It wasn’t lost on 19th-century Latter-day Saints that the pioneer trek led by Brigham Young (the “American Moses,” some have named him) bore sometimes striking similarities to the exodus of the ancient Israelites from Egypt and to their arrival in the Promised Land.
Fleeing oppression under the leadership of a man they believed to be a modern prophet, the “Camp of Israel,” as it was sometimes called, left a huge river behind to enter an arid wilderness, eventually reaching a land where a much more modest river — they would christen it “Jordan,” after its Old World counterpart — connected a saltwater lake to a smaller freshwater one. The ancient Israelites crossed the Red Sea on foot; some of the first Mormon pioneers walked across a frozen Mississippi.
On Oct. 9, 1846, encamped just north of Montrose, Iowa, at Potter’s Slough, the Saints were surprised by a “miracle of the quail” like the one described in Exodus 16. Large flocks of exhausted birds landed atop and under their wagons, and even in tents. “Every man, woman and child,” Thomas Bullock recorded in his journal that day, “had quails to eat for their dinner” (see "The Pioneer Trek: Nauvoo to Winter Quarters," Ensign, June 1997).
En route and after their arrival, these Bible-saturated settlers marked the landscape with place names from the book of Exodus and the Old Testament, such as Mt. Pisgah (Iowa; see Deuteronomy 3:27), Manassa (Colorado; named after Manasseh, son of the biblical patriarch Joseph), Moab, Ephraim, Hebron, Mount Nebo (compare Deuteronomy 34:1) and Salem.
For thousands of years, Jews have remembered (and ritually re-enacted) the events of the Exodus in their Passover services. It has become an archetype, a model of redemption and liberation, and its celebration at Jesus’ Last Supper provided the basis for mainstream Christian communion and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints' ordinance of the sacrament.
The scriptures — notably the Hebrew Bible and the Book of Mormon — are pervaded with exhortations to “remember,” and Israel’s deliverance from its Egyptian exile is, before the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ, foremost among the things to be remembered. Only in the messianic future, says the book of Jeremiah, will there be a more spectacularly visible deliverance and redemption:
“And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase.
“And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the Lord.
“Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth.
“In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, The Lord Our Righteousness.
“Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt;
“But, The Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land” (see Jeremiah 23:3-8).
Latter-day Saints regard the Restoration and the settlement of the Great Basin as part of that messianic “gathering” of Israel. Thus, it’s entirely appropriate — perhaps even necessary — that modern Saints remember the exodus of their pioneer ancestors via handcart re-enactments, Pioneer Day observances, songs, speeches and family events. Whether or not their biological progenitors crossed the plains, all Latter-day Saints descend from those who did. The pioneer migration made Mormons a people, sharply distinguished from those who stayed behind.
Arthur King Peters spoke of the handcart companies, but his words apply to the entire westward trek: “This heroic episode of Mormon history,” he wrote, “exemplifies many of the enduring qualities of nascent Mormonism itself: thorough organization, iron discipline, unswerving devotion to a cause, and limitless self-sacrifice. ... The true Mormon Trail was not on the prairie but in the spirit” (see "Iowa City: 1856: Handcart Beginning" on history.lds.org).
Communities are largely constituted and distinguished by shared memories, by stories, and the memory of the Mormon pioneers must be cultivated and passed on.
“This church is always only one generation away from extinction,” Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve has warned us. “All we would have to do, I assume, to destroy this work is stop teaching our children for one generation” (see "That Our Children May Know" on speeches.byu.edu).
Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs mormoninterpreter.com, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson and speaks only for himself.