My reader’s copy of this long awaited book arrived Monday (the 28th) and by Tuesday morning I finished it just in time to arrive at Bushman’s apologetic seminar 45 minutes late after pulling an all-nighter. I have been busy helping two different sets of relatives move, so I haven’t got this review completed as fast as I would like and now I am informed that Amazon is shipping the book. Nevertheless, I will still have to release my review in installments. Those who are just now getting their copies would be well served by checking out Kramer and Stapley’s review as well.
The main narrative is sandwiched in between two vignettes from well after the Massacre. The prologue introduces us to its horror as US army officer James Carleton buries the bones of the victims and expresses his outrage at the Mormons he discovered were responsible. The epilogue portrays John D. Lee’s conveyance back to the Mountain Meadows to face a firing squad, where he disappointed those who hoped that his final confession would implicate Brigham Young. The main narrative basicly flows in chronological order, with an occasional backtrack to introduce new personalities or to start a new story arc, all of which fatefully converge on the Mountain Meadows. The first chapter is a highly compressed history of the pre-exodus LDS church highlighting the suffering of the Saints at the hands of mobs and militias. About 220 pages later, the last chapter ends with James Haslam’s tragically too-late arrival with Brigham Young’s direction to “let the emigrants ‘go in peace.’”
The brisk pace of the prose allows the authors (Walker, Turley, and Leonard) to confidently present their historical reconstruction. That is because they spend little time arguing against alternative reconstructions or explaining a rationale for privileging one source or another. Many sources and concepts are presented with minimal commentary and readers are made to work at making conclusions and making connections. I am going to attempt to do just that in this review on some of the items that caught my interest.
John D. Lee
The authors wanted to avoid two polarized approaches employed in past treatments. “One approach portrays the perpetrators as good people and the victims as evil ones who committed outrages during their travel through central and southern Utah. … The second approach looks at the innocence of the emigrants and the evil of the killers, who at best are described as followers of a misguided religion.” (p. xii-xiii) I think the authors, in general, succeed in their attempt to follow a moderating course. However, the gloves clearly come off when discussing John D. Lee.
Abused and suicidal as a child, Lee grew up to be abusive and power hungry as an adult. On the positive side he was recognized as an energetic, hard worker by Brigham Young. A wife, Nancy Bean describes a propensity of Lee’s to cover up his bad behavior from Young and the Twelve and not answer to anyone else (p. 61). Lee is portrayed as a zealot, something he himself was able to recognize in hindsight (p.62). When Lee was the presiding elder in Harmony, he strove for control over Indian affairs with the nearby Indian mission. One of the missionaries confided in his diary that Lee experienced transparently self-serving “dreams, visions, and revelations” (p.65). Perhaps most disturbing was Lee’s tyrannical behavior as a military officer in the Walker War. He as “determined to carry out orders . . . if need be by the shedding of Blood” (p. 63) of those he regarded as apostates. Although no deaths resulted, 31 adults deserted the Church for California and many were courts-martialed for minor offenses.
I think is important writing about a controversial subject to establish trust with the intended audience. Massacre at Mountain Meadows is destined to become the definitive work for many non-specialists, average Church members who read the article in the Ensign or the inadequate treatment in CES manuals and who desire more depth. The first chapter goes along way toward establishing credibility as it recounts early Mormon history in familiar terms, but still challenging readers not ignore the Saints’ wishes for God’s justice upon their persecutors. And yes, Ron Priddis, the Saints were persecuted for their religious beliefs and practices. I feel other treatments of the massacre have alienated their potential readership by focusing on shadowy elements of Mormon ritual reported with a hostile spin by dissenters.
The so-called oath of vengeance is something I relatively know more about than the other many subjects in the book. So in following Davis Bitton’s advice for reviewing books, I find that the authors do not offer pro-Mormon syrupy drivel that avoid tough facts and sets members up for a fall when they encounter them in a hostile forum. They also avoid the other anti-Mormon extreme, which gives uncontested voice to zealots and dissidents to distort Mormon history. I have been a contributor for the article in the FAIR wiki on alleged oaths of vengeance in the temple, which has been a work in progress as I have encountered more data points that help patch together the cultural milieu on vengeance. What I am discovering is that one does not have to invade sacred space to recover what the Saints thought about the subject as it is rather transparent in the scriptures and in the Saints’ public reaction to such events as the Martyrdom. So I appreciate the authors’ minimalistic handling of temple practices, for example the prayer circle at the Mountain Meadows is labeled an act of sacrilege (p. 189) and the narrative moves on. I am pleased in the overlap in texts and events we both selected to give context to a subject that can be very disturbing for members. I have known that the section on the Utah period is inadequate and this book will undoubtedly provide material for an update.
Particularly noteworthy is how the authors frame Mormon/Gentile conflict in us vs. them, majority vs. minority terms. The Mormons often took the brunt of the heavy-handed methods that the majority took to preemptively keep the Mormons from getting political control. But it is sobering that when the situation was reversed on a smaller scale, Mormons likewise abused their power. In one of the darkest moments in Mormon history prior to the massacre, Missouri dissenters (such as David Whitmer) were deprived of their property and forcefully cast out like salt that lost its savor.
The Saints’ hopes and dreams for vengeance to befall their persecutors took three different forms. The most mature form hoped that God would enact justice without any assistance. The most problematic form, seen in southern Utah contemporaneously with the approach of Harney’s (later Johnson’s) Army envisioned the Saints themselves would be called upon to instruments of God’s wrath. We see this in a Pioneer Day parade where a cadre of youth march as “Zion’s Avengers” in Cedar City (p. 131) and in a women’s society meeting where praying for the massacre perpetrators (under the misguided notion they were acting in self-defense) and teaching children to desire vengeance for the “blood of the Prophets” (p. 135 and p. 181) was chillingly taught. The authors show that some of the Mormon settlers could make the irrational leap to transfer guilt onto goups that were not directly responsible for past persecution.
A third form taken was that the Indians were to rise up and be instruments of vengeance. I stumbled upon the earliest manifestation of this idea that I have a few weeks ago while reading Joseph Lee Robinson’s reminiscent account of a Nauvoo 9th Ward meeting following the lynching of Joseph and Hyrum. Ezra T. Benson was present, but I have no proof that John D. Lee was, except that he is identified as a 9th Ward member earlier in Robinson’s journal. Robinson is asked to interpret a lengthy discourse in tongues. He predicts that those who murdered the Smith brothers would go unpunished by the law, but the Lamanites would convert to the Gospel and form a mighty army to avenge the blood of the prophets (p. 47-48). The Massacre of Mountain Meadows does not bring this source up, but for practical reasons, the Mormons wanted the Indians to be their allies during the upcoming war. Which leads me to the next topic I would like to discuss, that of Brigham Young’s Indian policies.