Levi Savage, William Kimball and the Mystery of Redemption

Aaron R. aka RicoMormon 22 Comments

At the outset I should state that I do not think this is a very good title, but it is the only thing I could come up with.  So forgive me if it is mis-leading.  The Willie Handcart Company has rightfully become one of the scenes from early Mormon history that speaks to the tradegy and difficulty that followed the Saints in their search for Zion.  Levi Savage and William Kimball were both members of that party, but whose relationship to these early Saints raises important questions about my own relationship with my spiritual community.  The following narrative is drawn from an essay by Eugene England entitled ‘Obedience, Integrity and the Paradox of Selfhood’ but I have attempted to expand upon the implications of the story he tells.

Levi Savage, having previously made the trek West before, and being aware of the difficulties and death they would inevitably face if they left that late in season, protested against the decision to leave.  William Kimball and others disagreed.  Some even prophesied that the Lord would protect them in their journey so that the weather would be arranged for their good.  A few weeks later, Franklin Richards, who had previously advocated Handcarts as a mode of transport, met the company and stayed the night with them.  Richards heard about Elder Savage’s comments and chastised him for having a lack of faith.

Unfortunately, the storms may have even been worse that year than expected.  Suffering and death followed.

William Kimball, who left with Franklin Richards on his way through to Salt Lake, did not suffer with the company.  Yet, when William Kimball heard of their suffering from Brigham Young he left immediately to assist his friends.  According to one account, Kimball spent an entire day carrying women and children through the freezing water, he literally had to be taken out of the water, and suffered for the rest of his life from the effects of that effort.

What of Levi Savage?  Knowing full well what would follow if they continued, and even after being publically rebuked for a lack of faith, he stayed with the Saints in order to help those whom he knew would later suffer, including himself.  One account says that after his counsel was rejected he said: ‘Brethren and Sisters. what I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward I will go with you, will help you all I can , will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you and if necessary die with you.’

In the spirit of John Hamer, Eugene England has opened a different set of narratives from these stories.  I find both of these experiences challenging; they have made me re-think my relationship with my Ward.  Knowing a little of William Kimball I sense that part of his motivation for rescuing those people was guilt for his own failings, but in this I find some hope.  I believe that through such a sacrifice he would have gone some way in providing reconciliation for his error as a leader.  As someone who, I am sure, has and will fail people in my Church service I feel inspired by this example of someone who seeks to rectify his mistake through loving service.  Moreover, it might have been easy for him to blame the company (by assuming sin on their part or some other misdemeanor); but he seems to have been quicker to attribute blame at his own door rather than with the party. 

In addition, I admire Levi Savage for following his leaders even when he knew they were wrong because he wanted to serve the other Saints when they would need it.  He did not leave those people who he loved because he could not agree with others who had openly chastised him.  This sets up a model for me of how I feel that I can respond to the challenges of this kind.  I am not advocating a blind obedience because I think it is important to challenge incorrect thinking; but when that is done, I sense that it is important to maintain fellowship in order to help those who may be hurt in the future by incorrect or mis-informed decisions.  I should note that this is how I feel and that others rightful do not feel the same.

William Kimball’s experience also raises other questions about the limits of tolerance for imperfection in our leaders, or even our fellow Saints.  Is there a point at which an action becomes unforgivable?  Can Kimball’s (and others) mistake, which cost the lives of so many be forgiven, by us and God?  Some of this party left the Church, contrary to popular opinion,  after this experience; and I for one find it difficult to give strong reasons why that was wrong.  I sense that having my faith tested by such failings would perhaps see my faith break. 

I do not want to give the impression that I am treating lightly the effect of this error on the part of the leaders, but in my view each story still shows the redemptive possibilities, for both struggling leaders and also for struggling followers.  Further this story shows the challenges posed by living out our spiritual life in a community of complex and imperfect people.

Regrettably, I have in the past found the story of the Willie handcart company to be hackneyed by being repeated too frequently, understanding some more of the lives of those who lived through such an experience I feel that I have been challenged to re-think how I confront and deal with those other people in my spiritual community.

Comments 22

  1. I enjoyed the post as well since it raises multiple questions for me and anything that gets my noggin cranking I derive pleasure from.

    First the title — I don’t see this so much as an issue of redemption, but an issue of community and commitment to a social organization — which is exactly what England was probably going for in the original essay. Levi Savage knew he was right based on experience. You might say he had actual knowledge. He went knowing full well what was in store. It wasn’t blind faith, it was a choice. He could have easily made a different choice to stay. His commitment to the society is what required him to stay. The same could be said of William Kimball. He knew he was running directly into a frozen hell but he went anyway.

    Actions like this are not unique to Mormons. The most recent popular example is the firefighters running directly into the World Trade Center when everyone else was headed out or young men and women heading off to war in distant lands. Life and death situations elicit self-sacrificing responses from humans for a myriad of reasons. It would be foolish to attribute Savage and Williams actions merely to religious belief. I for one am craving more. I want to know about their personal relationships in the handcart company — wives, children, relatives, close friends. In an Occam’s Razor analysis those reasons seem far more likely for the two men’s behavior than following misguided leaders.

    Savage and Williams were undoubtedly heroic and noble in a life and death situation. Yet, why does their personal heroic choices have to be subjugated to some kind of “redemption.” If any one needs to be redeemed in this story it was Franklin Richards, who chastized Savage for a lack of faith. Where is his redemption? I’m not seeing it.

    Heroic personal choices in the face of imminent physical harm are relatively easy. Savage didn’t need faith, he knew it would be rough and made the choice anyway. The harder and more difficult personal choices in today’s world are when personal knowledge requires action that is in the face of imminent emotional harm. Courageous people make those choices every day, but it only peripherally deals with faith and religion. Often faith and religion are the actual cause of those difficult emotional choices for people in the Mormon community. Families are being torn apart in the fight between believers and unbelievers. Those who can’t tow the line exactly are criticized or ostracized. Single adults over the age of 30 are treated like second class citizens. And of course the struggles of those with same sex attraction is brutalizing and destructive.

    From my viewpoint, the Mormon cultural landscape in 21st Century Utah looks an awful lot like the wreckage of an emotional handcart company being frozen to death by exclusion, bigotry and self-righteousness. Those who are choosing to enter the foray knowing full well the trials ahead of them deserve our admiration as much or more than Levi Savage and William Kimball.

  2. “Some of this party left the Church, contrary to popular opinion, after this experience . . .”

    Rico, can you (or anyone else out there) exound on this? I am quite familiar with this essay (which has been very influential to me over the years), although I don’t have access to it as I type this, and I recall that England refers to one person who left the church and wrote a narrative from which at least some of the Levi Savage story was taken. Does anyone know of any documentation out there on how many Willie/Martin company survivors actually remained active in and/or left the church?

    As background, our stake is putting on a pioneer trek next summer. I volunteered to assist, because I know that if done properly treks can have a very positive and meaningful influence on the participants. But I want to be sure that the stories we share are honest. I know there’s at least one church manual which refers to the story of people in a Sunday School class discussing the Martin/Willie companies, and an old man allegedly rebuking the class, saying he was a participant, and that nobody who was involved ever left the church. While I don’t doubt that this experience happened (i.e. the man may have said that), I don’t think the underlying alleged fact (that nobody involved ever left the church) is accurate, but I’d like to have more certainty on this. If anyone can offer any help on this I’d be grateful.

  3. Ulysseus – It would be foolish to attribute Savage and Williams actions merely to religious belief.

    Urm I don’t think many here are in danger of that, I find your opinions of mankind slightly bleak… “Heroic personal choices in the face of imminent physical harm are relatively easy.”

    I do agree that actions despite the emotional harm, is extremely courageous and the majority of time it goes unnoticed. But I would see Savage displaying this type of courage, he knew that the saint’s would suffer and wanted to help them, this is not only the physical burdens but the emotional burdens. Many times we shy away from helping the sick, poor, afflicted not because we don’t have the finances but we lack the emotional affluence to really effectively help someone. Helping less actives, or single sisters or widows is draining emotionally.

    Perhaps this shows the dichotomy between Savage and Kimball one physical & the other emotional. Christ spoke of mourning with those who mourn. is one act greater than the other, perhaps depends on the person and the act.

  4. I don’t see Levi Savage’s actions as “following his leaders even when he knew they were wrong,” I see them as standing by his community even though he was certain it was being badly led. Those are two very different things in my opinion.

  5. I really like this post, as it helps me in my own life. There are a number of things that this Church clings to, not because they are eternal principles, but because its current leaders feel that’s just how it “should be done”. Just like in the handcart companies, there is obvious harm being done by these policies (ie. the declining growth rates and declining member retention rates both in the US and throughout the world). However, I bite my tongue and stick by the community.

  6. MrQandA,

    You are correct, that sentence of mine was poorly written. What I meant to say is that heroic narratives of the physical variety are easier to understand and easier to visualize in contrast to more recent and hidden emotional bravery.

  7. It’s said that the Lord has promised that he will never let his servants lead the Church astray. That’s been explained as a guarantee that while a Church leader may make mistakes, the Lord will prevent him from making such huge mistakes that they cause a “permanent injury to the work.” (I believe this is from Elder Oaks, but I’m not sure.)

    But there’s an awful lot of unnecessary suffering that can be caused by errors that don’t rise to the level of causing “permanent injury to the work.” (Permanent injury to people isn’t chopped liver, either.) I question whether the extreme notions of obedience encouraged by some Church leaders, are justified by a system that has the backstop set so far back from the plate.

  8. RE: #9

    “I question whether the extreme notions of obedience encouraged by some Church leaders, are justified by a system that has the backstop set so far back from the plate.”

    I know the post is about the handcart companies but any modern examples? Thanks

  9. #10: We don’t live in particularly extreme circumstances anymore, so extreme carnage is less likely to result from extreme obedience to unwise counsel. There aren’t any more wagon trains to massacre or get frozen to death. But it remains true that those nasty things were caused by similar “extreme notions of obedience” (Elder Charles Penrose’s phrase) to those that remain popular today, especially among gung-ho missionaries. The mindset is virtually the same — only the circumstances are changed.

    If we are judged more for what we become than for what we actually do (the latter having mostly to do with the accidents of history), should we be cultivating the attitudes that caused unnecessary suffering in other circumstances — and presumably could again, if the occasion presented itself?

    I can’t think of any modern examples by Churchwide leadership, who are very careful with what they say these days. I suspect that to the extent there are still casualties caused by “extreme notions of obedience,” they are located on the retail level — the odd broken family or spiritually or emotionally damaged individual.

  10. RE: #11

    “I can’t think of any modern examples by Churchwide leadership, who are very careful with what they say these days.”

    I’ve mentioned this before but about 20 years ago I heard Elder Pinnock say “we have to be careful what we ask people to do because they’ll do it.” I’ve also been in situations where it seemed that the “extreme notions of obedience” seemed to be operative. I think it all gets tied up in the idea that obediance brings safety and blessings. And I suppose sometimes it does. Thanks for the response.

  11. Lavina Fielding Anderson is probably one example of someone who is a modern example of the type of emotional bravery I was discussing and certainly a modern example of church leadership going down the road of Franklin Richards.

    Lavina was doing some important work cataloging and showing emotional and physical abuse by the lay leadership of the church. Without casting aspersions, it is certainly easy to see how largely untrained individuals thrust into authority positions that include counseling and inquiry into the congregations intimate lives could lead to potential difficulties. Knowledge and training count even for church leaders. The Wiley Handcart company would have been much better off if it hadn’t followed Franklin Richards.

    In Lavina’s case, she was treated in a way that would have been the equivalent of William Kimball rushing back to help the freezing and injured, permanently disabling himself and then being excommunicated for his actions. Through all that she has remained more devout than most and to the best of my knowledge remains so fifteen years after being excommunicated. Any religious ballfield (to continue on the backstop metaphor) that doesn’t have room for Lavina Fielding Anderson is significantly too small.

  12. The definition of a gospel hobby fits into this discussion—”the tendency to take a good thing and run it into the ground. We are speaking of the evils of excess, even in noble and worthwhile causes. Gospel hobbies lead to imbalance. To instability. To distraction. To misperception. They are dangerous and should be avoided as we would any other sin.” Robert L. Millet

    Excessive zeal in any direction leads to difficulty. I remember a talk give by Elder Oaks where he spoke about how satan can turn our strengths into weakness, if we’re not watchful.

    Those who follow the counsel of a church leader without question (blindly) are spiritually immature. Over the years, I’ve had several less than inspired conversations with a local church leader. I elected to ignore those experiences. On the other hand, I’ve had many, many more inspired conversations and have benefited therefrom.

    Ultimately, it is our choice. If we get it right, wonderful. If we get it wrong, repent and move on.

  13. I wonder if some of the complications with the doctrine of “obedience” come from a mistaken conflation of “commandment” and “counsel.”

    Commandments — immutable divine truths about what human beings ought and ought not to do — are to be obeyed. Disobeying them is sin.

    “Counsel,” on the other hand, is basically advice. When the Brethren give “counsel” (I classify this as things like “wear one earring” or other instances of “building a fence around the Law,” as the Talmudic rabbis would’ve put it), it’s our duty to hearken to them — to give them a fair hearing. We then follow or ignore the counsel at our own risk. But there’s no independent sin involved in declining to follow “counsel.” The only danger is that, by not following counsel, we might stumble into committing an actual sin — that is, violating an actual divine commandment — which the counsel was designed to steer us safely clear of.

  14. Thanks for your responses. I have to confess this is a personal post and was written more for my benefit rather than other people.

    #2 – I think the title was more a reflection of my own struggle for redemption rather than there’s which is why I think it is a bad title. But I appreciate your point. I disagree that Savage’s choice was easy, because it was not immediate like the twin towers was. I am not saying that choice was easy only that they are very different. They involve very different cognitive processes.

    #3 – Your right that England cites that one account. He also cites others if I am correct in the footnotes. I was specifically speaking of that famous story of man who stood up in a meeting of people criticising leaders of the church for their decision and offered a rebuttal. One of the things reported to have been said was that no one left the Church. There is at least one person.

    #5 – I do not know. Nor do I have the time to find out sorry.

    #6 – I agree that my phrasing was badly worded, but they amount to the same thing really.

    #9 – But if that is the way it is then I don’t see another way of doing it. Either you bring forward and people are disillusioned with a false reality of the Church or you send it back and you lose all concept of Prophetic leadership. Now I am not claiming I know what that means in reality, but I am forced to deal with it through the current position, either of the others would make it easy for me to drop.

    #16 – I think this distinction is interesting and possibly fruitful but it begs other questions about how you distinguish them. At the moment I take commandments to be in the scriptures and counsel from living prophets but then I am making the mistake of putting a primacy on past prophets, President Benson would not like that.

  15. #6 – I agree that my phrasing was badly worded, but they amount to the same thing really.


    Unless you mean that the end result was the same thing — Savage went on the trip — I disagree. I don’t see how “obedience to leaders” and “standing by one’s community” are the same thing at all. In fact, I’ve been a little mystified that so much of this discussion has been about “obedience.” I wonder how many people outside of Mormon culture could read that story and see in it a lesson about “following leaders.”

  16. My ancestors were in the Martin company. The father did not survive the trip. Heber, the 13 year old boy, and his older sister led the family the rest of the way as the mother was sick and the younger kids also. They suffered horribly.

    In their journals, they did not like the company leaders, and said Edward Martin was a mean man, but they also acknowledged that it seemed that may have been needed to keep driving the group in such terrible conditions.

    I have not heard the story of Savage or Kimball, but assume many must have been faced with these decisions. There was experience from prior company’s making the trip, but no one could possibly predict the changing weather patterns and if the trek would be a success or failure. They didn’t know for sure, so they had to make a choice best they could.

    It does make me think about following leaders, and if faith should be put in fallible leaders.

    But as I read the journals of my ancestors, they did not have faith in the leaders, nor did they mention prophecies the weather would be “blessed by God” so it would be a safe trip. All they talked about in their journals was that they believed in God, and that God would bless them, most likely in the next life, and that this life was full of tests.

    Their decision was not to blindly obey leaders and be saved, or disobey and be damned, their decision was to go to Zion (Utah) or stay in the East where they may not be blessed with association with the saints. It was more personal responsibility to decide what God’s will for them was, taking into consideration what leaders were saying, but it was their choice and not viewed as anyone’s fault. They choose to sacrifice all to go to Utah. They all stayed in the church after arriving, and journals did not record criticisms of which leaders were right or wrong about the trip or who was to blame. Only that their sacrifice was great, and they had faith God would bless them for it.

    To me, that has helped me remember that my faith isn’t in church leaders, who may or may not speak the truth through the spirit (faith in revelation of leaders is a whole other thread). It helps remind me that my faith is in God and I must choose what I think God wants me to do, and despite the outcome, learn from my experiences.

    Savage had humility and love to go despite being right about the risks. Kimball had faith that despite being wrong about the weather, he would serve the weak needing to be carried across the river.

    At the judgment seat, I don’t think God will ask who was right and who was wrong, but will ask what each individual chose to do to handle the horrific events, and what love they showed throughout it.

  17. When I did the lesson on the Handcarts, I ran across this story. I greatly admire Levi Savage for his courage to make his statements and still stay with the Saints. A lesser man would have “harrumphed” and left them to their own devices. It also pointed out that leaders can make mistakes, some very costly. But I already knew that.

    If I go into “faith-promoting mode,” I either say, “Boy, it would have been a lot worse if they weren’t blessed by the Lord,” or “The Lord had a great lesson for everyone to learn.” I’ve heard both.

  18. #20 Jeff–

    Good points. After reading your comment I thought of two scriptures:

    …he shall consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.

    (Book of Mormon | 2 Nephi 2:2)

    5 If thou art called to pass through tribulation; if thou art in perils among false brethren; if thou art in perils among robbers; if thou art in perils by land or by sea;
    6 If thou art accused with all manner of false accusations; if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, and thine elder son, although but six years of age, shall cling to thy garments, and shall say, My father, my father, why can’t you stay with us? O, my father, what are the men going to do with you? and if then he shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, and thine enemies prowl around thee like wolves for the blood of the lamb;
    7 And if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee; if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way; and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.
    8 The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?

    (Doctrine and Covenants | Section 122:5 – 8)

    These are the words the Lord uses to comfort the faithful.

  19. #18 – I do not see in it a lesson about following leaders, but leaders are part of the community. To reject the leaders completely you would need to leave the community in this instance. For me, I see those leaders as part of that community rather than a separate part of it and if he wanted to disobedient to his leaders he would have left the party. Now in our stationary communities I accept that this can be slightly different but in mind at least they are not all that different.

    #19 – Thank you I think that your knowledge brings at interesting new dimensions to the story. I would have imagined that this was something that people discussed, but perhaps this shows that the challenges were much more physical. I agree that the idea is most important rather than the leaders fail to perfectly embody it.

    #20 – I too admire Savage.

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