The Sunday School lesson for most of us this Sunday will be Lesson 35, “A Mission of Saving,” illustrated chiefly by the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies in 1856.
Because the story of this rescue is so well known – yet too often so badly misunderstood and misused – there will be a tendency to turn this lesson into something that is not intended. I hope here to offer some suggestions both for teachers and listeners – teachers, because you have the responsibility to teach truth; and listeners, because while it is not your right to take over a lesson, if you’re prepared you may be able to help guide class discussion in a way that is supportive of the teacher’s efforts while still managing to correct false doctrine if in fact it is suggested by anyone in the class.
Some, knowing that the traditional handcart story is too often treacly and sentimental, will be tempted to turn the class into an hour of “let me tell you what REALLY happened here,” with a debate about whether the handcart pioneers should have been placed in their situation to begin with, and whose fault it was that they suffered so badly. That isn’t the intent of the lesson, you know. The lesson’s purpose is to inspire class members with both an appreciation for the Savior’s rescue of all of us sinners, and a desire to help rescue those in need (whether their need be spiritual or physical). Debating the merits of the handcart program, and assigning blame for the disaster, is not what your class members need.
Others will be tempted to fall back onto the familiar handcart rescue story simply because it is so familiar, and perhaps in the process plant false doctrinal ideas in the minds of class members. By this, I mean that you know all about Francis Webster (whether you remember his name or not), standing up in that long-ago Sunday School class and making his declaration about the faith of the handcart pioneers. You also know about those young men who saved all those who did survive, together with the legendary eternal blessings and physical consequences to them personally.
The tale has been so embroidered over the years that seriously false doctrine has become a part of the story.
I recommend two easily read and easily understood articles by Chad M. Orton, as preparation for this lesson. Both of these articles are faithful both to history and to the gospel. Both are online, from BYU Studies:
If you’ll take the time to skim through these articles, teachers, you’ll prevent yourself from perpetuating falsehoods. And class members, you’ll be in a position to suggest, courteously and in the proper spirit, that while we have often said X, recent research by a faithful LDS Church archivist has shown that Y is true – should, that is, the lesson in your ward tend to emphasize the sentimental falsehoods that have crept into the story.
In particular, this statement from the lesson manual:
Three eighteen-year-old boys belonging to the relief party came to the rescue; and to the astonishment of all who saw, carried nearly every member of that ill-fated handcart company across the snow-bound stream. The strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effects of it. When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and later declared publicly, “That act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant, and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end”
is false and problematic.
Some errors are relatively insignificant from a doctrinal standpoint (none of the boys was 18; there were far more than the three named heroes who tenderly carried the sufferers across the stream, and none of them died of their service). Other errors – that an act of physical bravery guaranteed celestial glory regardless of what the men might do in later life (including murder/manslaughter, as was the case with one rescuer) – promote seriously false doctrine. The linked articles will give you accurate history, explain how the story became distorted, and prepare you to keep your class discussion centered on gospel truth, not falsehood.
Maybe none of this will come up in your ward. Maybe your teacher will emphasize the intended point of the lesson, that we all must be ready to rescue our brothers and sisters when the need arises. I hope so.
But if not, do your ward a favor and be prepared to help your teacher teach gospel doctrine.