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Duchess' Daydream
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 1961.

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 called praying.”

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.

Works Cited:
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 private collection.

These stories are based on the TV series The Rifleman
Here are some other great stories. Enjoy!

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