Not quite “Faith in Every Footstep”

Even as a teenager, I found the faith-promoting stories of pioneers troubling. Life was so hard for them. They sacrificed so much. They fell sick and died or buried their dead in unmarked graves along the trail and never wavered in their faith. The people in those stories were too good, too stalwart to be real. I haven’t buried a child or abandoned my family to move to an unknown frontier of a new country. And if I had to meet that kind of a challenge, I don’t know that my faith would be enough to carry me through. There is no way I can compete with that kind of faith. It is portrayed as almost inevitable and natural for them, but it seems unobtainable for me. I can’t even relate to these extraordinary ancestors of mine; the mythos that surrounds them has taken them out of the realm of reality. I don’t intend to diminish their trials or sacrifice, but these pioneers painted in the rosy glow of faith-promoting history generally seemed too perfect to be realistic role models for me.

So it’s no surprise that my favorite book about the pioneers was not written by a Mormon.

It’s Wallace Stegner’s The Gathering of Zion: The Story of the Mormon Trail51flZG0qY2L.  Stegner writes in the introduction

“I should prefer to deal with the Mormon pioneers, if I can, as human beings of their time and place, the earlier ones westward-moving Americans, the later ones European converts gripped by the double promise of economic betterment and eternal life. Suffering, endurance, disciple, faith, brotherly and sisterly charity the qualities so thoroughly celebrated by Mormon writers, were surely well distributed among them, but theirs also was a normal amount of human cussedness, vengefulness, masochism, backbiting, violence, ignorance, selfishness, and gullibility…I shall try to present them in their terms and judge them in mine. That I do not accept the faith that possessed them does not mean I doubt their frequent devotion and heroism in its service. Especially their women. Their women were incredible” (12-13).

Stegner does a wonderful job. The pioneers he writes about are real people, struggling to cling to their faith through real doubts and hardships. There were heroes and scapegoats, good decisions and organization as well as poor planning and mistakes. The heartbreaking ordeal of the Martin handcart company is all the more devastating in Stegner’s retelling because it is so human. The people were so eager, so trusting, that they put themselves into avoidable peril. Consider this:

“There in a mass meeting they discussed the question raised by some of the more cautious elders: whether to push on through or go only so far as some good camping site along the Platte, perhaps Wood River just beyond Grand Island, and there hole up until spring. Taking part in the debate were several of the Iowa City agents, including W. H. Kimball and G. D. Grant, who had hurried on to the Missouri as soon as Iowa City was cleaned out. Like many others present, they knew the trail and the uncertain fall weather of the mountains; like many others, they were intoxicated with zeal to prove the handcart plan sound…

“One voice, that of Levi Savage, was raised strongly on the other side. He said that such a mixed company would surely suffer greatly if it tried to cross the plains and mountains so late. With the best of luck it would be nearly the end of October before they could arrive, and the trailwise knew it could snow in the mountains a good two months before that. He would not risk it. But when they took a vote, he voted alone. The Lord, the others thought, would temper the wind to His lambs. Savage’s response did him honor both as a Saint and as a man. He said, “Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary I will die with you.” It would not prove necessary that Savage die with them, not quite. But some of them would owe him their lives before they reached the valley, for he was one of the hardy and experienced one who kept them going” (239-240).

The standard Mormon focus on this story does not allow for dissent or criticism; rather it reinforces the moral that none of those who survived that journey left the church. But that reading seems to both gloss over the very real suffering of those idealistic saints and denies us of the opportunity to learn prudence from their faith-infused lack of caution. We lose the supreme human faith of Levi Savage. And most troubling from my point of view, a wart-free story puts all those pioneers, undifferentiated,  in the category of the super-human, portraying them as unconflicted sanctified saints whose level of faith is forever out of our mundane latter-day reach.

I love that Stegner presents the pioneers in full color. His is no whitewashed history. Some of these saints were petty, judgmental, and less than faithful. They weren’t perfect. But they were fallible people who earnestly believed they were following a prophet of God and struggling to fulfill his commandments. It is because of their failings that they are heroic. These are people that I can relate and aspire to emulate.

One final note. In light of the recent NYTimes article Stegner’s words are particularly relevant today:

“At a meeting of 107 missionaries about to go abroad in August, 1852, Brigham Young decided to announce publicly the doctrine of spiritual wives, and the announcement, together with the doctrinal justifications by Orson Pratt, was published in the Deseret News. Not even after this would missionaries discuss polygamy freely; they were instructed to say as little about it as possible, and it is likely that many a convert arrived in Salt Lake City in the later 1850’s still persuaded that it was an ugly rumor perpetuated by the enemies of the Church. Nevertheless the admission was public, and could be corroborated in the newspapers, and it must have had something to do with the decline in number of conversions and the large number of apostasies during the ‘50’s. And yet not so many apostasies and not such a decline in conversions as one might have expected” (211-212, emphasis added).

That last line of Stegner’s gives me hope that we’ll be able to weather the current trial we have of confronting our history. And if you want to learn more of our uncorrelated history, this book is an excellent place to start.

19 comments for “Not quite “Faith in Every Footstep”

  1. Nice Rachel. It’s so ironic how humanizing people tends to be more inspiring than accounts that are trying to be inspiring, which usually involves ignoring the less pleasant parts of a story.

  2. Great post! Disagree with the title (although I appreciate the attempt and fun integration of the lyrics). By definition, any footstep would be faith, since faith is action based on belief. =)

  3. [blasphemy alert] I don’t enjoy Stegner’s writing style. BUT, I do agree with the post that the people in The Gathering of Zion are, well, people. This is no hagiography of the pioneers; they’re admirable and determined strugglers.

  4. Stegner avoids the hagiography approach that too often characterizes popular LDS accounts, yet renders these pioneers admirable as well as both human and flawed. I read the book about five years ago and quite enjoyed it. I don’t care what anyone else says, I still consider Stegner one of ours.

  5. “The standard Mormon focus on this story does not allow for dissent or criticism; rather it reinforces the moral that none of those who survived that journey left the church.”

    The moral that none of those who survived the journey left the church is untrue. That, along with numerous other myths about the handcart companies, have been debunked in recent years. Many of them are exposed in Roberts’ 2008 book, “Devils Gate.”

    Joseph Smith had a phrase for those who act on “faith-infused lack of caution”—zeal without knowledge. Though I do genuinely admire those who preserved and suffered under misguided and prideful leaders, there is another group of participants who you have completely overlooked: the dropouts, the ones—and there were many—who did not follow Mr. Savage’s path but instead had the courage to say: “I will not expose my family to this kind of risk; waiting out the winter seems like the prudent thing to do. Besides, Zion will still be there in the spring.”

    Those who took that stance were vilified and threatened with the loss of church status by the leaders of the company, but they stood their ground. They are the heroes I most admire—the ones who were willing to stare unrighteous dominion in the face and say: No.

    Thanks for the post, Rachel.

  6. I recently read this book for the first time and had much the same reaction, Rachel. I appreciated my pioneer ancestors *more* for knowing their human frailties and weaknesses than when they are held up as some unattainable pinnacle of faith and righteousness.

    One of Stegner’s quotes that resonated with me: “Suffering, endurance, discipline, faith, brotherly and sisterly charity, the qualities so thoroughly celebrated by Mormon writers, were surely well distributed among them, but theirs also was a normal amount of human cussedness, vengefulness, masochism, backbiting, violence, ignorance, selfishness, and gullibility.” In other words, they were real people, just as imperfect and complex as we are.

    Here’s my review:

  7. Thank you, Rachel! Excellent timing. And this is an example of how a Zion culture can gain a great deal from the good people of the world, regardless of partisan predilections.

  8. I was recently reading some journals and letters written by my personal pioneer ancestors. Their writings are more in tune with the book reviewed here than stories from the “faith in every footstep” pulpit. wonder at what point it became necessary to turn these real people into folk heroes? The fault maybe with the tendency to use these experiences for moral lessons and glorify our collective past.

  9. I have not read the book, but from what you have said it agrees with some of the stories in my family lore.

    I get a little irritated when people paint the pioneers out to be superhuman. I doubt many of them had any idea what they were getting themselves into when they crossed the plains in a handcart or in a wagon. Sure as a whole they had faith, but I see the pioneers as regular people who were practically forced to make the best of a bad situation. When people say, “I could never have done that,” what they really mean is, “Boy, am I glad that wasn’t me.”

  10. Thanks for pointing out an interesting book. However, I would like to take issue with the general thrust of many of the comments here.

    Many seem to be complaining that our accounts of the pioneers are too hagiographic, tending to hold up The Pioneers as heroic rather than ordinary. I wonder if the problem is not with how we view the pioneers, but rather with how we view (or mis-view) ourselves.

    Both the pioneers and ourselves are ordinary AND heroic. We just can’t see it yet: “For now we see through a glass, darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We may view everything about us as ordinary, but perhaps there is a great deal more about us and our circumstances than meets the eye. We too are Pioneers as President Monson points out this month in the Ensign.

  11. Thanks for the lovely comments, everyone. I love the idea that real people, people like myself, can rise to the occasion and do great things. Tom D, there is heroism in the ordinary, and that consistent, quiet goodness is a good indication of our character.

  12. none of those who survived that journey left the church

    My non-member g-g-grandmother lost her husband and two children during the Willey Handcart Company crossing. She joined the church shortly after arriving in Salt Lake. Is this a faith promoting story? What would you have done? She had 7 more children to raise on her own. Salt Lake was a Mormon settlement. When in Rome…

  13. I love Wallace Stegner (though I’ve not read nearly as much of him as I’d like). I didn’t even know about this book. I look forward to getting it.

    On a fictional level, The Giant Joshua was something similar for me – gave me real and complex humans involved in the incredibly difficult task of settling St. George and living polygamy.

  14. James, I haven’t read The Giant Joshua yet, but my husband and I are often asked if we’re related to Maureen Whipple. We’re not, but it looks like a good book to read. Thank you for pointing me to it.

  15. As one who has left the church, I think I will give this book a try. I may give it to family members who disparage me for leaving the trail in what I consider wisdom. Thanks for the post.

  16. Rachel, I hope you check out Chad Orton’s article about Francis Webster (the man who claimed that none of the company ever left the church), which puts that tale in some context.
    Al Christy’s article about the decision to make the late-season trek helps us see those events as a tale of rash decisions and learning to be cautious. It’s especially helpful to parents and leaders about the responsibility of putting others at risk.
    (disclaimer: I work for BYU Studies.)

  17. I love Levi Savage and that quote. It featured prominently when my singles ward went on a pioneer trek in 1999. I also love the quote from the brother who was in either the Martin or Willie handcart company in response to criticism of the brethren for allowing them to depart so late. He asked whether it was a mistake to allow them to depart so late in the season, and answered his own question in the affirmative. But he also said that he “became acquainted with God in [his] extremities” and that the price they paid was a privilege to pay. I don’t think he sugar-coated it, and I do admire that perspective. If that makes me a sucker for hagiography, so be it! ;D

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