President Gordon B. Hinckley of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a thing for history. It has been that way his entire life and especially since becoming church president more than 11 years ago.
Nearly 96 (his birthday is June 23) and on the mend from colon cancer surgery in January, he continues to energize Mormon faithful in the quest to learn more about their history. On Sunday he make a quick trip to Iowa City, Iowa to put an exclamation point to a festival honoring the 150th anniversary of the handcart pioneers.
In June 1856 the first of 10 companies of handcarts left Iowa City for the 1,300 mile trek to the Salt Lake Valley. They were mostly poor immigrants from Europe. They had already journeyed by boat and rail to get to Iowa City and did not have the money to buy and outfit a wagon and team of oxen.
President Hinckley read extensively from the accounts of survivors of the ill-fated Willie and Martin handcart companies. They got a late start in the fall of 1859 and ran into a blizzard in Wyoming. Before a rescue party from Salt Lake could reach them, 220 died. President Hinckley said, “A century and a half of history is now behind us. The Church has reached maturity. There are some twelve million of us a great family scattered through some 160 nations. We have become a power for good in the world. But we must ever look back to those who paid so terrible a price in laying the foundations of this great latter-day work.”
The speech in Iowa City was just the latest in a long line of events, construction and restoration projects President Hinckley has initiated all emphasizing history. He oversaw the push to turn Nauvoo into the “Williamsburg of the Midwest”. The pinnacle of that project was the rebuilding of the Nauvoo temple an icon of Mormonism abandoned during a forced exodus to the west. The temple was eventually destroyed by fire and a tornado.
Other projects include a village in Kirtland, Ohio centered on the Newell K. Whitney store and a working replica of a sawmill. He has also expanded the Church’s presence in Palmyra, New York the birthplace of Mormonism. A temple was built there as well as in Winter Quarters, Nebraska. And last year President Hinckley presided over the bicentennial of the birth of church founder Joseph Smith. He even braved the cold of a Vermont December to be at the birth site on the day of his birth.
All this is more than just scholarly curiosity, for him it’s about promoting the faith. He sees church history sites as places of pilgrimage for the faithful. What’s more, he sees the potential of using them to spread the message beyond the current church membership.
Volunteer missionaries who are ready to inform and proselytize man all sites. Bringing to life the history of the LDS Church has been a hallmark of his Presidency and is sure to be a big part of his legacy.