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Review of Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley, Chapter 4: The Pioneer Heritage of Faith and Sacrifice

During 2017, LDS members will be studying the latest manual published by their church, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley. We will evaluate this book regularly, chapter by chapter, by showing interesting quotes and providing an Evangelical Christian take on this manual. The quotes from Hinckley are in bold, with my comments following. If you would like to see the church manual online, go here. Latter-day Saints study this material on the second and third Sundays of each month (thus, chapters 1-2 are January, chapter 3-4 are February, etc.)

Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Gordon B. Hinckley, 2016

Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley

With vision, labor, and confidence in the power of God working through them, the early Latter-day Saint pioneers brought their faith to reality.

It was by faith that a small band of early converts [in the eastern United States] moved from New York to Ohio and from Ohio to Missouri and from Missouri to Illinois in their search for peace and freedom to worship God according to the dictates of conscience.

It was through the eyes of faith that they saw a city beautiful [Nauvoo] when first they walked across the swamps of Commerce, Illinois. With the conviction that faith without works is dead, they drained that swampland, they platted a city, they built substantial homes and houses for worship and education and, crowning all, a magnificent temple, then the finest building in all of Illinois.

… Persecution [soon followed], with profane and murderous mobs. Their prophet was killed. Their dreams were shattered. Again it was by faith that they pulled themselves together under the pattern he had previously drawn and organized themselves for another exodus.

With tears and aching hearts they left their comfortable homes and their workshops. They looked back on their sacred temple, and then with faith turned their eyes to the West, to the unknown and to the uncharted, and while the snows of winter fell upon them, they crossed the Mississippi [River] that February of 1846 and plowed their muddy way over the Iowa prairie.

With faith they established Winter Quarters on the Missouri [River]. Hundreds died as plague and dysentery and black canker cut them down. But faith sustained those who survived. They buried their loved ones there on a bluff above the river, and in the spring of 1847 they started … toward the mountains of the West.

It was by faith that Brigham Young looked over [the Salt Lake] valley, then hot and barren, and declared, “This is the place.” Again by faith, four days later, he touched his cane to the ground … and said, “Here will be the temple of our God.” The magnificent and sacred [Salt Lake Temple] is a testimony of faith, not only of the faith of those who built it but of the faith of those who now use it in a great selfless labor of love.

Wrote Paul to the Hebrews, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Heb. 11:1.) All of the great accomplishments of which I have spoken were once only “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” But with vision, with labor, and with confidence in the power of God working through them, they brought their faith to reality.

The power that moved our gospel forebears was the power of faith in God. It was the same power which made possible the exodus from Egypt, the passage through the Red Sea, the long journey through the wilderness, and the establishment of Israel in the Promised Land. …

In this chapter, President Hinckley discusses the heritage of the Latter-day Saints by referencing the earliest converts through those who ventured on the pioneer trails. What is contained in this chapter reminds me of what the writer of Hebrews said in Hebrews 11:

By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks. By faith Enoch was taken up so that he should not see death, and he was not found, because God had taken him. Now before he was taken he was commended as having pleased God. And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.

Other names  mentioned in Hebrews include Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. The end of Hebrews 11 reads:

39 And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, 40 since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

These ancestors of biblical faith were considered faithful believers in YHWH, even if they had never heard the name of Jesus. In essence, these are Christianity’s spiritual ancestors who believed God and desired His will. As Psalm 61:5 puts it, “For you, O God, have heard my vows; you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.” These were people who would have been believers if they had lived in New Testament times.

While the people of faith mentioned in Hebrews knew the true God, Mormonism is based upon Joseph Smith’s “latter-day revelation.” His teachings (and those of his successors) contradict biblical truth from top to bottom. For example, consider this religion’s view that God was once a man who became God, which is considered extremely blasphemous by the Christians then and now. Consider some of the teachings about God given by Smith:

I will go back to the beginning before the world was, to show what kind of being God is. What sort of a being was God in the beginning? Open your ears and hear, all ye ends of the earth, for I am going to prove it to you by the Bible, and to tell you the designs of God in relation to the human race, and why He interferes with the affairs of man. God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man, and sits enthroned in yonder heavens! That is the great secret, if the veil were rent today, and the great God who holds this world in its orbit, and who upholds all worlds and all things by his power, was to make himself visible,—I say, if you were to see him today, you would see him like a man in form—like yourselves in all the person, image, and very form as a man; for Adam was created in the very fashion, image and likeness of God, and received instruction from, and walked, talked and conversed with him, as one man talks and communes with another (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 345. Italics in original. See also Achieving a Celestial Marriage, p. 129).

We have imagined and supposed that God was God from all eternity. I will refute that idea, and take away the veil, so that you may see. These are incomprehensible ideas to some, but they are simple. It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God, and to know that we may converse with him as one man converses with another, and that he was once a man like us; yea, that God the Father of us all, dwelt on an earth, the same as Jesus Christ himself did, and I will show it from the Bible (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, pp. 345-346. Italics in original. See also Gospel Principles, 1997, p. 305).

If Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and John discovered that God the Father of Jesus Christ had a Father, you may suppose that He had a Father also. Where was there ever a son without a father? And where was there ever a father without first being a son? Whenever did a tree or anything spring into existence without a progenitor? And everything comes in this way. Paul says that which is earthly is in the likeness of that which is heavenly, Hence if Jesus had a Father, can we not believe that He had a Father also? (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 373.)

That which is without body or parts is nothing. There is no God in heaven but that God who has flesh and bones (Teachings of Presidents of the Church – Joseph Smith, p. 42).

These are nothing less than heretical statements made by the founder of the Mormon religion. If Smith didn’t get the nature of God right, is it no wonder the successors didn’t either? I realize that a Latter-day Saint reading this review might have pioneer stock in his/her blood possessing a great love for his or her family. (Many faithful Mormons have done extensive genealogical research detailing family lines that go back many years.) Please understand that I am not trying to criticize your forebears. An illustration to demonstrate my position might help. Suppose you knew someone whose ancestors were among the earliest followers of Muhammad some fourteen centuries ago. Would you say that Muslims should be able to make the claim that Islam is true based on the heritage of their faith? Since Islam claims that Jesus is not God and that paradise is available only for those who follow the Five Pillars of Faith and other good works, I would say the answer has to be no. And just as Mormons would not be impressed with the Muslim’s tracking of ancestors to the early days of the religious movement, so too is a Christian left confused when Mormons want to legitimize the LDS religion because their blood lines came from the religion’s early days. Check out this logic:

  • My ancestors come from pioneer Mormon stock.
  • I am a Mormon.
  • Therefore, Mormonism is true.

This is a non sequitur. Truth of a religion does not depend on one’s heritage. Rather, the truth claims of the religion take precedence over bloodlines.

Early Latter-day Saint pioneers looked to the future with a grand dream of Zion.

It is proper that we pause to pay reverent respect to those who laid the foundation of this great work. … Their grand objective was Zion [see D&C 97:21; Moses 7:18]. They sang about it. They dreamed of it. It was their great hope. Their epic journey must stand forever as an incomparable undertaking. The movement of tens of thousands to [the] West was fraught with every imaginable hazard, including death, whose grim reality was familiar to every wagon train and every handcart company.

I stand in reverent respect for Brigham Young. He saw the Salt Lake Valley in vision long before he saw it with his natural eyes. Otherwise I doubt he ever would have stopped here. There were greener lands in California and Oregon. There was deeper and richer soil elsewhere. There were great fields of timber in other places, much more water, and climates more equable and pleasant.

There were mountain streams here, it is true, but none of them was very large. The soil was totally untried. No plow had ever broken its hard-baked surface. I marvel, I simply marvel, that President Young would lead a large company … to a place where there never before had been a sowing and a harvest. …

Hinckley uses Brigham Young here to support his case. Consider some of the quotes given by him on his description of God:

Some would have us believe that God is present everywhere. It is not so. He is no more every where present in person than the Father and Son are one in person (Discourses of Brigham Young, pp. 23-24. See also Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, p. 29).

Now do not lariat the God that I serve and say that he can not learn any more; I do not believe in such a character (Deseret News, June 18, 1873, p. 309.  See also Eugene England, “Perfection and Progression: Two Complimentary ways to talk about God,” BYU Studies, Summer 1989, p. 37).

What, is it possible that the Father of Heights, the Father of our spirits, could reduce himself and come forth like a man? Yes, he was once a man like you and I are and was once on an earth like this, passed through the ordeal you and I pass through. He had his father and his mother and he has been exalted through his faithfulness, and he is become Lord of all. He is the God pertaining to this earth. He is our Father. He begot our spirits in the spirit world. They have come forth and our earthly parents have organized tabernacles for our spirits and here we are today. That is the way we came (The Essential Brigham Young, p. 138).

Just like Smith, Young provides a description of God that is contrary to the biblical message provided in special revelation, which we call the Bible. This is problematic for a person who takes God’s Word seriously.

They were travel-worn, these pioneers. It had taken 111 days to bring them from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley. They were tired. Their clothes were worn. Their animals were jaded. The weather was hot and dry—the hot weather of July. But here they were, looking down the years and dreaming a millennial dream, a grand dream of Zion.

I stood the other day on the old docks of Liverpool, England. There was practically no activity the Friday morning when we were there. But once this was a veritable beehive. During the 1800s, tens of thousands of our people walked over the same stone paving on which we walked. They came from across the British Isles and from the lands of Europe, converts to the Church. They came with testimony on their lips and faith in their hearts. Was it difficult to leave their homes and step into the unknown of a new world? Of course it was. But they did it with optimism and enthusiasm. They boarded sailing vessels. They knew the crossing at best was hazardous. They soon found out that for the most part it was miserable. They lived in cramped quarters week after week. They endured storms, disease, sickness. Many died on the way and were buried at sea. It was an arduous and fearsome journey. They had doubts, yes. But their faith rose above those doubts. Their optimism rose above their fears. They had their dream of Zion, and they were on their way to fulfill it.

There is no doubt that the early Mormons referenced here by Hinckley endured much hardship and suffering. Even so, however, their sacrifice does not mean theirs was a sacrifice for the truth. In Matthew 16:26 Jesus said, “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?” And I say, “What good is it for someone to sacrifice so much—even out of love for their family—yet forfeit their soul?” These ancestors may be venerated by future generations, but if what they believed was false, shouldn’t their example be used for future generations to not make the same mistake again?

I am trodding on sacred ground, I realize. Again, if you are a Latter-day Saint, I am not attempting to minimize the sacrifices made by your ancestors who came to America and or traveled across the plains to Utah. No doubt many of them were honest, hard-working people who wanted a better place to live and a chance to serve God, as they knew Him. Yet if the God as propagated by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young was not the God of the Bible, then should Mormonism be a religion people should follow? Not to be flippant, but I have read about those who belong to the FLDS church, the polygamist group with Warren Jeffs as the prophet. There are some innocent people who, to this day, belong to this group even though the religion may be falling apart. While many of them may be nice and unassuming–could it be these adherents even have relatives going back to 19th century Mormonism?–the Mormon will agree that this doesn’t mean these sincere folks belong to the true religion. Just because a person’s family stock goes back to the 19th century does not make the religion true. And isn’t truth more important than the faithfulness of one’s fore-bearers?

The rescue of the Willie and Martin handcart pioneers speaks of the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I take you back to … October 1856. On Saturday [October 4,] Franklin D. Richards and a handful of associates arrived in [the Salt Lake] valley. They had traveled from Winter Quarters with strong teams and light wagons and had been able to make good time. Brother Richards immediately sought out President Young. He reported that there were hundreds of men, women, and children scattered over the long trail … to [the Salt Lake] valley. Most of them were pulling handcarts. … Ahead of them lay a trail that was uphill all the way to the Continental Divide with many, many miles beyond that. They were in desperate trouble. … All of them would perish unless they were rescued.

I think President Young did not sleep that night. I think visions of those destitute … people paraded through his mind.

The next morning he … said to the people:

“I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak. … It is this. … Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles [1,100 kilometers] from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. The text will be, ‘to get them here.’

“That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people.

“I shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. Also 12 tons of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams.

“I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains” (in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion [1960], 120–21).

That afternoon food, bedding, and clothing in great quantities were assembled by the women.

The next morning, horses were shod and wagons were repaired and loaded.

The following morning, Tuesday, 16 mule teams pulled out and headed eastward. By the end of October there were 250 teams on the road to give relief.

When the rescuers reached the beleaguered Saints, they were like angels from heaven. People wept tears of gratitude. The handcart people were transferred into wagons so they could travel more quickly to the Salt Lake community.

Some two hundred died, but a thousand were saved.

Stories of [those] beleaguered Saints and of their suffering and death will be repeated again. … Stories of their rescue need to be repeated again and again. They speak of the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

… I am thankful that we do not have brethren and sisters stranded in the snow, freezing and dying, while trying to get to … their Zion in the mountains. But there are people, not a few, whose circumstances are desperate and who cry out for help and relief.

There are so many who are hungry and destitute across this world who need help. I am grateful to be able to say that we are assisting many who are not of our faith but whose needs are serious and whom we have the resources to help. But we need not go so far afield. We have some of our own who cry out in pain and suffering and loneliness and fear. Ours is a great and solemn duty to reach out and help them, to lift them, to feed them if they are hungry, to nurture their spirits if they thirst for truth and righteousness.

There are so many young people who wander aimlessly and walk the tragic trail of drugs, gangs, immorality, and the whole brood of ills that accompany these things. There are widows who long for friendly voices and that spirit of anxious concern which speaks of love. There are those who were once warm in the faith, but whose faith has grown cold. Many of them wish to come back but do not know quite how to do it. They need friendly hands reaching out to them. With a little effort, many of them can be brought back to feast again at the table of the Lord.

My brethren and sisters, I would hope, I would pray, that each of us … would resolve to seek those who need help, who are in desperate and difficult circumstances, and lift them in the spirit of love into the embrace of the Church, where strong hands and loving hearts will warm them, comfort them, sustain them, and put them on the way of happy and productive lives.

The story of the Willie and Martin Handcart companies has changed from one of failed prophecy and negligent (LDS) leadership into a faith-promoting legacy. To hear more about this, I encourage you to listen to a 5-part podcast series on this topic titled Willie and Martin Handcart Tragedy Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5  that aired January 14-18, 2013 along with an accompanying blog.

Each of us is a pioneer.

It is good to look to the past to gain appreciation for the present and perspective for the future. It is good to look upon the virtues of those who have gone before, to gain strength for whatever lies ahead. It is good to reflect upon the work of those who labored so hard and gained so little in this world, but out of whose dreams and early plans, so well nurtured, has come a great harvest of which we are the beneficiaries. Their tremendous example can become a compelling motivation for us all, for each of us is a pioneer in his own life, often in his own family, and many of us pioneer daily in trying to establish a gospel foothold in distant parts of the world.

We are still pioneering. We have never ceased pioneering from the time … that our people left Nauvoo and came … eventually into the valley of the Great Salt Lake. There was adventure in that. But the purpose of it was to find a place where they could establish themselves and worship God according to the dictates of conscience. …

Now, we are still reaching out across the world into places that [once] scarcely seemed possible to access. … I have witnessed personally the growth of the Church in the Philippines. It was my privilege to open the missionary work there in 1961, when we were able to find one native Filipino member of the Church in a meeting which we held in May of 1961. [In 1996] we were in Manila and had a congregation … of some 35,000 in that great Araneta Coliseum. … To me it is a miracle [from] when we opened the work in that great land of the Philippines.

We are reaching out everywhere, and that takes pioneering. Our missionaries do not live under the best of circumstances when they go to some of these areas, but they go forward and do their work, and it bears fruit. Before long we have a handful of members, then a hundred members, and then five hundred members, and then a thousand members.

The days of pioneering in the Church are still with us; they did not end with covered wagons and handcarts. … Pioneers are found among the missionaries who teach the gospel and they are found among the converts who come into the Church. It usually is difficult for each of them. It invariably involves sacrifice. It may involve persecution. But these are costs which are willingly borne, and the price that is paid is as real as was the price of those who crossed the plains in the great pioneering effort more than a century ago.

Whether you have pioneer ancestry or came into the Church only yesterday, you are a part of this whole grand picture of which those men and women dreamed. Theirs was a tremendous undertaking. Ours is a great continuing responsibility. They laid the foundation. Ours is the duty to build on it.

They marked the path and led the way. Ours is the obligation to enlarge and broaden and strengthen that path until it encompasses the whole earth. … Faith was the guiding principle in those difficult days. Faith is the guiding principle we must follow today.

The question I have is “faith in what?” The message given by Hinckley is emotional. It will no doubt resonate with many Latter-day Saints, whether or not they belong to pioneer stock. Many venerate the early Latter-day Saints for their sacrifice and commitment. Yet if these good folks were led to believe something is not true, should their ways of faith be followed? The issue shouldn’t be about heritage but rather truth. So much of Mormonism is not what it once appeared to be, as many Latter-day Saints have discovered that the Book of Mormon was not translated in the way many once thought, that the Book of Abraham was not translated in a “traditional” manner by Joseph Smith, and that Joseph Smith really did marry between 30-40 women in addition to his first wife. Unfortunately, we are seeing most who left the church do so because of questionable history; most of them seem to head immediately to atheism, with their faith burned and holding a nonexistent hope. This is a tragedy taking place in the name of religion. This chapter of this manual is nothing more than just an attempt by church leaders to help keep the long-time faithful members loyal based on their heritage. Too many Mormons would never think about leaving this religion because of the family lines and the disgrace they might bring upon the family name. As I asked earlier, if the root is dead, can anything good come from it? Truth trumps heritage any day of the week.

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