Martin & Willie Hand Cart Companies: Evidence of Uninspired Prophets and/or Leaders, or Stellar Examples to Us of How to Bear Up Under (Much Lesser!) Trials?
By Ken K. Gourdin
In a thread started at Mormon Dialogue and Discussion leveling criticism at President Brigham Young and others for allowing the Martin and Willie Hand Cart companies of pioneers to begin their crossing of the plains so late in the season (about 1/4th of the members of the companies lost their lives because of an early winter that year), I quoted Francis Webster. He and his wife were members of one of the companies, and he heard similar criticism of leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in a Sunday school class. To that criticism, he responded:
“Cold historic facts mean nothing here for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Hand Cart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that Company and my wife was in it. … 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 hand cart? 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 Hand Cart Company.”
Source: Chad Orton, “Francis Webster: The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice,” BYU Studies, vol. 45, no. 2 (2006) 117, accessed on line at the following address on July 17, 2015:
[Ellipses in original.]
I wrote, “That’s Francis Webster’s testimony.” Then I added, “Here’s what Levi Savage said after discouraging the companies from departing so late”:
Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true, but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you. May God have mercy bless and preserve us.
Source: http://trek.csnorth.org/PioneerAccounts/LeviSavage.pdf, accessed July 17, 2015.
In response, another poster wrote, “Apparently there was very selective spiritual help among the handcarters. Of the 576 in the Martin Handcart Company, one fourth of them froze and or starved to death including babies and small children. How can one person have help and the rest just manage the best they can.”
Much more than one person had help. If they hadn’t things likely would have been even worse for the two companies. That’s what I keep coming back to, pretty much every time I try to convince God how much my life sucks (and believe me, while I have no corner on challenges or suffering, there are a lot of things I would change about it if I could). Essentially, God says, “How do you know things couldn’t be worse?” And I have to admit, I dunno. His purposes are as inscrutable to me as they are to anyone else. As Paul Simon sang so well, “God only knows. God makes His plans. The information’s unavailable to the mortal man. We work at our jobs, collect our pay, believe we’re gliding down the highway when, in fact, we’re slip slidin’ away.” I can only have faith and hope that, one day, I will understand God’s currently-inscrutable purposes. If you don’t believe that adversity can tutor and refine a person or that God can use even what seem to us to be horrible things to accomplish those purposes, that’s your business.
I admit, I don’t understand the interplay between what God causes, what He merely allows, and what He chooses to intervene to prevent, but I do know He’s not like Santa Claus: He doesn’t give us “presents” when we’re “good” and “lumps of coal” when we’re “bad.” As Rabbi Harold Kushner once so memorably put it, “Expecting to have a trouble-free life because you are a good person is like expecting the bull not to charge you because you’re a vegetarian.” Bulls charge people; it’s what they do. Sometimes, life sucks; it is what it is. Often, we cannot choose our circumstances; we can only choose how we react to them.
As the scriptures put it, “God maketh his sun to shine on both the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust” [Matthew 5:45]. Nephi surely didn’t understand the reasons for everything that happened to him, but he said, “I know not the meaning of all things; nevertheless, I know that [God] loveth his children” [1 Nephi 11:17, The Book of Mormon]. Job didn’t deserve everything that happened to him, but he still said, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” [Job 1:21]. Joseph Smith neither understood nor deserved everything that happened to him. He cried out, “O God, where art thou, and where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place,” [Doctrine & Covenants 121:1] and was told, “My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment. And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high, and thou shalt triumph over all thy foes” [Doctrine & Covenants 121:7-8]. And the Savior of the world told him, “The son of man hath descended below [all things],” and asked, “Art thou greater than He?” [Doctrine & Covenants 122:7-8].
And it’s not as though Francis Webster and others didn’t suffer, simply because they happened to live through the experience. If I were a betting man, I would bet that many of them suffered the effects of the trek long afterward, for the rest of their lives, in many cases. But, by and large, like Francis Webster, they were grateful to have lived through it (continuing challenges notwithstanding). It’s incomprehensible to me, as it is to all of us, but Christ said that God notices even a sparrow’s fall and asked if we’re not worth many sparrows. I can’t wrap my mortal, finite mind around the implications that “All flesh is in [God’s] hand,” [Doctrine & Covenants 61:6] or that, as he told Joseph Smith, and as I believe is true of all of us, “Thy days are known, and shall not be numbered less. Fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever” [Doctrine & Covenants 121:9]. And the Apostle Paul wrote that “All things work together for the good of them that love God” [Romans 8:28]. Not just the “good” stuff, and not just the things we understand, but all things.
My faith often wavers; the words of the man who besought the Savior to cast an evil spirit out of his son often are a perfect description of it: “Lord, I believe; help Thou mine unbelief” [Mark 9:24]. I’ve fallen more times than I can count. Sometimes, I wonder why I keep getting back up, but I do: I get back up, dust myself off, and jump back into the fray. I have a very flawed, finite, mortal perspective, but Joseph Smith also taught that all of our losses would be made up to us in the end, provided we continue faithful. [See Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, sel. Joseph Fielding Smith (1976), 296.] The one thing I try to hold onto is that no matter what else happens to me, I know God loves me. He doesn’t love me because I’m perfect, or because I always do what He wants me to do, or because I do that even most of the time. He loves me for the same reason my earthly father does: because I’m His son, and because that’s just what He does. But I learned a long time ago not to count on an easy life being a sign of God’s favor; it’s not. “Whom the Lord loveth, He chasteneth” [Hebrews 12:6].
Another poster critiqued my interlocutor’s implicit position that death is the worst possible thing that can happen to a person. I responded, “Depends on what one has to survive, I suppose. They wouldn’t call it ‘enduring to the end’ if there were nothing to endure. I can understand the ‘selective-spiritual-help’ and ‘why-did-God-help-some-to-survive-while-allowing-others-to-die’ perspectives, if one believes that there wasn’t a life before this one and there isn’t one after it.”