One Way to God

A Lesson From The Donner Party

By Jim Allen

Perhaps the best way to begin this post is with the year and the place that would ensnare its victims for what must have seemed like an eternity. The year was 1846. The time was November, a transition month between summer and winter when members of the Donner Party, a group of westward-bound emigrants, found themselves stranded by heavy snow on the east side of the Sierra summit in California. Just one hundred miles from reaching Sutter's Fort in California, they could go no further.

Although the adult members of the Donner Party were fully aware of their dilemma, history records many of them steadfastly clung to their dream, remained adamant in spirit, and hoped for a break in the weather. As daylight from their first day of snowy entrapment faded into darkness and they turned to the warmth of the campfire, one cannot help but wonder if their hope gave way to foreboding thoughts about what tomorrow would bring. While deeply troubled by their quandary, the Donner Party could never have imagined the full extent of their impending hardship that would slowly devolve into unrelenting hunger and end in chilling horror.

One Way to God: Heed the Warning

An impossible dilemma is often the result of decisions, like links in a chain that come together and tether people to a single path with no hope of escape. For the Donner Party, two crucial decisions came into play that would forever destroy their dream of a new life, spawn severe regret, and in the end seal their fate. A travel guide written by Lansford Hastings told of another, shorter route to California and Oregon that would be easier to travel and save time. Unknown to the readers of the guide, including members of the Donner Party, was the fact that the shorter route proposed in the guide had never been traveled by settlers with wagons. Hastings' guide was based on hearsay from those who traveled the route on horseback and overstated the ease of passage. The Donner Party's first mistake was to adopt the guide as a reliable source of information.

Months later, somewhere west of Fort Laramie in Wyoming and just before the Donner Party broke from the main wagon train, Hastings sent a message to the Donner Party via Wales Bonney that provided further instructions on how to proceed. About the same time, members of the Donner Party were warned by experienced travelers (who had just taken the shortcut) not to take it! The Donner Party's second crucial mistake was to ignore the warning and presume the shorter path was indeed the right path for them to follow (Proverbs 16:25).

One Way to God: A Way that Seems Right

The Bible says, "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12). This verse alludes to a deep truth about people who travel through life looking inwardly to their own "internal registry" for a way that seems right to them. The Donner Party put their trust in a travel guide written by a person who had never traveled the route. Today, people are making the same mistake by believing religious fables about a better and easier way to salvation (2 Timothy 4:3-4). Although the Bible warns not to follow deceitful teachers, undiscerning believers press forward on a variety of trails that seem right to them.

Although about half of the Donner Party barely survived, the warning from the tragedy is all too clear. The Donner Party misfortune points like a compass needle directly to John 14:6 whereby Jesus says, "I am the way, truth and life; no man comes unto the Father but by Me." Today, many evangelicals are repeating the same mistake by listening to false guides who know not the way, pointing to an easier and shorter route. Because of their imprudence, they too will end up on the wrong side of the Sierra mountain range many miles from salvation (Proverbs 3:5-6).

Image: Jim Schablitsky; "The Donner Party — A Day in November"; 2010; Used by Permission

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Published 3-13-12