Truth, fiction, or both?

By February 27, 2014

The other day I was reading two articles published in BYU Studies for the Mormonism class I’m taking here at the U, both by Chad M. Orton. The one deals with Francis Webster, a member of the Martin handcart company, the other with the Sweetwater River rescue.[1] As I read them, I was constantly struck how they were almost devotional in nature, something that didn’t make sense to me as a scholar until I took a step back.

The Francis Webster article’s subtitle is, “The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice,” which in retrospect should have tipped me off that there was something else going on in additional to historical scholarship. It deals with the testimony of the “unnamed old man in the corner of the Sunday school class who arose to silence criticism directed toward those who allowed that company to come west” (117), a story that can be read here if you’re not familiar with it.

Orton then goes on to dissect and contextualize this statement, as well as discuss the historical provenance and trustworthiness of the testimony. It is perhaps ironic to study the Webster testimony in light of the line that reads, “cold historic facts mean nothing here,” but Orton makes sure his readers know that he recognizes the validity of the story as an inspiring narrative when he includes this sidebar:

The real story is often better than the popularly told tale. Such is the case with Francis Webster … While his statement is a moving tribute to the faith and sacrifice of handcart pioneers, it becomes an even more inspiring testimony, and takes on an added significance, when understood in light of the rest of the story (118)

The article includes numerous sentences like this one, meant to convey that the author is trying to add to the meaning of the story, not detract from it. The other article is simply titled, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,”[2] but displays the same carefulness, in that Orton uses it to debunk several myths surrounding the Sweetwater rescue (the idea that there were only three rescuers, that they carried the entire company across the river and died for their efforts, that they would be immediately admitted into the Celestial Kingdom because of their heroic act, etc). Orton very carefully and very painstakingly lays out the historical facts, concluding that the story is no less powerful in its more accurate form, “Although not the only remarkable story associated with the rescue, the Martin Company?s crossing of the Sweetwater serves as a reminder that for an extended period of time countless individuals demonstrated the best of human nature under extremely adverse conditions” (6). The end of the article reads:

Since most of the stories of the rescue will likely never be known, let the story of the Sweetwater crossing symbolize the many selfless sacrifices forged during a trying time. The identified rescuers at the river should serve as the face of the massive undertaking and be symbolic of the other equally needed and equally heroic assistance provided by hundreds of individuals who freely gave of themselves, most of whom remain anonymous (37)

This is a fair and important point. From a cultural memory standpoint, stories do not have to be accurate or historically true for them to be valuable and provide meaning for those invested in them, but knowing the historical reality behind such stories can add a deeper layer of meaning and make them more powerful, rather than tearing down their spiritual and cultural significance–let’s hope.

Now, as a non-Mormon studying Mormons, I’m sensitive to issues of tone, and I try not to be abrasive or devalue others’ faith experiences just because they’re not mine. But this outsider position also means there are certain things I never worry about, like whether my work is faith-promoting or faith-destroying (frankly, these are very foreign concepts to me, since I identify with an Episcopalian tradition that thrives on tension and ambiguity, at least on good days). I try to be informed, fair, and balanced and figure that’s all anyone can ask from me. But it did make me curious how some of you deal with this as historians, but also as readers of history: are there times that reading (or producing!) scholarly work has changed your faith? Do scholars have a special responsibility to ‘cushion’ their statements when it comes to sensitive matters, and especially when it comes to religion? Or does the imperative to share knowledge trump all? I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the middle, but I’d be curious to hear how you handle this.

[1] Chad M. Orton, “Francis Webster: The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice”, BYU Studies 45, no. 2 (2006), 117-140.
[2] Chad M. Orton, “The Martin Handcart Company at the Sweetwater: Another Look,” BYU Studies 45, no. 3 (2006), 4-37.

Article filed under Historiography Memory


  1. Thanks for this, Saskia. I don’t know that they directly answer your concluding questions, but prior discussions of Orton’s article on the Sweetwater rescue here at JI and at Keepapitchinin speak to those questions in important ways.

    Comment by Christopher — February 27, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

  2. Thanks, Christopher. I figured we’d talked about the Sweetwater rescue before on JI, but hadn’t taken the time to do a search.

    Comment by Saskia T — February 27, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

  3. One might be interested to read this article in Religious Educator, in which John C. Thomas describes his students response to Orton’s article.

    Comment by Niklas — February 28, 2014 @ 3:24 am

  4. Good questions. I feel that in most circumstances, my research into church history has strengthened my faith, but at the same time, I find that I have a more skeptical approach to traditional accounts. And I am constantly reflecting to see if the process is making me more secular. The big issue is in how to interact with those at church who don’t look with a historian’s perspective, and may seem to be less understanding of non-traditional approaches to our historical narrative. I found the Thomas article that Niklas linked to very thought provoking in that regard.

    I have the additional complication in that I teach the Gospel Principles class in church for new members and potential converts. For most of those folks, the historian’s perspective is not useful, but I also don’t want to feel like I am not being fully honest in my teaching. It is a balancing act that I need to learn to be better at.

    Comment by kevinf — February 28, 2014 @ 2:08 pm

  5. To me it is an object lesson how stories morph over time, even when the story tellers and retellers are honestly trying to tell the truth (while telling the story for devotional purposes). It illustrates how, perhaps, some of the stories in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament may have improved with time. That is, they are based on historic events. The tellers and retellers do their best to communicate the stories accurately, but the stories end up better for devotional purposes, and people assume therefore that the stories are true in the sense of what really actually happened.

    Comment by DavidH — February 28, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

  6. Saskia,

    It doesn’t surprise me no one’s mention this look at the handcarts:

    “One Long Funeral March?: A Revisionist?s View of the Mormon Handcart Disasters.? Journal of Mormon History 35:1 (Winter 2009), 50?115.

    There’s a pdf at the listed website or at USU library’s Digital Initiative. What I’ve learned since about the handcart scheme could fill a book, and forms part of the forthcoming “South Pass” Gateway to a Continent.” Why Brigham Young diverted men and teams from the rescue of the Martin and Willie companies to haul in “the Books, Thrashing machine, your Engine & fixtures & a part of the nails, glass & groceries & perhaps a portion of the Dry Goods? A. O. Smoot left behind at Fort Bridger had me puzzled. After all, they weren’t going anywhere. Now I know. It was the groceries.

    Will Bagley

    Here’s a charming relic:

    Hurrah for the Handcart Scheme!

    Hurrah for the Camp of Israel!
    Hurrah for the handcart scheme!
    Hurrah! Hurrah! ?tis better far
    Than wagon and ox team.

    Oh, our faith goes with the handcarts,
    And they have our hearts’ best love;
    ‘Tis a novel mode of traveling,
    Devised by the gods above.

    And Brigham’s their executive,
    He told us the design;
    And the saints are proudly marching on,
    Along the handcart line.

    Some will push and some will pull
    As we go marching up the hill.
    So merrily on the way we go
    Until we reach the valley oh.

    Who cares to go with the wagons?
    Not us who are free and strong;
    Our faith and arms with a right good will,
    Shall pull our carts along.

    Comment by Will Bagley — March 3, 2014 @ 4:15 pm

  7. “The rest of the story” is that Francis Webster gravely erred. Several Martin Handcart survivors were in fact deeply critical of what happened and did abandon Mormonism. One example is Sarah Ann Briggs. She lost her father and siblings during the handcart trek. Then orphaned when her mother died of a scorpion bite four years later. 14 year-old Sarah Ann was then coerced into marrying 42 year-old George Handley, and she conceived her first child within a week of marriage. By the time she was 22, she was a widow with four children. She left the LDS church and became an Episcopalian, marrying Arvis Chapman. I interviewed her direct descendant, Ruth Thomas, in 1991, who told me that the LDS church took away her three surviving children by Handley and had them raised by her former sister wife, Elizabeth Clark Handley. (This is borne out by census data.) By Chapman, Sarah Ann did have two more children.

    Comment by Connell O'Donovan — March 4, 2014 @ 2:02 am

  8. […] T writes about the Martin handcart company and the Sweetwater River rescue at the Juvenile Instructor, as […]

    Pingback by The Power of Fact and of Fiction | Out of the Best Blogs — March 4, 2014 @ 11:03 pm


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