My people were Mormon pioneers.
Is the blood still good?
They stood in awe as truth
Flew by like a dove
And dropped a feather in the West.
Where truth flies you follow
If you are a pioneer.

I have searched the skies
And now and then
Another feather has fallen.
I have packed the handcart again
Packed it with the precious things
And thrown away the rest.

I will sing by the fires at night
Out there on uncharted ground
Where I am my own captain of tens
Where I blow the bugle
Bring myself to morning prayer
Map out the miles
And never know when or where
Or if at all I will finally say,
“This is the place,”

I face the plains
On a good day for walking.
The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right:
My people were Mormon Pioneers.

––Carol Lynn Pearson


When  giving a personal Mormon narrative, part of that is giving one’s “Mormon credentials”;  the more credentials you have, the more Mormon you are.   One of  the most powerful “Mormon credentials” is providing some sort of connection to Mormon-pioneer ancestry.  The farther back your Mormon pioneer genealogy goes, the more legitimate of a Mormon you are.   If you are somehow connected to the Willy-Martin Handcart company, that gives you even more street cred.   It’s amazing how many Mormons are descendants of that famous pioneer company (yes, I am being very sarcastic).

This got me wondering how far back my Mormon pioneer heritage goes, or if I even had any.  My paternal grandmother was what we would call a “Jack-Mormon” – smoking, drinking coffee- you get the idea.  With my father being deceased as well as his only sibling, I decided to get a hold of my oldest cousin, Mikle.  He let me know that on my father’s side, our Mormon roots started back five generations on one side and six generations on the other.  It all started in 1851 in Glasgow, Scotland with William Forman and his daughter June Marian (Maryann) Browning Barker.  I am embarrassed to say that I did not know that until yesterday.   I am not very Mormon I guess.

What of those who’s Mormon roots start with themselves? Or, only go back one or two generations.   I imagine that hearing all the stories during this time of year (Pioneer Day), can get a little taxing; some members use their Mormon heritage as bragging rights.  My brother texted me the other day (from church), “Gotta’ love talks about a person’s famous pilgrim and pioneer history.”   His comment, as well as a recent “Mormon Matters” podcast that looked at how culturally Pioneer Day translates across the world, prompted me to do this post.    Mormon Pioneers, in my opinion, are not limited to those that crossed the plains in the mid-1800’s.  It is much broader than that;  we do have modern-day Mormon pioneers.

With all of this floating around in my brain and with Pioneer-day being tomorrow, I decided to to a 24th of July post.  The following is a talk I have given twice in my ward that touches on the story of a modern-day pioneer.   Both times the talk has been well received.   I hope you enjoy it also.  –  Mike.

St. James

In the General Epistle of St. James, second chapter, twenty-sixth verse, we read:  “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead.”  Clearly stating the doctrine that both good works as well as Christ’s Atonement is needed to obtain salvation.

During the 1500’s, the Catholic German monk, priest, professor, theologian, and Catholic Church reformer, Martin Luther said the following:

St. John’s Gospel and his first epistle, St. Paul’s epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, and St. Peter’s Epistles, these are the books which show to thee Christ, and teach everything that is necessary and blessed for thee to know even if you never to see or hear any other book of doctrine.  Therefore, St. James’ Epistle is a perfect straw-epistle compared with them, for it has in it nothing of an evangelic kind.

Martin Luther also attempted to remove from the bible canon, The Epistle of St. James, as well as other books that we now accept in our New Testament canon.   Why would Martin Luther attempt to remove the Epistle of St.  James, and why would he call it a “perfect straw-epistle”?   To understand the reason, we must look at early Christian history.

There was never any formal church council in the early church ratifying which books should and shouldn’t be canonized as New Testament scripture.  However, there were several councils that pronounced judgment on which books should be accepted as canonical.

Bishop Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria during the 4th century CE.  He was one of the most important figures in orthodox Christianity.  As a young

Athanasius of Alexandria

man, he attended the first ecumenical church council, The Council of Nicea in 325 AD.  Later, Bishop Athanasius would produce what is now known as the “The Canon of Athanasius of Alexandria.”  It is the first time – some three centuries after the earliest Christian writings were produced – that a Christian authority listed as canonical the current 27 books of the New Testament.   Later in 393 CE, Athanasius’ list is pronounced canonical at the Synod of Hippo in North Africa.  As it turns out, different churches in other parts of the world never did agree on this list, despite its overwhelming acceptance in both the western and eastern branches of Christianity.




So, back to the question, “Why would Martin Luther attempt to remove the Epistle of St. James as well as call it a ‘perfect straw-epistle’?”

  1. As outlined, it was never a totally accepted fact which books should and should not be accepted as canonical.  It wasn’t until April 8 1546, at the Council of Trent, that the present-day Roman Catholic Bible canon was approved.
  2. The Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, also known as the 95 Theses.

During the sixteenth century CE, the Papal Commissioner for indulgences in Germany would sell indulgences to raise funds for the renovation of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (in Latin Catholic theology, an indulgence is a pardon from the temporal punishment due to God for sins).  Although Martin Luther’s prince and the prince of the neighboring territory forbade the sale of indulgences within their lands, Martin Luther’s parishioners would travel to purchase them.  When they would come to confess to MartinLuther, they would present a document, called the  Plenary Indulgence, claiming they no longer had to repent of their sins.

Castle Church, Wittenberg

Castle Church, Wittenberg

On October 31, 1517 Martin Luther wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg protesting the sale of indulgences within his episcopal territories and inviting him to debate them.   Tradition has it that Luther posted the same day a copy of this letter on the Castle Church in Wittenberg.  The letter called the “Disputation of Martin Luther On the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” is better known as Martin Luther’s’ 95 Theses.

Because of the printing press the 95 Theses spread like wild fire all over Europe.  The Protestant Reformation began.

Based upon Martin Luther’s doctrinal teachings,  Protestants developed the Five Solas, or slogans.   Two of these are sola gratia sola fide or “by grace alone” and “by faith alone”.     This doctrine was very much a reaction to the idea of working your way or “buying your way” to heaven.  So we can now see why Martin Luther felt the way he did about the Epistle of St. James which clearly  discusses the need for works as well as faith in Christ.

What is the LDS doctrine on faith and works?  We know we are taught to “endure to the end”.  Are we to do this by ourselves, working our way to heaven?  The Book of Mormon offers some insight regarding the tension between works and God’s grace.  2 Nephi 25:23 reads:  “For we labor diligently to write, to persuade our children and also our brethren, to believe in Christ, and to be reconciled to God;  for we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.”  It is not “sola gracia, “sola fide” that saves us.  It is not our works that save us.  It is, if one thinks about it, a mixture of the two – an amalgam of what Martin Luther taught as well as the importance of doing good works.  In our canonical scriptures and our LDS history, we find many examples of lives relying on the merits of Christ while at the same time, living lives that showed forth good works.

John Forres O’Donnal was one such man.  Born in 1917, his family had lived in the Mormon Colonies in northern Mexico. These colonies had been developed by the church so members could escape persecution from the U.S. government for the practice of plural marriage.  After the Manifesto had been given, plural marriages continued in the Mormon Colonies – until the “Second Manifesto” was given in 1904 by President Joseph F. Smith.   During the Mexican Revolution, John O’Donnal’s family, as well as many other Mormon families, came back to the U.S. It was in La Madera, New Mexico that John was born.  Soon after his birth, John’s family returned to the Mormon Colony, Colonia Gracia, in Chihuahua Mexico.

In his patriarchal blessing, the following was said, “You shall live to see a great progress in the work of the Lord, in this land, among the people by whom we are surrounded and among all the natives in the nations south of us.” 

After graduating from the University of Arizona, John O’Donnal heard of a job position in the Department of Agriculture.  The Department had  a new agency: The Office of Rubber Plant Investigation.  Specifically, a position for a young Spanish speaking man in Central and South America.

John applied for, and got the position and was asked to report to Washington D. C. on November 1, 1941.  At that time he learned the he would be going to British Honduras for six month of training.  Six months later he found himself in Guatemala and would remain there for fifty years.

The draft board gave John a 1-A classification despite being rejected earlier for advanced officer’s training because of a double hernia.  Prior to his leaving the United States, he ran into problems with the Draft Board.  They would only allow him to leave the country for six months.   This instigated some heavy dialogue between the Draft Board and the Rubber Office.

December 7, 1941-  Pearl Harbor was attacked, making the draft board even more reluctant to allow John  to leave the country.

The  U.S. government had a unique problem and it was this:  The supply of natural rubber from the middle-east was certain to be cut off by the Japanese.  The Rubber Investigation Office now took on more importance;  all rubber projects were channeled through that office.  Finally John was extended a one year release to go to Central America.

John never ended up serving in the military.  By the time he was called up, Truman had announced Japan’s surrender.

May 21, 1942 – At the age of 25, he arrived in Guatemala City to check on some rubber nurseries.  His recommendation to  Washington ws for someone to be permanently stationed in  Guatemala to develop a rubber program.  John was later informed that he will be the one directing the program.

Later that summer, John met Carmen Galvez.  June 19, 1943, almost a year after he arrived in Central America, John married Carmen Galvez despite strong opposition.

In December of 1946 John O’Donnal made an important and bold visit to Salt Lake City, Utah. He requested to see the First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.   He visited with President George Albert Smith and requested missionaries be sent to Guatemala.  A month later, John received a letter from the First Presidency saying they will “try to arrange to supply some missionaries”.  After three years of marriage, Carmen, John’s wife, continued to be very resistant to accepting the teachings of the LDS church and John continued to be the only Mormon in Guatemala.

July 1947 – Over a year and a half after his meeting with President George Albert Smith, Central America was made part of the Mexican Mission.  Two months later, on September 4, President Pierce of the Mexican Mission, arrived with the first missionaries, Elder Hansen, Linguard, Miller, and Elder Mattice.   That Sunday, the six of them partook of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper for the first time in Guatemala and the land was dedicated for the preaching of the gospel.  John was also set apart as a local missionary.

Later that year, the first formal meeting for investigators of the LDS church was held in the O’Donnal home.  All present were eventually baptized, including John’s wife, Carmen and Roberto Monzon (John’s office boy).  Carmen was the first to be baptized in Central-America.  Roberto would later become the first local Central-American missionary.

January 9, 1955 – Elder LeGrand Richard dedicated the first chapel in Guatemala.

A year later, a life changing event for John occurred.  While driving, his car was struck by a train.   As he was recovering in the hospital, he had a vision.  He asked his wife Carmen to write as he dictated what he saw.  There were two parts of the vision that were of particular importance:

  1. He saw a temple built in Guatemala on solid rock with many of the bare feet of the indigenous people entering.
  2. He was told his life would be spared.

There are four major indigenous Mayan languages spoken in the highlands of Guatemala.  Ke’kchi, Mam, Quiche, and Cakchiquel.

December 15, 1956 – The town of  Patzicia was first in the Cakchiquel language to be opened.  It was decided to first take the gospel to the Ladino people.  They were mixed Cakchiquel and Spanish blood and spoke both languages.  Unknown to the elders, twelve years earlier the Ladinos had massacred 300 Cakchiquel men.

About a month had passed serving among the Ladino,  when the two LDS missionaries were approached by two children who told them they were wanted at the court house by the mayor;  the children were giggling on the way there.  Upon their arrival there was a large group of people congregated and the LDS missionaries immediately were the center of attention.

As  they entered the court house, a woman told them they were not wanted inside, but outside;  the elders quickly entered the mayor’s office.  The elders were told that there were complaints against them forcefully entering homes to present their message.  The elder assured them this was not the case.  As they were leaving, another woman approached them asking them to go the Catholic church.    The elders politely told her they had other appointments to attend.  The woman kept pressing them and told them they were leading away the ignorant people and causing division in the puebla.

As they left, the large crowd began to disperse.  Only later had they found out that the governor of Chimaltenango told the mayor of the small puebla to  disperse the crowd or the governor would have it dispersed “with gun0-shots”.  They also found out that the Catholic church was full of men with sticks and machetes, awaiting to kill the Mormon elders.

The next month, the elders decided to change their approach and focus on the Cakchiquel people and not the Ladinos

March 30, 1957 – Three months after the missionaries arrived, they had their first baptism.  Eighteen months after the elders arrival to Patzicia, the first Cakchiquels were baptized.

Now, Carmen had a cousin by the name of Maria del Rosario Galvez Lara.  She was devout Catholic who taught Catholic Catechism.   Maria married and later had four daughters.  John and Carmen were always talking to Maria about the church, but she always resisted.  Then she had a life-changing experience.

Maria was helping take care of Carmen O’Donnal’s father.  Just before dying, he (Carmen’s father) encouraged his niece, Maria, to investigate the LDS church for the sake of her four daughters.  He died the next day.   At his death, fragrant flowers were brought into his room where he lay.  The aroma of the flowers was too overwhelming for Maria, so she took them out of the room.

Some time later, two Mormon elders came by Maria’s little market and invited her to listen to the missionary lessons.  She agreed, so she and her two youngest daughters, Haydee and Beatriz, began meeting with the missionaries.    The elders encouraged Maria to pray about their message.  She did pray, but no answers came.  Then, one day as she was praying, she suddenly smelled again the strong fragrance of the flowers that were in her uncle’s room and his voice came to her mind, “Please, if there is anything I could ask you to do, please investigate the church for the sake of the girls.”

Immediately Maria called her cousin’s husband, John O’Donnal, and requested to be  baptized into the LDS church.  Maria and her two youngest daughters, Haydee and Beatriz, were baptized on March 25, 1965 by John O’Donnal.  Maria’s oldest daughters,who were living in the U.S. already, accepted the missionaries into their home in San Francisco and were soon baptized also.

June 8-11, 1975 – John O’Donnal and Boyd K. Packer had many long talks about the needs of the natives, Meso-American history, and what would be needed to bring the gospel to the indigenous people.   From these talks, many important things were developed, including the publication of the manual Gospel Principles, which originated in Guatemala.

Cakchiquel women

1973 –  33 years after John’s arrival, the Cakchiquel Nation became the first (of the four most spoken indigenous languages) to have the gospel taught to their people in their own language.  Prior to that, the  Cakchiquel people were taught the gospel in Spanish.

Pilar U. and E. Israel Perez

April 1976 – John was called as Mission President of the Guatemala, Guatemala City Mission and was set apart by Howard W. Hunter.  President O’Donnal chose E. Israel Perez to be his second counselor.  Israel Perez was full blooded Quiche Indian and was put in charge of the Quiche Indian missionary efforts.  Eventually Israel would become an Area Authority Seventy.   Later that summer, the Quiche language began being taught in Momostenango.

A Quiche woman

In the Spring of 1977 the young Wayne R. Gelder received his mission call to the Guatemala, Guatemala City Mission.   When he was set apart, his Stake President stated that Elder Gelder , “Would have the privilege of preaching in multiple languages.”  While in the Language Training Center, Elder Gelder’s call was changed to the newly organized Quetzaltenango Mission.  After studying Spanish for two months, he then had to begin learning the Cakchiquel language.

After being Mission President for a year, President O’Donnal was asked to preside over the new Indian Mission called the Quetzaltenango mission.  He chose again, E. Israel Perez as his first counselor.  Shortly after, Elder Gelder arrived from the Language Training Center and President O’Donnal told him that he would also have to learn the Quiche language;  that was three languages that Elder Gelder would have to learn.   Later, President O’Donnal informed Elder Gelder that he had been selected to go to Huehuetenango to learn the Mam language.  If successful, he and his companion would be the first missionaries to take the gospel to the Mam people.   That was four languages;  fulfilling the prophetic blessing that Elder Gelder’s Stake President had pronounced at his setting apart for missionary service.

While President O’Donnal presided over the Quetzaltenango Mission, he began a very successful language training program to teach the four major indigenous languages to a select few missionaries.   It became the first MTC outside of Provo, Utah.

Carmen and John O’Donnal, circa 1976

The  ground breaking ceremony for the Guatemala City Temple was held on September 12, 1982.  Shortly thereafter, John O’Donnal was asked for building recommendations.  One of the recommendations he provided was for the temple to have its own well since water service in Guatemala was unreliable.   The area of Guatemala City,where the temple was eventually built, is all pumice.  As they began to drill for water, they found they were not drilling through pumice, but solid rock.  Despite the surrounding area being nothing but pumice, the plot of land that was chosen on which to build the temple was solid rock;  just as John O’Donnal had seen in vision twenty-six years earlier after his car accident.  Two years after the ground-breaking ceremony for the Guatemala City Temple, John was asked to be its president.

October 26, 1986 – John saw the fruits of his labors from his previous service as Mission President of the Indian Quetzaltenango Mission;  the first Cakchiquel Indian Stake was organized.

John and Carmen ended their years of service to the church as Mission President of the Peru MTC;  John, by this time, was seventy-five years old.  They had to end it abruptly because a Chinese terrorist organization,  known as the Shining Path, was targeting North-American Mormon Church Leaders in Peru.

As of 2011, total LDS membership in Guatemala is 231,776.  There are a total of 417 congregations and currently 5 missions. The endowment ceremony is now given in 4 Mayan languages and now there is a second temple –  in Quetzaltenango.

While as a child in Chihuahua, John O’Donnal heard Elder Marvin J. Ashton prophesy the following:  “Your  young people here today will live to see a thousand of Father Lehi’s children come into the church for every one of them being converted now.”

Now back to Carmen’s cousin Maria – that had the miraculous answer to her prayers:

Maria eventually came to the U.S. with her two youngest daughters, settling in the San Jose, California area.  She died nine years ago in January of 2003.

Maria was my grandmother.  Of her twelve grandchildren, ten have  graduated from college and eight have served missions – three of which have been Spanish speaking; my younger brother Paul,serving in the Rosario, Argentina Mission;  my cousin Ruth, serving in Guatemala;  I served in the Spanish Speaking Dallas, Texas Mission. 

Maria del Rosario Galvez Lara – my abuelita

Of interesting note, while serving my mission in Dallas, Texas, I was asked to train an Elder from Guatemala – Edwin Perez.  As I related to Elder Edwin Perez my connection to the early church beginnings in Guatemala, he told me that he knew John O’Donnal.  As it turned out, his father was E. Israel Perez, the Quiche Indian that served as John O’Donnal’s counselor in two of his Mission Presidencies, and was in charge of developing the Quiche missionary efforts.

I am eternally grateful for the efforts and faithfulness of John and Carmen O’Donnal.  Their lives were the perfect examples of the Mormon amalgam of work and faith;   the faith that imbues one to dig in and push the metaphorical handcart. Although they did not push a literal handcart nor drive a team of oxen, they were pioneers who left a great legacy.  Their pioneer efforts have brought the gospel of Jesus Christ to hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans.  But, even more importantly (and admittedly somewhat selfishly) my family and I have been blessed.  Perhaps, as we struggle, we should remember sola fide, sola opera, sola opera, solus Christus….By grace alone, by faith alone, by works alone, Christ alone.


I face the plains

On a good day for walking.

The sun rises
And the mist clears.
I will be all right:
My people were Mormon Pioneers.






Miguel is a Guatemalan-American Mormon living in the Northwest with his family. He is one of the proprietors of the Rational Faiths blog.

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