The following is based on my recent sacrament meeting talk.

faithScripture tells us that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”  That it “is not to have a perfect knowledge of thingsbut to hope for things which are not seen, which are true. 

Faith is something, that if we posses it, impels us to action.

What doth it profit, …though a man say he hath faith, and have not works? can faith save him? If a brother or sister be naked, and destitute of daily food, And one of you say unto them, Depart in peace, be ye warmed and filled; notwithstanding ye give them not those things which are needful to the body; what doth it profit? Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” (James 2: 14-17)

Yet works alone will not save us:

a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, … For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:16, 18-20)

Our faith must to be centred on Christ. Throughout scripture, we are instructed to Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths.  That:Cursed be the man that trusteth in man, and maketh flesh his arm, and whose heart departeth from the Lord. … Blessed is the man that trusteth in the Lord, and whose hope the Lord is.” 

It is by the name of Jesus Christwe are saved, thatNeither is there salvation in any other: for there is none other name under heaven given among men, whereby we must be saved.  And “…upon the rock of our Redeemer, who is Christ, the Son of God, that ye must build your foundation; that when the devil shall send forth his mighty winds, yea, his shafts in the whirlwind, yea, when all his hail and his mighty storm shall beat upon you, it shall have no power over you to drag you down to the gulf of misery and endless wo, because of the rock upon which ye are built, which is a sure foundation, a foundation whereon if men build they cannot fall.

It seems to be very clear that placing our faith in anyone or anything other than Christ will see us ultimately disappointed.

Our faith may be large or small. Alma tells us it can begin simply as a desire to believe. I am reminded of the story in Mark about the father who brought his son to Jesus to be healed, and to whom Jesus said: “If thou canst believe, all things are possible to him that believeth. And straightway the father of the child cried out, and said with tears, Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.

Very often in talking about this story we talk about the limited faith of the father. But that is only part of the story. It’s clear reading the story that the father had already asked the disciples for help, and they had failed him. “I spake to thy disciples that they should cast him out;he said,and they could not. Yet the father persisted, and brought his son to Jesus. His faith may have been battered by that earlier experience, but he still desired healing for his son, and retained sufficient hope, faith to ask. Jesus did not let him down, and his son was healed.

The brother of Jared demonstrated large faith. He wasn’t a perfect man. We know he was previously reprimanded for failing to communicate with the Lord for four long years. Nevertheless, after they completed the building of the barges the brother of Jared went to the Lord, to petition him in prayer, and to ask for help in providing light. The people of Jared needed light for their voyage, and the usual naked flames or windows weren’t going to work. Jared had previously discussed the situation with Lord in prayer, who asked:what will ye that I should prepare for you that ye may have light when ye are swallowed up in the depths of the sea? 

The brother of Jared prepared stones from molten rock, he put in work, and returned to the Lord in prayer, with his request:

…therefore touch these stones, O Lord, with thy finger, and prepare them that they may shine forth in darkness; and they shall shine forth unto us in the vessels which we have prepared, that we may have light while we shall cross the sea. Behold, O Lord, thou canst do this. We know that thou art able to show forth great power, which looks small unto the understanding of men. And it came to pass that when the brother of Jared had said these words, behold, the Lord stretched forth his hand and touched the stones one by one with his finger.” (Ether 3:4-6)

Which finger Jared saw, and was told that “Because of thy faith thou hast seen that I shall take upon me flesh and blood; and never has man come before me with such exceeding faith as thou hast; for were it not so ye could not have seen my finger. 

The experiences of the Willie and Martin handcart companies are a lesson in the importance of having faith in that which is true, but also that the Lord will help us when we turn to him in spite of our ignorance, mistakes or foolishness, and as such is a story of hope for us all, a story that has been described as “a magnificent story of individual faith in the midst of serious mistakes”. [1]

Records show that it had been known by church leaders for at least 10 years that severe autumn weather conditions in the high plateaus of Wyoming and Utah meant that parties heading for Utah needed both to leave early enough and to bring with them warm clothing and bedding. Early snow storms had occurred previously, and were known to be possible. The Willie company travelled on the ship Thornton, which didn’t leave Liverpool until 3rd May, and it was August by the time they reached Winter Quarters with their handcarts. The Martin company were a week or so behind them, making both groups more than 2 months late departing. Additionally many of those in the companies did not have sufficient clothing. The truth was that before they set out, disaster was probable, even without the early snow storm that beset them. However, the mood at the time was optimistic. Levi Savage an experienced man with personal knowledge of the weather, though not the man in charge, recorded in his journal:

I related to the saints the hardships that we should have to endure. I said we were liable to have to wade in snow up to our knees and should at night wrap ourselves in a thin blanket and lie on the frozen ground without a bed.” [1]

British immigrants coming from a temperate climate likely would have no understanding of what that really meant, that temperatures would be far colder than those they had previously experienced, and that wind-chill could result in effective temperatures 50′ lower still. The situation was debated, and the vote was to continue with the journey. Savage wrote “the most of them determined to go forward if the authorities say go” [1], rather than wait nine months or so either at Winter Quarters or in Iowa. They were apparently unaware that the authorities were not unanimous on this point. Not everyone went; Margaret McNeil, who travelled as a child with her family with the Willie Company on the ship Thornton, and is great-grandmother to Elder Ballard recalled “We were planning to go to Utah with the handcart company, but Franklin D. Richards counseled my father not to go in that company, for which we were afterwards thankful because of the great suffering and privations, and cold weather which these people were subject to.” [2]

The groups were short of food particularly in the later stages of the journey because poor communication meant that those out West responsible for resupplying the handcart companies on route had shut down the resupply effort until spring. Two handcart companies had successfully made the trip prior, and they had believed that was it for the year. It was when Brigham Young was told of the handcart companies still out on the plains that he sent out teams at the beginning of October, horribly aware that starvation was now probable. The rapid response meant the advance team was able to make it through the South pass just before the early snow storm hit two weeks later. The emergency resupply effort then became a full-blown rescue. The author of a BYU Studies paper studying the disaster concludes that it

raises the question of faith. The enormity of the disaster is beyond doubting. …these experiences were so terrible that one wonders not so much that as many as 200 died, but that [so many] more… lived. Only great individual faith on the parts of these people can explain why. … Yet the disaster was also a terrible mistake that raises another question – How could good men of great individual faith have risked the lives of so many others so imprudently? … There are reasons why this tragedy occurred, and those reasons may include an overconfidence that God would guide the immigrants safely through all the perils ahead, whether precipitated by nature or by man. If any story can prove the folly of such overconfidence it is this one. The storms cruelly struck down those people at the worst possible times. Only the immediate departure of the initial element of the rescue effort saved them. A few days delay could have resulted in the death of them all.” [1]

Individuals exercising faith on the journey did see miracles. One such miracle occurred to Betsy Cuningham whose family found [she] had died in her sleep. They could not bury her in the hard, frozen ground, so she was left wrapped in blankets. When the company reached camp, [her mother] felt impressed to go back, remembering a promise made to her in Scotland that if she was faithful, all of her family would make it to Zion. She returned to Betsy, who was remarkably undisturbed by wolves. …carried her back to camp and started to rub her body. Some hot water spilled on Betsy’s foot, which sent a quiver through her body. Betsy lived, just as had been promised to her mother.” [3]

It is a myth that none of the survivors left the church; it is a matter of record that some did, and we don’t know what happened to many of them [4]. Francis Webster was one who came through the ordeal with his faith strengthened, as he learnt to rely on the Lord, and who with his wife, selflessly helped others on the journey. He is recalled as having said:

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 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.” and he regarded the “price [he] paid to become acquainted with God a privilege to pay.[4]

The fourth article of faith reminds us that faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is the first principle of the gospel. Let us therefore as it says in Hebrews, live our lives “looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” 

 

References:

NB. Scripture references provided by links in the text.

[1] Howard Christy, Weather, Disaster, and Responsibility: An Essay on the Willie and Martin Handcart Story, BYU Studies 37(1), 1997-98

[2] http://heritage.uen.org/pioneers/Wc7b28175fe4df.shtml retrieved 26/02/17

[3]  https://mormonhub.com/blog/faith/lds-history/stories-of-lds-pioneer-women/ retrieved 26/02/17

[4] Chad M Orton, Francis Webster: The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice, BYU Studies 45(2), 2006