I come from Mormon pioneer stock, on both sides of my family tree. Pioneer stories are woven into the fabric of my childhood. Our parents loved to regale us with tales of bravery and courage exhibited by those who abandoned hearth and home in pursuit of religious freedom.
I wasn’t a fan of such stories as a youth. I always felt that I didn’t measure up in some crucial way. I didn’t load my belongings into a handcart and pull it across the plains; any complaint of mine seemed trivial in comparison.
“Pioneer children sang as they walked”…. singing this song in primary didn’t make me admire those legendary children who didn’t complain and whine as they left bloody footprints on the trail. Rather, I felt resentment that their example was being held up as the epitome of faithful childhood. I mean, come on! Any ancestor of mine had to have bitched and moaned and, to use their vernacular, murmured. Any singing was under duress. I can imagine my pioneer great-great-great-great-great grandmother hissing to her young daughter as they walked beside the wagon, telling her to “Buck up, buttercup! Your ancestors braved worse than you are being called to bear! Stop that whining before I give you something to really cry about! Here comes Brother Brigham… act happy!!”
Replace “Brother Brigham” with “the bishop”, and you have my childhood in a pew.
Several years ago, when I was mostly a believer, I took my own young family to Nauvoo, the birthplace of these tales of courage and perseverance. We walked through the restored town, eventually wandering down the road that led to the great Mississippi. We paused at the spot from which these brave pioneers launched the ferry that took them across the icy river, seeking refuge from the mobocrats who sought their destruction. I watched my own small daughter play at the water’s edge, and felt, for just a moment, what my ancestor must have felt as she contemplated the journey ahead. What lay behind, clouded in controversy from my vantage point today, spurred this faithful mother to take her young family, including a newborn, into an unknown wilderness. She believed strongly in the doctrine as she had learned it, and fervently wished for nothing more than the space in which to live the principles of the gospel she loved. She did it for her little ones, those to whom she wished to impart her faith and love for this church to which she had converted, leaving her own family and loved ones behind.
I don’t know all the particulars of the life she was leaving, but I imagine her own family, her parents and siblings, did not understand her new faith, and grieved her departure from the beliefs and practices with which she had been raised. Her happiness was their sorrow.
I have grown up under the shadow of this great sacrifice, and have often felt inadequate in the face of their bravery. My ancestors squared their shoulders and said goodbye to all they knew as they faced a frightening and unknown world. I have been admonished time and again to follow their lead and face my future with dauntless determination, “with faith in every footstep”, honoring their sacrifice by holding fast to the tenets of that same faith.
My own journey hasn’t been laced with the hardships of a trek across a hostile wilderness, but I, too, am a pioneer. I have had to square my shoulders and face my loved ones with the news that I have abandoned their faith, and am striking out on my own.
My parents had (and have) a rock-solid faith in Mormonism. They raised us with hope that we would follow their example. That I managed to do so for almost 50 years is a testament to the strength of their faith. But for most of those 50 years, I struggled with doubt. I always managed to come back to faith in the gospel, in part because I couldn’t bear to disappoint my parents. I knew they would feel like failures if I rejected what was most precious to them. But, ultimately, it came down to integrity. I could not continue to profess a belief in that which I did not believe to be true.
It took me three years to get the courage to face my mother with my disbelief. Looking into her eyes and telling her that I did not believe in the church, and no longer considered myself to be religious, was the single most difficult thing I have ever had to do. Seeing the pain in her eyes, and hearing the grief in her voice, knowing that I was the cause of her distress, is a torment I hope to never have to repeat in this lifetime.
Think that didn’t take courage?
I didn’t walk for miles across the wilderness, and I didn’t struggle to provide food and shelter for my little ones in hostile territory, and I didn’t leave my loved ones in shallow graves alongside the trail, but I do know what it is to strike out into unknown territory. I do know the pain of disavowing the faith of my fathers. I do know what it feels like to break my mother’s heart by rejecting that which was most precious to her.
I can see the hubris in comparing myself to the much venerated pioneers of yore, but, in the words of Coco Chanel, “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
I am thinking for myself, aloud, and while it has brought me to a place of peace, and, dare I say, happiness, I know that my joy is my mother’s sorrow. I don’t take her grief lightly, but I am, as my pioneer forebears, willing to risk pain in pursuit of truth.
I am following in the footsteps of my courageous ancestor, honoring her quest for the right to live according to the dictates of her own conscience.
I, too, am a pioneer.