“‘This Shall Be Our Covenant’” Revelations in Context (2016)
“This Shall Be Our Covenant,” Revelations in Context
In February 1846, Brigham Young led a handpicked vanguard company of 300 men across the ice-filled Mississippi River. At the time, their plan was to reach a place of refuge in the Rocky Mountains that summer and plant crops to feed those who would follow that year. But the ensuing months did not go according to plan. Heavy rains caused streams and rivers to rise well above normal levels, turning Iowa’s rolling plains into muddy quagmires. At the same time, over 1,000 Saints, many of them poorly prepared for the journey, insisted on joining the advance company, longing to be close to Church leaders in a time of uncertainty. Progress slowed so much that Brigham Young gave up on reaching his envisioned destination that year and established Winter Quarters on the banks of the Missouri River instead.
Besides this advance group of pioneers, thousands of other Latter-day Saints left Nauvoo, most according to a prearranged schedule. By the fall of 1846, more than 7,000 people were living at Winter Quarters in caves, wagons, makeshift hovels, and hastily built cabins. Another 3,000 wintered at various locations along the trail under similar conditions. Many were sick from malnutrition and exposure, and some were experiencing a crisis of faith. These trying circumstances made the winter of 1846–47 among the most difficult periods of Brigham Young’s life. He felt “like a father with a great family of children around [him]” and later recalled that his responsibilities pressed down upon him like a “twenty-five ton weight.”1
By January 1847, he had lost so much weight that his clothes no longer fit. He had worried about the Saints, counseled about what to do, and prayed for divine guidance. And then, on January 14, 1847, the answer came. Two days later, Brigham Young invited the Saints to accept the “Word and Will of the Lord” (D&C 136).2 Since the revelation begins by addressing “the Camp of Israel in their journeyings to the West” (D&C 136:1), some have assumed that the revelation is a simple how-to guide for organizing pioneer companies and have underestimated the role it played in refocusing Brigham Young and the Church. By helping the Saints remember that their conduct on the journey was as important as their destination, the revelation helped transform the westward migration from an unfortunate necessity into an important shared spiritual experience.
Having received the answers to his prayers, Brigham Young immediately went to work to ensure that the Saints knew with certainty what the Lord expected of them. Joseph Smith had already taught many principles found in the revelation, but they had not always been an important part of the 1846 exodus. While some Saints had willfully ignored counsel during the previous year’s journey, even more had not sufficiently been taught. Brigham enlisted the help of the other Apostles to teach the revealed principles as commanded in the revelation.3 Upon learning of the revelation, Horace Eldredge concluded “that its execution would prove [their] salvation.”4 Hosea Stout observed that following the revelation would bring needed calm and unity in the face of unexpected trials; it would “put to silence the wild bickering” that had complicated the journey across Iowa.5 As they placed their trust in the revealed word, the people no longer felt the urgency to travel physically with the Twelve. The Twelve, in turn, were free to provide general leadership for the Church rather than having to worry about the day-to-day operations of a specific group.
During Zion’s Camp in 1834, Joseph Smith had used an organizational model of a presidency of three with captains of hundreds, fifties, and tens. Brigham Young had attempted to implement this pattern before the Saints left Nauvoo, but it was not given a high priority. Now in 1847, the way that the Saints were organized would become so important that even before Brigham finished writing down the revelation, he proposed “that letters be written to instruct [the] brethren how to organize companies for emigration.”6
Besides appointing captains, Brigham oversaw two more organizational changes. The size of a company would be limited to no more than 100 wagons. And once individuals became part of a company, they would be expected to travel together throughout the journey. These changes were a marked departure from the loose organization that characterized the Saints’ exodus across Iowa. Although the ideal was not always realized, beginning in 1847 the Mormon exodus became “the most carefully orchestrated, deliberately planned, and abundantly organized hegira in all of American history,” in contrast to the fluid movement between companies so common among non–Latter-day Saint emigrants who were also heading west.7
In addition to ensuring that the Saints were organized according to the word of the Lord, Brigham Young and the Twelve undertook to show the Saints how to live according to the will of the Lord. Brigham came to understand that rather than simply blazing a trail that others would follow, the 1847 vanguard company was establishing a covenant path. Thus, all those who were to make the journey were to travel “with a covenant and promise to keep all the commandments and statutes of the Lord” (D&C 136:2). The revelation further declares, “This shall be our covenant—that we will walk in all the ordinances of the Lord” (D&C 136:4).
During the months leading up to the exodus from Nauvoo, Church leaders had made a concerted effort to ensure that as many Saints as possible could make sacred covenants by participating in temple ordinances. If they were striving to keep their covenants and live the commandments, they could claim the promised “power from on high” to bless and assist them.8 The Lord further reminded the Saints: “I am he who led the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; and my arm is stretched out in the last days, to save my people Israel” (D&C 136:22).9 Other defining characteristics of the covenant path included the reminder for the Saints to assist those in need by bearing “an equal proportion, according to the dividend of their property.” The charge also included the Lord’s promise to the Saints if they willingly did so: “You shall be blessed in your flocks, and in your herds, and in your fields, and in your houses, and in your families” (D&C 136:8, 11).10 The virtues of patience, humility, and gratitude in keeping covenants and attending to temporal stewardships outlined in the revelation would also assist the Latter-day Saint pioneers in settling the wilderness, establishing new homes and communities, and laying the foundation for a church destined to fill the world.11
With new understanding came renewed energy. As God’s people, they had the privilege and the responsibility to undertake the journey differently. Lack of physical preparation and food had been major issues during the Saints’ journey across Iowa. Now Brigham came to believe that the success of their endeavor depended less on manpower, maps, wagons, and supplies and more on heeding the word and will of the Lord. The Lord could cause it to rain manna on the plains of America if need be, so long as the Saints put their trust in Him. The Saints had no need to overload their wagons out of fear.12 To reinforce this point, Brigham Young reduced the vanguard company to just 144 men and instructed them to bring just 100 pounds of food per person on their journey into the wilderness.13 All “who had not faith to start with that amount” could stay at Winter Quarters, he declared.14 He “warned all who intended to proceed to the mountains that iniquity would not be tolerated in the Camp of Israel” and further declared, “I did not want any to join my company unless they would obey the word and will of the Lord, live in honesty and assist to build up the kingdom of God.”15
Within days of receiving the “Word and Will of the Lord,” Brigham proposed a social to show “to the world that this people can be made what God designed them.” Dancing was often thought of as an immoral form of recreation in 19th-century America, but Brigham taught the vanguard company: “There is no harm [that] will arise from merriment or dancing if brethren, when they have indulged in it, know when to stop” and never “forget the object of this journey.”16 In inviting the Saints to dance, Brigham was heeding revealed counsel: “If thou art merry, praise the Lord with singing, with music, with dancing, and with a prayer of praise and thanksgiving” (D&C 136:28).
With preparations in place, Brigham felt confident that the Lord would help them, even with circumstances beyond their control. When individuals in the advance company expressed concerns that they might not reach their destination in time to plant crops, Brigham declared, “Well, suppose we did not. We [have] done all we could and traveled as fast as our teams were able to go.” If the Saints “had done all [they] could,” he would feel “just as well satisfied as if [they] had a thousand acres planted with grain. The Lord would do the rest.”17 He went on, “I never felt clearer in my mind than on this journey. My peace is like a river between my God and myself.”18
The journey from Winter Quarters to the Salt Lake Valley became a training ground for Church leaders and members alike. George A. Smith felt that participants would “look back at this journey as one of the greatest Schools they ever were in,” while Wilford Woodruff wrote, “We are now in a place where we are proving ourselves.”19 For Brigham Young and the Saints, the journey became both a chance to prove their faith by obeying counsel and an exercise in proving the Lord. The noticeable change among the Saints following the revelation prompted William Clayton to observe, “It truly seemed as though the cloud had burst, and we had emerged into a new element, a new atmosphere, and a new society.”20
The 1847 journey of the vanguard company was not without its trials, even with the Saints’ renewed commitment. The initial plan was to leave “one month before grass grows” but no later than March 15.21 However, spring was late in coming, and the early grass grew weeks later than normal. As a result of the unseasonably cold weather, the company was not able to leave their rendezvous location until mid-April.22 The excitement of finally beginning the journey was soon tempered by the realities of bitterly cold nights, windswept prairies, challenging river crossings, the loss of cattle, and days filled with long, monotonous travel.
At times Brigham Young, having become passionately committed to the principles in the revelation, found himself frustrated with the behavior of some company members. In late May, he read “the Word and Will of the Lord” to the company and “expressed his views & feelings … that they were forgetting their mission.” He further proclaimed that he would “rather travel with 10 righteous men who would keep the commandments of God than the whole camp while in a careless manner & forgetting God.”23 The following day he declared that he wanted the company “to covenant to turn to the Lord with all their hearts.” He reminded them to act like a covenant people: “I have said many things to the brethren about the strictness of their walk and conduct when we left the gentiles. … If we don’t repent and quit our wickedness we will have more hindrances than we have had, and worse storms to encounter.” Having reproved with sharpness, he then “very tenderly blessed the brethren and prayed that God would enable them to fulfill their covenants.”24
The 1847 immigration stands in dramatic contrast to the previous year. While the vanguard company had traveled less than 300 miles in 1846—an average of a little more than two miles a day—the first pioneer company traveled more than 1,000 miles in 111 days, averaging more than four times the distance per day over the previous year.
Many have attributed the success of the Mormon migration to Brigham Young’s personal leadership, but he readily acknowledged God’s hand in the work. “What I know,” he said, “I have received from the heavens. … Men talk about what has been accomplished under my direction, and attribute it to my wisdom and ability; but it is all by the power of God, and by intelligence received from him.”25 As a result of the lessons learned in 1847, the anxiety that Brigham Young felt at Winter Quarters faded away. Having proved the word and will of the Lord and having subsequently incorporated its principles into his life, he later found himself “full of peace by day and by night” and sleeping as “soundly as a healthy child in the lap of its mother.”26