Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Handcart Pioneers

You will think it strange, perhaps, that I would pick this topic for a bright, sunny spring day in April.  However, I do so intentionally -- as they did then, so must we today.

There has never been such an advocate for the lessons to be learned from our pioneer ancestors as we had in President Gordon B. Hinckley.  The steeled and seasoned fiber of his ancestors was carved out of those early difficult circumstances.  From the depths of their adversity a mountain empire of faith would one day emerge.  We are the beneficiaries of that resolve.  Little wonder that President Hinckley had a portrait of "Brother Brigham" in his office and that he said he regularly "consulted" with his predecessor on matters of import for the kingdom. 

In the 1850s, Church leaders decided to form handcart companies as a way to reduce expenses so that financial aid could be extended to the greatest number of emigrants. Saints who traveled this way put only 100 pounds of flour and a limited quantity of provisions and belongings into a cart and then pulled the cart across the plains. Between 1856 and 1860, ten handcart companies traveled to Utah. Eight of the companies reached the Salt Lake Valley successfully, but two of them, the Martin and Willie handcart companies, were caught in an early winter and many Saints among them perished.

Nellie Pucell, a pioneer in one of these ill-fated companies, turned ten years old on the plains. Both her parents died during the journey. As the group neared the mountains, the weather was bitter cold, the rations were depleted, and the Saints were too weak from hunger to continue on. Nellie and her sister collapsed. When they had almost given up hope, the leader of the company came to them in a wagon. He placed Nellie in the wagon and told Maggie to walk along beside it, holding on to steady herself. Maggie was fortunate because the forced movement saved her from frostbite.

When they reached Salt Lake City and Nellie’s shoes and stockings, which she had worn across the plains, were removed, the skin came off with them as a result of frostbite. This brave girl’s feet were painfully amputated and she walked on her knees the rest of her life. She later married and gave birth to six children, keeping up her own house and raising a fine posterity. (“Story of Nellie Pucell Unthank,” Heart Throbs of the West, comp. Kate B. Carter, 12 vols. [1939–51], 9:418–20). Her determination in spite of her situation and the kindness of those who cared for her exemplify the faith and willingness to sacrifice of these early Church members. Their example is a legacy of faith to all Saints who follow them.

A man who crossed the plains in the Martin handcart company lived in Utah for many years. One day he was in a group of people who began sharply criticizing the Church leaders for ever allowing the Saints to cross the plains with no more supplies or protection than a handcart company provided. The old man listened until he could stand no more; then he arose and said with great emotion:

“I was in that company and my wife was in it. … We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? … [We] came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.

“I have pulled my handcart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said, I can go only that far and there I must give up, for I cannot pull the load through it. … I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it, the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart, but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the angels of God were there.

“Was I sorry that I chose to come by handcart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay, and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Handcart Company.” (William Palmer, quoted in David O. McKay, “Pioneer Women,” Relief Society Magazine, Jan. 1948, 8).

I have learned a valuable lesson as I have aged.  It is that God has seemingly inexhaustible stores of patience for his children.  From time to time, it seems, we are reminded of the delicate nature of our grasp on life on this planet, suspended as it is in the vast reaches of a cosmos that is virtually unknowable because of its immensity. 

Thursday at 6:00 p.m., a 4.9 earthquake was registered on seismometers in Utah, notable only because so many along the Wasatch front felt it.  The epicenter was near Randolph, Utah, in Rich County.  Many described a gently rolling or vibration sensation, lasting only a few seconds.  A few minor items were knocked off a few shelves, but for the most part it was uneventful.

However, this week a volcano erupted in Iceland.  "The skies are totally empty over northern Europe," said Brian Flynn, deputy head of Eurocontrol, adding "there will be some significant disruption of European air traffic tomorrow."

The agency said about 16,000 of Europe's usual 28,000 daily flights were canceled Friday — twice as many as were canceled a day earlier.

U.S. airlines canceled 280 of the more than 330 trans-Atlantic flights of a normal day, and about 60 flights between Asia and Europe were canceled.

The International Air Transport Association said the volcano was costing the industry at least $200 million a day.

On April 7th, another earthquake rattled Anchorage, Alaska, this one registering 4.6 on the Richter Scale.  Once again, it's hardly worth noting in light of the devastating human suffering in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti in January.  That one registered 7.0 and left a wake of devastation, death and destruction.  It will never be fully known how many people died.

How many earthquakes happen every Month? Day? Minute?  Here's a handy reference guide for earthquake awareness.  Click on the link.  Summarizing their data:

Per month.........Approximately 80,000
Per day.............Approximately 2,600
Per minute.........Approximately 2

And, per second, one earthquake is felt approximately every 30 seconds. Of these, only a relative few are capable of causing damage. Earthquakes are common natural events imbedded in the fabric of the earth's construction for a purpose known best to the Creator.

If the creation of this earth is really the result of "intelligent design," one asks, then why wouldn't the Creator make a planet that was a little more stable than the one on which we live?

That Intelligent Creator has given us an answer (and this is just one snippet among many that could be cited):

For the day cometh that the Lord shall utter his voice out of heaven; the heavens shall shake and the earth shall tremble, and the trump of God shall sound both long and loud, and shall say to the sleeping nations: Ye saints arise and live; ye sinners stay and sleep until I shall call again.
Wherefore gird up your loins lest ye be found among the wicked.
Lift up your voices and spare not. Call upon the nations to repent, both old and young, both bond and free, saying: Prepare yourselves for the great day of the Lord;
For if I, who am a man, do lift up my voice and call upon you to repent, and ye hate me, what will ye say when the day cometh when the thunders shall utter their voices from the ends of the earth, speaking to the ears of all that live, saying — Repent, and prepare for the great day of the Lord?
Yea, and again, when the lightnings shall streak forth from the east unto the west, and shall utter forth their voices unto all that live, and make the ears of all tingle that hear, saying these words — Repent ye, for the great day of the Lord is come?
And again, the Lord shall utter his voice out of heaven, saying: Hearken, O ye nations of the earth, and hear the words of that God who made you.
O, ye nations of the earth, how often would I have gathered you together as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, but ye would not!
How oft have I called upon you by the mouth of my servants, and by the ministering of angels, and by mine own voice, and by the voice of thunderings, and by the voice of lightnings, and by the voice of tempests, and by the voice of earthquakes, and great hailstorms, and by the voice of famines and pestilences of every kind, and by the great sound of a trump, and by the voice of judgment, and by the voice of mercy all the day long, and by the voice of glory and honor and the riches of eternal life, and would have saved you with an everlasting salvation, but ye would not!
Behold, the day has come, when the cup of the wrath of mine indignation is full.
Behold, verily I say unto you, that these are the words of the Lord your God.
Wherefore, labor ye, labor ye in my vineyard for the last time — for the last time call upon the inhabitants of the earth.
For in mine own due time will I come upon the earth in judgment, and my people shall be redeemed and shall reign with me on earth.
For the great Millennium, of which I have spoken by the mouth of my servants, shall come.
For Satan shall be bound, and when he is loosed again he shall only reign for a little season, and then cometh the end of the earth.
And he that liveth in righteousness shall be changed in the twinkling of an eye, and the earth shall pass away so as by fire.
And the wicked shall go away into unquenchable fire, and their end no man knoweth on earth, nor ever shall know, until they come before me in judgment.
Hearken ye to these words. Behold, I am Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. Treasure these things up in your hearts, and let the solemnities of eternity rest upon your minds.
Be sober. Keep all my commandments. Even so. Amen.  (Doctrine and Covenants 43:18-35).

Apparently, the Creator uses natural disasters through which His voice may be heard by all -- and in that voice can be heard an appeal to "come unto me."  This mortal probation is fragile at best, as our pioneer ancestors learned all too well.  What they also learned in the depths of their adversity, apparently, was how to communicate with -- and become well-acquainted with -- their God.

America is on the brink of yet another renewal, perhaps even a "retrenchment."  Time will tell whether or not it can be accomplished in a civil and orderly transition of political power or if it will all break down in chaos.  This much is certain, in this election year as none I have ever known in my lifetime, the masses are aroused as they perceive their freedoms have been eroded by exploding taxpayer-funded bailouts, massive debt and unending government budget deficits.

From time to time because of our unstable nature as mortals, it seems, we must be reminded by the God of Heaven who we are and what we are to be about:

And thus we can behold how false, and also the unsteadiness of the hearts of the children of men; yea, we can see that the Lord in his great infinite goodness doth bless and prosper those who put their trust in him.
Yea, and we may see at the very time when he doth prosper his people, yea, in the increase of their fields, their flocks and their herds, and in gold, and in silver, and in all manner of precious things of every kind and art; sparing their lives, and delivering them out of the hands of their enemies; softening the hearts of their enemies that they should not declare wars against them; yea, and in fine, doing all things for the welfare and happiness of his people; yea, then is the time that they do harden their hearts, and do forget the Lord their God, and do trample under their feet the Holy One — yea, and this because of their ease, and their exceedingly great prosperity.
And thus we see that except the Lord doth chasten his people with many afflictions, yea, except he doth visit them with death and with terror, and with famine and with all manner of pestilence, they will not remember him.
O how foolish, and how vain, and how evil, and devilish, and how quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men; yea, how quick to hearken unto the words of the evil one, and to set their hearts upon the vain things of the world!
Yea, how quick to be lifted up in pride; yea, how quick to boast, and do all manner of that which is iniquity; and how slow are they to remember the Lord their God, and to give ear unto his counsels, yea, how slow to walk in wisdom's paths!
Behold, they do not desire that the Lord their God, who hath created them, should rule and reign over them; notwithstanding his great goodness and his mercy towards them, they do set at naught his counsels, and they will not that he should be their guide.
O how great is the nothingness of the children of men; yea, even they are less than the dust of the earth.
For behold, the dust of the earth moveth hither and thither, to the dividing asunder, at the command of our great and everlasting God.
Yea, behold at his voice do the hills and the mountains tremble and quake.
And by the power of his voice they are broken up, and become smooth, yea, even like unto a valley.
Yea, by the power of his voice doth the whole earth shake;
Yea, by the power of his voice, do the foundations rock, even to the very center.
Yea, and if he say unto the earth — Move — it is moved.  (Helaman 12:1-13).

In the days that lie ahead, whether it is voluntary or of necessity, like our handcart pioneer ancestors we will all become better acquainted with the God who made us.  Of that much I am certain.

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