The other day Joanne was asking my son-in-law Nathan, how to get on eBay. I had the feeling she was going to see how much she could get for a "quad." It was worse than that; she was trying to find if there was a sip and puff vacuum cleaner or lawn mower for sale on the Internet. She was thinking that maybe I could be more productive around here and carry more of my own weight. Thankfully she was unable to find anything, for which I am so grateful and I am reduced once again to a life of reading, writing, pondering, and meditation. Well, someone has to do it!
At this time of the year my thoughts seem to always turn to the early pioneers of this dispensation. A definition of the word "pioneer" that strikes a chord with me is from the 16th century French and Latin which in English meant "foot soldier." [Merriam Webster online dictionary]
As we know, the pioneers we honor at this time of the year were truly "foot soldiers." They were the infantry, the Marines, constantly in harms way and braving inclement weather and every other kind of adversity imaginable to guarantee themselves and their posterity the freedom to worship God as they desired and had been commanded so to do.
I would like to explore with you in this observation two questions that I have thought a great deal about over the years regarding these pioneers.
The first question is, "Why did the Lord allow his covenant people to suffer the way they did?" And the second question is, "How were these early pioneers able to endure what they did without giving up or giving in?"
Why the suffering first of all? It's interesting as you read the history of the church that the Saints always seemed to be required to do everything the hard way. They seldom, if ever, were able to make their travels in the summer, picking daisies and wildflowers along the way, but always it seems were required to move at the most difficult and challenging times of the year.
S. Michael Wilcox has called our Heavenly Father, "The God of the fourth watch!" Several times during his ministry he came to the aid of his disciples to literally save their lives and to keep them from drowning. However he always came during the fourth watch which according to Roman time would have been from 3 AM to 6 AM. Why didn't he come to them, let's say, sometime during the second watch at maybe 10 or 11 PM? That would have been convenient for everyone. Perhaps he even could have brought with him pizza, root beer, or at the least some hot chocolate. But no, he let them struggle through the cold and stormy night, filled with fear and anxiety, and finally probably feeling they were going to perish.
I believe the answer to my first question was given by the Lord to Joseph Smith in liberty Jail when he told him regarding his personal suffering, "... know this my son that all these things shall give thee experience and shall be for thy good..." [D&C 122:7]
I have come to learn however in my life, as I am sure you have in yours, that all the bad things that can happen to us will not be for our good unless they drive us to our knees and humble us, increasing our faith and making us more dependent upon the Lord to seek the blessings we need at his hands. If this doesn't happen, our personalized adversity may well drive us away from God and make us bitter, unhappy, and miserable.
I have learned that there is a price to be paid to come to know God, and that price is often our own personal adversity and challenges we are called upon to endure. Our loving Heavenly Father allows us to struggle to increase our faith and in doing so to come to know Him. President James E. Faust said it so beautifully in his classic talk, "faith in every footstep." Using the handcart pioneers as an example he said.
"All must pass through a refiner’s fire, and the insignificant and unimportant in our lives can melt away like dross and make our faith bright, intact, and strong. There seems to be a full measure of anguish, sorrow, and often heartbreak for everyone, including those who earnestly seek to do right and be faithful. Yet this is part of the purging to become acquainted with God." (James E. Faust, "Faith in Every Footstep", Ensign, May 1997]
But what about the second question? How were they able to press forward and not look back, or give up or give in to the terrible adversity that came to them as "foot soldiers" of the Lord? Before trying to answer that question, let me preface it with the experience of my great, great grandfather and grandmother and their four children, who were part of the Martin handcart company. The Martin Company was the last handcart company to make the trek across the plains in 1856 and was trapped in the early snow and freezing temperatures of Wyoming in November. There were 575 men, women, and children in this company. 135 of them died in Wyoming from starvation, exposure, and freezing temperatures. Many lost parts of their extremities due to frostbite.
Robert Mattinson III, my great grandfather, recorded the following incident in his journal about the death of his father, Robert Mattinson II: “Provisions were scarce, and we were cut down to one pound of flour a day. After that, my father began to weaken but never failed to do his share of the work and help pull the handcart. He worked all day with little to eat, and when night came, he gathered wood to build a fire, set up the tent, then went to lie down. When he was called to supper, he could not be awakened. He died that night, but we could tell nothing about his death, only by the breathing and rattling of his throat, as we had no light. He was buried the next morning near Deer Creek.”
Miraculously, Robert's wife, Anne, and my great grandfather, Robert the third who was an older teenager at the time, as well as the other three children, were saved by the rescue party Brigham Young had commanded to be sent out to bring home these suffering Saints.
They made it into the valley and eventually settled in Payson, near Provo. My great grandfather, Robert the third married and one of his daughters, Annie Frances Mattinson, married a handsome young man by the name of Fred Rushton and they eventually became my grandparents. Words cannot express the feelings of respect, admiration, and love I have for these wonderful men and women for not giving up and giving in. Their example gives me courage to press on as well and never give up or give in.
Why they didn't give in or give up I believe is best answered in a statement made by Brigham Young just after the Saints left Nauvoo in 1846. With many of the Saints stranded in Iowa after having crossed the Mississippi River and other Saints stranded in Nauvoo unable to leave because of poverty and sickness, Brigham Young counseled the Saints: “Now is the time for labor. Let the fire of the covenant which you made in the House of the Lord, burn in your hearts, like flame unquenchable” (in Journal History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sept. 28, 1846, 5).
And so what was it that gave those early Saints such strength? They had made covenants with God, and those covenants burned like unquenchable fire in their hearts.
Elder M. Russell Ballard has told us that "Sometimes we are tempted to let our lives be governed more by convenience than by covenant... But there is no spiritual power in living by convenience. The power comes as we keep our covenants." As we look at the lives of these early "foot soldiers" of the Lord, we see that their covenants were the primary force in their lives. "Their example and testimony were powerful enough to influence generation after generation of their children." [Elder M. Russell Ballard, May 1999, Ensign]
It seems to me that our challenge in our generation is to make sure the fire of the covenant is burning like a flame unquenchable in our hearts. As we do everything in our power to make sure our lives are governed by covenant and not by convenience, spiritual power will be ours to sustain us through the difficulties and challenges of our lives. And one day, perhaps our children and grandchildren for generations to come might be able to talk of us with admiration and respect, and will have gained strength from our examples, even as we have from those early "foot soldiers" of the Lord.