Sunday, July 27, 2008

I See… Lost Lessons of Pioneer Paths- Making Miracles Happen

It is the duty of the Mormon Third Eye to introduce to the masses discreet, yet satisfying aspects of gospel principles that often get overlooked in our well-meaning rush to believe. And so it is with the plethora of inspirational stories of sacrifice and obedience that swirl around the history of our pioneer ancestors. As we celebrate another anniversary of Pioneer Days, we precipitously slip into another pioneer daze. Our hearts inexorably turn toward our pioneer ancestors and the sacrifices they made so that we may freely enjoy membership in a vibrant, growing Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. My wife and I have great-great-great grand ancestors who crossed the plains in trains, wagons, and handcarts, and have spent more than one family night sharing their stories with our children.


However, the lost pioneer limbs and lives will lose much of their meaning if lessons of sacrifice and obedience are all we learn. When the Third Eye sees beyond the moving quotes of Willie and Martin Handcart Company survivors (like my quadruple great grandmother Elizabeth!) swearing their allegiance to the only true and living God who preserved them in their infirmities, it finds additional lessons of how faith and grace, wisdom and miracles, should work in the lives of the Saints. This is just one of many episodes in church history when the whole story has so much more to offer than soundbites sometimes shared in shortened Sunday School sermons and Seminary soliloquies.

Church historian Andrew D. Olsen, in the underrated and thoroughly researched classic book “The Price We Paid,” documents all aspects of the Willie and Martin Handcart Company tragedy, from their Liverpool departure to their assimilation into the milieu of settled Saints along the Wasatch front. President Franklin D. Richards of the European Mission, assigned to arrange handcart emigration, visited with the Willie and Martin Handcart companies in Nebraska earlier in the fall. He arrived just before general conference in 1856 and provided President Young a relatively glowing account of their progress and hopes:

“The Saints that are now upon the plains, about 1,000 with handcarts, felt that it is late in the season, and they expect to get cold fingers and toes. But they have this faith and confidence towards God, that he will overrule the storms that may come in the season thereof and turn them away, that their path may be freed from suffering more than they can bear. They have the confidence to believe that this will be a mild fall.”

Contrast this with President Young’s much more moving and urgent remarks on the handcart companies the following day in General Conference:

"I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak to-day and during the conference, it is this, on the 5th day of October, 1856, many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with hand-carts, and probably many are now 700 miles from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them. The text will be, 'to get them here.' I want the brethren who may speak to understand that their text is the people on the plains, and the subject matter for this community is to send for them and bring them in before the winter sets in...

"I will tell you all, that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the celestial kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains, and attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties, otherwise your faith will be in vain; the preaching you have heard will be in vain to you, and you will sink to hell, unless you attend to the things we tell you."

How could Brigham Young receive a promising account of the handcart pioneers, then the very next day rally the Saints in General Conference to drop their songbooks and brave the elements to rescue them from certain death? God must have intervened.

In additional correspondence to church leaders, Brigham Young preached strongly about the welfare problems caused by the failure of those leaders with stewardship over the emigration effort. He pointed out that because the handcart saints came late in the season, “they have to be sustained by charity almost a year before they can do much for themselves.” Instead of contributing to the general economy, they became a heavy draw on the territory's resources. For example, hundreds of the territory's best men, who could have been planting thousands of acres of wheat, had to be employed in the rescue effort, transporting supplies out to the handcart emigrants that were badly needed at home. Brigham Young described the late emigration as “an evil that must be remedied in the future.” The effort to save the handcart saints was termed “a heavy task upon the people” and a “serious public detriment.”

In retrospect, Franklin D. Richards and others had promised, and were expecting, miracles absolving them from the consequences of poor choices: a decision to leave late in the season. Brigham Young also looked for help from heaven, but would not wait upon such miracles.

The real miracle was the rescue, not the journey.

The real lesson? Instead of waiting for miracles, we need to do all we can do to make them happen.

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