My ward is in a rut as deep as the old wagon ruts in Wyoming – for the third time in the few years I’ve lived in my Salt Lake ward, I was asked to speak on the Sunday closest to Pioneer Day. This is my talk from last Sunday, or at least the talk I intended to give. I didn’t actually write it down until this morning, and some of the planned material was dropped because of, um, significantly uneven division of the time between the two speakers. But it’s what I wanted to say, in honor of some of the best men in Mormon history and as encouragement to modern Saints to carry on in the work of service to each other.
“We Have Left No One Behind”: Agents for Ourselves and for Others
Agency is a significant concept in the plan of salvation. We value the agency each one of us has been given from God to act according to our will. As Lehi taught Jacob,
[T]the Messiah cometh in the fulness of time, that he may redeem the children of men from the fall. And because that they are redeemed from the fall they have become free forever, knowing good from evil; to act for themselves and not to be acted upon, save it be by the punishment of the law at the great and last day, according to the commandments which God hath given. (2 Nephi 2:26)
and as Jacob taught his brethren,
Therefore, cheer up your hearts, and remember that ye are free to act for yourselves – to choose the way of everlasting death or the way of eternal life. (2 Nephi 10:23)
In very important ways, each of us must act for ourselves. I cannot decide for you that you will follow the Savior. You cannot repent of my sins. Those are matters that depend on each of us individually.
In other ways, though, we depend on another form of agency – that of acting on behalf of another. There are matters which we simply cannot do on our own. The greatest of these is the atonement of the Savior. None of us can redeem ourselves from the effects of our sinning, or restore ourselves to life in the day of the resurrection. We are dependent upon the grace of the Savior for those things; He acted for us where we could not act for ourselves.
When men bearing the priesthood act with the authority of God, they, too, are acting as agents for others, blessing and baptizing and doing other things that an individual cannot do for himself. And each of us can be a “savior on Mt. Zion” acting in behalf of others who have died. Even though the dead must also act for themselves in accepting the work done for them, we act for them in the temple to do what they can no longer do for themselves.
[I]t is granted that whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven … whatsoever you record on earth shall be recorded in heaven … for out of the books shall your dead be judged, according to their own works, whether they themselves have attended to the ordinances in their own propria persona, or by the means of their own agents, according to the ordinance which God has prepared for their salvation from before the foundation of the world, according to the records which they have kept concerning their dead. (D&C 128:6)
Because this is the weekend we honor the Mormon pioneers, I look to them for examples of both of these types of agency. Those who gathered to Zion during the 19th century were agents for themselves: others could preach to them and encourage them, but each man and woman who came had to decide for himself to come. He actually had to say goodbye to the familiar life of the past, and actually walk out his door, his face toward Zion, and make the effort, by putting one foot in front of the other, to act for himself.
But there were other ways in which the pioneers could not act for themselves, or at least could not act as efficiently and safely by themselves as they could with the help of others. Very soon after he arrived in this Valley, Brigham Young realized that those who were emigrating to Zion needed the help of other agents. While his 1847 vanguard company had been composed chiefly of strong young men using the best resources available to the Saints – the wagons of that vanguard company, for instance, were pulled by horses and mules, not by oxen, and they had enough extra horses that most of the men rode rather than walked across the plains – those resources were not available to following companies. Later companies had to bring everyone – the women, the children, the elderly, the sick – and they would have to do it under less than ideal conditions.
So the Saints developed a system of emigration agents to act for the traveling Saints in ways that they could not act for themselves. Some of the brightest and most efficient men – men whose names you generally would not recognize, but without whose help your ancestors may not have been able to come here – were stationed at key points: at Liverpool, where all Mormon emigrant companies from throughout Europe embarked for North America; at the seaport cities of New York and Boston and Norfolk, Virginia, and New Orleans (depending upon the year of emigration); and at the frontiers where travelers left the railroads and riverboats of the East and set out across the plains.
These men negotiated the best possible prices for ship and railroad travel, uniting the economic power of the emigrants to force better rates in a way that no individual pioneer could have bargained. When the railroad companies with lines heading west from New York agreed among themselves not to give advantageous rates to the Mormons, the agents negotiated with the railroads leaving Boston and Philadelphia, and soon the New York railroads lowered the prices for us. It may not seem like a great deal, but when the agent in 1870 succeeded in lowering rail fare from $51 to $42 per person, all those extra $9 savings went a very great way toward financing the travel of still more emigrants waiting in England for the opportunity to gather to Zion.
The emigration agents were the ones who knew what the pioneers needed for traveling. They bought first-quality tinware in England for those who needed mess kits while they were on the ocean, buying in bulk, lowering the cost, and making it possible for more emigrants to come. While the emigrants were going through bureaucratic procedures in Castle Garden – the forerunner to Ellis Island – the emigration agent transferred their baggage from ship to rail. In the years when emigration came through New Orleans, the emigration agents arranged for the riverboats that carried pioneers from the seaport up the Mississippi to the jumping-off point on the frontier. The agents had the wagons built and delivered to the frontier; they purchased the supplies needed on the Plains – what new emigrant from Switzerland or Scotland or Sweden would have known on his own what supplies to buy? – and they bought the cattle that would pull the wagons. They taught the emigrants how to yoke and drive oxen, and taught the German- and Danish-speaking drivers how to give the oxen commands they could understand, in English. These were all things that the emigrants couldn’t do for themselves, or at least couldn’t do as safely and efficiently, and the agents acted for them to do what they could not do themselves.
The agents protected the emigrants in ways the emigrants could not have done for themselves. In early years, when migration came through New Orleans, there was always danger of “land pirates” – gangs of men who would flood aboard a ship as it docked, swarming down into the holds and carrying off the passengers’ luggage and everything else they could steal. Disorganized passengers, taken by surprise and very often not even speaking the same language as other passengers, were unable to protect themselves. But Mormon companies, warned and trained by the agents, were well defended against land pirates. In the case of the Mormons, the gangs found the women and children below deck, the hatch covers firmly latched, with strong men standing guard and preventing entrance. A pirate attacking a Mormon company was more apt to find himself tossed overboard than to score booty.
The agents in New York and other northern cities faced slightly different problems, but were just as instrumental in protecting Mormon emigrants. Ordinary emigrants would be met at the gates of Castle Garden by oh-so-helpful guides offering to carry their luggage and show them to the cleanest, cheapest boarding houses. But emigrants who put themselves in the hands of these guides too often found themselves robbed of the little they had brought with them. Because the Mormon emigrants were greeted by an emigration agent, their baggage transferred, their train tickets purchased, they escaped being preyed upon by the wharf rats.
When emigrants were financially unprepared to travel farther than New York or Florence, the emigration agents helped them to find housing and employment, and stayed in touch with them, hoping to prepare them to travel on the following year.
Emigrant agents arranged for the trains that carried Mormon pioneers from the seaports to the frontiers. They usually managed to negotiate to have Mormon companies and their luggage placed at the end of the trains, so that there was no excuse for strangers to pass through Mormon cars. In fact, missionaries traveling with the emigrants stood guard at each end of the train cars to prevent the entrance of strangers. In this way, Mormon women were protected from the insults that otherwise would have plagued them, and companies were protected from the likelihood of theft.
At the end of every emigration season, the emigrant agent on the frontier wrote a letter to report to Brigham Young on the amount of money he had spent and the number of companies he had sent off across the frontier, and making suggestions for the work of future years. Almost always, these reports contained some variation of the line, “We have left no one behind who was prepared to come this season.” What a beautiful summary of both concepts of agency! Pioneers had to prepare to come, they had to do all they could to get themselves started, but once they put themselves in the hands of the emigration agents, those agents saw to it that they were not lost, were not left behind.
Just so you can put a name and a life to one of these selfless men, let me tell you a little about William C. Staines who served as emigration agent for several years in the 1870s. Staines was a small man who had been injured in his youth in a way that had left his spine crooked and his back hunched. Despite this deformity, Staines was a hard physical worker – he was a gardener, one of the best of the early Utah gardeners who raised all kinds of fruits and flowers on his lot on South Temple, down where the Devereaux Mansion now stands. For decades, the greenhouse that stood on Temple Square, furnishing the plants and flowers for the Endowment House and the Temple to make the Garden Room truly a garden, was named for Staines in memory of his work in making the desert blossom as the rose. Staines was also Utah’s first librarian, cataloguing the Territorial Library assembled by John M. Bernhisel.
But this gentle man, who wanted nothing more than to stay quietly at home with his books and his flowers, and his two wives (he had no children), answered the call to serve as emigration agent, spending months of every year far from home. He was theoretically assigned to New York, but he made trip after trip across the Atlantic to negotiate face-to-face with the shipping companies on behalf of Mormon emigrants. He traveled extensively on the railroads, investigating the possibility of bringing Mormon emigrants through Montreal – but deciding ultimately that the railroad from that place was neither safe nor comfortable enough for the travelers. He faced down the New York railroad monopoly, forcing the lowering of rates. He helped hundreds of emigrants find housing and employment in New York – in part because they needed that help individually, but also in great measure to prevent any Mormon from becoming a charge on the charity of New York, providing the excuse some officials were always seeking to prevent the emigration of Mormons to the U.S. While Staines’s gardens languished in the west, he devoted his life to doing for others what they could not do for themselves.
Like the 19th century emigration agents, we are called to do for others what they cannot do for themselves. We are called to feed those who cannot feed themselves, clothe those who are naked, heal those who are sick, comfort those who are mourning, rescue those who are lost. It is part of our baptismal covenant; it is part of the Savior’s charge to feed his sheep; it is a duty we owe to our brothers and sisters, whatever their needs.
When the day comes that we stand before God and report on our earthly missions, may we be able to say, along with the agents who did so much for our ancestors, that “we have left no one behind.”