A Religious Ritual Wrapped in a Civic Event

The LDS Church is changing, and as a result, so is the definition of being a Mormon 'pioneer' on Pioneer Day

BY: Jan Shipps


This article first ran on Beliefnet in July, 2002.

All across the Western United States this week, Mormons are honoring the first Latter-day Saints who crossed the plains and mountains to reach the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. Every July 24, they celebrate

Pioneer Day

with old-fashioned picnics featuring lots of games for the children, foot races, horse races, dances, speeches, and parades. But unlike some Western pioneer celebrations, these are not exercises in nostalgia as fleeting as mid-summer.

For the Saints, the anniversary of the day Brigham Young first looked out from the mouth of Emigration Canyon and concluded the Great Salt Lake Valley was the place for the Saints to stop their westward trek, isn’t simply an excuse for a festival. Pioneer Day celebrations are religious rituals that remind members of the LDS faith community of a signal event in their past. Just as Passover prompts members of the Jewish community to remember the Hebrews’ successful escape from Egypt, so Pioneer Day reminds Latter-day Saints of what their forebears accomplished.

Curiously, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints does not recognize Pioneer Day as a holy day. But July 24 is a state holiday in Utah. The result is a blending of the sacred and secular.

This bringing together of the civic and religious is reflected in Pioneer Day celebrations throughout Utah. To some extent, this is less true in the state capitol, where the secular is sometimes in the ascendant. Take the current celebration. Many of the events of this year’s grand festival are expressions of the secular side—-pops concerts, "family fun" picnics, culture fests, fine arts shows, rodeos, and marathons. On the other hand, the children’s parade held on July 20 was virtually an LDS activity. Some of the 4,000 children who participated were probably, as the Saints say, children of other faiths. But Mormon children and their church leaders created all the 21 floats in the procession.

More of the sacred side will be visible when the festival culminates on July 24. That day opens with a "Sunrise Service" in the Mormon Tabernacle in which a General Authority of the LDS Church, Cree-L Kofford, will be the featured speaker. In addition, the Choral Arts Society of Utah, directed by Sterling Poulson, will combine with Brian Bentley's Legacy Choir to perform religious and patriotic music for the event. The annual Pioneer Day parade will follow, with the procession assembling in front of the plaza that now stands between Temple Square and the Joseph Smith Building, a structure that bears the name of the founder and first prophet of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

This year’s "pioneers and patriots" festival theme clearly reflects post-Sept. 11 civic concerns, with its emphasis on America’s military heroes and the loyalty of Utah’s citizens to the nation. But the fact remains that whenever Latter-day Saints remember and honor the sacrificial struggles of the first Utah pioneers, they draw spiritual sustenance from the celebration.

Although elaborate by any standard, Salt Lake City Pioneer Day parades are not as spectacular or commercially hip as the giant extravaganzas mounted by Macy’s at Thanksgiving or the Rose Bowl parades. Still, this parade will be televised and shown all across the intermountain West. And throngs of onlookers will crowd the sidewalks along the parade route and fill the $6 bleacher seats.


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