Matthew Sutton on Mountain Meadows

by John G. Turner

The December 30 Christian Century has Matt Sutton's review of Massacre at Mountain Meadows, which almost certainly was the 2008 bestseller in Mormon history until the appearance of the first volume of the Joseph Smith Papers. Sutton allows that Massacre provides a good narrative of the events leading up to September 11, 1857, and makes a compelling case that [Brigham] Young did not order the massacre." He laments, however, the decision of the authors (Ronald Walker, Richard Turley, and Glen Leonard) to concentrate solely on the events leading up to the massacre and the massacre itself, saving the "aftermath" for a second book:

They deal solely with the crime, ignoring what they call the punishment, which was in fact a horrifying lack of justice in Young's Mormon-dominated Utah and gravely inadequate efforts by the church in most of the decades since to deal forthrightly with the controversy.

Sutton attributes this decision to the authors' position as believing Mormon historians:

They are certainly good historians, but they are also faithful Mormons. They probably could not find any way to tell the rest of the story without sacrificing one of these two commitments—either they would compromise historical integrity or they would anger their church.

This is a huge and complex topic, and I hope some of our readers will share their thoughts and expertise. My hesitant opinions on the massacre can be found here. My response to Matt's concern in a nutshell: If the authors made a compelling case about the culpability for the massacre, why presume they could not write an equally compelling account of its aftermath?

Readers looking for a detailed discussion of Walker, Turley, and Leonard's book should investigate this post at By Common Consent. Those interested in the dynamics of faith in Mormon History may enjoy this recent discussion at Juvenile Instructor.


smb said…
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, commenting a presentation by the authors at the Mormon History Association, made precisely the point that the difficult volume for the authors will be the second volume, on the coverup. I think it's unfair to say they've done a poor job when they haven't even done it yet and would reserve comment for the publication of the latter volume.

As for the present volume it's very useful in establishing who did what when. Until this is well established it's difficult to have the more complex discussions without having the facts right.

I look forward to work that uses these facts and moves into the complex discussions about the nature of white:Native interactions in the creation of violence and imagined ethnic conflict, further exploration of the nature of Mormon society in southern Utah, and perhaps discussion of the effects of arguments over Brigham Young's culpability in terms of framing the role of Mormonism in the massacre (Ulrich made a similar point in her commentary).

And I feel great sympathy for the authors as they undertake the much more difficult second volume, particularly when they have set expectations with the quality and evenhandedness of the first volume.
J. Stapley said…
Hm. I found Sutton's review simply uninformed. He is obviously not familiar with the historiography or the issues at play.

I do agree with him that vol. 1 was written in almost a narrative vacuum. The authors did incorporate some of their prominent differences with Balgey/Denton in the footnotes, which was appreciated. The reality is that, as smb said, the authors did do an excellent job of mapping out the extant facts of the situation, and their conclusions are reasoned, supported and measured.

I understand that a preliminary manuscript of vol. 2 (which covers the "punishment") has been completed. Turley is going to be the sole author. And if what the folks close to the project are saying is accurate (e.g., Alexander and Walker), folks are going to be surprised about how willing Young was to cooperate in the prosecution and how intractable local Federal authorities were. This being the case, Sutton's presuppositions are simply mistaken.

Also, if I were Oxford, I would have released the volumes sepperately (if only to get volume 1 out).

Now, as I wrote in the review to which you linked, John, the MMM isn't the perfect volume; however, its imperfections are not those described by Sutton. He is making a controversy were one doesn't exist.
Matt Sutton said…
John--if the authors do the second volume at all, I will be surprised--and impressed. Choosing to tell only half of the story--the part that exonerates Young--struck me as highly problematic. We all make choices as authors, and the fact that they decided to "put off" what is, in my mind, the most troubling part of the story as far as the LDS hierarchy is concerned was a major disappointment. I would not have accepted such a half-telling from a dissertation student or as an editor. Of course editors also have to think of audiences and OUP knew there was big money to be had with just this half of the story.

If the authors really do write an honest and forthright account of Part II, I hope that I will have the opportunity to praise them for their courage and honesty on the pages of the Century. But I am not going to hold my breadth waiting for it.
Christopher said…
Matt, do you have any reason to suppose that the authors will not complete the second volume as promised other than the suggestion that it will be difficult to do so because of their own faith? I'm with John and Sam here--it would probably be wise to reserve judgment until you either see (or don't see) Part II.
Matt Sutton said…
For the many of you out there who think I don't know anything about evangelicalism, Mormonism, and [fill in the blank], you should also know that I suck at Fantasy Football. It's been a rough few weeks.
J. Stapley said…
Matt, in re-reading my comment, I came off a bit harsh and I apologize. I am certain that you are very knowledgeable.
Matt Sutton said…
Christopher--nope, I have no "inside" knowledge what-so-ever. I come at this as an outsider who had high hopes for this book and who was disappointed. Because the Massacre has been so controversial for so long, I was simply really disappointed that the authors did not deal with what I think was the larger issue--the aftermath. And until they do, non-LDS historians like me are going to continue to worry that the church and not the historical evidence is influencing what stories get told and which ones don't. The decision to stop this story in the middle of a narrative arc--and this story, of all LDS stories, with such a history of baggage--struck me as a mistake. But, as I said, I hope I am wrong.

As for the wisdom of withholding judgment--reviewers don't have that luxury. I had to review the book I had, not the one I had been promised. And the one I had left me dissatisfied.
Christopher said…
Matt, its wonderful to see bright, articulate, and qualified non-LDS historians like yourself and John engaging these issues, reviewing books that treat LDS history, and joining in the conversation. I hope you'll continue to participate in that discussion, and will look forward to your review of Part II in a couple of years. :)

As for the wisdom of withholding judgment--reviewers don't have that luxury. I had to review the book I had, not the one I had been promised. And the one I had left me dissatisfied.

Just out of curiosity, what exactly were you promised (and by whom) about what to expect from this book?
smb said…
I hear you, Matt. For many Mormon readers, the historiography has been such an angry morass that even getting the story of the massacre itself told reasonably accurately is a coup, and that is why many Mormon historians were quite pleased with the end result. As you and Ulrich have rightly noted, that's not even the most important half of the story, and I agree with the substance of your claim that this book does not address the topic if understood as a single volume.

Based on Stapley's summary, I worry a bit about how the second volume will come off. Tom Alexander, another historian of some repute within Mormonism, made a similar argument in his Arrington lecture (I have a great deal of respect for Tom). The issue that will need to be addressed is how outsiders were to interpret proposals by a man they viewed as a theocratic fraud to provide resources for the investigation of a crime in which he was a suspected accomplice. If the second volume takes that tack strongly (Young offered to cooperate with authorites and was rebuffed hence was not involved in a coverup), I suspect that Matt's criticisms will have some face validity. I am eager to have the evidence presented in a careful, evenhanded way, and I remain hopeful that Turley will achieve this with the second volume.

As I think about this, I believe a valid implication of Matt's criticism is that it would be worthwhile making explicit that MMM is only the first volume of a set.
J. Stapley said…
smb, I think your points are valid and I also agree that there isn't enough emphasis placed on the point that MMM was only volume 1.

As far as the LDS hierarchy goes, though; I'm not so certain volume II is telling the hard part of the story. The whole thing is just so awful. I don't imagine the LDS authorities having a harder time with one volume over the other. That being said, there are some tough questions to answer, but I'll be surprised if volume II goes beyond 1877 and therefor a lot of the questions that I think are most interesting won't be addressed.
John G. Turner said…
Pleased to be lumped into the "bright" category with Matt. I don't even play fantasy football. I could only get about 25% of NFL games against the spread in espn's pick'em a few years back and figured fantasy football would be above my paygrade.

I'm really pleased to hear that the second volume is going to come out, hopefully soon. I've long thought it made no sense that Brigham Young would have ordered the massacre. When holding out the possibility of reaching an accommodation with the US government, why order a massacre that would end all hope of such accommodation? On the other hand, one can easily think of reasons Young would want to cover up the massacre after the fact. I haven't read Alexander's pamphlet, so I'm withholding judgement.
David said…
I too am glad that someone like Matt Sutton (and John) has been writing on Mountain Meadows for evangelical magazines. Matt does express sympathy for Turley, Walker, and Leonard, and commends them for their work in the first volume. But I also agree that Matt overplays the decision to split up the two volumes. In my view, the question of Young's culpability in ordering the massacre itself is a larger and uglier issue than covering up the crime. Historiographically speaking, the question of Young's complicity has spilled a lot more ink than the question of his role in the aftermath, which has remained relatively settled since Juanita Brooks's 1950 The Mountain Meadows Massacre (with the exception of the mentioned Alexander counternarrative). That's not to say that discussing Young's accessory after the fact will be easy for historians with ties to the church, but I don't think it will be more difficult than what they've already done. I'm with John; if they can handle the first act well, why can't they handle the second?

Given the number of delays with the first book, I'm not optimistic that the second will appear any time soon, although, as mentioned, a draft is completed. Also, I should note that at least Walker has shown interest in doing a third volume on the massacre in memory, but I can see a lot of difficulties there not presented in the first two volumes. My optimism is even lower that we'll see that proposed book any time soon.
Matt Sutton said…
Christopher: Thanks for the kind words. By “the book I was promised” I meant the book the authors promised to complete someday (volume 2).

SMB: “For many Mormon readers, the historiography has been such an angry morass that even getting the story of the massacre itself told reasonably accurately is a coup, and that is why many Mormon historians were quite pleased with the end result.”

I really do get that, and I do think that MMM should put an end to the debate over Young’s role leading up to the massacre. The authors did a wonderful job of putting that debate to rest (at least in my mind). However, once the massacre happened, it was Young's responsibility (and the church’s responsibility in subsequent generations) to deal honestly with it. I will continue to be hopeful that such a discussion is imminent.

David: FYI, Christian Century is a liberal Protestant (not evangelical) magazine.

Thanks for all of the comments.
Kara Tyson said…
I do not know much of the Mountain Meadows incident, but have heard rumors that the Mormon leaders measured children next to wagon wheels to determine whether or not they should be killed. Those who were taller (presumably older) were not allowed to live--one reason being that they were old enough to spread the story. Is there any evidence to support this?
John G. Turner said…

I'm skeptical but unsure. I think most of the killing was done pretty quickly, within a five-minute timespan, so I doubt the story you mention because it would have taken longer. There certainly was a general desire to spare only very young children, who were considered innocent (and too young to effectively testify against the perpetrators). But it's so difficult to know which stories about the MMM to believe, because there are few reliable objective accounts.