of harrowing news, and few seemed to notice — or to show the least bit of surprise. 

Gallup, which routinely surveys American’s trust in major institutions (like news media, churches, schools and the military), reported all-time lows on July 5. Of the 16 institutions polled, none saw an increase in trust from last year. The federal government’s three branches saw massive dips, including an 11-point drop for the Supreme Court (though polling was conducted before the Dobbs decision). 

What is causing the plummet? Social scientists point to a number of factors, some of which can be captured in a blanket diagnosis: the dissolution of community. Neighbors don’t know neighbors, and instead turn to online echo chambers. Citizens don’t get involved in local politics, and instead defer to national culture wars. The symptoms go on and on.

What remains is a nation grappling with the constant push-pull of rugged individualism on the one end, and the need for community on the other. Right now, individualism is winning out, but community can still regain its footing.

The Mormon pioneers — a band of 19th-century American refugees — may provide some hints as to how to get there.

This July 24, Utah will celebrate Pioneer Day, a state holiday honoring the area’s first Latter-day Saint settlers. This year is the terquasquicentennial, marking 175 years since these pioneers fled the United States, entered the Salt Lake Valley (then Mexican territory) and started a fledgling frontier nation-state. On this day, Utahns recount stories of their pioneer heritage and honor the unique legacy they left. They, too, had to balance the sometimes shaky dichotomy of individualism versus community, and though it was far from perfect, it’s something to be admired and emulated.

To much of the world, the so-called Wild West is defined by the lone cowboy. For the Mormon pioneers, a far more accurate motif is the wagon train — a collective group, sustaining each other, protecting one another. This is the image suggested by Robert Putnam, the author of “Bowling Alone,” the oft-cited account of the decaying American community. On a podcast, Putnam explained this view: “The wagon train meant opening up the West, not as one isolated individual, one isolated cowboy, but as a group of people moving together.” 

The genius of the Mormon pioneer community was not its location or its size, but its robust — almost forced — communitarianism. To live in the town, you had to live in the town. All was centered around communal commerce, education, worship, leisure and the like. 

In a handful of towns, Brigham Young experimented with a form of economic collectivism, where all private property was deeded to ecclesiastical leaders and divvied back out to families according to need. The system fizzled out before long — young people came of age and many were lured to work and trade out of town to advance their economic prospects. But remains of this United Order remain: Each town maintained its own “Bishop’s Storehouse,” where families donated their surplus goods for those in need. A similar welfare system is upheld today by tithe-paying members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints around the world.

Despite their challenging circumstances, and unique economic system, the Saints were an industrious and fairly prosperous bunch. Young made sure of it — “Idleness and wastefulness,” he taught, “are not according to the rules of heaven.” Each person had a role, both temporal and spiritual. A century after Young’s arrival to the valley, the state of Utah adopted “Industry” as its official motto. The beehive, a symbol of industry and cooperation, dots pioneer buildings and the masthead of this newspaper.

They blazed trails from the Midwest to the Mountain West, and from there, to a number of places along the Pacific coast. Latter-day Saints printed the first newspaper in San Francisco, and they built the first courthouse in San Diego. Their collective fingerprints are still visible all across the West.

At the center of all was the same push-pull of the individual versus the communal. “To be sure, tensions between Mormon communalism and liberal individualism persisted throughout the nineteenth century, and down to the present the Mormon tradition continues to produce socialists, environmentalists, and pacifists as well as capitalists,” writes historian Jackson Lears. “But by now capitalists hold a commanding lead, and part of the explanation lies in Mormon theology.” 

To Young, it was all theological. Heaven-building was an individual, family and community effort. “If men are not saved together,” Young taught, “they cannot be saved at all.” But Young was no abstract prophesier. Heavenly community in the hereafter required hellish efforts to build brotherhood in the here-and-now. The half-acre lots, the grid system, the temple-centered city — each detail was adjusted to mimic what they believed Zion, what heaven, must be. It would be a paradise on earth, a precursor to the paradise to come, with its pearly gates and golden streets. But heaven doesn’t come without industry. “When we have streets paved with gold,” Young once taught, “we will have placed it there ourselves.”

Today’s America is much more globalized, more diverse and more developed than 19th-century Utah. Adopting the pioneer ethos, accordingly, will not magically restore trust in American institutions — the federal government, for example, was despised by many of the pioneers, who viewed it as complacent (and partly culpable) in the persecution they faced in Missouri and Illinois. Settling the American West was an attempt to flee the United States and start anew.

But in Utah, they built something unique. The towns were tight-knit and largely unified. A bevy of volunteer associations and generous programs cared for the poor and aided migrants in their journeyings. And Utah, nearly two centuries later, is still benefiting from its foundation. Though it is still a comparatively homogeneous state, in both its religious and ethnic makeup, it is among the country’s fastest-growing. The word “compromise” is used both as a verb and a noun, as evidenced by trailblazing cooperation on immigration, medical marijuana and LGBTQ+ rights. The economy is strong and upward mobility leads the nation.

Like the rest of the country, Utah faces challenges. A monumental drought and other climate issues raise questions about whether sustainable growth can be maintained. The state is not immune to dwindling community, either, as local politics are being sucked into national trends. 

But this Pioneer Day, Utah will celebrate the unique, even improbable, balance between individualism and community that pioneers built 175 years ago. As we look for ways to reinvigorate the American community, the Mormon pioneers still provide a robust example.

This year, the rest of America is welcome to join in the celebration.