An Insider's Look at Mormon Culture

Posts tagged ‘Handcart pioneers’

Pioneer Saints and Ain’ts

Robert Kirby’s SL Trib column this week,  “Crossing the Plains Was a Pain,” had George laughing so hard he nearly choked on his oatmeal as he read Kirby’s account of great-grandfathers who didn’t want to go and great-grandmothers who blamed the journey’s misery on Dear Husband’s lack of spirituality.

Despite the stories I was told in Primary and Seminary, I can’t visualize the pioneers as hallowed beings who relished hunger, heat, cold, and physical exertion as tests of their faith. Being human, many of the pioneers probably thought their leaders less than inspired when rations ran short, disease struck, and blizzards blew down from the North.

My own pioneer ancestors found living the gospel of love difficult when nature, circumstances, and fellow Saints conspired to make life miserable. One night Great-great-grandpa Thomas, the camp butcher, went on strike—refusing to slaughter the evening meal until some of the men helped Great-great grandma pitch the family tent.

Great-grandmother, Marie, was 10-years-old when she left Denmark for Utah with her 14-year-old sister, Anna, 6-year-old sister, Tina, and their widowed mother. Marie’s mother died onboard ship leaving the girls motherless and unable find the money their mother had brought to pay for their land travel to Zion. Possibly their mother had sewed the money into her dress and it slipped into the sea with her.

Fellow members brought the girls by cattle car to Nebraska where they joined a wagon train to trek across the plains. At the Platte River, Anna carried Tina across and told Marie to wait by the river for a wagon to carry her across. Marie, unable to speak English, waited until the last wagon before anyone offered her a ride. Not a stirring tale of saintly pioneers looking out for each other—but pretty realistic considering families in heavily loaded wagons wondering if they could even get their own children across.

Violet Kimball, researching for her book on handcart companies, learned how these companies, with large numbers of young children unable to keep up the necessary pace, maintained their schedule. A company member set out with children between the ages of four and six years two hours before the rest of the company broke camp each morning. A switch encouraged the children not to lag. After a couple of hours march, the children were given a rest and food before starting off again. I doubt these pioneer children sang as they walked. How could Great great-grandmother Sarah stand to awaken little Lottie and Lizzie and send them off tired and hungry to be herded like animals on the trail ahead?

I find the unpolished stories of pioneer hardships more inspiring than accounts of paragons of virtue enduring tests of endurance with cheerful countenances and songs of praise. I am glad my ancestors made it across the plains and that two of their descendents got together and produced me. But I’m pretty sure none of them would have signed up for the journey if they’d known of the hardships ahead. My great-great grandparents were not crazy.

Follow Your Leaders

Obedience may be the first law of the gospel, but it’s never been popular in our family where we apparently have a genetic predisposition to believe we’re capable of making our own decisions. Humility R not Us. I’ve never understood the biblical symbolism of sheep and goats. Why are sheep the good example? They have to be led to food and water. Even rocks are smarter than sheep bleating obediently into the slaughterhouse. Independent and resourceful, goats are less easily led and less likely to starve if a herder doesn’t take them to food and water. Isn’t goatlike intelligence more essential for eternal progression than sheeplike obedience?

George served long enough in the military to despise arbitrary rules. Nor did growing up with five older siblings endear him to the idea of being told what to do. George loved being a temple worker until the TP ruled that all brethren with facial hair must shave clean or resign. That edict did not include elderly female workers which seemed unfair.

My dad’s side of the family disagreed with the practice of polygamy because my grandfather’s family suffered so greatly from great-grandpa’s marital excesses. Interestingly enough, neither my grandfather nor grandmother resented the handcart episode of church history although each had a parent or grandparent who suffered intensely from the poor advice that led to the tragedy of the Willie Handcart Company. The notion that we will be blessed for obeying our leaders even if they’re wrong probably didn’t comfort my ancestors freezing and starving near the banks of the Sweetwater. Mountain Meadows is another example of obedience gone wrong.

Now, I don’t mean to suggest that we’re a family of anarchists or criminals. We pay our taxes and wait our turn at stop lights. We know that laws which promote the common good sometimes conflict with our individual convenience. But we also know that rules sometimes promote the good of an organization without necessarily benefiting the overall common good of the national or world community. Most American Catholics seem to be quietly in this position regarding their church’s stance on birth control. And many Mormons feel this way about our church’s support of Prop. 8.

Leaders who can’t explain the reasons for the positions they take also make obedience challenging. I am still waiting for someone to show me the revelation that says blacks can’t hold the priesthood. And it’s hard to respect leaders who condescend. Our youngest son, Techie, launched his stand-up comic career at age eight doing impersonations of Sister Sweettones, the Primary president: “Now boys and girls, can you say ‘Reverence’? That’s such a big word. I’m proud of you.” I’m glad Techie doesn’t watch General Conference now. The words are different, but a level of condescension often flows from the Conference Center pulpit to my living room TV.

Part of the problem members of our family have with the “Follow the Leaders” edict might be the unrealistic emphasis Mormon culture places on the leaders’ direct access to God. If our youngest daughter, Aroo, ever had faith in the doctrine of the bishop’s power of discernment, it was disabused the time her best friend passed a temple recommend interview six months after asking Aroo to buy a pregnancy test for her.

Maybe my philosophy is: Follow your leaders when their advice coincides with the best information you can learn about the situation. Beware if they can’t support their recommendations with hard evidence. And run like hell if they pressure you to add a sister wife to the family or to waylay a caravan of immigrants moving through the territory.

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