My first memorable encounter with cowboy historian Will Bagley took place while watching the 2006 PBS documentary on the Mormons. True to character there, he posed a question that defines the problem faced by anyone who tries to understand the Mountain Meadows Massacre, one of the bloodiest incidents to take place in the history of America's overland trails. Bagley's question: "How did these decent, religious men who had sacrificed so much for what they believed in—how did they become mass murderers?" Before Bagley, I was vaguely familiar with the incident (Mormons and Indians killed some non-Mormon pioneers on the way through southern Utah sometime in the nineteenth century), and the question (why?), and I even had a grasp on something like the usual LDS apologetic response (local vigilantes took justice into their own hands and got really carried away). As my testimony of the church's unadulterated moral goodness began to crumble, however, I became more curious. In the end, answering Bagley's question to my own satisfaction became one of the most difficult and painful processes of my life (so far): it turned my mental world upside down and made it impossible for me to be religious in the way I once was.
Bagley's book does more than clarify the fuzzy picture I had of the Massacre (which took place Friday, September 11th, 1857): it sets the Massacre in historical context, showing (as much as possible) how it happened that a group of staunch Mormon pioneers took it upon themselves to murder 120 men, women, and children in cold blood. To be brief, I will say that reading Bagley has convinced me (1) that Brigham Young and other men high up in the Mormon hierarchy (notably apostle George A. Smith) knowingly stirred up the Saints of southern Utah against non-Mormons; (2) that Brigham Young tried his best to rouse the Utah Indian bands against non-Mormons; (3) and finally, that Brigham Young and the church hierarchy later did everything they could to obscure their involvement and blame everything on Indians and local Saints, notably John D. Lee (Brigham's adopted son who definitely played a crucial role in the killing, however you read the sources). Each of these points raises troubling issues that I can only treat briefly here.
(1) Decent men such as the killers at Mountain Meadows do not rise up unprovoked. What provoked them? Several things. The immediate provocation was the coming Utah War (an armed confrontation with the US government), which the Saints and their leaders alike regarded with understandable fear and anger. Beyond the war were the Missouri killings (like the massacre of Mormons at Haun's Mill), the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and the recent murder of apostle Parley P. Pratt (whom non-Mormon Hector McClean killed after Pratt converted McClean's wife Eleanor against his will and then married her). These grievances were kept alive in the oath of vengeance administered in early LDS temple ceremonies, an oath to avenge the blood of the prophets upon those responsible for shedding it. The war and the oath of vengeance were not the only factors pressing for violence in southern Utah. Coming hard on the heels of the Mormon Reformation (which involved a lot of public humiliation inflicted by church leaders determined to make the Saints less worldly and more obedient to church authority) came a rash of directives and sermons by church authorities (notably Brigham Young and George A. Smith) making bellicose statements against non-Mormons--statements like the following:
Brigham Young to stake president Isaac Haight of Cedar City, one of the Saints responsible for the massacre (from a letter dispatched with apostle George A. Smith in August of 1857): "Save your ammunition, keep your Guns and Pistols in order, and prepare yourselves in all things--particularly by living your religion--for that which may hereafter come to pass...Save all grain, nor let a kernel go to waste or be sold to our enemies. And those who persist in selling grain to the gentiles, or suffer their stock to trample it into the earth I wish you to note as such" (quoted in Bagley, p. 84).
George A. Smith to the people of Parowan (August 1857, as remembered later): "As for the cursed mobocrats, I can think of nothing better they could do than to feed a tree in Zion [with their corpses]" (quoted in Bagley, p. 84).
George A. Smith to the Cedar City militia (August 15, 1857, speaking of the US army): "I say damn the man who feeds them; I say damn the man who sympathizes with them; I say curse the man who pours oil and water on their heads" (quoted in Bagley, p. 85).So the Mormons who pulled the trigger at Mountain Meadows experienced powerful social pressure from the church (in the form of codified oaths and incendiary statements), pressure which characterized vengeance against the wicked, gentile non-Mormon as something desirable, something righteous, something God and his chosen representatives on earth expected from the faithful.
(2) The newly discovered testimony of Dimick Huntington (see pages 113-114 of Bagley's book) indicates that Brigham Young's rhetoric about the Indians becoming "the battle-axe of the Lord" in the Saints' war against the people of the United States was more than just hot air. When Brigham convened the tribal chieftains and gave them license to raid wagon-trains in Huntington's presence on September 1st, 1857, right before the Massacre, he recognized that innocent people would die as a result, and he condoned it. This attests the literal understanding Young and other Saints had of scriptures like 3 Nephi 21:12 ("a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver"). The nineteenth-century LDS fervently believed that the second coming of Christ was around the corner, to be brought on by a bloodbath in which the United States would perish and the rediscovered "remnant of Jacob" (the Indian tribes) would unite with the LDS to establish God's kingdom on earth. In the end, this vision failed to materialize: the western Indians never accepted their role in the Mormon world and remain still aloof (even as the modern LDS church looks for new candidates to take their place as God's remnant).
The actual role played by the Indians at Mountain Meadows is something of a mystery. My reading of the evidence has some tribesmen joining the expedition primarily for plunder, then bailing out after the non-Mormons proved too tough to kill easily (the train was heavily armed and fought back hard against the initial attack, forming a wagon-circle fortified with trenches and exchanging fire with the raiders for 5 days). Fearing recognition if they allowed survivors to escape, the Mormons then secured the surrender of the surviving non-Mormons by promising protection from the (increasingly absent) Indians, only to turn traitor and shoot every one dead but a few very small children. Some Indians may have participated in this final butchery, but it is clear that the bulk of the killing was done by white men.
(3) All of the foregoing is problematic: it involves church authorities willfully inciting their followers (and the hapless Indians, caught between the US army and the Mormons) to violence. Was this incitement without any justification? No! Unfortunately, the fury it ultimately released was very poorly directed, coming to rest upon an innocent wagon-train that happened to pass through Utah territory at just the wrong moment. From Brigham Young's public and private statements before the Massacre, especially his conversation with the Indians referenced above, it seems clear to me that he doomed this train, perhaps without realizing the full extent of what he was doing at the time. Like many other Saints, he was caught in a sea of boiling adrenaline, scared by the prospect of the US invasion and all fired up to avenge the blood of Joseph and Hyrum upon the infidels. To his credit, he desired to call the thing off once he got wind of it actually going forth, but it was too late. You can only wave a red flag in front of a angry bull so long before it charges. He and George A. Smith sowed the wind in southern Utah, and their dutiful followers (as many as valued obedience to the prophets above personal conscience) reaped the whirlwind in Mountain Meadows. The fallout was (and still is) terrible: some good Saints refused to participate and came under suspicion of apostasy (which in those days could still result in bodily harm or death); others followed orders (from local authorities channeling the rage of the prophets and apostles) and lived the rest of their lives suffering the consequences.
What bothers me the most about all of this, however, is not even the awful fact that it took place. Bad things happen in the world. Leaders say the wrong things, and their followers let zeal for the group overcome personal integrity, translating bad words into worse actions. But how does denying the leaders' role in the process make the resultant mess any better? Why did Brigham and his fellow apostle George A. Smith not see fit to take responsibility (even a little) for their role in the tragedy at Mountain Meadows? Why did they try to shift blame off onto the Indians? Why, when that did not work, did they foster lies about the character of the emigrants who died wrongly there? And why, above all, did they countenance the scapegoating of John D. Lee for something that, in a very real way, was the fault of the whole LDS community? Lee's rehabilitation in recent years is a tiny step in the right direction, as are efforts of goodwill that the church has directed toward the offspring of the survivors of the Massacre. But these efforts are undercut by our leaders' persistence in refusing to acknowledge the guilt that belongs to church headquarters. (This persistence gives our "anti-Mormon" enemies a big fat target, which they pummel pretty hard, with pretty good reason.)
This for me is the crux of the problem posed by Mountain Meadows, a problem which the LDS church has been ignoring ever since that awful day in 1857. Then, as now, we LDS are seemingly incapable of seeing flaws in our church leadership and (duly correlated) church programs. We are like little children with a hammer: everything we see is a nail, and we just love putting all the nails in place with our perfect hammer. But in fact not everything is a nail, and hammers can sometimes be put to very bad use, especially when you make the mistake of supposing that they are good for any operation requiring tools (e.g. brain surgery). Until we recognize that the church has a dark side (like every human institution), and that there are ways in which leaders and followers alike can turn religious faith to seriously evil ends, we run the risk of hurting ourselves and other people. Until we recognize that the gospel raises more questions than answers, that the righteous zeal of our pioneer ancestors was not always a positive asset, and that our own unexamined obedience to community rules may be causing as much harm as it does good, our religion lacks integrity. Responsible religion does not pretend like it never makes mistakes: it acknowledges mistakes, learns from them (repenting where necessary), and moves forward. I really wish church leadership could be honest with members (and the world) about our chequered past and what we have learned from it, rather than publishing whitewashed legends that deny its existence and perpetuate a mental environment in which the faithful follow their ancestors lemming-like over the proverbial cliff.