Mormon Practice of Ancestor Worship

Riding in the Shadows of Saints:

A Woman’s Story of Motorcycling the Mormon Trail
By Jana Richman
New York: Crown; by John Freeman; $24.95; 299 pages

When Brigham Young’s followers began heading westward to escape persecution in 1846, there was no Interstate to carry them, no GPS devices to consult in a pinch, no streetlamps to light the way. There was hardly even a map. Starved and nearly broken, Young could only lead by example of his own sacrifice. Privation had chiseled him down to the bone, the buttons of his coat “lapped over twelve inches” to fit his new frame, according to author/historian Sally Denton.

Considering these hardships—not to mention those weathered by her ancestors—Jana Richman’s decision to re-travel the Mormon Trail to better understand her faith seems a well-intentioned but somewhat melodramatic gesture. Back in 1846, the Mormons were ragtag religious misfits; today they belong to one of the richest churches in the world. Back then, they traveled by foot and wagon; Richman made her journey on a BMW motorcycle. What exactly will roadside diners and museums tell her about the past? How will she re-create that danger—by riding without a helmet? And isn’t danger re-created for the purpose of historical empathy a kind of campy emotional voyeurism?

One of the surprising and refreshing things about Riding in the Shadows of Saints is that Richman takes on these questions and more, even obsesses about them. As she navigates from Nauvoo, Ill., to Salt Lake City, stopping and visiting friends and strangers along the way, she also manages to squeeze in a short narrative history of Young’s exodus to “Zion.” It may not be the most impartial history, but the fact that she manages to juggle all these narrative torches is impressive.

It can also make for a neurotic ride that zigzags from tearful account of her ancestors’ voyage to descriptions of motorcycle nitty-gritty aiming for Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance-style resonance. “I suck at U-turns on a motorcycle,” Richman announces at one point. “It’s not a technical problem; it’s a psychological problem. I know all the rules … Technically, I’ve got it down. Psychologically, I’m a mess.”

The more Richman reveals here, the more the reader can appreciate why this might be the case—in a lot of ways. The child of a devout Mormon mother and a virulently disbelieving father, she pingpongs back and forth from self-conscious independence to guilt over leaving the heritage of her mother and grandmother behind. Halfway into the journey, she pulls over, pulls out a stone she picked up in Nauvoo, and has a good cry. “I take the stone in my hand and remind myself that my mother is praying for me.” And then she prays for the first time in a long while.

As this passage might show, Saints can feel like a willful attempt to kindle the flame of belief, an instinct that colors Richman’s depiction of history. Pioneers are all “Saints”; just once does Richman find room to mention the presence of American Indians along this trail, and only then as a threat. It’s an astonishing oversight in light of Richman’s excitement over seeing “wagon ruts” from back then. Not surprisingly, there is also no mention of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, which recently has been the source of several books, not to mention court cases in Utah.

But then again, this is not a book about history—as Richman repeats several times in her bibliography—but about faith, and faith is spun from legends, not facts. The westward exodus of the Mormons to Utah is one of the most powerful of all, so powerful it becomes a compass for Richman’s life. “I started this trip because my life had become narrow,” she writes at one point. “What started it was a sense of unease … of having shrugged off my fittings too nonchalantly without having really discerned what it was I was throwing aside.” This is admirable, and watching her wrestle with her faith can be inspiring. But as with all corrective gestures, she shrugs off just as much in the process.


Mormon leader praises courage and faith of handcart pioneers

The Associated Press
Salt Lake Tribune

June 12, 2006

    IOWA CITY, Iowa - Mormon church President Gordon B. Hinckley praised the courage and determination of the handcart pioneers Sunday, saying their trek from Iowa to Utah 150 years also serves as a lesson in the power of faith.

    Hinckley, who will be 96 later this month, spoke at the closing ceremony of a three-day symposium on the Mormon Handcart Trek. Last Friday marked the 150th anniversary of the day the first group of newly converted Mormons, most having arrived weeks before from Europe, departed Iowa City, pushing and pulling their belongings in two-wheeled, wooden handcarts, on a 1,300-mile journey to the Salt Lake Valley

    Historians estimate that about 3,000 survived the ordeal, but about 250 died along the way from hunger, illness and exposure to early winter storms in Nebraska and Wyoming.

    Hinckley, the 15th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said the legacy and sacrifice of the pioneers is reflected in the church's modern day strength and mission.

    "We have become a power for good in the world, but we must ever look back to those who paid so terrible a price in laying the foundations of this great latter-day work," Hinckley, told more than 2,200 members from across the Midwest.

    "There is no chronicle of greater suffering and terrible experience than this chronicle. God bless their memories to those of us who live in comfort and ease," said Hinckley, who as president is revered by Mormons as a prophet.

    The pioneers were followed the first wave of Mormon immigrants who fled the East Coast in the early 1830s then later, in 1847, when they fled Nauvoo, Ill., after the shooting death of founder Joseph Smith. More than 70,000 Mormons cut a swath to Salt Lake City across the plains known as the Mormon Trail.

    Today, the church is one of the fastest growing in the world, with a membership of more than 12.5 million in 26,600 congregations across the world.

    In 1856, Iowa City marked the end of the railroad lines that brought the pioneers from Boston and New York. The pioneers spent their time here building handcarts and gathering provisions for the journey across the Great Plains.

    Altogether, seven companies embarked on the trek in the summer of 1856. But two companies, known as the Willie and Martin companies, didn't leave until July and paid a steep price by October winter weather closed in as they reached western Nebraska and the mountains in southern Wyoming.

    Hinckley, now in his 11th year as head of the church, said while none of his ancestors were part of the handcart trek, his family is no stranger to the perils of the Mormon migration.

    Hinckley said his grandfather was a member of a wagon company that ventured west in 1850. It was near Fort Kearney, Neb., that his grandfather's wife and brother died after a bout with cholera.

    Hinckley also noted how tragedy struck the ancestors of his late wife, Marjorie Pay Hinckley, who died in 2004. A woman named Mary Penfold Goble, one of the 1856 handcart pioneers, died just before entering the Salt Lake Valley.

    The Mormon migration stands out in America's western expansion because its motivation had nothing to do with fortune or making a living off the land, Hinckley said.

    "There were other movements, but all of these were for economic gain," Hinckley said. "the Mormon migration was religious in its purpose. There is nothing to compare to it."


‘The man who knew’

By Lindsay Kite

Thousands flock to Clarkston’s Martin Harris Pageant

CLARKSTON — When it was first performed as a community musical in 1983, few here might have guessed that “Martin Harris: The Man Who Knew” would one day draw crowds of almost 50 times the town’s population each August.

Around 30,000 people from near and far are expected to have visited the western Cache Valley town by the end of the performance’s run this year on Friday.

Known within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as one of the three witnesses of the origin and authenticity of the Book of Mormon, Martin Harris’s name is also recognized outside LDS circles due to the popular pageant and his gravesite monument in Clarkston.

“Maybe the majority of our visitors are Church members, but many aren’t,” town resident and event volunteer Glenda Dawson said. “We have all kinds of people coming from all over.”

In just one night, Dawson said she spoke with people from as far north as Canada and northern Idaho, south to Blanding, Utah, and Arizona, and as far east as Florida.

Visitors pack the Martin Harris Memorial Amphitheater each night, which sits alongside the Clarkston Cemetery and overlooks an elaborate wooden set portraying early-1800s homes and businesses in New York. The dramatic story, written by Cache Valley playwright Rhett James, performed by local volunteers and sponsored by the LDS Church, spans a three-week period at the end of every summer.

More than 2,700 people flooded into the town of 620 last Thursday night to see the story of Harris’ life and the Church’s origins — an unusually high turnout for a weekday show, but typical for this year, coordinators said.

“We’re packed full tonight,” one usher said as she rushed to seat late-comers. “We’re fitting people in there everywhere we can hang ’em — that’s how it will be every night, all 11 shows.”

Last Friday evening’s show even featured a bit of controversy, after a critic of the LDS Church was arrested for disorderly conduct.

Clarkston Mayor Boyd Pugmire said tickets are available for request online and by mail starting in February each year, but the show’s popularity means most of them are reserved by March.

Amazed at the popularity of the town tradition, Dawson says she’s not quite sure how so many people hear about the annual play or the community-sponsored dinner held each night of the performance.

“Every night they ask the audience how many are there for the first time and I’d say 90 percent raised their hands when I was there,” she said. “They must all go back and tell everyone how great it was, because there are people here from everywhere and we don’t do much advertising.”

Around 375 people filled the local church building for a $6 barbecue beef dinner last Wednesday night, with another 275 on Thursday. Dawson said “weekends are atrocious,” with 800 people served Saturday alone.

“The dinner is a town project, not a church project, and it takes everyone,” she said, noting everything from taking tickets, baking potatoes and laundering the costumes requires hundreds of volunteers every day. “This is a community endeavor. It’s hard this time of year with people leaving on vacations, but they always seem to come forth when they’re needed.” 

Note: You can make a lot of money off of Mormons who worship their ancestors!

Mormons Will Volunteer for Other Pagans Rituals

Virgin secret to good festival weather

The Associated Press

July 26, 2007

Organizers think they've found the secret to good weather for this weekend's Quick Chek New Jersey Festival of Ballooning - a virgin.

According to an imported superstition, good weather can be assured through a ceremony involving a virgin, some knives and fresh, whole onions and peppers.

And, no, Victoria Brumfield won't be sacrificed.

Festival organizer Howard Freeman said a colleague heard about it in Singapore several years ago. For the past two years, it has worked in Readington. Partly because of the superstition, Freeman no longer buys weather insurance for the event, which is expected to draw 175,000 people.

Brumfield, 28, has worked with Freeman in the past and is a devout Mormon, proud of her adherence to the church's rules, including not drinking, smoking, gambling or cursing - and no sex before marriage.

She became the festival's official virgin last year after her younger sister, who had that role in 2005, moved to California.

It's a mixture of "fun and embarrassment," she told the Star-Ledger of Newark.

Here's how she does it: She drives a golf cart to the four corners of the festival site, picks up some grass, mumbles some random words, then penetrates the produce with a knife before jamming it and the knives into the ground. The ritual was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.

The pressure is on this weekend. The National Weather Service says there's a chance of rain each of the three days of the festival, which was scheduled to start Friday.

No zippers, gel inserts on this epic trek

(Reenacting Mormon Ancestor Ignorance Within Reason)

Robert Kirby
Tribune columnist

    Independence Rock, Wyo. » I'm somewhere in Wyoming dressed in realistic Mormon pioneer garb: hat, suspenders, shirt, clodhoppers and a layer of sweat.

    Dressing like a pioneer was one of the prerequisites for tagging along with Sandy Canyon View Stake on its Mormon handcart trek re-enactment. The dress code for wandering aimlessly in the desert turned out to be stricter than the one for sitting in church.

    We were given a list of forbidden trek fashions: no blue jeans, baseball caps, Grateful Dead T-shirts, bikinis, parachute pants, surfer shorts, etc. Participants were asked to carefully attire themselves in the manner of their stalwart ancestors.

    A certain amount of realism is important in any re-enactment. If pioneer dress was called for, I would strive to give them exactly that.

    I shopped around for a granny dress, bonnet, apron and brogans, but none in my size could be found. Apparently even your really stalwart Mormon pioneer women weren't as stalwart as me.

    Most illustrations of pioneers show guys sporting enough facial hair to stuff mattresses, so I tried growing a beard. After two weeks I looked like a badly radiated gorilla. I shaved it off but kept the usual mustache. My upper lip hasn't seen sunlight in 30 years.

    Rounding up the necessary clothing took some work. I don't have suspenders or pioneer shirts just hanging in my closet. The farthest back my wardrobe extends is to the disco era.

    Fortunately, once word got out that I was going on the trek, tips from past trekkers poured in. They directed me to Western clothing stores, Deseret Industries, military surplus outlets and even Dumpsters.

    I found a hat immediately. It looks very pioneer-ish. Unfortunately, it's also 100 percent wool. I wore it on a long afternoon walk last week. It certainly blocked the sun but kept me no cooler than if I had sewn a brim around a yak.

    Shirt and trousers were easy. I found them in a second-hand store. The shirt previously belonged to a member of a mariachi band, but it was OK once I cut the sequins off. The pants appear to be ex-Ukrainian army issue.

    I also heard from historical purists, or people commonly referred to as "deranged." One told me I should avoid any clothing with snaps, zippers, plastic buttons, Velcro and collars. None of these items were invented in 1856.

    Another historical anal-yst said I wouldn't get the full trek experience unless I treated the re-enactment as a "re-exactment."

    When asked about the Dr. Scholl's Massaging Gel inserts I planned to put in my boots, his response was a scathing list of things the Mormon pioneers did without in order to cross the plains - air mattresses, foot powder, Pepto-Bismol, sunscreen, insect repellent, etc.

    Know what else the Mormon pioneers did without while crossing the plains? Temperance. The Word of Wisdom didn't become serious LDS Church policy until long after Zion was settled.

    So, if I couldn't bring Dr. Scholl along because he wasn't historically accurate, I was bringing Captain Morgan and Jose Cuervo.

    Fortunately, the people in charge of this trek have much better hats. Cooler heads pointed out that the trek experience is supposed to be faithful to history within reason.

    I wish they told me that before I cut the zipper out of these pants.