In 1846, Thomas L. Kane, an influential attorney and military officer, came in contact with the Latter-day Saints, to whom he would prove to be a much-needed friend and benefactor in the coming years.
Under the leadership of President Brigham Young and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the main body of Saints were bound for the Great Basin, having fled from Nauvoo, Illinois, in the face of mob oppression.
In September of that year, Kane visited their abandoned city and later described it in a lecture given to the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
The most gripping part of his account pertained to the stragglers encamped across the Mississippi River in Iowa, too sick or destitute to undertake the journey with the rest of the West-bound Church members.
“Dreadful, indeed, was the suffering of these forsaken beings,” Kane recounted in his lecture. “Cowed and cramped by cold and sunburn, alternating as each weary day and night dragged on, they were, almost all of them, the crippled victims of disease. They were there because they had no homes nor hospital nor poorhouse nor friends to offer them any. They could not satisfy the feeble cravings of their sick: they had not bread to quiet the fractious hunger cries of their children. Mothers and babes, daughters and grandparents, all of them alike, were bivouacked in tatters, wanting even covering to comfort those whom the sick shiver of fever was searching to the marrow.”
One man in particular Kane described as “in the last stage of bilious remittent fever.”
“They had done their best for him. Over his head was something like a tent, made of a sheet or two, and he rested on a but partially ripped open old straw mattress, with a hair sofa cushion under his head for a pillow. His gaping jaw and glazing eye told how short a time he would monopolize these luxuries; though a seemingly bewildered and excited person, who might have been his wife, seemed to find hope in occasionally forcing him to swallow awkwardly measured sips of the tepid river water from a burned and battered bitter smelling tin coffee-pot.”
God in his mercy did not forsake these sufferers. On Oct. 9, in a remarkable repetition of the miracle by which He saved the wandering Israelites from starvation (see Exodus 16:13), flocks of quail flew into the camp and flopped on the ground. Soon, the people had more than enough cooked quail to satisfy their hunger that day.
But it was primarily through the instrumentality of their brothers and sisters that the poor were delivered by the Lord from their suffering.
“At 3 p.m. on the day of the quail miracle, Church trustees working in Nauvoo to sell Church properties brought and gave to the needy Saints shoes, clothing, molasses, salt pork and salt,” wrote Church history scholar William G. Hartley. “To aid the poor Saints, the trustees had solicited funds from towns along the Mississippi River and on one trip raised $100” (“How Shall I Gather?” Ensign, October 1997).
A month earlier, two weeks before word came about the poor camps, a small wagon train had been sent back from the main Mormon encampments at the Missouri River to help people still in Nauvoo. Now, the wagon train, which had brought provisions gathered from others along the way, made a return trip, taking along 157 people and 28 wagons.
At Winter Quarters, when President Young heard about the poor camps, he sent other volunteers back to bring them along. “Let the fire of the covenant which you made in the House of the Lord burn in your hearts like a flame unquenchable,” he enjoined them.
Thus motivated, a second rescue company reached the suffering Saints by the end of October.
“In total, the rescue teams helped move some 275 to 300 poor Saints to Winter Quarters, Nebraska,” Hartley wrote in his Ensign article.
The covenant to which President Young referred had been made at the temple in Nauvoo, where, in October of the prior year, he had spoken to a conference of Saints and moved that to the extent of their ability they take along all who wished to come.
He promised, “If you will be faithful to your covenant, I will now prophesy that the great God will shower down means upon this people to accomplish it to the very letter.” Hartley wrote, “This covenant became a guiding star for President Young from then until his death in 1877.”
It had been suggested by Elder George A. Smith of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, who, at the conference, recalled, “When we were to leave Missouri, the saints entered into a covenant not to cease their exertions until every saint who wished to go was removed, which was done.”
The Missouri covenant had been made in 1838 in the wake of the infamous Extermination Order issued by Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs requiring that all Mormons leave the state. On that occasion, Brigham Young and other apostles “were adamant that the Church not leave behind any who lacked wagons and teams,” Hartley wrote.
The spirit of the Missouri and Nauvoo covenants continued in earnest throughout the Mormon Pioneer era, with converts in Europe and Scandinavia helped to gather to Zion through such means as the Perpetual Emigration Fund.
In this season, when we look forward to the Pioneer Day observance of the coming of the first company of Mormon Pioneers to the Salt Lake Valley on July 24, 1847, let us be guided by those covenants that motivated our forebears. In helping the spiritually and temporally needy, may we be inspired by President Young’s words to “let the fire of the covenant burn in [our] hearts like a flame unquenchable.”