Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On Being A Reluctant Missionary - Like Jacob Hannah

I grew up in a small village in the Rocky Mountains some 165 miles north of Salt Lake City. I look back upon those first 19 years as the formative process for a child of pioneer stock, of a band of Mormon believers sent to our valley to found a community bonded by faith, hard work, trust in each other and a God who spoke from Heaven to individual souls who were anxiously engaged in the good causes of life.

I recall that by the time of my late-teens a sense of religious duty seemed irresistible as it prompted some sort of postponement of my growing sense of independence and what my future might look like in terms of education and vocation.

I grew up only partially active in the Church and that mostly for social reasons. I grew up relatively free from parental pressure to go to church and if I attended for reasons other than social and connected to my love life, it would have been a response to the unrelenting and guilt-making pressure from my beloved Grandmother. Grandma Ruger was the one who taught me the religious stuff like prayers but who could not seem to tolerate any form of disappointment in her expectations and wishes that we be good active Mormons.

When I entered the age of availability - 19 years - and aware of our ward's missionary-minded bishop, Glen Yost, I tried to stay low on his radar. But my attempt to avoid the bishop was only half-hearted in that the sense of pride in being thought of as mission-worthy did much to challenge any critical thought on my part about putting my life ahead of the Lord's need of me.

Bishop Yost easily cornered me one Tuesday or Wednesday night at MIA and I knew what he wanted. I was next in line among his harvesting of local recent high school graduates and urging them to fulfill a mission for the Church. Even as I was gathered in and cornered in his office I knew that I would probably agree to go.

My own assessment of how I might be a man worthy of a mission call was somewhat tempered by an inner awareness and admission that I was a social Mormon more than a testimony Mormon.

No one more than I was aware that I had not prayed according to the Moroni formula in chapter 10 of the Book of Mormon which was a constant teaching theme in Church, MIA and Seminary classes.

No one more than I was aware that I had been going through the duty motions to please family and peers more than a consequence of the inner-convicted faith of someone like Nephi in the Book of Mormon.

The only "spiritual" moving experiences seemed to come with my response to Mormon music - mostly the hymns that I liked the best. I've only recently come to realize that I have been brought "spiritually" to tears more by music than the spoken word, more by the tune and melody of a favorite hymn than any sermon or lesson.

That is still true today.

Back then no one more than I was aware that my kidding and joking and lack of seriousness that interjected itself into almost any religious discussion with my friends was closer to the real me than any sense of piety and future religious devotion.

But I listened to Bishop Yost make his pitch and almost without hesitation, perhaps as a habit of going along with whoever I wanted not to be disappointed in me, I told him I would think about going.

Within a week, having added a dose of serious do or don't to the issues of life, I experienced what seems like my first religious prompting.

I was moving irrigation pipe and thinking about whether or not I would go on a mission. At some point I forgot about the mechanics of moving pipe and got lost in my thoughts. A few minutes later I realized that I was pondering about what a mission would be like for me all the while a hymn, The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning, was playing over and over again in my head.

That then was the closest I had ever come to experience and believing that the Lord was bringing something to my personal attention ... in my memory that is the first time I was ever prompted by God.

Contacting Bishop Yost with the good news of my agreeing to go was the easiest next step. Of course then he went right for the jugular in terms of preparation and repentance.

I'd have to quit my secret smoking on the way to and from pipe moving and with my friends in the evening. It wasn't as secret as I thought and my mother confirmed that years later when we were joking about how I thought I was fooling people.

All this took place in the early summer of 1965. By August and my 19th birthday I'd received my Patriarchal Blessing and a call to the Spanish American Mission in Texas and New Mexico. I was disappointed for a while because I had requested and had my heart set on Peru. I guess Texas and Spanish was the best I could get.

I do not recall any further promptings until I entered the mission home in Salt Lake and the enormity (well to me it WAS enormous) of what I'd done and how I was locked in to a way of life for the next 2 1/2 years hit me.

I had no sense of "trying this one out" and having any right to change my mind and give it up. My mother, who was not active, had flat out told me that if I went I had to complete it and that she would not have me come home early. She was referring to being sent home from my mission for getting in trouble or serious sinfulness but it didn't matter. I was her oldest and if she agreed to have me go there was no way of ever wrecking her opinion of me by trying to the right thing and failing.

So into the mission home I went, experiencing the most intense and powerful moment of reluctance and change of mind I would have over the next 30 months. The mission home was full of the kinds of guys I had come to both envy and detest because they came from active families or because they came already testimonied-up and because they looked and acted so damned happy to be there.

I on the other hand did not feel that way.

Before I got out of the car my mother had hinted that I could still change my mind … and I was tempted. But then my grandmother was there and ready to literally bawl me out if I tried to change my mind. Coupled with the awareness that I did not want my mother to see me try and fail at anything, I outwardly avoided changing my mind.

I went into the mission home feeling more than ever that I had faked my way through things once too often.

All I had going for me was my new suit, my new missionary Bible with its center section full of interesting stuff and my new Book of Mormon. Both books had my name and title embossed on the front. Elder Arthur Ruger ... at least I felt like a dignified faker.

I was given an English copy of the missionary Six Discussions and told to start memorizing. Later I would be given the same thing in Spanish after I got to the Language Training Mission at BYU in Provo. Well, it was something other than the bible and Book of Mormon so I looked it over.

... and saw the things I would be teaching and testifying to non-members interested in the Church. Then I knew about the fear of exposure as a fraud and how I would seriously struggle saying any of that "I know" and "I testify” stuff in the discussions with strangers while maintaining a straight face.

I went after the formula testimony as instructed. Ask God if it's true and you will feel it. I didn't know what the hell that felt like and to my memory my bosom never even scorched, let alone burned.

Maybe my pipe-moving moment was my burning bosom ... but my bosom had not burned and my rubber boots leaked as I squished my way back and forth across the field in August humming The Spirit of God Like a Fire is Burning in my head.

I suppose I made that pipe-moving epiphany do for my burning bosom for a long time since there was no way I was going to back out of this predicament. But I'll tell you ... 30 months looked like an endless time frame and I felt something akin to having entrapped myself inextricably in  quicksand where I would only be able to tread water and hopefully keep my nose out of it.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

A not-so-friendly historical evaluation of the Handcart Tragedy


Devil's Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy [Hardcover]

Amazon Product Description

But the handcart plan was badly flawed. The carts, made of green wood, constantly broke down; the baggage allowance of seventeen pounds per adult was far too small; and the food provisions were woefully inadequate, especially considering the demanding physical labor of pushing and pulling the handcarts 1,300 miles across plains and mountains.

Five companies of handcart pioneers left Iowa for Zion that spring and summer, but the last two of them left late. As a consequence, some 900 Mormons in these two companies were caught in early snowstorms in Wyoming. When the church leadership in Salt Lake became aware of the dire circumstances of these pioneers, Young launched a heroic rescue effort. But for more than 200 of the immigrants, the rescue came too late.

The story of the Mormon handcart tragedy has never before been told in full despite its stunning human drama: At least five times as many people died in the Mormon tragedy as died in the more famous Donner Party disaster.

David Roberts has researched this story in Mormon archives and elsewhere, and has traveled along the route where the handcart pioneers came to grief. Based on his research, he concludes that the tragedy was entirely preventable. Brigham Young and others in the Mormon leadership failed to heed the abundant signs of impending catastrophe, including warnings from other Mormon elders in the East and Midwest, where the journey began. Devil's Gate is a powerful indictment of the Mormon leadership and a gripping story of survival and suffering that is superbly told by one of our finest writers of Western history. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

About the Author

David Roberts is the author of seventeen books on mountaineering, adventure, and the history of the American Southwest. His essays and articles have appeared in National Geographic, National Geographic Adventure, and The Atlantic Monthly, among other publications. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Editorial Reviews

Excerpt From Publishers Weekly

… While Mormon retellings of this story have emphasized the subsequent daring rescue, Roberts sees the whole episode as an entirely preventable disaster from start to finish. Moreover, he fixes the blame at the top, arguing that Brigham Young, then president of the church, consistently undervalued human life, created dangerous situations with regard to provisions in order to pinch pennies and dissembled after the fact about not having any knowledge of the emigrants' late start.

Roberts builds a persuasive case, arguing from dozens of primary sources and using the emigrants' own haunting words about their experiences.

He competently situates the tragedy within the context of the 1856–1857 Mormon Reformation, a time of religious extremism. This is a solid and well-researched contribution to Mormon studies and the history of the American West. (Sept.)

From Booklist


Although some may be uncomfortable with his searing indictment of Young, this compelling account of a major frontier catastrophe is hard to put down. --Margaret Flanagan


"… With meticulous research and elegant writing, Roberts tells a gripping story of impoverished Europeans brought to the New World with a promise of hope, who died in the wilderness of the American West under the most appalling circumstances.

It is more than just history: it is an indictment of fundamentalism itself.

This book is proof that people who are serenely certain they know the mind of God are not only presumptuous, they are dangerous. Devil's Gate is a book of history with an important message for the modern world." -- Douglas Preston, author of Blasphemy and The Monster of Florence

" The tragedy of the handcart people forms the largest carnage of the Western migration and is one of the great wounds that made Mormonism America's most successful native religion. David Roberts in this fine book shows how the dying came not from bad luck, not from early snows, not from God, but from the Prophet Brigham Young and his pursuit of profit and power. An eye-opener on the man who brought Zion to our desert and our national life." -- Charles Bowden, author of Desierto and Blues for Cannibals --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Mixed messages from the leadership: Come to Zion, but not right now.

Saturday, August 23, 1856
"Brethren!” Levi Savage had to shout, "none of these emigrants has any idea of what lies ahead. Only we the returning missionaries know what’s in store and most are going out of here tomorrow and will be in the Valley by the end of September.

What about these converts? With their aged and children, they've got a thousand miles to go and even at twenty miles a day, it would be the middle of October when they arrive. In the mountains they won't get barely ten miles and at that rate they'd not see the Valley until November. That is, those still alive would see the Valley. "

"Oh ye of little faith, Elder Savage!” one of the emigrants shouted, "did ye not preach to us about having faith and the Lord God would provide?"

Shaking his head, Savage angrily responded,

"Yes, I preached that very thing. I also preached with an understanding that God is not to be tempted.
When we know better we should not knowingly throw ourselves off the cliff to force Him to prove His love by an extorted act of rescue. We are then like what Satan wanted when he tempted the Lord.

'If you are the Son of God,' Satan said, 'then throw yourself off this high place and let the angels save you.'
'Get thee behind me Satan," the Lord answered, 'Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God.'

Brothers and Sisters, when we foolishly abandon common sense and logic and throw ourselves recklessly on the mercy of God, we force His hand. In our own way we say, 'God, if you love us, PROVE IT!! Save us when no other can!'

Do you want to do that to God?

You do so by getting to your feet and starting up that trail this late in the year, when God's own natural colder season is less than a month and a half away. Must God alter his own forces and seasons of nature just because you demand it of Him?

In no time you will be in an impossible situation and the only one with a choice after that will be God. You will not have any choices left. We should stay here until Spring, my beloved friends."

The reaction to Savage was mixed, confused of feeling.

A newspaper was shoved into Abigail's hand as she, Rose and Jacob stood in the crowd listening to the Elders. She saw the paper was THE COUNCIL BLUFFS BUGLE, published in the town just across the Missouri River from Florence. The story was an admiring report of the passing of a recent handcart company. Someone had circled that last paragraphs with a pencil.
"Now it may seem to some that these people endure great hardships in traveling hundreds of miles on foot, drawing carts behind them 
This is a mistake, for many informed me that after the first three days travel, it requires little effort for two or three men or women to draw the light handcart with its moderate load of cooking utensils and baggage. 
It is also a fact that they can travel farther in a day and with less fatigue than the ox teams. These trains are composed of Swedes, Danes, Germans, Welsh, Scotch and English and the best evidence of their sincerity is the fact that they are willing to endure the fatigues and privations of a journey so long. 
This is enthusiasm. This is Heroism indeed. Though we cannot coincide with them in their belief, it is impossible possible to restrain our admiration of their self-sacrificing devotion to the principles of their faith."

Abigail handed it to Rose, who read it aloud to Jacob, who noticed several copies being handed around the crowd.

"The Elders are right, despite what it says here, Mama."

But Abigail looked as if she'd just seen a burning bush.

" What we do here is an act of faith, no matter how many rules of common sense Elder Savage recites."

One of the emigrants had mounted the platform to speak, waiting to be recognized by the Elders and the crowd. Abigail did not know the man, but had heard of him as President of the Dublin Conference. His speech was definitely Irish.

"Brothers and Sisters, some of you have seen the newspaper from Council Bluffs concernin our fellow Saints who've passed by on their way to Zion. Let me refresh yer thoughts with a readin from the Millenial Star:
‘The Lord can rain manna on the plains of America just as easily as He did on the deserts of Arabia, or as He sent quails into the camp of the Saints on the Mississippi River in 1846. Ancient Israel traveled to the Promised Land on foot, with their wives and little ones. The Lord calls upon modern Israel to do the same.'

Now I ask ya, Brothers Sisters, have we not been called home to Zion? Have we not been promised blessings of the Lord from the Prophet himself? Sure we're ignorant of the country and weather, and we're the poor and simple escapin from the wickedness of the Old Country, but we are honest and eager to go to Zion as soon as we can.

If we are goin to act like our faith has suddenly just died on the vine, I don't think we're worthy of the Lord's blessings. We got to trust in the Lord, Brothers and Sisters and let Him guide our path. Let Him lighten our loads. Let Him preserve our lives and our animals. Let Him take us to Zion.....NOW!"

Applause and shouting were thunderous and despite the announced plan to elicit a vote on the matter, the Elders knew which way the vote would go...
... and did go.

After the vote Levi Savage retook the speaker's place.

"Brothers and Sisters, what I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you."

He was interrupted by a burst of cheers.

"I will help you all I can. I will -"

Another burst of applause.

“- work with you, rest with you, suffer with you and, if necessary, I'll die with you. May God in His mercy bless and preserve us!"

No more bursts of cheering, only a scattering of murmurs at the sound of one simple word capping his promise to abide by their decision.

"Amen, Elder Savage. Amen!"