July is Pioneer time in the Great Basin. There are several reasons. Brigham Young and the first pioneer wagon train arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in July, 1847. Johnson’s Army was on its way to the valley in 1857. The last of the handcart companies, Martin and Willie, were leaving Iowa City in July 1856. We remember the happenings of July 4 1776, too, but the big one is Pioneer Day throughout the Great Basin.
For the past four years I have been reading the Willie Handcart Company journals every summer. (These are available as daily emails from BYU studies. Sign up here. http://handcart.byu.edu/SignUp.aspx) But each year I find new things as I read. It is not that the words have changed, it is just that my perspective is different. Sort of like reading the Book of Mormon and going to the Temple. The words are the same but the experience is always new.
The entry for July 14 contains this story:
One of the faithful Danish couples was Peder Mortensen, age 48, and his wife, Lena Mortensen, age 46, who were converted to the gospel in 1855. Due to a desire to gather to Zion and rejection by their community, they sold everything they owned in anticipation of their journey. They had land and animals. Together with their eight children, ages 5 through 27, they traveled to Copenhagen, Denmark, to stay at the mission home until they could emigrate to Utah. The Mortensens’ oldest son, Morten, was asked by the mission president to stay in Denmark and serve as a missionary. Morten, along with the rest of the Mortensen family, was concerned, but agreed. The mission president promised the Mortensens that every one of them would reach Zion in safety because of Morten’s willingness to stay and serve, along with the family’s willingness to do without his much-needed help. Peder was physically disabled. He and his wife had planned to buy a wagon so that he could ride in it to the Valley. However, after hearing the counsel of their Church leaders, they shared their money with other members of the company so that sufficient handcarts and supplies could be bought in Iowa City. Peder’s disability kept him from walking. He rode in a supply wagon until about September 6th, when the loads were adjusted due to a buffalo stampede. He had to be carried in a handcart from that point, until the company was rescued. Morten came to Utah after his three-year mission in 1858, two years after the rest of his family had all safely arrived in Zion.1
1. “Mortensen Family History,” typescript copy, Church Archives.
I am really boosted by this vignette. Here is a successful family in Denmark who all join the Church. Within one year they are on their way to another country far across the ocean. They willingly, perhaps even eagerly, leave their traditional life, sell all their worldly possessions, follow the instructions of men they don’t really know to do difficult things, and readily give up their nest egg to help others not as fortunate as they are.
These faithful Saints were promised certain blessings. They acted faithfully. They appear to have learned very quickly what faith is about. Joseph Smith said that through the Atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the Gospel, and the that laws and ordinances are faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, etc. The key here is to learn how to exercise faith, and the key to that is learning where to center our faith. In the Mortensen instance, the promises made were fully realized. Others were promised that the Lord would temper the elements and they would all be brought to the valley safely and in good time. To our perspective, those promises do not appear to have been realized. But all those people acted faithfully.
I have spent a lot of energy thinking about this. I think the key is in where we put our faith. We go to sacred places and are asked to exercise our faith in behalf of specific persons. What does that mean? Should we tightly close our eyes and say “I believe! I believe! I believe!”? No, faith is a principle of action. (See Bible Dictionary) We exercise our faith in the Lord Jesus Christ by keeping our covenants at all times and in all places and all circumstances. Can faith be exercised on demand at a moment? I think the closest we can come to doing that is to renew (remake, not just think about) the covenants and commitments we have made to be obedient. Shadrach, Meshach, Abed-nego, and Daniel exercised faith. They said, “We believe that our God will save us, but if not, we will be obedient and worship the Living God anyway.” Their faith was not a barter of “We will do such and such if You will do such and such.” They had faith in Jesus Christ, and it changed their very natures.
I am going to do an experiment as I read the Book of Mormon again. I am going to take every reference to “the word” as a reference to Jesus Christ. Here are a couple of beginning examples. In Nephi’s vision of the tree of life he said the rod of iron was “the word of God.” Is that the scriptures (words) or is it Jesus Christ (Word)? Alma told his group of investigators to do an experiment and plant a seed. If they were faithful the seed would grow to a perfect knowledge. The seed was the word. Is that the gospel message, or is it Jesus Christ? We will not be saved by the Atonement, we will be saved by the Lord Jesus Christ. We will not be saved by promises of our leaders who are doing their best to act as agents of the Lord. We are saved by the Lord Jesus Christ, not by some abstraction. (See Richard N. Williams, BYU Idaho Devotional, God of Condescension, God of Philosophy.)
Pardon the preaching. That’s all for now.