From the Archives: Pioneer Children

A week has passed since Pioneer Day. We remembered it here. In my sacrament meeting, where the speakers reminded us of President Hinckley’s meditation on the shade cast by the trees the pioneers planted and the “long shadow” they themselves cast in which we still find some shelter from the heat of the times.

The shadow is real. Some of us are here in the kingdom because of it. In law school I met a girl whose ancestors had joined 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 pioneers, they never grew tall. 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 gentile with the usual obscure notions of the Church. There but for the pioneer shadow go many of us. Unlike converts, we are not Saints because of any excellence on our part but because of our ancestors.

The pioneers meant to cast the shadow. They knew that they were not toiling for their own times. The speaker in my sacrament meeting reminded us that when 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.” Shading her descendants was consciously her aim, as it was for many of the pioneers.

Like many others, Marjorie Hinckley’s great-great-grandmother died on the plains. Two groups died disproportionately. The first group was the elderly. The second group was the children. In an almost Dominical paradox, the pioneers’ sacrifices to reach a place where they could raise their children in the faith killed many of those children, putting them 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 hope for 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 some puzzling truths.

Here’s a truth. 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 another truth. 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 what’s puzzling: 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 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 children raised in that time don’t grow up to fall away.

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. Its been comforting to me to think that those pioneer parents who sacrificed so much to build Zion will be able to raise their children in it.

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