Mormon teens find deeper faith while re-enacting pioneers’ trek across America
When a devout flock of Mormon pioneers set out on foot in 1846, they embarked on an involuntary 3,000-mile trek through snow and mud after the violent death of their leader and under threat of an extermination order.
When local Mormons re-enacted the historic Western trek last week, many teens reluctantly took part as well — under threat of parental disappointment.
Yet by the time the 123 teens from the Charleston Stake’s 11 parishes gathered at the end of their journey, toes numb and shoes soggy, many gave tearful testimony to their strengthened faith.
Phoebe Rudolph, 14, recalled when the rain began and she hauled her supplies alone, her pack tearing, her frustration building. Then she and the 10 other teens in her randomly assigned trek “family” began working together to carry their gear and push their handcart over three days and 20 miles of mud-engorged trails through the Francis Marion National Forest.
“It was symbolic to me of how if we work together in life, we get through things that are hard,” says Rudolph, a West Ashley resident. “If we don’t, we just get stuck.”
For many members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, that lesson holds special meaning. They live their faith amid a culture that, at times, remains leery of their beliefs, even though they have grown into the nation’s fourth-largest, and fastest-growing, Christian group.
Times have changed. But the lessons these teens learned about faith, perseverance and family haven’t.
Most arrive strangers to one another and to the adults they’ll call Ma and Pa for the next three days. Some are excited to embark on the trek, held once every four years.
Others are less enthused. Because shortly after they arrive at a tiny rural church in Huger, the rain begins.
They amass at sunrise and are quickly driven into the woods by a re-enacted mob. Someone reads a historic 1838 order signed by Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs:
“The Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary, for the public good. Their outrages are beyond description.”
The mob, including two horses, chases the campers out, scattering them into their “families,” symbolizing the start of the real Mormon Trail, which stretched from Illinois to Utah.
Charleston Stake President Les Cooper, insurance agent by day, plays Brigham Young, who led the pioneers.
Each family happens upon four giant wagon wheels and boards to construct handcarts to carry their supplies and gear.
But as the rain falls, the puddles deepen. And deepen. The dirt trails become mud deep enough to gulp down wagon wheels. Teens in pioneer dress slip into mud and tumble into cold, waste-high muck.
Tanner Price, who is about to turn 17, begged his parents not to send him on the trek.
And after plodding through mud and rain, he turns downright frustrated. When they stop for lunch, hungry and tired, he gets little more than beef jerky and a clementine.
“That’s it!” he thinks.
Aggravated, he prays. And a feeling comes over him: Keep pushing on, keep trying hard.
So he, like the others, does so.
As they travel, families encounter people re-enacting historical events from the trail.
For instance, each family carries an infant (really a bag of sand) until women dressed in white emerge from the forest. These angels of death claim the infants to depict the loss of children to a cholera outbreak.
And at one point, all boys on the trek must step back. Only the girls can pull the large handcarts, a nod to when President James K. Polk needed 500 volunteers to fight with the Army in Mexico. A battalion of Mormon men enlisted, leaving women to journey without them.
Calvin Johnson sums it up: “What those pioneers went through is crazy.”
When they rise the last day, chilly dew coats their wet shoes and socks. But the bluebirds call out good morning as a vast tapestry of stars gives way to the crisp blue promise of dry weather.
They file down a path on the trek’s final morning, singing “Come, Come, Ye Saints,” a Mormon hymn about the journey’s hardships. The scent of fresh hay fills a clearing where they gather, bundled in blankets and jackets.
Gary Harrison, a stake patriarch from the West Ashley parish, reminds them to rely on Jesus and their Mormon family as they face life’s hardships.
“We’re all pioneers in a way,” Harrison adds.
He invites the teens to step forward to share their testimonies. One after another come up, dirty and often with tears.
As the sun skims the tops of woodland grasses around them, Chris Joyner recalls how at first his handcart felt pretty light. Then, as his family navigated deep mud and hit fallen trees and giant stumps, he realized how much help he needed.
“When you were just about to get over it was the hardest part. You just had to keep pushing. The only way to get over it is with help — from Christ and from others, even if it is just one person,” says Joyner, an 18-year-old Summerville resident. “You can never stop. You can never stop making progress.”
It’s not just the youths who better understand what it meant to suffer on the trail. One Pa passed a kidney stone during the trek.
Once it passed, he returned to the trek, plodding onward to the journey’s end.
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.