Virtues of the Pioneers

by David O. McKay, Improvement Era, July 1958, 502–3

The ideals which the pioneers of our valleys of the West fostered and upheld, even under the most adverse conditions, are as applicable today in the whole earth as they were then in the Rocky Mountain settlements.  

I name first their faith and reverence…

A second virtue is thrift and economy. They condemned idleness and wastefulness as not being in accordance with the rules of heaven. They recognized the need of mutual aid between capital and labor, and not only taught but also practiced a spirit of cooperation between them.  

Another quality exemplified by the pioneers, and one of the most applicable to happiness and peace, is the little, simple virtue of self-control… 

Another vital element applicable today is the pioneers’ attitude toward slander. A person who revels in slander or gossip is mediocre or lower…He lacks nobility of soul. 

Much has been said about the pioneer women. But you will find few of their names inscribed on monuments erected to the brave. Some are not even known beyond their family circles; not a few lie in unmarked graves out on the plains; but the burdens they bore uncomplainingly, the contributions they made to the settlement of the arid West, the virtues they exemplified in the midst of trials and almost super-human endurance entitle them to an honored place among the heroines of the world. 

The pioneer woman was equal to any emergency. Her courage in crises when she faced threatened death equaled and, in some cases, exceeded that of her husband. She was loyal to her loved ones, to the church and to God. She endured untold hardships uncomplainingly. She was unselfish, brave and fulfilled, under most adverse conditions, the responsibilities of motherhood—woman’s noblest calling. 

Looking among my treasures recently, I picked up a piece of old homespun cloth. It was woven by my grandmother. My grandfather clipped the wool from the sheep out of which the cloth was made. There were no factories in Utah then. The cloth was carded and spun into thread by my grandmother, who had walked across the plains. As I looked at my treasured homespun cloth, it was old and threadbare, but genuine, and there was not a shoddy thread in it…

What that piece of homespun is to a modern substitute for genuine cloth, so fundamental, unchanging virtues that have stood the test of ages are to promises of pleasure, indulgence and false ideals in modern society. The old fundamental ideals are genuine… 

Finally, the noblest ideal of these honored pioneers, and the noblest ideal in the church today, is the ideal of service. Before they started out on their pioneer trail each day, they had their prayers either in the wagon or around the circle. Each family in every wagon had its prayers. The second thing which they had to do was to see that their muskets were properly loaded. The driver would carry his musket across his knees with the firelock ready; those who walked at the side of their teams carried the musket on the arm, in preparation for any eventuality. The third instruction was, “Let every man be considerate and as interested in his neighbor’s welfare as in his own.” They helped one another in adversity, shared with the hungry the last loaf of bread, gave of their time and means for the upbuilding of the community and, on not a few occasions, offered their lives for the truth. 

They were strong, true, virtuous, upright, God-fearing citizens and people of God—these pioneers of our mountain west… 

Rich in material accomplishment, let us ever cherish that integrity and faith triumphant which inspired the pioneers. Let us ever remember that the best way to honor the memory of our pioneers is not merely by words, but by emulating their deeds.


This article originally appeared in Vol.59 No. 1 of Pioneer Magazine

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