Church History Lesson 35 (D&C 4; 18; 52; 81; 138)
It was Satan who proposed that there should never be any trial, tragedy, or need for rescue in this world. And still today, we frequently hear the refrain, “If there were a God he would never let this happen!” That is Satanic doctrine—the easy way with never a need for sorrow, suffering, or pain. But our wise Heavenly Father knows that we cannot become perfected without passing through the fires of adversity. We become acquainted with [God] in [our] extremities.”1 Also, we could never show Christ-like love (charity) if there were never any people in need. This week’s lesson is about that need in our lives.
By 1856 the cost of outfitting a team, a wagon, and provisions in the East had more than doubled. Thus came the first challenge: How could the Saints obey the call to gather to Zion if they did not have the means to do so?
President Brigham Young wrote to Franklin D. Richards, European mission president, in September 1855, “We cannot afford to purchase wagons and teams as in times past, I am consequently thrown back upon my old plan—to make handcarts, and let the emigration foot it, and draw upon them the necessary supplies, having a cow or two for every ten. They can come just as quick, if not quicker, and much cheaper—can start earlier and escape the prevailing sickness which annually lays so many of our brethren in the dust.”2
A general epistle by the First Presidency giving detailed instructions on handcart travel was read at the October 1855 general conference but was not acted upon until 1856. It was estimated that using handcarts would reduce emigration costs by a third to a half for each person. Consequently many more people could come to Zion through the available Perpetual Emigration Fund.
Handcart Successes and Tragedies
Immigration during 1856 was unusually large with many of the Saints crossing the plains for the first time by handcart. Saints from Europe arrived at eastern seaports, then made their way by railroad to Iowa City, Iowa. There, they arranged for handcarts designed for either pushing or pulling a load of 100–500 pounds of food and clothing.
The first Mormon handcart company left Iowa City, 9 June 1856, and arrived in Salt Lake City 26 September 1856. Three more companies crossed the plains that year without incident, arriving safely in the Salt Lake Valley between 26 September and 2 October. Between 1856 and 1860, ten handcart companies traveled to Utah, eight of them reaching the Salt Lake Valley successfully.
The Martin and Willie handcart companies, however, were caught in an early winter and many Saints among them perished. They had started late from Liverpool and were further delayed in Iowa City awaiting the construction of new handcarts. Because the wood for these carts was not properly seasoned, extensive repairs were necessary in Florence, Nebraska, which further slowed them.
One of their leaders, Levi Savage, had urged the Saints to remain at Winter Quarters until spring, but he was voted down by the enthusiastic but naive immigrants. Levi Savage declared, “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 in Ms mercy bless and preserve us.”3
As the Saints prepared for general conference in Salt Lake City in October 1856, everyone assumed that the arrival of the third handcart company ended the immigration that year. But Franklin D. Richards, who had come into the valley two days prior to the conference, announced that two handcart companies and two oxcart supply trains were still on the plains and desperately needed food and clothing to finish the journey.
When President Brigham Young learned that these companies were still on the plains, he spoke to the Saints who had gathered for general conference:
“The text will be, ‘to get them here.’ . . . I shall call upon the bishops this day, I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. . . .
“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.”4
The response was immediate. Sixteen wagon loads of food and supplies were quickly assembled; and on the morning of 7 October, sixteen good four-mule teams and twenty-seven young men (known as President Brigham Young’s “Minute Men”) headed eastward with the first provisions. Additional help was obtained from all parts of the territory. By the end of October, two hundred and fifty teams were on the road to give relief.
Relief parties finally found the Willie Company on 19 October a few miles east of South Pass, and the Martin Company 9 days later, further back near the last crossing of the North Platte River. Some rescuers looking for the Martin Company had turned back thinking that the immigrants must have found some kind of winter quarters. The Saints in both companies were freezing, listless, and near starvation. Scores of them were already dead, and even after help arrived, nearly 100 more died.
One of the first to find the desperate Martin Company was the hardy Ephraim Hanks, who had killed and butchered a buffalo on his way.
Ephraim Hanks recalled, “I reached the ill-fated train just as the immigrants were camping for the night. The sight that met my gaze as I entered their camp can never be erased from my memory. The starved forms and haggard countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly, shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal was enough to touch the stoutest heart. When they saw me coming, they hailed me with joy inexpressible, and when they further beheld the supply of fresh meat I brought into camp, their gratitude knew no bounds.”5
Bringing the suffering immigrants into the valley was difficult. Many of the women were widowed and the children orphaned. Several could not walk because of frozen feet and legs. When shoes and stockings were removed from the feet of fourteen-year-old Maggie Pucell and her ten-year-old sister Ellen, the skin came off. The dead flesh was scraped off Maggie’s feet, but Ellen’s were frozen so badly that amputation just below the knees was necessary.
The Willie Company arrived in Salt Lake City on 9 November, and the Martin Company dragged into the city before cheering Saints on 30 November. In December, members of the independent wagon trains, who had rested at Fort Bridger, reached the valley.
Over 200 members of the two ill-fated handcart companies died before they could reach Zion. More people died in these two companies than in any other immigrant group in the United States. The fault was not in the method of travel, as many critics claim (seeking to discredit Brigham Young). It was the result of a combination of many unusual and largely unforeseen circumstances, and of a decision, made by the travelers themselves, to leave after it was safe to do so.
In subsequent years the Church sponsored five more handcart companies, and each of them arrived in the valley without undue hardship.
LESSONS OF THE RESCUE
D&C 52:40 reminds us that we are commanded to help “the poor and the needy, the sick and the afflicted.” There is no shortage of opportunity to do so.
President Gordon B. Hinckley said: “Stories of the beleaguered Saints and of their suffering and death will be repeated again and again. . . . Stories of their rescue need to be repeated again and again. They speak of the very essence of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”6
President Hinckley said concerning the Willie and Martin Handcart tragedy:
“They were in desperate trouble. Winter had come early. Snow-laden winds were howling across the highlands.. . . Our people were hungry; their carts and their wagons were breaking down; their oxen dying. The people themselves were dying. All of them would perish unless they were rescued. I think President Young did not sleep that night. I think visions of those destitute, freezing, dying people paraded through his mind.
“The next morning he came to the old Tabernacle which stood on this square. He said to the people: ‘I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak. . . . It is this: Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts, and probably many are now seven hundred miles from this place, and they must be brought here, we must send assistance to them The text will be, ‘to get them here’. . . . That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people. . . . 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.’”7
President Hinckley continued by observing that on November 30, 104 wagons, loaded with suffering human cargo, came into the Salt Lake Valley. Word of their expected arrival had preceded them. It was Sunday, and again the Saints were gathered in the Tabernacle. President Brigham Young stood before the congregation and said:
“‘As soon as this meeting is dismissed I want the brethren and sisters to repair to their homes. . . . The afternoon meeting will be omitted, for I wish the sisters to . . . prepare to give those who have just arrived a mouthful of something to eat, and to wash them and nurse them. . . . Some you will find with their feet frozen to their ankles; some are frozen to their knees and some have their hands frosted. . . . ; we want you to receive them as your own children, and to have the same feeling for them.’”8 9
OUR NEED TO RESCUE OTHERS
We might well remember today that the entire purpose of the plan of salvation is to rescue the children of our Heavenly Father from difficulties both temporal and spiritual. Our Church councils today rarely get underway without a brief discussion of a “rescue” that has occurred in our midst. We rescue through charitable service and welfare. We rescue through missionary work. And we rescue through saving ordinances in our temples.
President Thomas S. Monson tells the story of three young men rescuing the handcart pioneers, saying that if we consider their heroic acts “we will emerge from our visit with a better appreciation of hardship borne, courage demonstrated, and faith fulfilled. We will witness with tear-filled eyes a dramatic answer to the question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’
“The handcarts moved on November 3 and reached the [Sweetwater] river, filled with floating ice. To cross would require more courage and fortitude, it seemed, than human nature could muster. Women shrank back and men wept. Some pushed through, but others were unequal to the ordeal.
“‘Three eighteen-year-old boys belonging to the relief party came to the rescue; and to the astonishment of all who saw, carried nearly every member of that ill-fated handcart company across the snow-bound stream The strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effects of it. When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and later declared publicly, “That act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial kingdom of God, worlds without end.”’10
“Our service to others may not be so dramatic, but we can bolster human spirits, clothe cold bodies, feed hungry people, comfort grieving hearts, and lift to new heights precious souls.”11
President Monson said that, while our service may not be as dramatic as the sacrifice made by the three young men in the story, we can help rescue family members, friends, and others through our simple daily efforts to love, serve, and teach them.
President Hinckley said all of the following things about our need to rescue others:
“There are so many who are hungry and destitute across this world who need help. . . . Ours is a great and solemn duty to reach out and help them, to lift them, to feed them if they are hungry; to nurture their spirits if they thirst for truth and righteousness.
“There are so many young people who wander aimlessly and walk the tragic trail of drugs, gangs, immorality, and the whole brood of ills that accompany these things. There are widows who long for friendly voices and that spirit of anxious concern which speaks of love. There are those who were once warm in the faith, but whose faith has grown cold. Many of them wish to come back but do not know quite how to do it. They need friendly hands reaching out to them. With a little effort, many of them can be brought back to feast again at the table of the Lord.
“My brethren and sisters, I would hope, I would pray that each of us . . . would resolve to seek those who need help, who are in desperate and difficult circumstances, and lift them in the spirit of love into the embrace of the Church, where strong hands and loving hearts will warm them, comfort them, sustain them, and put them on the way of happy and productive lives.”12
THE SAVIOR RESCUES US ALL
President Hinckley compared the handcart rescue to the greatest rescue of them all—the atonement of Jesus Christ:
“It is because of the sacrificial redemption wrought by the Savior of the world that the great plan of the eternal gospel is made available to us, under which those who die in the Lord shall not taste of death but shall have the opportunity of going on to a celestial and eternal glory. In our own helplessness, He becomes our rescuer, saving us from damnation and bringing us to eternal life. In times of despair, in seasons of loneliness and fear, He is there on the horizon to bring succor and comfort and assurance and faith. He is our King, our Savior, our Deliverer, our Lord and our God”13
Think of the ways in which you have been rescued in your life, by others or by the Savior, and share this with your students. Invite them to share their own stories. All too often, we forget our rescues after the difficulty has passed. This is a seriously selfish thing to do.
Ponder the meaning of the follow scriptures which relate to “the rescue”:
— D&C 18:10–16 Opportunities to teach the gospel and lead others to repentance.
— D&C 52:40 We are not the Savior’s disciples if we do not help those in need.
— D&C 81:5–6 We must “lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees”—both temporally and spiritually.
— D&C 138:58. We also rescue people through temple work.
President Hinckley concludes our lesson by reminding us:
“Our message is so imperative, when you stop to think that the salvation, the eternal salvation of the world, rests upon the shoulders of this Church. When all is said and done, if the world is going to be saved, we have to do it. There is no escaping from that. No other people in the history of the world have received the kind of mandate that we have received. We are responsible for all who have lived upon the earth. That involves our family history and temple work. We are responsible for all who now live upon the earth, and that involves our missionary work. And we are going to be responsible for all who will yet live upon the earth.”14
“Our mission in life, as followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, must be a mission of saving.”15
1. Our Heritage, 78.
2. “Foreign Correspondence,” Millennial Star, 22 Dec. 1855, 813.
3. LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion , 96–97.
4. “Remarks,” Deseret News, 15 Oct. 1856, 252.
5. Handcarts to Zion, 135.
6. In Conference Report, Oct. 1996, 118; or Ensign, Nov. 1996, 86.
7. In Handcarts to Zion, 120-121.
8. In Handcarts to Zion, 139.
9. In Conference Report, Oct. 1991, 76-77; or Ensign, Nov. 1991, 54.
10. Handcarts to Zion, 132-133.
11. In Conference Report, Apr. 1990, 61-62; or Ensign, May 1990, 46-47.
12. In Conference Report, Oct. 1996, 118; or Ensign, Nov. 1996, 86.
13. In Conference Report, Oct. 1991, 78; or Ensign, Nov. 1991, 54.
14. Church News, 3 July 1999, 3.
15. In Conference Report, Oct. 1991, 78; or Ensign, Nov. 1991, 59.