Severe Mercy

A Cruel Rescue

Nine year-old Agnes Caldwell was a member of the Willie Handcart Company. When an early storm hit on October 19, she had already been walking since June.  Before the storm, Agnes was a typical nine year-old. She held hands with her friend Mary on the autumn trail, even through a mile of the trail that was littered with rattlesnakes. They handled that potentially dangerous situation with ease and grace.

Their rations had already been limited for several weeks when the fatal storm came. The deep snow made it difficult for a child to navigate, let alone with nearly frozen feet, and an empty belly. There was no more skipping. She was literally starving. The death toll in her company was rising with every passing night. When the relief party arrived, all Agnes records in her journal is, “…it certainly was a relief.”

In her own words, she describes the rescue. “The infirm and the aged were allowed to ride, all able-bodied continued to walk. When the wagons started out, a number of us children decided to see how long we could keep up with the wagons, in hopes of being asked to ride. One by one they all fell out, until I was the last one remaining, so determined was I that I should get a ride. After what seemed the longest run I ever made before or since, the driver, [Brother] Kimball, called to me, ‘Say, sissy, would you like a ride?” I answered in my very best manner, ‘Yes sir.’

“At this he reached over, [took] my hand, [then clucked] to his horses [which made] me run with legs that seemed to me could run no farther. On we went [for what] seemed miles. [I thought he] was the meanest man that ever lived or that I had ever heard of, and other things that would not be a credit coming from one so young. Just at what seemed the breaking point, he stopped. Taking a blanket, he wrapped me up and lay me in the bottom of the wagon, warm and comfortable. Here I had time to change my mind, as I surely did, knowing full well [that] by doing this he saved me from freezing [to death].” (Susan Arrington Madsen, “I Walked to Zion: True Stories of Young Pioneers on the Mormon Trail,” Deseret Book 1994, pp. 57-59.)

This story is heartbreaking. You feel empathy for the Agnes who had to run. Simultaneously, you see the wisdom in Brother Kimball’s decision to have her run. It is a severe situation, yet it is full of mercy.

Severe Mercy

The term “severe mercy” seems to have originated with C. S. Lewis as documented in “A Severe Mercy” by Sheldon Vanauken. In it, a man recounts his sense of profound loss when the love of his life, his wife, died. He said, “…we have not always been or will not always be purely temporal creatures…[W]e were created for eternity” (p. 203). Her death brought about his reconciliation to God, perhaps the salvation of his soul, but at the severe price of loss. (“A Severe Mercy,” Harper & Row 1977.)

The creation process to prepare us for eternity mostly develops here in this mortal life. There are trials to go through – not because the God of eternity is a despicable one, but precisely because He loves us. From the very humblest – and perhaps harshest – of beginnings, great things happen.

Humble Beginnings

Consider King David. His father, Jesse, was an important figure in the supreme court of Torah law. This would seem to automatically qualify his children to be considered to be leaders in the community. But not David. No, David was conceived under questionable circumstances, and though not technically illegitimate, he was considered an outcast in his own family (see Psalm 69). As an outcast, he was not even in the running for leadership consideration when Samuel the prophet visited Jesse to select the next king. He was “only” a shepherd. After all the eligible, older sons were paraded in front of Samuel, he “said unto Jesse, Are here all thy children? And he said, There remaineth yet the youngest, and, behold, he keepeth the sheep.” (See 1 Samuel 16:11.)

David was only a shepherd. “Only.” Yet who better to be the leader (shepherd) of Israel than a herd boy?

You know who else started off as a simple herd boy? Nelson Mandela. I doubt he would be as great a man as he was if not for humble beginnings that he learned to overcome.

God, being God, cannot break the laws of the universe and of justice and allow us to become without the experiences that provide the environment to become. who we need to be. “Nevertheless the Lord seeth fit to chasten his people; yea, he trieth their patience and their faith.” (Mosiah 23:21)

Wintry Doctrine

Elder Neal A. Maxwell calls these severe trials (of mercy) “wintry doctrine.” He notes that questions will arise when we’re in the middle of life’s blizzards. “Amid life’s varied ironies, you and I may begin to wonder, Did not God notice this torturous turn of events? And if He noticed, why did He permit it? Am I not valued?”

Elder Maxwell knew a thing or two from first-hand experience about this wintry doctrine. He called these ironies of life’s trials the crust on the bread of adversity. Bread is pleasant and delicious, but not very many people enjoy the crust. It’s easier to eat the soft center. But without the crust, there can be no loaf of bread. Each loaf must endure some fire to become fully baked.

“…if we are serious about our discipleship, Jesus will eventually request each of us to do those very things which are most difficult for us to do.” (Elder Maxwell in “A Disciple’s Life,” by Bruce R. Hafen, p. 547.)

“There are in the gospel warm and cuddly doctrines, and then there are some that are just outright wintry doctrines. . . . One of them, frankly, is that we cannot approach [real] consecration without passing through appropriate clinical experiences, [because we don’t achieve consecration] in the abstract. … Sometimes  the best people . . . have the worst experiences . . . because they are the most ready to learn. (Hafen, “Disciple’s Life,” p. 20, quoting Neal A. Maxwell, remarks at Joseph S. Clark funeral, February 23, 1996.)

No, these aren’t warm and cuddly thoughts, this idea of needing to endure the oven of adversity so that we can be shaped for eternity.

“Just” a Carpenter

Do you know who else had a humble beginning? Who else knew a little sumpin-sumpin about adversity? Jesus. “Is this not just the carpenter’s son?” people wondered aloud? “Isn’t he just Mary and Joseph’s kid? With those other children?” (See Matthew 13:55.)

Who better to shape our lives than a carpenter? A carpenter understands building materials, the measuring and cutting of lumber. He knows how each piece will be fitted together to be formed into something greater than the sum of its parts.

The Master Carpenter, our Savior, knows our potential. He knows the material we are made of, and how to shape us to prepare us for eternity. We are not meant to live forever in this temporal imperfect world. He uses trials to shape and mold us for eternity.

We cannot live with Father and Mother forever in Their celestial realm until we are like Them. “The Savior’s Atonement makes that process possible by protecting us while we learn from practice what love really is or why wickedness cannot produce happiness. Because of the Atonement, we can learn from our experience without being condemned by it. So the Atonement is not just a doctrine about erasing black marks–it is the core doctrine that allows human development. Thus its purpose is to facilitate our growth, ultimately helping us to develop the Christ-like capacities we need to live with God.” (Bruce and Marie Hafen, BYU Women’s Conference, 2014.)

This is more than simply a “Pull your bootstraps up while you’re going through a trial” pep talk. When we hear about the “enabling” power of the Atonement, this is the doctrine. We came to earth so that we could ready ourselves to return Home.

The Choice is Ours

Returning to Agnes Caldwell’s experience for a moment, her experience with the wagon driver, Brother Kimball, seemed to her to be cruel. This was not the warm embrace of safety she anticipated.

Brother Kimball did not need to leave the warmth and protection of his own home to be part of the rescue party. And Agnes did not have to hold onto his hand when he asked her to give more than what she thought she was capable of. He saved her life, yes, but so did she! Both people and their mutual efforts were required to save her life.

Everything God asks of us is meant to protect and exalt us, to change us, not burden us but to bring us joy. And through those experiences, we must be allowed to choose for ourselves how we will let them shape us.

The veil of forgetfulness is given to us because we must choose for ourselves what destination we want. If we knew what environment we left, we would only want it again. When we don’t remember our origins, it’s too easy to fall in love with this mortal world and give up aspirations of the Celestial one. For justice and mercy to be equitable, we must be allowed to choose. We must want to choose the Celestial one.

Wherefore, men are free according to the flesh; and all things are given them which are expedient unto man. And they are free to choose liberty and eternal life, through the great Mediator of all men, or to choose captivity and death, according to the captivity and power of the devil; for he seeketh that all men might be miserable like unto himself. (2 Nephi 2:27)

And when we choose eternal life, we must be ready to enter it. Thankfully, we are not expected to do it on our own, which is why we have the Savior to help and encourage us. To hold our hand while we run alongside the wagon.


About the Author:

Laura will be the first to tell you she’s not perfect. That’s why she loves the restored gospel, and loves the atonement.