Mormon “Gospel Topics” series addresses Mountain Meadows Massacre

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Mountain Meadows

(Author photo)

Mountain MeadowsYesterday, the LDS Church posted another essay in its excellent “Gospel Topics” series that has recently addressed controversial issues like plural marriage, race and the priesthood, and differing accounts of the First Vision.

This one addresses “Peace and Violence among 19th-century Latter-day Saints,” taking a roughly chronological approach to some of the most violent episodes of early and pioneer Utah history.

I was particularly interested in the forthright way it deals with the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Mormonism’s 9/11. You can read the whole essay here, but here is an excerpt:

Over the next few days, events escalated, and Mormon militiamen planned and carried out a deliberate massacre. They lured the emigrants from their circled wagons with a false flag of truce and, aided by Paiute Indians they had recruited, slaughtered them. Between the first attack and the final slaughter, the massacre destroyed the lives of 120 men, women, and children in a valley known as Mountain Meadows. Only small children—those believed to be too young to be able to tell what had happened—were spared. The express rider returned two days after the massacre. He carried a letter from Brigham Young telling local leaders to “not meddle” with the emigrants and to allow them to pass through southern Utah. The militiamen sought to cover up the crime by placing the entire blame on local Paiutes, some of whom were also members of the Church.

In this essay, then, the LDS Church does several things to set the record straight about what happened on September 11, 1857. While there’s no new information here, there is a welcome sense of candor:

  • It concedes that the Mormons’ attack on the wagon train was premeditated and deliberate, and not a spontaneous event.
  • It admits the injustice of the Church’s attempt to cover up its members’ actions by blaming the local Paiute Indians.
  • It situates the Massacre within the larger historical context of the Utah War and the Mormon Reformation, and admits that Brigham Young’s “fiery rhetoric” helped to create a siege mentality among the Saints in Utah.
  • It exonerates Brigham Young from direct knowledge of, or responsibility for, the attack.
  • It calls the attack “a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct,” quoting Mormon apostle Henry B. Eyring.

What I was thinking as I read through the document was that I wished Juanita Brooks were alive today to see this.

As an amateur historian who published the first full-length account of Mountain Meadows in 1950, she was ostracized for saying precisely the kinds of things that the Church put forward yesterday: that the attack was deliberate, that it was Mormon-led, that it was wrong wrong wrong.

Brooks did not believe that Brigham Young was directly responsible for the attack, but she did charge him with creating an environment in which violent action against non-Mormons seemed to be encouraged from the pulpit, and with helping to sweep the whole tragedy under the rug afterward.

The Church never officially excommunicated Brooks or publicly censured her book, but she felt the sting of Mormon disapproval nevertheless. After its publication, neither she nor her husband were asked to speak in church or hold any significant callings.

But her painstaking primary research stood for itself and started a chain reaction in which other historians followed her work — including, more than half a century later, the LDS Church History department, which published its own account in 2008.




  • Doug

    While the essay does admit some guilt, I feel it is trying to whitewash the portrayal of the Brigham Young. I don’t think an alleged express rider with an alleged do “not meddle” order exonerates Brigham Young. I think the dispatch may have been to try to inoculate/shield Brigham Young. Brigham Young is known to be like a politician and speaking with a forked tongue (taking multiple positions). Brigham Young seemed a lot like a schizophrenic with multiple personality disorders. Brigham Young’s speeches seem to indicate that he had some genocidal tendencies . I don’t know if Brigham Young directly ordered or planned the Mountain Meadows massacre, but I feel that his hate and fear mongering contributed to the Mountain Meadows massacre.

    John D. Lee suspected that Brigham Young was behind the massacre.

    John D. Lee “I have always believed, since that day, that General George A. Smith was then visiting Southern Utah to prepare the people for the work of exterminating Captain Fancher’s train of emigrants, and I now believe that he was sent for that purpose by the direct command of Brigham Young.”

    My skin crawls that so many LDS hold Brigham Young in such high esteem. It’s like praising Adolf Hitler. They both seem to be racist hatemongers with genocidal tendencies.

    I suspect that the Mormons were trying to start a race war between Indians (Native Americans) and the US government. I suspect that the Mormons intended to use Native Americans as the fall guys for the Mountains Meadows Massacre.

  • allyall

    I have been reading “Women of Character: 100 prominent LDS women” and just learned about Juanita. I have cried several times in the book to realize how many awesome LDS women there have been that I have known NOTHING about. Who have been a wife, a mother and worked. I work part time out of necessity and I am done feeling guilty about it.

  • Tammy

    Greater transparency re: subjects like Mountain Meadows is a very good thing. Unfortunately, the damage may be too deep to heal. These recent essays finally owning up to criticisms that have been denied for years still come across as self-serving. Because of the internet, it is now in the best interest of the LDS church to fess up. It’s particularly disturbing to me, having grown up LDS, to realize the organization’s leaders have been so dishonest even while airing television commercials about the importance of telling the truth and excommunicating members who dared to speak out. Nothing less holy or Christian than hypocritically condemning others.

  • Ben

    I appreciated the essay and think it was well written. I would like to make a point that this is not really a new confession, call it what you will, because President Hinckley was fairly open about it back in 1999 so the allegation that this came out because of the interent is misleading.

  • Doug

    The article is a step in the right direction, but the LDS still have major problems. Transparency is a major issue, but it is not the only one.

    Bigotry/hate/conceit are still major problems with the LDS. In many ways the LDS fits the definition of a hate cult.

    On Easter Sunday I was discriminated against by an LDS ward because I am disabled and have a service dog. The claim that LDS don’t discriminate, is bearing false witness.

    Missionaries/elders tell me that they have no access to leaders above their immediate leaders. Therefore if their immediate leaders stray from the path, it prevents lower ranks from climbing the ladder to try to clean up the system. The hierarchy is similar to a dictatorship in some ways. Blind obedience to church leadership is expected. Criticism of church leadership, is not well-tolerated.

    God/Jesus is supposed to be our ultimate leaders, not church leaders. Unfortunately many church leaders leads us down a path that is away from Jesus. Unfortunately many parishioners, missionaries and elders choose to follow church leaders; instead of God/Jesus.

    Many LDS leaders act like the Pharisees and hypocrites that Jesus rebuked. They act like dictators and untouchables. Bishops often don’t return their phone calls. Missionaries/elders often don’t respond to critical texts, voicemail, phone calls and concerns that are voiced in person. When it is a critical and serious nature often they say that they will get back to you, but don’t. I haven’t been able to find a way to contact a leader that has higher than a bishop. The higher up leadership seems to think they are untouchables; not making their phone numbers or e-mails readily available. Therefore they tend to develop a disconnect with reality.

    The LDS seem to largely teach from a script. Critical analysis, contradictory, free thinking are often not welcome. It seems you are expected to be a mindnumbed robot.

    The LDS have many good teachings, many of them have good hearts and many have some of the spirit of Christ in them. But there also are problems. Some of the LDS teachings, practices and followers go against Christ.

    The LDS are very divisive, conceited and hypocritical when it comes to other denominations/faiths. IE claiming ONLY the Church of later Day Saints, book of Mormon, LDS priesthood is “true”. Thus essentially calling ALL other denominations/faiths/Gospels untrue.

  • Doug

    @ Ben

    While the old and new articles are a step in the right direction, I still think it is a whitewash.

    For the most part I feel Brigham Young is being given a free pass. I feel that’s like giving Hitler a free pass.

    I also feel that the historical Mormon attitude of Indians (Native Americans) is also misrepresented. In some ways Mormons regarded Native Americans as a Jew and a second-class citizen. Many Mormons including Brigham Young showed a hatred of Native Americans and non-white immigrants. Saying they should not have the right to vote, take positions of power (higher offices), etc. Brigham Young seems to suggest that other races should be annihilated.
    Brigham Young seemed to have anti-semantic, racist and genocidal tendencies.

    Brigham Young
    “The indians are Citizens, the Africans are Citizens, and the jews than come from Asia, that are almost entirely of the blood of Cain, It is our duty to take care of them, and administer to them in all the acts of humanity, and kindness, they shall have the right of Citizenship, but shall not have the right to dictate in Church and State matters. The abolishonists of the east, have cirest them them, and. their whol argument are callculated to darken Counsel, as it was here yesterday. As for our bills passing here, we may lay the foundation for what? for men to come here from Africa or else where; by hundreds of thousands. When these men come here from the Islands, are they going to hold offices in Government No. It is for men who understand the knowlege of Government affairs to hold such offices, and on the other make provisions for them to plow, and to reap, and enjoy all that human beings can enjoy, and we protect them in it. Do we know how to amilerate the condition of these people? we do. Supose that five thousands of them come from the pacific Islands, and ten or fifteen thousands from Japan, or from China, not one soul of them would know how to vote for a Government officer, they therefore ought not in the first thing have anything to do in Government afairs.”

    Brigham Young:
    “Where the children of God to mingle there seed with the seed of Cain it would not only bring the curse of being deprived of the power of the preisthood upon themselves but they entail it upon their children after them, and they cannot get rid of it. If a man in an ungaurded moment should commit such a transgression, if he would walk up and say cut off my head, and kill man woman and child it would do a great deal towards atoneing for the sin. Would this be to curse them? no it would be a blessing to them. — it would do them good that they might be saved with their Bren. A man would shuder should they here us take about killing folk, but it is one of the greatest blessings to some to kill them, allthough the true principles of it are not understood.”

  • Wayne Dequer

    Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has spoken of Juanita Brooks with affection several times. In 2006 he said the following: “As a young man, as a teenager, … that’s when I first came in contact with Juanita [Brooks’] book [Mountain Meadows Massacre]. Juanita was my high school English teacher. I grew up with her sons and daughter, and they’re still dear friends to this day. … I don’t ever remember her ever talking to me about it. I don’t think she saw that as her call. Certainly she never talked about it in any public way, not like a high school literature class. I don’t even remember a back-lawn conversation about it. What little bit I knew, I knew from her book, and that’s probably the way most people knew about it.” He added: “… I didn’t sense any great burden for her. Juanita was a strong woman. She was a very, very strong woman out of the hardscrabble world that southern Utah and southern Nevada settlers came [from]. … I did not sense a sort of personal anguish, but you have to understand that by the time I would have been old enough … that this is more than a decade after her publishing the book. … When I knew Juanita and knew her family, she was a temple-going, tithe-paying, absolutely faithful Latter-day Saint. … I saw her living out her life with the peace and tranquility [of someone] who had done a good piece of history and probably helped the church come to grips with something that all of us wish had never happened.”

    I too am grateful for the courage, wisdom and skill of Juanita Brooks in writing Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1950.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Doug, WHY would you want to attend a Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worship service when you obviously HATE the Mormons so deeply? WHY are you pestering Mormon bishops and missionaries? Why don’t you go attend a church you like, and leave the poor Mormons alone. They don’t need you to tell them how they are screwed up.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Someone who is highly critical of a church and its leadership is free to speak out all they want, but they are not entitled to boost their own notoriety by claiming to be members in good standing of the organization. A church is a voluntary organization, and the relationship goes both ways. A member of a church can sever his or her relationship with the church, and the church (all the other members) can sever their relationship with that person by moving them outside the “communion” of the church. That is what “excommunicate” means.

    The fact is, you have to be pretty obnoxious before the LDS Church cares enough about it to excommunicate you. Most excommunications are based on either personal requests from the individual, or because of misconduct (e.g. adultery). The church knows it is not going to silence anyone by ending their membership status, but it has to maintain its integrity as an organization, so it is clear what it stands for. If there are no boundaries on what you can believe and teach, you might as well be Episcopalians.

  • Raymond Takashi Swenson

    Did Brigham young get ticked off when the President of the US sent hundreds of troops to Utah, whose only reason for being there would be to abuse the Mormons, as so many state militias had done? Yes. It was an action without precedent in US history.

    Did Brigham use angry rhetoric when he spoke of President Buchanan declaring war on the Mormons who were citizens of the US? Yes. As did his ancestors who reacted in the same way to King George sending troops into Boston to intimidate the people. When those Army troops got to Utah, they were ordered by the new governor to not molest the Mormons, so they went off and murdered 200 Indians instead. somehow that slaughter, committed in broad daylight by official troops of the Federal government, right on the heels of Mouontain Meadows, is never mentioned in discussions of that year. And what about Buchanan’s rhetoric, condemning the Mormons as “rebels” in the days just before the Civil War, when he iintended to put down the Mormons as a way of impressing on Southern secessionaists that they should not defy the Federal government? What could be more “provocative” of violence than an order to march hundreds of armed troops to Salt Lake City and put down a rebellion?

    Note that in Northern Utah, where Brigham actually lived and spoke day to day, the Mormons who went out, armed. to deal with the US Army were very restrained in their actions. Not a single US soldier was wounded, but the grass was burned before the Army horses, the horses were stolen, their supply wagons stolen, and without casualties among the Mormons. Somehow the people in the nauvoo Legion did not get the same “coded message” from Brigham’s sermons that Haight and Lee were supposed to have received.

    Did Brigham Young intend that his rhetoric would be a secret signal to Haight and Lee and other people to commit mass murder on the Fancher wagon train? That would be stupid. If you are conspiring to commit a serious felony, you don’t announce it over the pulpit. You do it through private communications. But there is no evidence of any private communication from Young to Haight or Lee. They, like similar idiots in other cases of mass murder (including the murders of Joseph and Hyrum smith while in custody of the State of Illinois) were hotheads so filled with fear and anger that they did not think of what they were doing, or what was liable to happen. The only word from Young was “Leave them alone”.

    Was there something about Mormon religion that was a direct cause of the violence? No. The perpetrators were people whose first impulse was to shoot rather than pray. They were of a kind with Quantrill’s Raiders, a Confederate irregular force that killed over 250 civilians in Lawrence Kansas because that town was home to many abolitionists. Surely the raiders were as good a Christian as any Missourian slave owner.

    What was the amount of violence perpetrated upon the slave populations of America by abusive slave owners and overseers? How many slaves were summarily executed or tortured by the worst actors? How many slave children died for neglect, and through ignorance imposed by slave owners fearful of an educated slave population? And surely most of them were “good Christians”.

    The Mountain Meadows Massacre was unusual not for the number of people killed, or that they included women and children, but because it was done by people who should have known better, who were taught to read the scriptures and emulate Christ. The murders during the Civil War, the murders during the Indian Wars, were perpetrated by people who were not expected to live to a higher ethical standard.

    Was Young “covering up” for the perpetrators? Remember, by the time the massacre occurred, he was no longer governor of the territory. He had no law enforcement authority or responsibility. Governor Cumminigs now had that power, and he had the US Army to execute his orders. They were totally inidependent of Brigham Young and the Mormons. So where was the investigation by Cummings and the Army? Essentially nowhere. For their own reasons, they appear to have not had much interest in pursuing the killers. Since potential suspects were thin on the ground, it was pretty obvious who had the motive, method and opportunity to actualy commit the crime. But the troops were more intent on slaughtering Indians.

    The Federal government ruled Utah until 1896. Congress enacted laws punishing the Mormons for polygamy. they dispatched marshals to investigate “unlawful cohabitation” and put polygamists into the territorial prison. But the effort by the same Congress and Federal authorities to find the killers was miniscule in comparison. They could spy on polygamists slipping in to visit their wives, but they could not discover the dozens of people who committed murder at Mountain Meadows.

  • Ian

    Agree with Doug on Whitewash of Brigham. —- Brigham’s Passive Aggressive Control is well demonstrated in the recent book by UK Therapist ‘Mormon Porkies and other Lies’ by what the author call ‘Lose Canons’ that are programmed from Brigham’s speeches. Once set up they can’t be recalled just like they cant’ control certain members these day from baptizing holocaust victims.

  • Ben

    Ian, that is all you have to say to Raymond? And then you quote a book that is very short on any real research and uses old smear tactics for its best approach. wow!

  • Ian

    Ben, how are you able to criticize a work like ‘Mormon Porkies and Other Lies’ when it includes my primary reference in this blog, of its inclusion of Passive Aggressive Control by Brigham Young, whilst not addressing my primary reference?
    How can you criticize a work’s research when it includes first mentioned reference to Marlin Jensen’s acknowledgement by default of the little known prophecy by B H Roberts of the demise of The Church as a result of the un-addressed history which The Church is only now attempting to address by it’s essays? .

  • Camacho

    It’s all well and good that you have your opinion and theories, but do you have anything to backit up? The theory that Brigham Young expressly told the Mormons in southern Utah to let the settlers through is backed up by what is essentially a photocopy of the letter itself. You say “alleged” but it would be almost impossible to find better evidence that Brigham Young dispatched a letter expressly condemning any attack.

  • Doug

    You are bearing false witness.

    Do you think ALL LDS approve of the faults I have mentioned?

    Do you think Jesus hated the Pharisees and hypocrites?

    Don’t you think it is possible to hate sin, without necessarily hating the sinner?

    If Mormon bishops and missionaries that I have confronted were “true” why would they be “pestered” by the truth and the Holy Spirit?

    Why would I want to attend a “Christian” church that goes against Christ’s teachings?

  • Doug

    Your assertions are dishonest. I have backed up my claims with quotes from John D. Lee & Brigham Young.