The Writer's Corner
Worship on Wagon Train (a mini story)
Written by Duchess McCain
In the spring of 1950, John Ford released a western that would later
be considered one of his greatest masterpieces (1). Instead of the
iconic John Wayne leading this picture, Ward Bond starred as a
likable but tough Mormon leader taking his people west. A member of
the Ford Stock Company, Ward Bond had been in many Ford movies prior
to Wagon Master, but always as a supporting character. Although Bond
is not often remembered for his role as Elder Wiggs in Wagon Master,
he is remembered for his role as Major Adams in the TV show Wagon
Train. Inspired by John Ford’s movie, Wagon Train debuted in 1957
and quickly became a favorite, topping the Nielsen rating charts in
Religion, a major theme in John Ford movies, played a big role in
the series Wagon Train. As passengers faced the harsh difficulties
of the frontier, religious beliefs served as an anchor in a world
where nothing seemed sure. The religion of the characters was often
portrayed through prayer and Scripture reading, but later seasons of
Wagon Train shift religion to a much different role.
Throughout the eight seasons that Wagon Train ran, numerous
characters were depicted as prayer warriors who often encouraged
others to pray in difficult times. Wagon Master Major Seth Adams
relied on prayer many times when the Train or the passengers were in
great need. In The Mary Ellen Thomas Story, Major Adams remarked
that he was praying for rain to stop a young girl’s severe reaction
to the dust on the trail. Later in the same episode the Major grew
impatient with a worrying member of the train. Pacing back and
forth, the man finally exclaimed “I’ve got to do something!”
“Mr. Mayhew, have you ever thought of praying?” responded the Major
(S2, Ep 12).
The theme of prayer is seen again in Season 2 as one of the women on
the train prayed for her baby to recover from a deadly fever (S2, Ep
35). The attitude of trusting God through prayer continued on to the
4th Season. Grandpa Gideon, a deeply religious man, lacked resources
to feed his baby grandson. Overwhelmed
by his situation, he carried the baby away from the camp and fell on
his knees. “I ain’t asking you for one of your best cows,” Gideon
explained to God. “Any cowyou got will do. Any little old ruddy
heifer as long as she’s got milk enough to keep my baby from dying
of starvation. What do you say, Lord?” In a matter of seconds, the
old man’s prayer was answered by a young boy with a goat that
desperately needed to be milked (S4, Ep 21).
As Wagon Train rolled toward later seasons, prayer gradually
declined from an integral part of the characters’ lives to a last
resort in desperate situations. Some of Wagon Train’s characters,
portrayed earlier as men of prayer, lacked consistent faith in the
later seasons. Bill Hawks, a regular character the entire show,
encouraged his friends to pray when they could not resolve a
situation on their own. When Charlie expressed his concerns over the
fate of four orphaned boys, Bill counseled his friend to “leave that
trust to Somebody else.”
“Like who?” retorted Charlie.
“Well I can’t say, but one way to get in touch with Him is a thing
Later in the same episode, Bill chided a friend for being ashamed of
praying, telling the younger man that he himself had been praying
for the situation (S6 Ep 25).
However, when Bill faced an impossible situation the next season he
had a much different tone. “It’s not very fair,” he complained in
his misery. “I don’t know how to pray. Prayin’ is for the women
folk, and the hopeless and the helpless” (S7, Ep 27).
Accompanying the change away from consistent prayer was a change in
the use of Bible passages. In The Andrew Hale Story from Season 2,
two Scripture passages were quoted as part of a Sunday morning
worship service on the train (S2 Ep 25). Four seasons later, The
Orly French Story centered on James 1:12-15,
a passage describing the life of a man who succumbs to temptation.
Marshall Hartman also read Isaiah 1:16-20 to Orly, insisting that
“the Almighty will forgive you your sins just as He forgave me mine”
(S6, Ep 13). The open use of the Bible and positive attitude toward
Scripture changes in Season 7. Rarely mentioned the entire season, a
brief reference to Scripture is found in The Cassie Vance Story. As
Cassie described the worst part of being in prison but not
understanding her crime she told her husband that she couldn’t stand
the silence. “I must be the most wicked person in the whole world,
because – how does it go in the Bible? ‘In the beginning was the
word, and the word was with God, and the word was God’” (S7, Ep 14).
However, this concise quote was taken out of context. Verse 14 of
the same passage she quoted tells us that “the Word was made flesh
and dwelt among us.” “The Word” is not a literal word, but a
metaphor for Jesus Christ.
In the final season of the show, one Sunday worship service is
shown, but no Scripture is read as a part of that service (S8 Ep 1).
In addition, a young scout on the train remarked to Bill Hawks and
the new wagon master that he was “tired of being preached at by
people nowhere in sight Sunday mornings” (S8 Ep4). While Season 8
does deal with “spiritual” characters such as a clairvoyant and
ghost, no Bible passages are used in those episodes.
Wagon Train was not marketed as a religious show, but it is clear
that religion played an important role in the first six seasons. But
starting in Season 7, the role of religion quickly declined, giving
the show a secular tone.
As with many other historical TV show and movies, Wagon Train
provided a double perspective – the historical, late 19th century
approach as well as the contemporary approach of the writers and
producers. The rejection of the Bible and Christianity in the final
two seasons did not reflect a change in the 19th century period that
Wagon Train was set in, but reflected the more modern turmoil and
rebellion of the mid-1960s.
1. Kehr, Dave (October 26, 1985). "Wagon Master". Chicago Reader
2. All episodes referred to in this paper are cited with the season
number (S#) and episode number (Ep #) and are a part of the author’s
These stories are based on the TV series
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!
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