Lesson 34: Faith in Every Footstep
Doctrine and Covenants 136
Purpose: To help class members understand how the pioneers’ journey to the Salt Lake Valley parallels our journey back to our Heavenly Father and to help class members appreciate the sacrifices made by the pioneers.
[1. The Lord instructed the Saints regarding their physical preparations for their journey.’
2. The Lord instructed the Saints regarding their conduct.
3. Under the direction of President Brigham Young, the Saints journeyed to the Salt Lake Valley.]
Our lesson today is drawn from one of the most widely familiar stories of the Latter-day Saints: the Pioneer trek across the Great Plains to the Salt Lake Valley. Many of us grew up singing about the pioneer children who “sang as they walked and walked and walked.” We all know the hymn “Come, Come Ye Saints,” and when we sing “And should we die before our journey’s through,” we probably all sometimes visualize a burial on the Plains next to circled wagons, or perhaps a burial in the snow by half-starved members of the Willie Handcart Company. Certainly here in Salt Lake we’re surrounded by reminders of the Pioneers – we can point and say “They came down through that canyon,” or “Here is where they ploughed and planted the first potatoes” – even our stake is named for Ensign Peak, that knob just above us where the first arrivals climbed to survey the Valley and decide where to build the city.
But as familiar as we may be with the most obvious and colorful episodes of the westward movement, no matter how may 24th of July parades we have watched or marched in, there are still lessons – especially lessons in making our faith practical and not merely theoretical — that we can learn from considering the Pioneers.
Last week Melinda told us about the final days in Nauvoo – the sustaining of Brigham Young as President of the Twelve to lead the Saints, the completion of the Nauvoo Temple and the eager reception of temple ordinances, and the Exodus from Nauvoo. Today we’ll pick up right where that lesson ended.
The Saints had been preparing for the move West all of that fall and winter of 1845-46: Making wagons, making tents, gathering the supplies they would need to take with them. The anti-Mormon element in western Illinois had made it imperative that they leave: they burned farms and outlying settlements, driving the Mormons into the city of Nauvoo. Church leaders had negotiated with mobbers for time to prepare, agreeing to leave Nauvoo in the spring, as soon as “the waters flow and the grasses grow” – that is, when the ice had melted enough to allow travel and the grass on the prairies was high enough to feed the animals that would pull Mormon wagons. Long before that point, in February 1846, Brigham Young and other members of the Quorum of the Twelve crossed the Mississippi, intending to go ahead of the people and establish base camps and organize an orderly exodus from the city. The bulk of the people were to follow, a little later, in April.
But the people panicked when they realized the Twelve were leaving. Those who were better prepared, those who had more in terms of wagons and animals and provisions, hastily followed the Twelve, crossing the Mississippi on the ice and moving ahead on their own, pushing deeper into Iowa Territory and clustering around the camps of the Twelve as much as possible.
I will not condemn those first few thousand Saints for their willingness to proceed and their determination to stay as close as possible to their leaders. But let’s think for a moment about the immediate result of their disobedience to the counsel to wait for the Twelve to make their preparations and send for the Saints a little later in the spring. We have been conditioned by paintings and by Hollywood scenes to think of pioneer wagon companies as being orderly trains of wagons traveling in single file, circling at night into relatively safe camps, with organized groups fanning out to bring in water and wood for the camp.
But what do you think traveling conditions were like for these first hundreds of families, without organization and direction, each family in their own wagons looking after themselves and making their own toward Sugar Creek, the first gathering point, before Church leaders were ready for them? [Discuss chaotic conditions, primitive camping conditions, poor sanitation, unnecessary suffering.]
Those who left first were the ones most able to leave – they had wagons, and enough animals to pull them, and someone to drive the teams (most likely a strong young man). If those who were best able to proceed left earliest, who was left in Nauvoo?
The Saints continued to stream out of Nauvoo the best they could. By early May, some 12,000 were strung out along the way in Iowa Territory, heading West. The last to leave were the very poorest, the sick, the oldest and youngest, the ones who were alone. Some were new arrivals from England or from the eastern States, who had spent all they had to reach Nauvoo expecting help from the Saints there as they reestablished themselves. In May, about 600 of these last refugees were huddled on the western bank of the Mississippi in a place called “the Poor Camp,” without food, without shelter, without leaders, forced at gunpoint to leave their homes in Nauvoo but without the ability to move any farther.
What is wrong with this picture? Is this how the Lord, or Church leaders, or even ordinary Saints among those 12,000 who had already moved on, wanted things to be? Then how did it happen?
Can you imagine any parallel to these conditions happening today among Church members? In what ways do we – you and I – have tendencies to look after ourselves, leaving “poor camps” behind us? Is that the way things should be? Then how does it happen?
The Poor Camp was still there in September. They had survived on what they could find in the neighborhood, and by charity, but they were unable to proceed, and winter was coming on. Thomas L. Kane, a non-Mormon from Pennsylvania who would later render such terrific service to the Saints that we should never forget his name, made his first Mormon acquaintances in the Poor amp. “Almost all of them,” he said, were “crippled victims of disease … Mothers and babes, daughters and grandparents, all of them alike, were bivouacked in tatters.”
Word of the Poor Camp had passed up the line, finally reaching Brigham Young and the Saints who were working to establish the semi-permanent camp of Winter Quarters. He dispatched wagons and men to bring in the poor; when word came that there were too many poor for that rescue team to bring in, he dispatched a second company.
On October 9, with winter coming on, the Saints in the Poor Camp experienced an event that we still consider a miracle: That morning, out of the cloudy sky descended a flock of birds – hundreds of quail. They landed the Poor Camp and walked right up to the people, seeming so tame – or so tired – that children and old people could catch them with their hands, and for the first time in weeks there was enough nourishing food to feed everyone in camp. In mid-afternoon of the very same day, October 9, men working on behalf of the Church to sell some of the Nauvoo property arrived in camp, bringing a supply of shoes, clothing, and food. At 4:30 that afternoon, the first rescue company started West, 28 wagons filled with Saints of the Poor Camp. By the end of October, other wagons had arrived to carry the last of the Poor Camp Saints on to Winter Quarters.
Meanwhile, the Saints who were better prepared to face the wilderness were not having an easy time of it. Even the best prepared of them faced miserable conditions. They were on the road in early spring, when Iowa was a vast sea of mud – it took the pioneer companies four months to cross the first 100 miles of Iowa, about the same time it took the pioneer companies of 1847 to cross the 1,000 miles from Winter Quarters to Salt Lake. But they made it, and they built Winter Quarters on the banks of the Missouri River. Winter Quarters was tough. Some 200 people died there in the first winter. But it served as a resting place, a point where the Saints could reorganize.
And something happened there, something that would greatly ease the difficulties of traveling across the Great Plains. Brigham Young received a revelation there – not the only revelation he received during his long Church administration, but one so foundational that it has been added to the Doctrine and Covenants as Section 136. Let’s read from that section and consider two things: How did this revelation improve conditions for the Saints crossing the Great Plains over what they had experienced crossing Iowa? and how should the principles of this revelation speak to our lives today as we pass along the trail of mortality?
Doctrine and Covenants 136:1-11
2 Let all the people of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and those who journey with them, be organized into companies, with a covenant and promise to keep all the commandments and statutes of the Lord our God.
3 Let the companies be organized with captains of hundreds, captains of fifties, and captains of tens, with a president and his two counselors at their head, under the direction of the Twelve Apostles.
What difference does it make to have an organization? Why isn’t it enough merely to have the gospel and know the doctrine and obey the commandments – why do we need a Church?
4 And this shall be our covenant—that we will walk in all the ordinances of the Lord.
5 Let each company provide themselves with all the teams, wagons, provisions, clothing, and other necessaries for the journey, that they can.
Does this contradict the New Testament admonition to “take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your bodies, what ye shall put on” (Matthew 6:28)
6 When the companies are organized let them go to with their might, to prepare for those who are to tarry.
7 Let each company, with their captains and presidents, decide how many can go next spring; then choose out a sufficient number of able-bodied and expert men, to take teams, seeds, and farming utensils, to go as pioneers to prepare for putting in spring crops.
In 1847, some of the Saints were literally going ahead, while others would literally “tarry” behind. Is there any sense that today some of us are pushing ahead, or some lagging behind, in our journey back to God? In what ways are we obligated to encourage each other to push ahead, or prepare for those who lag in a spiritual sense?
8 Let each company bear an equal proportion, according to the dividend of their property, in taking the poor, the widows, the fatherless, and the families of those who have gone into the army, that the cries of the widow and the fatherless come not up into the ears of the Lord against this people.
9 Let each company prepare houses, and fields for raising grain, for those who are to remain behind this season; and this is the will of the Lord concerning his people.
10 Let every man use all his influence and property to remove this people to the place where the Lord shall locate a stake of Zion.
11 And if ye do this with a pure heart, in all faithfulness, ye shall be blessed; you shall be blessed in your flocks, and in your herds, and in your fields, and in your houses, and in your families.
Once the Saints moved out onto the Great Plains in organized companies beginning in 1847 and continuing year by year, they did move together. With very, very few exceptions, the companies shared what they had, so that nobody in the company ate well while others in the same company went hungry. And once a base was established in the Salt Lake Valley, the Saints went to great lengths to bring the poor to Zion.
[Briefly discuss the chartering of ships, the Perpetual Emigrating Fund, the handcart plan, the down-and-back companies, organization for railroad travel, and organized Mormon migration through the 1890s. Offer these two URLs for further information on specific pioneers and companies: history.lds.org/overlandtravels/ and mormonmigration.lib.byu.edu . Stress the communal nature of all these enterprises – individuals and families had to prepare and had to make the journey – nobody else could do that for them — but working together in obedience to Section 136 made a great difference in safety, comfort, and the sheer numbers of Saints who were able to gather.]
Section 136 continues with instruction from the Lord that applies to us today every bit as much as it did to the Saints crossing the Great Plains.
Doctrine and Covenants 136:17-33
17 Go thy way and do as I have told you, and fear not thine enemies; for they shall not have power to stop my work.
18 Zion shall be redeemed in mine own due time.
It must have seemed to the Saints who had been driven yet again from what they hoped would be Zion that their enemies had in fact slowed, if not stopped, the Lord’s work. Do you see anything happening today that threatens to stop the Lord’s work? How do you face that?
19 And if any man shall seek to build up himself, and seeketh not my counsel, he shall have no power, and his folly shall be made manifest.
20 Seek ye; and keep all your pledges one with another; and covet not that which is thy brother’s.
What do you think the Lord meant by “pledges”? What pledges do you have, “one with another”?
22 I am he who led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; and my arm is stretched out in the last days, to save my people Israel.
23 Cease to contend one with another; cease to speak evil one of another.
24 Cease drunkenness; and let your words tend to edifying one another.
25 If thou borrowest of thy neighbor, thou shalt restore that which thou hast borrowed; and if thou canst not repay then go straightway and tell thy neighbor, lest he condemn thee.
26 If thou shalt find that which thy neighbor has lost, thou shalt make diligent search till thou shalt deliver it to him again.
[Ask for illustrations of when class members have done this, or been benefitted by someone else doing it. Were you aware that this was a commandment?]
27 Thou shalt be diligent in preserving what thou hast, that thou mayest be a wise steward; for it is the free gift of the Lord thy God, and thou art his steward.
We’ve mentioned several times today our duty to share what we have – what does the Lord mean here by preserving what we have?
28 If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving.
[What about singing hymns to tempo to express joy, darn it?]
29 If thou art sorrowful, call on the Lord thy God with supplication, that your souls may be joyful.
30 Fear not thine enemies, for they are in mine hands and I will do my pleasure with them.
31 My people must be tried in all things, that they may be prepared to receive the glory that I have for them, even the glory of Zion; and he that will not bear chastisement is not worthy of my kingdom.
32 Let him that is ignorant learn wisdom by humbling himself and calling upon the Lord his God, that his eyes may be opened that he may see, and his ears opened that he may hear;
33 For my Spirit is sent forth into the world to enlighten the humble and contrite, and to the condemnation of the ungodly.
What “wisdom” is taught by the Spirit? What is meant by “his eyes may be opened that he may see, and his ears opened that he may hear”? Can you give illustrations of times when your understanding of the gospel has meant that you understood something differently – that your eyes and ears were open – than the world at large understood it?