Mormons lionize reputed multiple killer

"Destroying Angel" Rockwell among 19th-century shady characters revered by church

Associated Press/June 6, 2004
By Travis Reed

Salt Lake City -- Mormons are not shy about honoring real-life heroes of their faith, often erecting statues and naming everything from buildings to trails for them.

But alongside revered figures like popular former church president David O. McKay from the historical annals of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter- day Saints, some less-than-angelic characters have been elevated to near cult-hero status.

Just last month, an LDS history conference featured a day-long session on Orrin Porter Rockwell, who became known as "The Destroying Angel" after allegedly attempting to assassinate the governor of Missouri. He's now canonized by many church members as a folk hero.

Statues of Rockwell - a former bodyguard for the first two presidents of the Mormon Church, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young - stand in two towns. There's even a Porter Rockwell Boulevard in Bluffdale.

Brian Wilson, chairman of the comparative religion department at Western Michigan University, said it's perhaps difficult for the LDS faithful to create mythological heroes because the religion is so young.

"Part of the problem is these are figures that are very well historically documented," he said. "It's kind of difficult to clean up or sweep under the rug those elements that in the construction of an ideal hero you'd like to see go away."

Wilson said there is less historical information about people who lived 500, 1,000 or 1,500 years ago.

"You can more easily mythologize them," he said. "Who knows what kind of warts we'd find if we actually knew more about these people?"

LDS church spokesman Dale Bills said the church declined to comment for this story.

Rockwell is perhaps the most controversial of revered Mormon legends - though he isn't unanimously honored by the LDS faithful.

According to historical records, the frontiersman was a formidable figure even at age 27.

Rockwell was stern and barrel- chested, and built to handle the rigors of the untamed early West.

He was recognized for his skills with a pistol and rifle, and by some accounts killed hundreds in his day - including an assassination attempt on the governor of Missouri who ordered the Mormons exterminated or excommunicated from his state.

"Rockwell is a controversial figure, and many of the things about him have grown up out of legend and stories," said Larry King, executive director of the Mormon History Association, which recently conducted the history conference that included tours of landmarks associated with the frontiersman.

"Many of them can be substantiated," King said, "and many cannot."

The town of Bluffdale, about 20 miles south of Salt Lake City, pays perhaps the greatest homage to Rockwell. The frontiersman reportedly once lived there and ran a stagecoach inn that served whiskey, and is now memorialized with a boulevard and a business park.

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