Every Pioneer Day, my thoughts turn to my pioneer ancestors, who, following the deep convictions of their souls, braved the seas, struggled across the plains and settled in the Wasatch valleys. Like so many Utahns whose forbearers were pioneers, I have inherited a legacy of faith, service and patriotism from the likes of Ola Nilsson Liljenquist, Samuel Allen Wilcox and Martha Parker. My ancestors came to Utah to escape religious persecution, to gather with the Latter-day Saints and to worship God in their own way. Pioneer Day, at its core, is a celebration of religious liberty.
Ola Nilsson Liljenquist converted to the LDS church in Denmark in 1852. He was the only member of the church in Denmark who was a burgher (or full citizen), and he repeatedly used his burgher papers to call out soldiers to protect the saints from escalating and continuous mob violence. He took in and vouched for those who were driven from their homes, often by their own family members, for converting.
At great personal risk, including the risk of imprisonment, he assumed responsibility over a five-year period for any and all outstanding debts of well over 1,000 church members so they could obtain passports and immigrate to Zion. Ola and his family finally emigrated in April 1857. As they left their home to travel to the docks, only police intervention prevented a mob from snatching away their four young children. Ola arrived in the Salt Lake valley in September 1857, only to return to Scandinavia as a missionary two years later. He crossed the plains twice, finally settling in Hyrum, Utah. He later served as a Cache County delegate to Utah’s Constitutional Convention and as Hyrum’s first mayor.
Samuel Allen Wilcox and his wife Martha Parker joined the LDS church in 1839 in Canada and moved to Nauvoo, Illinois in 1840. Samuel helped construct the Nauvoo Temple, while Martha was a member of the first Relief Society. They lived through the terror of Nauvoo as mobs set farms on fire and harassed the saints. Martha was present when the torn and bloody bodies of Joseph and Hyrum Smith returned from Carthage to Nauvoo. She later wrote: “Our prophet and our patriarch were slain. I saw them in their gore, and the wicked and ungodly mob threatened to annihilate the whole church.” Samuel and Martha fled Nauvoo with their little family, lamenting the destruction of their beloved temple, but with great faith that all would be well in the end. After settling for a time in Iowa, the Wilcox family finished the trek to Utah after the Civil War broke out in 1860. The Wilcox family ended up in Cedar Fort, Utah County.
The Utah Pioneers understood the true worth of religious liberty. While they experienced religious persecution, they valued this country in large part because of the aspirational ideals our founders enshrined in the Constitution, with the “First Freedom,” the free exercise of religion, paramount in their minds.
I hope that on this Pioneer Day we will reflect on the religious freedoms we enjoy and resolve to stand up for them. It seems, in the words of M.J. Sobran, that “a religious conviction is now a second-class conviction, expected to step deferentially to the back of the bus, and not get uppity about it.” While we should be respectful, kind and compassionate in our dealings with others, we must not be ashamed, abashed or cowed in any way as we stand up for the right to worship God according to the dictates of our own conscience, while allowing others to do the same.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.