After six years of unprecedented access to LDS Church archives, hundreds of hours in the nation's libraries and thousands if not millions of dollars spent on research, three Mormon historians believe they can put to rest the question of what prompted a southern Utah Mormon militia to slaughter 120 unarmed men, women and children at Mountain Meadows on Sept. 11 1857.
Local Latter-day Saints' paranoia, poverty, miscommunication, isolation and greed - not a secret edict from Brigham Young - led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Ronald Walker, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard argue in their long-awaited volume, which hits bookstores this week.
"It is true that [Young's] rhetoric during a time of war was part of the backdrop against which the massacre happened," Turley said this week, "but he was not the proximate cause."
The LDS historians' approach in Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Oxford University Press, $29.95) will not satisfy researchers and critics who remain convinced Young ordered the execution of the Arkansas emigrants, at least covertly, in what many view as one of the darkest chapters in LDS Church history.
"No faith-believing Mormon could ever acknowledge Brigham Young's complicity in the massacre and no 'gentile' could think otherwise," said Salt Lake City bookseller Ken Sanders, who will host a discussion with the three authors next week. "We are going to be arguing about the details for another 151 years."
Sanders acknowledges there is no evidence for Young's involvement, but in the 19th century there was "a systematic effort to cover up and destroy records, diaries, and court records of the day."
Still, Sanders thinks Massacre is a ground-breaking book, not a Mormon whitewash.
"We have got to give a lot of credit to the LDS Church for stepping up and owning the Mountain Meadows Massacre," he said. "This is something that has been swept under the rug, denied and hidden for 151 years. This book represents a real paradigm shift and that's remarkable."
Sanders points to the fact that though all three authors are or were employed by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they insist that LDS authorities did not dictate or approve the book's direction.
"We came up with the idea for the book ourselves. We were not assigned to do it," said Turley, assistant LDS Church historian. "We sought the cooperation of church leaders to get access to information [such as the First Presidency's confidential collection] but asked that we retain full editorial control and they've honored that."
Massacre is a gripping narrative aimed at the general reader that fills in many missing details of the notorious crime, laying out an almost hour-by-hour account of frenzied discussions among the participants during the week leading up to the attacks. Complex and nuanced with a deep awareness of psychology and social systems, the book also weaves in recent scholarship on religion and violence, especially acts done in the midst of hysteria and war.
Readers can sense the building anxiety about an army sent from Washington to unseat Brigham Young as territorial governor and can hear Young and others' war-like rhetoric as they prepared to defend themselves yet again. They can feel the anguish in the church councils as Mormon leaders in Cedar City wrestled with what to do to cover up their escalating violence against the emigrants. They can see the carnage of the innocents, strewn on the meadows.
In the days before the final episode, the authors write, Mormon militia members attacked the Arkansas wagon train, killing several participants. The murderers became convinced that if any emigrants made it to California, they would report Mormon rather than Indian involvement and even more troops would arrive in Utah to wipe them out. They believed the church's very survival was at stake.
"The trio of authors has properly tagged direct responsibility for the massacre on local church leaders and Nauvoo Legion officers, with Southern Paiutes playing a minor role," said William P. MacKinnon of Santa Barbara, Calif., author of the newly published At Sword's Point, a documentary history of the Utah War. "I give credit to the authors for this somewhat nontraditional view as well as their willingness to rescue the reputation of the victims from the appalling vilification that's taken place for 150 years. They have also identified the impact of Gov. Brigham Young's overheated rhetoric and provocative actions in helping to create a violent atmosphere in Utah leading up to the massacre."
It may "make obsolete previous studies and without doubt will constitute the necessary starting point for all future ones," adds Kathleen Flake, author of The Politics of American Religious Identity.
Walker, a retired Brigham Young University history professor who is now an independent researcher in Salt Lake City, said, "Our marching orders, as I understood them, were to find the truth and tell it. That's what we have tried to do."
That sentiment may be the book's greatest contribution - giving a full, warts-and-all portrait of LDS history to the Mormon faithful, who would not likely read or believe any of the earlier accounts.
"Many Mormons still don't know anything about it," Turley said. "My feeling is the best approach is to face it."
The massacre was a "shameful part of Mormon history," said Leonard, former director of the LDS Museum of Church History. "It's a terrible, sad story and a hard one to read. We can't condone what they did, but we can try to understand it. Good history brings you into the story in a way that you can understand yourself. You should wonder, what would I have done had I been there?"