“I have tried continually to get this people to pursue a course that will make them self-sustaining, taking care of their poor—the lame, the halt and the blind, lifting the ignorant from where they have no opportunity of observing the ways of the world, and of understanding the common knowledge possessed among the children of men, bringing them together from the four quarters of the world, and making of them an intelligent, thrifty and self-sustaining people.” (Brigham Young 6 Apr 1868 JD 12:195)
At the close of overland emigration, Brigham Young reminded the survivors comfortably gathered in the new Tabernacle it was time to graduate from a scrappy interdependence to a covenant community. In self-reliance they had packed individual wagons; in self-preservation companies banded and braced against the journey; the prologue was over. To circumscribe the breadth of a Zion worthy of exaltation, the saintly challenge is what Young called becoming “self-sustaining”, or creating a lasting and corporate abundance in the soul, heart and hand.
We Mormons can triage the heck out of acute suffering–from acres of Cream of Gilead casserole to a yellow-besmocked human chain that really makes a photo-op pop. We’re famous for out-donating and out-serving most other well-meaning people in more scheduled ways too. For my money, operationalizing charity with professional efficiency and earnest caring is an outward testimony of the Lord’s people.
I offer this as a personal indictment. I tend to spend the bulk of my personal ministry serving dead people, because they are more grateful and less weird than the living. I am hopeful that as I mature, I will learn to own Zion in the aggregate as Brigham suggested. When he plead with the Saints to enlarge their borders to give place to those who remained marginalized, the final bowery had been dismantled, and a new sacred dome stretched over their heads. Now no longer an encampment, perhaps Israel felt once again anchored to a center place, however far-flung the outposts seemed to those still marooned in the periphery.
As the forty-year march to the Salt Lake Temple continued in place, the self-reliance perfected on the trek was multiplied in the survivalist and communal work of settling the land. The first decades of the Restoration receded into received history for the rising generation and growing immigrant population who knew not Bishop Newel K. Whitney, the Church’s first steward. He never lived to see any of the construction on Temple Block, but perhaps decades earlier when he and his wife Elizabeth decided to dispense with bootstraps and fling open the storehouse doors, it created the catalyst for the Kirtland Pentacost:
“Saturday, 9.–Thus saith the voice of the Spirit to me, if thy brother Joseph Smith, junior, will attend the feast at thy house this day (at 12 o’clock) the poor and the lame will rejoice at his presence, and also think themselves honored. ¶ Yours in friendship and love.¶ Newel K. Whitney ¶ Jan. 9, 1836.¶ I dismissed the school in order to attend to this polite invitation, with my wife, father, and mother. A large congregation assembled; a number were blessed under the hands of father Smith, and we had a good time.” (DHC 2:363; see JSP)
Elizabeth’s autobiography explains the motivation: “According to our Savior’s pattern and agreeably to the Prophet Joseph’s and our own ideas of true charity and disinterested benevolence, we were determined to make a Feast for the Poor, such as we knew could not return the same to us; the lame, the halt, the deaf, the blind, the aged and infirm.” (serialized in Woman’s Exponent 1 Oct 1878 p. 71) During this three-day recasting of the typical transactional welfare the Whitneys normally oversaw, Joseph, Sidney Rigdon and Frederick G. Williams were out among those who likely did not enjoy access to these brethren during their regular ministries. Father Smith circulated the crowd as well giving blessings, but there was no log of miracle healings. The guests were neither chastised for dependency or entitlement, nor spontaneously transformed into something more convenient for the benefactors. Unfortunately, the history of disability within the LDS tradition that these beneficiaries’ differences and contributions were not embraced either. However, this event seemed just enough to validate their place in the kingdom as best a 19th-century congregation could, and minimally heal the community as a whole.
Sister Whitney continues, “The Prophet Joseph often referred to this particular Feast during his lifetime, and testified of the great blessing he felt in associating with the meek and humble ones whom the Lord has said ‘He delights to own and bless’. He often said to me that it was proferable and far superior to the elegant and select parties he afterwards attended, and afforded him much more genuine satisfaction; and to me it was “a feast of fat things indeed; a season of rejoicing never to be forgotten.” (Woman’s Exponent 1 Nov 1878 p. 83) To be sure, unexamined platitudes of specialness and God’s favor are intended to comfort the person repeating them, and an intermittent charity Jubilee cannot wipe the slate clean for a season of neglect to follow. But once everyone had entered in, another feast was had in Kirtland eleven weeks later that I remain convinced could not have been enacted without the first.
So these provisions both literal and abstracted which I am carefully hoarding and have balanced an imaginary shotgun atop–as it were like an actual ax at the root of a doomed tree–they’re not for me. Whether on the longer haul of helping someone do for themselves, or the short-run satisfaction of outright sharing, the providently stocked wagon of an individuated self-reliance is not the endgame of Zion–it is a consecrated vehicle for me to be reconciled with the Saints so that we arrive there together.