Pioneer Children

A week has passed since Pioneer Day. I was moved by the memorials here and in my sacrament meeting, where the speakers called us to reflect on, in President Hinckley’s words, the “long shadow” the pioneers cast in which we still find some shelter from the heat of the times.

The shadow is real, I think. Some of us are here because of them. In law school I met a girl whose ancestors had joined the kingdom in England and crossed the ocean. Like many, they lingered for a few years at the eastern terminus of the trail to raise money. But somehow they never made it across the plains, they never became pioneer. Now generations of that family have passed in the full light of the world, faith has dried up and withered away, and this daughter of theirs is a Catholic with the usual obscure notions of the Church.

The pioneers meant to cast the shadow, I think. They weren’t toiling for their own times. The speaker in my sacrament meeting made this point by again quoting President Hinckley. He said that when his wife Marjorie Hinckley’s great-great grandmother set out to cross the plains, she told her daughter, Polly, that she did it because “I want to go to Zion, while my children are small, so they can be raised in the gospel of Jesus Christ.” Leaving a legacy for her children was consciously her aim.

The pioneers had to pay a price for that legacy. Marjorie Hinckley’s great-great-grandmother died on the plains. So did many others. And two groups died disproportionately (if I recall correctly. My books are packed away at the moment). The first group were the elderly. The second group were the children. What a paradox, an almost- Dominical paradox! Because of the pioneers’ efforts to reach a place where they could raise their children in the faith, some of their children died and passed beyond all raising.

The irony must have been bitter. Their efforts were worth while, of course, for the children who lived and for the children yet to come. But I can’t believe that any amount of success elsewhere would ever quite balm a parent’s heart for this child, wrapped in this cloth, buried by this swale, and left behind.

Joseph Fielding Smith told the Saints that in his view parents and dead children would pick up again in the Millennium where they’d left off at death. I’ve heard this a lot in the last few months. As much as I would have liked to believe it, for my sake and for the sake of others, I couldn’t bring myself to, though I didn’t say anything. But just recently, thinking about children in the millennium in a different context, and then thinking about the pioneers, I’ve started to wonder if there isn’t something to it. It may explain something that’s puzzled me awhile.

Here’s what we know: We don’t baptize living children before the age of eight because they are sinless. Children who die before the age of eight are saved through Christ without the need for repentance. See Moroni 8:8-12.
And we don’t perform baptisms on behalf of children who died before the age of eight at any time, even after they reach that age. Here’s what else we know. Christ, though sinless, was baptized (see 2 Nephi 31):

the Lamb of God, he being holy, [has] need to be baptized by water, to fulfil all righteousness

Here’s my quandary: Once Christ chose to be baptized, why would anyone want to enter the kingdom through any other gate? No one would. So why would God deny it to children who died young? Especially since, as Christ showed by doing it, baptism is more than the cleansing of sins. Sinless and sinners alike to show their obedience and make covenants through baptism.

We won’t know for sure until God reveals it, but parents raising children in the millennium might make sense of all this. Suppose that pioneer children and all the other children aren’t resurrected right off, but merely brought back to life—like Lazarus—, to be raised by their parents. What does that mean? It means that vicarious baptisms on their behalf need not be done—they can be baptized in the flesh. It means that the children get to be obedient, make covenants, and follow Christ’s example—again, by being baptized in the flesh. The only difficulty is that Moroni apparently believed that all children dead before the age of 8 would be saved. How can this be true, if their mortal probation isn’t over yet? But perhaps this isn’t really a difficulty. Perhaps the Millennium, when Satan is bound, isn’t much of a mortal probation and people don’t fall away during it.

The truth is that I don’t know. But its been comforting to me as a parent to see the hopes that Mormonism has to offer me and how well its teachings reward investigation and thought.

16 comments for “Pioneer Children

  1. Adam, wonderful post.

    I admire the courage of a person who can turn down doctrine with the potential to provide comfort because that doctrine doesn’t fit right. I admire your explorations here, your willingness to connect the dots, and your willingness to accept that your solution may or may not be right.

    Good work.

  2. Adam,

    This touches me in two ways. First, and more personal, because the only children we have been able to have have not survived a week. The millenium seems so far away to raise them.

    The other way I am touched is by remembering the sacrifices my pioneer ancestors faced. I know how and when one family in my line moved from New York to the Salt Lake valley, because the family group chart shows the death dates and places of children as the family moved with the Church.

  3. “But I can’t believe that any amount of success elsewhere would ever quite balm a parent’s heart for this child, wrapped in this cloth, buried by this swale, and left behind.”

    I can’t believe that either, Adam. But when I read the journals of my great-great grandmothers, who lost child after child after child crossing the plains and in childbirth and in Mexico, I really do wonder how they carried on without the keenness of the loss being dulled a bit by expectation and repetition.

    I think my parents expect to raise their son from childhood in the millennium, but I’ve never been as sure. You’ve given me good things to consider, though.

  4. Adam,
    I really like this post; it displays the best sort of theological speculation. It is well-reasoned, restrained, clear-headed, and good-hearted. Thanks

  5. The D&C tells us that children born in the Millenium will “grow up unto salvation”. McConkie says that means they will inherit the Celestial Kingdom. If parents get to raise children, who have died during this earth life, during the Millenium, then I guess those children get the Celestial Kingdom too.

  6. “Why did my child die? Here, away from family, unable to be buried except in snow?” We don’t hear this question, we don’t hear a “WHY?”

    Instead, we hear the answer to “What does this remind me of?”

    “My child dying here, likely to be eaten by starving animals as I walk away, gives me greater appreciation for God and his Son. In a horrible time, I am in good company.”

    This attitude, and these long shadows give us example as we face all our questions, including the question of presiding.

    Beautiful post, Adam. I am glad to be your wife; glad you’re the father of our children.

  7. Thank you, Don. Your information makes it sound all the more possible. God bless you, and all the kind hearts here. You too, lovely one.

  8. We also had a very moving talk on Pioneer Day in our ward, by a member of our bishopric. He told several stories about the extreme circumstances the pioneers faced with faith. He told a story (of which there are so many) of some children who lost both of their parents on the trail. I couldn’t help thinking, while he talked and since, of how quickly and absolutely pioneer children had to access and call upon their deepest resources of strength and faith, and forge a relationship with their God. All pioneers, regardless of age, had to do that, but it nearly overwhelmed me thinking of the little ones having to learn so young the extremes of the human experience, having to call out, as Joseph Smith did, but with their tiny voices “… and where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?” Even if they were able to understand the context of faith and conversion that brought their families to the plains, there must have been some days when the context crumbled around them, and only the heartache loomed. And then there’s the heartbreak of the parents at not being able to shield them, or worse, dying first and not even being around to walk with them. I wonder if those pioneer children ever felt odd, growing up, after having experienced more as children than many ever do in a lifetime. I wonder if they knew how much they knew.

    This brother in our ward also bore his testimony that every member as a pioneer. Pioneer talks inevitably include some take on this, and I’ve seldom felt the analogy ‘speak’ to me, perhaps because I’ve never seen myself as a trailblazer, or have never felt right thinking of myself as part of a company so noble, even though I benefit from their heritage. But this was particularly powerful for me, this time, for some reason, maybe because his emphasis was not on the trails we blaze, but on the strength we can summon and rely on, whatever our challenges–that the Lord requires of us the same qualities and strength He required of the pioneers. This resonated with me–this thought of following the pioneers by embodying their resolve and humility, even with my profoundly different life experiences.

  9. I forgot to say thanks, Adam, for such a touching and thought-provoking post. For what it’s worth, Hal prays pretty much every day that his curly-haired friend Betsy will “come alive again.” I am certain that he wants and is asking Heavenly Father for the Lazarus-like raising you describe, rather than resurrection–a raising that throws wide the door for the experiences of childhood and parenting that were cut far too short.

  10. I appreciate the pioneers. But I think the real story is what you mention, Kirsten. We can all summon the strength to bear the burdens of this life. As horrible as the tragedies were that the pioneers endures, they don’t have a monopoly on human suffering. They are also not the only ones that can act with faith and receive comfort in that faith.
    The pioneers’ stories have real examples of things we only experience metaphorically. They were driven from their homes for their religion. They left family and possessions behind to follow God’s plan. They lost their lives, or the lives of family members to disease and starvation and exposure. They experienced great hardships yet continued to put one foot in front of the other for hundreds or thousands of miles.
    Today, is the loss of a child any easier to bear? Today, does the uncertainty of life need less faith? Today, is mortality really any easier–I”m not talking about running water, I’m talking about our purpose on earth, our test, it is any easier to make ourselves into what God asks, to have that broken heart and contrite spirit?
    We don’t need to worship the pioneers, but if their story can inspire us to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other even when we might despair, then that is good.

  11. JKS wrote – but if their story can inspire us to get up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other even when we might despair, then that is good.

    Yes. And I’ve sometimes wondered what the pioneers might think if they could see (or is it _when_ they see?) the challenges we face. I’ve heard more than one church member express relief that they were born in this time, not then. Perhaps the pioneers feel the same.

  12. Wonderful post. Thank you so much for your eloquent thoughts and words.

    When I think of pioneer children; I remember that many children made that long journey on their own. Many families, especially those in Europe, the cost of coming to Utah was more than they could muster up in one large sum. The solution was for some families for the parents to send the children first while they were small enough to qualify for a lower passage rate. In other families one or more of the parents went first and sent for the children later. Some young teenagers joined the church on their own and managed to persuade their families to let them journey to a foreign land.

    Caroline West Wright Larrabee (age ten) and Ann West Neville’s (age six) were an example of parents sending small children first. These two young girls came to Utah from England with a missionary returning home. They stayed with a family in Utah until their own parents could come for them. (I Sailed to Zion by Madsen and Woods)

    James Olsen is one that comes to mind that as a young teenager of thirteen was the first of his family to journey from Denmark to Utah. After crossing the plains, he was given a plot of land to raise a crop of wheat to sustain his family when they came later that next year. (The James Olsen Family)

    Brigham Henry (B.H.) Roberts (age nine) and his sister Mary (age sixteen) came to Utah from England to join their mother who had traveled to Utah four years earlier. (I Walked to Zion by Madsen and Woods).

    Valborg Rasmussen Wheelwright converted to the Gospel on her own and made the journey to Zion from Denmark at age thirteen. (I Sailed to Zion by Madsen and Woods)

    Perhaps the most poignant story that I am aware of is a little nine year old Danish convert Bodil Mortensen who was traveling alone with the Willie Hardcart Company. Her job while crossing the plains was to care for a group of younger children. As the company crossed Rocky Ridge they were caught in the bitter cold and snow. When they finally reached camp Bodil was sent to gather firewood. She was found frozen to death leaning up against the wheel of the handcart clutching sagebrush in her hand. I cannot fathom the sorrow that her parents must have felt when they learned of the news. (

    I also cannot image the tremendous desire and faith that their parents had to trust in the Lord and allow strangers to care for their children; that for many of these families it would be years before they were all reunited.

  13. Wonderful post, Adam. I’ve often wondered why that power which the pioneers had, to overcome difficulties and achieve the impossible, the power to which we still have access, seems underutilized in the church today. Back then, they traveled to establish Zion from nothing in the wilderness. Today, fewer of us are asked to travel, but is our job actually the harder one, to establish Zion wherever we are, over the whole of the earth? Are we nowadays actually called to achieve even greater impossibilities through worse difficulties than were the pioneers? Perhaps today we’re being called to bring succor to all, eliminate hunger, make education available to everyone who wants to learn, help all people out of poverty, combat persecution of minorities, fight corruption worldwide, etc. And if this is true, how well do our efforts now stand up beside those of the pioneers? In honoring them, I often wonder why I’m not more like them. Has the task before us really become easier since their time? Or am I simply failing to notice or undertake what the Lord requires of me?

  14. If you wish to comment, please email me at adam at timesandseasons dot org

    thank you.

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