Tracing my Mormon pioneer roots because my story began with those who came before.
In 2020, when Covid-19 hit, the government told us to stay home and only venture out weekly for essentials. Still needing connection, people found creative ways to do so safely. We sat in our cars to attend church or drove down streets honking and hollering birthday wishes out opened windows. Virtual was the new version of everything. Videos of people dancing on rooftops or playing the violin to lift neighbors’ spirits warmed our hearts.
As time passed, forced isolation left many of us feeling alone, depressed, and angry. We were warned to watch for signs of depression and domestic abuse, which were on the increase.
Resistance to the mandates sprouted like weeds as days stretched into weeks and months. Some were concerned about the impact of distance on our mental health or our economy. Others felt it was all a sinister plot to turn us into sheep.
Outbursts by angry parents at school board meetings were comical and horrifying. Flight attendants had to deal with unruly passengers refusing to wear a mask. Some left jobs or moved to different states to avoid strict Covid policies.
Having our freedom to gather taken from us left many realizing that human connection, like air, food, and water is vital to survival.
Hundreds of years earlier, when the Mormons first settled in the Utah Valley, the prophet Brigham Young counseled the saints to gather for spiritual growth and recreation.
Daniel obeyed the prophet as he had done many times before. Although he had already helped build barns, cabins, temples, and schoolrooms, he set about constructing a meeting house for the community.
Largely, Mormon pioneers emigrated to Utah, searching for a place to worship and live in peace. Daniel was proud to build the first public hall in their town. A place to safely celebrate, mourn, learn, and pray together.
This building had a basement and tower on the top, showcasing a bell for which Daniel paid seventy dollars. The clanging bell signaled a welcome to gather in the open—a stark difference from their years of hiding in the shadows.
The large multi-purpose room had a speaker’s stand at the front, a bench for the choir on one side, and an elevated platform for the band on the other. The bell rang at seven p.m. in the middle of November 1863 to signal the start of the first meeting.
Mary kept detailed notes of each church meeting. Daniel and Peninah’s son Peter prayed before Daniel stood to speak. Others then bore their testimonies, followed by more singing, prayer, and tithing collection.
The Wood family loved music, so the choir was mainly composed of Daniel’s wives and children. The Wood Family Band, comprised of Daniel’s sons, played the violin, cello, flute, banjo, and tambourine.
The community could quickly transform the spacious room into a dance floor or feasting banquet hall by sliding the chairs to the outer walls.
The sturdy wooden floors showed the wear and tear from dancing heels to tunes like “Irish Washer Woman,” Turkey In The Straw,” and “Blue Danube.” Daniel’s old age did not stop him from dancing a jig.
Daniel even constructed a platform around a cottonwood tree so the branches could provide outdoor shade for performers and speakers when festivities spilled out into the orchard grass, especially on warm Utah nights. One of those was July 24th, known as Pioneer Day. Pioneer Day commemorates the day Brigham Young and the first group of saints entered the Salt Lake City Valley.
The walls held community parties, prayer circles, funerals, weddings, scripture readings, traveling lecturers, political rallies, speakers sharing practical homesteading advice, and hearty feasts. Audiences enjoyed original songs, poems, dramas, comedies, and operettas.
Family and neighbors could air out misunderstanding within its walls, like when Daniel called others to discuss and sign a petition to move the train station infringing on his land.
In this space, Mormons benefited from the power of the collective. Together they strengthened bonds, experienced joy, and shared knowledge. For those too young to remember the violence and ostracism earlier pioneers faced, I wonder if they took this space for granted.
In our arrogant entitlement, white people have told black and brown people where they can be for centuries in our country. We decided where they could live and which streets they could be on. Our laws restricted where black and brown people could be educated, entertained, and employed. We told them where to sit, what water to drink, and how many could gather before they were called a threatening mob.
Even without the same freedom, black and brown communities found ways to mourn, learn from the elders, laugh with the children, eat food that nourished their bodies and soul, and make music with rhythms of remembering.
Unlike Mormons, they were not free to move to a place God had set aside for them. They were not given vast swaths of land with trees to cut to build walls, floors, and roofs for meeting houses with bells welcoming them to come.