Sunday, February 03, 2013

A Noble Heritage

When I tell people that I'm Mormon (a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), their minds immediately conjure up thoughts of polygamy and a people who don't drink.  But what they don't realize is the noble heritage that membership brings with it.  In my case, I am "dyed in the wool" Mormon.  My ancestors were Mormon pioneers who made the trek across America to Utah.  But even members who are not direct descendants of those faithful pioneers, can still claim that heritage in this church.

Can you comprehend what it means to be taught from the time you are little, about ancestors who gave up all for the sake of their religion?  Those who are descendants of the American pilgrims can identify.  The pilgrims left England in search of a life that would allow them to worship freely.  They suffered hardships and in some cases death in that pursuit.  But the Mormon pioneers were suffering religious persecution within America.  At that time, they were viewed as a political threat.  In addition, the then practice of plural marriage was misunderstood by the citizens of the state where they lived. Plural marriage wasn't against the law at that time, but wasn't a popular practice.  So Mormons were tarred and feathered.  They were attacked, and their women were sometimes raped.  Their farms were burned and confiscated.  They were publicly ridiculed.  Eventually, Governor Boggs signed an extermination order calling for the eradication of Mormons, even if it meant by death.  The pioneer saints packed up and headed West.  Their faith was what helped them to live through this trying time.   This was the heritage that was told to me growing up.  These were my family; my blood.

Brigham Young had seen in vision the place where the pioneers should go.  When they arrived, he knew the place and said, "This is the place."  That place is now known as Salt Lake City, Utah.  But to the saints at that time, it was known as a kind of Zion.  It was a place where they could worship freely without persecution.  It was a place to build up a community of the church of God.  In many ways, Brigham Young was likened to Moses who led the children of Israel through the wilderness.   As president of the church, he helped to organize the exodus, and personally also made the long trek.

Some of the pioneers were able to ride on wagons to the west.  But because of the expense, not all were given that opportunity.  Brigham Young came up with an ingenious idea to have the saints use handcarts to emigrate to the West.  My own grandmother (several generations back) pulled a handcart while taking care of three small children.  I can't remember, but I think she was widowed.  It could not have been easy to pull a heavy handcart across rough terrain, but her faith and desire to gather with the other church members helped her to make the trek.  She told of times when the three year old would fall asleep along the trail.  The older sibling with stay behind with that child, and my grandmother would continue on.  After making camp, she would walk back, sometimes several miles until she could find her children and bring them in to camp.  It couldn't have been easy, but she continued on until she reached the "promised land".

Two of the handcart companies left too late in the season.  The Willie and Martin handcart companies mistakenly thought they could make the trek before winter set in.  But they were unprepared for the difficulty of the trek, and the harsh weather that would overtake them in Wyoming.  Brigham Young got word of their difficulty and sent a rescue party to bring them in.  My great, great grandfather, Clark Allen Huntington was a teenager at the time, and he aided the rescue company.  He, with a few other youth helped to carry the saints across the Sweetwater river so that they could be brought in to the Salt Lake Valley.  These two companies had suffered many deaths.  Many of them came to the Salt Lake valley with frozen limbs that had to ultimately be amputated.  Many had lost their children and spouses.  While my grandfather has been lauded through the past decades for his heroism, I have come to feel that the real heroes in this story were those who survived that difficult trek.  They are the ones who had the faith to keep going in the face of inevitable death.  They were the ones whose faith helped them to continue, despite loss of family members along the way.  They were the true heroes of the pioneer story.

A story is told of a church meeting held years later, wherein some people began to criticize the church leaders for allowing these two handcart companies to make the trek so late in the year.  As the discussion was argued on every side, a man named Frances Webster stood up in the back and 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. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes! But I was in that company and my wife was in it, and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited here was there, too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with Him 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 only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me! I have 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 a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company." (from the writings of William R. Palmer)  

Today we live in a very different world from that of our pioneer ancestors.  We are sometimes criticized, but we are not driven from our homes.  We are allowed the freedom to worship as we feel.  We face modern trials that our ancestors could never of dreamed of seeing.  We cannot see the future, and may face dark days ahead.  But underneath it all, there is the guiding remembrance of our faithful pioneer ancestors.  Their heritage will be the example for us to follow.  I hope that I can. live up to their legacy.  

(Trail of Sacrifice, Valley of Promise by Clark Kelsey Price)


Mike Goad said...

Over the years, as a result of places we've lived and visited as well as people we've known, we've become somewhat familiar with the LDS faith. In 2010, we visited Sun Ranch in Wyoming. The exhibits there tell the story of the Martin Handcart Company and the other handcart pioneers. It was pretty moving, even for a non-Mormon.

MJ said...

Going on trek, and experiencing pulling a handcart, made me appreciate the heritage so much more.

Liz said...

Well said Delores!

Delirious said...

MJ and MIke, I hope that some day I can make similar trips as yours.

Rummuser said...

Utterly fascinating.

Maxi said...

Tremendous sacrifice will be made by those who have faith, whatever the belief may be.
Blessings ~ Maxi

Grannymar said...

...and we complain if a bus or train carriage is over crowded, the road traffic is bumper to bumper or we lose the internet connection for an hour or two.

Max Coutinho said...

Hi D,

I had no idea that Mormons had experienced persecution. There is no end to human ability to meddle with other people's lives and try to dictate how they should live their lives.

I confess though that I took issue with FLDS (mainly the aspect of forcing young girls into marriage; because if you are an adult and you consent to be married to a man who has several wives, go ahead if it makes you happy)and with posthumously baptising Jews for it is disrespectful of the Jewish faith.

But hey, all religions have things that need to be tweaked, I suppose. None is perfect.

Great post, D.


Delirious said...

The FLDS is not part of our church. It is a splinter group who practice plural marriage. Our church hasn't practiced plural marriage for about 180 years. The FLDS broke off, and does practice plural marriage. If people in our church are found practicing plural marriage, they are excommunicated.
We do have a practice of doing baptism for the dead, but the rule is that it must be your own ancestor. Some members with extreme ideals were found to be baptizing some of the holocaust victims. When this was discovered, the church instituted a rule that these practices should not continue. Those found disobeying this could face a church court.
But I would like to add that we believe that when a person dies, their spirit still lives. When baptism is done for them, they have the opportunity to accept or reject it. If they reject it, then it is as if the ordinance were never done.

Max Coutinho said...


Thank you for having clarified that for me. Here in Europe most are under the impression that FLDS still belongs to your church (should we blame the media perhaps?). Like I said, I have no problem with plural marriage per se (hey, in countries like South Africa men have several wives and they are happy); my problem is when they force young girls into marriage (and this is not exclusive to FLDS; as you know, some Muslims in Yemen and in Afghanistan [for instance] do the same).

As a mystic, I also believe that the spirit lives on after disincarnation. However, the issue is not the consent of the disincarnated (who being free of matter, couldn't care less); the issue is the offence that the posthumous baptism causes (or rather, caused) on the living relatives of the Holocaust victims and the Jewish community in general...know what I mean?

Maria Perry Mohan said...

I also didn't know that Mormons were persecuted. That was terrible. I can't get past why some of them practised polygamy, but that didn't warrant persecution and ridicule. The need to worship in freedom is something with which I would identify. Pioneers often suffer from the birth pang of a new civilization and those who follow them often have no idea of their sufferings.

As a Christian, I certainly lay claim to the Bible heritage as my own, although Christianity came to my country some centuries after the birth of Christ. So what you are saying ring true to me.

Max Coutinho said...

Happy New Chinese Year: may the year of the Snake bring you lots of happiness and health :D!

shackman said...

D as you are probably aware I was Mormon - but no longer participate. However your tales of the struggles are true and I urge everyone interested in religion to read of them. When I think of Mormons the first thing that comes to mind is decent, hardworking people - yeah that don'drink - LOL. You're an example of what I found good and true about the faith - unfortunately there were differences that became insurmountable.

Amber said...

Wow. What a powerful post! I've never heard that story about the man from the Martin Handcart Company, talking about angels pushing his cart. I'm sure there were hundreds of angels, helping them, encouraging them to keep going, and guiding them. Thank you for sharing that story!