Learning the wrong lessons

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.


  1. rondell says:

    Our stake has a particular youth conference they do once every four years where the kids get limited sleep and little food — enough to keep them from dehydrating and starving. They then manufacture spiritual experiences by causing the kids to become emotional from hunger and sleep deprivation. It is almost cultlike. (My son had this one when we moved from a neighboring stake. My daughter definately will not be going to that one next year.)

    I think we do our kids a diservice when we manufacture experiences like that. Wouldn’t we be far better off teaching them how to have spiritual experiences in everyday life?

  2. Pardon me for leaving topic a bit, but this reminds me of my mission when one particular Elder stood to bear his testimony at a conference and talked about how incredibly hard his mission was, and how if it wasn’t hard, we must (as missionaries individually) being doing something wrong. I felt terrible. I was having fun. I felt even worse when another sister saw my companion and I smiling and said we looked like were having fun–and she was miserable. I even asked the mission president about it–who then, thankfully, explained some Elders “needed” to feel like they were suffering–and it was ok to have fun.

  3. rondell,

    That was similar to my experience being initiated into Order of the Arrow.

  4. The military likes to manufacture that sort of event, though usually the object is something along the lines of “you all are a team and can only rely on each other and you had better not let your buddies down because there is NO ONE on this planet who has the power or inclination to help you.” Which is useful when training people who have to go off alone into dangerous places and accomplish missions that make no clear sense at the time while trying not to let anyone on their team get killed — but I find it abhorrent when used in any other circumstances.

    Having said that, there’s something to be said for reenactments as a learning experience. It’s easy to say that the pioneers had a hard time when the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do is clean up after yourself occasionally and a real trial is defined as having several large school projects due in the same week that you’re doing Young Women in Excellence. For a lot of people, actual experience, even if manufactured, is the only way things become real (reading one of those journals is plenty for me, thanks.) This is why we have Colonial Williamsburg and hands-on science museums, after all.

    (note: my youngest LDS sister has come away from years of Girls Camp under the impression that church-related-travel requires weepy testimonies and constant Spiritual Experiences… it’s taken months to get her to agree to come to one of our low-key YSA Church history trips; she hates the feeling that she’s supposed to be crying.)

  5. I’ve never gone on trek, so I don’t have much to say about that specific experience (and perhaps shouldn’t comment, but hey, when does that really stop anyone around here?). My cousins went on trek a few years ago and there actually were three kids who suffered dehydration severe enough to require their evacuation on I think the second day. That part of the experience I think was what really made an impression on my cousins. The kids who were evacuated didn’t drink enough over the course of that first day and by the second were too dehydrated to continue safely. As easy as it is to get dehydrated during the summer it’s rarely something with any significant consequences because water is always easy to come by–until you really get out away from civilization.

    As annoying as the manufactured spirituality of these experiences is, they do teach a valuable lesson about the physical difficulty of the life our ancestors lived–regardless of whether they were pioneers in the mid-1800’s or not–and about how cushy our modern lives are. You can kind of get the same thing from going to certain foreign countries, but that kind of travel is a lot more expensive and I don’t think would teach the particular lesson you think should be taught any better.

  6. Wonderful post John C. You expressed eloquently my thoughts exactly.

    Rondell #1 What your stake (and my stake) has done is employ the dangerous tactics used by EST and other cults such as LifeSpring. I truly believe that the leaders do not realize this is what they are doing.

    EST was big when I was a teen (late 70’s). The system is to break the individual down by limiting sleep and nutrition. Individuals are forced to be humiliated, frightened by participating in something horrifying like killing an animal in order to eat, or mock death experience. After the individual is a complete mess they have a kind of a testimony mtg that is very emotional. Then they build them back up. It is then the leaders feed the participants a good meal and tell them how wonderful they are. This is what cults do to brainwash their followers. If the participants leave the group, often they are no longer brainwashed. Later these individuals are resentful that they have been manipulated.

    Our Stake leaders have been sold a bill of goods that this is how to create testimonies. The testimonies that they think are created are false because a false spirit was used to manipulate emotions. The so-called testimonies do not last and later anger is directed at the leaders for lying to them.

    You are right Rondell. We need to trust in the HG that it will manifest itself and teach our children to recognize it.

  7. You know, I went on a Pioneer Trek with my stake when I was 13 or 14. BYU ran the program. It wasn’t hard at all. It was fun–all of it, except for being a bit hungry. Read with no sarcasm.

  8. Melinda says:

    I went on Pioneer Trek as a teenager. It was really hard, and I remember having a great experience. The hard physical work and little food brings down all the regular social barriers. I liked that part.

    And quite a bit of it was just a great time. I remember laughing like crazy with the other girls when we went to wash our hair in buckets. We got to chase a turkey around (I didn’t stay around for when it was killed). What food we did have was greatly appreciated. We played a bunch of pioneer games, and everyone did it (see above comment about all the social barriers coming down, so no one was self-conscious about being cool).

    Anyway, I see the point of your post. But my Pioneer Trek was only hard the first day, and after that it was a lot of fun. It may re-create some of the difficulties, but it also re-creates the camaraderie and homemade good times the pioneers had.

    I guess there were weepy spiritual times too. I’m sure there were.

  9. Kristine what ever lesson they are trying to teach does not give anyone the right to abuse my child. Case in point. My oldest went on a pioneer trek( no other Benson kids will ever go on one again). They withheld water in 90 degree heat. Smart boy that he is sat down on the trail and refused to cooperate. He got his water. A few other kids ended up in the hospital. If the health and safety of the kid(s) is in jeopardy, the experience is not worth the price that is paid.

  10. “Life provides sufficient suffering; we don’t need to add to it.” Amen, Brother C.

    My crazy man-child insisted on going to his OA “ordeal” this last weekend and came back a happy camper. My oldest is a bit bent that it looks like they will not be trekking a la pioneer this summer or next. She wants to suffer in a cute dress just like her friends did four years ago. Crazy thinking!

    Why seek out trials when life hands them to you on a platter?

  11. I went on trek in 1986 in Utah. There were no extra special re-enacted experiences. It was not “life-changing.” I didn’t have any unusual spiritual experiences.
    It seems like these days they may take it a little too far.
    It was back then, for me, however, a wonderful experience to take a step back into the past (I love history) and see what it was like (sort of) to live life in someone else’s shoes (sort of) for a few days. I thought it was great! My family told me later they were shocked that I went since I hate camping, hiking and outdoorsy stuff. But I never considered not going, I thought it was a once in a lifetime opportunity.
    The deep fried scones were awesome.

  12. My son participated in some kind of trek re-enactment a couple years ago. It doesn’t sound as involved as what people here are describing—they just pulled some handcarts for a little ways. But a storm blew in and everyone got drenched and they had to run for shelter and they sang church songs until it had passed over. He still today says it’s the strongest he’s ever felt the Spirit.

  13. rondell says:

    Williamsburg, Nauvoo, etc are great places and great ways to learn if you are into that stuff. (I am.) I don’t see pioneer treks as the same thing.

    Pioneer treks seem disengenuous to me. I don’t mean to minimize the experiences of the pioneers, but they were used to some of the things they had to deal with, like no indoor plumbing, little or no understanding of germ theory, etc. They were generally used to working with their hands and making or trading for everything they needed. Although the trek west was arduous and sometimes deadly, it wasn’t something completely different to them.

    Taking our kids from a postindustrial/technological age having them live like its the agrarian and then say this is how the pioneer felt doesn’t seem right to me. They have no other preparation for the experience. Even the families in “Frontier House” or “1900s House” had training before they began living in another era. I could be wrong, but I think we might be able to better approximate the feelings and experiences of the pioneers by having our kids live like its 1930 or 1940 or something like that.

    I know this is oversimplified, but go ahead and tell me how wrong I am.

  14. rondell says:

    JA Benson I would like to ask you a question. Would you email me? a mile of smiles (all one word)at sbcglobal dot net.

  15. “Life provides sufficient suffering; we don’t need to add to it.”

    I agree with this generally, but my kids absolutely loved the trek our stake did. I think it all depends on the purpose seen by the leaders and the way that the trek is structured. It can be a great experience, but it can be contrived and manipulative. Leadership is key.

  16. Thomas Parkin says:

    I wonder if you can manufacture experience. You can try to be manipulative, and certainly that is never good, it’s the opposite of good. But, even the experience of being manipulated is a real experience. Even that teaches us something real if we are teachable. It isn’t as if we turn into plastic because we are participating in some kind of reinactment. You could say that all the world’s a stage. A place _designed_ where we could experience the same things that have happened in other worlds. The powerful play goes on, right? A play which has a run that never ends. You can say this without at all diminishing the reality of what happens to us. And, naturally, none of us lives or wants to live as if with a script – we are _in part_ writing our own script, so the metaphor isn’t infinitely stretchable.

    I also feel some resistance to the idea that God gives us advice that will always allow us to minimize difficulty or pain – that He always gives good advice in a ‘common sense’ sort of vein. Or that he would never give advice knowing that the results will, or could have (if you prefer), a tragic element. Jesus followed the Father’s will in all things and didn’t discover a life of ease, or of victory following on victory. He wasn’t steered out of the way of trouble. What does it mean that we are to take up our cross? The whole experience of this world is sometimes summed up as ‘the lone and dreary world’ or ‘the vale of tears.’ What is the meaning of being dropped like a baby into such a place. What is the J Smith quote? Something to the effect that to know God one must plunge the depths. To say “Yes” to existence you have to say “Yes” to loss, lack, suffering, imperfection. Obviously, we don’t seek to maximize our suffering – we seek to alleviate the suffering of both ourselves and others. Yet, suffering is always present, and by refusing to run headlong into it we sometimes might miss the thing that is going to add the greater dimension to our souls.

    Finally – I guess everyone gets to confront intellectually the possible meanings of the sufering they cause and experience, as well as cope with the emotional carnage that is present all around us, not always seen. I’ve a few times on he ‘naccle quoted a Kahil Gibran poem that says a lot to me in both regards. It’s late – I want to quote here a bit from Out of Africa that says a lot to on the subject …

    “At the time when the near return of Christ to earth had become a certainty, a Committee was formed to decide on the arrangements for His reception. After some discussion, it sent out a circular which prohibited all waving and throwing about of palm-branches as well as all cries of “Hosanna.”

    When the Millenium had been going on for some time, and joy was universal, Christ one evening said to Peter that He wanted, when everything was quiet, to go out for a short walk with him alone.

    “Where do you want to go, Lord?” Peter asked.

    “I shoud like,” answered the Lord, “just to take a walk from the Praetorium, along that long road, up to the Hill of Calvary.”


  17. My daughter and her husband will be ma and pa on a trek this month. It is difficult for them to do: she just finished her first year as an elementary school teacher, he works and goes to school and they have a 1 year old son. I have encouraged her to make the sacrifice to go because I have heard so many good things about treks. Now these posts have me worried.

  18. Randall says:

    My only contribution to these thoughts is a return to the Golden Mean. I’ve never been on a trek, but thoroughly enjoyed Scouting and had many powerful spiritual experiences on wilderness outings. Yes we suffered a little depravation, but it felt more like intense, honest living.

    I would be concerned about some of the forced exposure that people have described here, but don’t see anything hokey or disingenuous about the idea of attempting to recreate a heroic (if ill-fated) experience that is core to our genealogy.

    That being said, I agree with John C’s hypothesis, that an important take-away-message is that people shouldn’t let their zeal cloud their judgment.

  19. SC Taysom says:

    “Yes we suffered a little depravation.” I really, really hope that’s a typo.

  20. Actually, the Ordeal is really cool.

    And it’s so strickly controlled in most all lodges that anyone who can make it through fast Sunday will wonder what all the fuss is. (the bigger thing is the no talking…and having to do service projects). And it’s all about getting them to look at things from a somewhat different perspective–not brotherhood, cheerfulness, service–rather than cause a spiritual experience.

    (Honestly, I really can’t for the life of me understand the dislike of the OA in Mormon circles, most of the guys in my lodge (in the east so largely not LDS) were great guys, the adult advisors really dedicated to youth and really investing a lot in them, with good outcomes,…but that’s for another time.)

  21. Peter LLC says:

    John C.,

    Count me among your followers. I will pull your handcart anytime. (As long as their is a buffet waiting at the end of the hopefully not too long trail.)

  22. Peter LLC says:

    ahem, “there”

  23. John Mansfield says:

    TMD, our scout council had an old scout camp (Camp Bonanza on Mt. Charleston) that it was decommissioning and turning the land back over to the Forest Service. For my OA ordeal, our service was to tear apart every structure in the camp with hammers, crowbars and saws and pile up the debris in a central bonfire. That was sure a fun thing to do.

  24. TMD#20
    I get what you are saying. My son who went on the no-water-isn’t-it-great-trek, is also a big scouter and active in the OA. My boys have spent more time as scouts in non-LDS troops/camps. They have done some cool stuff. Safety is the goal of good scouting and at no time has anyone been evacuated at an Ordeal or camping.

    A friend in AZ’s Stake just went on a trek. They set up one of those no water not enough food experiences and one of the kids (big football player) started shaking and his eyes rolled back in his head. The adults did not have the medical supplies or medical knowledge to know what to do for him. He was evacuated out. What does this look like to the rangers who have to rescue us? Like a bunch of goofs in FLDS clothes, taking unnecessary risks, and then panicking when they get into trouble. Then we use tax payers money or church money to get rescued and insurance for the medical care.

    Noray have your daughter find out exactly what will occur. I would not want to be in charge of other peoples children if I could not guarantee a reasonable level of safety. No one wants to live with those memories and legal liabilities.

  25. Matt Rasmussen says:

    Prophetic that they are, the First Presidency sent a letter to Stake Presidencies and Bishoprics last month regarding safety concerns at church activities. It says that activities should be safe and leaders should use good judgment and the spirit when planning activities, including at least a dozen items on a checklist to make sure an activity is safe.

    I realize they can’t specify conditions for any activity that could be planned, but when leaders are dumb enough to withhold water in 90+ degree hopefully the spirit will kick in. ;)

    Reenactments can be beneficial to appreciate what the Pioneers went through and that they showed great faith migrating away from their homes to the desert but how does that increase our testimony in Jesus Christ? It’s far more important to teach our YM/YW to have great faith in the face of declining morals, peer pressure and a narcissistic society to use their faith to go on missions, get sealed in the temple and live productive, righteous lives.

  26. Mark B. says:

    I walked four miles to the park and back this morning with my yellow labrador retriever. She’s footsore and tired, and probably won’t get up much for the rest of the day.

    A manufactured experience? Sure. We could have stayed home and done the Times crossword–she doesn’t contribute much to that.

    For three summers in the late 60’s, my family (Mom, Dad, sisters, brother) went on backpacking vacations–to Grand Canyon and to Mt. Rainier. The second of those trips was about 75 miles (out of the 90-mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier–my dad’s knee and a driving rainstorm made us cut it short). Hardship? Not really, unless hiking in the rain for 10 miles a day is a hardship. Necessary? No, of course not. And, we could have traveled that same distance in the car in about an hour.

    But I wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything else we might have done. And we didn’t have any weepy testimony meetings at the end–we’ll save that for the funerals.

  27. Mark IV says:

    I’ve been on only one handcart trek. Here are my memories:

    1. Having the wheels fall of the carts before we were out of sight of the cars.

    2. Since there was no provision made for injury or exhaustion, kids who were too tired to continue or who sprained an ankle ended up in my handcart. At one point, I was pulling a cart carrying three kids. Uphill.

    3. The highlight of the trek was the shower at the end in the forest service campground. Men and boys were unashamedly pulling woodticks by the dozen off each others’ bare asses. (That’s for you, Jessawhy!) I don’t know if the same thing was going on on the women’s side, but I do know that two of our YW subsequently developed Lyme’s disease, which is a lifelong condition with no known cure.

    Never again.

  28. John Mansfield #23:

    That does sound fun–good, hard work, but fun. But then, I generally enjoy demolition, destruction and fire. My ordeal mostly involved spreading gravel on a 2 mile-long trail. I think you got the better one!

  29. Just a correct correction for Mark IV. Lyme Disease is not a lifelong condition with no known cure.

  30. Our stake is doing a trek this week. They are inspecting backpacks tonight for things like ipods, CD players, etc. (and pull them out). Our children are too young to participate, but I commented to my wife that “surely they can take cameras, right?”. No. No cameras. Either they don’t want the kids to memorialize the activity, or they don’t want evidence preserved.

    There is a thread about this same topic over on Mormon Mentality, where ESO’s stake wanted to do Trek in the bitter February in upstate New York. Idiots.

  31. My OA lodge must have been renegade. We were allowed to talk while not in earshot of the leaders (our supervisors were fairly permissive and snuck in food).

  32. Thomas P.,
    My point wasn’t to say that God’s advice always avoids suffering. My point was to say that God tends to steer us to what will make us happier in the long run (which may involve suffering now and for a while yet). That said, my more important point is that God stands by us, whether the suffering is self-inflicted or no. Unlike Gov. Mabey above, I do not believe that losing your family and a couple extremities in the driving Wyoming snow is a necessary condition for achieving salvation, though it undoubtedly helped some people.

  33. This headline is in the right sidebar:
    # Home improvement — Dream project by LDS youths stuns family – Deseret News

    It seems like a much better way to spend the time and money that’s spent on treks and youth conferences, and might also reach some kids, like mine, who are turned off by the somewhat cult-like aspects of treks, well, and youth conferences.

    I grew up on a ranch in northern Utah, with a dad who didn’t believe in most modern conveniences. (We carried the coal in for the furnace, and carried our own clinkers out, for example.) I feel absolutely NO need to reenact the handcart journeys. I have a perfectly functional imagination.

  34. Norbert says:

    I’ve never heard of treks except here. Do you rent the handcarts? Are there special permits for dragging a bunch of handcarts through a national forest? Are there companies that arrange the whole thing for a fee?

    It sounds self-indulgent and manipulative to me, but that’s why its probably successful with teenagers.

  35. Marjorie Conder says:

    Brother Webster was simply wrong in his overall conclusion. There were people from those companies who did leave the Church, most noteably the Chetesters (sp?) who also left us one of the best written records of the Willie/Martin trek experience. Webster was undoubtedly right as far as his own knowledge was concerned. However he was living in Parowan. It would be like you having an accurate handle, years later, of the later experiences (and Church activity) of the people you went to high school with. You have undoubtedly lost track of most of them. It is unfortunate that we keep pulling out this story when it can so easily be shown to be false, if anyone cares to follow through. But we do like our mythology.

    We also do a disservice to our youth (and the rest of us) when we assume that one experience (no matter what it is) will keep us safe for all time. We all fight the battles for our own souls everyday.

  36. Do it in the winter like these guys. If you want to celebrate foolishness, so it right!

  37. so it right = do it right

  38. Several years ago my family visited the Church’s Visitors’ Center near Martin’s Cove. I remember reading there that the leaders of the ill-fated handcart companies knew they were leaving unusually late in the year, but decided to proceed anyway because they were confident they would receive divine protection.

    I found this chilling–a miscalculation not of the dangers ahead, but of how the interaction between human choices and divine involvement would really play out. Perhaps God did not abandon the handcart pioneers, but it seems to me that He did allow them to suffer the consequences of their choices, at least to some extent. Did angels push the handcarts? Francis Webster thought so. Did the Martin/Willie handcart companies meet with disaster and tragedy nevertheless? Undeniably.

  39. I’m waiting for Ardis to jump in and tell us what the likelihood is that this statement was ever made in a Sunday school class, anywhere, Parowan or otherwise.

    Was someone there taking notes? (Not likely, eh? When’s the last time you saw someone taking notes in Sunday school?) How about a recording? Not back then–nobody had a pocket-sized digital recorder to whip out when the good stuff started. Maybe the angels above us silent notes took. Ok. You tell me when they send you an email with the write-up.

    Or is this one of those embellished stories that just isn’t likely to have ever happened? Like the switchman and the little girl and the train and Dear God have mercy on us. Or the generals in the war in heaven. Or almost any faith-promoting story told by a CES employee. Or any such story told at EFY. Or the whole of King Benjamin’s people responding, in one voice, and reciting four coherent verses–all in sentences with clauses dependent, independent and relative. Come on, what did we have there, a whole congregation of Richard Posners? (Actually, my pet theory on that one is that someone had done up the words before, and the congregation sang them.)

    So, what’s the provenance on the Webster story? Did it appear anywhere before Especially for Mormons?

  40. I’ve been involved as an adult in one handcart trek, a wilderness youth conference that involved a lot of fasting (but plenty of water), and several high adventures with the YM, one of which we fondly call the “Death March in the Desert”. I’ve taken away a couple of lessons.

    First, I really don’t believe in creating suffering for sufferings sake. Physical hardship, as in pulling a handcart, is probably a good experience for many of our youth. But needlessly creating suffering, pain, or emotional distress artificially is not good.

    I’ve decided that fasting while participating in strenuous activity is not good. Short rations are not good. Feed them big meals, lots of junk food snacks, and plenty to drink in hot weather.

    As to the safety issues, our Death March in the Desert taught me that I don’t want to be 1000 miles from home, 5 miles from the nearest road, and with one fifth of my idiot young men deciding that they want to take home samples of desert sand, so they dump out their water bottles and fill them with red sand from the bottom of a slot canyon in Southern Utah in July. You always have to have a quick exit strategy, and plenty of adults so that a couple can take sick or injured kids and still have enough to stay with the rest of the group. And prepare for every eventuality. Ticks, altitude sickness, heatstroke, kids taking the wrong turn on a trail and getting lost, blisters with staph infections, you name it, I’ve seen it. I don’t think the kid that I had to haul out of the bottom of Flaming Gorge on a canoe trip and take him to a hospital had a terribly spiritual experience. On the other hand, without going into details, the Death March turned out to be a high point of many of the church experience of those YM who participated, but we didn’t plan to have problems. We just planned to deal with them if they came up. Big difference.

  41. “On the other hand, without going into details, the Death March turned out to be a high point of many of the church experience of those YM who participated, but we didn’t plan to have problems. We just planned to deal with them if they came up. Big difference.”

    Thank you, kevin. That is an important and relevant distinction, I think.

  42. Marjorie Conder says:

    President McKay was fond of the Webster story and he is usually used as the reference today. I have no doubt Webster said it, but it is just not true. CES, Church Magazines, lesson writers etc. could establish this in the Church Archives in quick order if they wanted to. But I suspect they and we don’t really want to know. (We much prefer our pioneers dying.) About ten years ago when at least some folk thought I was some sort of Mormon trail expert (I never thought of myself that way, however) I was forever being asked,in breathless tones, “How many pioneers died?” One time it just popped out of my mouth, “All of them!” Absolutely ture and absolutely useless. But people wanted a big number so I gave them one. (It is all the wrong focus anyway.) End of rant.

  43. Marjorie,

    Mu admittedly limited understanding, though, is that as sad as the Willey/Martin experience was, that the death rate was actually only twice the average of what was typical of the westward trek before the advent of the railroad. Do you know if that is true?

  44. When I was 16 we had a stake conference at a Seventh Day Adventist camp in the woods. One of the festivities was a hardcart trek and our stake president was the head of our group. Unfortunately we got lost and spent hours hungrily trekking through the woods until we got to the top of a cliff and found that we were in the suburbs of Prescott, AZ! The youth conference wasn’t the most spiritual experience, but being in a Adventist(aka meatless) camp, our ward bonded at night talking about how a nice burger or steak would taste. Even if such activities aren’t the most spiritual, they provided moments when we inadvertantly bonded, which helped most of us stay active until we were adults.

  45. I attended a pioneer trek back in the day – ours was pretty benign, we were well fed even though we had to kill and pluck our own chicken and dig a huge pit and fill it with hot rocks and bury the chicken in it for hours (it was DELICIOUS by the way). But I agree that the weepy testimony meeting was a little bit manufactured. I think also that a lot of the spiritual experiences I had as a youth and also in the MTC were manufactured.

    For youth, I don’t know if that’s necessarily a bad thing – perhaps the end justifies the means. But as an adult trying to rebuild a fragile testimony, I’ve been weeding through my catalogue of spiritual experiences to sort out which ones are really authentic, and which ones are just a reaction to the dramatics and theatrics of LDS propaganda films or the urgings of YW leaders. I think youth are done a disservice by having artificial emotional experiences identified as the real deal – sometimes the real deal is so subtle it can seem anti-climactic in comparison and important spiritual experiences can be overshadowed by weepy hunger-induced testimony meetings.

  46. Marjorie Conder says:

    kevinf–I don’t know what the overall westerning death rate was. I know that according to Stegner, everyone was exagerating their numbers at the turn of the 20th century–including us. (Why everyone wanted the highest death rate is surely a mystery.) I do know that the overall death rate for the Mormon pioneers, even factoring in the Willie and Martin and WQ numbers is only about 1% higher than if everyone had stayed at home. (You might have noticed that people die most everywhere–she says–only “slightly” sarcastically. Not aimed at you however.)

    I do know that even at the time the Mormons were perceived by others as having a lower death rate. I even encountered a Oregon Trail buff once who claimed that the Mormons weren’t “real” pioneers because not enough of them died.!?!?

  47. JA Benson–Nobody on the trek trip was denied water. My Uncle, who was there as both a parent and as health support, said he encouraged the kids in question to drink more water. The kids chose to not listen and got sick, at which point my Uncle called for them to be removed. It wasn’t quite the abusive situation you seem to be imagining, and it sounds like your son experienced. I’d agree denying water to kids on trek, or in any strenuous situation, is abusive, and incredibly stupid. But that wasn’t what happened (at least not to my knowledge).

  48. molly bennion says:

    #45 JaneW, Wonderful comment! Less artificial emotion and more solid discussion of doctrine and its worth in everyday life would resonate with many who yearn to know what is right, not just what feels good.

  49. FWIW, Chad Orton’s examination of the Webster story, entitled “Francis Webster: The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice,” (BYU Studies) is available here.

    Another BYU Studies article of his, this one entitled “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” is available here. (I noticed that Elder Quentin L. Cook cited this article in his April 2008 general conference talk.)

  50. Howard Christy’s article entitled “Weather, Disaster, and Responsibility: An Essay on the Willie and Martin Handcart Story” also comes to mind here.

  51. Eric Russell says:

    “But needlessly creating suffering, pain, or emotional distress artificially is not good”

    Should I stop weight training? I think we are often too quick to dismiss the value of events that have no immediate concrete value as “needless.”

    As our society grows fatter, lazier and more emotionally fragile, it seems to me that we stand in need of as much physical and emotional exercise as possible. If kids are suffering from physical or emotional distress from such events as Trek and OA, we’ve got some serious problems.

    The very existence of such reactions doesn’t demonstrate to me that these kinds of activities ought to be eschewed, but rather that they need to be increased in both frequency and intensity.

  52. The youth in the ward reported on their pioneer trek last year. The girls wept as they testified that angels helped them push their carts up a hill that was no more than 1/4 mile. I worry about the emotional manipulation used on some treks. When the kids really need to know will they be able to separate the inspiration of the H.G. and emotion?

  53. Eric,
    I am unconvinced. Your decision to weight train is a separate issue. You can make it on your own without pressure from the church to participate (until our views on the WoW radically change). Further, your decision to weight train has nothing to do with your testimony (I am assuming). You are not doing it in order to invite the Spirit into your life or learn more about God. Nor are you doing it in remembrance of the many weight-lifters who have gone before. One may choose physical hardship as a way to develop, but that is marked different from what is going on in these cases.

    Trek is not designed for weight loss.

  54. Eric Russell says:

    John, I agree that Trek as a spiritual experience is problematic, for all the reasons given in this thread. I’m just saying there’s value in such an experience for the experience itself, straight-up.

  55. Eric,

    In my experience, there is a difference between creating hard work and physical activity (besides sports) that forces our youth out of their comfort zones, and creating artificially difficult events. The trek I participated on was fun, and involved a lot of hard work, including hauling our heavily loaded handcart up over a very steep ridge. Where the line is crossed is in denying them water or food, or loading the handcart with rocks to make it heavier, things of that sort.

    To me, there is something valuable in getting kids (and ourselves) outdoors, confronting nature and God’s handiwork first hand, and on its own terms. That usually involves muscle power of a type they typically aren’t used to doing, or me either for that fact. But suffering? No, that’s not part of the program, and really isn’t helpful for someone else to impose on them.

    I appreciate the pain analogy in weight training, but again, I might take some issue there. If it is something you do to yourself, for your own goals, that is okay. But if it is imposed by someone else for their agenda, that’s different.

    I even have some issue with killing your own food being manipulated for emotional impact. We all need to know where our food comes from, especially our youth, but sometimes the practice, as I have observed it, is often more about the emotional response, and not about the lesson.

  56. For some reason, I feel compelled to post this on behalf of DKL.

  57. A weight trainer would never dehydrate and starve themselves and then start maxing out their first ever training session. Other than foolish wrestlers, no athlete would combine exercise with fasting.

    Hunger and emotional manipulation are the lasting memories of my first and last youth confrence.

  58. The system is to break the individual down by limiting sleep and nutrition. Individuals are forced to be humiliated, frightened by participating in something horrifying like killing an animal in order to eat, or mock death experience. After the individual is a complete mess they have a kind of a testimony mtg that is very emotional. Then they build them back up. It is then the leaders feed the participants a good meal and tell them how wonderful they are.

    Actually, this is precisely the type of brainwashing that I went through prior to the year that I spent in the cult known as the University of Utah Marching Band. Seriously.

    On another note — and I’ve told this story before in the ‘nacle, I think, so sorry for the repeat — but this all reminds me of the testimony meeting in the MTC in which one lugheaded Elder in my district got up and, with hands firmly grasping the sides of the podium, proclaimed that he would be proud to die for Christ. And I thought to myself, hmmm, that’s a nice sentiment. So why, then, can’t you be bothered to learn the discussion scriptures or study your Spanish verb conjugations for Christ? Cause he needs that more than your martyrdom fantasies right now.

  59. I gotta defend you conferences here a little bit: I never remember any of these things at them. Heck, even the fasting–done because it actually was fast sunday–was made optional by the provision of a ‘snack’ the night before, for those who wanted/needed it and a full meal right after.

    Also, I’ve always kind of admired wrestlers: while high school girls’ eating disorders are a problematic art, high school wrestlers practice anorexic and bulemic behaviors as a science!

  60. Are emotionally overwrought testimonies at youth conference much increased after a handcart pull as compared to after a round of workshops, volleyball on the grass or sand, and a dance?

  61. Researcher says:

    Thanks for the links, Justin (49 and 50).

    Interesting reading. I remember a woman trying to make the point that our prophets were not inspired because that Webster quote was not entirely true.

    While I think it is very silly to try and make that point, it also illustrates the point that emotional manipulation can be a dangerous thing to certain types of people. Meanwhile, others love it (see 52).

  62. Update on our Stake’s pioneer trek, that did not include any Bensons. The trek was cut short because a trekker was lost and rescuers had to be called in. Sigh.

  63. One of my ancestors was a convert from Denmark. He kept a pretty good journal. He wrote in great detail about his suffering as a Danish soldier in the War of Schleswig (about 1850). He also described the misery of crossing the North Atlantic in a ship. This is all he wrote about traveling to Utah in a Handcart Company:

    “We crossed plains and rivers and mountains, nothing could keep us from reaching Zion.”

    I think for most handcart companies, the experience was hard but relatively pleasant compared to a month or two at sea. In fact, other pioneer accounts that I’ve read indicate that “light mindedness” in the handcart companies was a bigger problem than the murmuring the comes with suffering.

    If we really want our kids to have a pioneer experience, we should let them sail the North Atlantic in the hold of wooden ship. The testimonies of overcoming sea sickness would be priceless.

  64. #63 – Yeah, we do tend to focus on the part of the trip that was perhaps the easiest part for many – just because the deaths were so well-known and documented.

  65. Most of what we do in the Church – whether it’s a pioneer trek or the sacrament – serves to bring us closer to the Spirit not by opening some magic door, but by focusing our minds and helping us to remember. They also give us shared experiences that bring us closer as a ward or stake family. I’ve had amazing experiences on a trek and at camp. I agree that purposeful, extreme suffering is not necessary. But a little discomfort to wake us up and make us think is not necessarily a bad thing.

  66. A young man’s testimony of the BOM during a youth conference was pivotal in my daughter receiving her own testimony. At first I was afraid she had a testimony of the boy and not the book, but that was not the case. True testimonies can touch the heart whenever and where ever they are borne.

  67. Just got back from our stake’s trek. Everyone loved it–sore feet, several days’ layers of dust and sweat, aching muscles, all of it.

    We provided LOTS of support. For 150 kids, we had around 70 adults. A Ma and Pa for each group of 8-10 kids, a few leaders trekking along, and all the rest were mostly invisible. Each company (a third of the group) had 3 medical support members and a ham radio person. An additional 2 nurses at base camp with relief tents. Close to a thousand gallons of extra water, hundreds of pounds of ice, 11 ATVs, and feuled vehicles with navigators pre-set to local hospital. We also had some ingenius logistics that kept most all of it out of sight from the kids.
    It was a ton of work. But every one of us that saw them helping their neighbors by pushing a second or third cart up a difficult hill (some singing between grunts!), camped in their “families” at the end of the trail, sack racing and tug-of-warring with all the might their tired bodies could muster, kicking up a mile-high cloud of dust at the final night’s dance, and bearing testimony of Christ and their legacy of faith with tears streaking their dusty sunburned faces, thought it a small price.

  68. My daughter and her husband made it back from their trek last Saturday and even though they were sunburned and exhausted, she said it was worth it. I am glad hers turned out that way; I wish everyone else’s could have.

  69. This is comming in here a little bit late, but this is the best place I can find to post this…

    I am a member of a Stake YM Presidency in Northern Utah. Our stake is planning to do Pioneer Trek next summer at Martin’s Cove. They have done this four times prior and have a ‘tradition’ associated with it.

    I have never been on Trek, it always seemed rather manipulative to me, and it really didn’t seem to have a long lasting effect on the people I knew who did go. Still I am trying to have an objective opinion as I go into this.

    Still I have some very serious concerns going into this venture.

    1) Cost: with rising gas prices it is going to cost nearly $50,000 to put this on. I have to ask, is it really worth that? I’ve heard lots of tales of kids whose lives have been turned around by going on trek and how that is worth any cost, but what about the kids whose experience was terrible, was it worth it to them?

    2) Safety: no matter how many prepared adults there are on the trail, it still seems that someone gets sick, hurt or has to drop out. I’ve heard several tales of near death experience on several Trek efforts. It does not seem right to put people in peril like that.

    3) Cultism: as I read more about some of the methodoligies used on Trek, it reads more and more like cult practices, behavior modification techniques and serious manipulation of tender young minds. I seems more like a wilderness therapy program with costumes than a gospel oriented adventure. This aspect really bothers me.

    The whole experience seems designed to manipulate emotions with the use of contrived, falsified, extreme experiences than to encourage spiritual growth. This is a serious concern.

    I have expressed some of this concern and seem to merely get brushed aside since I am the young guy with the least amount of experience. After reading the posts here, it seems that I am not the only one who believes that Trek isn’t all it is cracked up to be…especially considering how expensive it is.

    Finally, I feel like we are doing the Youth a dis-service by teaching them that they have to go out into the wilderness to have spiritual experiences rather than taking the time in our regular activities to teach them that they can have spiritual, testimony building experiences right here, right now…

  70. Fifty thousand Dollars? FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS????

    Honestly, I would cave to counter-arguments against your other objections. But FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS?????????!!!!!!!!

    That’s an abomination.

  71. For our group to travel all the way to Martin’s Cove requires the rental of busses and paying for diesel fuel. That is a 7.5 hour drive for at least $6 a gallon. The last time we went (two years ago) just transportation costs were $30,000. So we figure with the additional costs for transportation, rising food costs, quadrupling BLM fees, it will be at least $50,000 to put this on.

    That is way excessive to me.

    Our neighboring stake just came home from Martin’s Cove and had two dozen kids hooked to IV’s because of dehydration. That does not seem like a worthwhile activity to me…

  72. Mark IV says:

    Mt. T,

    Just for some perspective, I looked at at my stake’s budget for the year. The entire amount allotted for the year for all wards and branches in the stake totals up to just under $55,000.00. That’s for everything – primary, YW, YM, RS, ward activities, annual order from the distribution cener for manuals, everything.

    It’s easy to go overboard with youth stuff, I’ve done it with my own kids. But we ought to resist it and try to do better.

  73. Left Field says:

    Does anyone know when and how this trek thing got started? I never heard of it when I was a youth. It seems like it’s only been the last 6-8 years that I’ve been aware of the practice.

    Am I the only one who is slightly irritated by the phrase going on trek? Shouldn’t it be going on a trek? We don’t say going on drive or going on hike. What is it about a trek that requires dropping the article?

    And yeah, $50,000 is an abomination.

  74. Mr. T,

    I sincerely agree with all of your concerns. The cost is absurd. If the stake is intent on manufacturing emotional experiences and calling it the Spirit, they can do that on an overnighter close to home (just don’t send my kids). Save the cash, and instead have the kids donate money to a good cause and see if they then feel the actual Spirit.

    I think this is a cause worth fighting for.

  75. Pioneer Trek started as a summer youth activity at BYU and was sponsored by CES. They had paid volunteers who ran the Trek’s all summer long, and they would go up into the canyon above the school.

    I don’t know when it all got started but I do know that it was in full swing in the late 70’s and into the 80’s. It abruptly ended in the 90’s. The offical reason from BYU was the expense and time involved. The un-official reason was because of lawsuits involving some injured kids and the death of one leader.

  76. “If the stake is intent on manufacturing emotional experiences and calling it the Spirit” – *sigh*

  77. Peter LLC says:

    We don’t say going on drive or going on hike.

    You do if you are a Russian.

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