Friday, June 27, 2008
An American Mormon Tale
Blame Thom G for this post. I'm like that patch of crab grass, which if you give an inch it takes a yard. Plus, today is the 27th. So, really it was unavoidable.
I think most folks are following along over at the Surface Tension, but in case you're not, Thom G spent the first half of the week traveling from Redding to Sioux Falls, SD. He took his mad writing skills and joined the paper there.
Anyway, he took the scenic route, driving slow to ensure better gas mileage. One of the many historical and Americana points of interest that he passed was Martin's Cove. He made the mistake of inviting me to explain its significance to my people.
Today also happens to be June 27. On this date in 1844 Mormondom's first prophet Joseph Smith was shot to death, along with his brother, in a jail by a mob of angry, idle Illinois militiamen.
So this is what I'm going to do. Sit back, get comfortable for I am going to tell you the tale of old Joe Smith, his gold Bible and how my people decided to move west. Don't fret -- it's a tale of adventure, bloodshed and survival. (I'd probably just move on to the next blog at this point, if I were you.)
The story begins in upstate New York in 1820. Historians describe the time as one of great religious excitement and revival. Joseph Smith was 14 and along with his family he was very much caught up in the spirit of the times. Like many he wanted to join a church, ensure salvation for his soul and live a good Christian life.
The only problem was he didn't really know which church to join. Everyone had their own take on the Bible and their view, of course, was right and everyone else's was wrong. As a 14-year-old, I imagine Joseph was old enough to figure out that not everyone could be right and not quite old enough to be terribly cynical about it.
So he figured, rather simplistically, that if God wanted him to join a church God would tell him what church to join. He'd read the Bible and specifically he'd read that verse in James that says if you want to know something ask God about it. I think it seemed pretty straight-forward to old Joe.
He set out early one morning to a grove of trees behind his house. (His family was basically on the frontier in the early 19th century and his house, like all houses at the time, was crowded with like 45 kids and 18 adults. Not really, but it was a big family in a small house. You wanted privacy? You went outside.)
Anyway, he went to this grove of trees and kneeled down to pray. He figured he'd ask God which church to join, get his answer and be on his way. Well that's what he did. He prayed, asked his question and was amazed to see a light slowly descend around him. In the air above him he saw two men, one of whom introduced himself as God the Father. He pointed to the other, said he was his son, and told Joseph he should listen to what he had to say.
Joseph listened. Jesus spoke and told him not to join any churches because none of them were true. Over the course of the last 1700 years they had apparently kinda lost their way. It wasn't the answer Joseph was expecting. But he was understandably excited.
He went and told his parents, who, to their credit, weren't skeptical at all. Then he told his family's preacher, thinking he'd be as excited as Joseph to learn that the Heavens weren't closed and God was speaking to men again. The family's preacher wasn't very excited. He told Joseph to wise up and probably repent.
Well over the next decade, the groundwork was laid for God to establish his church anew on the earth. Part of that included new scripture. Old Joe was visited by an angel named Moroni. Moroni had lived on the Americas 1,400 years before. His dad was a prophet named Mormon who had spent much of his life compiling the writings of other prophets who had come before him.
It turned out Jesus had come and visited the Americas after his death, resurrection and ascention into heaven at Jerusalem. All this stuff had been written on thin plates of gold and stored in a stone box in hill near Joseph's homestead. As a newly called prophet of God, Joseph eventually was given the plates and commanded to translate them, which, of course, he did. His gold Bible became the Book of Mormon. And Mormons were forever after known as Mormons.
This is taking a while. Let's jump forward a dozen years. Old Joe Smith had established a church and sent missionaries out to preach. The church grew, but Mormons proved to be obnoxious neighbors. If you've ever been to Utah you understand. When they're all gathered in big groups, they get kind of insular and self-righteous and end up really bugging anyone who lives anywhere near them.
This happened in New York, Ohio, Missouri and finally Illinois. I should add here that the governor of Missouri acutally passed a law making it legal to kill a Mormon if he was bothering you. With great subtlety and wit, he entitled it the "Extermination Order" and it stayed on the books until 1976. Really.
Anyway, the church ended up in Navuoo, Ill. along the banks of the Mississipi. The town was huge -- it began to rival Chicago in size -- and had its own militia, of which Joe was general. General Joe, the people called him. Not really. He was always Brother Joseph.
As you can imagine, the large group of Mormons and their militia made everyone who lived around them nervous. Tensions flared, Joseph ordered an anti-Mormon newspaper destroyed and was arrested for it. He was given a court date but some of the angrier Illinios folks felt that probably wasn't going to cut it. So someone suggested they charge him with treason and throw him jail. Maybe it would even bust up the church. That seemed like a good idea (at the time) and that's what they did.
So Joseph and his brother Hyrum rode their horses to Carthage, Ill. and surrendered to the authorities there. He was jailed with Hyrum and a couple other church leaders at the time. The jail they were in was a house -- cells on the first floor, rooms on the second. Someone thought they'd all be safer on the second floor so on the evening to June 27, that's where they found themselves.
And that's when the mob showed up. They had painted their faces black and stormed the jail. They shot through the door, killing Hyrum and pushing Joseph to the window where he was shot a few times and fell to the ground dead.
Everyone figured the church at that point would break up. But it didn't and so Illinois, in the middle of winter, ordered all Mormons out of the state. Brigham Young, who was the most senior of the 12 Apostles took charge at that point and, following a revelation Joseph had had years earlier, led the church to the Rocky Mountains.
In classic pioneer fashion, they loaded covered wagons, followed a portion of the Oregon Trail and then blazed their own down into the Salt Lake Valley. That was July 24, 1847. If you're ever in Utah on July 24 and you can't figure out why there are big parades and celebrations every where, that's why.
Well for the next 10 years, converts continued to stream into the valley. The intercontinental railroad had yet to be finished so people still walked the 3,000 miles. As you can imagine, the church soon refined it down to a science. Converts, many comeing from Europe, were organized into companies, given handcarts to pull (they were small and cheap) and led west.
For the most part it worked incredibly well. Hundreds of handcart companies made it to the Salt Lake Valley that way. Except for two. They were the Willy and Martin handcart companies and they ran into serious trouble in Wyoming. If you've driven across Wyoming you understand.
The two compaines started out from St. Louis late in the year, like July, and were ill-prepared for their journey. As soon as October hit, they were in Wyoming at this point, it started to snow. And then it started to blizzard. Already tired and malnurished they came to a dead halt.
The two companies were about two, three weeks apart on the trail, the Willy Company in the lead. Once the snow hit and tempuratures bottomed out well below zero people started to die. Luckily, advanced riders had gone well ahead of companies and had given word to Salt Lake that these two companies were late in the season, slow moving and that they had seen frost in September. An early, harsh winter was likely. A day before the first snowstorm hit the two companies in Wyoming, Brigham Young in Salt Lake ordered a rescue party to go after them.
It took them almost a month to get to the two companies, which at that point were in pretty dire straits. They had little to no food and their clothing was in tatters. The Martin Company had managed to get to a small rock outcropping on the plains and took shelter there. They called it Martin's Cove and it was there that a handful of the pioneers died of the cold and exposure. Kind of a solemn place.
But the companies were rescued and the majority made it to Salt Lake. They all probably would have been lost had the rescue party not left when it did. And one of my favorite historical quotes comes from one of the members of the Martin company.
For years after the experience, church members critized leaders for allowing the companies to start so late in the season and viewed the survivors (again, many of them immigrants) as kind of stupid for getting caught in that kind of situation in the first place. I mean it been devasting -- people lost their lives and others were permantantly mamed. Kind of embarrassing for the church.
Well one Sunday about 40 years after the incident, someone in some Sunday school class was critizing the two companies. So Francis Webster, one of the survivors (I guess the heckler was unaware), stood up and put the man in his place:
"I have pulled my handcart," he said, "when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot in front 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 on 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. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a priviledge to pay."
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