Just a few handshakes away from Joseph and Brigham
by Orson Scott Card
We're putting on a play this weekend in our stake -- Barefoot to Zion, a musical commissioned
by the Church for the 1997 sesquicentennial of the entry of the pioneers into Salt Lake Valley.
The play is set in the era when new converts were urged to come gather with the Saints. When
the play begins, that gathering place is Nauvoo; by the end, it is Salt Lake Valley.
Near the beginning of the play, word reaches a branch near Manchester that Joseph and Hyrum
Smith were killed. A recently-released bishop, Ned Jarvis, was cast as the branch president who
breaks the news to the Saints.
Bishop Jarvis's daughters have been shining contributors to our plays for years, but this was the
first of our plays he ever took part in. As he rehearsed his scene, I was struck by how beautifully
and naturally he put his whole heart into the moment, and how genuine the response of the other
It was not until we got an email from Bishop Jarvis a few days ago that we understood that there
was more than mere talent involved.
Here's part of what he wrote:
"I thought you'd be interested to know. I am playing the part of a branch president in the
Manchester area. My great great great grandfather, William Jarvis, was a branch president in the
Mosely Commons branch, on the eastern edge of Manchester.
"He was a coal miner, but after being severely injured in a mine accident, he began spending full
time working with the missionaries. His daughter writes of going door to door handing out
"He saw many of his congregation off to America before coming himself in 1856 at the age of 47
(I am 48). William Jarvis's wife died along the way. (I cry every time I hear the song in the
show about burying family members along the way.)
"When he arrived in Salt Lake City, William Jarvis met Brigham Young, and was assigned as
one of the first two families sent to settle the town of Santaquin, Utah. He served as a negotiator
with the local Indian chief, and his daughter also tells of times her younger brothers (from
William's second wife) wrestled with the chief's sons on the floor of their cabin."
Bishop Jarvis also mentioned that he and another cast member, Kari Hilton, realized that they
both had ancestors in the Rowley handcart company -- so their forebears certainly knew each
During the youth conference "Pioneer Trek" this summer, he got to be a "Pa" -- so, he says, "I
am living his life backwards!" And it happened that his wife got ill during the trek and had to
drop out, "so I finished the Trek alone, just like William."
Of course I knew none of this when I was casting the show, but I was struck by something else,
as well: 179 years after the Restoration of the Church, we are still astonishingly close to that first
generation of Saints.
For Ned Jarvis, it was his great great great grandfather who joined the Church in England, served
as branch president, then crossed the ocean and the prairie, losing loved ones on the way.
It's the same in my family: My grandfather's father married Brigham Young's daughter. That
puts me only a few steps away from a handshake with the Prophet Joseph.
It's not genetic connections I'm talking about -- anyone who joins the Church acquires the LDS
pioneer heritage along with everything else.
Look at it from another perspective. What about the people who lived 180 years after the
Resurrection? By 215 a.d. (or so) there would have been those whose not-so-distant ancestors
had known one or more of the Apostles -- which meant they were only one step more from the
My point is that we all know people who knew people who knew people who knew the Prophet
Joseph or Brigham Young. We are all just a few handshakes away from them.
The Church is still so young! Yet in our time we've seen many of the dreams of those early
Saints come to fruition.
We might have a respite now -- most of us -- from persecution because of our faith, but not
from struggle, because none of us lives a life that is free of suffering, loss, fear, and the other
tests of our faith, of our conversion, of our resolve.
We are still in the early days of the Church. A thousand years from now, or two thousand years,
believers will think of our time as being a mere stone's throw from the beginning.
To them, it will seem but a moment from the publication of the Book of Mormon to the building
of the hundredth temple, from Samuel Smith's first steps as a missionary to having stakes all
over the world.
We are still part of the pioneer generation. Our callings and sacrifices and struggles may be
different, but it is no less important to the future of the Church that we bear all, accomplish all.
The clay is still wet; we are still shaping the Church together; we can still see the handprints of
the first generation in the clay.
The musical Barefoot to Zion is not among those that the Church presently makes available for
productions. It happens that because I wrote the script and lyrics, and my brother Arlen L. Card
was the composer of the music, we had all the pertinent materials at hand. Thus all we needed
was permission, which we were graciously given.
As with most of our productions, we are mounting this one on the stage in the cultural hall of our
aging stake center. In front of it we set up portable platforms borrowed from two of the more
modern buildings, so we can work on a thrust stage that is about twenty feet wide and forty feet
deep, with the audience seated in a horseshoe pattern around the front 24 feet of it.
We have put on plays by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde (Romeo & Juliet and The Importance of
Being Ernest), musicals that range from the silly (Once Upon a Mattress) to the superb (110 in
the Shade). We clean up the scripts as needed for presentation in a church setting, but now and
then it's nice to put on a play that is for and about us Latter-day Saints from the start.
We keep the budgets incredibly low -- borrowing lights and costumes, with abstract set pieces
that are reused from show to show. We charge nothing, except that our audience must endure
the pain and suffering of sitting on metal folding chairs. We consider that our challenge is to put
on shows so entertaining that nobody minds the chairs.
While the majority of the audiences for our two- or three-show runs are Church members, we
also have developed a following in the surrounding community.
Nothing brings people together -- old and young, from many wards, with many different levels
of experience -- like putting on a play. There's no competition in it, just the effort to achieve
excellence together. I am as thrilled watching each chorus member make breakthroughs and
grow as I am seeing how those with leading parts handle them.
One thing I've learned: If you ask for excellence, and teach people how to achieve it, they will
do the job. It may be called a "play," but it's very, very hard work. Yet when the cast delights
and moves the audience, when they accomplish things they never thought they could, it can
change their lives. When Brigham Young insisted that Salt Lake City had to have a playhouse
-- even before the temple was completed -- he knew what he was doing.
We don't have to depend on the world to provide us with powerful stories and excellent art.
Even if your stake has no experts or professionals, there's not a skill involved in theatre that
can't be learned by those who have the rudiments of talent and a real commitment to learning.
In other words: You can do this thing together, essentially for free -- if you want to.
Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's
Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and
younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.
Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary
fantasy (Magic Street,Enchantment,Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables,Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker
(beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and
Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and
Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s.
Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs
plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.
Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife,
Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.