Levi Savage, of the Willie handcart tragedy of 1856, was captain of the second hundred, one of only four among that company of 400 emigrants who had been west before, and the only one of them all who raised his voice in opposition at the meeting in Florence, Nebraska, in August when the company considered whether or not to go on to Utah that late.
According to the narrative of John Chislett, who was in the company and left the Church after barely surviving the ordeal and before writing his account, the other leaders, including G. D. Grant and William Kimball, Church agents at Florence, favored their going on. They prophesied in the name of God the company would get through in safety, even that the weather would be arranged for their good. But Levi Savage used his common sense and his knowledge of the country. According to his journal:
"I said to him that if I spoke I must speak my mind, let it cut where it would. He said certainly to do so. I then related to the Saints the hardships that we should have to endure. I said that we were liable to have to wade in snow up to our knees and shovel at night, lay ourselves in a thin blanket and lie on the frozen ground without a bed. I said that it was not like having a wagon that we could go into and wrap ourselves in as much as we like and lay down. “No,” said I, “we are without wagons, destitute of clothing and could not carry it if we had it. We must go as we are. The handcart system I do not condemn. I think it preferable to unbroken oxen and experienced teamsters. The lateness of the season was my only objection to leaving this point for the mountains at this time. I spoke warmly upon the subject, but spoke truth, and the people, judging from appearance and expressions, felt the force of it. "
Elder Savage was rebuked by the other elders for want of faith, one elder even declaring that he would guarantee to eat all the snow that fell on us between Florence and Salt Lake City. The majority of the Saints decided to make the journey.
A few weeks later, when apostle Franklin Richards, who had optimistically advocated the handcart plan in England, passed them on his way to Salt Lake, he stopped for a night and, being advised of Brother Savage's earlier opposition, "rebuked him very severely in open meeting for his lack of faith in God." According to Chislett, Elder Richards gave us plenty of counsel to be faithful, prayerful, obedient to our leaders, etc., and wound up by prophesying in the name of Israel's God that "though it might storm on our right and on our left, the Lord would keep open our way before us and we should get to Zion in safety."
More than fifty (one in eight) of the Willie Company died in the storms that overtook them in Wyoming, over 150 (one in four) of the Martin Company that was two weeks behind them. Chislett points up the painful irony that, according to all the old settlers in Utah, "the fall storms of 1856 were earlier and more severe than were ever known before or since. Instead of the Mormons' prophecies being fulfilled and their prayers answered, it would almost seem that the elements were unusually severe that season, as a rebuke to their presumption."
According to Chislett, "It was the stout hearts and strong hands of the noble fellows who came to our relief, the good teams, the flour, beef, potatoes, the warm clothing and bedding, and not prayers nor prophecies, that saved us from death." He, of course, had forgotten that it was prayers and prophecies that had saved these English millworkers from Europe, from Babylon, and would make them into Saints, despite the costs, that it was the love and conviction built on prayers and prophecies that moved those he called "noble fellows" to risk their lives in the rescue, including G. D. Grant and William Kimball.
These two, who in their zeal had been partially responsible for the plight of the handcart pioneers, had traveled to Salt Lake with Elder Richards, Chislett notes, and immediately, at Brigham Young's direction, turned around to come to their aid:
"May God ever bless them for their generous, unselfish kindness and their manly fortitude .... How nobly, how faithfully, how bravely they wanted to bring us safely to the Valley—to the Zion of our hopes." Indeed, William Kimball, who spent an entire day carrying women and children through floating ice on a crossing of the Sweetwater, according to the journal of one of the survivors, "staid so long in the water that he had to be taken out and packed to camp and he was a long time before he recovered as he was chil[le]d through and in after life he was allways afflicted with rheumatism."
These originally overzealous and now bravely self sacrificial rescuers, I believe, understood the paradox of integrity and obedience better than the apostate Chislett did, and Brigham Young understood it better than Chislett or Elder Richards: He severely and publicly chastised the apostle for not having had the common sense to stop the rear companies in Florence and for encouraging the emigrants to rely on miraculous intervention to protect them from needless folly in a practical decision that could be made rationally—something Brother Brigham would never do.
And Brigham Young, better than Chislett, understood that other paradox, of faith and works: When he was informed that some of the Martin company were arriving on Sunday, November 30, he dismissed the day's meetings and sent the Saints home to prepare to feed and nurse the survivors rather than stay there and pray. "Prayer is good," he said, "but when baked potatoes and milk are needed, prayer will not supply their place."
But perhaps Levi Savage understood better than any of them the paradox of integrity and obedience. After Savage was defeated in his lone opposition at the Florence meeting, he informed his fellow Saints:
"Brethren and sisters, what I have said I know to be true; but, seeing you are to go forward, I will go with you, will help you all I can, will work with you, will rest with you, will suffer with you, and if necessary, I will die with you. May God in His mercy bless and preserve us. Amen."
And according to Chislett: "Brother Savage was true to his word; no man worked harder than he to alleviate the suffering which he had foreseen, when he had to endure it."