Mountain Meadows Massacre -- from new Contributing Editor John Turner!

I'm pleased to introduce our newest contributing editor: John Turner of the University of South Alabama. Here's his bio:

John Turner is Assistant Professor of History at the University of South Alabama. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Notre Dame (2006) and a Masters of Divinity from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (2002). His book manuscript, Bill Bright and Campus Crusade for Christ: The Renewal of Evangelicalism in Postwar America, is forthcoming in Spring 2008 from the University of North Carolina Press. He is now swimming and possibly drowning in the turbulent waters of Mormon History, working on a projected biography of Brigham Young. Even during this troubled year, he believes that God ultimately has a wonderful plan for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

John has just published a longer piece on the subject of the post below, the Mountain Meadows Massacre: 9/11, 1857, published in Books and Culture. Turner reviews the terrible incident, as well as recent scholarly explorations of it, notably including Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Turner's conclusion:

Partly because the church initially suppressed evidence and only recently has made extent materials more accessible, debates over the culpability of Young and others will probably never be fully resolved. In our fallen world, hatred and prejudice and fear can all too quickly evolve into violence, violence that religion—Mormon and otherwise—all too often has failed to restrain.

Here's John's first post, highlighting in condensed form some of the points made in 9/11, 1857. I might point also to Art Remillard's post below on Mark Lilla's article in the New York Times Magazine, which addresses some of the same points about religious devotion and violence which Turner discusses below.

The First 9/11

It's a pretty safe bet that all Americans think of the Twin Towers when someone references September 11th. Fewer know about another mass murder that took place on that same date. 150 years ago this week, a group of Latter-day Saints (with the help of some Paiute Indians) slaughtered roughly 120 pioneers in a place called Mountain Meadows, in present-day southwestern Utah. Approaching them with a white flag, the Mormons had persuaded the pioneers to give up their weapons in return for protection from the Indians and safe passage to nearby Cedar City.

Those unfamiliar with the Mountain Meadows Massacre can get a brief overview of the events by watching a chapter of PBS's recent The Mormons. (The entire documentary is well worth the four-hour investment).

Mountain Meadows remains a bitterly contested topic within contemporary Mormonism. Some church members were upset that PBS devoted an entire segment to the massacre. Descendents of massacre victims and survivors remain upset that the church will not cede control of the massacre site. Numerous reporters have asked Mitt Romney for his response to the film. Moving beyond the denials of the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints openly acknowledges Mormon complicity in the massacre. Several recent books – most notably Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets – and the recent box-office bust September Dawn argue that Brigham Young explicitly ordered the massacre, a contention the church vigorously disputes. In fact, the church has spent a princely sum of money and considerable human resources to produce a book portraying the massacre as a local affair. A summary of the forthcoming study recently appeared in the church's Ensign magazine.

For many outside observers of Mormonism, the massacre remains deeply troubling. Jon Krakauer, in his bestselling Under the Banner of Heaven, connected a brutal double murder in 1980s Utah, the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping by a wanna-be polygamist, and historical episodes like the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Krakauer's book was subtitled: "A Story of Violent Faith." He wasn't saying that mainstream Mormons today are violent, but he was saying that both today's polygamists and 19th-century Mormons were. I think Krakauer's larger point (and that of September Dawn), a point happily embraced by a goodly number of observers in the post-9/11, 2001 world, is that religious belief itself is inherently dangerous, as it opens people up to blindly commit horrific acts believing that they are following God's will. Is Mormonism, at least in its primitive form, its 19th-century form, inherently dangerous? Is religious devotion?


Anonymous said…
Great Article! I personally think that even if Brigham Young did not order the massacre, he created the environment and was involved with the cover up. I also find it interesting that the church (LDS) only recently admitted involvement with church leaders, which I am sure is due to the film, September Dawn. I also have to say that I thought it was a great film and that alot of people missed the point of the film. It was not a direct reflection of the LDS church of today, but it did have a violent past. Why is this so hard for the LDS church to acknowledge? Every other religion had dark moments... are they truly that arrogant to think that they can suppress history? Just admit it, learn from it, and move forward...
Brad Hart said…
To be perfectly honest, I believe that it would be very difficult to make a comparison between 19th century Mormons and the religious radicalism that currently exists today. First off, the Mormons of the 19th century were victims of violence and hatred that even the United States government was either inept or unwilling to stop. The trek to the Salt Lake Valley essenitally turned 19th century Mormons into refugees fleeing for their own safety. Proof of this lies in Governor Lilburn Boggs' extermination order on all Mormons in Missouri. By the time settlers came into Mountain Meadows, many Mormons had already witnessed the death of family members, friends and their prophet. Of course this does not serve as justification for the atrocities they committed at Mountain Meadows, but it does articulate a clear difference that exists between religious radicalism today and the percieved terrorism of 19th century Mormons.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the comments. Just for clarification, as far as I know the church has more or less conceded Mormon involvement in the massacre since Juanita Brooks's groundbreaking 1950 book on Mountain Meadows. I do it's possible that the film prompted the publication of the Ensign article on Mountain Meadows, but I don't have any proof of that. "Anonymous" is correct that if Brigham Young didn't explicitly order the massacre, that fact doesn't make him blameless.

I also agree with Brad that the backdrop of persecution is critical for understanding the Mormon response to the Utah Expedition of 1857. The Haun's Mill massacre and Joseph Smith's martyrdom were hardly ancient history. Just for balance, a few months before Boggs's extermination order, Smith's counselor Sidney Rigdon made the following statement: "And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination, for we will follow them, till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed."
Randall said…
Great piece on the massacre. And glad to see your a new contributing editor.
clyde f said…
I do think it's unfortunate that the date of this tragic event in Mormon history coincides with the airplane bombing of the twin towers, only because every time someone makes a point to remind us of that, I wonder if it does not takes us back (in another sense) to the old evangelical polemic of Mormons as Muslims, Joseph Smith as an American Muhammad etc., etc.. With the rise of post-colonial literature, literary theory,Orientalism and the problem of the "Other," as well as the imperialist or neo-imperialist tendencies of "multicultural global feminism" as one example, but of neo-colonialism in general, one wants to tread very carefully these days when exposing the flaws in the history or character of others--Mormons in this case.

That said, this is not really news to anyone on either side, I don't think! Anyone who's read Brooks, and can read between the lines, marvels at her bravery and genius for having written what is still the best book on the subject--with respect to Turner and others.

To single out Mormons as guilty of suppressing their history, and therefore to suggest Mormons ought simply to "admit it, learn from it, and move forward..." I hear in such reactions to the article in question, something a tad colonialist or neo-colonialist.

I thought "we" as historians, historians of culture and religion at least, American Studies scholars to be sure, had learned from the colonial past, admitted it, and moved beyond such problematic assumptions about minorities in America, religious or otherwise.

Apparently not.

September Dawn? A great film? Really???

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