John Powell, My Wife’s Pioneer Ancestor

Today is Pioneer Day, the anniversary of when the first Mormon pioneer company arrived in the Salt Lake Vally in 1847.

We went to watch the fireworks in our town last night. They were an awesome sight, but on our way home, my wife said, “What do fireworks have to do with the pioneers?” I had wondered the same thing myself. I think that sometimes the way we celebrate an event can distract us from the meaning of that event.

To me, when I think of the pioneers who came to the “shadow of the everlasting hills,” I am struck that they were so full of faith, so determined to reach the place where they could gather with like-minded, faithful saints. They gave up homes and riches, family and friends to be here, right here where I live, to transform a desert with their toil and industry and perseverance. Some failed to hold fast in their journey, but the vast majority of those who crossed the plains did not fail, and left an incredible legacy of faith.

This morning, I would like to honor a pioneer ancestor of my wife, John Powell. He crossed the plains with his wife Sarah Elizabeth Harris and their six children in the first handcart company in 1856, the Edmund Ellsworth Company.

John and his wife and family lived in Wales where they were converted to the gospel. John was quite ill but received a blessing from the missionaries wherein he was promised that he would travel to the Salt Lake Valley with his family and would there use his skills as a stonecutter to work on the Salt Lake temple.

John did cross the Atlantic and the plains, arriving in the valley on September 26, 1856, and was privileged to work on the temple. However, he died just 13 days later on October 9, 1856.

Was his journey to the West in vain? Did he travel all that distance just to die and leave his family fatherless? No, in his journey, in his life and in the timing of his death, he fulfilled prophecy. He had a vision of faith, of what he was to accomplish in his life, and he fulfilled it, though the price was very dear.

I am amazed at his faith and the faith of his family. I am amazed at his endurance and sacrifice and perseverance. I thank God for his example. I want to be like him. I want to honor the pioneers by not just admiring their faith, but emulating it. This is the heritage I want to pass on to my children and grandchildren, the heritage and ideals expressed in the hymn They the Builders of the Nation:

They, the builders of the nation,
Blazing trails along the way;
Stepping-stones for generations
Were their deeds of ev’ry day.
Building new and firm foundations,
Pushing on the wild frontier,
Forging onward, ever onward,
Blessed, honored Pioneer!

Service ever was their watchcry;
Love became their guiding star;
Courage, their unfailing beacon,
Radiating near and far.
Ev’ry day some burden lifted,
Ev’ry day some heart to cheer,
Ev’ry day some hope the brighter,
Blessed, honored Pioneer!

As an ensign to the nation,
They unfurled the flag of truth,
Pillar, guide, and inspiration
To the hosts of waiting youth.
Honor, praise, and veneration
To the founders we revere!
List our song of adoration,
Blessed, honored Pioneer!

I know our pioneer ancestors were not perfect. I know they had weaknesses, just like we do. But in spite of any weaknesses or flaws they might have had, they stuck with it and succeeded in their overall mission. To me, their faith and goodness shines brighter than anything else.

I believe this is our charge, this is our heritage, to find the best and the highest in others and to follow it. I want to follow the faithful pioneers.

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