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.
This year’s convoy does more than intermingle secular and sacred and symbolize the pioneers and patriots theme. Significantly, those taking part in the July 24 parade will come from a variety of religious and civic organizations as well as from local LDS stakes and wards. Consequently, the parade will not simply celebrate the coming of the Mormon pioneers. It will also recognize that diversity long has been a Utah hallmark.
Utah’s celebration is but one dimension of Pioneer Day. Another, and possibly more significant, dimension of this event is the way Pioneer Day is commemorated throughout the LDS Church. Celebrations are held in stakes and wards in the United States and Canada, and they are also held in practically all the regions of the world where Latter-day Saints reside.
For a long time, Pioneer Day activities outside the intermountain region concentrated on honoring the pioneers who survived the rigors of the Mormon Trail. During social gatherings, firesides, and special church services, talks about the sufferings and successes of the pioneers were sometimes accompanied by reenactments of the trek. Converts from overseas came in for special mention, of course. But what was being celebrated was the building of the Mormon kingdom in the tops of the mountains.
In the mountain West, Pioneer Day long had the effect of sustaining an unofficial pattern of stratification within Mormon culture that placed the members of families who came to the region during the early decades of LDS settlement in the area above those who came later. This pattern is gradually being altered, and one reason may be that Pioneer Day is undergoing a transformation.
The agent of change is an expansion of the idea of what being a Mormon pioneer means. Instead of simply honoring long-deceased pioneer heroes and heroines, today’s Saints in the mountain West and outside it are being asked to be pioneers themselves by doing something special to build up Mormonism in these latter days--perhaps being the first member of one’s family to go on a mission, being a leader of a branch of the church in an area where the church has not before had an organized unit, or serving the church in some other way that demands sacrifice and courage.
Looking at it this way reveals that the hoopla is not all there is to Pioneer Day. A closer look at this celebration reveals a larger truth about the Latter-day Saints: nowadays all sorts of things are changing within Mormonism. The transformation of the idea of what it means to be a pioneer will surely help dissolve what amounted to a caste system within the Mormon community. But as the meaning of being a pioneer is being transformed rather than de-emphasized or discarded, Pioneer Day is likely to retain its significance as both a holy day and a holiday.