17 Miracles: Faithful and Foolish Pioneers

By: Mormon Heretic
June 13, 2011

I was pleased to be invited to a screening of the film 17 Miracles.  At the beginning of the film, the authors made a note that they took some liberty with the sequencing of events, but all of the miracles really happened. The story follows a pioneer by the name of Levi Savage, played by Jasen Wade. (My wife said he looks a lot like Brad Pitt, which may appeal to some of you.)

I’ll try not to give away too much of the movie. My wife said that the beginning of the movie (say first 15 minutes) made her very uncomfortable because it seemed as if this were the sort of movie you would watch at the Joseph Smith Building. It portrayed all early Mormons as incredibly faithful (almost weird), and they all desired to come to Zion (Utah). The movie did not “feel” like a major motion picture. Once the trek westward began, the people became more realistic. I liked the movie, because director TC Christensen was able to create a movie that I feel would attract both faithful and intellectual Mormons (and I say this as a guy who generally doesn’t like pioneer stories.)

Savage was called to leave his family on a mission to Siam by Brigham Young in General Conference. The movie shows the call, but not the mission, resuming the story as Savage is in Europe heading home from his mission. Wanting to know more, I learned from Wikipedia that Savage never made it to Siam due to a Civil War there. He did spend some time in Calcutta, India. (Did you know there were missionaries to the Far East in the 1850′s?)

As part of their migration to Zion, Emigrants from Europe generally took a boat to Boston or New York, boarded a train to Iowa City, and then began the handcart journey to Utah. Prior to 1856, pioneers crossed the plain in heavy, expensive wagons. However, emigrants from Europe had little money to purchase these wagons. In order to solve this problem, Brigham Young came up with the idea of handcarts that could be pulled by humans rather than animals. Handcarts were less expensive and more maneuverable than wagons. Young felt that handcarts would save money and be a faster mode of travel for these indigent travelers.

The first 3 companies proved that Young was right. However companies 4 and 5 (the Willie and Martin handcart companies) met with the worst disaster of the handcart experience. Lessons were learned, however, and the next 5 companies over the years learned from the experience–the last handcart company had 0 fatalities. (Excluding Willie and Martin, the other companies generally experienced 1-13 deaths per trip.) A new rule was made that no company would leave after July 7, handcarts were improved, and better supply stations were set up along the way.

I must admit that while watching this movie, it felt like I was watching the Titanic in slow motion.  It would be easy to place blame on certain individuals for this disaster, yet the movie showed the complexity of the problem. I guess I hadn’t realized that most of the emigrants were from Europe. None of them had any experience with the outdoors. They trusted in their leaders and in God to help them through the journey.

The movie shows the pivotal point in Omaha, Nebraska. James Willie was the leader of the group. Levi Savage was a sub-captain. Having served previously in the Mormon Battalion, Savage was a valuable resource for the journey because of his knowledge of the trail. It was getting late in the year, and everyone knew they needed to head west. There was trouble obtaining wood for the handcarts and they weren’t sturdy. Willie led a campfire meeting to discuss the departure and promised that God would be with them. He asked Levi Savage to give a few words. Savage expressed concern to the group that they were leaving too late in the year, and felt that many would die along the way if they left. He encouraged everyone to stay put in Omaha.

Willie scolded Savage for a lack of faith, and asked for a vote on whether the group wanted to head west. Most of the group responded that they wanted to go. (Wikipedia records that approximately 100 people stayed in Omaha.) Savage responded with an impassioned speech. In a journal, James Chislett records that Savage said,

“What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.”

I admit that my heart sank at this point in the movie, because we all knew the deaths that resulted from this fateful decision. Mormons have a culture of “sustaining your leaders.” Savage was called out and scolded for not having faith. In hindsight, we all know that Savage was right, and Willie was wrong. But it isn’t quite so simple to blame Willie completely for the disaster. Later in the movie, Willie states the problems with staying in Omaha. They had no money, supplies, or shelter to stay in Omaha, so staying there was a problem as well.  He had to make the choice between two bad options. In hindsight, it appears that he chose the worse option. Of course, he didn’t have hindsight to know this.  The conflict between following your leaders and following your conscience in the face of bad choices is wonderfully portrayed in the film.

It is at this point that the movie changed from a “church” movie to a “motion picture.” As the rains came, handcarts got stuck in the mud and broke down, squabbling among the saints understandably occurred. They realized that food was in short supply. They dealt with rattlesnakes, wolves, and poor weather. There were moments of fun and lightness, but it was clear to the pioneers that this was a much more difficult journey than any of them imagined. Many times they only had flour and water to eat. Sickness abounded, and the weak started to die. Wolves often scavenged upon the corpses.

In all, 68 of 404 (17%) died in the Willie company. It turns out that the Martin company left 10 days after the Willie company and more than 145 of 576 (25%) perished in the Martin company. As a comparison, 41 of 87 (47%) of the Donner party died. At the end of the movie, the authors noted that the Willie and Martin companies were “average” for loss of life for pioneer travel, though they were the worst tragedies for Mormons pioneers by far.

You can’t help but feel intense gratitude for both Levi Savage and James Willie. Savage knew the risks better than anyone, and did so much to help everyone cross the plains. Willie sacrificed as much or more than anybody else to get as many people safely to Zion. Savage went on to live in Lehi and then Tocquerville, Utah. Willie was fondly remembered as a prominent church leader in Cache Valley, Utah.

What do you think of this story? Does it make you interested to see the movie?

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47 Responses to 17 Miracles: Faithful and Foolish Pioneers

  1. Dan on June 13, 2011 at 7:47 AM

    I can’t blame any one of them for going on the journey. It was a harsher time for travel and it was more common to lose people in that time. In hindsight it was a very bad decision, but we rarely ever have the luxury of hindsight.

    I’m fascinated by the desire of people to create their identity on tragedies and sorrows. The strength of an identity seems to be based on the sorrow one suffers in life.

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  2. Mike S on June 13, 2011 at 9:41 AM

    I think the pioneers had tremendous faith to do what they did. Giving up literally everything because of a conviction that what they were doing was right says a lot.

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  3. Jared on June 13, 2011 at 9:53 AM

    I saw the movie on Friday. I put myself into the movie and reflected on how I would have decided about leaving so late in the year.

    We all have multiple versions of ourselves to call on when we ask ourselves what we would have done in the same situation.

    As a young man, I would have been inclined to move out with faith in my leaders and not ask questions. I would have respected Levi Savage’s stand, but would have followed leadership.

    However, with more experience in life, as a middle aged man, I would have evaluated things differently. I would have listened to Levi Savage’s reasoning. I would have then gone before Heavenly Father (with my wife), fasting and praying. I would have told Heavenly Father my plan was to stay until next year.

    I would have placed my faith in Heavenly Father’s promise to answer our prayers. I would have stayed behind unless I received the answer to go.

    I enjoyed the movie, but I was disappointed that the early saints were portrayed as following leadership blindly. Why didn’t they determine their own way by following the Lord’s teachings to obtain His mind and will for themselves.

    I find it hard to believe that at least a few of them didn’t exercise faith and prayerfully make their own decision.

    Nephi was asked by his father Lehi to leave Jerusalem and travel into the wilderness. Nephi prayed and received an answer that he should believe the words of his father, Lehi (1 Nephi 2:16).

    The essence and uniqueness of Mormonism is that men and women can obtain the mind and will of God on their own.

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  4. Will on June 13, 2011 at 10:29 AM

    Levi Savage is a true Saint. He saved lives. He tried to talk the leaders out of going west. He was even reprimanded by an Apostle, who promised the saints a safe trip. He is a man that will be blessed for his courage and obedience in horrible circumstances.

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  5. Irony on June 13, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    Will:

    Let me get this straight: you praise Levi Savage as being a true saint, but have [here on W&T] ridiculed some who don’t “blindly” follow his/her current leadership?

    MH:

    I think I’ll go and see it when it gets into my area.

    I wonder if the first 15 minutes weren’t done with the “Joseph Smith Memorial Building” theme to get more TBMs to go and see it and buy into it. Just musing out loud, but it might be a lot easier to get someone’s interest peaked [especially when it's your biggest demographic/market] when you’re playing to their strengths… then meander off from there.

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  6. Will on June 13, 2011 at 12:00 PM

    Irony,

    You clearly missed my point and what Levi Savage did. An Apostle told the saints they would be safe. He voiced his concern and expressed how difficult the journey would be. He was reprimanded. He then said, as was quoted by MH:

    “What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us”

    He followed the Apostle knowing he was wrong. That is the definition of obedience. He did it knowing it may cost him his life. It is the definition of devotion. He knew they were going to hit harsh conditions, but marched on anyway. It is an object lesson in supporting your leaders. The exact opposite of what you suggested.

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  7. mh on June 13, 2011 at 12:08 PM

    jared, what an interesting perspective on lehi/nephi! thanks, I had not thought of that. certainly there are some parallels to be drawn.

    when ishmael died in nahom, there was quite a bit if murmuring. you could say that laman and lemuel may have played the part of levi savage, questioning the wisdom of the move. of course the comparison breaks down, because laman and lemuel didn’t live like levi savage after the journey. nonetheless, I think it is a very interesting perspective on the nephi story.

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  8. mh on June 13, 2011 at 12:30 PM

    will,

    is another lesson that the leaders should listen to the expert? levi had much wisdom, but was over-ruled by less informed leaders. while levi’s submission and dedication to the hard journey are unqualified devotion, wasn’t this an exercise of unrighteous dominion?

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  9. Mike S on June 13, 2011 at 1:00 PM

    #3 Jared: The essence and uniqueness of Mormonism is that men and women can obtain the mind and will of God on their own.

    I really like this sentiment – that our finding out the will of God in our lives is the ultimate thing.

    In the ideal situation, what someone feels is right for them and what leaders suggest are 100% the same. But, we all know that this is not always the case.

    My question therefore becomes: What happens when what someone feels is right for them conflicts with the opinion of someone higher in the hierarchy?

    Which is the higher principle – obedience to a leader with whom you disagree, or following your own conscience and perhaps rejecting the counsel of a Church leader?

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  10. Cowboy on June 13, 2011 at 1:07 PM

    Mike S:

    Take it a step further. First, I like the idea that Jared presents – that of a personal faith where revelation is a personal matter between each person and God. However, it begs the question, why have leadership at all? Under such circumstances, why would we need a defacto revelation getter who is authorized to speak for the whole Church/world? It would seem to me that the better alternative would be an unending network of revelation getters who each work out these on their own. That would facilitate personal growth and strength. The Church would then simply function as social devise facilitating faith – but there would be littel need for a hierarchy with governing powers. No more interviews and council’s with the purposes of micro-managing, etc.

    I like Jared’s idea, but I think this perspective idealizes the Church rather than observing it for the way things really function.

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  11. Marjorie Conder on June 13, 2011 at 1:57 PM

    Why didn’t more question? A couple of thoughts here. First off, they were much poorer than they seemed to be in this movie (one of my few criticisms) They were English, mostly coming out of the mines, potteries and factories. Most were illiterate. And finally they were coming out of a very stratified culture, where people were expected to “do as they were told.” And most of them had come from the “bottom rungs”. Juxtaposed against all that is that they had joined an unpopular religion. But then they may have reverted to “doing as they were told: as the familiar default option, especially from a leader they trusted.

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  12. Matthew73 on June 13, 2011 at 1:58 PM

    Thanks for posting. I’ve admired Levi Savage ever since I first came across this story through Gene England’s writing in the mid-1980s.

    One of the BYU websites has posted the official journal of the Willie Company, along with John Chislett’s (who later left the church) commentary. The link to the journal is:

    http://handcart.byu.edu/Default.aspx

    On the entry for September 12, 1856, Chislett records the following:

    “One evening, as we were camped on the west bank of the North Bluff Fork of the Platte, a grand outfit of carriages and light wagons was driven into our camp from the East. Each vehicle was drawn by four horses or mules, and all the appointments seemed to be first rate. The occupants we soon found to be the apostle F. D. Richards, elders W. H. Kimball, G. D. Grant, Joseph A. Young, C. G. Webb, N. H. Felt, W. C. Dunbar, and others who were returning to Utah from missions abroad. They camped with us for the night, and in the morning a general meeting was called. Apostle Richards addressed us. He had been advised of the opposition brother Savage had made, and he rebuked him very severely in open meeting for his lack of faith in God. Richards gave us plenty of counsel to be faithful, prayerful, obedient to our leaders, etc., and wound up by prophesying in the name of Israel’s God that ‘though it might storm on our right and on our left, the Lord would keep open our way before us and we should get to Zion in safety.’ This assurance had a telling effect on the people—to them it was ‘the voice of God.’ They gave a loud and hearty ‘Amen,’ while tears of joy ran down their sunburnt cheeks.

    “These brethren told Captain Willie they wanted some fresh meat, and he had our fattest calf killed for them. I am ashamed for humanity’s sake to say they took it. While we, four hundred in number, travelling so slowly and so far from home, with our mixed company of men, women, children, aged, sick, and infirm people, had no provisions to spare, had not enough for ourselves, in fact, these ‘elders in Israel,’ these ‘servants of God,’ took from us what we ourselves so greatly needed and went on in style with their splendid outfit, after preaching to us faith, patience, prayerfulness, and obedience to the priesthood. As they rolled out of our camp I could not, as I contrasted our positions and circumstances, help exclaiming to myself: ‘Look on this picture, and on that!’

    “We broke camp at once and turned towards the river, the apostle having advised us to go on to the south side. He and his company preceded us and waited in the opposite bank to indicate to us the best fording place. They stood and watched us wade the river—here almost a mile in width, and in places from two to three feet deep. Our women and girls waded, pulling their carts after them.

    “The apostle promised to leave us provisions, bedding, etc., at Laramie if he could, and to secure us help from the valley as soon as possible.”

    Did this episode make it into the movie?

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  13. Will on June 13, 2011 at 2:19 PM

    “Is another lesson that the leaders should listen to the expert levi had much wisdom, but was over-ruled by less informed leaders. while levi’s submission and dedication to the hard journey are unqualified devotion, wasn’t this an exercise of unrighteous dominion?”

    I’m not prepared to make that judgment. Perhaps it was their destiny. Perhaps the sacrifice they made in the Wyoming wilderness was an object lesson for the rest of us. It wouldn’t be the first time that has happened and I’m certain it won’t be the last. Death is a part of life. It is not tragic unless the soul is unrepentant; unless the soul has unforgiven sin. It is part of our Father’s plan. Perhaps their death was part of his plan. I know this story has motivated me to do better. I know this story makes me view things through eternal lenses. It has made me better.

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  14. Will on June 13, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    “Which is the higher principle – obedience to a leader with whom you disagree, or following your own conscience and perhaps rejecting the counsel of a Church leader?”

    Obedience to a leader for sure.

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  15. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 13, 2011 at 2:30 PM

    “At the end of the movie, the authors noted that the Willie and Martin companies were “average” for loss of life for pioneer travel, though they were the worst tragedies for Mormons pioneers by far.”

    I had no idea they were average for normal pioneer travel. That casts the entire event in a different lens.

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  16. Jared on June 13, 2011 at 2:47 PM

    # 9 & 10 Mike S & Cowboy–

    As a general rule, I view the role of the prophets to be similar to that of a parent. The idea is to be “weaned”.

    I believe the Lord wants us to independent.

    If the information we have about leadership in the case at hand is true, then apostle Richards was dead wrong.

    I believe there needs to be a balance between following the prophets and being independent followers of Christ. If we follow them without using our wits then we’re following blindly. If we see them as a group of good , but uninspired men, then we are walking in darkness.

    As always, the key is to acquire the gift of the Holy Ghost so we will know for ourselves the course we need to follow.

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  17. Howard on June 13, 2011 at 3:09 PM

    Re: 12 While I find the story of brethren taking fresh meat somewhat distasteful given what the company faced I would like put it in perspective by paraphrasing from my family’s genealogy: According to Chislett there were 500 people 120 handcarts 5 wagons 24 oxen and 45 beef cattle. At New Grand Island, Nebraska Buffalo caused their cattle to stampede after a three day search they were 30 head short. There are notes of slaughtering two cattle for food after Fort Laramie so the loss of their fattest calf apparently had little effect on the trip or the outcome.

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  18. Mike S on June 13, 2011 at 3:12 PM

    #16 Jared: As always, the key is to acquire the gift of the Holy Ghost so we will know for ourselves the course we need to follow.

    That is the key, but you didn’t answer the question. What if someone feels the course they need to follow is contrary to what a Church leader tells them?

    Should they follow their leader and be blessed for their obedience, or should they follow what they feel is the course they “need to follow”? (obviously after pondering, praying, etc)?

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  19. Howard on June 13, 2011 at 3:13 PM

    Regarding the disagreement to go from our genealogy paraphrasing: Chislett wrote the Elders were divided about going so late in the season so a meeting was held of four men who had been to Utah three thought they should go the Saints were eager to go so they left Florence on Aug 18, 1856.

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  20. Cowboy on June 13, 2011 at 4:11 PM

    In practical terms, how does the Prophet actually help “wean” people?

    If a person is holds revelatory capacity equal to the Prophet, then the Prophet seems unnecessary to the total equation. If a person lacks that capacity, or requires “weaning”, as you say, then inherently that person must be required to accept the Prophets words on blind faith – as they are not in any position to judge for themselves.

    Conceptually I like the idea you are promoting Jared, I just don’t see that it really works the way you are saying.

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  21. Howard on June 13, 2011 at 4:35 PM

    I follow the Spirit in the absence of the Spirit follow revelation from The Prophet in the absence of revelation from The Prophet I listen to the counsel of GAs including The Prophet and follow scripture. Since not everyone has adequate counsel from the Spirit Prophets are necessary.

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  22. Jared on June 13, 2011 at 6:56 PM

    #18 Mike S. wrote:
    “What if someone feels the course they need to follow is contrary to what a Church leader tells them?”
    ———————–

    I answer, it depends on the situation. As a general rule, I believe the Lord wants us to seek His guidance before following what a church leader says.

    A few years ago, I was called to a position I felt was misguided. I went to the Lord and found out the call was what the Lord wanted for me. I accepted the call and had some marvelous experiences.

    In the situation of the Willie/Martin decision, I would have waited based on the logic of the situation. Why put your family at risk when the option to stay was nearly risk free? It’s a risk/reward decision.

    The fact that an apostle counseled everyone to go, and even promised in the name of the Lord that they would be safe, would have been compelling. However, I would have needed a witness of the Spirit telling me that what he said was the Lord’s will before I would have taken the risk.

    As I said before, as a young man I would gone based on an apostle’s urging alone.

    Joseph Smith taught:

    When you climb up a ladder, you must begin at the bottom, and ascend step by step, until you arrive at the top and so it is with the principles of the Gospel – you must begin with the first, and go on until you learn all the principles of exaltation.” (Teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 348)

    I’ve moved up the ladder far enough that I have confidence the Lord will answer my prayers.

    Over the years, I’ve had to make momentous decisions about family matters and business, as we all do. The Lord has been there for me, though at times He has severely tried my faith. I stayed the course and the reward is now I have greater access to the things of the Spirit.

    I say this knowing that some who read it will be put off with me. This causes me a lot of heartache, but I’m also aware there are others who are encouraged to draw nearer to God. I’m willing to deal with the heartache for them. I testify that very average church members can ascend up the ladder if they remain faithful in the trials of mortality.

    The Book of Mormon offers many examples to guide us on how to deal with decisions like the one that faced the members of the Willie/Martin group.

    I cited how Nephi made the decision to follow his father. There are other examples. The group led by the brother of Jared is another.

    They, like Lehi’s group were being led to a promised land. They had a man described as being “highly favored” (Ether 1:27) of the Lord–the brother of Jared. They depended on him as their prophet like those in Lehi’s group depended on Lehi (later Nephi).

    In our day, LDS have prophets to guide them. But each of us needs to be like Nephi and go to the Lord and ask if the prophet/church leader is doing the Lord’s will in any situation that impacts our family.

    With that said, I think the members of the Willie/Martin group did the best they could. The Lord intervened to ease their burdens and accomplish His purposes. I’m sure that many of them felt the misery they experienced was worth it because they came to know the Lord through their suffering.

    I wonder how apostle Richards handled things. Does anyone know?

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  23. Jared on June 13, 2011 at 7:24 PM

    #20 Cowboy–

    First, its nice to know your still around.

    Second, I always enjoy your thought provoking comments.

    Cowboy wrote: If a person holds revelatory capacity equal to the Prophet, then the Prophet seems unnecessary to the total equation. If a person lacks that capacity, or requires “weaning”, as you say, then inherently that person must be required to accept the Prophets words on blind faith – as they are not in any position to judge for themselves.
    —————————–
    I think its true that many members follow the prophets/leaders “blindly”. I think most members measure the prophets counsel by using the scriptures. This is an important rung on the ladder.

    However, the promise is that each member can become a prophet themselves. Until then, they will be like those who were with the brother of Jared, they relied on one man.

    It’s interesting to see the faith they had building the barges. I’ll bet there was some interesting conversations about the design of the barges when they built them without means of air or light. But they were faithful and built them as directed by the brother of Jared. Of course, this led to Jared going to the Lord and explaining the problems with the design the Lord gave.

    I believe there are many in the church who have arrived at a point where they are “prophets”. Not a prophet for the church, but a prophet in the sense they have the companionship of the Holy Ghost.

    This puts them in a position to be guided by the Lord for their individual stewardship. This would also include knowing if prophet/leaders are speaking for the Lord.

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  24. Will on June 13, 2011 at 7:57 PM

    Jared,

    I’ll send you the text, but Brigham Young ripped him (Richards) up one side and down the other.

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  25. cowboy on June 13, 2011 at 8:16 PM

    Hi Jared:

    Likewise, it’s good to see that you’re still around!

    I could actually belong to a Church that preaches, encourages, and then stay’s out of my business. Particularly if it encouraged spiritual growth etc, and personal communion with God. After all, even if it turned out to be “false”, what was the risk? It was my journey. So, the point is – I like what you are advocating at some points. However, where we disagree is on how realistic this view of the Church is in practice. Nobody that I am aware of graduates beyond the need of a Prophet. Where/when has this ever happened? It really doesn’t, we are all subject to and/or are a part of the Church hierarchy, and that relationship has no specified end. Furthermore, if we are to use the scriptures as a litmus test on the Prophets words, then we really don’t need a Prophet – as the scriptures will suffice. If we can use them to prove the Prophets words, why can’t we just use them to develop our own spirituality? I’m afraid that I just don’t hear a lot of supporting rhetoric that encourages members to get spiritual impressions that contradict the Prophets and Apostles.

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  26. Steve on June 13, 2011 at 8:33 PM

    This movie concerns me.

    It, again, glorifies the decisionmaking of these two disastrous handcart companies.

    Remember, this was considered by the Church as a mistake — they changed how handcart companies operated.

    Yet, this movie argues that it was a blessing to follow Elder Richards flawed (and, in many instances, fatal) advice.

    What was heroic here was the rescue effort, not the flawed decision to cross the plains.

    I’m also bugged by the claim that these companies experienced the equivalent losses of other pioneer travelers. I assume the purpose was to imply that the losses weren’t so bad. Simply untrue. These two treks lost 17% and 25% of their travelers. That was the highest of any of the Mormon treks. On the Oregon trail, losses averaged about 10%.

    This was a horrendous mistake that a courageous saints confronted. Sugar-coating it undermines the lessons from this incident.

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  27. Irony on June 13, 2011 at 9:01 PM

    Will:

    “Which is the higher principle – obedience to a leader with whom you disagree, or following your own conscience and perhaps rejecting the counsel of a Church leader?”

    Obedience to a leader for sure.

    I would counter that point with this:

    “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.” – Galileo

    I think more people would do well to exercise their agency. I like what Cowboy + Jared are presenting – especially the notion of “weaning” – and think that’s a good discussion (and one I’d never considered).

    I find teachings – such as what Will advocates – reprehensible to my sense of agency. I can’t imagine that, as a general rule of thumb, the God that gave me agency would ask me to abdicate that agency especially when my conscience is dictating a different path. Following a leader when our conscience + knowledge is suggesting a different path is not obedience. It’s arrogant for leaders to demand such obedience and it’s ignorance for members to give such obedience.

    The decentralization I think the Church needs would come quickest if members actually exercised their agency in concert with their conscience and sought for the blessings of the fathers a la Abraham.

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  28. MH on June 13, 2011 at 9:12 PM

    Matthew73,

    I have no doubt that the producers of the movie referenced Chislett’s journal. Levi’s speech in Omaha seems to be nearly an exact match to Chislett’s journal (and it was a powerful scene.) But every director is going to emphasize things a bit differently.

    Yes there was a reference to Franklin D. Richards passing through on wagon and preaching to the Saints, and the movie did state that Savage was scolded by Richards. But the movie did not discuss Richards saying anything about storms (to my memory, but maybe I missed it). I asked my friend which rebuke of Savage seemed more stinging in the movie. We both agreed that Captain Willie’s scolding seemed worse.

    As for the cattle, I didn’t see a cow during the trek west. It almost seemed that there were no cattle with them. There was a scene where a stranger gave a woman a bunch of jerky–a welcome meal for the famished company. I think it would have been hard to get every detail in, but I thought the directors did an excellent job. It was clear that they were focused on the people and the handcarts.

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  29. Mormon Heretic on June 13, 2011 at 9:23 PM

    Steve in 15,

    I remember being a bit puzzled that the statement that the loss of life was “average”. After doing some research, I don’t think I agree with that assessment. If you want to talk percentages, then these 2 companies fared better than the Donner party. But in terms of raw numbers, these 2 companies far surpassed Donner in the number of deaths. I don’t agree with the characterization that loss of life was average. The over 200 deaths in Martin/Willie far outnumbers the ~40 deaths in Donner. The sad thing is that the opening scene shows Savage helping take care of the dead from the Donner party, so Savage knew well the deaths that could result. Five years later, he helped bury some of the 200 more people that didn’t learn the lesson from the Donner Party. While the faith of the saints is admirable, these deaths were completely unnecessary, and should have been avoided.

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  30. Jared on June 13, 2011 at 9:27 PM

    #24 Will-

    Thanks Will–I’ll look forward to reading it.

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  31. Mormon Heretic on June 13, 2011 at 9:27 PM

    As to the question of “who deserves the most blame?”, Wikipedia records,

    In May 2006, a panel of researchers at the annual conference of the Mormon History Association blamed the tragedy on a failure of leadership. Lyndia Carter, a trails historian, said Franklin D. Richards “was responsible, in my mind, for the late departure” because “he started the snowball down the slope” that eventually “added up to disaster.” Christy agreed that “leadership from the top, from the outset, was seriously short of the mark.” Robert Briggs, an attorney, said “It’s almost a foregone conclusion … there is evidence of negligence. With leaders all the way up to Brigham Young, there was mismanagement.”[43] On the other hand, Rebecca Bartholomew and Leonard J. Arrington wrote, “Memories of what was perhaps the worst disaster in the history of western migration have been palliated by what could also be regarded as the most heroic rescue of the Mormon frontier.”[44]

    So it seems that Richards and Young seem most responsible by historians, though there is a difference of opinion.

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  32. Jared on June 13, 2011 at 9:34 PM

    #25 Cowboy–

    Thanks for the exchange. Thanks for making me think.

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  33. Stephen M (Ethesis) on June 14, 2011 at 9:31 AM

    Mormon Heretic — well, percentages seem appropriate. If you use raw numbers, Custer had fewe men killed than Washington, Patton, Eisenhower or Marshall. Somehow focusing on raw numbers sometimes does not give the whole story.

    I had no idea that the average attrition rate was so high. Now I’m wondering what the mean and the median were. I need a lot more numbers before I really understand what the statistic means.

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  34. GBSmith on June 14, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    I would expect that at the time Franklin D. Richards would have said that he was prompted by the spirit when he reproved Levi Savage and told the pioneers to go forward in faith and that they would be protected. As history has shown he was wrong all all accounts and if this had happened in modern times he would have been indicted for manslaughter.

    As to the loss of life being average, an over 25% mortality rate is way more than “average” no matter how you spin it.

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  35. MH on June 14, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    Church Historian Leonard Arrington referred to it as the “worst” when he said,

    “Memories of what was perhaps the worst disaster in the history of western migration have been palliated by what could also be regarded as the most heroic rescue of the Mormon frontier.”[44]

    I’m with Stephen about looking at means/medians. I think we need to better understand other non-Mormon pioneer groups to get a better definition of “average”.

    But for Mormons, the next worst loss of life only had 13 deaths, and the last trek had 0 deaths. These 2 companies stand out for a reason, and they certainly aren’t “average” for Mormon pioneer migration.

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  36. Steve on June 14, 2011 at 12:25 PM

    Melvin Balvore of the Church history library estimates that only 3% of the pioneers died in route.

    As I mentioned above, the death rate on the far longer and harder Oregon Trail was 10% (mostly because of disease).

    Again, the movie’s claim that the losses for the Martin and Willie were average is simply false.

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  37. Steve on June 14, 2011 at 12:26 PM

    Oops. Melvin Bashore. A link to a story on his research is here: http://www.mormontimes.com/article/9846/Some-myths-accompany-stories-of-pioneers-arrival

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  38. Vicki Fisher on June 14, 2011 at 8:27 PM

    I just saw the movie. It was wonderful. My great-great grandmother survived the experience with the Willie Handcart. It really doesn’t matter what any of us think about the experience. It happened people died (my great,great, great grandparents), and people survived (their daughter), and many of can look to them in awe. Many went on to be stalwart in the church, and have their posterity call them courages.

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  39. Stephen Marsh on June 14, 2011 at 8:57 PM

    Ahh. If you count Cholera deaths, then the death rate was average. If you exclude them, then it was higher. Lots of different ways to cut the numbers. I’m curious what the movie director was using?

    Someone should ask him.

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  40. Steve on June 14, 2011 at 9:24 PM

    Stephen –

    I’m not understanding your statements above.

    I’m not seeing anything in the article that indicates a death rate of 20-25% like the Martin and Willie companies.

    Rather, I’m seeing a ranges cited in the mid-to-low single digits.

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  41. MH on June 14, 2011 at 10:20 PM

    Kevin Burtt at Motley Vision did a review of this movie as well. His review gives more spoilers than mine. But if you scroll down about half way through the review, he charts the deaths on Mormon handcart companies. See http://motleyvision.org/ldscinema/2011/06/review-17-miracles-b/

    Martin and Willie deaths dwarf all other handcart companies. Given the success of the other 8 handcart companies and knowing that these were preventable deaths by simply wintering in Iowa City or Omaha, it is a shame that leaders didn’t obey the lessons of the Donner Party 5 years earlier.

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  42. Bishop Rick on June 14, 2011 at 11:33 PM

    If you attribute a miracle to something that can’t be explained, then I’m all for highlighting positive events.

    If you attribute a miracle to a loving, watchful God, you have lost my attention.

    I don’t believe in God-based miracles because they are discriminatory. I don’t buy the copout that we don’t understand God’s will or have all the facts, or that so-and-so was needed on the other side, etc.

    Miracles are used as faith promoting stories.
    They do just the opposite for me.

    That said, this movie looks like a good watch and I will likely see it.

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  43. GBSmith on June 15, 2011 at 8:57 AM

    “Martin and Willie deaths dwarf all other handcart companies. Given the success of the other 8 handcart companies and knowing that these were preventable deaths by simply wintering in Iowa City or Omaha, it is a shame that leaders didn’t obey the lessons of the Donner Party 5 years earlier.”

    One of the root causes of the problem was that Richards made a mistake in when he brought the immigrants over. There was no provision for them to winter over so the pressure was on him to bring them to the valley. That combined to what seemed to be his own conviction of “from God’s mouth to his ear” and the result was disaster. As an aside I don’t think that Savage was being obedient as he was in making a conscious decision to try and keep a bad decision from getting any worse. There’s no arguing with someone who’s convinced they speak for God. All you can do is decide either to leave or to stick around and pick up the pieces.

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  44. Kendrick K on June 17, 2011 at 1:12 AM

    At a Sunstone symposium in 2004 a presentation was given titled “Why I Stay” Savage was referenced a a true hero who stayed depite the knowledge he had, many more would have died had he not stayed. Savage was scolded for identifying the truth, but had the humility to be an instrument in the Lords hand to help those he could on the ill-fated journey.

    1978 was referenced, many left the church because of the Churches position, but there were those who stayed and prayed and helped bring a shift within the church that left more furtile ground for 1978.

    So Savage is a hero of mine.

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  45. Stephen Marsh on June 17, 2011 at 7:18 AM

    Steve on June 14, 2011 at 9:24 PM — when I look at immigration casualties, overall they are fairly high. In Texas they were one death per mile of the state.

    However, if I look at long haul treks, which is what the hand cart companies were a part of, there are two sets of statistics. There are the “entire journey” statistics and the “travel only” deaths.

    The big difference is the number of deaths in the staging areas from Cholera.

    I’m not defending the statement made in the movie review, etc., from the movie, just providing some analysis and thinking about it.

    I don’t have the numbers the movie was working from, but it looks like they were working from “entire journey” numbers, including the cholera deaths. I’m guessing of course.

    And I don’t know what the one standard deviation range is. But the numbers I link to do provide reason to question the “25% was within normal” conclusion.

    I don’t have to agree with a conclusion I’m talking about to say that the data I can find looks interesting.

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  46. GBSmith on June 17, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    What troubles me about the statement is that by saying it was “average”, they seem to be trying to minimize the loss of life. As I’ve said before it was doubly tragic because it was totally unnecessary. It came about as a result of stupidity, pride, poor judgement and the belief that when the leaders spoke God listened and obeyed. You can’t praise the courage and faith of Savage and the pioneers without remembering who was responsible for it.

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