In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we speak often of the need to be obedient to the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Obedience is critical and necessary to our salvation.
The best form of obedience is thoughtful, willing compliance because we seek to bring our will into line with the will of the Father — our great example being the Savior Jesus Christ. Blind obedience is the weakest form of obedience, compliance without thinking, without exercising agency and individually determining that obedience to this principle is appropriate and right. Thoughtful, willing obedience is what God hopes from us.
I recently observed obedience and its attendant blessings as I compiled faith-promoting experiences from the lives of my ancestors for my son to take with him on his mission.
Isaac John Wardle began working in the coal mines in Ravenstone, England, at the tender age of 7 — six days a week, 12 hours a day. That would have been his destiny until he heard the gospel preached, joined the LDS Church at age 17 and determined to emigrate and gather with the Saints in the Utah basin. After three years of scrimping and saving, Wardle booked passage on the ship Horizon, said a final farewell to his family and sailed from Liverpool in May 1856. After disembarking in Boston on June 30, 1856, Wardle climbed aboard a train, eventually arriving in Iowa City, Iowa.
He joined the Martin Company and built a handcart. Late in the season, supplies were scarce, and many of the Mormon handcart pioneers used green, undried wood.
Wardle, then 20, was assigned with 15-year-old John Bailey to load their cart with 100 pounds of flour, a tent, camp equipment for seven people and 18-year-old Langley Bailey, who was too ill to walk — and to pull this heavy load 1,200 miles across the plains.
Wardle had already made great sacrifices for the gospel of Jesus Christ, yet willingly agreed to do so. It was his first and significant act of obedience in America. At first, the company made good progress, then the handcart wood began to dry and crack and sand wore away at the axles in their wheels. Slowed down, they lightened their loads and rations were cut to one pound of flour per person per day.
When Brigham Young learned they were on the trail at that late date, he understood their peril and ordered men to gather supplies and go to their rescue.
At Fort Laramie, there were few supplies and no flour. The company had to press on and cut their rations to one-half cup of flour per day.
By mid-October, tired and weak, carts still breaking down, they abandoned almost everything. In late October, the snow came. With little clothing and no protection from the cold they were still far from Utah. When rations were reduced to one-quarter cup of flour per day, the company began boiling and eating rawhide strips to keep their hunger at bay. Frigid winds swept the plains, the ground froze, and snow descended on the weary, emaciated travelers.
Wardle became part of the daily burial detail, though the frozen ground often denied them access. The company pushed forward, desperate and dying, yet miracles happened along the way reminding them that God had not forsaken them. West of the North Platte River, Ephraim Hanks rode into camp on his horse, with another loaded with recently acquired buffalo meat, a miraculous occurrence.
He described, “The starved forms and haggard countenances of the poor sufferers, as they moved about slowly, shivering with cold, to prepare their scanty evening meal. When they saw me coming, they hailed me with joy inexpressible, and when they further beheld the supply of fresh meat I brought into camp, their gratitude knew no bounds.”
Immediately distributed, it was still not enough to stave off the effects of famine and cold. More rescuers came, but the dying continued. Wardle wrote, “At one time I became so weary and overcome with cold that I fell down and was forced to lay there for some time.” Friends pulled Wardle to his feet and encouraged him on.
In Wyoming, near Independence Rock and Devil’s Gate, rescuers took the party into a cove, later named Martin’s Cove, hoping to find shelter, and knowing there was wood for fires. When they made camp that night, the “Valley Boys,” as the rescuers were called, approached Wardle, who lay unmoving on the icy, frozen ground, and asked him to go up into the cove, cut wood and bring it down for fires. Wardle, sapped of his strength, wanted to refuse yet, as he explained, he had promised Heavenly Father that he would be obedient, so he took his hatchet, went up, chopped down three trees and dragged them back to the Valley Boys.
Wardle’s decision to obey most likely saved his life. In such frigid conditions, he easily would have succumbed to hypothermia and frozen to death. However, he got up, traipsed the canyon and engaged in physical activity that warmed his body. Obedience was, perhaps, the difference between life and death for him.
Shortly thereafter, teams of wagons arrived with provisions, although, “by this time our company was much smaller than when we left Council Bluffs, as so many had died along the way. We proceeded on to Salt Lake City with the teams leaving our handcarts behind. President Brigham Young along with many of the other Brethren and Women came to welcome us and took us into their homes, fed and warmed us and gave us warm clean beds to rest our weary bodies.”
Of 576 members of the company, it is estimated 150 died on the trail.
Wardle returned to England as a missionary in 1879 and served faithfully in the church throughout his life.
Before that mission, Mary Ann Ashton, also of the Martin Handcart Company, married Wardle in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City in 1867. She gave birth to a son, but died one week later. Her son, William, lived and was my great-great-great grandfather.
Willing obedience refines us and reshapes us, helping us become disciples of Christ. It allows us to become one with God and blesses us in ways we cannot possibly imagine.
Kristine Frederickson writes on issue-oriented topics that affect members of the LDS Church worldwide in her column “LDS World." She teaches part-time at BYU. Her views do not necessarily represent those of BYU.