Whenever I visit a gathering of Latter-day Saints, I marvel at the enormous force for good that we as members of the Lord’s church represent. Although life is a most hazardous journey, I believe that the prophet Elisha’s counsel to his young comrade when they faced seemingly overwhelming odds holds true today: “Fear not: for they that be with us are more than they that be with them” (2 Kgs. 6:16). On Elisha’s side were numerous horses and chariots of fire—a heavenly host to outmatch a formidable Syrian army (see 2 Kgs. 6:17–18).
Our success in the journey of life requires careful planning and execution, wise use of our resources, and constant reliance on and dedication to eternal principles.
Nearly 150 years ago, a small band of settlers organized under George and Jacob Donner set out on a journey to a better life. At first their trek was typical of the scenes that had been played out time and again as pioneers made their way west to the rich lands of opportunity. But the Donner party’s journey proved to be a misguided effort that involved the company in one of the most tragic dramas in the history of America.
The caravan included an assemblage of folks from Illinois, Missouri, Tennessee, Iowa, and Ohio. Of the ninety men, women, and children who began the trek, forty-two died; and those who lived struggled the rest of their lives with the effects of exposure, starvation, and wrenching memories. Their journey left an account for history that will never be forgotten.
With little fanfare, the Donner party reached Fort Bridger, Wyoming. But then they succumbed to the lure of a quicker—but unproven—route to California, charted by a man named Lansford W. Hastings. Instead of the much traveled course around the rugged Sierra Nevada and then down to the California coast, the Donner party chose to go south through the Wasatch Mountains, down Echo Canyon, across the Salt Flats on the south side of the Great Salt Lake and over the deserts of northern Nevada. They intended to clear the mountain passes near the present site of Reno, Nevada, before the snows fell.
Such was the outline for the journey that met with disaster within one day of the last mountain pass. What happened?
In May 1847, shortly after her rescue from the snowbound encampment near what is now Donner Lake, twelve-year-old survivor Virginia Reed wrote to her cousin in Illinois this message: “Never take no cutof[f]s and hur[r]y along as fast as you can” (quoted in George R. Stewart, Ordeal by Hunger: The Story of the Donner Party, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1960, p. 361).
We can learn much from Virginia and the historical accounts of the ill-fated journey. Many of the settlers, not able to part with their material luxuries of home, brought an excess of possessions that slowed the progress of the entire company. Factions splintered the group into camps of “us” and “them.” Before the party reached the Sierra Nevada, one of the members had killed another.
The worst factor leading to the company’s plight was their taking an unproven shortcut. Virginia knew what she was talking about when she warned her cousin not to take shortcuts. The Hastings Cutoff was supposed to save as much as three hundred miles, but the path led into a blind canyon. What reportedly would take a week took thirty days. Things just got worse. The stretch across the Salt Flats was almost twice the distance indicated, not forty but seventy miles. The immigrants had too few provisions, too little water for themselves and their animals.
Upon finally reaching the towering Sierra Nevada, the careworn company rested. They squandered their last week of good weather by gathering strength for the final days of their journey. Had they not stopped, they would have been only a footnote in the history of the developing West. But it snowed. The party was one day short of clearing the final mountain pass when early storms in late October buried them in snow depths of more than twenty feet. They built crude shelters of logs, rocks, and hides and ate twigs, mice, their animals that did not run away, and then their own shoes. Finally, some of them resorted to eating their dead comrades. Four rescue parties worked their way in from the west that winter and spring to save those who were miraculously still alive.
Let’s look at our own life journey. There are several lessons to be learned from the Donner party—lessons that have nothing to do with wagon trains and everything to do with exaltation. For us, the stakes are higher than a home in the untamed West. Our destination is eternal glory.
The Donner party took a shortcut, an unproven one at that. Beverly Sills, a famous musician familiar with rigorous self-discipline, has said, “There are no shortcuts to anyplace worth going.” She was right. To be marooned in the mountains was not the desired destination of the Donner party, who could have followed a longer but safer trail. Instead, gambling on their abilities and personal ambitions, they took a route that had never been tested. The result is history.
Our journey is clearly defined, the path well marked, the pitfalls noted. The Lord says, “Enter ye in at the strait gate: … because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way, which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it” (Matt. 7:13–14). As we follow the Savior’s path, keeping our covenants and his commandments, we will be assaulted from all sides with offers to take other roads, other travel packages. The adversary will stop at nothing to catch our attention and then ever so slyly lead us away from the work of the Lord.
This is the dispensation of the fulness of times. We have been given the fulness of the gospel. To entice us from the path, Satan suggests a salad bar of sin—a little here and a little there until the plate is piled high and the price is paid. Knowing of his style and cunning, we must “press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus” (Philip. 3:14).
There are some who are not satisfied with the peace that comes from the Lord. Seeking gratification in unholy places, they hang out—usually on a limb—and play into the hands of Satan and his evil designs. “Stand ye in holy places,” we are told, for “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), and the road back from sin is a long one (see D&C 87:8).
Some break what they view as the lesser commandments, hoping that such infractions will be only minor deductions in the final exam. They don’t keep the Sabbath day holy, they invite temptation, they seek release from the pressures of school with drugs or alcohol, they don’t fulfill their callings. They lie—just a little; they cheat—just when they need to; and they miss Church meetings—only when they’re tired.
“Never take no cutoffs” means to enter in at the strait gate and to stay on the straight and narrow path. Just as the Donner party set off with the best of intentions but strayed into disaster, we too can be led into blind canyons and forced to cross treacherous desert sands if we relax our devotion to the Lord’s cause.
We each must go forth on our life journey as did Moroni, one whose “heart did swell with thanksgiving to his God … [and] who did labor exceedingly for the welfare and safety of his people. … [and] who was firm in the faith of Christ” (Alma 48:12–13). With such devotion there will be fewer sidesteps and missteps; there are no shortcuts to eternity.
One family in the Donner party was unable to leave behind their cherished personal belongings. They had a specially built wagon twice the size of a typical Conestoga to carry their treasures across the wilderness. But the cumbersome wagon was slow and difficult to maneuver. Ultimately it was abandoned on the Salt Flats as water and rations became far more valuable than tables and chairs.
To the young man who asked, “Good Master, what good thing shall I do, that I may have eternal life?” the Savior listed all the basic commandments; and then we read:
“The young man saith unto him, All these things have I kept from my youth up: what lack I yet?
“Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me.
“But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions” (Matt. 19:16, 20–22).
Are we willing to leave behind the world to become like God? Worldly comforts may temporarily minimize the impact of our struggles here on earth; they may give us comfort and a sense of importance, even a measure of success. But such reliance on material possessions deprives us of reliance upon our Heavenly Father and his saving grace. Our spiritual growth comes from seeing the Lord’s hand in our lives. There is little comparison between a worldly check register and our account in the Lamb’s Book of Life.
Our relationships with one another are sacred trusts. That’s why we call each other brother and sister. We are indeed the closest of companions on our mortal journey. Respect, honor, love, and humility are the basics for living with the Father. To practice and refine these traits here on earth is to be in touch with the eternities today.
Reading the Book of Mormon exposes the debilitating nature of contention. The prophet Jacob mourned the dissension rampant among the people. At the end of his life he wrote, “I conclude this record … by saying that the time passed away with us, and also our lives passed away like as it were unto us a dream, we being a lonesome and a solemn people, wanderers, cast out from Jerusalem, born in tribulation, in a wilderness, and hated of our brethren, which caused wars and contentions; wherefore, we did mourn out our days” (Jacob 7:26).
Then we read of a happier people who had just been visited by the Savior. Wrote the prophet Nephi:
“There was no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people.
“And there were no envyings, nor strifes, nor tumults, nor whoredoms, nor lyings, nor murders, nor any manner of lasciviousness; and surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God” (4 Ne. 1:15–16).
Anger and friction delayed and divided the Donner party on their journey. Such discord led, in part, to their temporal tragedy. Satan loves dissension in any form. He encourages harsh feelings, angry words, ruthless judgments, scorn, pride, and the cruelest of actions.
Our greatest teacher and exemplar on this point is Jesus Christ. To those unbelievers who plotted his capture and even his death, Jesus showed mercy and compassion, charity and love that never wavered. No unkind words passed his lips. His behavior was always becoming of the King of Kings. What did the Lord say from the cross to the soldiers who had crucified him? “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34; see note c). May we, too, forgive and love and honor each other on our journey through life.
The Donner party showed us the risks of taking our time. All of us have no time to lose. I love the old Chinese saying, “Man who sit with legs crossed and mouth open waiting for roast duck to fly in have long hunger.” We can’t sit. We can’t wait. The Donners waited—and the snows came, and their journey was a tragedy.
In the book of Joshua we are told firmly, “Choose you this day whom ye will serve” (Josh. 24:15; emphasis added). Not tomorrow or the next day but right now, for the Lord has told us, “I come quickly” (D&C 33:18), and the Lord keeps his word. We must be prepared. Of course, there is more to “hurrying along” than simply speeding up. We have to pace ourselves to get where we want to go.
This is not idle counsel. We read in the book of Helaman, “Behold, your days of probation are past; ye have procrastinated the day of your salvation until it is everlastingly too late” (Hel. 13:38). Don’t procrastinate serving the Lord in his kingdom. We are busy now, and believe me, it will never get better or easier. The load is always there, for the Lord is training us to lift and carry more and more. To sidestep such service is to miss opportunities in the kingdom that may not come again.
Some members of the Donner party were saved only because of the timely rescue efforts of others, people who set aside their work and their personal safety to find those who were lost. Sometimes we are rescuers, and sometimes we may need to be rescued. We are not asked to strap on snowshoes and scale the Sierra Nevada in midwinter, but we are asked to save souls, one person at a time. Our lives are a spiritual journey, and helping rescue souls is the greatest work in the eyes of God.
I have a good friend who told me of a personal rescue that she holds close to her heart. Near the end of her senior year in college, things were not falling together as she had hoped. She regretted that her involvement in student affairs was coming to an end, and she was unsure about entering graduate school. Also, she was dating both the returned missionary for whom she’d waited for two years and his best friend. At that time, her journey was a nightmare.
One Friday afternoon she was particularly downhearted. She had not heard from any graduate school, and she was juggling weekend dates. There were papers to write and projects to finish, and her little ten-year-old brother was begging her to play a game with him. She could not stand to deal with life that day, so she left the house. As she walked she heard a crunch on the gravel behind her and turned. Her little brother looked at her tear-streaked face and asked, “Where ya going?”
“I don’t know,” she replied in a voice most dramatic.
He looked at her awhile and then said, “Do you want to go to the store?”
He was a rescuer that day. A little ten-year-old chasing after a lost-looking sister. He had known something was wrong, had made her laugh, and in good spirits they went to the store. She will never forget that day he saved her. He more than made her day.
How long has it been since we made someone’s day—or made a very bad day just a little bit better?
The Donner party had big troubles that crippled their course. Although we each have obstacles and difficulties in our lives, we need not fear or give up.
William Clayton sailed from England to America in 1840 with a host of new converts. Brother Clayton later wrote the classic hymn “Come, Come, Ye Saints” (Hymns, 1985, no. 30). The words of that hymn are a testimony of his understanding of adversity as part of the eternal plan. After arriving in Nauvoo, Brother Clayton wrote home to his fellow Saints in England:
“We have sometimes been almost suffocated with heat, … sometimes almost froze with cold. We have had to sleep on boards, instead of feathers, and on boxes which was worse. … We have had our clothes wet through with no privilege of drying them or changing them. We have had to sleep … out of doors in very severe weather.”
But Brother Clayton also wrote assuringly: “If you will be faithful you have nothing to fear from the journey. The Lord will take care of his Saints” (letter from Commerce, Illinois, 10 Dec. 1840, LDS Church Archives; capitalization and punctuation modernized).
If we are faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ and to our covenants, we will have “nothing to fear from the journey.” Rather, we will sing in praise, “All is well.”
I am not being simplistic when I say that our faith can carry us when we are weary, wounded, worn by the world’s buffetings, and wanting to go home. Faith can bring the journey of a lifetime. For example, Peter the Apostle was able to walk on water because of his faith in Jesus Christ. Peter understood that with the Lord all things are possible. Such a testimony comes to us as we exercise faith at the most trying of times.
The Lord loves us. We each are numbered, known, and loved by him. With such assurance, indeed can we not sing, “All is well”?
There are reasons for our trials. In 1886 Elder Lorenzo Snow of the Quorum of the Twelve said: “You and I cannot be made perfect except through suffering: Jesus could not. In His prayer and agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, He foreshadowed the purifying process necessary … to secure the glory of a celestial kingdom” (in Journal of Discourses, 26:367).
Although our experiences cannot be compared to the Savior’s suffering as he wrought the Atonement, that concept of Gethsemane speaks to my heart. We all face monumental periods in our lives when we turn to the Lord and pour out our souls, for the pain is too great for us to stand alone. Sharing our burdens with our Savior is part of the process of perfection. Let me share with you a poem that makes this point so well.
All those who journey, soon or late,
Must pass within the garden’s gate;
Must kneel alone in darkness there,
And battle with some fierce despair.
God pity those who cannot say:
“Not mine but thine”; who only pray:
“Let this cup pass,” and cannot see
The purpose in Gethsemane.
(Ella Wheeler Wilcox, “Gethsemane,” in Masterpieces of Religious Verse, ed. James Dalton Morrison, New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1948, p. 184)
This life is a spiritual journey. There are lessons to be learned. Young Virginia Reed cautioned against taking shortcuts, and she was wise. Shortcuts only deflect us from the narrow trail. We must travel light, be kind to everyone, and hear with our hearts when someone needs us. Holding our heads high amid troubles, we can find comfort in the cry, “All is well.” The Lord hears our prayers. He knows our needs. We have nothing to fear from the journey; we are on a well-marked path that leads home—all the way home—to our Father in Heaven.