With Pioneer Day coming up next week, I’ve been thinking about how Mormons tell pioneer stories—and all that we leave out.
I recently read True Sisters, a new novel by Sandra Dallas about the Martin Handcart Company’s tragic 1856 westward trek—the worst disaster of the entire nineteenth-century Euro-American westward expansion, Mormon or not. More than three times as many people died as perished in the Donner Party. It’s a terrible story of poor planning, unexpected blizzards, and the perils of religious fundamentalism.
Before discussing how Mormons remember the Martin and Willie handcart companies, let me say that the novel is worth reading. Dallas focuses on the lives of some Mormon women pioneers who are fictional composite characters created out of a mixture of historical fact and her own imagination. I can easily see True Sisters being a Relief Society book club selection and think it would spark some interesting and valuable discussion.
Unlike many books that deal with aspects of Mormon history and experience, the faith element was well-handled here. When I read at the outset that the novelist had grown up in Salt Lake in the 1950s, I was worried that it would either be a narrowly pro-Mormon propaganda novel or an ex-Mormon’s exposé of the idiocy and fanaticism that resulted in the Martin Company debacle. Instead, this was a balanced portrait with a few characters at both of those extremes but most occupying a believable middle ground. The emigrants are depicted as zealous people who wanted to believe that God was watching out for them even when every outward sign suggested the reverse.
The novel raises larger points that are too rarely addressed by Mormons. I taught Gospel Doctrine class for two and a half years but was called to do something else before we got to the manual’s lesson on the Martin and Willie handcart companies. I’m glad of that, because I don’t know how I would have gotten through presenting the lesson’s pastel gloss of the disaster.
The Gospel Doctrine manual opens the lesson with point #1, which is that “Brigham Young guided the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies.” When Young heard of the terrible suffering of the emigrants, he canceled the remaining sessions of General Conference so that rescuers could set out right away to save them. The sermon of the day, he said, was “to get them here.”
The lesson goes on to make two other important points: 2) that Jesus Christ rescues us with his atoning sacrifice when we, like the Martin and Willie handcart companies, cannot save ourselves; and 3) that all Latter-day Saints have “a mission of saving” those who are suffering.
I believe that all three of these points are true, and all are significant. Yet the first one about Brigham Young neglects another important truth, that of culpability. Yes, it’s great that Brigham’s sermon that day was “Get them here,” and that he canceled church so that people could scurry about gathering supplies for the rescue. But Brigham was also the prophet who in 1856 revved up a fundamentalist fever in the first place, the same fever that had leaders promising emigrants that faith alone would be enough to lead them through the mountains even with their perilously late start and poorly built wagons of green wood. That fever also prompted trail leaders to publicly denounce the weak who dared to voice the opinion that it might be more prudent to winter at Winter Quarters (as Young had himself when he was leading a trek nine years earlier).
The Gospel Doctrine curriculum wants us to focus on the faith of the victims rather than the wanton foolhardiness of those who made decisions for them, and if I were writing Sunday School curriculum I might strive for the same faith-drenched focus. But as a historian, I am all too aware that those who refuse to learn the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat it.
As Pioneer Day approaches, let’s celebrate not only by honoring the emigrants who died, but by remembering that they shouldn’t have had to. Let’s also ask some probing questions:
- When is it prudent to not fall prey to religious peer pressure, even when it’s your ecclesiastical authority applying the pressure?
- What are the most dangerous signs of religious fundamentalism?
- How do you know when a religion has gone too far in what it asks in terms of sacrifice?
- How should Christians balance faith in God with common sense?
And finally, as the manual encourages:
- What are some specific things we can do to rescue those in need?
Referring to the suffering of the pioneers, President Gordon B. Hinckley taught:
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.
The wagon wheel image is used with permission of Shutterstock.com.