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.