Levi Savage and Obedience to Church Authorities

October 28, 2006 | 55 comments
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The problems of following the prophet is a perennial favorite source of Mormon intellectual angst. What if the prophet is wrong? After all, prophets are human and are prone to mistakes? Indeed they are. Which brings me to the topic of Levi Savage.

Savage was a Mormon’s Mormon. He emigrated to Nauvoo after joining the Church, where he was intimate with Joseph Smith. After the Saints left Nauvoo he travelled west with Brigham. In 1846 at the urging of Church leaders, he signed up for the Mormon Battalion, marching hundreds of miles through the desert until his discharge in California in the summer of 1847. From there he made his way across the Sierra Nevadas to the Salt Lake Valley, joining the Saints in October, only to find that his mother had died crossing the plains that summer. In 1852, he was called on a mission to Siam (present day Thailand). He left his wife and 21-month old son, walking from Salt Lake to San Francisco, where he caught a boat to the Far East. During his passage he almost died of small pox. He spent over two years preaching the Gospel in Asia. He initially landed in Calcutta, India but couldn’t make it to Siam due to a civil war in the country. He did, however, get as far as Rangoon in Burma. In October 1855, he headed for home, reaching Boston, Massachusetts via the Cape of Good Hope in early 1856. In short, Levi Savage was a man willing to make enormous sacrifices and literally circle the globe at the direction of the leaders of the Church.

From Boston, Savage made his way west to Winter’s Quarters, where he had joined the Mormon Battalion more than a decade earlier. There he met a group of westward bound immigrants from England. At the urging of another prophet and apostle — Franklin D. Richards — this group of immigrants formed themselves into two companies, one led by James G. Willie and the other by Edward Martin. The companies were part of an experimental system of moving immigrants across the plains with handcarts. The initial attempts with the new handcarts had gone well, and Richards assured the immigrants that if they trusted in the Lord and did their duty to Him that they could cross the plains in safety.

By this time, it was mid-August and Levi Savage, who knew something about the problems of crossing the vast distances of the North American interior, was incredulous. He insisted that it was too late in the season to begin. The handcarts might be trapped in the high Rockies by an early winter. It was too dangerous, he insisted. His objections were overruled by his ecclesiastical superiors. He then said:

What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.

It has always struck me as one of the most powerful statements in our history about following the Brethren. Savage knew that he was right and that Franklin D. Richards was wrong. He nevertheless went along with the Willie company, not because he trusted in Richards’ secret infallibility or because he was brow beaten into doing his duty. Rather, he went because the English immigrants — people he had never met and did not know — were his people, and he would help them if he could.

One might argue that Levi Savage was an enabler of Franklin D. Richards’s bad judgment. One might argue that he should have engaged in “civil disobedience” refusing to go along with an ill-conceived plan. Indeed, one might argue that it was precisely the kind of loyalty that Savage’s life exemplified that created the pathological culture in which blind obedience to authority sent 900 inexperienced English converts off into the wilderness too late. Perhaps such arguments are correct.

Still, I can’t help but seeing Savage as having chosen the better path.

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55 Responses to Levi Savage and Obedience to Church Authorities

  1. Paula on October 28, 2006 at 12:17 am

    I have never interpreted this action as “following the brethren”. I think he went along because he knew they were heading for disaster, and even though he probably knew he couldn’t do much, he thought that he might be able to help those naive converts when the disaster struck. I agree it was the better path, but I think the motivation was compassion and concern for his fellow beings, not obedience to authority. His words seem to me to support that, rather than “following the brethren”. Weren’t his words addressed to “Brothers and Sisters”?

  2. Mark IV on October 28, 2006 at 4:29 am

    This is an appropriate tribute to a great man. I first heard his story at the visitor’s center at Devil’s Gate. Br. Savage immediately became one of my heroes. I especially liked this part:

    Rather, he went because the English immigrants — people he had never met and did not know — were his people, and he would help them if he could.

    One small quibble: they left from Iowa City, not Winter Quarters, correct?

  3. Ronan on October 28, 2006 at 6:49 am

    I can’t help but seeing Savage as having chosen the better path.

    Great post, Nate, but no, no, no. Obedience to something you pretty well know will get people killed is folly.

    Now, you can say that Savage couldn’t stop them going and so by joining them he was willing to share (and perhaps lighten) their suffering. That’s a different proposition.

    Whilst the Willie and Martin disaster can be held up as an example of the noble sacrifice of rank-and-file Mormons, we cannot forget either the bad judgment of Richards or the pathology that let his bad judgment go unchallenged.

    These English Mormons did not need to die.

  4. Nate Oman on October 28, 2006 at 8:06 am

    I don’t know if Savage was instructed to go by Richards or not. Hence, I don’t know if he was “following the Brethren” in this case or not. I’m just impressed that he went along to help with what he knew to be a bad decision.

    Ronan is correct, I think, about the cupability of Richards in the case. The handcarts should not have been told to start so late.

  5. Ardis Parshall on October 28, 2006 at 9:54 am

    Some winters are as light as 1856 was hard. I keep wondering what lessons we would draw from Martin and Willie had the companies come through safely — “The Lord lifted His hand and stayed the storms” and “Don’t be a doubter and a naysayer like that Levi Savage,” or something like that? Yet the actions of the pioneers would have been identical, in that they were doing what their leader on the spot asked them to do.

    I hope, by the way, that in my alternate universe, we would still recognize Levi Savage as the courageous man he was — knowing (or at least imagining) what lay ahead, he went along to share the fate and do what he could to lighten the load of his brethren.

  6. Russell Arben Fox on October 28, 2006 at 10:05 am

    I strongly suspect that if Brigham Young himself had been in the position of Levi Savage, with the knowledge of the Plains that he had, he would have prayed for confirmation of Richards’s decision–something like “my better instincts and experience are telling me this is a bad idea; help me be at peace with ignoring them and trusting in Richards’s counsel”–and then, if the confirmation did not come (which it wouldn’t have, unless God had some inscrutable reason for killing off a bunch of his servants), Young would have rebuked Richards as a false and uninspired leader, and challenged his authority. For Young, following the prophet and following the best appraisal of a situation available were rarely all that different.

  7. StealthBomber on October 28, 2006 at 10:08 am

    Fantastic post, as always, Nate.

    It effectively illustrates the competing arguments between following the brethren in situations where you think they may be wrong. I agree with you that Savage chose the better part. The argument for following the brethren, I think, trumps the argument for following what we think may be right for a couple of reasons.

    1) We could be wrong. The children of Israel followed Moses out of Egypt and were trapped against the Red Sea. The same logic that animated Savage’s apprehension would have certainly been present among ancient Israelites. Of course, we know, the Lord provided an escape. [I guess an anxious reader could distinguish the status of the respective priesthood leaders here as being dispositive, however.]

    2) The eventual tragedy may have some purpose. I know this is a hard pill, but certainly there are examples in the scriptures where people were inspired to follow a course that lead to tragedy.

  8. Gary on October 28, 2006 at 11:43 am

    Many years ago, in a Sunday School class discussion there was some criticism of Church leaders with respect to the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies.

    “An old man in the corner … sat silent and listened as long as he could stand it, then he arose and said things that no person who heard him will ever forget. His face was white with emotion, yet he spoke calmly, deliberately, but with great earnestness and sincerity.

    “In substance [he] said,  ‘ I ask you to stop this criticism. You are discussing a matter you know nothing about. Cold historic facts mean nothing here, for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved.’ ” (David O. McKay, Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1948, p. 8; as quoted by James E. Faust in Ensign, May 1979, p. 53; see also James E. Faust “First Presidency Message: Refined in Our Trials,” Ensign, Feb. 2006, p. 3.)

    The rest of what that man’s story is worth reading. His comments remain relevant today.

  9. Nate Oman on October 28, 2006 at 12:53 pm

    RAF: My understanding is that Brigham was absolutely furious at Franklin D. Richards after the fact.

  10. Julie M. Smith on October 28, 2006 at 1:18 pm

    There are times when we are called to follow a church leader against our own better judgment and there are times when we are called to refuse to go along with unrighteous dominion. The hard thing is knowing which is which.

  11. Stephen M (Ethesis) on October 28, 2006 at 1:42 pm

    I think he went along because he knew they were heading for disaster, and even though he probably knew he couldn’t do much, he thought that he might be able to help those naive converts when the disaster struck. I agree it was the better path, but I think the motivation was compassion and concern for his fellow beings, not obedience to authority

    That is how I’ve always seen it, that he had prayed, that he knew they would go into disaster, but that knowing that, he did what he could.

  12. Ronan on October 28, 2006 at 2:02 pm

    The hard thing is knowing which is which.

    Julie,

    Quite right. But if you have strong first-hand knowledge of the potential danger of a situation (like Wyoming snows in October) I think you have a compelling case for trusting your own judgment.

  13. Gina on October 28, 2006 at 2:24 pm

    12 Ronan,
    I don’t think a religion with a main purpose of trusting one’s own judgement is very compelling. As StealthBomber implies in #7 and the scriptures verify, sometimes heading to one’s death is, for some reason known to God, the right thing to do.

    Nate, I’m very moved by this post. Thank you.

  14. Kevin Barney on October 28, 2006 at 3:42 pm

    Did anyone attend Will Bagley’s Sunstone session this summer, where he put revisionist blame for the W&M handcart disaster squarely at Brigham’s feet, not Franklin Richards’? I didn’t make it to that session, but would be interested in what his argument was if anyone knows.

  15. Ronan on October 28, 2006 at 3:58 pm

    Gina,
    Sometimes heading to one’s death is, for some reason known to God, the right thing to do

    Sounds good in theory. But if anyone were to tell me to let my children die because it’s God’s will, or even to risk their death…well, no. It all sounds so noble in the Old Testament. Do it today though, and you’re in Jim Jones territory.

    Look, I simply think that the most important lesson of Willie and Martin is that sometimes the people you think are speaking for God can be dead wrong (here with an emphasis on dead). And following them anyway — even if you’re sure they’re wrong — is foolish in the extreme.

    I don’t think a religion with a main purpose of trusting one’s own judgement is very compelling.

    Well, there’s “following your gut” (unreliable) and judgment born of experience (reliable). The latter seems to be an integral part of Mormonism.

  16. Ardis Parshall on October 28, 2006 at 4:37 pm

    Kevin (14): I was there. The church is engaged in revisionism on a massive scale by drawing faith-promoting lessons from the story and encouraging young people to participate in handcart treks, because the whole scheme was cruelly misconceived. Will basically said that BY was more interested in money than in people’s lives, his two prime exhibits being BY’s concern that a steam engine being freighted by A.O. Smoot not be left at Bridger (i.e., BY shouldn’t have been concerned with “things” at a time like that), and BY’s having spent $X-thousand on iron works, and $X-thousand on sugar works, and $X-thousand on various other Utah business ventures (i.e., BY would have been able to bring everybody to Utah in comfort if he had managed his business affairs appropriately). The whole handcart scheme was a mistake — W&M were disasters, but even those companies that are counted as successes were really failures because of the physical hardships experienced by the pioneers. The handcart missionary travel eastward in 1857 was a stunt directed by BY, who was determined to show that handcart travel worked and to prove that the disaster was not his fault but the fault of somebody/anybody else. Handcart travel was unnecessary, as proven by the success of the down-and-back companies, which BY evidently should have thought of years earlier.

    The whole paper was pretty far over the top, with routine lines from BY’s correspondence read in a snarling, nasty tone (Will is quite a performer). Afterward I asked Will to recite “Away in a Manager” in the same tone — he laughed and did so, and you would have thought BY had pawned the crib Jesus should have been sleeping in. I hope Lyndia Carter publishes her response, because there was no time left for her to give her remarks at the end of the session.

  17. Jack on October 28, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    Well, they were a stubbornly over-zealous kind of people–the only kind that could have caused the desert to bloom. I think God accepted–even, perhaps, raised up–such folks knowing that their strengths would be had at the price of weaknesses peculiar to those strengths.

  18. Ronan on October 28, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Having read Nate’s post again, it’s clear that Savage is a hero. He knew they were in trouble, he knew he could not dissuade Richards, so he went to help a doomed ship. That is courage.

    What I lament is the fact Richards could not be dissuaded, that a situation existed where Savage’s experience counted far less than Richards’ authority.

    Nate wrote: Richards assured the immigrants that if they trusted in the Lord and did their duty to Him that they could cross the plains in safety.

    And he was wrong. History should forgive Richards, of course. But be wary of following people who make promises on behalf of God, when you know, you know it snows in Wyoming in October.

  19. Julie M. Smith on October 28, 2006 at 5:25 pm

    “The church is engaged in revisionism on a massive scale by drawing faith-promoting lessons from the story and encouraging young people to participate in handcart treks, because the whole scheme was cruelly misconceived.”

    Ardis, to be clear: Is this your opinion or Will’s?

  20. Ardis Parshall on October 28, 2006 at 5:48 pm

    Julie (19): I’m paraphrasing Will throughout (16). My opinion is very different.

    Will is a good friend of mine, and I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing with history today if he hadn’t helped me get started. We don’t agree on much, though, beyond where to have lunch.

  21. Nate Oman on October 28, 2006 at 6:22 pm

    “W&M handcart disaster”

    I had to do a double take on that. For a moment I thought that there was some strange Mormon connection in my employer’s past…

  22. Nate Oman on October 28, 2006 at 6:25 pm

    (#2): I may have the chronology wrong here, but my understanding is that the handcart companies started from Iowa City because that is where the railroad ended. From their they pulled their hand carts across Iowa to Winter Quarters. Then it was in Winter Quarters that the final decision was made of whether to start out that season or wait it out on the banks of the Missouri. My understanding is that this is the point at which Levi Savage joined the company.

  23. Nate Oman on October 28, 2006 at 6:31 pm

    I’ve always thought that the handcart disaster was just that, a disaster. If there is a faith-promoting message it comes at the end of the story with the massive relief efforts. In a sense, it was Mormon obedience to prophetic direction trying to redeem Mormon obedience to prophetic direction. The story has been repeated so often of late as to become cliched, but I still find BY’s sermon “The text will be to get them here. Go now and bring in those people on the plains. etc. etc.” tremendously powerful.

  24. Beijing on October 28, 2006 at 7:16 pm

    “I don’t think a religion with a main purpose of trusting one’s own judgement is very compelling.”

    I do. “To thine own self be true” requires a great deal of discipline to put into practice consistently, and I think Levi Savage was just as true to himself as he was loyal to his faith community.

  25. Jack on October 28, 2006 at 7:21 pm

    Polonius was an empty shell of man.

  26. Nate Oman on October 28, 2006 at 7:25 pm

    “To thine own self be true�

    It depends entirely, it seems to me, on the quality of the self in question.

  27. Beijing on October 28, 2006 at 7:48 pm

    There are other assumptions needed, such as presuming that there are no low-quality selves, only some people who are not true to their inherent dignity and potential. Levi Savage was certainly true to what my YW leaders used to term the “celestial self.”

    Anyway, whether a particular purpose is compelling or not is a matter of opinion. I find it compelling; others don’t. No big deal.

  28. Mark B. on October 28, 2006 at 9:01 pm

    Poor Will Bagley. He just doesn’t get it, does he?

    Brother Brigham in 1847 led several thousand saints through an unhabited wilderness to a place thought to be uninhabitable, with no shelter save whatever they brought with them–wagon covers–and what they could build once they arrived, with no food other that what they could carry and what they could grow or gather in the forests and streams in the short time left before winter. The utter audacity of Brigham in 1847 makes the handcart venture look like a Sunday school picnic.

  29. Slightly Skeptical on October 29, 2006 at 4:00 am

    :the scriptures verify, sometimes heading to one’s death is, for some reason known to God, the right thing to do.”

    Oh goody! I’m a musician. Where do I go to sign up for the band on the “Titanic”?

  30. Brigham Young Jr. on October 29, 2006 at 4:22 am

    Brigham Young, Salt Lake City

    October 1856

    General Conference of the Church

    “I will now give this people the subject and the text of the Elders who may speak to-day and during the conference. 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.’ I want the brethren who may speak to understand that their text is the people on the plains. And the subject matter for this community is to send for them and bring them in before winter set in.

    “That is my religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost that I possess. It is to save the people. This is the salvation I am now seeking for. To save our brethren that would be apt to perish, or suffer extremely, if we do not send them assistance.

    “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 112 or 15 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horse 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. This is dividing my texts into heads. First, 40 good young men who know how to drive teams, to take charge of the teams that are now managed by men, women and children who know nothing about driving them. Second, 60 or 65 good spans of mules, or horses, with harness, whipple trees, neckyokes, stretchers, lead chains, &c. And thirdly, 24 thousand pounds of flour, which we have on hand. . . .

    “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. And attend strictly to those things which we call temporal, or temporal duties. Otherwise, your faith will be in vain. The preaching you have heard will be in vain and you, and you will sink to Hell, unless you attend to the things we tell you.”

    (Brigham Young’s address reported in the Deseret News, 15 October 1856, as quoted in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion [Glendale, Ca.: The Arthur H. Clark, Co., 1960], 120-21.)

  31. Silus Grok on October 29, 2006 at 11:20 am

    After the great ( great! ) post and excellent-caliber commentary… what gets me to post, the picture of a wilderness without nuns: the un-habited wilderness of Mark B’s wild west.

  32. Mark Butler on October 29, 2006 at 11:41 am

    The difference is that Brigham Young had the Spirit of the LORD upon him, and though they suffered for a while, the venture was arguably the most resounding colonial success in modern history, a type and a shadow of much greater things to come.

  33. Tatiana on October 29, 2006 at 12:39 pm

    Did Levi Savage survive the trip?

  34. Nate Oman on October 29, 2006 at 1:20 pm

    “Did Levi Savage survive the trip?”

    Yes. In fact, I think that he lived until 1912.

  35. Razorfish on October 29, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    Fantastic post Nate. Thank you.

    “What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.”

    That’s a remarkable admission of faith and goodwill by Levi despite knowing the faulty reasoning by some of his ecclesiastical leaders.

  36. Doug on October 30, 2006 at 1:14 am

    My great-great-grandfather George Cunningham was 15 when he was a member of the Willie Handcart company. He later served a mission to the Southern States, was Mayor of American Fork and was a member of the Utah Constitutional Convention.

    He wrote something in his autobiography 20 years after the fact about this incident.

    “. . . After several weeks pulling, hauling and praying, we arrived at Florence, but were detained again several weeks more. Some stayed here and would not go any farther. In fact we were told that if any wanted to stop that they might do so, but the council was to go on to the valleys. I can remember of being at a meeting one night when Brother Levi Savage, a returning missionary arose and spoke. He counseled the old, weak, and sickly to stop until another spring. The tears commenced to flow down his cheeks and he prophesied that if such undertook the journey at that late season of the year that their bones would strew the way. At length we started but our number was greatly reduced. About one hundred stayed who would not go any farther. I must state that there was no one of our hundred stopped, for that we got the praise. The ox teams were loaded down and we were delayed much by having to wait on them. We strove along daily and when we [got] to Wood River, we came across a large camp of Omaha Indians who were very friendly . . .

    “. . . About this time Elder Franklin D. Richards and the returning missionaries came up with us. A meeting was called. Captain Willie laid the state of affairs before the brethren. He accused Brother[s] Savage and Attwood for the rebellious talk and not upholding him in his place. President Richards reproved them and the whole camp for the dissentions that had been allowed to creep into camp. He said that the hand of God had been heavy upon us for this cause. Brother Savage was called up and was told that he would have to take back what he said at Florence of which I have already mentioned or be tried for fellowship. He was forced to do so. . . . Every word of Brother Savage’s prophecy was fulfilled and when brother Franklin Richards arrived at Salt Lake City Brigham Young told him that he was the cause of all the trouble that he had no business to start the companies at that late season of the year.�

    G.C. went on to compare what happened with Bro Savage to Galileo being forced to say that the sun revolved around the earth.

  37. Adam Greenwood on October 30, 2006 at 9:28 am

    I think you are right, Nate O., that Brother Savage was a hero and chose the better part. I don’t believe, as you suggest however, that his motives were purely humanitarian. Obedience is not just a matter of going along with people who you think are better informed than you.

  38. Ronan on October 30, 2006 at 10:42 am

    Doug,
    Wow. Great story. Anyway, I won’t beat a dead horse. I’m satisfied as to what the moral of this tale is.

  39. Mark B. on October 30, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    Actually, Silus, I had meant to refer to the un-Hobbited wilderness. Lousy computer just makes mistakes without telling me.

  40. jimbob on October 30, 2006 at 3:52 pm

    “Anyway, I won’t beat a dead horse. I’m satisfied as to what the moral of this tale is.”

    I’ve read your posts, Ronan, and my understanding of the moral you take from this is that we should only follow the counsel of our leaders so long as we agree with it. Am I reading you too narrowly?

  41. obi-wan on October 30, 2006 at 4:16 pm

    I’ve read your posts, Ronan, and my understanding of the moral you take from this is that we should only follow the counsel of our leaders so long as we agree with it.

    I’ve read his posts, too, and my understanding of the moral he takes from it is that we shouldn’t follow the counsel of our leaders when they are wrong.

    And I infer the corollary, which is that we especially shouldn’t follow the counsel of our leaders when they are wrong and we agree with them.

  42. jimbob on October 30, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    Do you have a rubric to help me prospectively identify when leaders are wrong? If we only obey leaders when it seems like they are right, where does faith come in? Or does faith not have a role to play in this analysis?

  43. Ronan on October 31, 2006 at 4:57 am

    What Obi Wan said.

    Jimbob,

    I can’t come up with an abstract rubric for you. Liken this to yourself:

    If if you’re an experienced Plains’ crosser — you know the land, the weather, the dangers, the risks — and you know that snow in October is deadly, and that it does indeed snow in Wyoming in October: if someone else, apostle or not, tells you that an October crossing is safe, then this is for sure: you are right and they are wrong.

  44. Not Ophelia on October 31, 2006 at 9:05 am

    Jimbob said: “Do you have a rubric to help me prospectively identify when leaders are wrong?”

    You’re kidding, right? Right?

    The answer is . . .[drum roll] . . .the spirit.

    Even GA’s counsel needs confirmation of the spirit. Following blindly doesn’t give us a pass — we still have moral agency and are still responsible for our choices; attempting to abdicate agency to anyone, even a GA even a prophet isn’t going to excuse a member of this church who’s been given the gift of the Holy Ghost.

    We have the tools to make our best decision [see what Ronan said.] We have the tools to confirm the decision. And we’d better use them both.

  45. Blake on October 31, 2006 at 10:14 am

    Doug: #36. Thanks for the cite. Great stuff! Here is the problem: Richards and Willie took Savage to be challenging their authority and position. Yet authority and position are not enough to justify poor decisions. Brother Savage, God bless him, had the good sense to know what was involved in the journey and attempted to warn these English saints. Why didn’t they listen? Richards and Willie were clearly caught up in the correctness of their position by the fact that they were the leaders. Their own pride and egos created this disaster.

    Yet there is another point to be made that is importnat. Richards also knew what was involved in the arduous journey across the plains. He had made it several times before the fated handcart company. He had been involved in the Perpetual Emmigration Fund. He knew as much by experience as Savage did if not more. Yet he sent the English converts very late in the season. Why? Because I suspect that in his experience early winters don’t last long in the high plains and Rockies. They usually last only a few weeks with renewed warm weather. Hindsight is a lot more acute than looking at it from that perspective.

    I don’t mean to defend Richards. Savage, it turned out, was entirely correct. Richards was taking a risk that he should have taken more seriously and he should have listened to the wise council of a faithful elder. It was not his risk to take and he had no business foisting it on the saints. Yet the fact that 100 saints refused to further only shows that they were in fact left to make their decision having been warned of the danger. The one element that motivated them was one which only a Mormon would consider: the additional ecclesiastial position of Richards and the authority of a church-appointed team captain Willie. Were they duty bound to accept their judgment and follow their directive?

    Yet now we have a quandry. Do we take a stand and stick by our guns and risk offending the Church leaders? In light of Elder Bednar’s talk, it is more accountably said that we may give occasion for our leaders to choose to take offense. I say that we are left to choose for ourselves and if our Church leaders take a stand that is erroneous, we are duty bound to point out the error. However, is it so clear that in this case the Saints were in a position to know that Savage was right and Richards was wrong? Or was it the unusually early winter and we ought to lay it at God’s feet and wonder at his inscrutible purposes?

  46. Mark IV on October 31, 2006 at 11:34 am

    Doug,

    Thanks for your contribution. Capt. Willie comes off looking worse and worse, doesn’t he? Rather than a humble leader who sought only the best for those whom he served and who just made a tragic mistake, we now see a petty tyrant, a two bit bully who was so insecure in his ability to lead that he had to tattle to the apostles about anybody who disagreed with him.

    Nate, you are right, and I was wrong. Based on George Cunningham’s journal, Savage met up with the handcart companies in Florence.

  47. jimbob on October 31, 2006 at 11:38 am

    “You’re kidding, right? Right? The answer is . . .[drum roll] . . .the spirit.”

    Gosh. I hope that was meant in a nice, non-pedantic way.

    So far, we haven’t really been talking about the spirit, N.O. Ronan has described how making bad choices, from a rational point of view, is still unadvisable even in the face of contrary guidance from leaders (see his last paragraph in comment 43). And I’m not sure the facts as presented above indicate that Bro. Savage had some spiritual guidance to the contrary of E. Richards. What you’re presenting is a whole other ball of wax.

    Moreover, probably because I’m not as in tune with the spirit as others, I’m a little uncomfortable with disregarding the counsel of those I consider the Lord’s annoited based on what very well could be my own feelings of doubt and distrust (so long as they’re not asking me to break commandments or the like). But I’m still growing, I guess, and maybe one day I will have the spiritual maturity to feel comfortable that I’m justified in disregarding a leader’s counsel.

  48. Starfoxy on October 31, 2006 at 12:55 pm

    I think it comes down to what Richards was claiming to determine if the spirit is needed to discredit his words. There is a big big difference between saying “It is safe to cross the plains on foot in late fall.” and “God will keep us safe from the dangers of crossing the plains in late fall.” Experiential knowledge alone is enough to discredit the first statement, but confirmation of the spirit is necessary to discredit the second. I’m not certain which type of statement Brother Richards was making- but there is nothing that says Brother Savage did not have both experiential knowledge *and* confirmation of the spirit to know that it wasn’t a good idea.
    It all rests on whether or not the leader is speaking as an inspired leader imparting God’s will, or as a regular person giving orders.

  49. Mike on October 31, 2006 at 1:59 pm

    Is it the Spirit that prompts me to respond or just my own imagination, I can’t tell.

    “The church is engaged in revisionism on a massive scale by drawing faith-promoting lessons from the story and encouraging young people to participate in handcart treks,…”

    Do these re-enactments include any of the following?
    -Chased around by Indians and possibly being scalped or raped? Then left barely alive on a fire ant hill?
    -Drinking dirty water infected with cholera, shigella, or other forms of dysentary, which causes life-threatening bloody diarrhea? No modern toilet paper allowed?
    -Eating only whatever horrible food was typical of the time? How common was pizza delivery along the trail? (I heard that one guy cheerfully ate his saddle and then his boots.)
    -Didn’t they get malaria and tuberculosis and a few other fascinating diseases too?
    -Pulling poorly constructed and fulled loaded handcarts, throughout several weeks of partial starvation and exposure, up a steep rocky ridge after 16 hours of exhaustion, 6 of 7 days a week?
    -Suffering frostbite severe enough to require amputation of toes or feet without any anesthesia using a dull rusty knife?
    -Watching hungry wolves disinter and tear apart the remains of recently buried friends, relatives and children?

    I ran across one of these re-enactments and a small fleet of very posh RV’s were never far away. I was trying to imagine what BY, Richards or Savage would have said if they had been shown a vision of this future scene? If we are going to do these re-enactments, I hear them say, lets put some old-fashion realism into them, eh? Then we might actually generate some old-fashion Faith and dispense with these quibblings about how to tell if you feel the Spirit?

  50. Ardis Parshall on October 31, 2006 at 7:03 pm

    Mike, you’re right to some extent about the Disneyfication of re-enactments, but c’mon, man. Although the Indians were troublesome in some years, none of the handcart companies ever got chased around, scalped, raped, or left on a fire ant hill. Since much of the handcart loading consisted of food, the concepts of “fully loaded” and “starving” don’t belong in the same sentence. Neither do “malaria” and fall/winter travel. The primitive surgeries performed on frozen toes were less classic amputations (why do you think their knives were rusty, by the way?) than they were removal of dead flesh and toes that fell apart at the joints, requiring almost no cutting and little need of anesthesia. Although the pioneers did sometimes see signs of animal disturbances of graves, those were from earlier companies — they didn’t stick around long enough to see the graves of their own dead disturbed.

    It is no more useful to exaggerate hardships than it is to ignore them.

    If some teenager gets even the slightest inkling of the difficulties of Mormon overland travel and the spirit that moved the pioneers to make the trek, it’s an inkling’s worth more than he had before.

  51. Adam Greenwood on November 1, 2006 at 11:03 am

    On reflection, I think I see better what Nate O. meant by Brother Savage sticking with the people. Its not just that he had humanitarian motives, but that he was willing to go where they had decided to. Being good democrats all, we should very well be aware that obedience isn’t just too hierarchs and leaders.

  52. Doug on November 2, 2006 at 1:19 am

    These were English, Scottish and Danish saints by the way.

    Franklin Richards sent them on the ship in England on May 1. He then traveled later himself and caught up to them on September 12 on the plains 324 miles west of Florence – probably too late for the company to turn back from there.

    This account by John Chislett is from http://handcart.byu.edu. This website is a detailed day by day account of the Willie handcart company.

    John Chislett’s First Hand Account
    “One evening, as we were camped on the west bank of the North Bluff Fork of the Platte, a grand outfit of carriages and light wagons was driven into our camp from the East. Each vehicle was drawn by four horses or mules, and all the appointments seemed to be first rate. The occupants we soon found to be the apostle F. D. Richards, elders W. H. Kimball, G. D. Grant, Joseph A. Young, C. G. Webb, N. H. Felt, W. C. Dunbar, and others who were returning to Utah from missions abroad. They camped with us for the night, and in the morning a general meeting was called. Apostle Richards addressed us. He had been advised of the opposition brother Savage had made, and he rebuked him very severely in open meeting for his lack of faith in God. Richards gave us plenty of counsel to be faithful, prayerful, obedient to our leaders, etc., and wound up by prophesying in the name of Israel’s God that ‘though it might storm on our right and on our left, the Lord would keep open our way before us and we should get to Zion in safety.’ This assurance had a telling effect on the people—to them it was ‘the voice of God.’ They gave a loud and hearty ‘Amen,’ while tears of joy ran down their sunburnt cheeks.

    “These brethren told Captain Willie they wanted some fresh meat, and he had our fattest calf killed for them. I am ashamed for humanity’s sake to say they took it. While we, four hundred in number, travelling so slowly and so far from home, with our mixed company of men, women, children, aged, sick, and infirm people, had no provisions to spare, had not enough for ourselves, in fact, these ‘elders in Israel,’ these ‘servants of God,’ took from us what we ourselves so greatly needed and went on in style with their splendid outfit, after preaching to us faith, patience, prayerfulness, and obedience to the priesthood. As they rolled out of our camp I could not, as I contrasted our positions and circumstances, help exclaiming to myself: ‘Look on this picture, and on that!’

  53. jimbob on November 2, 2006 at 12:06 pm

    “I can’t come up with an abstract rubric for you. Liken this to yourself: If if you’re an experienced Plains’ crosser — you know the land, the weather, the dangers, the risks — and you know that snow in October is deadly, and that it does indeed snow in Wyoming in October: if someone else, apostle or not, tells you that an October crossing is safe, then this is for sure: you are right and they are wrong.”

    I’ve maybe been too subtle with my comments, which would be a first for me.

    My problem with your above comment, Ronan, and with obi-wan’s similar comments, is that they assume that we should only follow leaders when we agree with them. And I don’t buy obi-wan’s distinction that we only don’t follow them when they’re wrong, because you can’t come to a decision that they’re wrong until you disagree with them. That seems totally antithetical to my understanding of the role of prophets and leaders in the church–that is, I thought I’d been asked to follow them, even when my rational mind says that the decision is the wrong decision. I appreciate your example about the experienced plain’s crosser above, but using that logic, I shouldn’t have to believe in Joseph Smith or follow his restored gospel, and God shouldn’t expect me to, because my past experience and training tells me what he’s claiming is impossible.

    And then I guess there’s N.O.’s indelicate comment about listening to the spirit as a way out of that quandary, but I’ve seen too many people justify too much disobedience because, according to them, the spirit told them that they were the exception to the law of tithing, or the law of chastity, etc. I mean, every semi-active member at Affirmation, for example, has a story in which the spirit apparently directly told them that that whole prohibition on homosexual sex just did not apply to them.

    Finally, even given Savage’s situation above, if he felt he was following God, and knew that God had the power to control nature, is it really irrational to follow the leaders? And how would that logic not apply to virtually every decision we think is stupid that a leader makes?

  54. Douglas on November 5, 2006 at 7:40 pm

    We Modern Westerners seem to value human life over all else as manifested in our constant seeking of cures and comforts and our disdain for any sacrifice that puts life on the line. But the gospel teaches us that there are things worth laying down one’s life for: friends, faith and principle.

    Ye receive no witness until after the trial of your faith. What do those words mean? Does it mean that everyone arrives safely on any particular mortal trek? Just where is that safe arrival? Salt Lake City? The Great and Spacious Building? Or is it somewhere else? I thought life was like the Old time Rail Journey spoken of by President Hinckley—mostly a bunch of cinders in the eye and only occasional beautiful vistas. I would suggest that safe arrival in Salt Lake City was not God’s primary end for any of the 1856 travelers. The Celestial Kingdom was. And that Kingdom is a neighborhood whose inhabitants are acquainted with God. In fact, it may well be that those who died en route were the safest travelers of them all.

    Nephi—a faithful man—was tested more than anyone I can think of except for Jesus, Job and Joseph Smith. He even received a vision that things would not work out. He was told in vision that his crossing the Ocean, the torments of his brothers and every other privation would end with the ultimate destruction of his people! The fact that he continued on in difficulty to the end of his days is an amazing example of faith. And if the scriptures were written for our day, then I would think that our slavish adoration of human life, heating oil and goods and services is misguided. Some things—like honor, virtue, obedience and sacrifice—transcend the need for safe travel during particular mortal voyages.

    In our modern day of getting (both of learning and creature comforts) more and more sacrifices appear to us to not be worth it. We find ourselves questioning faith more and more. The last post is correct: Prophets exist for the very purpose of guiding us where our rational human tools would not normally take us.

  55. Matt W. on November 5, 2006 at 10:37 pm

    Bishop McMullin featured Levi Savage in the CES Fireside this week…

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