Episode 3: The Mountain Meadows Massacre

June 25, 2007
By

Note: Mormon Matters podcast is now available through iTunes.  You can subscribe to the podcast by clicking on the iTunes button at the top right of this site.

“This September marks the 150th anniversary of a terrible episode in the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. On September 11, 1857, some 50 to 60 local militiamen in southern Utah, aided by American Indian allies, massacred about 120 emigrants who were traveling by wagon to California. The horrific crime, which spared only 17 children age six and under, occurred in a highland valley called the Mountain Meadows, roughly 35 miles southwest of Cedar City. The victims, most of them from Arkansas, were on their way to California with dreams of a bright future.”

In this episode, we discuss the Mountain Meadows Massacre from a variety of angles, including:

Today, our panelists include:

  • John Hamer is executive director of the John Whitmer Historical Association. John’s a cultural Mormon and an independent researcher, historian and map-maker. He’s currently co-editing a book called Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism, due out this September.
  • J. Nelson-Seawright is an assistant professor of political science at a university in the Chicago area and an amateur Mormon Studies enthusiast. J. writes about Mormon themes online at the website www.bycommonconsent.com when he is not busy doing the work he’s actually paid to do.
  • Ann Porter is a software developer and a married mother of three. She is a convert of over twenty years who has an ambivalent relationship with church history. She writes for the Mormon themed blog The Cultural Hall and is also guest blogging at Various Stages of Mormondom.

And as always, a big thanks to http://skyepixton.com for providing the music to this episode.

61 Responses to Episode 3: The Mountain Meadows Massacre

  1. Left Field
    June 26, 2007 at 4:54 am

    Delbert L. Stapley became an apostle in 1950. I don’t think he was ever a member of the First Council of the Seventy.

  2. June 26, 2007 at 8:03 am

    So there’s me being confused once again. Hey — I said he was an apostle and a Seventy. So I got it right one time…

  3. Me
    June 26, 2007 at 12:13 pm

    What? Brigham Young meant according to one of the commentators: “wait and not kill anyone until they have been warned”? Wow.

    The letter actually reads: “In regard to emigration trains passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them untill they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please but you should try and preserve good feelings with them. There are no other trains going south that I know of[.] [I]f those who are there will leave let them go in peace.”

    If you want examples of Brigham-Young-directed-interference you can read up on how he directed the harassment of the U.S. Army marching to Salt Lake. Wow.

  4. admin
    June 26, 2007 at 12:28 pm

    Silent Friend,

    Are you willing to come on as a regular panelist on Mormon Matters? We’d LOVE to have you. We are DESPERATE for more conservative voices.

    Can you step up and join us?

  5. June 26, 2007 at 12:34 pm

    Me, I’m the one who said that. My meaning was that Young’s letter didn’t say, “Don’t kill these people because it would be wrong to kill,” but rather, “Don’t kill this party because they haven’t been warned.” The second version — in his words, “we must not interfere with them untill they are first notified to keep away” — implies that Young approves of the general idea of killing immigrant parties, just that the circumstances aren’t right.

  6. June 26, 2007 at 12:36 pm

    In other words, the letter says exactly what I said it did on the show. What’s your complaint?

  7. Johnny Rotten
    June 26, 2007 at 2:04 pm

    Great job guys…the only complaint I have is the issue over the behavior of a Prophet of God.

    If Brigham Young did not have prior knowledge of the action, his fiery rhetoric must have lead many saints to believe he condoned such action.

    Call me crazy but I have always held a Prophet to a higher standard than the general public. Maybe my view has been tainted by a life time in the Church…and the constant teaching from Church authorities that we can trust the counsel of a Prophet and he will never lead us astray.

    In this case he and other Church leaders failed to even live up to the general moral standard of the day. The taking of innocent life is the second greatest sin. This is not a small thing. They murdered children and women…this was against the rules of civilized war even in that day. I find it very difficult to accept that any excuse is good and the cover up by a Prophet of God is simply incomprehensible.

    Finally, I wish you guys could have gone in more detail about John D. Lee’s confession.

    Great job guys.

    Best,

    Johnny

  8. Left Field
    June 26, 2007 at 2:46 pm

    JNS, I think Me’s complaint is that the letter in fact does *not* say exactly what what you said it did on the show. Brigham Young used the terms “meddle” and “interfere” and did not use “kill” or any synonym. Your response only makes sense if “meddle” and “interfere” are synonyms or euphemisms for “kill.” The plain meanings of the terms are clearly not synonymous with “kill.” It may be plausible that they were intended as euphemistic, but to assume so begs the question as to Brigham’s intent.

  9. June 26, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    Left Field, given the historical context, in which the Cedar City people sent a messenger to Young to ask whether to act against the wagon train and the letter is a response, the letter’s text seems clear enough to me. Young certainly doesn’t argue against violence; he expresses an openness to it, just not this time.

    Other interpretations are always possible on a point like this. It’s history, after all. But I can’t see any reason to reject my interpretation as unlikely. There’s no evidence against it, and it does seem to fit the narrative.

  10. Clay
    June 26, 2007 at 3:18 pm

    I agree that the text of that specific letter does not, to me, even lean towards the interpretation J offered. That is to say, that letter alone. It is possible that other evidence of Brigham’s attitudes and instruction in other circumstances could illuminate that letter. So either he was NOT saying “kill”, or he was very skilled at covering his tracks with clever word choices.

    I don’t know where I come down on Brigham, because although he seems extremely arrogant and sometimes dictatorial, offensive warfare is a big jump. One could make concessions for a man having internal sturggle with his ego, or having a temper, or being overprotective about the institution… but organizing the slaughter of innocent lives (not just those participating in warfare)… that would just about negate anything positive he ever did. That is a line that I would feel is too far for a prophet of God. Its also a serious disrespect to another human, although now dead, to levy such a charge without reasonable evidence. Thus, I can’t go there yet.

  11. June 26, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    Clay, let me be very clear. I agree completely, that Brigham Young said don’t kill the Fancher Party. My point is simply that he said that in a way that strongly implied approval for future killing after a warning had been made.

  12. Left Field
    June 26, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    JNS, I think you’re still begging the question in 11 and 13. It’s reasonable to conclude that BY left the door open for future “meddling” and “interfering,” but the question at issue is whether he intended those actions to necessarily include violence or killing. In your comments, you start with the premise that by “meddle” and “interfere,” he really meant “kill.” Then you use that premise to conclude that that he left the door open for future killing. That’s begging the question.

  13. Clay
    June 26, 2007 at 4:37 pm

    J, is that letter the only basis for your interpretation of the letter? I have a hard time accepting that the letter alone paints that picture. Perhaps you have seen enough of Brigham’s personality in other sources and situations that you are projecting an image (which could very well be fair) into the letter?

  14. Clay
    June 26, 2007 at 4:40 pm

    P.S. I was in no way attacking you (JNS) when I expressed my reservations in #12, so maybe we could ease up a bit.

  15. June 26, 2007 at 5:46 pm

    Left, it’s also called hermeneutics; question-begging is always inevitable, at one level or another, in interpreting texts. But I think there may be more at work here than you’re giving credit for.

    The letter we’re discussing is a response when the Ceder City group sent someone to Brigham Young specifically to ask whether to attack the Fancher party and kill them to close the immigrant trail. Furthermore, we know from a set of other sources that violently closing the immigrant trail was a strategy that Young was considering as part of the Utah War. So that’s the question this letter is an answer to: should the Fancher party be attacked and killed as a first act of closing the Utah immigrant trails? If we read it as never referring to violence, then it doesn’t answer the question asked.

    A confirmatory factor here is Young’s action for nearly two decades after the massacre. During that period, he did everything he could to shield the perpetrators of the crime from justice, even at substantial political cost to himself and the Mormons as a group. He didn’t even initiate church disciplinary actions against any but two of the murderers — and those two only well after the crime. This behavior is more consistent with a man who was at peace with the general idea of violence against immigrants than it is with a man who rejected the idea out of hand.

    Really, the bigger a picture of this that you can get, the better. If you haven’t read Juanita Brooks on the massacre, I highly recommend the book. Will Bagley’s book is also useful, although he is substantially more confident that Young was an accessory to the massacre before the fact than I think is actually justified given his evidence. But most historians of the subject agree that Young was substantially less troubled by the idea of violence against innocent Gentiles than we are.

    The fortunate thing about all of this is that none of us has to judge Brigham Young. We don’t have to figure out how to weigh his collaboration with the Mountain Meadows murderers against his good deeds, or determine his moral culpability. All in God’s hands.

  16. June 26, 2007 at 5:57 pm

    Clay, sorry — I overreacted. Please accept my apologies. I read your comment as inferring that I thought Young had ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Obviously, I don’t think that. It does seem pretty demonstrable to me that he wasn’t very upset about the massacre, and the account of his party’s desecration of the grave marker some years later is simply the most vivid piece of evidence on that score. My friends with legal knowledge tell me that what Young did in the wake of the massacre would probably make him technically guilty of murder as an accessory after the fact. I think it’s reasonable to read that mindset of the subsequent decades back on Young’s behavior in the run-up to the massacre. Young simply doesn’t seem terribly worried about the deaths after they happen. We know that he authorized Native American attacks on the Fancher party before the massacre took place. And, while he did send a letter telling the Mormons not to attack the Fancher party, that letter makes arguments about the current situation — no warning given, no other parties on the trail — rather than the moral arguments we would expect from someone opposed to violence against the innocent in general. So there is a bigger picture that I think it’s helpful to read this single letter against.

    The letter seems to me to definitively discredit the idea that Young specifically ordered the Mountain Meadows murders. On that front it does exactly what we’d hope it to do. My reservations about it simply stem from the reasoning it uses to reach that conclusion — reasoning that seems to imply that, under slightly different circumstances, the attack the Mormons were considering might be the right idea.

  17. Clay
    June 26, 2007 at 6:02 pm

    “The letter we’re discussing is a response when the Ceder City group sent someone to Brigham Young specifically to ask whether to attack the Fancher party and kill them to close the immigrant trail.”

    Ah. I figured there was more to it than just the letter from BY. That makes it more of an interpretation of the total exchange rather than just BY’s letter. As seems to happen over and over, Brigham Young is a hard man to defend.

    “The fortunate thing about all of this is that none of us has to judge Brigham Young.”

    True, but its sort of expected as part of our testimony of the LDS church that we accept BY was a prophet. If he were alive today and in office we couldn’t get a temple recommend without testifying to that effect. Under that pressure, we are kind of obligated to at least judge wether or not we can accept him as a prophet, and he has made it really, really hard to do that. He makes Joseph look like a choir boy.

  18. June 26, 2007 at 7:38 pm

    I know, Clay, Brigham Young’s hard to think about. At the very least, I think he made some important and consequential mistakes in his interactions with the American government. At most, well, he might be a terribly sinner — so might we all.

    One central issue here is what we think has to be true about a person in order for that person to be president of the church. (A note on vocabulary; Brigham Young didn’t favor the term prophet as a description for himself. It was almost never used during his life other than as a label for Joseph Smith, and he was sustained as a “prophet, seer, and revelator” only a handful of times.) Is it enough for him to have done what he thought was best, to have tried to do right? I think Brigham Young did that.

  19. Left Field
    June 27, 2007 at 3:16 am

    I’m away from home, so I don’t have access to my copy of Brooks. Do we have the text of the letter Brigham is responding to? I wasn’t able to find it on the internet. As “Me” pointed out, Brigham Young did order interference with Johnston’s army, but there was no Echo Canyon Massacre. What evidence do we have that any “interference” Brigham may have contemplated against the Fancher party included their massacre?

  20. June 27, 2007 at 7:12 am

    The communication which Brigham Young sent can bear multiple interpretations. However, I’m going to avoid being drawn into that argument, because I think that argument is symptomatic of a bigger problem.

    The bigger problem here is that we latch onto this narrowly framed question of Brigham Young’s precise actions and orders in order to avoid the broader question of responsibility. There was no separation of church and state among the Mormons at this time and so this action, as much as it was a militia (state) action, it was also an action of the church. Brigham Young was the leader of the church and, as such, he was responsible. He demonstrated that responsibility in the final 20 years of his life by leading a criminal conspiracy* to obstruct justice, preventing anyone from going to trial until ultimately singling out an individual scapegoat. (*It was unquestionably a criminal conspiracy from the perspective of the United States and US law. Brigham Young may not have believed himself to be subject to US law, and he may have believed his actions to be legal from the perspective of a higher law.)

    The bigger problem is that we, as Mormons, have not processed our war guilt. You can never erase wartime atrocities. However, you can choose to either work through your guilt (repentance) or you can remain in an unrepentant state. In the years since WW2, the Germans have processed Germany’s past guilt. They know about it, they are aware of it, and they are ashamed of it (while maintaining pride in their heritage which also includes great high moments). Japan poses the opposite example. Like the Germans, the Japanese are, by and large, good, peace-loving, honest, open and culturally sophisticated. But unlike the Germans, the Japanese are generally unaware of Japan’s wartime atrocities and they haven’t spent half a century mending fences by behaving penitently. The proof of the effectiveness of each policy is in the pudding: Germany’s neighbors have all joined with her in a super-national alliance and they look to Germany for leadership. Japan’s neighbors continue to look upon the Japanese government with distrust and hostility, making the US (Japan’s wartime enemy) her closest ally.

    A lot of Mormons I talked to were disgusted by the amount of attention given to the Mountain Meadows Massacre in the PBS special. Their response was symptomatic of the fact that we have not processed our war guilt. It’s impossible to imagine a more pro-Mormon portrayal of those events than the PBS special’s portrayal. Given that the September Dawn movie was about to debut, the PBS explanation was inoculating for the general US public, giving them a place to find a highly sympathetic and factual storyline to counter the movie’s highly antagonistic one.

    Meanwhile, apologetic quibbling about the details is ultimately a tactic to avoid processing our war guilt, and it’s another sign that we haven’t done it. In the end, this failure gives Mormons and the LDS church a net negative appearance to our non-Mormon neighbors — it’s much more damaging than all the anti-Mormon B movies Hollywood could churn out.

    It’s sad to me that coming out of this MormonMatters program, people immediately latched onto J’s reasonable (but, of course, not conclusive) interpretation of the Brigham Young communication, instead of highlighting J’s beautiful summation — where he says:

    “I can see a lot of ways that we might want to react to this. An easy one is to say that it has nothing to do with us. But I think that that’s not good enough. If we want to take credit for the great things that our pioneer ancestors have done — crossing the plains, building Salt Lake — if we want to take credit for the spirituality of Joseph Smith, the practicality of Brigham Young, the visionary nature of Wilford Woodruff — we have to accept the other part as part of our heritage too. Now obviously no one alive is guilty of these murders. But they are a part of our history and they deserve to be remembered. And the lessons that there might be from this deserve to be integrated into our lives.”

    If we were all where J is, the simple act of talking about the Mountain Meadows massacre (as on the PBS special) would not be damaging to the LDS church, because we would have already processed our guilt. If we had come to terms with it, it would not be a weapon in the hands of antagonistic like the makers of September Dawn.

  21. June 27, 2007 at 7:49 am

    Left Field, the evidence is substantial on that score. Let me quote from Brooks, Mountain Meadows Massacre, pgs. 53-54:

    Immediately following the regular church service, a special meeting was called of the Stake High Council. Isaac C. Haight, as the highest in religious authority and the one in command of the military organization in the town, was in charge of this indignation meeting. The local officers wanted the help of the militia to enforce the law, and various members expressed themselves freely as to what should be done with regard to the emigrant company. Some felt that the travelers should not be allowed to get away with such defiance.

    A resolution was presented and passed to the effect that “we will deal with this situation now, so that our hands will be free to meet the army when it comes.” After it was passed, Laban Morrill and others began to ask questions. What, specifically, did the brethren mean by dealing with this situation now? Arrest and punish the offenders? Some felt that this would do no good; it would only mean men to guard them and food to feed them, and no one any better off.

    So it was suggested that they be “done away with.” Ever since the days of Missouri and Nauvoo, ever since the martyrdom of their prophet, the Saints had been taught that they should never cease to importune the Lord to avenge the blood of the prophets. Now here were the men who had boasted openly and defiantly that they had helped to kill Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum. One had displayed the pistol which fired the fatal shot. All had laughed to scorn the attempts of the local officers to arrest them. Should they forget the oaths of vengeance which they had taken and sit back weakly while such as these taunted them?…

    It seems that the discussion went on at some length, those favoring the killing of the emigrants being very heated and eloquent, while those opposing it were very determined. Finally, a second resolution was passed, that they would send an express to Brigham Young to inform him of conditions and ask for his directions, and that no further action should be taken until the messenger returned….

    From Will Bagley’s more detailed discussion, we know that some Ceder City leaders (Isaac Haight, Bishop Klingensmith, and John Higbee) were emphatically in favor of killing all the immigrants. Laban Morrill was the main known voice of disagreement. The messenger to Brigham Young asking him whether or not to follow through with the Haight/Klingensmith/Higbee plan was a compromise to reach the necessary unanimity for a high council vote. No copy of the message that courier James Holt Haslam carried is known to survive, but we know the substance of the question: should we kill off the Fancher immigrants or not? That is what the Ceder City high council asked Brigham Young to decide.

    Since Young was responding to that question, it seems hard to read the letter as never referring to mass slaughter. Can you imagine a conversation in which Person A says: “Should I kill 200 people?” and Person B replies, “Don’t rob them or anything until we warn them.” If Young actually answered the high council’s explicit question about murdering the entire group, he did so with the line: “we must not interfere with them until they are first notified to keep away.” So “interfere” is a direct response to a question about extermination.

  22. June 27, 2007 at 10:38 am

    JNS, I hope you will concede there is a very big hole in your reasoning, as expressed in your comment # 23. The content of the communication sent to Brigham Young from Cedar City on September 6 is unknown. It is only speculation that the question that BY was answering with his September 10 letter was “should we kill off the Francher immigrants or not?” One can just as easily speculate that the message was vague and not forthcoming in the precise intentions.

  23. June 27, 2007 at 11:03 am

    John F., we can certainly speculate whatever we like. On the other hand, we do know the debate in the Ceder City High Council and we do know the deadlock that Brigham Young was being requested to resolve. That deadlock was specifically whether or not to kill the migrant party. Furthermore, the message was sent via a live messenger, who also knew the situation and the content of the High Council debate. Even if the message was vague and not forthcoming in the precise intentions (which is possible but seems unlikely to me since it wouldn’t necessarily lead to a resolution of the impasse in the High Council), Brigham Young would almost certainly have gotten the gist of the situation by talking to the messenger for two minutes.

    But, again, the broader picture is what’s important here. To me, the message is useful as part of an illustration of that picture. We know that Brigham Young gave the Native Americans specific permission to take the Fancher party’s cattle. In that context, a darker interpretation of the message is actually possible: Young might have been telling the Ceder City Mormons to let the Native Americans kill the Fancher group. I don’t favor that interpretation, but it is one in the set of plausible — and indeed irrefutable — readings of that letter.

    But, setting that aside for the time being, Young did authorize some forms of attacks on the Fancher group, albeit by Native Americans rather than by Mormons. Young also acted extensively to cover up Mormon participation in the massacre, and to prevent the operation of justice, when the killings actually happened. Even the most positive possible interpretation of the letter doesn’t acquit Young of responsibility; he certainly aided and abetted the murder of innocents after the fact. Indeed, suppose Young’s letter had said something like: “Don’t you dare kill the Fancher party, because killing is evil. Don’t let anyone else kill them. I hold you personally accountable for their well-being.” That still wouldn’t put Young in the legal clear because of his efforts to keep the murderers from facing justice.

    Nor is the issue of Young’s degree of involvement a point that ought to stand at the center of our thinking about Mountain Meadows. Regardless of Young’s participation, the massacre was a decision and an act undertaken through church leadership channels — i.e., an act in the name of the church. This isn’t a faith issue, unless our faith includes the claim that the church is never wrong. But it is an issue of integrity regarding history: are we willing to accept the bloody as well as the sacred in our heritage?

  24. June 27, 2007 at 11:28 am

    If Brigham Young did not order the massacre, JNS, then MMM says very little about the Church, actually. The determination of a local militia composed of religious men to commit a crime does not necessarily implicate the entire religion in the crime.

  25. June 27, 2007 at 11:28 am

    But it is an issue of integrity regarding history: are we willing to accept the bloody as well as the sacred in our heritage?

    In your view does the new Ensign article do this?

  26. June 27, 2007 at 12:42 pm

    If Brigham Young did not order the massacre, JNS, then MMM says very little about the Church, actually. The determination of a local militia composed of religious men to commit a crime does not necessarily implicate the entire religion in the crime.

    John, the militia was a part of the theocratic territorial government. Decisions to conduct the massacre were made by a stake high council. Whether the “entire religion” is guilty of a crime or not, church institutions were certainly instruments of the massacre. And in any case Young and many others within the church were clearly guilty of crimes in the cover-up after the fact. That’s why the question of whether Young ordered the massacre is really not as important as some people think.

  27. June 27, 2007 at 1:31 pm

    Covering up a crime such as this, although not morally laudable or advisable, is not the same as ordering it or pulling the trigger. The intent for such an act can be entirely different than the murderous intent of the local Church leaders who planned and executed the crime. Ordering such a crime in advance creates far more moral culpability for the crime itself than covering up the crime later on as a non-participant — indeed as someone who ordered it not to take place. That Brigham Young covered up the crime indicates that he feared the effects that news of the incident would have for the Church, not that he intended or wanted the emigrants to be murdered.

  28. admin
    June 27, 2007 at 1:40 pm

    John Fowles,

    We need you on the next episode!!!!!!

  29. June 27, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    John F., what then of Young telling the Native Americans that they were free to molest the emigrants? There’s more here than what strikes me as your unduly legalistic mindset is allowing. So also with respect to the cover-up. Young didn’t just prevent people from being prosecuted — at much greater cost to the church than prosecutions would have entailed, by the way — but he also shielded the perpetrators from church discipline for more than a decade. In fact, he continued to promote men he should reasonably have known to be murderers up through the church hierarchy.

    If you hold out for some kind of geometric proof before accepting a historical interpretation, then no interpretation will ever be sufficient. History can’t do that. But history gives us ample resources in support of an interpretation of Brigham Young as relatively untroubled by violence and the death of Gentiles.

  30. June 27, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    I think we’re missing the point here.

    To all those who are asking questions to J. Nelson-Seawright, I would like to ask a few questions back: how do YOU make sense of the entire Mountain Meadows event? When you piece together: 1) the rhetoric used leading up to the event, 2) the event itself, and 3) the cover-up — how do you make sense of it all? Is there any accountability shared by church leaders, or is this an completely local thing in your eyes?

    J. and John Hamer clearly have their own interpretations of the context of the letter, but I’m not sure it’s useful get sidetracked on the technicalities, and miss the larger lesson here.

    What have you learned from all of this in your own faith journey? Who is accountable, and what are the lessons we can take from this?

  31. Bill MacKinnon
    June 27, 2007 at 3:49 pm

    For context re this discussion of MMM and the interpretation of Brigham Young communications associated with the authorization or ordering of violence during the Utah War see my article ” ‘Lonely Bones’: Leadership and Utah War Violence” 33 (Spring 2007): 121-178.

  32. Bill MacKinnon
    June 27, 2007 at 4:46 pm

    Ooops! re #33 I left out the name of the journal. The citation should have been: William P. MacKinnon, ” ‘Lonely Bones’: Leadership and Utah War Violence,” “Journal of Mormon History” 33 (Spring 2007): 121-178. This piece discusses violence in UT just before the advent of the Utah war as well as immediately after MMM, as with the assassination of ammunition trader Richard E. Yates on 18 October 1857, the lynching of Utah expedition Pvt. G.W. Clark at about the same time, the murder of five of the six members of the Aiken Party in late Nov. 1857 and the massacre at Fort Limhi on 25 Feb. 1858. Most of these killings were NOT in southern UT, they were in the north, putting the lie to the myth that the Utah War was “bloodless” and that MMM was a one-off aberration confined to the south by locals who were free-lancing far from headquarters 300 miles to the north. Also discussed in this piece were the authorizations to use lethal force issued by BY and D.H. Wells beginning in Oct. if the army moved west of Fort bridger; the orders were to kill the officers and mountaineer-guides first. This is context for MMM that needs to be thought about.

  33. June 27, 2007 at 6:09 pm

    I haven’t even given an interpretation about this letter. To me, it’s incredible that apologists are arguing about this letter at all. Their best case scenario is to dismiss the document as inconclusive. It has zero ability to exonerate Brigham Young. If my friends rob a bank and I wrote a letter yesterday advising them not to rob the bank, that does nothing to prove my innocence. We can argue to what degree the letter implicates me in the crime and proves my guilt, but in no way does such a thing argue for my innocence.

    I completely disagree with John F.’s contention that protecting and promoting the murderers and covering up their crime is degrees less of a crime than pulling the trigger. That the leader who held all the territory’s civil and ecclesiastical power would promote this kind of lawlessness (even after the fact) is degrees worse than personally a trigger, because it has the capacity to corrupt the entire society.

    With his suggestion that “MMM says very little about the Church, actually” and going into “locals” talking points / scapegoating, John F. makes my point that we use these narrowly framed arguments about this or that quibbling detail to avoid our war guilt in general.

    If we don’t take responsibility for the errors in our past, we can’t honestly or effectively take credit for our past accomplishments.

  34. June 28, 2007 at 5:23 am

    BY’s letter is significant because he wrote it before the massacre, not after. Before the massacre, he ordered the local church leaders not to molest the wagon train. It is difficult to understand how this does not exonerate BY in the massacre of the wagon train.

  35. June 28, 2007 at 6:16 am

    JohnF,

    What’s your view on the big picture? The whole enchilada, vs. the technicalities and interpretations of the note?

    If you were the judge, not the defense attorney, how would you see the overall case?

  36. June 28, 2007 at 6:50 am

    John F., exonerate Brigham Young of what? The letter does exonerate him of ordering the massacre, although not — as Bill MacKinnon notes — of ordering other killings during the same period. But that’s not the sum total of the available involvement here. Young didn’t order the massacre. But he did create a bloodthirsty environment through his sermons and letters in the run-up to the Utah War; he did tell the Native Americans to go ahead and attack the Fancher party and steal their cattle; he did protect and promote within the church the murderers for decades after the fact; and there is even evidence that he had people topple the memorial for the Mountain Meadows victims. Young didn’t order the murders, true. But he was most certainly involved in them. “Exoneration” would suggest no involvement; no competent historians would agree with that assessment.

  37. June 28, 2007 at 7:37 am

    The letter exonerates BY from ordering the massacre. Choosing not to mention the letter in the movie is not a responsible move. Presenting this fact should not prevent anyone who wants to use the MMM as a reason that the Church is evil, bad, or not what it claims to be from doing so.

    The big picture is similar to that expressed in the Ensign article. The historical fact of the Mountain Meadows Massacre should cause all Latter-day Saints to ask how religious men could have thought up this scheme, decided to go forward with it after debate, and chosen not to wait for word from Brigham Young about whether they should proceed with their plan or not. On a more common human level, it should cause all people to scrutinize themselves to find whether they would ever act in such a manner based on their prejudices.

  38. June 28, 2007 at 7:39 am

    (Most importantly, it should strengthen the resolve of Latter-day Saints not to find themselves in a similar position and not to be willing to pull the trigger in a massacre of any kind.)

  39. June 28, 2007 at 8:30 am

    Thanks, JohnF.

    What about a reminder that we should be very cautious in trusting church (or any) leadership without reserve — that the ultimate guide still needs to be our own good judgment and conscience, over blind obedience of leadership?

  40. June 28, 2007 at 9:10 am

    Disobeying a Stake President’s order to kill people would certainly be desirable. Luckily, this has not been a common dilemma in the Church. Since blind obedience of leadership has not and does not figure prominently in the Church, the Mountain Meadows Massacre serves to reinforce why it is not desirable. Rather, all Church members should be encouraged to follow Brigham Young’s counsel:

    I will say a few words in regard to your belief in being led, guided, and directed by one man. . . . Do not be deceived, any of you; if you are deceived, it is because you deceive yourselves. You may know whether you are led right or wrong, as well as you know the way home; for every principle God has revealed carries its own convictions of its truth to the human mind, and there is no calling of God to man on earth but what brings with it the evidences of its authenticity. . . .

    What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually. (Brigham Young, “Eternal Punishment,” Journal of Discourses, reported by G.D. Watt 12 January 1862, Vol. 9 (London: Latter-Day Saints Book Depot, 1862), 150.)

    Unfortunately, this well-known quote from Brigham Young does not feature prominently in treatments by outsiders of his tenure as leader of the Church and the Utah Territory or of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

  41. June 28, 2007 at 9:15 am

    JohnFowles,

    BEAUTIFUL stuff. I wish that quote would show up yearly in the manuals…but I’m totally with you on this.

    The brethren are most often better followed than not…but there are important exceptions that we should always be in-tune about.

    I hope this can become more ingrained in the minds of the members going forward. My mission showed me that we still have a long ways to go on this front. The “Exact Obedience” taught in the MTC caused a lot of missionaries to do horrific things (that Elder Oaks called abominations and priestcraft) — because the mission president required it of them — and they didn’t feel good about dissenting.

    We may not be killing people today, but there are lesser instances of great import where we still have a lot to learn/grow in this regard. In many small ways, we too often give up what is right, or best for us, out of blind obligation or duty (neglect families, pursue callings that aren’t good for our health, etc.). I know that the brethren are really trying to curb this, but I also know it’s still quite prevalent.

    But thanks for helping inch us towards a healthier balance.

  42. June 28, 2007 at 9:28 am

    Priestcraft is a very good term for it.

  43. June 28, 2007 at 11:12 am

    John F., I agree completely that the treatment of Mountain Meadows in September Dawn that I’ve heard described is ludicrous and indefensible. Further, I agree that Mountain Meadows doesn’t in any way prove that the church isn’t genuine. Mountain Meadows shouldn’t be a faith issue, in my view, although it is a part of our Mormon heritage and something that each of us should take seriously. Too many of us seem to want to say Mountain Meadows doesn’t matter at all because Young didn’t order it. That’s just not good enough.

    In other words, it sounds as if we may have a similar point of view on this, albeit with somewhat different emphases.

  44. June 28, 2007 at 3:47 pm

    John F.—

    Again — if I’m the leader of a group and I write a letter ordering the group not to commit a crime and then the crime occurs a week later, the letter does not exonerate me from potential complicity in the crime. The act of writing a letter does not prove that I didn’t previously order my followers to commit the crime. I could have ordered them to commit the crime and then written the letter as an attempt to distance myself from the crime.

    Because that scenario is quite possible, your insistence that the letter exonerates Young is not a responsible historical position. In my view, it’s no better than the slipshod liberties taken by the producers of September Dawn.

    Unfortunately, it’s not effective to fight error with error. If the Mormon position is not credible (based here on a demonstrably false premise), that actually gives credibility to the September Dawn position. If it’s clear that Mormons are white-washing their history, it’s much easier for outsiders to believe an extreme counter-narrative.

  45. June 29, 2007 at 5:00 am

    John H., it seems that you are arguing that BY did order the massacre — otherwise claiming that I am white-washing history by pointing out (which the movie fails to) that Brigham Young ordered the local militia not to interfere with the wagon train before the massacre does not seem consistent.

    Conceding your point that BY ordered the massacre, where does that bring us, in your view.

  46. Clay
    June 29, 2007 at 8:19 am

    John F,
    I did not read JH’s comments that way. I read it to be saying that BY’s letter does not suffice to clear him of guilt, which is to say nothing of the opposite. The end result is inconclusive. It cannot be proven if he was or was not complicit in the attack, even with a letter dated before the attack.

    Regarding your quote from BY, I have always loved that quote. However, it becomes very hard to really grasp the true character of Young when those good kinds of things are juxtaposed with statements like this

    The Lord Almighty leads this Church, and he will never suffer you to be led astray if you are found doing your duty. You may go home and sleep as sweetly as a babe in its mother’s arms, as to any danger of your leaders leading you astray, for if they should try to do so the Lord would quickly sweep them from the earth.
    -Journal of Discourses, Vol. 9, p. 289

    And also:

    What man or woman on earth, what spirit in the spirit-world can say truthfully that I ever gave a wrong word of counsel, or a word of advice that could not be sanctioned by the heavens?
    -Journal of Discourses, Vol. 12, p. 127

    and again:

    I shall be on hand to answer when I am called upon, for all the counsel and for all the instruction that I have given to this people. If there is an Elder here, or any member of this Church, called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who can bring up the first idea, the first sentence that I have delivered to the people as counsel that is wrong, I really wish they would do it; but they cannot do it, for the simple reason that I have never given counsel that is wrong; this is the reason.
    -Journal of Discourses, Vol. 16, page 161

    Its very hard to make sense between the contrast. Who in mormon history is more confusing and suspect than Brigham Young?

  47. June 29, 2007 at 8:43 am

    The first example is the only one of the three that really creates the difficulty you point out. The other two merely represent BY expressing his opinion that he never led the people astray. That doesn’t mean that people weren’t supposed to be living according to the precept in the BY quote from # 42.

  48. Paula
    June 30, 2007 at 9:36 am

    Back to Romney, I’m seeing this morning that the biggest reaction to the Romney series so far is that people don’t like the way he treated his dog. The article mentioned that he used to strap his dog’s crate to the top of the station wagon, with a kind of windshield, for long trips. I’m a dog lover, and that that was horrible when I read it, but even Tucker Carlsen’s denounced him for it now. I think the Stapley letter was too well -buried for most readers to even notice it’s there.

  49. Doug G.
    June 30, 2007 at 9:39 am

    I’m new to the Mormon stories web sight and not familiar with your rules so please forgive me if I’m violating some here…
    I listened to the POD cast and read the article slated for the September Ensign as well as the 49 previous comments. I have done a fair bit of study on the MMM and recently visited Mountain Meadows while on a trip through southern Utah. History is what it is and therefore can only be learned from, not changed. The Ensign article was very disappointing to me as we had a chance to come clean on this terrible event in our history and instead made statement about the actual massacre which might lead people to believe the worst part of it may have been carried out by Indians.

    “The procession marched for a mile or so until, at a prearranged signal, each militiaman turned and shot the emigrant next to him, while Indians rushed from their hiding place to attack the terrified women and children. “

    The author makes a small effort to say that perhaps the militia did most of the killing, but I believe even putting the above statement in leads people down an incorrect path.

    The second part of this article that causes me stress is the intent of the author to make us believe it took the leadership of the church many years to discover the truth about MM.

    “Although Brigham Young and other Church leaders in Salt Lake City learned of the massacre soon after it happened, their understanding of the extent of the settlers’ involvement and the terrible details of the crime came incrementally over time.”

    Anyone who has studied the MMM knows how long it took for BY and the rest of the leadership to know what transpired and who did it. The above statement again leads folks down an incorrect path. Somewhere in a seminar class I remember being taught the methodology of putting out 49 truths to get one or two lies believed.

    I wish we had the courage to face up to our history instead of continuing the pain we cause by our denials.

  50. Charles D.
    July 1, 2007 at 1:22 am

    When I first read Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee as a pre-teen, a horrible ‘white man’s’ guilt haunted me for months. I later determined that I was not in any way responsible for horrific acts in the past – I didn’t owe anyone an apology for something I didn’t commit – and I would only be punished for my own sins and not Adam’s, Brigham’s or John D. Lee’s transgressions. Feelings of guilt are not a pre-requisite to empathy.

    I am not surprised that the church leaders were in denial or hesitant to broadcast the sins of this group. Would the United States and its people be understanding or forgiving if the Church was more forthcoming. Real people had died in previous conflicts, and there was a distinct possibility that more would die if national prejudice was further inflamed. Perhaps with this siege mentality, they felt the a cover-up was the only viable choice.

  51. July 1, 2007 at 8:32 am

    Re: Posts #33 and #34

    Hi Bill! Welcome to our discussion at MormonMatters. I apologize for ignoring you earlier. I’ve been traveling for the past 3 weeks and away from my books. I wasn’t able to read your article until I got home late last night. I just finished reading it. Excellent article — you’ve done a great job of highlighting these multiple incidents of the Utah war and illustrating how they fit together in a consistent pattern. I find your argument extremely compelling. I recommend it for everyone to read (Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring 2007), and I wish I had been able to read it prior to our episode. Thanks! Are you planning to expand your work (here and in your previous articles) into a book on the Utah War?

    I see that you’re based here in southeastern lower Michigan (I’m in Ann Arbor). I hope we’ll have the opportunity to meet and talk history.

  52. July 1, 2007 at 9:37 am

    John F. —

    Clay read my point as I intended it. I’m not saying that Brigham Young definitely ordered the massacre — that would also not be responsible. I’m saying that various legitimate arguments can be made about what happened. You can responsibly argue that this or that interpretation is most likely in a way that avoids making unsound definitive assertions.

    What does being honest about our history get us? Credibility. In reply #52, Charles D.’s gives the comparative example of European American treatment of Native Americans. We all know that our treatment of the Indians was terrible and full of atrocities. If we, as Americans, were to be constantly denying the record where possible, minimizing the record where necessary, and absolving leaders and scapegoating locals in order to explain this narrative — our credibility would be nil. (Of course we did that when the events were fresher and US culture was more defensive and less mature.)

    Admitting to terrible acts in American history does not mean that America is not a great nation and it does not mean that America has not done great things. Being upfront with the bad allows us to explain failings in their context (giving understanding without condoning) in a credible way. In the end, this tactic makes our contention that America is a great nation more believable, because if we insisted on a defensive, hagiographical narrative, we would always be open to critics who could point out that we were being misleading.

  53. Bill MacKinnon
    July 1, 2007 at 12:48 pm

    Hi John H.,
    Re your question, my “Lonely Bones” article is a narrative adaptation of one chapter in a two-volume documentary history of the Utah War (“At Sword’s Point”) being published by The Arthur H. Clark Co. (an imprint of the University of Oklahoma Press) which is, in turn, a part of the 20-volume series titled “KINGDOM IN THE WEST:The Mormons and the American frontier.” Volume I of “At Sword’s Point” will be out in early 2008. Other chapters bear on the origins of the war, upon which I touched in my recent “Dialogue” article (“Loose in the Stacks: A Half-Century with the Utah War and Its Legacy”) and in my May 2007 paper at MHA-Salt Lake City (“And the War Came: JamesBuchanan, Brigham Young, and the Decision to Intervene”).
    For those interested in MMM — who played what part and bore what responsibility as well as what actually took place — are you aware that seven months prior to September 11, 1857 that there was a virtual dress rehearsal for MMM in Santa Clara Canyon (the site originally selected for the dispatch of the Fancher party) involving many of the same leaders involved in MMM? If not, I urge you to read Ardis E. Parshall, ” ‘ Pursue, Retake & Punish’: The 1857 Santa Clara Ambush” “Utah Historical Quarterly” 73 (Winter 2005): 64-86.” Are you aware of the other killings that took place elsewhere in Utah in the weeks immediately following MMM also involving Nauvoo Legion officers. If not, there’s some very recent and very relevant scholarship out there for you to think about not captured in the Juanita Brooks and Will Bagley books, although this material will undoubtedly be part of the pending Turley-Leonard-Walker narrative history of MMM and the Bagley-Bigler documentary history of the same atrocity.

  54. July 1, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Wonderful! I was going to suggest the Arthur H. Clark Co. as the first choice for publishing on this topic.

  55. Port
    July 21, 2007 at 6:41 pm

    I just loved the freakingly awesome scholarly insights from the incredible
    mind of Ann “I have nothing to go on but my own sensibilities” Porter.

    Thanks for having her on again John. She’s a gem.

  56. August 9, 2007 at 9:56 am

    John F. said:

    “Disobeying a Stake President’s order to kill people would certainly be desirable. Luckily, this has not been a common dilemma in the Church. Since blind obedience of leadership has not and does not figure prominently in the Church, the Mountain Meadows Massacre serves to reinforce why it is not desirable. Rather, all Church members should be encouraged to follow Brigham Young’s counsel:

    I will say a few words in regard to your belief in being led, guided, and directed by one man. . . . Do not be deceived, any of you; if you are deceived, it is because you deceive yourselves. You may know whether you are led right or wrong, as well as you know the way home; for every principle God has revealed carries its own convictions of its truth to the human mind, and there is no calling of God to man on earth but what brings with it the evidences of its authenticity. . . .

    What a pity it would be if we were led by one man to utter destruction! Are you afraid of this? I am more afraid that this people have so much confidence in their leaders that they will not inquire for themselves of God whether they are led by Him. I am fearful they settle down in a state of blind self-security, trusting their eternal destiny in the hands of their leaders with a reckless confidence that in itself would thwart the purposes of God in their salvation, and weaken that influence they could give to their leaders, did they know for themselves, by the revelations of Jesus, that they are led in the right way. Let every man and woman know, by the whispering of the Spirit of God to themselves, whether their leaders are walking in the path the Lord dictates, or not. This has been my exhortation continually. (Brigham Young, “Eternal Punishment,” Journal of Discourses, reported by G.D. Watt 12 January 1862, Vol. 9 (London: Latter-Day Saints Book Depot, 1862), 150.)

    Unfortunately, this well-known quote from Brigham Young does not feature prominently in treatments by outsiders of his tenure as leader of the Church and the Utah Territory or of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”

    John F., why did you cite to the Journal of Discourses? Most Mormons don’t have those books. Perhaps you could provide a cite to that quote where it appeared in the Teachings of the Presidents of the Church volume on Brigham Young. Surely, this wonderful quote was included, no? For a more comprehensive treatment of church teachings on the subject of obedience to church leaders, you might consult this wonderful essay posted by GDTeacher at my blog: http://equalitysblog.typepad.com/equality_time/2006/04/obedience_in_th.html

  57. August 9, 2007 at 8:43 pm

    Bump

  58. Steadie
    September 2, 2011 at 4:03 am

    Does anyone know about the coincidence (or not) about the date to be 911?  I suppose New York incident done on 9/11 was intentional, but Mountain Meadow?  Why do you call 911 for emergency?  Is this number something meaningful back then too? (sorry for my ignorance, I am a Japanese)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *