by Erin Weist
The month of July is an important one for the United States in remembering freedom from tyranny: Independence Day remembers our separation from the monarchy of Great Britain. But people in my state also celebrate a similar date in July. Utah celebrates July 24th as “Pioneer Day,” a celebration of the settling of the state by pioneers who traveled across the nation in search of freedom.
Mormon pioneers had endured great religious hardship from their fellow Americans, particularly for their Biblical practice of polygamy. (Note: this practice was discontinued in 1890.) Going against the social views of the day, they were distrusted and chased from town to town, the Governor of Missouri even signing an official executive order calling for the extermination of the Mormons. Eventually they settled in their own city of Nauvoo, Illinois, where they hoped to finally stay. However, this respite was short-lived as tensions continued to escalate and their leader, Joseph Smith, was ultimately killed by a mob. Finally, the Mormons decided the only way to attain true religious freedom was to leave the country. They settled in the valley containing the Great Salt Lake, which at the time was still Mexican territory. These religious refugees arrived in the area that is now Utah on July 24, 1847; hence, this celebration now called “Days of 47” full of songs, parades, rodeos, and fireworks. Those religious refugees stayed in that territory and grew and prospered without any further fear of attack.
Eventually that Mexican territory was acquired by the United States and Utah finally attained official statehood shortly before the turn of the century. This history of the Mormon pioneers stands as a tribute to the importance of religious freedom as the basis for any truly free people. It also stands as a warning of what can happen to a group of people who disagree with the majority and fail to mold to society’s standards. Although Mormons no longer practice polygamy, they are among the Christians standing for traditional marriage between a man & a woman and the persecution today is indeed great. Likewise, Europe is now being flooded with desperate refugees from war but a great number of those fled because of their religious beliefs. History stands as an important tool for those willing to learn from it. How we will treat refugees of any kind in our midst? How will we treat those with different religious beliefs? Indeed, how will we stand for our own beliefs amidst persecution? These decisions may directly affect the path of people and nations for generations to come, we would do well to learn from history and choose cooperation over combat.