Heavenly Perspective on the Handcart Pioneers

Why would the Lord of the elements stand by as their fury killed his children? Why did they decide to begin their journey long after it was safe to do so? Why did they not all die of fatigue, starvation and hypothermia long before their rescuers found them? These and other questions filled my head as we pulled, pushed and walked behind our handcarts on the high plains of Wyoming last week. We covered a very small portion of the trail they had taken a century and a half before.

My wife Sharon and I were in charge of the music for a company of 300 plus youth and adults working to get a greater appreciation of the Mormon handcart pioneers in general, and the Willy and Martin companies in particular. These two parties suffered more casualties than any other wagon or handcart train of the entire Mormon exodus.

Based on the counsel of their leaders and their own inclinations, the 980 pioneers of the two companies decided to leave despite their late departure date. When a ferocious early storm hit them on the plains west of Casper Wyoming about 220 of the members in the parties died from starvation and exposure to the cold.

Even in June, the cold winds howled against us almost constantly. We took our small sample of discomfort, multiplied it by a factor just short of infinite, and tried to imagine what they struggled against.

I concluded it is sobering that so many died, but it is astounding that so many survived. They had to pull their carts through icy rivers, deep snow, and steep inclines. They pulled continuously for 27 hours to surmount Rocky Ridge. They had to keep warm enough to stay alive. How could any human generate the energy to do this on the four ounces of flour a day they were reduced to? They had heavenly help.

Their own testimonials given later speak of unseen forces moving the handcart forward when they were too exhausted to take another step.

Without the courage and sacrifice of the rescue parties sent from Salt Lake City few if any of the handcart pioneers would have survived. Still 220 including many children and elderly did not make it and were buried in shallow graves along the way.

From an outsider’s human perspective this is a tragedy.

From what we understand of a heavenly perspective, there may be another conclusion. To Christians our most important purpose in this life is to prove ourselves worthy to live with our Heavenly Father after we die. All else is secondary. The reward is great, our commitment to receive it must be total. It seems to me these pioneers both those who lived and those who died proved their commitment. Assuming the survivors maintained that determination for the rest of their lives, they have now achieved their worthy reward.

They have also given us an example of what level of commitment it takes. Wise people have said that our challenges today may be even harder than those faced by the pioneers. This seems incredible given our comfortable conditions. Our opposition may be more subtle than bitter cold, lack of food, and rugged terrain. But is it worse to suffer starvation and hypothermia for weeks or to suffer drug addictions for decades? Worse to see your loved ones die by the wayside, or see them miserable and hopelessly mired in wickedness? Worse to lose your family in death, or see your family disintegrate by following the trends of much of today’s society? Our life is physically easier, but our dangers are equally as great.

On the other hand, the path to safety is the same for us as it was for them. Follow the example and teachings of the Christ. Pray for the Lord’s Spirit to guide and sustain us. Should we be called to lay down our lives for others, be ready and willing to do so.