Saturday, January 10, 2009

O pioneers!

Mormon veneration of the pioneers bothers me.

I’m not bothered by them being a part of the cultural and religious history of the church, and being discussed in that way, but i am bothered by two main parts of the way Mormon culture (at least in the US—i don’t know if this is the case elsewhere) deals with the concept of pioneers:

(1) A strong (but hopefully fading, at least in most geographic areas the church is in) cultural belief that the Mormon pioneers were super-fantastically righteous and most excellent people. Actually, i don’t see that in itself as a Bad Thing (though i’d argue it isn’t as true as some would like it to be) as long as it doesn’t get carried too far, but pretty much anything can get carried too far, and it seems to me that many Mormons do carry it too far—the most obvious case being the assumption that, since the Mormon pioneers were such most excellent and righteous (in both senses) dudes and dudines,* therefore their descendants have an inside track to excellentness and righteousness.

(2) The myopic lens through which Mormons view the concept of what a “pioneer” is. It scares me how few Mormons realize that the Mormon pioneers were actually a significant but still very small minority of the American pioneers. Remember, folks, it’s Nebraska that has Conestoga wagons on its state road signs, not Utah!

Actually, i’ll add a third one, which i think is actually related to (2), so i’ll call it

(2a) A need to extend the concept of “pioneer” beyond its usable scope. My parents, for example, weren’t pioneers—they were Southern Marylanders who happened to join the church back when it was still a really, really tiny presence there. There is nothing handcart about them, believe me. Trying to lump them in as “pioneers” is kind of insulting to both them and the mid-nineteenth century Mormon pioneers, i think.**

* Yes, according to the Oxford English Dictionary that’s the original feminine form.

**I guess what really bugs me most about my (2a) is that strikes me as an attempt to use a word to have it both ways—there are “The Pioneers”, and then there’s sort of a “oh, heck yeah, we’ll let you sit at our table, too”, but with what i see as a commonly-implied “if you really must intrude on our perfect Pioneer-descent society”. That’s overstating it, of course, but i really do think there’s some of that attitude around.


Heather the Mama Duk said...

But, you see, we simply must be very impressed with the pioneers. After all, if you can find one single pioneer in your history, you are automatically guaranteed entrance into the celestial kingdom. Yes, I have been told this. By more than one person. With straight faces.

Though, I'm all for the Utahns loving their pioneers because it gets them an extra holiday right when they need one. That end of July/early August time just begs for a day off. Brigham Young couldn't have planned the arrival any better. (Side note: this is also why I am for an Obama holiday falling on August 4th - his birthday).

And I am so using dudine from now on.

Michelle said...

In our branch here in Romania, the members DO view the American Mormon pioneers as perfect people to be looked up to and emulated. Jim has made many comments during Sunday School (we were studying Church History in the fall) to remind the members here of the (sometimes huge) faults and failings of some of the pioneers. It always makes me smile a little to myself, since Jim has several family members who were in Nauvoo and Winter Quarters. One of his great-great-grandfathers had 4 wives in Paris, Idaho (thus the billions of cousins that Jim has). I have to admit it's refreshing to have a descendent of pioneers reminding people that the pioneers were just people. Some of the Romanians refuse to accept that idea, though. And the members here love to call themselves pioneers.