What Shall We Give?–Christmas Reflections on the Life of Francis Webster

What shall we give to the babe in the manger,

What shall we offer the child in the stall?

Incense and spices and gold we’ve a-plenty-

Are these the gifts for the king of us all?


What shall we give to the boy in the temple,

What shall we offer the man by the sea?

Palms at his feet and hosannas uprising;

Are these for him who will carry the tree?


What shall we give to the lamb who was offered,

Rising the third day and shedding his love?

Tears for his mercy we’ll weep at the manger,

Bathing the infant come down from above.


What shall we give to the Christ child?

What shall we give to the Christ child?

The probing question offered by this Catalonian carol is one worth deep introspection: What shall we give to our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ? We spend so much time during this season worrying about gifts for family, friends, and neighbors, but how much do we ponder giving back to the One who gave everything for us? A difficult question for sure, considering Christ to be the man who truly does have everything. At best, it is a token payment, but one worth offering.

In the Church film How Rare a Possession, Italian pastor Vincenzo Di Francesca asks a similar question: “How then, does one best serve God? Through hollow ritual and the recital of rote prayers?” He found his answer in the sermon of King Benjamin: “And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.” (Mosiah 2:17.) “Serving. Helping one another,” that is how we best serve God.

Members of the First Presidency of our time have offered similar insight into the best gifts we can give to God. President Thomas S. Monson has commented: “The Spirit of Christmas illuminates the picture window of the soul, and we look out upon the world’s busy life and become more interested in people than things” (Monson, 2011, p. 50). President Henry B. Eyring added: “That is the spirit of Christmas, which puts in our hearts a desire to give joy to other people. We feel a spirit of giving and gratitude for what we have been given. The celebration of Christmas helps us keep our promise to always remember Him and His gifts to us. And that remembrance creates a desire in us to give gifts to Him.”

Again, what sort of gifts can we give the Christ?

He has told us what we could give Him to bring Him joy. First, we can, out of faith in Him, give a broken heart and a contrite spirit. We can repent and make sacred covenants with Him. Within the sound of my voice are some who have felt His invitation to the peace His gospel brings but have not yet accepted it. You would give Him joy if you would act now to come unto Him while you can.

Second, you can give Him the gift of doing for others what He would do for them. Many of you have already done that and felt His appreciation. It may have been visiting a lonely widower. It may have been joining with others in a project to help those in need.

There is a long list of possibilities in the book of Matthew. There we read words from our Redeemer, which we all hope to hear and to speak when we see Him after this life:

‘Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

“When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

“Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” [Matthew 25:37-40]

In those words the Lord makes clear what gifts we might give Him out of our gratitude. Each act of kindness to anyone becomes a kindness to Him because He loves all of Heavenly Father’s children. And because that brings joy to Him, it also brings joy to His Father, to whom we owe thanks beyond measure.

Many of you will in the Christmas season find ways to give food to people who are hungry. As you do, you bring joy to the Lord. Yet He taught us that there is a way to give an even more priceless and lasting gift. He said, ‘I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall never hunger; and he that believeth on me shall never thirst.’ [John 6:35] With all the kindnesses we give for Him, the greatest we can offer is to point those we love and serve toward Him, the only source of eternal life” (Eyering, 2010).

The wise men gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We can give Him joy by serving others and using the Atonement.

The wise men gave gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We can give Him joy by serving others and using the Atonement.

These are the best gifts we can offer Him: to share the good tidings of great joy—the Gospel of Jesus Christ—by bearing testimony of and helping God’s children come unto Him; by serving, helping, uplifting, and caring for our fellow men; and we ourselves must take advantage of the gift He has offered us by repenting and being healed through His Atonement. Christ loves us with a perfect love—you, me, and everyone around us. That love causes Him to want us to be truly happy, and the guiding star that leads to that pure joy is His teachings, and His Atonement is vehicle that carries us along the path. To help others along that road and to travel it ourselves—offering up a broken heart and a contrite spirit—are the best gifts that we may offer to our Lord and Savior.

Christ—as always—is our great example of how to live. He was full of love towards everyone and spent His life sharing the gospel, reaching out, and serving others. He was never too busy to stop and heal the person in need, to reach out and life the lives of another. The Gospel constantly flowed from His lips and he opened the door for the salvation of each of us. He gave us greater gifts than we can ever fully repay. As we celebrate His birth and life, we are reminded that “to catch the real meaning of the Spirit of Christmas, we need only drop the last syllable, and it becomes the Spirit of Christ. And one of the ways in which we obtain the Christmas spirit—the Christ spirit—is by willingly giving of ourselves to others” (Monson, 2011, p. 49). We become infected with the Spirit of Christmas as we become influenced by the Spirit of Christ and integrating His life and teachings into our lives.

One man who captured the Spirit of Christ in his life was Francis Webster. He is best known as the old man who sat in the corner of a Sunday School in Cedar City and rose to silence criticism about the Martin Handcart company by stating that:

You are discussing a matter you know nothing about…. I was in that Company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have sited was there too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that company ever apostatized or left the church because everyone of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.

I have pulled my hand cart when I was so weak and weary from illness and lack of food that I could hardly put one foot ahead of the other. I have looked ahead and seen a patch of sand or a hill slope and I have said I can go only that far and there I must give up for I cannot pull the load through it. I have gone on to that sand and when I reached it the cart began pushing me. I have looked back many times to see who was pushing my cart but my eyes saw no one. I knew then that the Angels of God were there.

Was I sorry that I chose to come by hand cart? No. Neither then nor any minute of my life since. The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay and I am thankful that I was privileged to come in the Martin Hand Cart Company (William R. Palmer, 1943, 1-2).

Francis and Betsy Webster are great examples of living with the spirit of Christ in our lives.

Francis and Betsy Webster are great examples of living with the spirit of Christ in our lives.

Several statements from this quote have picked up some assumptions over the years that aren’t necessarily true. When a fuller understanding is gained by viewing his experiences in context, it adds greater depth to this man’s life and example.

First in our discussion is the fact that he “chose to come by hand cart.” Coming by handcart was usually not a chosen thing. It was the way the Perpetual Emigration Company (PEF)—the Church’s organization for bringing those too poor to pay their own way—brought those who used their services to Utah at the time. It was not the preferred way for travelers to come west and never really became popular. Those who had the money generally went by wagon pulled by livestock, taking the burden off of their own shoulders and allowing a greater amount of possessions to come with them.

Francis Webster had the opportunity to travel by wagon. He had been baptized into the Church in 1848 at the age of 18 and left for California to seek his fortune the following month. He returned to England 4 years later and met his future wife, Ann Elizabeth (Betsy) Parsons—a recent convert in the London area. Late the next year, he again left for California to gain enough wealth to rise above his working class background and Betsy agreed to wait for him. At her encouragement, he took some Church works with him, including the Book of Mormon. While in California, Francis accumulated over $2000 in gold dust. He also had gained an unshakeable testimony of the restored gospel though his study.

After his return to England, the young couple was married in December of 1855 and not long afterwards began to plan their move to Zion. Francis arranged for a good wagon with two yoke of oxen and full camp equipment for their journey across the plains. The comfort this would allow was deemed appropriate, since Betsy was pregnant and was due in September.

These plans would soon change: To help fund the gathering of the poor, the Church encouraged those who had the means to travel by more luxurious modes to travel by handcart and donate the money they would have originally paid to pay for others to travel west by handcart as well. Trusting in the Lord, the young Webster couple determined to obey this counsel and paid for “9 persons besides [Francis and his] wife” (Webster Journal, 9). In calculating out the amount of money this would have cost, we find that the Websters not only paid the difference between traveling by handcart vs. wagon but contributed almost twice the amount they would have originally paid. In giving of their money, the newlyweds prevented nine other persons from going into debt and freed the money they would have taken from the fund to be used to transport other people instead.

The Websters could have traveled by wagon, but chose to come by handcart, giving their money and comfort up for the good of others.

The Websters could have traveled by wagon, but chose to come by handcart, giving their money and comfort up for the good of others.

The second statement that has carried some imperfect assumptions is that Francis’s feeling that: “The price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay,” was the universal feeling of the pioneer Saints. In responding to this notion, historian Chad Orton wrote:

Although the Martin Company truly exemplified the motto “Faith in Every Footstep,” its members were not unlike any other disparate group of Latter-day Saints, such as those who made a similar journey at a different time or those found in a modern ward. There was a majority of the company, including Francis and Betsy Webster, whose faith seemed to grow with every step they took. There were also those who trudged along the trail, their faith little changed by what they experienced. Finally, there were those whose faith seemed to weaken along the way. Why was that the case? As a general rule, what is true now was true then. People tend to get out of an experience what they put into it. For instance, those who focused primarily upon their own challenges came away from the journey with something different than those who turned to the Lord for solace or reached out to fellow emigrants in need….

While Webster is quoted as saying that “the price we paid to become acquainted with God was a privilege to pay,” there were other pioneers who paid a significantly less price than did Francis and Betsy Webster, and who seemingly did not find the reward they received from being a member of the Martin Company to be greater than the cost.

More than twenty years after the Martin company reached Salt Lake, a large percentage of the company who incurred a PEF debt still owed money to the fund. When John Jaques published the first history of the Martin Company in a series of 1878–79 newspaper articles, he did so in part to gain support for the idea that he and fellow members of the Martin Company should be forgiven their debts (Orton, 2006, pp. 124, 138-39).

Francis Webster came to know God in his extremities because he turned to God and gave of himself in selfless service as Christ had done. As one examines what all they gave up, one marvels at the price they paid. Upon reaching Iowa City they found that their handcarts weren’t ready and the wagon they had been promised to carry their possessions never materialized. Three weeks later, there were still not sufficient handcarts for the company. Rather than complaining and pulling the “we paid for nine people, therefore we should get our own cart” card, the Websters chose to share a cart with Betsy’s mother, stepfather, and step-brother. In addition, Francis allowed the stepfather and step-brother to assist with the provision wagons and livestock, putting the lion’s share of pulling the handcart on himself. Due to the absence of the promised transport wagon they had to abandon much of their luggage they had hoped to bring with in Iowa.

The journey was a difficult one from the start. Francis suffered from dysentery and at one point was so sick he was unable to continue until he was healed by the priesthood. The sandy areas of Iowa and Nebraska he referenced when he spoke of the cart pushing him were an extremely difficult section of the trek. The heavily-loaded handcarts sunk deep into the sand, making it “a killing business” to pull them through, even as the sand intensified the heat of the sun, adding to discomfort (John Jaques, 1878, 1). Towards the end of the journey, after winter had set in, Francis wrote that “my own feet where [sic] badly frozen on the journey” (Webster, Journal, 10). Yet, what little Brother Webster recorded along the way was often in the context of glorifying God rather than complaints about his circumstances.

Even though the journey was difficult, the Webster family chose to look to the Lord and to serve those around them

Even though the journey was difficult, the Webster family chose to look to the Lord and to serve those around them

Even with the difficulties of travel, Francis continued to give of himself as he sought opportunities to serve those around him. For example:

On September 14, James Bleak, who had served as president of the branch Francis attended in London, became seriously ill. The next day, September 15, the company made its longest one-day march since leaving Florence—twenty-two miles. Bleak started pulling his handcart but could not continue. He reported what transpired:

“I began to draw the Handcart this morning but was obliged to leave it. Br. Francis Webster very kindly persuaded me to get on his handcart and drew me 17 miles. Elder Hunter and the two sisters Brown very kindly drew me about 4 miles. For which kindness I feel grateful, and pray God to bless them with health and strength.”

Although this act of kindness added a tremendous burden to the regular load of Francis and the others who came to Bleak’s assistance, this service meant that Bleak’s wife and four young children did not have the added responsibility of caring for their father. With a day’s rest, Bleak recovered enough to resume pulling his handcart the following day, although he was “still very ill” (Orton, 2006, p. 135).

What is perhaps even more significant than their behavior on the trail is Francis and Betsy’s lives after the trek was complete. They didn’t dwell on the trials of the trail, but rather “felt that what they had given up paled in comparison to what they had received in return,” noting that they were the only handcart to arrive with more family members than when it had begun–Betsy gave birth along the way (Orton, 2006, p. 137). William Palmer noted that: “Francis Webster and Elizabeth felt that the Lord had rewarded them and blessed them for the help they had given so unselfishly to others” (Palmer, 1943, p. 5).

Within a week of arriving in Salt Lake, the Websters made their way down to Cedar City, where they lived the remainder of their lives. Concerning some of Webster’s church and civic service in that community, Palmer reported:

Francis Webster was prominent in church work all his life in Utah. . . . His consistent yet unassuming course inspired faith and confidence among all classes. He was faithful to every trust and diligent in discharging every duty. He acted on many building committees and in fund raising campaigns and when he went after a man for donations of either money or labor there is no case on record where that man ever talked him out of it. The word “no” never registered in his ears. He was just as generous in his own giving as he expected others to be.

He was equally prominent in business, agricultural and livestock affairs. . . .

When the Branch Normal School was awarded to Cedar City and the people had to provide land and a building for it, this man was put on the most important committee—the building committee. A very large measure of the success of that herculean assignment was due to his dauntless courage and dogged persistence. Early and later, day after day, he went from house to house asking for the use of a team, a man to go on the mountain in the dead of winter for lumber, some meat or hay or other provisions—any of the innumerable things and services that were needed on the building. To every excuse or refusal he said simple “Tut tut,” and just sat there talking until the man said yes (Palmer, 1943, pp. 6–7).

Francis Webster is a great example of one who exemplified the spirit of Christ in daily living. Speaking of the example of Francis Webster and his wife Betsy during the Christmas season helps us to remember that, “It is the time to love the Lord our God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves. It is well to remember that he who gives money gives much, he who gives time gives more, but he who gives of himself gives all” (Monson, 2011, p. 48). As we strive to follow the example of Christ by loving and serving others, as Francis Webster did, we will come to feel the true spirit of Christmas enter our hearts. By doing so, we will offer up a gift from the heart to our Saviour—the man who gave everything for mankind.

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Carl Bloch - The Birth of Jesus

Note: most of the information for this post comes from the Chad Orton article about Francis Webster. For anyone who wishes to learn more about this man, I would encourage you to follow the link below and read that article for yourself. Also, for another discussion about the handcart pioneers on this blog, see https://chadlawrencenielsen.wordpress.com/2012/07/22/handcart-myth-and-fact/.


Eyering, H. B. (2010). “The Gift of a Savior,” 2010 First Presidency Christmas Devotional, December 5, 2010. [Online], http://www.lds.org/broadcasts/article/christmas-devotional/2010/12/the-gift-of-a-savior?lang=eng#6-PD50021446_000_020 [accessed 15 Nov 2012].

J. J. [John Jaques] (1878). “Some Reminiscences,” Salt Lake Daily Herald, December 8, 1878.

Monson, T. S. (2011). Teachings of Thomas S. Monson comp. Lynne F. Cannegieter. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book.

Orton, C. M. (2006). “Francis Webster: The Unique Story of One Handcart Pioneer’s Faith and Sacrifice.” BYU Studies, 45(2), 117-140. [Online], https://byustudies.byu.edu/PDFLibrary/45.2OrtonWebster-c4eaddd1-1d48-4c17-b75b-2228698fc564.pdf [Accessed 13 December 2012].

Palmer, W. R. (1943). “Francis Webster,” typescript of a radio address broadcast by KSUB [Cedar City, UT], April 25, 1943, William R. Palmer Collections, Church Archives, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City.

Webster, F. [ca. 1881].  Journal, holograph. Church Archives.


One comment

  1. […] power. I do not intent to write more of that story now (for further reading on the subject, click here), but to look at a myth that has been spun off from the quote: that everyone who was in the Martin […]

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