The Dictation of the Holy Ghost to Us: A Pioneer Day Sermon

July 25, 2010 | 26 comments
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handcartI spoke in church today.  The youth in our stake just completed a four-day handcart pioneer re-enactment, and my remarks followed upon several youth speakers testimonies about their experience.  Below is the text of my sermon:

Today I would also like to speak about handcart pioneers.  In 1855 and 1856 Mormons across Scandinavia and the British Isles began gathering together their possessions and making their way to North America.  They were converts to the church.  They had heard the missionaries preach the gospel and the message of the Restoration.  They had been touched by the Holy Spirit and had been baptized.  They wanted to gather with the Saints.  They were looking for a better life for themselves and their families in America, but beyond that they wanted to gather to Zion and assist in the building up of the kingdom of God.  Many of them had scrimpted and saved for many years to have enough money to make the journey.

They traveled by ship and rail until the railroad ended in Iowa City, Iowa.  These Saints were poor and by the time they arrived in Iowa their money had all but given out.  Furthermore, the church was poor.  It lacked the resources to subsidize the purchase of the wagons and ox teams that were usually necessary to cross the interior of the continent.  So at the behest of church leaders these Saints built handcarts and resolved to walk the 1000 miles to Utah, pulling their possessions behind them.  The first handcart companies to set out left in late spring and early summer.  It was a long and exhausting pull, but they arrived safely in the Salt Lake Valley.

The last two companies, however, were delayed and they didn’t leave Iowa City until early July.  It was mid to late August by the time they arrived in Winter Quarters near present day Florence, Nebraska.

There they met Levi Savage.  Levi Savage was a remarkable man.  He had joined the church and gathered with his family to Nauvoo.  There he was a close friend of the Prophet Joseph Smith and after Joseph’s murder he went west with the Saints.  In 1846, Brigham Young asked him to join the Mormon Battalion, a unit in the U.S. Army, in order to raise money for the rest of the Saints.  Levi Savage joined and walked from Florence, Nebraska all the way to San Diego, California.  From there he walked north to San Francisco.  From San Francisco he walked across the Sierra Nevadas to rejoin the Saints in the Salt Lake Valley.  Brigham Young gave him a few years to catch his breath, and then called him on a mission to Siam, in present day Thailand.  It would be difficult to imagine a more remote place for a nineteenth-century American.  So Levi Savage walked to San Francisco, and then took a ship to Calcutta, India.  From there he struggled to make it to Siam, but he was unable to get there due to a civil war.  Civil wars were the sort of thing that could finally stop Levi Savage.  He did, however, make his way to Rangoon, Burma in present day Myanmar and preached the Gospel there.  At the conclusion of his mission he boarded a ship sailing west around the Cape of Good Hope to Boston and from thence he made his way to Winter Quarters.

Hence, when Levi Savage met up with the Willie Handcart Company he had literally walked or sailed around the entire globe at the behest of church leaders to build up the kingdom of God.  He was an experienced frontiersman, someone who knew what was involved in crossing the interior of North America.  He begged and pleaded with the European immigrants not to set out so late in the summer.  He knew that setting out so late was terribly risky.  They could be caught in early winter storms on the high plains hundreds of miles from their destination.

Levi Savage was much more experienced that the leader of the handcart company, James Willie.  Willie seems to have felt threatened by Levi Savage’s expertise and his strong opinions.  His ego and pride seem to have gotten involved, and he overruled Savage, insisting that the company would leave immediately.  At this point, Levi Savage got up and gave a remarkable speech.  He said:

What I have said [about the risks of setting out so late] 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.

Why did Levi Savage go with the handcart pioneers?  He didn’t have to.  He didn’t know these people and had never met them before.  Their leaders had treated him badly.  But they were his people.  Their God was his God. (Ruth 1:16) They were not strangers or foreigners, but fellow citizens in the household of God.  (Eph. 2:19) Levi Savage had been baptized and had made covenants that he would bear one another’s burdens that they may be light, would mourn with those that mourn and comfort that that stand in need of comfort. (Mos. 18:8-9)  And he knew that the emigrants would need someone to bear their burdens, to mourn with them, to comfort them.

Levi Savage, of course, was absolutely right.  The handcart companies were caught in an early blizzard high on plains of Wyoming more than 500 miles from their destination.  They were unable to move forward, and the members of the company began to die of exhaustion, starvation, exposure, and hypothermia.

Brigham Young learned of the late-departing handcart companies in early October.  It was General Conference, and the Saints were assembled on Temple Square.  Brigham got up and said:

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 sets 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. . .

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 115 wagons. I do not want to send oxen. I want good horses and mules. They are in this Territory, and we must have them. . . .

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.

Brothers and sisters, suffering seems to be a major part of mortality.  Sometimes we suffer because of our own pride and foolishness, like Captain Willie.  Sometimes we suffer because of the sin of others.  And sometimes we just suffer.  Bad things happen to good people, and the Lord doesn’t really explain why.  He is very clear, however, on what we are supposed to do.

The Savior told a story about a man on the road to Jericho who fell in among thieves.  (Luke 10:30-37) They beat him, took all of his possessions, and left him for dead in the dirt on the road.  A Levite came along.  The Levite was a good person.  He was keeping all of the rules.  He no doubt had on a white shirt and tie.  But he walked by, leaving the beaten man in the dust.  Then along came a Samaritan.  I imagine that he was a bit scruffy.  He wasn’t as good a member of the church as he could be.  He wasn’t keeping all of the rules like he should.  But he stopped.  He bounded up the man’s wounds, picked him up, and carried him to an inn, and promised the innkeeper that he would pay for whatever was necessary to heal the man.

Brothers and sisters, we are surrounded by people who are suffering and who face challenges.  There are people in our families, in our ward, and in our community who are trapped in the snows high on the plains of Wyoming, who are lying in dust on the road to Jericho.  Our job is to go and bring in the people on the plains, to pick them up and carry them to an inn. This is our religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost to us. It is to save the people. This is the salvation that we should seek.  I pray that we may do so, in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.

26 Responses to The Dictation of the Holy Ghost to Us: A Pioneer Day Sermon

  1. Amanda on July 26, 2010 at 12:40 am

    This is fantastic. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on July 26, 2010 at 6:51 am

    Brothers and sisters, we are surrounded by people who are suffering and who face challenges. There are people in our families, in our ward, and in our community who are trapped in the snows high on the plains of Wyoming, who are lying in dust on the road to Jericho. Our job is to go and bring in the people on the plains, to pick them up and carry them to an inn. This is our religion; that is the dictation of the Holy Ghost to us. It is to save the people.

    Beautiful, stirring conclusion, Nate. Great work.

  3. Christopher on July 26, 2010 at 7:22 am

    This was a great sermon, Nate, both in hearing it during Sacrament meeting and reading through it again here. Thanks.

  4. Aaron R. on July 26, 2010 at 8:23 am

    I don’t know if you drew directly from Eugene England’s essay for some of this content, but I think the challenges you highlight here are profound and difficult. Particularly this line:

    “Brothers and sisters, suffering seems to be a major part of mortality. Sometimes we suffer because of our own pride and foolishness, like Captain Willie. Sometimes we suffer because of the sin of others. And sometimes we just suffer. Bad things happen to good people, and the Lord doesn’t really explain why. He is very clear, however, on what we are supposed to do.”

    Thanks.

  5. Julie M. Smith on July 26, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Very nice.

    If we ever needed an example of why we shouldn’t white-wash our history, but instead grapple with the messy bits, this is it: it allows us to highlight the valiant response of people like Savage to the weaknesses of others.

  6. Mark Brown on July 26, 2010 at 8:32 am

    Thank you. This is Mormon sermonizing at its best.

    Nate Oman for GA!

  7. Adam Greenwood on July 26, 2010 at 8:55 am

    Two thumbs up.

  8. Ben Park on July 26, 2010 at 9:34 am

    Well done.

  9. Researcher on July 26, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Lovely. Thank you.

    A few years ago my husband and I looked around our ward and realized that with the exception of a small handful of families, every single family in the ward was in a major crisis. Death. Chemotherapy. Extended hospitalizations. Severe mental illness. Disability. Job loss. The bishop was unemployed. We thought that maybe a certain family was not in crisis, so I asked the wife. She laughed and described their job situation. Another couple seemed to be doing fine from everything we could tell, but two years later, they are divorced. Our entire ward was “on the plains.”

    We’ve all had to pick ourselves up off the road, pray for each other, and serve as well as we can at the funerals and hospital beds and moves and provide as much mutual support as we can given the distances and many other limitations involved.

  10. Jared on July 26, 2010 at 9:53 am

    Nate,

    That was worth reading. I’m sure those who heard it were edified.

    Saving the people, and I might add-ourselves-is what this life is all about. The best way to achieve this is summed up in the title of your post–receiving the dictations of the Holy Ghost.

  11. Wm Morris on July 26, 2010 at 11:23 am

    Regarding the excellent point Julie makes above: one of the reasons David Farland’s In the Company of Angels is so good is that he handles the characters of Levi Savage and James Willie very well. See: http://www.inthecompanyofangels.net/

    Until reading that, I’d always been somewhat frustrated with this story even though I fully agree with the sermon Nate derives from it and especially like this phrase “the dictation of the Holy Ghost” — a revelation, a command, a set of parameters and words of knowledge.

  12. Kevin Barney on July 26, 2010 at 11:53 am

    Great talk, Nate. Your ward is lucky to have you.

    (And Levite white shirt and tie FTW!)

  13. Nate Oman on July 26, 2010 at 12:19 pm

    FTW?

  14. Nate Oman on July 26, 2010 at 12:21 pm

    Andrew: I’m not aware of the England essay that you mention. Do you have a reference?

  15. Kevin Barney on July 26, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    FTW is internet slang for “for the win,” from the Hollywood Squares game show, where the winning answer would be described as “for the win.”

    In context, it just means that I thought that part of your talk was awesome.

  16. chris on July 26, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    Great talk. The conclusion was wonderful and I wish it could have been centralized throughout the talk, or perhaps dwelled on a bit at the end. Not really a criticism, but just saying I want more of it!

  17. Nate Oman on July 26, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    chris: The cardinal rule in speaking in sacrament meeting is “thou shalt not make the meeting go too long.” To my knowledge no one in the history of the Restoration has ever apostatized because a meeting got out early.

  18. Rob Briggs on July 26, 2010 at 4:28 pm

    Nate, a very powerful sermon. I love the image of the Levite in the white shirt & tie. And the conclusion is brilliant but, more importantly, very moving.

  19. Ben Pratt on July 26, 2010 at 5:46 pm

    Beautiful. Yesterday we attended our new ward for the first time, and I found myself wondering who among these (my) people will I be able to save when they need it? Which of them will save me when I need it?

  20. matt b on July 26, 2010 at 8:28 pm

    Wonderful, Nate.

  21. Dave on July 26, 2010 at 10:02 pm

    Very nice remarks, Nate. I’m sure very few youth groups hear that version of the story — how it really came to pass there were Mormons and handcarts on the plains of Wyoming far too late in the season.

  22. Aaron R. on July 27, 2010 at 5:34 am
  23. Stephen M (Ethesis) on July 29, 2010 at 6:52 am

    What I have said [about the risks of setting out so late] 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.

    I’ve always found that inspiring.

  24. Tatiana on August 1, 2010 at 1:50 am

    Did Levi Savage survive the trip, I hope?

  25. Nate Oman on August 2, 2010 at 2:06 pm

    Yes. He lived until 1912 or something like that. Most of the photographs and portraits from pioneer Utah that you have seen were taken by Levi Savage.

  26. Raymond Takashi Swenson on August 2, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Thanks, Nate. We definitely need to tell the whole story about the Willie and Martin companies, because it is an object lesson of the kind of misleading leadership that D&C 121 refers to.

    The notion that “God will save me from my own foolishness” still pops up among the Saints. The example I think of most was the zone leader in my mission who was already feeling ill but insisted on going out tracting door to door in bad weather, resulting in him getting pneumonia and sticking not only himself but also one of the other missionaries in the house for a full week while he recovered. I might have respected such a course of action if it involved more than a motive to accumulate statistics for a weekly report to the mission president.

    Then there is the whole panoply of bad choices made by youth leaders who take the kids under their care into situations that endanger them–riding on the back of a flat bed truck, hiking into the mountains when a storm threatens, hiking down a narrow canyon that might be subject to flash floods, pushing too fast to allow the least capable to keep up and getting them lost. I don’t know that I have ever seen any of these kinds of experiences turned into “lessons learned” for scouting and young women leaders and teachers. Maybe it has been started since the last time I was involved in such a calling. But I am afraid that we operate those callings with the same kind of “rely on inspiration” principle that we use when making assignments to teach Sunday School.

WELCOME

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