The problems of following the prophet is a perennial favorite source of Mormon intellectual angst. What if the prophet is wrong? After all, prophets are human and are prone to mistakes? Indeed they are. Which brings me to the topic of Levi Savage.
Savage was a Mormon’s Mormon. He emigrated to Nauvoo after joining the Church, where he was intimate with Joseph Smith. After the Saints left Nauvoo he travelled west with Brigham. In 1846 at the urging of Church leaders, he signed up for the Mormon Battalion, marching hundreds of miles through the desert until his discharge in California in the summer of 1847. From there he made his way across the Sierra Nevadas to the Salt Lake Valley, joining the Saints in October, only to find that his mother had died crossing the plains that summer. In 1852, he was called on a mission to Siam (present day Thailand). He left his wife and 21-month old son, walking from Salt Lake to San Francisco, where he caught a boat to the Far East. During his passage he almost died of small pox. He spent over two years preaching the Gospel in Asia. He initially landed in Calcutta, India but couldn’t make it to Siam due to a civil war in the country. He did, however, get as far as Rangoon in Burma. In October 1855, he headed for home, reaching Boston, Massachusetts via the Cape of Good Hope in early 1856. In short, Levi Savage was a man willing to make enormous sacrifices and literally circle the globe at the direction of the leaders of the Church.
From Boston, Savage made his way west to Winter’s Quarters, where he had joined the Mormon Battalion more than a decade earlier. There he met a group of westward bound immigrants from England. At the urging of another prophet and apostle — Franklin D. Richards — this group of immigrants formed themselves into two companies, one led by James G. Willie and the other by Edward Martin. The companies were part of an experimental system of moving immigrants across the plains with handcarts. The initial attempts with the new handcarts had gone well, and Richards assured the immigrants that if they trusted in the Lord and did their duty to Him that they could cross the plains in safety.
By this time, it was mid-August and Levi Savage, who knew something about the problems of crossing the vast distances of the North American interior, was incredulous. He insisted that it was too late in the season to begin. The handcarts might be trapped in the high Rockies by an early winter. It was too dangerous, he insisted. His objections were overruled by his ecclesiastical superiors. He then said:
What I have said I know to be true; but seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, and if necessary, will die with you. May God in his mercy bless and preserve us.
It has always struck me as one of the most powerful statements in our history about following the Brethren. Savage knew that he was right and that Franklin D. Richards was wrong. He nevertheless went along with the Willie company, not because he trusted in Richards’ secret infallibility or because he was brow beaten into doing his duty. Rather, he went because the English immigrants — people he had never met and did not know — were his people, and he would help them if he could.
One might argue that Levi Savage was an enabler of Franklin D. Richards’s bad judgment. One might argue that he should have engaged in “civil disobedience” refusing to go along with an ill-conceived plan. Indeed, one might argue that it was precisely the kind of loyalty that Savage’s life exemplified that created the pathological culture in which blind obedience to authority sent 900 inexperienced English converts off into the wilderness too late. Perhaps such arguments are correct.
Still, I can’t help but seeing Savage as having chosen the better path.