So, I am sure that you are all anxiously awaiting a report on our ward’s girls’ camp. It turns out that, at the last minute, the location was changed, it rained throughout, the location was changed again when everyone’s tents leaked, and finally many of the girls got stomach flu. So, a good time was had by all.
Or so you would think from the Young Women’s Presidency that spoke in Sacrament Meeting this past Sunday. The leaders talked about how, throughout the disaster-laden experience, they felt the Spirit deeply and how it brought them closer to their Lord. I don’t doubt it. It distinctly reminded me of another such incident.
It was in an adult Sunday School class of over fifty men and women. Nathan T. Porter was the teacher and the subject under discussion was the ill-fated handcart company [Martin Handcart Company] that suffered so terribly in the snow of 1856. Some sharp criticism of the Church and its leader was being indulged in for permitting any company of converts to venture across the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart caravan afforded. One old man in the corner sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget.
His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity. He said in substance, “I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes! But I was in that company and my wife was in it, and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited here was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with Him in our extremities!
“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me! I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there. “Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No! Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.”
The speaker was Francis Webster. And when he sat down there was not a dry eye in the room. We were subdued and chastened lot. Charles Mabey who latter became Governor of Utah, arose and voiced the sentiment of all when he said, “I would gladly pay the same price to personally know God that Brother Webster has.” – Writings of William R. Palmer. (I got this from this website)
You’ve all heard this quote or, at least, I have. Several times. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately because my ward is going on Trek next year. They are raising funds for it now (it will cost a lot of money). It struck me that this year’s girls’ camp was another example of Trek. We seem to believe that everyday life does not provide us with enough hardship or sufficiently test our testimony. Therefore, we must manufacture it.
Setting that aside, I don’t know that the original handcart pioneers want us to re-enact their suffering. I am unaware of any handcart pioneer who had the option of choosing a regular wagon but choose the handcart so he or she could get closer to God. These modern Treks are fictions; no-one’s life is at risk. It is dusty, participatory, costume drama. I don’t believe that we are doing the legacy of these pioneers any favors by having our youth pull a handcart over a few miles of upward gravel.
However, it must be effective. Our youth who went on Trek a couple of years ago described it as a life changing event. The leaders who went are big believers. It must have done something.
In any case, I worry that we get the wrong message from the story of the handcart pioneers. Elder Levi Savage, a elder passing through, advised the Willie handcart company to not press on. He explained the savagery of the terrain and the weather and the lateness of the season. The pioneer elders, driven by their zeal and faith, chose to ignore his advice. Elder Savage had no ecclesiastical authority over them; he couldn’t demand that they stay. He chose to stand by them in their mistaken choice. Almost 70 people died in the Willie handcart company; more than 150 died in the Martin company.
I am not from that Sunday School class; I don’t believe myself better than the handcart pioneers. But I fear that we, in choosing to emulate them, miss the point of their suffering. We are, a bit, like the Iraqis who cut themselves to honor Ali or the Phillipinos who nail themselves to crosses. Life provides sufficient suffering; we don’t need to add to it.
Those pioneers left Winter Quarters believing that the road would be long and hard, but not believing that it would equate to death for so many. They were consumed with the desire for Zion and they refused to be dissuaded. Don’t we do the same? Don’t we pick goals and pursue them, only to later discover how mistaken our choice was? Don’t we start down paths we consider safe, only to later find them to be far more deadly than we imagined? Don’t we sometimes fail to heed warnings (prophetic or otherwise) based on our own mistaken impressions of the dangers ahead?
The message to be learned from the handcart companies is not that we need the faith of the handcart pioneers (although we could all use more faith); it is that God continues to care for us when we royally screw things up. God did not say to Brother Webster, “You shouldn’t even be here. Why should I help?” The angels came and pushed, in spite of the pioneers decisions, not because of them. The truth, as I see it, is that God, like Elder Savage, offers us consistently good advice and if we follow it, we are happier. However, as we don’t always follow it, he often finds himself going along with us, easing our suffering, binding our wounds, and mourning our dead. He loves us; he won’t abandon us.
For me, that’s the message of the handcart pioneers; unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to be the reason our youth today go on Treks.