Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Monday, May 07, 2012

17 Miracles: A Film About More Than Just a Handcart Company


While visiting family in Salt Lake City yesterday, I was able to view the film 17 Miracles. First, the camera work was outstanding as was the acting and directing, IMHO. The movie helped me to better appreciate why the story of the Willie Handcart Company gets so much attention in Church lore. It really is a compelling symbol of our mortal journey, highlighting the human goodness that can be found in the midst of trouble, and the tender mercies of the Lord that we can experience on a trail of tears. Further, the humble faithfulness of Levi Savage illustrates so much about the Gospel that we need to know in our day. How does one deal with the failings of mortal Church leaders while yearning for the perfection that only God has? Levi's example is one we should discuss even more that we have in the past.

I know the frustration of working with well-meaning leaders who make what decisions that surely seem to be wrong. I wish I had always exhibited the graciousness and humility and true leadership shown by Levi Savagte who knew that the late departure of the Willie Handcart Company would result in tragedy. Though rebuffed for his wise counsel to wait until spring and even publicly criticized by his priesthood leader, Levi refused to walk away, refused to give in to his pride, and humbly stayed on to support the group and sustain his errant leader in faith. He was not of a mind to belittle others in their mortal failings, but to build up the Kingdom of God and render relief to those who would suffer. My soul rejoices that there have been and still are such men as Levi Savage, and I encourage all of you to ponder the example depicted in this movie.

The problem of pain and suffering is also beautifully addressed in the true story told in 17 Miracles. We are here on a mortal journey where death and suffering are inevitable. God could have prevented the tragic late departure of the group and whisked them all safely to Zion. But our journey must go forward, and though we may suffer, He is still there. Though we may die, He is still there. His tender mercies may come in surprising ways--an angel-baked pie for a woman about to go mad in despair, a miraculous stranger offering dried meat jerky, a rescue squad at the final moment when all hope seemed lost, and Levi Savage himself wondering, as my own father did once in the midst of battle in Korea, who it was at his back pushing him forward, turning to find no one there.

In my father's case, it was while desperately seeking to protect his men under a savage attack, picking up a 75-mm recoilless rifle and rile mount, a load normally meant for 4 or 5 men, and running with that load up a steep hill to get the rifle in position to repulse an attack As he climbed the hill with his great burden, he thought it was the men in his squad pushing him forward, but when he reached his destination and turned around, he saw that the men in his squad were still yards away, delayed by the time they needed to strap on backpacks to carry the shells for this massive weapon. He was puzzled, and only later appreciated that this was one of many miracles he experienced in the midst of war's horrors, miracles that softened his heart and helped a rebellious young man find God. I owe my own life and a part of my own testimony to the miracles that he experienced, though the price he paid in experiencing war was a great one, coupled with many tender mercies. So it is for many mortal journeys. May we not forget the lessons of those who went before us to bring us to Zion.

7 comments:

Joseph McKnight said...

I have longed for the day when the story of Levi Savage overtakes the popularity of other parts of the handcart lore. You have recognized clearly one of the missing parts in our current method of leading the Church, and that is the ever-present fear, directly caused by preaching so, of speaking up and opposing a priesthood leader. Not only is it discouraged still in the Church, but it is preached from the pulpit as being a sin. Levi was NOT sinning in speaking up before they left. And yes, it took a humble yet courageous man like Levi to both speak up and then decide to help them anyway. But, we all could use some less preaching about it being sinful to "criticize" our leaders, and we could actually encourage what is recognized today amongst modern leadership techniques as good leadership in listening to those we are leading and getting their input.

Stephen said...

Joseph, I have to agree with you.

Anonymous said...

Your review is way too generous to this dreadful movie. I do agree about the acting and scenery, but the message the movie sends is disturbing.

Perhaps a modern analogue for my family would be a youth temple trip. We live about 2.5 hours from our nearest temple and youth temple trips are a fun, communal event where we all carpool. Say for the next temple trip we all meet at the designated spot to carpool-usually the chapel-and while there the Bishop or SP announces the spirit has told him we need to be at the temple earlier than we planned or prepared for. Thus, we will need to drive at least 85 or 90 mph on the highway in a driving rainstorm to get to the temple for our new time slot. I don't think I would be sinning or rebelling against priesthood authority to tell the Bishop/SP he was reckless, foolish and I would not follow his ïnspired" counsel. Even if he were to publicly rebuke me, like poor Brother Levi was, and falsely claim some priesthood mantle to lead people on a foolhardy journey to their deaths would I change my mind. Or, it would take a lot more than a public dressing down for me to be persuaded driving 85 mph on interstate 95 in a rainstorm with a car full my own and others' kids was something I would ever do.

But, that is the message sent by this movie.I was disapointed at those scenes where Levi was disparaged and called to repentance for speaking the truth, particularly where the stakes were so high. There's not much about that story to be praised, imo. There's plenty to learn but not in the way you describe. The stakes for those poor Saints were way, way too high. The movie almost celebrates the blind and crazy obedience of those Saints, when we should probably step back and think about where and how to draw lines when asked to do dangerous things by priesthood leaders.

To be sure, there is growth and strengthened faith when we obey commandments, but we should not celebrate priesthood leaders who abuse their authority-even when done sincerely and for altruistic purposes-and cause serious pain and harm.

As I said, I think your review is too generous. Based on word of mouth reviews I had heard, we bought the blu-ray version-on a temple trip a few months back. I had the opposite reaction to yours and would gladly give the movie away to anyone interested in it. I've offered it-free of charge- to my HPG, but so far no takers.

On a separate note, I really enjoy your blog and your approach to the gospel is refreshing.

Anonymous said...

Another problem with the movie is that many of the so-called miracles seem to be rather shaky.

Rather than rely on the historical accounts, the movie includes incidents that are family legends, rather than ones backed by contemporaneous records.

The true miracle was that any survived and the heroic efforts of the rescuers.

Jon said...

This is what I was trying to say in the other post on criticizing leaders. I'm glad you (Jeff) could do a better job them me in showing that it is OK to disagree with leadership.

I still don't think it is OK to criticize. I think the two are different from each other. When I think criticize, I think more on par with attacking the character of the person rather than disagreeing with the ideas themselves.

It is unfortunate that so many in the church refuse to think for themselves, which includes discussing their ideas with others rather than keeping them to themselves, that is what I mean by not thinking. We're social creatures and learn by discussing and by reading and by pondering by ourselves.

Jon said...

@Anonymous,

My wife was saying that the incident was much more nuanced than what was portrayed in the movie. From here take on reading about the incident if they would have stayed put they might have had problems too, since they didn't have enough food to over winter.

But yes:

We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.

Anonymous said...

I am amazed by the accomplishments and resilience of the pioneers. I have spent many hours reading of their travels and the hardships that they faced. I love this movie from the first moment and would tell everyone to watch it. If you are looking for a copy, i found great prices on Mormonmedia.com