Friday, July 24, 2015

My Mormon Pioneer Ancestors That I Didn't Know About

July 24 in Utah is Pioneer Day, an official state holiday that celebrates the 1847 entry of the first group of Mormon pioneers into the Salt Lake Valley. For me it's pretty much just a normal work day.

For most of my life I thought that I didn't have any ancestors that came across the plains to Utah. As far as I was aware, the first members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in my family line were my maternal grandmother on the one side and my father on the other. I have always revered these as my Mormon pioneers.

Somewhat recently I became aware that I actually do have Mormon pioneer ancestors that came to Utah in the mid-19th Century. My maternal grandmother's ancestor Archibald M. Wilsey joined the LDS Church in 1835. He held leadership positions in the church near Nauvoo, Illinois during the church's Nauvoo era. His wife Phebe Manchester died the same year that Joseph Smith was murdered in 1844.

Records indicate that at some point Archibald migrated to Utah with at least some of his children. We also have record that his son-in-law William Penn Hatch (also my maternal grandmother's ancestor) came to Utah with a wagon train at some point. So I do indeed have bona fide Mormon pioneers among my ancestry.

However, neither Archibald nor William, nor apparently any of their descendants (as far as I know at present) remained in Utah. I have no idea how long they stayed around the main body of Mormons, but at some point they returned to Illinois. Nor do I have any information about why they did so.

We do know that William served in the Union forces during the Civil War and that his grave marker says that he was a colonel. (I don't know whether he achieved that rank during or after the war.) He died in Quincy, Illinois (near Nauvoo) at the end of the 19th Century.

Back in Illinois Archibald became affiliated with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (now known as the Community of Christ), where he served as one of the seven presidents of that church's First Council of Seventy. Archibald served several missions for the RLDS Church and was a faithful member and leader until the end of his life.

This explains why my grandmother was raised in the RLDS Church. Through this church she developed a fervent testimony of the Book of Mormon, which like the Bible, is revered as scripture by Mormons. Still, Grandma eventually developed questions about her RLDS faith. Failing to get satisfactory answers from those she knew, she wrote to the church's top leaders. Some of their responses are still in our family's possession. These letters failed to resolve Grandma's concerns.

Like many others of that era, Grandma and Grandpa moved westward with their expanding brood. They were farming in a remote spot in Nebraska when Grandma's sister wrote to her about the LDS Church, promising to send missionaries. Grandma wrote back saying that she was opposed to that plan.

But when the missionaries showed up they offered their labor on the farm in exchange for room, board, and preaching opportunities. They worked long hard days on the farm with Grandpa. In the evening after dinner they taught the family about the gospel before bedding down in the barn.

By and by, Grandma and the children that were old enough were baptized members of the LDS Church, although, there was no nearby branch of the church. Later when the family relocated to Wyoming (bouncing back and forth between Montana and Wyoming a couple of times), Grandpa was baptized; although, he never pursued the faith as seriously as Grandma did.

Grandma remained a stalwart member of the LDS Church through the end of her life. Grandma's youngest daughter moved to Salt Lake City after high school graduation. Several years later she had a remarkable experience (recounted in this 2011 post) that led her to serve as a missionary for the LDS Church in Germany for two years. Doubtless that would not have happened had Grandma not been a solid Mormon pioneer.

During her mission, Mom helped teach the gospel to a young German man. He was baptized just a few days before Mom left Germany. But they corresponded. Sometime later the young man emigrated to Colorado. When Dad had been a member of the LDS Church for a year, he and Mom were married and sealed in the Salt Lake Temple. This union worked out very well for me.

I don't know why my Mormon Pioneer ancestors Archibald Wilsey and William Penn Hatch left the LDS Church. But their involvement in the RLDS Church provided a platform for Grandma to join the LDS Church, for Mom to serve as a missionary in Germany, for Dad to join the LDS Church, for my parents to get married, and for me to be born.

Happy Pioneer Day.

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