Pioneer Day: Mormons celebrate Brigham Young and Salt Lake City

FRIDAY, JULY 24: Across the state of Utah and in Mormon communities worldwide, Pioneer Day marks the entry of Brigham Young and the first group of Mormon pioneers into Salt Lake Valley. Parades, fireworks, rodeos, carnivals and more accompany festivals in Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Hawaii and Canada. On this date in 1847, Brigham Young and his followers ended a thousand-mile search for a permanent settlement and an escape from religious persecution. (Wikipedia has details.) Many voyagers didn’t survive the difficult journey, and on Pioneer Day, Utahns pay homage to all pioneers—Mormon or not. Across Utah, many governmental offices and places of business are closed for the state holiday.

Did you know? Some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reenact the entrance of pioneers into Salt Lake Valley, by handcart, each Pioneer Day. Annually, Pioneer Days draws approximately 250,000 people.

This year, activities for Pioneer Day in Salt Lake City began a week before July 24, brimming with live music, pioneer heritage activities, pancake breakfasts and more. (Read more in the Salt Lake Tribune.) For Ogden Pioneer Days, Elder D. Todd Christofferson spoke during the annual devotional, referencing the Sermon on the Mount when he spoke of the need for reconciliation, forgiveness and a culture of community. (Deseret News has the story.) In contrast to Mormon-centered activities, some bars and restaurants are gearing up for “Pie ‘n’ Beer Day,” a homophonic allusion to Pioneer Day that is based in Utah. Non-Mormons who reported feeling out of place during the Pioneer Day activities say that they now have a place to go on July 24. (New York Times reported.)


Following three years of construction on a 34,000-square-foot building, Mormonism’s newest temple, will be open for tours to non-Mormons in Indiana through August 8. During the past decade, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has only opened three or four temples worldwide each year, reaching a total of 147. Despite reports that the religion’s numbers are declining, officials expect that the temple in Indiana will host 75,000 visitors before closing its doors to non-Mormons, at which time it will serve approximately 30,000 Mormons in the state. (Read more from USA Today, Fox News and Indianapolis Monthly.)

With the death of 90-year old Boyd Packer, it has been reported that Russell Nelson will take over the position of president of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the second-highest governing body of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In a statement, the Church said that the apostles have “heavy administrative responsibilities as they oversee the orderly progress and development of the global church.”

Broadway star Laura Osnes, best known for her role as “Cinderella,” joined the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra for its Pioneer Day concert July 17 and 18. (Watch a video of the performance here.) Prior to the performances, Osnes—nominated for a Tony Award and recipient of several other awards—described her excitement in performing with such a renowned and enormous group. (Read more here.)

Pioneer Day: Utahns join Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in celebration

WEDNESDAY, JULY 24: Don your bonnet and lace up your boots—it’s Pioneer Day in Utah, and a celebration for Mormons nationwide. On this date in 1847, Mormon pioneers settled into the Salt Lake Valley to escape religious persecution. After being forced from their home in Nauvoo, Illinois, the pilgrims embarked on a thousand-mile journey to form a new settlement. Portions of the Mormon Trail are reenacted each year in Utah, and an elaborate Days of ’47 festival envelops the entire city of Salt Lake each July. (Check out photos here.) If you’re traveling through Utah at this time of year, you’re in for a treat!

In the final months before their journey West, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could feel the growing tension. They were no longer welcome in Nauvoo, Illinois, and when their founder—prophet Joseph Smith—was murdered on June 27, 1844, something had to be done. The Mormons left their settlement in Nauvoo for a new homeland, and after a treacherous journey, the surviving pilgrims crossed into Salt Lake City on July 24. (Find resources, historical photographs and more with links from the state of Utah.) The first statewide Pioneer Day celebration was held a decade later, in 1857, and July 24 remains a state holiday in Utah to this day.


For Utahns, the Days of ’47 festival commemorates the entire region’s culture and history—not just those of the Mormon pioneers. (The pioneer era is considered to have ended in 1869 with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad.) Significant settlers in Utah’s pioneer history are celebrated, an Intertribal Powwow lights up Liberty Park in Salt Lake City and parades, fireworks and rodeos fill the streets and grounds of Salt Lake in the days surrounding July 24.


The height of Mormon activities is the grand performance of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, which this year was held last Saturday and whose venue allowed 21,000 attendees to hear featured hip-hop violinist Lindsey Stirling and pop-opera tenor Nathan Pacheco, along with the famed choir. (The Salt Lake Tribune had the story.) Organizers say they “consciously chose these two artists to appeal to a younger generation, and younger people responded eagerly. Our ticket supply disappeared before our eyes.”

Today, families that camped out along the parade route last night can awaken to the parade events. (The Deseret News reports.) The Days of ’47 Youth Parade—the largest youth parade in the country—kicked off the Days of ’47 festivities on July 20, with more than 5,000 participants: marching bands, clowns, Boy Scouts of America and wards and stakes from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Ready for some pioneer fun at home? Try out these creative pioneer crafts for kids, courtesy of the Crafty Crow.

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering spirituality, religion, interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Mormon: Pioneer Day families rally behind Romney

Salt Lake Valley was settled by Mormon pioneers in 1847. Photo in public domainTUESDAY, JULY 24: If Independence Day were to settle in one state, it would look something like Utah does on Pioneer Day. Utahns celebrate with parades, fireworks, rodeos, dances and more. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints remember the Mormon settlement of Salt Lake City, when their ancestors ended a torturous 1,300-mile journey and finally found a new home. (Wikipedia has details.)

For non-Mormon Utahns, the state’s rich history and the cultures that have contributed to it are cause enough for celebration. An official state holiday, Pioneer Day closes government offices and many businesses in Utah. The Days of ’47—commemorating the arrival of Mormon pilgrims in 1847—opens a slew of pioneer-centered events in a grand statewide festival. (Watch the 2012 Pioneer Day Concert here.)

What won’t end with the festival, though, is the national political spotlight on Mormons, this year. In news stories nationwide, the story of Romney-family roots in the LDS church continues to unfold.


What are these much talked about Romney-Mormon roots?
They relate to the establishment of the LDS church as we know it today. Early converts to the church gathered in Nauvoo, Illinois, to help prophet Joseph Smith build a “New Jerusalem.” Things were going well. Smith became the mayor of Nauvoo and was contemplating running for president of the United States. As we reported in June, Smiths’ rise to prominence and that first big expansion of the church ended in tragedy. To this day, Mormons recall the murder of Joseph and his brother Hyrum by a mob.

The faithful were forced from Nauvoo and began a vast westward migration. By foot and horseback, approximately 70,000 Mormons survived disease, Indians and even threats by U.S. troops before entering Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847. (Follow the trail and read participants’ stories at Each year, some Mormons reenact this entrance by dressing in period clothing and pushing handcarts along parts of the Mormon Trail. (The LDS Church advises members to be “modern pioneers.”) Of course, the entire Mormon Exodus, as the westward migration often is described today, took several years to complete.


Miles RomneyThe Romneys are more than recent converts to the faith. They were early builders of the church, beginning with Mitt Romney’s Great Great Grandfather Miles Romney. Born in 1806, Miles was an exceptionally talented carpenter born in northern England. He and his wife, Elizabeth Gaskell Romney, were Anglicans and were well established in their community. Then, in 1837, some LDS missionaries knocked on their door—and the rest is Mormon history.

Elizabeth Gaskell RomneyThey were baptized in a nearby river and moved to Nauvoo where Miles Romney’s talents blossomed. As it turns out, his skills weren’t limited to carpentry; soon he was working as an architect and supervisor of large-scale construction. He played a role in completing the Nauvoo temple. The Romneys were part of the Mormon Exodus and, once in Utah, Miles Romney soon was working on some of the church’s most ambitious construction projects. He was head of the construction team that completed the first Mormon temple—the LDS temple at St. George, Utah. Later, Brigham Young invited him to design what is now a U.S. historical landmark: Young’s Winter Home and Office.

Want more on early Romney family history? Wikipedia charts it all, complete with a handy family tree at the end of the article. Look at the photo of Mitt’s father with that article, compare that with Miles and Mitt—and you can see a resemblance in the men down through the centuries.


As the New York Times and other newspapers have reported, Mitt Romney’s connection with LDS pioneers isn’t historical trivia. For more, read the entire July 16 New York Times article, which was timed to coincide with the summertime Pioneer Day celebrations—but also draws contemporary connections. The NYTimes reports, in part: Now, more than 150 years later, descendants of those first families of Mormonism are joining together in a new effort: delivering the White House to Mitt Romney, whose great-great-grandfather Miles Romney settled alongside many of their ancestors in Nauvoo in 1841 and joined their torturous migration. These families—Marriotts, Rollinses, Gardners and others—have formed a financial bulwark and support network for Mr. Romney at every important point in his political career.

No, this reporting isn’t an East Coast plot against the Mormon church. This is a fascinating story of a minority community within the U.S., after many years of stereotypes and bigotry (including the murder of the Mormon founder), drawing on collective connections in an election year.

As Dr. Wayne Baker reports in the OurValues column, this matchup between an African-American president seeking re-election and a Mormon candidate seeking to break the religion barrier is historic.

In Utah, journalists also are closely examining these links. The Salt Lake Tribune’s award-winning religion newswriter, Peggy Fletcher Stack, just reported on July 20 that Romney referenced the Book of Mormon in his remarks after the tragic theater shootings in Colorado.

Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Mormon: Anniversary of Joseph Smith & Brother Hyrum

The Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, night view. Photo in public domainWEDNESDAY, JUNE 27: Every year in our Holidays column, we include a news item on the anniversary of the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith on June 27, 1844. Usually, the date is only marked by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who regard remembrance of their deaths as a solemn milestone. However, in 2012, suddenly everything “Mormon” takes on wider significance. Newsweek has called this year’s political crossroads “the Mormon Moment,” and best-selling author Stephen Mansfield just penned a book titled, “The Mormonizing of America.” (The LA Times has an interview with Mansfield.) Although Mansfield’s previous two presidential books were titled “The Faith of George Bush” and “The Faith of Barack Obama,” the author claims that the story of the LDS church’s growth in mainstream America is much bigger than the specific Mitt Romney “story” this year—so he shifted the title of his 2012 book.

Mansfield is among the writers on this subject who argue that LDS theology shapes Romney’s world view in major ways. In the LA Times interview, Mansfield says there is no question that Romney’s “worldview or his system of ethics, what he believes about the Constitution, what he believes about abortion, what he believes about American history—I think all that grows organically out of his Mormonism. I think that his leadership is a product of his training and his gifts, but he does lead out of a sense of it being part of him qualifying, being found worthy, him passing the test of this life—that’s standard Mormon theology.”

Why haven’t we heard more from Romney about these connections with his faith? That’s because there’s so much bias against Mormons in American culture that advisors have cautioned him against talking too much about his church. Mansfield explains it this way: “I know that we want to believe that we’re beyond any kind of religious bigotry in politics, but I just don’t think we’re there yet. Gallup says the only group with worse numbers that they poll in terms of politics are gays and Muslims.” (And the LA Times writer added that the Gallup reports also show atheists are in the “worst numbers” group in recent polling. There’s obviously a lot of bias still operating in American culture.)

That brings us back to the mob that murdered Mormon leader Joseph Smith, Jr., and his brother Hyrum in 1844. Wikipedia has a lengthy article on the killings, which were hate crimes fueled by Smith’s decision to try running for president of the United States. For another perspective, learn more from the Mormonism Research Ministry. For yet another perspective on Romney’s Mormon faith—and its affect on the campaign—read this week’s OurValues column in the pages of ReadTheSpirit.

Want more context on this challenging issue? For a good, strong commentary on this theme, read religion newswriter Bill Tammeus’ column today. He criticizes “the shameful anti-Mormonism than infects almost one in five Americans.” But Bill continues with a list of other related acts, some helpful links and he recommends an insightful book on the overall issue.

Read more here:

Mormon: Embrace adventurous spirit on Pioneer Day

SUNDAY, JULY 24: Enjoy that courageous spirit of adventure with Mormons today as they celebrate Pioneer Day. In the mid-19th century, Mormons were persecuted in Nauvoo, Ill., until they were forced to flee the eastern U.S. Tens of thousands of men, women and children trekked across the plains and, after a harsh winter marked by disease and hunger, the survivors reached Salt Lake City, Utah, on July 24 of 1847. (Wikipedia has details.)

Salt Lake City remains the center of the worldwide Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints today, and the founding of their “homeland” is marked each July 24 with pioneer songs, dances and other themed activities. (The Salt Lake Tribune reports on this year’s events.) Some devout adherents even walk portions of the Mormon Trail on Pioneer Day to get a taste of the journey made more than 150 years ago. Most of Salt Lake City’s businesses are closed on Pioneer Day. ( has more.)

Since the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had been killed a few years earlier, it was Brigham Young who led the pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Following a journey of 1,300 miles, the early Mormons arrived weary at their destination. (Follow a virtual trail, and read pioneer accounts, at Still, it didn’t take long for them to look back and give thanks: In 1849, Mormon pioneers celebrated July 24 with a thanksgiving feast.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Mormon: Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith

MONDAY, JUNE 27: “I’m a Mormon!” Have you seen the latest up-beat advertising campaign for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints? So far, the multimedia campaign has debuted in New York City and is expected to cross the nation by later this year. It’s all part of mainstreaming the message of this growing religious group of 14 million members.

The church’s role in the American public square is a crucial political issue right now—just as it was in 1844 when Joseph Smith threw his own hat into the ring of presidential hopefuls. In 2011, two Mormons are campaigning for a presidential nomination: Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman. With both men’s families “steeped in the Church” and “of Mormon royalty,” according to a Washington Post article, the competition for Mormon votes will be head-to-head. Still, many members of today’s Church say that they won’t necessarily vote for either Mormon; many say they will vote for whichever candidate seems best for the role. A recent OurValues column reported on polling among American voters about their attitudes toward candidates’ religious affiliations.

Smith, the LDS church’s founder, and his brother Hyrum Smith were murdered on June 27, 1844, when a mob stormed an Illinois jail where they were being held at the time. The LDS church’s page of teachings about Smith’s death is headlined: “The Prophet Seals His Testimony with His Blood.”

In 1994, for the 150th anniversary, the church held a nationwide commemoration. But, these days, public programming focuses more on Smith’s teachings than his violent death. In late June 2011, for example, the LDS website focuses less on the martyrdom than on the upcoming Nauvoo Pageant that is open to the public from July 5-30. The Pageant is a professional-quality musical production on the life Joseph Smith, full of colorful historical costumes and up-beat song-and-dance numbers. ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm has seen the show and recommends it as entertaining and interesting for non-Mormon visitors, if you’re touring that part of Illinois in July. If you’re going, make sure to look around on the pageant website to learn about other activities for families related to the show.

Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

Mormon: Celebration & controversy in LDS 181 years

LDS CHURCH FOUNDER JOSEPH SMITHWEDNESDAY, APRIL 6: If you’re not Mormon, then the last headline you read about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints probably was about the Broadway show by the creators of South Park—or about GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. In either case, the news coverage is more about controversy than celebration as Mormon families mark their church’s birthday this week.

Today is the 181st anniversary of the church’s founding by Joseph Smith Jr. in the state of New York. Although that moment was humble and the circle of Smith’s first followers was small, the church now lists 15 million followers worldwide. The church teaches that Smith was a young man seeking guidance when he was startled by a vision of God the Father and Jesus Christ—guiding him to establish a new church. (Full details are at the LDS church site.) Four years later, Smith reported another divine visit directing him to gold plates buried in a nearby hill; Smith located the gold plates, translated their contents and penned the Book of Mormon. Shortly following his book’s publication, Smith began the LDS church. (Wikipedia has more.)

Today’s Mormons believe Jesus leads the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by revealing his will through the church’s top leaders, especially the current head of the church: Thomas S. Monson, who speaks to members in a semi-annual general conference. (USA Today reports on this.) Last weekend (April 2-3), thousands gathered in Salt Lake City to receive spiritual guidance from Monson, and those who couldn’t visit Utah watched the conference on television or streamed from the LDS website. (Texts and more from the conference are at the LDS website.)


This week, Mormons are getting more mainstream coverage for controversy than for their 181st birthday. The Washington Post is one of many news publications reporting on “The Book of Mormon,” which appears to be a hit. It’s a Broadway musical by South Park co-writers Matt Stone and Trey Parker and, while some news coverage of the show claims that it shows affection toward Mormon missionaries—generally Mormon responses to the show have been highly critical. Nevertheless, the official LDS view is: There’s no point in even responding. Church officials call this problem their “Publicity Dilemma.” Officials face the same problem when Mormon politicians get into heated disputes on the campaign trail, which is likely to be the case once again as Romney seeks the White House in 2012.

If you’ve got a Mormon friend, neighbor or co-worker—wish them a happy anniversary this week. They probably will appreciate a kind word from a friend.

(Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)