Mormon Church revisits dark period
from the August 24, 2007 edition -
Ahead of 'September Dawn,' Mormon Church revisits dark period
In response to the new movie, the church sheds light on the 1857 Mountain
By Ben Arnoldy | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
Mountain Meadows, Utah
At a time when the Mormon Church is drawing heightened public visibility
because of Mitt Romney's presidential bid, the church is grappling more
openly with one of its darkest chapters.
The "Utah War" has largely faded from American memory as the Mormon Church
and the public's acceptance of it evolved. But one incident from that
time stubbornly lingers and is now the subject of a fictionalized film that
opens in theaters Friday.
On Sept. 11, 1857, Mormons aided by native American allies massacred about
120 unarmed men, women, and children bound for California by wagon train.
The slaughter took place amid war hysteria: The US Army was marching toward
Utah to confront Mormon leaders.
After covering up the Mountain Meadows massacre for years, the church is
supporting an exhaustive Mormon research effort to leave no stone unturned.
The findings, unflattering in spots, are being broadcast worldwide in the
latest edition of the church's magazine.
"It's clear that at very important levels the church is opening itself in
ways that it had not felt comfortable with [before]," says Sarah Barringer
Gordon, a law professor and religion expert at University of Pennsylvania.
"People [in Utah] really understand perhaps as they hadn't until the last
five, six years or so that there's a need and a possibility for real
investigation and acceptance of a painful past."
Kent Bylund, a Mormon who owned land at the site in southwestern Utah, has
seen a shift in attitude. Tapped by Mormon President Gordon Hinckley to
head up construction of a memorial in 1999, Mr. Bylund turned to the local
Mormon community for donations of time and money.
"People wanted to be a part of this healing process. For Mormons, it's a
part of their heritage, and it's hard for them to come to terms with it,"
But Bylund also received death threats from Mormons unhappy with the
effort. And when a backhoe accidentally dug up a shovel full of bones,
distrust of the church flared among victims' relatives. Finally, at the
dedication ceremony, Mr. Hinckley offered words of healing to the
descendants, but punctuated them with a legalistic disclaimer of any church
"Compared to what we've seen in the last 150 years, since 1999 [church
officials] have made strides," says Patty Norris, head of the Mountain
Meadows Massacre Descendants, a group of those related to the 17 children
under age 7 who were spared. "But they need to go a lot further. We want
them to openly acknowledge that church leaders were involved."
She says her group also wants the church to help round up property that was
stolen from the train, agree to turn over the site to some other steward,
and very simply apologize.
Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have expressed
sympathy. "My heart has gone out to the descendants," Elder Dallin Oaks
said in a recent PBS documentary. "What a terrible thing to contemplate,
that the barbarity of the frontier and the conditions of the Utah war,
whatever provocations were perceived to have been given, would have led to
... such an extreme atrocity perpetrated by members of my faith."
The church, says author Will Bagley, is on the horns of a dilemma: "Until
you can embrace confession, you can't repent. If you can't repent, there's
His 2002 book on the massacre, "The Blood of the Prophets," argues that
evidence points to Brigham Young hatching the plot to scare the US from its
march to war. Religious leaders then used Mormon imagery of apocalypse and
vengeance to whip up subordinates.
Like Mr. Bagley, the new movie "September Dawn," puts the blame on top
Mormon leaders and religious fanaticism, at times using heavy-handed
contrasts with the protestant piety of the immigrants.
The forthcoming history written by three Mormon authors sees many universal
rather than just Mormon dynamics at play. The book looks at other
atrocities in different cultures and finds commonalities with Mountain
Meadows, including the tendencies to demonize outsiders during times of
But the religion played a role: "There were statements made both in Salt
Lake City and by local leaders down in southern Utah that tended to inflame
emotions," says coauthor Ron Walker. "To that extent, ... there is a
measure of culpability."
After reading their manuscript, Jan Shipps, a preeminent non-Mormon
scholar, urged the writers to flesh out the religious backdrop. But she
praises the book's research, and says it's a big deal that the church is
publishing a synopsis in next month's church magazine.
"Can you imagine what that means in the official magazine of the church
that's going all over the world to people who have just joined the church?"
says Dr. Shipps.
Being a fifth-generation Mormon like Bylund doesn't make the massacre any
less jarring to faith.
"The children who died you can't be out here without thinking about
them," he says, looking across the sage-strewn meadow. He could see the
bullet holes in the bones dug up by the backhoe.
Yet he also thinks of his ancestors who were chased out of Missouri and
Illinois by violent mobs. They feared the Army's arrival, and having to
start over again.
He asks other Mormons whether they could imagine getting swept up in the
massacre had they been in the local militia in 1857. "I've never met anyone
who has this type of heritage who would say no," say Bylund. And would they
regret it afterward? "They all said yes."
Did Young order the massacre?
People have long speculated that Mormon leader Brigham Young orchestrated
the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The new movie "September Dawn" depicts Young
holding a secret meeting of Mormon leaders where the idea of the massacre
is proposed and Mr. Young approved. There is no proof of that.
When a messenger was sent to Young asking what to do with the train, the
leader sent word to let it pass. That message came too late, however, and
not all scholars take it at face value.
Historian Will Bagley, in his widely respected book "Blood of the
Prophets," fanned the debate in 2002 with two major new pieces of
First, in a meeting days before the attack, Young authorized Indian chiefs
from southern Utah to steal cattle from emigrants a "criminal act," says
Bagley, who argues Young knew it would lead to the killing of innocents.
Second, one of Young's sermons warned that if the advancing US Army
attacks, he would no longer protect emigrants from Indians: "I will say no
more to the Indians, let them alone, but do as you please. And what is
that? It is to use them up."
Bagley admits the case against Young remains "circumstantial."
Nevertheless, he says, "the best historical evidence is that Brigham Young
ordered it [and] covered it up."
The upcoming, church-blessed account will argue that the plan was hatched
by Mormons in southern Utah, not Young. Coauthor Richard Turley argues that
only one of the Indian chiefs at the meeting can be shown to be in the
region of the fighting, and he was on a peaceful mission.
"Were there things said in Salt Lake City by President Young that lent
themselves to create this atmosphere of tension in the south? Well, of
course there were," says Mr. Turley. "But doggone, when you are in a war,
things are said that you later on wish weren't said."
Decisive proof for either view may never emerge.
"I don't know whether Brigham ordered it, but he was a part of the context
that made it possible," says Jan Shipps, a preeminent outside scholar of