“A Priceless Heritage,” Ensign, July 2002, 2–6
I wish to speak of a priceless heritage. I acknowledge the faithful pioneers in all of the countries of the world who have helped establish the Church in their lands. First-generation members of the Church are indeed pioneers. They are and have been men and women of deep faith and devotion. In this message, however, I speak primarily of the priceless legacy which belongs to the descendants of all pioneers, but especially to those who came into the valley of the Great Salt Lake and settled in Utah and other parts of western America.
In celebration of July 24th several years ago, I joined the Saints of the Riverton Wyoming Stake. Under the direction of President Robert Lorimer and his counselors, the youth and youth leaders of that stake reenacted part of the handcart trek which took place in 1856. We started early in a four-wheel-drive van and went first to Independence Rock, where we picked up the Mormon Trail. We saw Devil’s Gate a few miles up the road. Our souls were subdued when we arrived at the hallowed ground of Martin’s Cove, the site where the Martin Handcart Company, freezing and starving, waited for the rescue wagons to come from Salt Lake City. Numerous members of the Martin Handcart Company perished there from hunger and cold.
It was an emotional experience to see the Sweetwater River crossing where many of the 500 members of the company were carried across the icy river by several brave young men.
We went farther along the trail where members of the Willie Handcart Company were rescued. We felt that we were standing on holy ground. Many members of that party died from starvation and cold there. We continued to travel up over Rocky Ridge, 7,300 feet high. This is the highest spot on the Mormon Trail. The two-mile ascension to Rocky Ridge gains over 700 feet in altitude. It was very difficult for all of the pioneers to travel over Rocky Ridge. It was particularly agonizing for the members of the Willie Handcart Company, who struggled over that ridge in the fall of 1856 in a blizzard. Many had worn-out shoes, and the sharp rocks caused their feet to bleed, leaving a trail of blood in the snow.
As we walked over Rocky Ridge, two square nails and an old-style button were picked up. No doubt these objects were shaken loose going over the sharp rocks. My soul was sobered to be in that historic spot. Several of my ancestors crossed that ridge, though none were in the handcart companies. Not all of my forebears who started in the great exodus to the West made it even to the Rocky Ridge. Two of them died at Winter Quarters.
As I walked over Rocky Ridge, I wondered if I have sacrificed enough. In my generation, I have not seen so much sacrifice by so many. I wonder what more I should have done, and should be doing, to further this work.
A few miles farther, at Radium Springs, we caught up with 185 young people and their leaders from the Riverton stake, who had been pulling handcarts in reenactment of the handcart treks. We bore testimony of the faith and heroism of those who struggled in agony over that trail 146 years ago.
We went on to Rock Creek Hollow, where the Willie Handcart Company made camp. Thirteen members of the Willie Company who perished from cold, exhaustion, and starvation are buried in a common grave at Rock Creek Hollow. Two additional members who died during the night are buried nearby. Two of those buried at Rock Creek Hollow were heroic children of tender years: Bodil Mortinsen, age 9, from Denmark, and James Kirkwood, age 11, from Scotland.
Bodil apparently was assigned to care for some small children as they crossed Rocky Ridge. When they arrived at camp, she must have been sent to gather firewood. She was found frozen to death leaning against the wheel of her handcart, clutching sagebrush.
Let me tell you of James Kirkwood. James was from Glasgow, Scotland. On the trip west, James was accompanied by his widowed mother and three brothers, one of whom, Thomas, was 19 and crippled and had to ride in the handcart. James’s primary responsibility on the trek was to care for his little four-year-old brother, Joseph, while his mother and oldest brother, Robert, pulled the cart. As they climbed Rocky Ridge, it was snowing and there was a bitter cold wind blowing. It took the whole company 27 hours to travel 15 miles. When little Joseph became too weary to walk, James, the older brother, had no choice but to carry him. Left behind the main group, James and Joseph made their way slowly to camp. When the two finally arrived at the fireside, James, “having so faithfully carried out his task, collapsed and died from exposure and over-exertion.”1
Also heroic were the rescuers who responded to President Brigham Young’s call in the October 1856 general conference. President Young called for 40 young men, 60–65 teams of mules or horses, and wagons loaded with 24,000 pounds of flour to leave in the next day or two to “bring in those people now on the plains.”2 The rescuers went swiftly to relieve the suffering travelers.
When the rescued sufferers got close to the Salt Lake Valley, Brigham Young convened a meeting in which he directed the Saints in the valley to receive the sufferers into their homes, make them comfortable, and administer food and clothing to them. Said President Young: “Some you will find with their feet frozen to their ankles; some are frozen to their knees and some have their hands frosted. … We want you to receive them as your own children, and to have the same feeling for them.”3
When the rescuers brought the Willie handcart pioneers into this valley, it is recorded by Captain Willie: “On our arrival there the Bishops of the different Wards took every person, who was not provided with a home, to comfortable quarters. Some had their hands and feet badly frozen; but everything which could be done to alleviate their sufferings, was done. … Hundreds of the Citizens flocked round the wagons on our way through the City, cordially welcoming their Brethren and Sisters to their mountain home.”4
These excruciating experiences developed in these pioneers an unshakable faith in God. Said Elizabeth Horrocks Jackson Kingsford, “I believe the Recording Angel has inscribed in the archives above, and that my sufferings for the Gospel’s sake will be sanctified unto me for my good.”5
In addition to the legacy of faith bequeathed by those who crossed the plains, they also left a great heritage of love—love of God and love of mankind. It is an inheritance of sobriety, independence, hard work, high moral values, and fellowship. It is a birthright of obedience to the commandments of God and loyalty to those whom God has called to lead this people. It is a legacy of forsaking evil. Immorality, alternative lifestyles, gambling, selfishness, dishonesty, unkindness, and addiction to alcohol and drugs are not part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I have wondered why these intrepid pioneers had to pay for their faith with such a terrible price in agony and suffering. Why were not the elements tempered to spare them from their profound agony? I believe their lives were consecrated to a higher purpose through their suffering. Their love for the Savior was burned deep in their souls and into the souls of their children and their children’s children. The motivation for their lives came from a true conversion in the center of their souls. As President Gordon B. Hinckley has said, “When there throbs in the heart of an individual Latter-day Saint a great and vital testimony of the truth of this work, he will be found doing his duty in the Church.”6
Above and beyond the epic historical events they participated in, the pioneers found a guide to personal living. They found reality and meaning in their lives. In the difficult days of their journey, the members of the Martin and Willie Handcart Companies encountered some apostates from the Church who were returning from the West, going back to the East. These apostates tried to persuade some in the companies to turn back. A few did turn back. But the great majority of the pioneers went forward to a heroic achievement in this life and to eternal life in the life hereafter. Francis Webster, a member of the Martin Company, stated, “Everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.”7 I hope that this priceless legacy of faith left by the pioneers will inspire all of us to more fully participate in the Lord’s work of bringing to pass the immortality and eternal life of His children.
You who are among the descendants of these noble pioneers have a priceless heritage of faith and courage. If there are any of you who do not enjoy fellowship with us in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we invite you to seek to know what instilled such great faith in your ancestors and what motivated them to willingly pay such a terrible price for their membership in this Church. To those who have been offended or lost interest or who have turned away for any reason, we invite all of you to join in full fellowship again with us. The faithful members, with all their faults and failings, are humbly striving to do God’s holy work across the world. We need your help in the great struggle against the powers of darkness so prevalent in the world today. In becoming a part of this work, you can all satisfy the deepest yearnings of your souls. You can come to know the personal comfort that can be found in seeking the sacred and holy things of God. You can enjoy the blessings and covenants administered in the holy temples. You can have great meaning and purpose in your lives, even in the profane world in which we live. You can have strength of character so that you can act for yourselves and not be acted upon (see 2 Ne. 2:26).
A few years ago, the First Presidency of the Church issued the invitation to all to come back:
“We are aware of some who are inactive, of others who have become critical and are prone to find fault, and of those who have been disfellowshipped or excommunicated because of serious transgressions.
“To all such we reach out in love. We are anxious to forgive in the spirit of Him who said: ‘I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men.’ (D&C 64:10.)
“We encourage Church members to forgive those who may have wronged them. To those who have ceased activity and to those who have become critical, we say, ‘Come back. Come back and feast at the table of the Lord, and taste again the sweet and satisfying fruits of fellowship with the saints.’
“We are confident that many have [wanted] to return, but have felt awkward about doing so. We assure you that you will find open arms to receive you and willing hands to assist you.”8
On behalf of my Brethren of the First Presidency, I sincerely and humbly reiterate that request, and we open our arms to you.
After studying this message, prayerfully consider the legacy of faith given to all Church members by those who crossed the plains and settled in Utah. Choose one or two statements or stories from President Faust that you feel will most benefit those you teach. Then think of a teaching method or activity for each statement or story that is appropriate for the ages and circumstances of family members. A few examples of how this may be done are provided.
Suggestions for Teaching
As you read to family members about President Faust’s journey along the Mormon Trail, ask them to identify the emotions he felt and why. Invite family members to express their feelings about the sacrifices made by these pioneers. What blessings do we all enjoy today because of what they did?
Give family members a taste of something that is sweet and satisfying, such as some fruit or candy. Then ask them if they would like more. Discuss why even the most difficult experiences in life can be sweet. Read and testify of Frances Webster’s statement on page 5.
Read together the First Presidency’s invitation on page 5 to “come back,” and discuss ways family members can help others enjoy the sweet fruits of fellowship with God and the Saints.