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
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
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
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.