Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Gospel Doctrine Lesson 35: Reporting on My Lesson

Gospel Doctrine Lesson 35: Reporting on My Lesson

By: Ardis E. Parshall - September 27, 2009

So, today at noon I finally got to teach the Sunday School lesson based on the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies. After all of the drama kicked up by an earlier post regarding the manual’s single paragraph of historical error with a statement that could have sparked a doctrinally inaccurate discussion, I thought I owed it to anybody who cared to report how the lesson went in my ward. Don’t expect more drama, though – as I stated in comment 68 of that post, if all went as planned, there would be little to report.

Because it was familiar to me and completely unfamiliar to everybody else, I used as my attention-getter part of Charles H. Hart’s talk, given in general conference one hundred years ago next week. I briefly summarized the three events he mentions near the beginning of that talk, concerning looking for the bodies of those lost in outdoor mishaps. (Lest anyone criticize for going outside the manual, note that every lesson has a suggested attention-getter but also says “or [use] one of your own to begin the lesson”. My class likes stories; I’m a good storyteller, judging by the wide-eyed attention of classmembers, so I often use stories.) I ended that part by quoting Hart:

If we will make that sort of an effort, my friends, in order to recover mere bodies, mere tenements of clay, what should we do when a human life, or a human soul, is in peril? What price can we place upon a human soul?

I then asked class members to recall events from the past when church members had assisted people in dire need, and also programs and opportunities from the present that gave us the possibility of continuing that kind of service. Suggestions included the Martin and Willie rescue, “Helping Hands,” especially after Hurricane Katrina, the Welfare program, home teaching, and service in the temple. One man who is a native of India with particular familiarity with the tsunami of a few years ago told about local LDS rescue efforts there. A woman told about having been rescued by her community when she went through a flood in Killeen, Texas. A retired surgeon mentioned the solemn responsibility of holding someone’s life in his hands and the joy it was to come to the rescue.

We talked about why we remember and retell stories from our past, and I steered discussion toward these three points:

  • To honor the memory of those who had made sacrifices for others
  • To motivate us to look for opportunities where we can rescue others in need
  • To remind us that each of us is helpless without the Atonement, and the Savior came to our rescue

We also discussed briefly that we – all of us in the church, not only those with pioneer ancestry – need a few stories like this that we share in common with all other church members. They become metaphors, or are like the Savior’s parables, in that these stories give us a common reference point to illustrate important gospel principles.

Then I told about the rescue of the handcart companies. I backed up and started earlier than the point where the manual kicks in, and I incorporated into the familiar story the much less familiar story about a Latter-day Saint community in what is now Wyoming that received word of the disaster several days earlier than the news reached Salt Lake City, and which made enormous  sacrifices to begin the work of rescue without waiting for a prophet to start them on the road. (I want to tell that entire store eventually, so don’t want to say more here and take away the punch of that future post.) I also carried the story a little beyond the point where the manual’s version stops.

Because of those additions, the story was long enough, detailed enough, and completely adequate to achieve the lesson’s stated purpose: “To teach about the rescue of the Martin and Willie handcart companies, to show that the gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of rescue, and to encourage class members to help rescue those in need.” I did not need to address the events at the Sweetwater in detail, nor discuss who was or wasn’t there, and who did or didn’t say what, although I was prepared, I think, to handle any problem that might have come up had anyone on his own wanted to tell that bit as his contribution to class discussion.

We went through the several scriptures suggested for class discussion: Doctrine and Covenants 4:3-7; 18:10-16; 52:40-46; 81:5-6; 138:58-59, and talked about their relevance to this topic. D&C 4:3-7, for instance, although it is used almost exclusively in reference to missionary work, can easily be understood as assuring us that if we have desires to serve in any kind of rescue ministry, we are qualified for that work through faith, love, hope, charity, and the other qualities discussed in those verses. Although we had previously made the point that our work of rescue includes the work we do in temples, we discussed that again briefly with the last scripture. And so on.

There were three ticklish moments in the lesson that really have nothing to do with the prior post, but I’ll be candid – if I tell you what I did right, I should admit the places I had trouble, too.

1. One man asked why the Lord had allowed those companies to suffer so horribly, especially after an apostle had practically promised them that the Lord would temper the elements so that they could come through safely. I didn’t have a good answer, so I asked the class for suggestions. One man suggested that we should temper our enthusiasm with common sense – experienced frontiersmen, like Levi Savage, warned against the attempt. I forget the words used by another class member – he didn’t say “fanaticism,” he was more tactful than that, but he said that even wise and spiritual people could be carried away by their desires and mistake fanaticism (or whatever word he used) for inspiration.

2. In conjunction with that discussion, one woman suggested that the Lord had deliberately caused those events so that we could look back on them for the lessons they taught. This is so very difficult for me. When I am teaching, I cannot avoid challenging what I think is false doctrine, but when I am not prepared for the particular instance (I was ready for the Sweetwater hash, but not this), I am at a loss to do it tactfully and well. I said that I thought that would make God into quite a harsh God, to make one person suffer so horrifically just so someone else could be inspired.

No, no, that’s not what she meant, she said; perhaps those people had agreed in the pre-existence to make that very sacrifice, and that made it okay. Now that’s REALLY one of my difficulties – I despise that “teaching” that has so taken hold of some members of my ward, that each of us knew and gave informed consent in the premortal existence to every bit of suffering we would endure in mortality. I hate that, hate it, hate it, hate it. Not only is there no scriptural support for a “doctrine” like that, but it completely sets us up NOT to rescue those in need: Hey, she agreed to it, who am I to thwart the plan of God by intervening with a handout? I mumbled something about not knowing of any scripture to support that idea, but that the problem of suffering gave us so many things to think about, mumble, mumble, and went on to the next point.

3. I have a tendency to want to bring the lesson home, to address the here-and-now. So I stuck my foot in my mouth, and said I was going to mention some of the political reasons I had heard as justification for not doing all we can to aid those in trouble. I apologized in advance, said I knew I might step on some toes, that I knew I was exaggerating and over-simplifying at the same time, but that I was doing it for effect, to spark class members into examining their fixed beliefs. What if these political positions had been applied to the situation of the handcart pioneers?

They should have known better than to leave so late; now they need to learn that agency comes with responsibility, and deal with the consequences of their poor choices.

Sending relief supplies to the Martin and Willie companies will do those people more harm than good. They may become dependant upon the dole.

I am an American. If those immigrants came here expecting ME to take care of them, they can turn around and go home.

We would be reinforcing bad habits. How do we know that these people won’t strand themselves on the plains next winter and expect us to bail them out again?

Some of those handcart women left their husbands in England. If those women would just stay with the fathers of their children, then I wouldn’t have to support them.

Governor Brigham Young is taking away my free agency by taxing me of my baked potatoes and redistributing the wealth of my warm clothing. What is he, a socialist?

I could tell from the look on one person’s face that I had really made her mad and that it was all she could do not to jump up and defend principles she holds dear. Although I know this went against the politics of many in the room, nobody else seemed particularly disturbed, and most laughed at the “reinforcing bad habits” item which lessened the tension.

Still, I probably shouldn’t have done that.

And that’s how the lesson went in my ward.



  1. I should note that Velikiye Kniaz is in my ward and made two contributions to the lesson. One was to note that the trials of the handcart experience had been too much for some of the pioneers, and that contrary to an oft-told story, they had gone east the following year and left the church. This gave me an opening to agree that yes, there are several such familiar but romanticized or exaggerated tales about the handcart pioneers. We did not go into further details, though.

    Then after I had gone through my boneheaded apply-conservative-economic-theory-to-the-handcart-rescue stunt, Velikye again raised his hand and noted that in 1856 survival meant depending on your neighbors. Today there are so many options and alternatives that we’ve gotten away somewhat from the earlier personal dependence. I think he was chiding me just a bit for interjecting politics, something I rarely do, but he was very tactful about it — and had anybody else followed up with a more pointed objection, I was prepared to interrupt and say that Velikye had done a good job of noting that my one-sided statements were exaggerated and unfair, and we wouldn’t need to go into further political debate, thankyouverymuch.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 27, 2009 @ 5:34 pm

  2. “but when I am not prepared for the particular instance (I was ready for the Sweetwater hash, but not this), I am at a loss to do it tactfully and well.”

    Indeed. This is one of my failings as well.

    Comment by Ben — September 27, 2009 @ 5:53 pm

  3. One thing that struck me was the man who warned them, told them that God had shown him the disaster that would befall them, and then when they disregarded him, went with them and said he was going to do his best to help them.

    That is a moving sub-story, and one that ties together many of the themes (God did send them warnings, they ignored them, much like we often do, and rather than abandon them to the fruits of their mistakes, God sent them help and expects us to help others in their mistakes).

    Comment by Stephen M (Ethesis) — September 27, 2009 @ 6:50 pm

  4. I find your “political” comments somewhat interesting, especially in light of what did happen with the handcart companies.

    Levi Savage did warn them, as you said, and he did end up accompanying the party despite his misgivings (and his being proved right).

    Apostle Franklin Richards not only told them to move on (and rebuked them for their faithlessness in thinking about staying back), he also took some of their supplies, promising them they could resupply later (which didn’t happen). He refused to accompany the rescue parties when the time came.

    One of Elder Richards’s traveling companions, whose name escapes me at the moment, also promised the pioneers that they would not encounter any snow. He did volunteer for the rescue parties, and took a lot of ribbing from the pioneers he helped rescue over his declaration. I think it goes to his credit that he was willing to be wrong in public and help alleviate the problem he had helped cause, unlike Elder Richards.

    The story of the handcarts is full of all sorts of human drama. It is inspiring to me, and I like to find out more about it. I think it’s sad when the lessons in church teach us so little about what happened, when there are so many lessons we could learn.

    Comment by Mel — September 27, 2009 @ 7:22 pm

  5. You know, while we’re learning to balance traditional warm-and-fuzzies with newly understood data, we really need to be careful and not let the pendulum swing too far. You really overstate the case, for example, to say that FDR “refused” to accompany the rescue parties. Tens of thousands of men in northern Utah, most of whom had not just crossed an ocean and a continent, did not go back on the plains with the rescue parties. To say that someone “refused” implies that he was ordered, invited, expected, whatever, to go, and that he stood there and said “NO!” That is not the case here, unless you have evidence of which I am unaware.

    I could soften several other details of your version for which there is little to no historical evidence. Exaggerating on one side of the scale is no better than exaggerating on the other.

    The lessons we learned today were sufficient for the time available, I think, and I have yet to hear anybody champion additional lesson time at church!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 27, 2009 @ 7:32 pm

  6. Ardis, thanks for the play by play. I enjoy hearing a teacher’s take on what works and what doesn’t. I love the enthusiasm with which you tackle your lessons. In contrast, my Sunday school teacher today started 10 minutes late and literally said twice that he was killing time because the lesson was so basic. And the lesson was on the plan of salvation. Talk about a topic chalk-full of interesting teachings. I wish teachers were called because they found the gospel fascinating and were excited to teach it. It makes such a difference.

    Comment by sanford — September 27, 2009 @ 9:00 pm

  7. Good job , Ardis.

    Comment by John Willis — September 27, 2009 @ 9:13 pm

  8. It sounds like you handled it pretty well, Ardis, and I love your endpiece transposing modern attitudes towards the needy into pioneer days!

    Comment by Alison — September 28, 2009 @ 4:06 am

  9. Thanks for this, Ardis. I enjoyed reading what worked, and what didn’t work. And I liked getting a reminder about some of the nuts and bolts of teaching a lesson.

    Oh, and next time, MORE CONTROVERSY.


    Comment by Hunter — September 28, 2009 @ 4:50 am

  10. If we stipulate that people agreed in the pre-existent realm to suffer, that should have given others in that sphere the opportunity to volunteer to come to their rescue. There is no loss of opportunity to choose righteousness over selfishness.

    What is more troubling to me is those who commit attrocities. In this scenario they agree to do their crimes? Is that an agreement with God or with their victims?

    Comment by Eric Boysen — September 28, 2009 @ 7:57 am

  11. Thanks for sharing this. It sounds like a great lesson. I was especially interested in item 2 (the idea that the Lord deliberately caused the events). Like you, I have a hard time believing this. I choose to believe that the Lord allowed, rather than caused, this to happen. From my limited perspective (FDR’s promises notwithstanding), God’s intervening in things like tempering a storm or holding back natural disasters seems to be the exception rather than the rule. Maybe we tend to read too much in to such things.

    Comment by Andrew O. — September 28, 2009 @ 8:28 am

  12. Eric Boysen: Your comment could be taken to its logical conslusion–Did Judas agree in the pre-existance to betray Christ so that the Atonement could take place? I think Ardis handled it well. We just don’t know enough about the pre-existance and there is very little in the scriptures. We can do a lot of speculation, but that’s all it is–speculation.

    Ardis, I liked your approach to this lession. Although under normal situations I don’t like political interjections, yours were truely wonderful!!! Bravo!

    We had the next lesson yesterday–“The Desert Shall Blossom like a Rose”. I really had to take off my historian’s hat and focus on the ultimate point of the lesson. Our teacher is a wonderful lady (married to the stake Patriarch). In discussing the experience of the Mormons in the SL valley she followed traditional faith-promoting narratives and admonishing us to have the devotion that they had. In my mind I kept thinking of Mountain Meadows, the reformation, etc. Her husband did relate an experience in his ancestory where a woman saved money and gave it the her bishop for the PEF and the bishop ran off with it. A lady in the class was just mortified that something like that would have happened. I guess this begs the question as a Gos Doc teacher–how far either way do you go in faith-promoting vs. historical accuracy (and I might mention that those are not necessarily contradictory)?

    Anyway, fun to read how it went for you.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 28, 2009 @ 9:38 am

  13. […] Martin and Willie handcart companies. The first is a discussion of the controversy. The second is Ardis talking about how she taught the lesson. The lesson went reasonably well in our ward, if a tad sentimental at times. Those interested might […]

    Pingback by Ardis on the Handcart Rescue Lesson : Mormon Metaphysics — September 28, 2009 @ 9:48 am

  14. My Gospel Doctrine teacher handled the lesson very well, and I held my tongue on a couple of items until he came to the dramatic rescue of the three young men (who died young as result of their effort, and who are automatically to inherit eternal life, etc) I mentioned that new research has indicated there were more more identified (I mistakenly said about fourteen, but there were more) and that they had not died young, etc. Someone mentioned that maybe the “three” were the first ones in the water and the person identifying them could have been some of the first ones across, so they were unaware of any others. Another person said it would be unusual if only three carried people across while the other rescuers sat and watched. Everyone commented that they were interested to here the rest of the story and some wanted access to Chad Orton’s articles on the rescue.

    We actually had a very good discussion on the whole subject. Then I commented that the important thing that I got from the lesson was not how many young men were in the rescue party, or whether they would inherit eternal glory for their effort or not, but how we in the Church today responded to calls for help. This is how the teacher had planned to end the lesson also. So, hopefully, I was able to straighten out a piece of Mormon folklore without embarrassing anyone or coming across as a “know it all.”

    I usually try to keep from making too many comments in class, although the teachers often ask me to clarify things as they are teaching. The most interesting thing happened three weeks ago when the lesson was on Brigham Young becoming president of the Quorum of the Twelve because of Thomas Marsh’s apostacy. Then he said that the First Presidency was reorganized and Brigham Young was set apart as President of the Church on December 27, 1847 in SALT LAKE. Without even raising our hands, my husband and I both said at the same time, “No, not in Salt Lake!” The teacher was flabbergasted when we told him that Brigham was back in Iowa. He just assumed because Brigham had come to Salt Lake that he was still there.

    The teacher said to the class, “This is what comes from having a Junior High School gym teacher teaching this class instead of Maurine.” He was pretty cool about it, but embarrassed that he had not done more research.

    Comment by Maurine — September 28, 2009 @ 11:00 am

  15. Great lesson. Great questions. Thanks Ardis.

    Comment by DavidH — September 28, 2009 @ 11:03 am

  16. Ardis, I took a different bent than you – I gave the basic history (including Levi Savage, Franklin Richards, etc.), but then instead of talking about the experience I used it as a framework for the question: to what extent do we have an obligation to rescue our brothers and sisters from their mistakes?

    It was an interesting lesson.

    Comment by Steve Evans — September 28, 2009 @ 11:12 am

  17. mere tenements of clay

    Did he really call our bodies “tenements”? Isn’t the usual phrase, “tabernacles of clay”? In any case, some days my body does feel more like a tenement than a tabernacle. :-)

    Comment by sister blah 2 — September 28, 2009 @ 11:22 am

  18. This is awesome Ardis. I think you are a superb teacher.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 28, 2009 @ 11:44 am

  19. I thought Brigham Young was a communist! Thanks to Ardis, I’ve now learned something new!

    Comment by Rameumptom — September 28, 2009 @ 12:03 pm

  20. Thanks for posting how you handled the lesson.Must admit, I cheered when I read your ‘political’ endpiece…it made me smile. It sounds excellent- wish I could have been there.

    I taught this lesson last time round. Pioneery stories don’t usually have much relevance to our neck of the woods, so I watched the eyes glaze over at the start of the lesson, but thanks to #8 Alison, I had an ace up my sleeve, as she had discovered one member of the company had originated in the area covered by the ward in which I was teaching! Once the class became aware of this, the lesson took on a whole new tone.

    Of course, you can only play that surprise card once :-)

    Comment by Anne (U.K) — September 28, 2009 @ 12:22 pm

  21. Ardis, you know I love you, but I find your “political” questions unnecessarily provocative, especially for a gospel doctrine class. I think Steve’s approach in #16 is perhaps a bit more on-target.

    Comment by Geoff B — September 28, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

  22. One woman in the class I attended yesterday opened with a tear-filled account of her great-grandmother’s experience, about their eating the last bit of food and preparing to die just as the first of the rescuers (on a white horse, no less) appeared out of the falling snow. After that, I was shy about establishing my own blue-blood cred by telling about my great-great grandmother (a 57-year-old widow) and her daughter (a 31-year-old single woman) who were in the Martin handcart company. Besides, none of their stories has made it down to our generation.

    The teacher ended with the “quotation” from Brigham Young and then said Amen, so there wasn’t much to say at that point, but I don’t think anybody remembers it a day later.

    Comment by Mark B. — September 28, 2009 @ 12:55 pm

  23. Ardis, I think I would have jumped up and applauded had I been in your class. Excellent, excellent handing of the material.

    I love that you asked those questions. I really do. We all need to be provoked to more thought sometimes.

    Comment by Tracy M — September 28, 2009 @ 2:01 pm

  24. But…but…my teacher told us that not one of the handcart pioneers had ever apostasized! Now my testimony is crushed.

    OK, I guess it isn’t. Thanks for the post, Ardis, and I personally think your Point 3 was awesome. Sunday School teachers aren’t doing their job unless they make the audience members squirm once in a while, right?

    Comment by Jonathan Green — September 28, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

  25. Ardis: I loved those political questions. I copied and pasted them in a number of e-mails I’ve sent to friends and family members. I even sent those politcal questions to our own gos doc teacher. Thank you.

    Comment by Steve C. — September 28, 2009 @ 2:31 pm

  26. I think the idea of asking people to think about how their 2009 attitudes might have affected their response to the M&W rescue — and by extension, how their sympathetic response to the M&W rescue could inform their 2009 attitudes — was not bad. My execution of it was too clumsy, though.

    It’s one thing to pose those as teasers on a thoroughly voluntary blog, and I’m very glad so many of you got a kick out of them. Laugh, and pass ’em on, and God bless.

    But as Geoff B. points out, Gospel Doctrine is not the place to be quite so blatantly political. (Geoff, I did say in the OP that this point was one of my trouble spots, so I recognized what you meant. I guess I really knew it from the beginning, or else I wouldn’t have recognized the need to apologize to my class in advance.) With more thought, and with less eagerness to set myself up as being oh-so-clever, I probably could have come up with a way to move people to think about some of those ideas in a less partisan way, more suitable for Sunday School.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 28, 2009 @ 2:54 pm

  27. Still, I probably shouldn’t have done that.


    When all you do is hold a mirror up to peoples’ faces, they have no right to complain about the face that is looking back at them. Part of what might have made people so uncomfortable is that the truth is sometimes hard to bear.

    You did the right thing.

    Comment by Mark Brown — September 28, 2009 @ 4:44 pm

  28. I am an American. If those immigrants came here expecting ME to take care of them, they can turn around and go home.
    I’ve been wrestling lately with the idea that we US citizens erect fences and send around border patrollers to force our spirit sibs to live in much worse circumstances than we enjoy — or that we say to buy local products to protect the job of our nearby brother or sister and so eliminate the job of our farther-away one, who our fences and patrols have caused to live more poorly.
    But it is not given that one man should possess that which is above another, wherefore the world lieth in sin. — D&C 49:20
    For if ye are not equal in earthly things ye cannot be equal in obtaining heavenly things — D&C 78:6

    Comment by manaen — September 28, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

  29. Thanks, manaen, that was pretty much my intention, to cause people to wrestle a little. I know there need to be rules and limits for orderly and fair stewardship, and I would never advocate an anything-goes policy. But I think sometimes people’s personal policies are so rigid that they would see “destitute immigrant” today before they saw “brother,” even in the case of these two handcart companies.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 28, 2009 @ 7:08 pm

  30. Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t there a time a few years after this that a vast majority of Utahns were immigrants? Or was that just propaganda placed in eastern newspapers?

    Comment by Bruce Crow — September 29, 2009 @ 12:26 am

  31. Depends on who was doing the counting, and who they counted, and when.

    The Gentiles claimed the Mormons were foreign-born, with ideas alien to American government. The Mormons said no, the great majority of Mormons were native-born. The Gentiles countered by saying that was only true if you counted the flocks of very young children, that the majority of voting-age adults were foreign-born. The Mormons retorted that the Gentiles were unfairly painting Utah as un-American, controlled by foreign philosophies and behaviors, and presented evidence showing that virtually all civil and ecclesiastical leaders were American-born.

    I’m not familiar with the absolute numbers (maybe someone else can dredge them up); I’m only familiar with how the various partisan interests used those numbers to further their own agendas.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2009 @ 6:04 am

  32. well done, Ardis. As I listened to this lesson again it occurred to me that this was potentially a story about the sufferings of the poor and unworthy. So I piped up with something along the lines of your closing comment. No one seemed angry, and the teacher opened up with a surprising story about the challenges of caring for the poor–a statement that humanized him wonderfully and surprisingly.

    Comment by smb — September 29, 2009 @ 6:21 am

  33. I think your political questions were a nice way to get people to think about it in a personal context.

    I’m probably not going too far out on a limb to assume you don’t identify with the politics of people who you -believe- make political excuses like that.

    Certainly some people feel that way generally, and never want to help others. But then those people need to repent. Just as do teachers who use an opportunity to lecture or interject politics into a gospel lesson And I’ve sat in waaaaaaay too many pro-Republican interjections before that I felt the same way for. In fact, a previous ward I lived in, in a small Utah town removed it’s GD teacher after many ward members complained about his interjecting Republican politics into the lessons. And the people that complained agreed with his politics!

    Anyway, what I wanted to say, the point you’re trying to make with your questions regarding helping your neighbor, etc. is a good one (ham handed politics as you already noted, not so good). I do think you’re doing a discredit to those who may disagree with you politically, however.

    A person can believe that individuals, organizations, and especially churches have a moral obligation to help those in their area who are in need. But that has nothing to do with requiring government to fulfill that roll in your (Church’s, family’s, neighbor’s, friend’s) behalf.

    If government did everything some people say it does, we wouldn’t have too much of a problem. But generally I see government saying one thing and doing a little bit to claim it’s fulfilling it’s responsibilities, while actively enriching or benefiting those very individuals who claim to serve in our behalf.

    Comment by sam — September 29, 2009 @ 7:49 am

  34. You protest my straying into political discourse with a gospel end in mind, while feeling free to stump here for a political philosophy you suspect I do not support, after having explicitly called me to repentance. Bless your heart, sam.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — September 29, 2009 @ 8:18 am

  35. Thanks for posting this, Ardis. I’m comforted to hear that even a teacher as ultra-prepared as you is sometimes thrown a question she doesn’t expect.

    Also, I love your pointed politically themed questions: made me laugh!

    Comment by Ziff — September 29, 2009 @ 12:48 pm

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