The Mormons’ Trail of Hope — By Gordon B. Hinckley as published in the Wall Street Journal

The Mormons’ Trail of Hope — By Gordon B. Hinckley as published in the Wall Street Journal

The Mormons’ Trail of Hope —- By Gordon B. Hinckley

This appeared in the Wall Street Journal in July of 1997

As the winter snows descended upon the Missouri frontier in 1838, Gov. Lilburn Boggs issued an extraordinary decree: 12,000 people then huddled in makeshift settlements 120 miles to the west were to be “exterminated or driven from the state.” So, for the fourth time in seven years, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints gathered all they could — leaving what they couldn’t — and fled.

From Missouri they retreated to Illinois, where they built a town that within six years rivaled Chicago in size and vitality. They established a university, hosted dignitaries, published a newspaper and built a beautiful temple, regarded by many as the finest building in the state. But in the summer of 1844 their leader, Joseph Smith, and his brother Hyrum were shot to death by a mob. Rage and persecution having followed them to Illinois, the Latter-day Saints, now numbering around 20,000, prepared to abandon one more home.

It would be their final exodus.

They would leave, once again in the heart of a brutal Midwestern winter. Their leader was Brigham Young, and their trail covered half a continent — 1,300 miles across the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. It was the largest forced migration in the history of America.

My grandfather, barely out of his teens, built his own wagon and with his young wife, his baby daughter and his younger brother set off for the West. Near Fort Laramie, Wyo., his wife sickened and died. His brother died on the same day. Grief stricken, he split logs for coffins and buried them both in unmarked graves on the open prairie. He said goodbye, picked up his baby and walked on to the valley of the Great Salt Lake. His faith in God sustained him then and for the rest of his life.

It took more than a year for the original wave of Latter-day Saint pioneers to travel from Illinois to what is now Utah. “This is the right place,” Brigham Young declared on July 24, 1847 — 150 years ago today. Although fewer than 3,000 made the entire trek that first year of settlement, nearly 70,000 men, women and children completed the journey before the transcontinental railroad was finished in 1869. Upward of 6,000 of them made the ultimate sacrifice for religious freedom. Their unmarked graves lie scattered along the trail.

While arduous, this was a trail of hope for a hopeful people. Organized in companies, with captains, committees and choirs, the Latter-day Saint pioneers worked their way across nearly half a continent, building bridges, planting crops and erecting shelters in an orchestrated effort to ensure a better passage for those who would inevitably follow. The magnitude of the endeavor required both strength and ingenuity. Many lacked the financial means to complete their journey. As a result, Brigham Young developed a new mode of transport — the human-powered handcart. It was at once one of the most brilliant and tragic experiments in all western migration.

The handcart was a wooden wheelbarrow of sorts. Fully loaded, a handcart could hold some 500 pounds of provisions and possessions, within which adults were allowed 17 pounds of clothing and bedding, children 10 pounds. Frequently, even this amount became onerous, so belongings were abandoned along the trail. While the vast majority of migrants arrived safely by handcart, a great tragedy occurred when more than 200 poor European immigrants from two different companies died on the high plains. Most froze to death in unexpectedly early snowstorms near the Continental Divide in central Wyoming.

The Mormon Trail has a pivotal place in American history. In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Wallace Stegner, a contemporary of mine at the University of Utah who is not a member of our faith, these Latter-day Saints “were one of the principal forces in the settlement of the West,” eventually founding more than 400 communities between southern Canada and northern Mexico.

Today, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has grown to nearly 10 million members in more than 160 nations, with missionaries covering the globe. It is the seventh largest religion in the U.S. and is one of the most rapidly growing religions in the world. In fact, last year we reached a milestone: A majority of our members now live outside the U.S. Small wonder that millions will pause today to remember the Latter-day Saint pioneers, to celebrate their wondrous accomplishments, and to rejoice in the miraculous thing that has grown from the foundation they laid 150 years ago.

— Mr. Hinckley is president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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