Pioneer Day tends to be a big deal in Utah, where the original members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints arrived in 1847. The anniversary of that arrival each year sparks parades, fireworks and more.
Expect a different celebratory flavor in the picnics and barbecues of northwest Ohio.
“There are a little bit fewer of us here,” said Bishop Dan Bravard, who leads the Toledo 1st Ward in a pastor’s role, “so we scale it down.”
The Toledo Ohio Stake, which covers 12 congregations in northwest Ohio, counts just fewer than 4,000 members on its rolls, President Kenneth Eddington said. (A stake is comparable to a diocese in other denominations.) About 50 missionaries, who might be recognizable by their community service or door-to-door faith message and who are assigned to an area for a period of 18 months to two years, are also active in the region covered under the stake. Local meetinghouses can be found in Toledo, Perrysburg, and Bowling Green.
Pioneer Day falls annually on July 24 and invites Mormons to reflect, in part, on the pioneering spirit that carried original church members westward and continues to shapes the faith community today. Mr. Eddington and Fritz Griffioen, who is second counselor in the stake, said about half of the congregations in northwest Ohio are organizing picnic-style gatherings this month to celebrate.
In Utah, Pioneer Day is a state holiday. Banks and businesses are closed, enabling large-scale festivities not unlike the Fourth of July. In Ohio, church members tend to push celebrations to a more convenient weekend.
At the Toledo First Ward, for example, Bishop Bravard plans to reflect on Pioneer Day themes at this weekend’s Sacrament Meeting. A cookout will follow on July 29.
The St. Marys Branch, in St. Marys, Ohio, will also host a barbecue on July 29.
Trish Farrer, a member of the Toledo 1st Ward, said she typically attends the ward picnic with her family. She wants to instill an appreciation for the church pioneers in her four young children, just as her parents did with her.
(She recalled one memorable Pioneer Day, at a church event as a child, in which she dressed up in pioneer clothing and churned her own butter.)
Mrs. Farrer, who grew up in Iowa and Southern California, also spent many childhood summers with family in Utah. She and her husband moved to Maumee about three years ago, when her husband enrolled in the the surgical residency program at Mercy Health St. Vincent Medical Center.
She can see differences in the way Pioneer Day is celebrated in Utah.
Of the 15 million members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints globally, approximately 2 million live in Utah, according to statistics provided by the church. That compares to approximately 61,000 in Ohio.
“It was so fun going to all the parades and being a part of the celebration,” Mrs. Farrer said. “It is much different celebrating there than anywhere else. It felt very real being in the very place the Mormon pioneers first settled.”
While Mr. Eddington and Mr. Griffioen described Pioneer Day as a light-hearted celebration, rather than a somber or sermon-heavy day on the religious calendar, it recalls a serious period in the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Early church members were fleeing religious persecution — and not for the first time since the church began to take shape under Joseph Smith in the 1820s in New York — when they embarked on a difficult, 1,300-mile journey from Nauvoo, Ill., to Utah’s Salt Lake Valley in the winter of 1846.
The growing body of believers had fled to Nauvoo in the winter of 1838, after being driven out of Missouri. At its height, Nauvoo rivaled Chicago as the largest city in the state, according to a historical account provided by the church. But there, too, they found tensions heightening. In 1844, Smith and his brother, Hyrum, died at the hands of a mob.
Brigham Young, another early church leader who would lend his name to the prominent university in Utah, led the early body of believers to the Salt Lake Valley.
When the church refers to “pioneers,” historically, it recalls the church members who made this journey with Young and to those who followed before the installation of the continental railroad. Genealogy is important with the church, and in some cases, church members today can trace their ancestors back to these early pioneers.
When Mr. Griffioen reflects on Pioneer Day, he said he allows the word a wider connotation. His parents converted to the church, as Toledoans, when Mr. Griffioen was an infant.
“When I would hear pioneer stories … they were neat stories but I couldn’t exactly relate to them because I had no pioneer ancestors,” he said. “I’ve always thought of my parents as being, at least from a spiritual perspective, pioneers for me, because they were the first members of their family to join the church, which of course led to me and my siblings and others to be part of it.”
He said he thinks of more recent converts to the church in the same way, pointing out, for example, that the church now recognizes “Jose” and “Maria” as its most common names. Among those first pioneers, the most common names were “John” and “Mary.”
That’s not to say Mr. Griffioen ignores the historical pioneers, who might call to mind images of bonnets and covered wagons. He compared his gratitude for the “people who went before” to the gratitude someone might feel toward the Founding Fathers on the Fourth of July.
It’s something he said he’s come to appreciate more over the years.
“You don’t quite appreciate that when you’re a kid, when you’re excited to eat a hot dog and see your friends,” he said.
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