The Desert Shall Rejoice, and Blossom as the Rose

Today we’re going to do a little time travel and journey back to the late 1840s here in the shadow of the everlasting hills, where the deserts were deserts—not a blossoming rose anywhere—where the crickets were almost as hungry as the Saints.

We will discover how the majority of the Saints were obedient to their prophetic leaders as they colonized the intermountain west, and with much sweat and tears, laid the foundations of the communities in which we now live—as well as the foundations of the testimonies which beat in our hearts.

I pray that at some point during today’s lesson you will feel the Holy Spirit whisper to your soul that you truly have been blessed by the sacrifices of these early members and that you and I—the Saints of this generation—need to continue the legacy of faith and faithfulness so that those who follow us will be able to welcome the Savior back to the world he created.

Building the Kingdom of God

A few weeks ago, I taught a lesson about the aftermath of the murder of the Smith brothers and how, in part, it was related to one of the revealed doctrines that separates our church from many protestant faiths. Which is this: we believe that the literal Kingdom of God will be established on the earth and that it will operate under the direction of the priesthood authority restored through the Prophet Joseph.

Furthermore, we believe that this same prophet has introduced us to sacred ordinances which enable those who endure the tests of mortality and remain faithful to their covenants to be ordained as kings and queens to governmentally rule over their own kingdom, populated with their own eternal offspring, as well as serve as priests and priestesses to these children as they lead and administer by the power and authority of the holy priesthood.

But at all times, presiding over all the kingdoms inhabited by his sons and daughters is the Great Elohim, the Man of Holiness, the father of us all, and at his side is the Prince of Peace, the Son Ahman, Jesus the Christ, who will personally rule and reign on this earth throughout the great millennium—a thousand years of peace that begins soon—in fact, it begins tomorrow.

Now this is a very unique notion. Most churches think this paradisiacal theocracy is something to be organized on the other side—within the pearly gates. But, in fact, it was to be organized in the here and now. Joseph Smith wasn’t just restoring the Church of Jesus Christ, he was restoring Jesus as the proper head of the earth’s government.

When the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit appeared to Joseph, followed by a succession of at least 139 different angelic visitors over hundreds of appearances that we know of—these celestial beings were the ones at the top of the mountain who cut free the rock that would roll down the mountain to eventually fill the entire earth—just as Daniel had dreamt 2400 years earlier.

In fact, Joseph once said:

I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world. I once offered my life to the Missouri mob as a sacrifice for my people, and here I am. It will not be by sword or gun that this kingdom will roll on: the power of truth is such that all nations will be under the necessity of obeying the Gospel. (HC 6:365)

He further taught:

Whenever men can find out the will of God and find an administrator legally authorized from God, there is the kingdom of God; but where these are not, the kingdom of God is not. All the ordinances, systems, and administrations on the earth are of no use to the children of men, unless they are ordained and authorized of God; for nothing will save a man but a legal administrator; for none others will be acknowledged either by God or angels. (HC, 5:256)

Even though the Saints had been driven out of New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois because of their intention to build up the kingdom, the majority were still undaunted. They decided it would be best to build it up as far away from the state governments who failed to protect their rights to assemble and worship.

And so they went to the Great Basin—a vast place that included nearly all of present-day Utah and Nevada, large portions of California and Arizona, and parts of Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon. While it was inhabited by tens of thousands of nomadic indigenous people, most American settlers saw it as a dreary place stuck between more desirable destinations. But Brigham Young knew that this was the right place to build up the kingdom.

Founding Principles

The prophet believed that if the Kingdom of God was going to be built in the west, the pioneers would need to be very much like the honeybees—industrious and largely self-sufficient. That’s why he named this desert territory, Deseret, after the Jaredite word for honeybee.

Part of the reason that this was the right place was because of its isolation—it took weeks to get to the nearest trading post and months to get to the nearest city.  There were no Walmarts, no Home Depots, no Amazon next-day delivery. If you couldn’t make something do, you would do without. And so many, many did.

The day after President Young arrived in the valley was Sunday, the Sabbath, July 25, 1847. Near the end of the worship service, President Young spoke to the congregation and introduced some of the rules that would govern their new society.

First, he informed the brethren that they must not work, hunt, or fish on Sunday. This was to be the law in the Salt Lake valley. Those who could not abide by this counsel were invited to go and live elsewhere else.

Then he said:

No man should buy or sell land. Every man should have his land measured off to him for city and farming purposes, what he could till. He might till it as he pleased, but he should be industrious and take care of it. (CHC, 3:269)

He also declared that there would be no private ownership of water streams. Wood and timber would be regarded as community property. Only dead timber was to be used for fuel.

Now all of these were important principles. Thousands of people were planning on migrating to the area and it was crucial that one group should not have advantage over the others.

Another foundational principle was the prominence of the temple. Three days later, Brigham Young and seven other members of the Twelve designated the site for the temple block around which everything else would built (CHC, 3:280). The temple and its sacred ordinances—which had in part gotten Joseph and Hyrum killed—was to be the center of their lives, both literally and figuratively.

Committees

The day after the temple site was determined, detachments of the Mormon Battalion and the Mississippi Saints arrived in the valley. There were about 140 from the battalion and 100 Mississippi Saints. This addition swelled the population of the valley to about 400.

Now the challenge was what to do with the people. Every single able-bodied adult was immediately assigned to work on a committee. Let me describe some of these committees to you.

The farming committee staked off 25 acres of land, plowed, harrowed it (which is essentially breaking up clods and smoothing out the surface), and then set up some basic irrigation from the canyon streams. Even though it was late in the season—too late as they would eventually find out—they planted potatoes, corn, oats, etc.

The surveying committee laid out the city in 135 ten-acre blocks, with the temple block in the center as I mentioned. Lots were divided up, streets laid out, creeks named, regulations for sidewalks and houses were devised. One block was selected for the construction of a stockade where the pioneers could live until permanent structures could be built.

The building committee was large and had lots of projects. First up was to build a fort. It was a one-block enclosed area to house and protect the pioneers. They called it the Old Fort. It was soon discovered that it would not be sufficient to hold the large number entering the valley in 1847 and two additional forts were constructed, one on the north and one on the south.

The building committee also started building cabins made with adobe or logs. The roofs consisted of poles, brush, and earth. Because they believed the climate was so dry, the roofs were made too flat and they leaked badly when the winter and early spring rains fell.

The logging committee was assigned to locate timber in the canyons for construction, build a logging road, set up a blacksmith shop, build some corrals, and build a community storehouse.

If you were on the hunting committee you had your work cut out for you. For example, in one eight-day period the committee only bagged 1 hare, 1 badger, 1 white wolf, 3 sage hens, and 4 fish. It was definitely not enough fresh protein for 400 people.

The members of the salt committee came up with 125 bushels of course white salt and 1 barrel of fine table salt.

Because Brigham Young knew that the kingdom must expand beyond the Great Salt Lake Valley, an exploring committee was established. Explorers were sent to Weber, Cache, Utah, Cedar, and Tooele Valleys. The Mormon Battalion brought information concerning the northern route over the Sierra from Sacramento. Some of the brethren were commissioned to return to California via the southern route.

Because they were already short on supplies and knew that those who followed them would also be even more short of supplies, there was a provisioning committee established. Their job was to make contact with members of the church and figure out what materials and supplies they had and then go to trading posts, such as Fort Hall up in Idaho to obtain more provisions. They were also sent back on the trail to assist the larger company that was following a few weeks behind.

They also formed a government. The Twelve called a stake president and a high council to be the leaders. After they were sustained by the people, they organized the colonial government. They also appointed a clerk, a watermaster, a surveyor, and a marshal.

There were other committees too—and still more that would be organized in the future—but you get the gist.

Unlike most groups of pioneers headed west, the Mormon pioneers possessed something different. You see they had made sacred covenants that they would consecrate everything to build up the kingdom of God, and so rather than just focusing on their own families and acquiring their own stuff and planting their own gardens—they were given ample opportunities to help each other. This would prove to be their advantage over other communities and would greatly bless their lives—just as the Lord promised.

Soon after the basic committees were organized, preparation was started for the return of two companies back to Winter Quarters to assist in the migration west. The first group included one apostle, 23 pioneers and 46 battalion members and 34 wagons. They left on August 16, a little more than three weeks after arriving. Ten days later, a second group of 107 pioneers and battalion members left, including Brigham Young, Heber Kimball, and five of the apostles. None of the Twelve were left in the valley, although Parley Pratt and John Taylor were presently leading companies that would arrive in the next few weeks. The apostles felt it was important that they personally organize the 16,000 Saints who were waiting in Winter Quarters for next year’s trek. Besides, Brigham had plans to send a number of apostles on missions the following year.

Winter ‘47

In 1847 there were a total of 11 companies that trekked to the Salt Lake Valley. In total there were about 2,000 emigrants. The last group arrived on October 10. Of those that arrived, 15% went back to Winter Quarters to help others.

This first winter was mild—compared to Nebraska—but food shortages developed. Part of the reason for this was that too many had been allowed to join the second contingent which left Winter Quarters in 1847.

Furthermore, because the planted fields weren’t fenced in yet, the cattle and horses eventually got into the planted acreage and destroyed everything but the potatoes.

And there were also some troublemakers amidst the Northwestern Shoshone and Ute tribes to the north and south of them, who occasionally helped themselves to scores of pioneer horses and livestock.

And then there were the wolves and cougars and other wild beasts who made off with the livestock.

As a result, a voluntary rationing system of eight ounces of flour per day was instituted.

Dr. Priddy Meeks wrote of their desperate conditions:

My family went several months without a satisfying meal of victuals. I went sometimes a mile up Jordan to a patch of wild roses to get the berries to eat which I would eat as rapidly as a hog, stems and all. I shot hawks and crows and they ate well. I would go and search the mire holes and find cattle dead and fleece off what meat I could and eat it. We used wolf meat, which I thought was good. I made some wooden spades to dig seagoes [Sego Lily] with, but we could not supply our wants.

We had to exert ourselves to get something to eat. I would take a grubbing-hoe and a sack and start by sunrise in the morning and go, I thought six miles before coming to where the thistle roots grew, and in time to get home I would have a bushel and sometimes more thistle roots. And we would eat them raw. I would dig until I grew faint and sit down and eat a root, and then begin again. I continued this until the roots began to fail. (Great Basin Kingdom, p49)

Can you imagine what your children would say if they opened the refrigerator and found leftover crow and thistle roots? Was this sacrifice worth it? It kind of begs the question as to what you and I are willing to sacrifice for the kingdom.

Spring ‘48

In the spring, just as the winter wheat and garden vegetables began to spring up, a late frost injured a considerable portion of the crop. This was to be the crop for the harvest of 1848.

To make things even worse, in May and June, hordes of flightless hungry anabrus simplex katydids—Mormon crickets—swarmed across the western deserts to feast upon the fresh fields. A battle was waged against the crickets using every available tool including sticks, shovels, brooms, and gunny sacks. All this was done with little success.

The “Black Philistines” as the crickets were called:

Mowed their way even with the ground, leaving it as if touched with an acid or burnt by fire. (Great Basin Kingdom, p49)

Holes were dug several feet across. The crickets were surrounded by women and children and driven into them and buried, bushels at a time. It was done again and again, but seemed not to affect the numbers of these creatures.

Ditches were plowed around the wheat fields, filled with water, carried to the running streams, and drowned the pests by the hundreds of thousands. Fire was tried. There was nothing the Saints could do to stop them. Wrote BH Roberts:

He might as well try to sweep back the rising tide of the ocean with a broom as prevail against these swarming pests by the methods tried. (CHC, 3:331)

I can’t help but wonder how the Saints felt about this after they had sacrificed their homes back east and now lived on the edge of starvation. Once again, they demonstrate to us that this life is a time of near constant challenges. Just when we think we’ve “arrived”, we are faced with another crisis. How we respond, of course, is what really matters.

As the battle with the crickets was being lost, Apostle Charles C. Rich announced:

Brethren, we do not want you to part with your wagons and teams for we might need them. (Church News, May 16, 1998).

The indication was that the Saints might pull out and move to more hospitable country (such as California). But at the moment this announcement was issued, legions of those famous bulimic seagulls, a species known as the larus californicus, flew in and began to devour the bugs, then regurgitated, and ate some more. This feast continued for two weeks—saving some of the crops—but more importantly changing hearts and strengthening faith.

Even after this miraculous event, there were still some that questioned the validity of staying in the valley. In fact, Brigham Young’s brother wanted to send an express party to President Young telling him to not bring any more Saints for “they would all starve to death.”

But that wasn’t the plan of the Brethren. On October 11, the last of three companies arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, bringing the population to almost 5000, which is a frighteningly large number when you consider the near starvation the Saints experienced the previous year.

Winter ‘48

Sadly, that year the winter was far more severe that the previous year, and the natural predators took down a hefty portion of the livestock, leaving the Saints with yet another food shortage.

To help deal with the predators and feed the population, the local government, now led by the Council of Fifty, sponsored a hunt in which 800 wolves, 400 foxes, 2 wolverines, 2 bears, 2 wildcats, and 37 minks were killed. Also, hawks, owls, eagles, and crows. As an incentive, for each wolf skin or fox skin you brought in, you would receive one dollar from the tithing funds.

That year, just like the previous year, many survived on rawhides, sego roots, and thistles. Things got so grim that church leaders wrote back to Winter Quarters indicating that emigrants should not be allowed to come to Salt Lake without sufficient provisions for the next winter.

The city was divided into nineteen wards and the bishop was instructed to provide for the poor in their wards. Each person with a surplus was asked to turn it over to the bishop for distribution among the needy.

The Gold Rush

In the midst of this great need, at a time when the Saints were short of food and supplies and money in which to buy what they couldn’t produce, the Lord wasn’t about to forget his covenant people. And, like he did repeatedly throughout the scriptures, he used gentiles to bring forth the blessings.

A year earlier, Brigham Young encouraged some members of the recently disbanded Mormon Battalion to stay where they were in California to work to earn money that they could take back to their families. A number of them found work building a sawmill for a man by the name of John Sutter. On January 24, 1848, after blasting a channel in the rock, one of Sutter’s men found something glittering in the water—gold.

Interestingly, the Battalion members didn’t seem to be too impressed. They dutifully fulfilled their contract with Sutter even when others left to find their buried treasure. When some of them used some gold to buy some goods in a store owned by Brother Sam Brannan, the man in charge of a group of Saints who sailed on the ship Brooklyn to San Francisco, enterprising Sam bought up all of the picks, shovels and pans he could find and then run up and down the streets of San Francisco shouting “Gold! Gold on the American River!” He paid 20 cents each for the pans, then sold them for $15 apiece. In nine weeks, he made $36,000 and became California’s first millionaire. And thus began the California Gold Rush.

Even though the Saints from the Battalion and the Brooklyn were in a position where they could have staked significant claims in the gold fields and earned fortunes, most followed the counsel of the prophet and continued to gather in Utah. They believed the prophet when he said that the Salt Lake Valley was “a good place to make Saints, and it is a good place for Saints to live; it is the place the Lord has appointed, and we shall stay here, until He tells us to go somewhere else.” In fact, President Young promised that those who come to Utah would do better than those who went in search of gold (CHC, 3:348).

In encouraging the Saints to remain and while they were still struggling with avoiding starvation, Heber C. Kimball prophesied that within a short time “goods would be sold in the streets of Salt Lake City cheaper than in New York, and that the people could be abundantly supplied with food and clothing.” (CHC 3:349)

And so it came to pass. More than 25,000 gold seekers went through Salt Lake City on their way to California in 1849 and 1850. They provided to the Saints much needed capital and supplies as well as jobs for the blacksmiths, wagon smiths, teamsters, laundresses, and millers.

And finally, unlike the earlier struggles, the harvests of 1849 and 1850 were sufficient to provide for the ever-increasing numbers of Saints migrating to the Valley. A migration that continued on and on, until 50 years later almost 100,000 had entered the valleys of the everlasting hills.

After the first ten years in Great Basin, 96 settlements had been organized including Las Vegas and San Bernardino. By the end of the 19th Century, at least 500 communities in the Great Basin had been settled by the Latter-day Saints.

Summary

Isn’t this a remarkable story? Of course this is just an intsy-wintsy part of our history. The challenges continued. There were droughts and floods and avalanches and more insect invasions. There was bitter cold and sweltering heat waves. There was more persecution from the government and persecution from anti-Mormons. There was tragedy on the trail and in families and between families. In fact, the challenges never really stopped—they just let up from time-to-time. None of the pioneers got out of this alive.

But as my pioneer ancestors bore witness to their children, and they to their children, and they to their children, and finally to me and my children—we can also say with faith that the journey is always worth it—because in the end, we will live happily ever after.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is the Kingdom of God on the earth. The Savior leads His church. He inspires his prophets. We have at our fingertips the inspired words of millennias of holy men and women who know that Jesus is the Christ, and it is by him and through him that we will find eternal life—but only if we really want it.

This is all true. This is not a fairy tale. But it is a tale worth telling over and over again.

I am a teacher in my local Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saint congregation. This lesson was presented on 22 September 2017 and corresponds with lesson 36 in the LDS Gospel Doctrine: Doctrine and Covenants and Church History class.

References

  • Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints by B.H. Roberts (CHC).
  • Great Basin Kingdom by Leonard J. Arrington.
  • History of the Church (HC).
  • Lion of the Lord: Essays on the Life and Service of Brigham Young edited by Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter.
  • Men To Match My Mountains by Irving Stone.
  • Bill Beardall, http://beardall2000.com/dc/ch36.htm

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