On 28 July 1847, four days after arriving in the Salt Lake Valley, President Brigham Young stood on the spot where the Salt Lake Temple now stands. He struck his cane on the ground and said, “Right here will stand the temple of our God.” Within one week, the Saints began surveying the new city, with the temple at the center. 1
When studying the history of the pioneers, it is crucial to remember the reason for the sacrifice and suffering they underwent: the center of it all was the temple.
The temple is the where we meet our Savior, where we qualify ourselves for His presence, and it was so important to the Latter-day Saint pioneers, that they were willing to give their lives-and often did so-to provide the blessings of the temple for themselves and their families.
The temple also helps us understand why the Saints were required to establish Zion in a desert place, which they of course made to “blossom as the rose.”
Anciently, Isaiah prophesied that the Lord would establish his people in the desert: “The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.” 2
The Lone and Dreary World
In the scriptures, the desert is a common symbol. The prophets speak of this earth in its telestial state as a desert, a “lone and dreary world” where it requires much discipline and effort to survive and thrive and grow towards perfection. 3 In this sense, the Lord has often called his people to migrate from lush and easy lands to harsh lands. Adam and Eve were commanded to leave the Garden and make their way into a wilderness of “thorns and thistles.” Adam had to labor hard in this land: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.” 4
God sent Abraham into the wilderness of Canaan from Ur of the Chaldees, a verdant place. Moses brought Israel out of Egypt, another tropical and fertile land, into the desert for forty years. Lehi’s family left the prosperous city of Jerusalem for the desert. Even Jesus went into the desert for forty days to be with the Spirit and to be tried. 5
The Mormon pioneers underwent a similar experience, as Elder Russell M. Nelson explains: “The journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai took about three months. The journey from Winter Quarters to the valley of the Great Salt Lake also took about three months (111 days). . . . The pioneers turned their wilderness into a fruitful field and made the desert blossom as a rose-precisely as prophesied by Isaiah centuries before.” 6
Like ancient Saints, the Latter-day Saints were driven from the green lands of the eastern United States into the desert-like West. East of the 100th parallel, farms flourish without irrigation, but in the West it’s a struggle to grow crops because of lack of rainfall. Wheat and corn that grew plentifully and without much effort at Nauvoo required elaborate reservoirs and canals in the desert, all of which had to be dug laboriously by hand. Just getting water and food was an Adam-like challenge for the Mormon pioneers.
But Brigham Young was “less concerned with raising crops than he was with helping his people to become a holy nation. He knew from experience that they would grow from working hard and accepting responsibility. This is a good place to make Saints'” 7 he said of the dry, forbidding Great Basin wilderness.
Many Saints were tempted to go on to other, less demanding places. There was pressure on Brigham Young to settle California, with its richer soil, its mild climate, and its gold fields. His purpose in bringing the Saints to the valleys of the mountains was not to make them comfortable, but to help them grow. “Go with the giddy, the frivolous, the seeker after gold, to California. . . . I tell you the result of that course. You would cease to increase in all the attributes of excellence, glory, and eternal duration from that very moment. . . . you decrease, lessen, diminish, decay, and waste away. . . . the principle opposite to that of eternal increase from the beginning leads down to hell.” 8
The principle of eternal progression requires that we face challenges, or we cannot grow. The pioneer stories of suffering and determination in Our Heritage all teach us this principle again and again. The Lord’s purpose is not to give his people pain but to help them progress and become as He is. As with Jesus, we learn obedience by the things we suffer. 9
In such dry, desert places, the people of the Lord learn obedience best. Through their struggles, they become strong. Through hunger and privation, they develop patience and humility. Through trials and plagues, they learn gratitude when deliverance comes.
And it does come. In the grand perspective of eternity, even the harshest trials are temporary and are as “but a small moment.” 10 The Lord has promised to “comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places; and he will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord.” 11
In temporal terms, that prophecy has been fulfilled. As President Gordon B. Hinckley observes of the Saints in the Great Basin, “Notwithstanding the temptation to go to the California goldfields, where the entire world seemed to be rushing, the people accepted their leader’s words. They stayed here and grubbed the sagebrush and made their way. Brigham Young’s prophecy has been fulfilled. This is now a great and beautiful and fertile area.” 12
The Desert of Sin
In scripture, the desert often symbolizes the desolation of sin. In ancient times, the High Priest of Israel transferred the sins of the people onto a scapegoat, which was then led away into the wilderness. 13 In the words of the Psalms, sinners “wander in the wilderness in a solitary way, hungry and thirsty, their soul fainting within them.” 14 By disobedience to God, we can find ourselves in a spiritual “lone and dreary world.” 15
As Elder Marlin K. Jensen points out, “Not only do we offend God by breaking His laws, we also offend ourselves.” Disobedience stops our eternal progression, and the pain of that loss is a bitter pain indeed.
“There is no more poignant description of the contrast between the pain of rebellion and the joy of obedience to divine law than the one given by Alma to his son Helaman: “Yea, I say unto you, my son, that there could be nothing so exquisite and so bitter as were my pains. Yea, and again I say unto you, my son, that on the other hand, there can be nothing so exquisite and sweet as was my joy (see Alma 36:21).” 16
That joy comes to those who repent and obey our Father in Heaven We learn in sacred places and from the prophets that “obedience is the first law of heaven.” 17. Why? Because without obedience, none of the higher covenants of the Lord can have any effect in our lives and our progress toward our Father’s presence is stopped.
Adam’s first lesson was about the consequence of disobedience, and he committed from then on to strict obedience to Heavenly Father’s commandments. The Lord says, “Every soul who forsaketh his sins and cometh unto me, and calleth on my name, and obeyeth my voice, and keepeth my commandments, shall see my face and know that I am.” 18
In the holy temple, for which the Mormon pioneers sacrificed their all, we learn that to see His face is the greatest blessing our Father has in store for us. The holy temple is where we truly come unto Christ. His promise to the obedient is quite literally eternal life and exaltation in his presence. “All saints who remember to keep and do these sayings, walking in obedience to the commandments, shall receive health in their navel and marrow to their bones. . . . And I, the Lord, give unto them a promise, that the destroying angel shall pass by them, as the children of Israel, and not slay them.” 19
The redeeming blood of Jesus Christ makes it possible for our own individual “deserts”-our sinful selves-to “blossom as the rose” as we find repentance and obey our Father’s commandments.
2 Isa. 35:1.
3 See Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Ministry of Angels,” Ensign, Nov 2008, 29.
4 Gen. 3:18-19.
5 Matt. 4:1-11.
6 Russell M. Nelson, “The Exodus Repeated,” Ensign, Jul 1999, 7.
7 Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young, 1.
8 “Duties and Privileges,” Journal of Discourses, 1:119.
9 See Heb. 5:8.
10 D&C 121:7.
11 Isa. 51:3.
12 Gordon B. Hinckley, “These Noble Pioneers,” BYU Speeches, Feb. 2, 1997.
13 See Lev. 16:21-22.
14 Psalms 107:4-5.
15 See Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Ministry of Angels,” Ensign, Nov. 2008, 29.
16 Marlin K. Jensen, “Living after the Manner of Happiness,” Ensign, Dec 2002, 57.
17 N. Eldon Tanner, “Obedience,” Ensign, Jan 1974, 92
18 D&C 93:1.
19 D&C 89:18-21.