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.