One feature of the 2008 book Devil’s Gate: Brigham Young and the Great Mormon Handcart Tragedy by David Roberts is the debunking of popular myths connected to the “handcart experiment.” There are many, and they are continually believed and repeated within Mormon circles. Some of these stories are held very dear and beloved by Latter-day Saints everywhere.
One such myth is this one, published in the Improvement Era in 1914:
After [the company] had given up in despair, after all hopes had vanished, after every apparent avenue of escape seemed closed, three eighteen-year-old boys belonging to the relief party came to the rescue, and to the astonishment of all who saw, carried nearly every member of the illfated handcart company across the snowbound stream. The strain was so terrible, and the exposure so great, that in later years all the boys died from the effect of it. When President Brigham Young heard of this heroic act, he wept like a child, and later declared publicly, “that act alone will ensure C. Allen Huntington, George W. Grant [the captains son] and David P. Kimball an everlasting salvation in the Celestial Kingdom of God, worlds without end.” (quoted in Roberts, 242. Brackets his.)
Roberts goes on to explain that in 2006 LDS historian Chad M. Orton published a paper in BYU Studies that provided these truths: none of the named men were eighteen-year-old boys; other men also helped the weakened pioneers cross the river; many of the pioneers crossed on their own power, without help from rescuers; and perhaps most importantly, none of the three named men died from the effects of the 1856 river-fording.
I don’t mean to minimize the heroism of the Saints that went to the rescue of the stranded handcart pioneers, for they were indeed heroes. Nor do I intend to focus here directly on the fact that this story is a faith-promoting myth. I’ll tell you what I find especially interesting about this.
During his research for the book, David Roberts, the author of Devil’s Gate, visited many LDS visitors centers along the Mormon/Oregon Trail. He listened politely without comment as Elders and Sisters (as docents) related what they believed to be true stories, but which Mr. Roberts knew to be myths. During one of Mr. Roberts’ trips to the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center at Martin’s Cove, he was welcomed into a small group of LDS adults from West Valley, Utah who were on the trail as a sort of pilgrimage. They traversed the trail together as the Mormons told stories of their ancestors (and others) who had crossed the plains in the 1850s. Mr. Roberts writes,
…one of the West Valley women repeated the story about the three eighteen-year-olds carrying the Saints across the Sweetwater. I could not bite my tongue. “You know, that’s a myth,” I blurted out. “Chad Orton has written a paper that completely debunks the story. It didn’t happen.”
This was not welcome news to the West Valley ward. An awkward silence ensued, as I began to feel like a drunken guest at a party who has just committed some unforgivable faux pas.
“How do we know what’s really the truth? asked Trish Ward, in conciliatory tones. I started to utter some piety of my own about relying on authentic primary sources, but instead, a young woman who had previously spoken not a word mused out loud, “Maybe we could pray.” (280)
Presumably, Chad Orton, who is an archivist with the Family and Church History Division of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reached his conclusion regarding the Sweetwater rescue story after researching primary sources — accounts from people who were there, contemporary newspaper reports, birth and death data, etc. (You can download a pdf version of Mr. Orton’s paper here.) Yet when the Mormons in Mr. Roberts’ narrative were made aware of the discrepancy between the legend and the facts, they believed the proper response was to pray to know if the legend was true.
At the October 2009 General Conference of the LDS Church, Mormon Apostle Richard G. Scott said,
“I witness that as you gain experience and success in being guided by the Spirit, your confidence in the impressions you feel can become more certain than your dependence on what you see or hear.” (“To Acquire Spiritual Guidance,” Ensign (Conference Edition), November 2009, page 6)
The context of Mr. Scott’s teaching was in regards to receiving divine guidance for decision making; but do Latter-day Saints also apply this principle to things that can be known objectively? It would be impossible, wouldn’t it, for actual God-revealed knowledge to be contrary to known facts?
The Mormons in the Devil’s Gate story fiercely wanted the familiar myth of the Sweetwater rescue to be true. They were more comfortable relying on their “impressions” than on an examination of verifiable records. Do you think their prayers yielded a confirmation that the story was false? Mr. Roberts doesn’t say.
What happens when we want something to be true more than we want to know the truth?
Comments within the parameters of 1 Peter 3:15 are invited.