A Utah Massacre and Mormon Memory

New York Times/May 24, 2003
By Sally Denton

Santa Fe, N.M. -- As families tramp all over the country this summer, visiting historic sites, there's one spot - Mountain Meadows in southwestern Utah - that won't be on many itineraries.

Mountain Meadows, a two-hour drive from one of the state's popular tourist destinations, Zion National Park, is the site of what the historian Geoffrey Ward has called "the most hideous example of the human cost exacted by religious fanaticism in American history until 9/11." And while it might not be a major tourist destination, for a century and a half the massacre at Mountain Meadows has been the focus of passionate debate among Mormons and the people of Utah. It is a debate that cuts to the core of the basic tenets of Mormonism. This, the darkest stain on the history of the religion, is a bitter reality and challenging predicament for a modern Mormon Church struggling to shed its extremist history.

On Sept. 11, 1857, in a meadow in southwestern Utah, a militia of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, attacked a wagon train of Arkansas families bound for California. After a five-day siege, the militia persuaded the families to surrender under a flag of truce and a pledge of safe passage. Then, in the worst butchery of white pioneers by other white pioneers in the entire colonization of America, approximately 140 men, women and children were slaughtered. Only 17 children under the age of 8 - the age of innocence in the Mormon faith - were spared.

After the massacre, the church first claimed that local Paiute Indians were responsible, but as evidence of Mormon involvement mounted, it placed the sole blame for the killings on John D. Lee, a militia member and a Mormon zealot who was also the adopted son of the prophet Brigham Young. After nearly two decades, as part of a deal for statehood, Lee was executed by a firing squad in 1877. The church has been reluctant to assume responsibility - labelling Lee a renegade - but several historians, including some who are Mormon, believe that church leaders, though never prosecuted, ordered the massacre.

Now, 146 years later, Lee's descendants and the victims' relatives have been pressing the Mormon Church for an apology. The move for some official church acknowledgment began in the late 1980's, when a group of Lee descendants, including a former United States secretary of the interior, Stewart Udall, began working to clear their ancestor's name. In 1990, descendants of victims and perpetrators began urging the Mormon Church to accept responsibility for the massacre and to rebuild a crumbling landmark established at the site by United States Army troops in 1859.

The current church president, Gordon B. Hinckley - himself a prophet who says he receives divine revelations - took a personal interest in the episode, and in 1998 he agreed to restore the landmark where at least some of the bodies were buried. But even that concession turned controversial when, in August 1999, a church contractor's backhoe accidentally unearthed the bones of 29 victims. After a debate between Utah state officials and church leaders - what has been called Utah's "unique church-state tango" - about state laws requiring unearthed bones to be forensically examined for cause of death, the church had the remains quickly reburied without any extensive examination that might have drawn new attention to the brutality of the murders.

A month later, on Sept. 10, 1999, when descendants of the perpetrators and the victims gathered to dedicate a church-financed monument in what they hoped would be a "healing" service, both sides were disappointed by Mr. Hinckley's remarks. He continued to hedge on the issue of church responsibility, even adding a legal disclaimer many found offensive. "That which we have done here must never be construed as an acknowledgment of the part of the church of any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day," he said. This was thought by many to be an effort to avoid wrongful-death lawsuits. But the church's reluctance to apologize is more complicated.

At a time when religions around the world are acknowledging and atoning for past sins, the massacre has left the Mormon Church in a quandary. Roman Catholics have apologized for their silence during the Holocaust, United Methodists for their massacre of American Indians during the Civil War, Southern Baptists for their support of slavery, and Lutherans for Martin Luther's anti-Jewish remarks. But unlike the leaders of other religions, who are believed to be guided by the hand of God, Mormon prophets are considered extensions of him.

To acknowledge complicity on the part of church leaders runs the risk of calling into question Brigham Young's divinity and the Mormon belief that they are God's chosen people. "If good Mormons committed the massacre," wrote a Mormon writer, Levi Peterson, "if prayerful leaders ordered it, if apostles and a prophet knew about it and later sacrificed John D. Lee, then the sainthood of even the modern church seems tainted."

Believing they were doing God's work in ridding the world of "infidels," evangelical Mormon zealots committed one of the greatest civilian atrocities on American soil. Without a sustained attempt at accountability and atonement, the church will not escape the hovering shadow of that horrible crime.

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