While I was reading through some 1846 sources of the Saints trekking across Iowa, I came across an interesting entry in the journal of Willard Richards. On March 14th, he recorded a peculiar event — the healing of William Hall’s horse. A story of healing a horse is interesting in and of itself, but this story includes other curious aspects as well.
Most members of the LDS church are familiar with the story of the blessing of Mary Fielding’s oxen while crossing the plains. The story of Fielding and her healed oxen continuing their journey has been popular in church publications and sermons. Another story popular among fans of Eugene England has to do with a more modern day application of using priesthood to facilitate transportation. England recounts the time he blessed his Chevrolet, allowing him to carry on his duties as branch president.
Apostle Richards’ account of the blessing of William Hall’s horse may be the first instance of an animal blessing on the pioneer trail, occurring over two years before the Mary Fielding incident. Richards (the designated church historian) had previously recorded a number of instances of sickness or injury to animals (a sprain, distemper and drowning). But Richards had not yet recorded a blessing of an animal. After recording precise directions where “certain deposits near Vorhee” were buried (another enticing entry), Richards reports the events regarding William Hall.
… At Indian Creek one of his horses sickened with bloating and colic. Elders Hall and Luelling Mantle laid hands on him and he recovered immediately and went on about 2 miles when he was again attacked much more violently than before. They tried to give him medicine but could not succeed. The horse lay on his side with his foot over his ear, but Ruben Strong said he believed there was breath in him yet and proposed to lay hands on him. Some present doubted whether it was right to lay hands on a horse. Elder Hall replied the Prophet Joel has said that in the last days the Lord would pour out his spirit upon all flesh and this satisfied the brethren, and Elders William Hall, Rabins R. Strong, Llewellyn Mantle, Joseph Champlin, Martin Potter, and one more laid hands on the horse and commanded the unclean and foul spirits of every name and nature to depart and go to the Gentiles at Warsaw and trouble the Saints no more, when the horse rolled twice over in great distress, sprang to his feet, squealed, vomited and purged, and the next morning was harnessed to a load of about 12 cwt. and performed his part as usual.
Justification for the second blessing came from Joel 2:28, “… I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh …” Perhaps the discussion of the propriety of blessing a horse may have included the account where Jesus met two men possessed with devils. The devils request that if they are cast out of the men, that they be allowed to go into a herd of swine. Jesus pronounces “Go” and the devils leave the men and possess the swine, which run into the sea and perish. The citizens of the community then request Jesus to leave the coast (Matthew 8:28-34). Whether this story was discussed or not, it appears the blessing of Hall’s horse follows a similar pattern of the exorcism performed by Jesus. A comparison of the two accounts has these parallels:
- The Mormon men believed that through their priesthood, they represented Jesus, and had the right and power to enact similar miracles
- Both stories indicate the devils were of a particularly nasty breed. In Matthew, they come “out of the tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass by that way.” In the pioneer account they refer to the spirits as “unclean and foul” and of “every name and nature.”
- The pioneer story reverses the source and target of the spirits. Jesus casts spirits out of humans, into animals; while the pioneers cast spirits out of an animal, into humans. The targeted “gentiles” are the enemies of the Mormons concentrated in Warsaw, Illinois.
- Each exorcism/possession produces a violent result. Matthew does not describe how the men reacted after the exorcism, but the possession of the swine caused them to run “violently down a steep place into the sea” where they drowned. The horse responded violently to the exorcism. It “rolled twice over in great distress, sprang to his feet, squealed, vomited and purged.”
- The horse and presumably the two men are relieved of their afflictions.
- Another parallel (although perhaps a stretch) is that of exodus. After the possession of the swine, the town’s people ask Jesus to leave the area, while the Saints’ exodus had been due to pressure by the “Gentiles of Warsaw.”
The exorcism of the horse suggests the Elders may have been influenced by the story in Matthew 8. The loss of a horse was a serious matter for a pioneer, which contributed to the need for a spiritual solution in a worldview that blended the temporal and spiritual. A sense of spiritual innovation by these common men is apparent as they felt empowered by scripture and their priesthood to enact a new multi-purposed blessing/exorcism/cursing for the animal and the gentiles, as well as facilitate their mode of transportation. Their act apparently met the approval of Apostle Richards who records the account with its faith promoting conclusion.
Also reflected in the account is the sense of anger at the loss of their prophet and their homes. They called for divine retribution over the dying horse, looking for biblical-styled vengeance. By laying hands on the horse, they exercised faith that their enemies in Warsaw might become possessed and perhaps even run down the banks of the Mississippi to drown like swine.