For your sake, I hope your Gospel Doctrine teacher doesn’t just turn this topic into a history lesson of the Willie and Martin handcart companies. That would be a monumental loss of a great teaching opportunity. There are three types of rescues I would like to address for this lesson, the rescue of the saints on the plains, our rescue efforts today, and the efforts of our Savior to rescue us.
Leading by example
Our Savior is our exemplar in all things. There isn’t anything we are asked to do in mortality that He hasn’t, in one way or another, given us an example of how to do it. As a gospel of vicarious works, He showed us how it works when he paid the eternal price for our disobedience with His atoning sacrifice.
The atonement for our sins was something we could not do for ourselves, so He did it for us. He did so without judgment, without condemnation, without reservation, without resentment for what it cost Him, and without any anger toward us whose stripes He bore. He paid the price for all of us out of the love He bears for each of us. He freely gave everything He had in order to open the door for us to be able to repent and return to God one day.
This perfect example we hold up as the supreme act of His love, which we call charity. This is the kind of love we are striving to develop. If we are successful, we are told in the scriptures that when we stand before Him we will know Him as He is, for we will be like Him (Moroni 7:28).
The physical example
Throughout history the Lord has given us examples of gospel principles played out in the physical world so we could better understand how it works in the spiritual world. The pioneers and their rescue is the physical example of the Savior’s rescue performed for each and every one of us.
The physical example is found through this link. I have included it in case you would like to read all of it. It is wonderful! Here is a summary of some of the five points discussed about the rescue of these four handcart companies.
On that day, no snow was falling and the temperature in Salt Lake City was in the mid-70s. Yet Brigham Young declared:
“Many of our brethren and sisters are on the plains with handcarts. . . . I want the brethren who may speak to understand that their text is the people on the plains, and the subject matter for this community is to send for them and bring them in before the winter sets in [emphasis added].”
For a rescue effort of this scale, people may have expected to have several days to prepare. Yet the first relief company felt the urgency of the prophet’s words and left the valley just two days later.
For all intents and purposes there wouldn’t have seemed to be any hurry in their need to get the people off the plains. It was warm and sunny where they were. Yet Brigham Young was intensely insistent that they needed to be rescued now. Sometimes when we are told by our Church leaders to do something, we may not see the “need” at the time, but obedience, complete obedience can mean the matter of life and death, either physically or spiritually.
‘I will tell you all that your faith, religion, and profession of religion, will never save one soul of you in the Celestial Kingdom of our God, unless you carry out just such principles as I am now teaching you. Go and bring in those people now on the plains’ (in LeRoy R. Hafen and Ann W. Hafen, Handcarts to Zion , 120-21).
Those who visibly showed up to rescue the people in the handcart companies were sung as the heroes who did the rescuing, but it was a community effort.
Bishops did not manage the relief effort on their own. They called on “block teachers” (now called home teachers) to help gather supplies and assess needs. Women in ward Relief Societies helped share the work. In this way, family and ward members at home supported men and young men on the trail.
The rescue efforts to get them off of the plains where they were starving and freezing to death was just the beginning of the rescue needs for these saints. Not only did they come into the Salt Lake Valley with absolutely nothing but their bodies, but they were in terrible physical shape as well. Some of them had their boots frozen to their feet, so when they tried to take off their shoes all the flesh came with the boot. The need for amputations was not uncommon.
Rescue efforts continued after the handcart travelers arrived. Some handcart Saints went to the homes of family members who had previously settled in Utah. But other Saints had nowhere to go. Bishops took them into homes close by and as far away as Box Elder and Iron Counties for the winter. Priesthood leaders worked with Relief Society sisters to help the newcomers with food and medical attention and later with work so the immigrants could provide for their families.
Many of these saints were almost as helpless as newborn babes. Their every need had to be supplied by someone else or they would have died. It took years for some of them to fully recover from their ordeal.
Even when the saints took these charity cases into their homes, the process did not end there. As they selflessly shared their resources with those who had literally nothing, and did it with a spirit of kindness and patience, the Lord blessed them with a spirit of unity that changed their hearts.
The unity that people felt was part of a promise Brigham Young gave as the members of the Martin company came into the Salt Lake Valley:
“Now that most of them are here we will continue our labors of love, until they are able to take care of themselves, and we will receive the blessing. You need not be distrustful about that, for the Lord will bless this people.”
Whom do we rescue?
Ask yourself these questions: Is there any part of the gospel of Christ that says we are to turn people away? Really, is there anywhere in the scriptures or in the teachings of the prophets, ancient or modern, where the covenant children of God are told to turn their backs on those in need and worry only about their own needs?
Everything in Christ’s gospel is about rescuing others. Those without the gospel covenants need those covenants for their own salvation. Once we accept baptism, we are under obligation to seek out those who do not have the gospel and share it with them. We do this through missionary work, temple work, family history, keeping journals for future generations, the preparedness efforts we engage in, in short, in everything we do.
When there are physical needs around us, who does the Lord look to to fulfill those needs? Why His covenant children, of course. When there are people fleeing persecution, who does the Lord expect to be the first to reach out to them and do what His son did for us? Why his covenant children, of course.
Because we are living in the last days, it is part and parcel with every obligation we have with our God to seek to save those around us. We have even been told that if we fail to perform the saving ordinances for our kindred dead that we, ourselves will lose our own salvation.
Sometimes we get too comfortable about our activity in the Church. We get lax in our temple attendance or in our efforts to extend our helping hands into the lives of those who so desperately need our influence in their lives. And yes, the world does need our influence in their lives. We are God’s covenant people, and it is only in and through those covenants that anyone can be saved.
Look at the complete abandon with which the saints helped the handcart companies not only come off the plains, but how much they did to help them get set up on their own so they could be productive and a useful addition to their communities. Look at the complete giving of the Savior’s body and blood on our behalf. He withheld and reserved nothing. He gave His whole body and soul to save us.
With that said, what do you think the Lord expects of us? Sometimes the only thing preventing us from doing what needs to be done is a lack of vision of what this gospel of ours is all about. What do you think the Lord would have you do today that could bless the life of someone else? How can you become a better rescuer? What can you do, physically for someone else, that will help you become more charitable?