This weekend Utah commemorates the first pioneer arrival to the Valley of the Great Salt Lake. On July 24, 1847 a weary and ill Brigham Young raised up on his elbow from the back of a wagon, looked out over a vast desert valley, and confirmed “This is the right place!” Soon, that same desert would “blossom as a rose” and Mormons throughout the world answered the call to leave their native land and “come to Zion”. Thus began a gathering of epic proportions which shaped America in powerful ways. The Mormon Pioneer exodus is an integral part of American History, my own personal heritage, and a cherished religious heritage of all Latter-day Saints, no matter what country they may live in, or how long they’ve held membership.
As it turns out, I just finished reading a powerful account of two groups of Mormon pioneers that are getting a lot of attention at the box office lately. Written by historian/fictionist Gerald N. Lund [Jan. 2005, Deseret Book Publisher], “Fire of the Covenant” is a novel about the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies which combines fictional characters side-by-side with factual characters and events to create an intriguing, robust story line. Lund includes extensive historical chapter notes that I found as much or even more interesting than the novel itself. Although I have been a Mormon all of my life and heard many bits and pieces of the journey of these ill-fated immigrants, this is the first chance I have ever taken time to be adequately immersed in their story and “get the facts”. In 1856 nearly one thousand faith-filled European & Scandinavian converts left their homes and native soil to sail to America. They came to escape persecution. They came to give their children a better life. They came to worship God. They came for many different personal reasons with individual hopes and dreams. But, most of all, they came in answer to the prophetic call to “gather West”, with an earnest desire inside their souls to pull their own handcart to “Zion” – the place where they would live in safety and peace and feel the support and love of fellow latter-day saints. Three successful handcart companies had gone before them. Tragically, this group of “handcarters” [companies #4 & #5 out of 10 total] would leave too late in the season, face countless set-backs and mishaps, and eventually become trapped by a blizzard on the high plains of Wyoming in dire straights. To be honest, I harshly used to think how “stupid” they were to come so late. I wondered why their leaders could have been so shortsighted to bring them on when they knew it was too late. But, reading this novel helped me realize the many complexities of the issue and accept that there is absolutely no sense in pointing fingers or trying to lay blame on anyone. God clearly had His hand in this journey, and with this little flock a great destiny was born of tragedy.
I’ve been captivated by this story. I’ve lost sleep over it – both because I didn’t want to put the book down when it was time to go to bed, and also because I would find myself worrying about my new friends being lost out there on the plains desperate, freezing and starving! I actually had to stop and remind myself that for these people, the story has long ended. Their struggle is over, and All are safely gathered in. It is actually the rest of us who are now struggling to “pull our carts” through the hard terrain and deep snows of life, facing circumstances that we are often ill prepared to handle, wondering how we can get up and go on another day, having to dig a little deeper into our soul to find a higher purpose. . .and always praying for help to come. Will we be as brave?
After reading the agonizing details and complexities of the epic Willie & Martin handcart migration – along with subsequent heroic rescue effort – I am humbled to the core, and struck with absolute awe that anyone could have survived at all, let alone over 75% of them! It simply was not possible for human beings to live through that experience under such extreme conditions without many mighty miracles. Both seen, and unseen. This is a story of tremendous physical, emotional and spiritual endurance. These people definitely were stretched to every limit imaginable, and found something burning deep down inside their souls that kept them going. I am glad a new movie has been created to tell their stories and honor their sacrifice.
I have wanted to blog about this subject for several weeks, but simply couldn’t find an adequate way to express how moving it has been for me to read their stories, journal entries, and testimonies. I was thrilled to finally find a video that epitomizes my feelings about this chapter of our pioneer history as it beautifully relates to our own life. Enjoy.
Video Music: “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing“
“If you are trying hard and living right and things still seem burdensome and difficult, take heart. Others have walked that way before you…Keep moving. Keep trying.” – Jeffrey R. Holland
- Utah teens looked to pioneer heritage with trek (ksl.com)
- Changes in store for the 2011 Handcart Days Parade (ksl.com)
- Willie and Martin Handcart Companies by Ned Eddins (thefurtrapper.com)
- 17 Miracles a T.C. Christensen Film – Official Movie Site
- 17 Miracles: The Faithful and Foolhardy Willie Handcart Company (MormonHeretic.org review)