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For week ended March 19, 2000 Posted 24 Feb 2001
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News about Mormons, Mormonism,
and the LDS Church
Sent on Mormon-News: 14Mar00

Summarized by Kent Larsen

Hinckley's Mountain Meadows Efforts Made Limited Progress
Salt Lake Tribune 14Mar00 N6
By Christopher Smith: Salt Lake Tribune

MOUNTAIN MEADOWS, UTAH -- While the LDS Church sought last fall to heal the wounds opened for 142 years, the legal and practical issues of the attempt limited what could be said and how it could be delivered. That, combined with the accidental discovery of the remains of 29 of the victims thwarted much of what was gained by building the memorial.

The descendants of the victims have long hoped for some kind of apology from the LDS Church for the massacre, "What we've felt would put this resentment to rest would be an official apology from the church," says Scott Fancher of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation in Arkansas, a group of direct descendants of the victims. "Not an admission of guilt, but an acknowledgement of neglect and of intentional obscuring of the truth."

But they weren't to get that, and current Mountain Meadows Association president Gene Sessions says that the Church can't give it, "You're not going to get an apology for several reasons, one of which is that as soon as you say you're sorry, here come the wrongful-death lawsuits," says Sessions. "If President Hinckley ever contemplated he was going to open this can of worms he never would have bothered to do this, because it asks embarrassing questions. It raises the old question of whether Brigham Young ordered the massacre and whether Mormons do terrible things because they think their leaders want them to do terrible things."

LDS author Levi Peterson tries to explain the dilemna that the Church and Church members face this way, "If good Mormons committed the massacre, 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," he has written. "Where is the moral superiority of Mormonism, where is the assurance that God has made Mormons his new chosen people?" Historian Will Bagley, who has written a forthcoming book on the tragedy agrees, "The massacre has left the Mormon Church on the horns of a dilemma," says Utah historian Will Bagley, author of a forthcoming book on Mountain Meadows. "It can't acknowledge its historic involvement in a mass murder, and if it can't accept its accountability, it can't repent."

Another historian, David Bigler, says that part of the problem is that the Mormons that committed the massacre were different from today's LDS Church members, "The problem is that Mormons then were not simply old-fashioned versions of Mormons today," says historian David Bigler, author of Forgotten Kingdom. "Then, they were very zealous believers; it was a faith that put great emphasis on the Old Testament and the Blood of Israel." Sessions says for this reason the individual members couldn't help getting involved, "Somebody made a terrible decision that this has got to be done," he says. "I don't justify it in any way. But I do believe it would have taken more guts to stay home in Cedar City on those days in 1857 than it would to go out there to the meadows and take part. You couldn't stay away. You would have been out there killing people."

The LDS Church isn't alone in having to explain such problems. The Catholic Church apologized recently for its treatment of the Jews during its long history, a treatment that is much worse than Mountain Meadows. And other religious groups have apologized for atrocities also.

Ever since the massacre, historians have struggled to explain it. While the massacre has been the subject of alternate explanations, such as the often used story that Indians were behind the massacre, historians say the evidence doesn't support these alternatives. The first major book to deal with the tragedy was LDS historian Juanita Brooks' "The Mountain Meadows Massacre." Brooks explained the massacre by pointing out that the emigrants were from an Arkansas county adjacent to where LDS Apostle Parley P. Pratt had recently been murdered. Others said that the group included some Missourians that persecuted Mormons 20 years earlier.

But none of these explanations are entirely satisfying to many historians. Bagley's forthcoming "Blood of the Prophets" includes new evidence which supports some assertions and blunts others. Bigler says that no one explanation will give the whole truth, "When you have 50 to perhaps more than 70 men participate in an event like this, you can't just say they got upset," says Bigler, a Utah native. "We have to believe they did not want to do what they did any more than you or I would. We have to recognize they thought what they were doing is what authority required of them. The only question to be resolved is did that authority reach all the way to Salt Lake City?" But when Juanita Brooks brought up this issue 50 years ago in "The Mountain Meadows Massacre," she was labeled an apostate by some.

So it comes as no surprise that President Hinckley, delivering words of reconciliation at the September 11, 1999 dedication of the rebuilt monument, added a legal disclaimer, "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," The disclaimer came at the recommendation of attorneys.

When Hinckley gave an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune on February 23rd, he was asked where he would place the blame. He told the Tribune, "Well, I would place blame on the local people. I've never thought for one minute -- and I've read the history of that tragic episode -- that Brigham Young had anything to do with it. It was a local decision and it was tragic. We can't understand it in this time."

At the dedication, Hinckley declared, "Let the book of the past be closed," believing it pointless to continue speculating about why the massacre happened. "None of us can place ourselves in the moccasins of those who lived there at the time," he said in an interview. "The feelings that were aroused, somehow, that I cannot understand. But it occurred. Now, we're trying to do something that we can to honorably and reverently and respectfully remember those who lost their lives there."

Sesssions, the Weber State University historian believes that the issue is slowly reaching that point. He says that Hinckley's efforts at reconciliation last year "may be the most significant event to happen in Mountain Meadows since John D. Lee was executed." He says that attitudes among Church members are changing.


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Lies Across America More about "Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong" at

More about Juanita Brooks' "The Mountain Meadows Massacre" at

John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat More about Juanita Brooks' "John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat" at

Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 Kent Larsen · Privacy Information