In a Sunday School class there was sharp criticism of the ill-fated Martin and Willie Handcart companies, which met with tragedy because of their late start on the trek to the Salt Lake Valley.
An elderly man arose and said: “I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts . . . give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the handcart company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that company and my wife . . . too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but . . . we became acquainted with [God] in our extremities.
“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. . . . I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I 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 handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was as privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company” (as quoted in David O. McKay, “Pioneer Women,” The Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1948, 8). — Robert L. Backman, “Faith in Every Footstep,” Ensign, January 1997, p. 7-8
President [James E.] Faust talked about the tragedy faced by the Willie and Martin companies, pioneers who paid “such a terrible price in the agony of suffering for the faith.”
He said: “We wonder why a kind and merciful God did not temper the elements to spare them from their profound agony. I think I have found the answer to my own satisfaction. I may be wrong, but I believe their lives were consecrated to a higher purpose through their suffering and their example. Their love for the Savior was burned deep into their souls and into the souls of their children and their children’s children, and it will be so forever. The motivation for their lives came from a true conversion, the very center of their souls.” — “A Day to Remember in Wyoming,” Church News, May 19, 2001, p. 4
In a stirring general conference address given during the centennial year of 1947, President J. Reuben Clark Jr., First Counselor in the First Presidency, reminded us: “In living our lives let us never forget that the deeds of our [pioneer] fathers and mothers are theirs, not ours; that their works cannot be counted to our glory; that we can claim no excellence and no place, because of what they did, that we must rise by our own labor, and that labor failing we shall fail. We may claim no honor, no reward, no respect, nor special position or recognition, no credit because of what our fathers were or what they wrought. We stand upon our own feet in our own shoes” (in Conference Report, October 1947, p. 160). — Robert L. Backman, “Faith in Every Footstep,” Ensign, January 1997, p. 11
On Pioneer Day, Saturday, July 24, 1999, President Hinckley dedicated a sculpture called “Journey’s End” at This Is The Place Heritage Park. The monument depicts parents and three children kneeling beside a handcart, offering a prayer at the end of their journey. President Hinckley declared, “Everybody who lives in the state of Utah – be he Mormon, non-Mormon, Jew, gentile, whatever – owes a debt of obligation to those who paid so great a price for the comforts which we enjoy this day.” As he encouraged the audience in the hot summer sun, President Hinckley joked, “None of us can really imagine for a moment that which they endured. I’ve been on the trail which they followed a number of times now, when the weather was good, when it was comfortable, in an air-conditioned car, just like any other sissy would do who was trying to honor his pioneer forbears.” — President Gordon B. Hinckley, July 24, 1999
What more eloquent preaching of the Gospel has there ever been, in this or any previous age, than the great gathering movement which has been going on since Joseph Smith lifted up the standard of the restored Gospel in this dispensation? There is no more eloquent preaching than when men and women will forsake their native land, their homes, their parents, their children, their material possessions – every earthly thing, and cross the stormy ocean, the heated plains, the frosty mountains, many of them laying down their lives, to be buried in lonely graves by the wayside; pulling hand carts, wading rivers, crossing deserts, climbing mountains, and settling in a barren waste – all for what? Was it for gold and silver, houses and lands, flocks and herds, and the betterment of their temporal condition? Was it for the honors of men and the applause of the world that they did these things? No, it was because they loved God and wanted to build up His kingdom. They had heard the voice of the Shepherd; they were His sheep, and a stranger they would not follow. . . .
If I were asked to characterize and describe the Latter-day Saints who have made such sacrifices, I would say they are the cream of God’s creation – the heroes and the heroines of modern times. There is no more eloquent preaching of the gospel than is found in their toils and privations, in their struggles and achievements. — Elder Orson F. Whitney, Conference Report, April 1915, p. 101
As President Hinckley reminded us last April, “Whether you are among the posterity of the pioneers or whether you were baptized only yesterday, each is the beneficiary of their great undertaking” (“True to the Faith,” Ensign, May 1997, 65). All of us enjoy the blessings of their efforts, and all of us have the responsibilities which go with that heritage.
It is not enough to study or reenact the accomplishments of our pioneers. We need to identify the great, eternal principles they applied to achieve all they achieved for our benefit and then apply those principles to the challenges of our day. In that way we honor their pioneering efforts, and we also reaffirm our heritage and strengthen its capacity to bless our own posterity and “those millions of our Heavenly Father’s children who have yet to hear and accept the gospel of Jesus Christ” (Our Heritage: A Brief History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1996), 145). We are all pioneers in doing so. — Elder Dallin H. Oaks, “Following the Pioneers,” Ensign, November 1997, p. 72
The two orphan girls, Maggie and Ellen, were among those with frozen limbs. Ellen’s were the most serious. The doctor in the valley, doing the best he could, amputated her legs just below the knees. The surgical tools were crude. There was no anesthesia. The stumps never healed. She grew to womanhood, married William Unthank, and bore and reared an honorable family of six children. Moving about on those stumps, she served her family, her neighbors, and the Church with faith and good cheer, and without complaint, though she was never without pain. Her posterity are numerous, and among them are educated and capable men and women who love the Lord whom she loved and who love the cause for which she suffered. — President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Our Mission of Saving,” Ensign, November 1991
What are we seeing in these examples of faithful pioneers? It is what we have seen down through the dispensations of time and certainly down through this dispensation. We are seeing what we saw when the Saints fled New York and Pennsylvania and Ohio and Missouri and then fled their beloved Nauvoo across an ice-bound river with the temple soon burning in the distance. It is what we saw when those same people buried their dead in large numbers at Winter Quarters, followed by leaving isolated graves, sometimes as tiny as a bread box, in Wyoming near Chimney Rock or at one of the many crossings of the Sweetwater River or in a snowbank at Martin’s Cove.
What we saw then and what we see now among the blessed Saints the world over is faith in God, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, faith in the Prophet Joseph Smith, faith in the reality of this work and the truthfulness of its message. It was faith that took a boy into a grove of trees to pray, and it was faith that enabled him to get up off his knees, place himself in God’s hands for the Restoration of the gospel, and ultimately march toward his own martyrdom scarcely two dozen short years later.
Little wonder that faith always has been and always will be the first and abiding principle of the gospel and of our work. It is the heart of our conviction that the work not only should go forth but that it also can and will and must go forth. — Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, “Faith to Answer the Call,” Ensign, July 2011; from a regional stake conference broadcast address delivered on September 12, 2010, at Brigham Young University
But back in the last wagon, not always could they see the Brethren way out in front, and the blue heaven was often shut out from their sight by heavy, dense clouds of the dust of the earth. Yet day after day, they of the last wagon pressed forward, worn and tired, footsore, sometimes almost disheartened, borne up by their faith that God loved them, that the restored gospel was true, and that the Lord led and directed the Brethren out in front. Sometimes, they in the last wagon glimpsed, for an instant, when faith surged strongest, the glories of a celestial world, but it seemed so far away and the vision so quickly vanished because want and weariness and heartache and sometimes discouragement were always pressing so near.
When the vision faded, their hearts sank. But they prayed again and pushed on, with little praise, with not too much encouragement, and never with adulation. For there was nearly always something wrong with the last wagon or with its team – the off ox was a little lame in the right front shoulder; the hub of the left front wheel was often hot; the tire of the hind wheel on the same side was loose. So corrective counsel, sometimes strong reproof, was the rule, because the wagon must not delay the whole train.
But yet in that last wagon there was devotion and loyalty and integrity, and above and beyond everything else, faith in the Brethren and in God’s power and goodness. For had not the Lord said that not even a sparrow falls unnoticed by the Father (see Matt. 10:29), and were they not of more value than sparrows? And then they had their testimony, burning always like an eternal fire on a holy altar, that the restored gospel was true, that Joseph was a prophet of God, and that Brigham was Joseph’s chosen successor. — President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., “To Them of the Last Wagon,” General Conference,5 October 1947; Reprinted, Ensign, July 1997, p. 35
I am grateful that those days of pioneering are behind us. I am thankful that we do not have brethren and sisters stranded in the snow, freezing & dying, while trying to get to this, their Zion in the mountains. But there are people, not a few, whose circumstances are desperate and who cry out for help and relief.
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 train 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 concerns 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 the 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. — President Gordon B Hinckley, Ensign, November 1996, p. 86
I pay fervent tribute to the forebears who made this possible – the Founding Fathers of this republic and our Mormon pioneers. I pay tribute to their faithful deeds, their noble lives, and their lasting lessons of faith in God, courage, industry, self-reliance, and integrity. We stand today as beneficiaries of their priceless heritage to us, a heritage based on the truth that righteousness brings forth the blessings of God. — President Era Taft Benson, “Our Priceless Heritage,” October 1976 General Conference, Ensign, November 1976
It was Sunday, October 5, 1856. On Saturday, the day before, a small group of missionaries returning from England arrived in the valley. They had been able to make relatively good time because their teams were strong and their wagons light. Franklin D. Richards was their leader. They immediately sought out President Brigham Young. They told him that hundreds of men, women, and children were scattered along the trail that led from the Missouri River to the Salt Lake Valley. Most of them were pulling handcarts, two companies of these, with two smaller companies following behind with ox teams and wagons. The first group was probably at this time in the area of Scottsbluff, more than four hundred miles from their destination, with the others behind them. It was October, and they would be trapped in the snows of winter and perish unless help was sent.
Brigham Young had known nothing of this. There was, of course, at that time no rapid means of communication – no radio, no telegraph, no fast mail. He was then 55 years of age. The next morning, the Sabbath, he stood before the people in the Tabernacle and said:
“I will now give this people the subject and the text for the Elders who may speak . . . . It is this. On the 5th day of October, 1856, 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 shall call upon the Bishops this day. I shall not wait until tomorrow, nor until the next day, for 60 good mule teams and 12 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. Also 12 tons of flour and 40 good teamsters, besides those that drive the teams. . . .
“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.” — Quoted by President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Our Mission of Saving,” Ensign, November 1991, pp. 52-53, from Handcarts to Zion
It was in . . . desperate and terrible circumstances – hungry, exhausted, their clothes thin and ragged – that [the handcart companies] were found by the rescue party. As the rescuers appeared on the western horizon breaking a trail through the snow, they seemed as angels of mercy. And indeed they were. The beleaguered emigrants shouted for joy, some of them. Others, too weak to shout, simply wept and wept and wept.
There was now food to eat and some warmer clothing. But the suffering was not over, nor would it ever end in mortality. Limbs had been frozen, and the gangrenous flesh sloughed off from the bones.
The carts were abandoned, and the survivors were crowded into the wagons of the rescuers. The long rough journey of three hundred, four hundred, even five hundred miles between them and this valley was especially slow and tedious because of the storms. 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. 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’ (quoted in Hafen, Handcarts to Zion, p. 139). — President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Our Mission of Saving,” Ensign, November 1991, p. 54