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LDS Church
Pioneers on a ship.
Thanksgiving is remembered for not only the harvest feast, but for opening the door of religion in America. In turn, it shaped America's history and values.

During Thanksgiving time Americans remember the Pilgrims as they celebrated their safe voyage to America and their first harvest in the new land. By eating turkey, mashed potatoes, yams and cranberry sauce Americans remember the Pilgrims' successful harvest.

Only that is completely wrong, according to LDS Church History Museum director Dr. Kurt Graham.

"The main thing to remember is that cranberries weren't cultivated in Massachusetts until the 19th century, so there was no cranberry sauce at the first Thanksgiving," he said. "Lets just make that clear."

Saying Pilgrims were the only group to celebrate Thanksgiving before it became a holiday is also a misconception. Puritans also celebrated it when they came over in 1630. So then why by default do Americans associate Thanksgiving with Pilgrims?

"Every school child thinks of the Pilgrim, the Mayflower and the Pilgrim experience," Graham said. "With the 1690 Salem witch trials, Puritans become this kind of symbol of this ugly side of the American experience, when you accuse your neighbor. So when we get around to sort of formalizing Thanksgiving, we can't use the Puritans, and so by default we grab the Pilgrim as our great symbol."

Because this time of year reflects on the voyagers to U.S. territory and overcoming hardships, it also draws many parallels to the European Mormon migration westward to Utah. Although Puritans and Mormons were in completely different time periods and under different circumstances, their similarities show American values.

"The notion of building a Zion-like community, a city upon a hill, an example or ensample to the world, a beacon on a hill is something both Mormonism and Puritanism holds to and have the area to do so," Graham said.

Pilgrims and Puritans: What's the difference?

The Pilgrims were the first religious group to travel from Holland after fleeing their home in England and the Church of England. Graham explained that they were labeled as "separatist" because they severed ties with the Church of England. The Pilgrims made their journey in 1620 on the Mayflower, landing on Plymouth Rock. They traveled to America in hopes of saving their cultural identity.

The Puritans came over 10 years later in 1630, landing in Massachusetts Bay and were members of the Church of England. Their reason for traveling over was to build a Zion-like society, and this is where the "City Upon the Hill" metaphor is born. Their hope was to show what a real Zion-like community could be and hoped to purify the church within, Graham explained.

How Mormonism ties in

Mormons crossed the Atlantic for religious reasons as well. In the book, "Saints on the Sea" by Conway B. Sonne, he writes about the two reasons European Saints left home for America.

"To the Mormons, the gathering was both spiritual and temporal. It was spiritual in that converts felt they were no longer lost sheep but had in truth been restored to the fold," he said. "On the other hand the gathering was temporal. It was a place, America, where the Saints could build the Kingdom of God and work out their own salvation without distractions."

Those that made this voyage during the 1850s included Jane Ann Fowler Sparks. Born Nov. 27, 1835, at Baughton Worcestershire, Old England, Sparks joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at the age of 17. Her autobiography and journal, found at the Church History Library in downtown Salt Lake City, accounts the hardships of leaving her family for Utah.

She writes, "To travel to Utah with no means and only my Heavenly Father for my friend, but I never felt happier in my life than I did at the time. My saddest grief was in leaving my dear mother and my only sister."

While on the boat, she summarizes, "Ellen Maria was the name of the ship we sailed on. Our captain's name was Whitmore. We were seven weeks on the sea. We had a rough voyage and came near being shipwrecked, but the Lord preserved us. We landed in New Orleans on the 7th day of March (1854)."

Other accounts in "Saints on the Seas" tell of the dangerous passage. Ann Pitchforth wrote in her diary, "the waves dashed down the hold into the interior of the vessel, hatchway then closed, all in utter darkness and terror, not knowing whether the vessel was sinking or not, none could tell — all prayed — and awful silence prevailed — sharks and sins presenting themselves and doubts and fears, one awful hour after another passing, we found we were not yet drowned."

However, unlike the Puritans and Pilgrims, the Saints still had a trek once they reached either New York or New Orleans. Sparks wrote of her hardships while traveling up towards Iowa and westward.

"We looked around the city (New Orleans), then went on the steamer at night to go up the river to St. Louis. That night I had a narrow escape from being drowned. I was within one step of stepping off the boat into the water, but it appeared like my guardian angel held me back... (Later on) we were on the banks of the river from there we could see Nauvoo and the ruins of the Temple."

She continues, "we traveled over three weeks thru plenty of mud holes and it was quite a time with unbroken cattle and green teamsters. There were 12 persons to a wagon and tent. Cyrus H. Wheelock was the captain of the company. We always rested on the Sabbath day and held our meetings; our captain was very much thought of. But long before we reached our journey's end our cattle gave out and commenced to die and we had to leave our boxes and lots of things to lighten our load."

According to "Saints on the Sea," some 8,600 Mormons emigrated to America. The average days of the voyage was 54 from Liverpool to New Orleans and 35 days from Liverpool to New York. The famous Brooklyn voyage was 177 days to San Francisco. It was a grueling experience, but because religion was the driving force in their lives, they endured it, similar to the Puritans.

"When you read Puritan journals, letters, when you understand who these people are, there is no question that they feel the Spirit as an active force in their lives," Graham said. "I think they feel God's reassurance and God's hands in their lives and that's what Latter-day Saint church history teaches us."

Thanksgiving is remembered for not only the harvest feast, but for opening the door of religion in America. In turn, it shaped America's history and values. The nation's population grew by a religious group of people with the purpose of creating a Zion-like society. These parallels and inspirations can be seen two centuries later when the Mormons made the same dangerous journey across.

"What I take away from that as a Latter-day Saint is God can inspire his children in all kinds of circumstances," Graham said.

Email: mmckinlay@desnews.com