Sunday, November 27, 2011

What About Mountain Meadows?!

That's how I first heard about it, shouted at me when I was just a kid heading to Primary. With our suburban Seattle ward spread out for miles - in fact, the eastern boundary in those days was the crest of the Cascade Mountains - we had a mothers' car pool to gather us up every Tuesday after school to take us to church for Primary some miles away. One of the kids we sometimes picked up was a girl my age who blurted out those words on one occasion, I'm not even sure it was on a Primary trip, but I was with one of the Primary moms. This girl lived in terrible conditions that I guess we were not supposed to talk about because no one ever did. Her mom was very active in the church and silently strong, yet always appeared a little bedraggled with her hair out of place. The dad was not active, in fact the whisper was that he drank and it was doubtful he worked much if at all. Their house was not the typical suburban tract home like the rest of us came from. It was hard to see it other than as a shack, and the yard was full of junk.

I have no idea of the context of the girl yelling about Mountain Meadows. She was a smart girl, my age, and sometimes a "smart aleck" in our Sunday School and Primary classes. I was sensitive enough to understand even if I couldn't explain it at the time that her "intellectual" challenges to authority came out of her hurt, shame, and wounded pride from her less-than-ideal family circumstances.

And I certainly didn't understand about Mountain Meadows except that it was also some kind of taboo, having seen it used only as a verbal lash in a moment of desperation. My next hint was from a High School friend, not a member, who was reading a history book about the pioneering families of Washington State and some reference to their choice of route west to avoid being "killed by the Mormons" in Utah. He had a good laugh about that at my expense, neither of us understanding what the context really may have been.

Through my education and interest in reading, I came across enough references to start putting the stories together. There had been a massacre of a wagon train heading to California, the guilty parties being Indians and Mormons who blamed each other, and a sense in some stories that the immigrants had somehow deserved it because they were threatening the Mormons or had actually been Missouri mobocrats or the actual killers of the Prophet Joseph Smith.

I became aware of the Juanita Brooks history, The Mountain Meadows Massacre, originally published by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1950. I may have even glanced at the book but I didn't sit down to read it cover to cover until many years later. I became more aware of the basic story that prominent Mormon Pioneer, John D. Lee, was involved and sentenced to death by firing squad for his part, which may have been part scapegoat for the Mormon Church. As referenced in my blog about Stewart Udall, I was well aware of the controversies including a fairly common charge in the History of the West, that Brigham Young himself was somehow at fault.

Then the church publicly owned up to its history. One of the touching connections I had with Brother Udall, a John D. Lee descendant, was his expressing appreciation for LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley in acknowledging the tragedy with the dedication of a new monument at the site and some reconciliation between the descendants of the victims' families and the perpetrators as well as with the LDS Church. I also made some visits myself to the massacre site in the mountains above St. George, Utah. Once I even took a non-Mormon friend from work who noted the ongoing controversies with the historical markers marred by modern vandals with differing views.

The Church sanctioned a published history by church historians with enhanced access to church archives. One could suppose editorial control by the church, but it is independently reviewed and published. It is an amazing book that should be required reading for every member of the church- Massacre at Mountain Meadowsby Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., Glen M. Leonard (Oxford University Press, 2008). It is a great book, hard to describe. I was impressed enough to write to the authors. My letter follows:

August 24, 2008

Ronald W. Walker
Richard E. Turley, Jr.
Glen M. Leonard
c/o Family & Church History Department
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints
50 East North Temple
Salt Lake City, Utah 84150

Dear Brothers Walker, Turley, & Leonard:

I read your book "Massacre at Mountain Meadows."  While it is not the kind of book I can say that I enjoyed due to its subject matter, I greatly appreciated it.  This is an important history that needed to be told well from someone like you who are well connected with the Church and have access to the sources that you had.  I congratulate you on your accomplishment.

What is most striking to me is that you were able to take the story from its context of Mormon versus Non-Mormon conflict to a more universal human understanding of the problem of good and evil.  I was actually pleased to find quoted in your book a phrase from one of my heroes, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, that I have long held dear as part of my personal philosophy and even testimony of the gospel.  I first read this as a teenager in 1973 in The Gulag Archipelago.*

[The quote is: "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."]

While Solzhenitsyn asked the concluding question “And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” it is exactly that breaking of the heart that is required for us to take advantage of the Atonement of Jesus Christ with any hope of freeing us from evil.  This is a true doctrine found throughout the Book of Mormon (II Nephi 2; Alma 33:19-20; III Nephi 9:20; Ether4:15, etc.).  I hope and pray we can all live it a little better.

Thank you again for the wonderful work on a difficult book.  I look forward to the companion volume on the aftermath.


*The quote appears at page 128 of your book.  The source cited is Lauren Green, “The Problem of Evil: Why Do ‘Good’ People Do Bad Things,” Apr. 11, 2007, Fox News,,2933,265314,00.html (accessed Nov. 7, 2007).  The original quote appears in my paperback version of The Gulag Archipelalgo (Harper & Row, New York, 1973) at 168.  Maybe you can use the original source in a Second Edition.

I got a nice letter in response thanking me for my interest and encouraging me to read the anticipated sequel about the aftermath. There is no word on whether they will use the better citation to their Solzhenitsyn quote in any future editions. I have referenced that elsewhere as one of my favorite quotes helping to form my personal philosophy.

The second book has not been published yet. The historical events after the massacre are somewhat troubling, too. Although, this is one historical instance where cover-up may not be worse than the horror of the original crimes.

The official church magazine, the Ensign, also published an article for 150th anniversary of the massacre in September, 2007. Richard Turley, Director of the Family and Church History Department, and one of the authors of the book, wrote a good summary of the terrible history recounted more fully in the book that was soon to be published.

The official church has made its attempt to face this history honestly and fully and has done quite well. It led me to consider what I would have done personally had I'd been in there as a Mormon pioneer settler in southern Utah in 1857. Once, I was wondering aloud with my family and my oldest daughter said, "Don't worry, Dad. You're such a contrary person you would never have gone along with something like that." It's always good to get a compliment from your kids. I hope I can remain "contrary" in all the right ways.


  1. Being an ex-Mormon I want to start out by saying that I am not ANTI Mormon. The members of the church are by and large good people. I left the church not because someone offended me or because my feelings were hurt but because after years of living the principles to the best of my ability and having a firm testimony in my belief system, things began to make no sense to me. It was a rather slow process leaving the church and it was a painful one..a very painful choice. I was leaving behind a belief system that I would have swore I would be faithful to all my life. I was SO surprised to find myself changing and I was scared beyond scared at first but it was something I knew I had to do because it still making no sense after prayer and study was an absolute sign to me that the leaders of the church were not what they were portrayed to be. We were, as a whole, being lied to and manipulated. I was devastated, to say the least, at the time, because I had been so solid in my testimony; but now, 30 years later, there is no fear and no doubt, and there hasn't been since very shortly after leaving 'the fold'. I made the right choice in leaving. I've given that history so you understand that I approach this response with the understanding of your position as a member as I upheld those beliefs too. You are passionate and intelligent and articulate; can you be truly objective? Would you be willing to read a well researched and well documented account of the MMM that is not church sanctioned and then respond or readdress the issue?

  2. Of course I'm not objective. Why would I want to be? That's where the passion as well as the moderation and certainly the choice come in. What do you want me to read, Bagley? I've skimmed some of his writings on the subject. And I'm well aware of the general nature of most of the controversy surrounding the difficult history in this and other matters to the extent they can ever be discovered as objective truth. I've made my choices and they work for me. Others will make other choices and I wish them all the best.

  3. So, Anonymous 3:02 p.m., I guess my direct answer to your question is, "no." And my question above was more rhetorical but I guess I did invite a response if you want. I'm just not really interested. I don't wish to be rude or anything, it's just not the focus of my life and I have no problem with the way the church has addressed it recently and we will see how we continue to address it. I really do wish you all the best. This is just not a big concern of mine.


Comments are welcome. Feel free to disagree as many do. You can even be passionate (in moderation). Comments that contain offensive language, too many caps, conspiracy theories, gratuitous Mormon bashing, personal attacks on others who comment, or commercial solicitations- I send to spam. This is a troll-free zone. Charity always!