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Mormon Church revisits dark period

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  • Robert Schmidt
    http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0824/p02s01-ussc.html from the August 24, 2007 edition - http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0824/p02s01-ussc.html Ahead of September
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 24, 2007
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      http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0824/p02s01-ussc.html

      from the August 24, 2007 edition -
      http://www.csmonitor.com/2007/0824/p02s01-ussc.html

      Ahead of 'September Dawn,' Mormon Church revisits dark period
      In response to the new movie, the church sheds light on the 1857 Mountain
      Meadows massacre.

      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,"
      says Bylund.

      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
      responsibility.

      "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
      no forgiveness."

      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
      war.

      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
      incriminating evidence.

      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
      Mormonism.
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