The Irresistible Irrelevancy of the Mountain Meadows Massacre

Cue deep-voiced trailer-announcing specialist Don La Fontaine:

This Friday, in theatres everywhere, God’s fury will be unleashed! Or how about: Holy Warriors will spill blood in God’s Name! Or maybe: Religious people are crazy killers!

The possibilities for super-sensationalistic tag-lines are infinite. But the ways in which the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre is relevant to the 2008 presidential campaign are not. Interest in this episode is rising as a result of the marketing campaign surrounding September Dawn, a modern retelling of an old story, which attempts to persuade of its relevance via emphasis on the similarities between 19th century Mormon zealots and contemporary Jihadists. Exhibit 1: the massacre happened on SEPTEMBER 11th!!! This fact, apropos of nothing, appears in every interview, story, release, and blurb sent out to hype the movie. Perhaps the chance to chill viewers with a coincidental convergence of the calendar is the best they’ve got.

I had planned to see September Dawn this weekend, the better to respond to it, but alas, Variety’s description of the film’s climax as “graphically staged,” “fetishistic” “massacre porn” convinced me I might find better ways to spend my Friday night. Massacre porn not really being my thing.

Regardless, one need not see the movie to understand that it provides easy ammunition for unscrupulous critics to lob at Mitt Romney if needed. Some have already drawn connections between the murderous Mormons at the center of the ancient massacre and the decidedly non-murderous Mormon candidate at the center of the 2008 presidential race. Given the negative press being generated about Mitt Romney, and about the LDS Church in general on this subject, some level-headed truth-telling is in order.

So, what is the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and why should anyone care? Here’s my brief summary. (If your interest goes beyond this short recounting, I highly recommend this more complete article, by an LDS expert on the subject). In 1857, Mormon pioneers were establishing their homes in the frontier country of Utah, the first of their group having arrived in Salt Lake just ten years earlier. The trek to Utah was spurred by the ejection of the Mormons from many other settled areas, including Missouri and Illinois, where their leader, Joseph Smith, had been killed. The violence of the Mormons’ expulsion from the United States (due in part to their own insularity and practice of polygamy) drove the Mormons to seek a homeland of their own, and to view outsiders with some suspicion.

Word reached Utah in 1857 that a federal army was on its way there, to investigate rumors of Mormon treason and assert federal control over the territory. These rumors had been exacerbated by the control of Brigham Young over Utah, and the near-theocratic structure of the desert community. The army’s approach raised an embattled mentality in Utahns, generating plenty of talk about defending lives and property, and making a last stand.

While this tension (which was later resolved without major confrontations with the Army, having been drummed up mostly by overheated talk on both sides) continued, a party of Arkansas emigrants on their way to California passed through Southern Utah. The local Mormons in Cedar City refused to sell them provisions or otherwise treat them kindly. This led to some conflict with the Arkansans, whose home state happened to be the site of the recent murder of a prominent Mormon Apostle, Parley P. Pratt. Suspicion and rancor increased, and the emigrant party rode out of town to rest at a site that had been offered by the locals.

While the wagon train stayed there, they suffered a series of attacks, mostly from the local Paiute Indian tribe, who had been put up to the task by local settlers. Hostilities continued while various local community and ecclesiastical leaders of the Cedar City area fought about how to resolve the conflict. While the leader of the local militia refused to authorize an assault, others were more anxious for a battle.

The tide turned when a Mormon settler shot at two emigrants, killing one but leaving the other to return and report to the wagon train that their attacker was a white man, not an Indian. Some of the Cedar City settlers, realizing that they risked exposure as the real attackers, decided after much debate to complete their onslaught. They approached the wagon train feigning peaceable intentions, and convinced the unarmed emigrants to follow them to safety. On a pre-arranged signal, the settlers turned and shot the emigrants, leaving only the youngest of the children alive.

The treachery of the Cedar City settlers remains the most astonishing and violent episode in the history of Utah. There is no dispute over the brutality and tragedy of their actions. Some facts, however, remain contested. The most important of those is what role the institutional LDS Church, i.e., Mormon Prophet Brigham Young, located 250 miles away in Salt Lake City, played in these events.

Some historians have concluded that Brigham Young was directly culpable in the massacre, arguing that nothing happened in Utah without his say-so. That argument is naive on its face. The most powerful dictator in the world could not control all events in his kingdom, if his kingdom was a sprawling desert the size of territorial Utah, bereft of the tools of rapid communication. If Brigham Young is to be implicated in this fiasco, there must be greater evidence than the accusation of near-magical powers of far-reaching control.

And yet almost all of the real evidence on the question points in the other direction. For example, responding immediately to a less-than-forthright missive from the Cedar City leaders, Young sent a message directing that “we must not meddle with them . . . if those who are there will leave, let them go in peace.” That message, sent on September 10, arrived two days too late. While some historians continue to argue that Brigham Young had his hand in the massacre, the majority of inquiries on this question have arrived at the opposite conclusion. Judging from the most reliable historical evidence, the Mountain Meadows Massacre was most likely the responsibility of a few paranoid and violent Mormons who lived in the Southwest corner of Utah.

Two questions remain. First, what does this teach us about Mormonism? It means that some Mormons, like subsets of most groups in history, were capable of horrible things when brought under the grip of insecurity and xenophobia. It means that evil may strike wherever humanity is found. It is hard to find any meaning beyond that. While some have attempted to locate the massacre within a framework of Mormon doctrine, these attempts necessarily ignore the actual events in question. Setting aside any ideological justifications for violence you might find within Mormonism (every ideology has such justifications), there was little such doctrine involved in these killings, and none of the perpetrators appear to have been religiously motivated.* Yes, there was an ecclesiastical chain of command being followed by Mormons trained to submit to authority, but the underlying motives were quite independent of theology. These were people driven by hatred, paranoia, and fear– of outsiders, of losing another homeland, and of getting caught. In other words, it is much easier to locate the massacre within the tragically commonplace weaknesses of humans generally, than within any strain of Mormon theology, despite the crude renderings of Brigham Young’s teachings reportedly depicted by the film. To summarize, the Mountain Meadows Massacre means almost nothing at all about modern Mormonism, except that it offers some proof that Mormons are humans, and are a mixed bag at that. (It also bears noting that the Mormon Church has expressed deep regret over this episode and erected a monument on the site, hoping to bring some comfort to the descendants of the victims.)

The final question is this: What does the Mountain Meadows Massacre say about Mitt Romney? The premise of the question is so tenuous that one has to grasp at straws even to formulate an answer. The massacre episode means that Mitt Romney belongs to a religion that at one single time in its 177-year history saw a group of its members overcome by violent passion, with gruesome results. That religion carries a blemish from the behavior of those men, but when the blemish is viewed in context with the lives of the throng of others who have shared the same religion, it recedes almost completely from view. In the ocean of goodness and moral uprightness exemplified, or at least sought for, by the members of this faith, that massacre, though significant, adds up to only a drop.

But more importantly, the question of how good/dangerous Mormons really are is not one that reveals anything about Mitt Romney. Do you have a brother or parent or cousin whose actions you hope not to be implicated in, by mere association? Imagine if it were a grandparent or uncle or aunt that someone wanted to make you answer for. Then imagine if it were a great-great grandparent. Instead, what if it were someone wholly unrelated, but who shared some or your beliefs, and happened to live some 150 years ago. Would you be right to complain if someone slurred you with the acts of that person?

Just as you are not responsible for the evils committed by members of your faith hundreds of years in the past, Mitt Romney is not responsible for the acts of homesteaders in Utah over a century and a half ago. His record, biography and character are very much in the present, and provide all that any voter needs to make an educated evaluation. The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a sad chapter in the long book of Mormonism’s past, but it is only one chapter, and it is past.

*A knowledgeable correspondent suggests a caveat to this statement. While there is no reason to think that the settlers relied on actual Mormon doctrines in committing their crimes, it is important to note that the massacre took place at a time in Utah history referred to by historians as the Reformation. The Reformation consisted of attempts by the Church to encourage its membership to greater piety on many aspects of their behavior. Some sermons during this movement even suggested that the unrepentant should be expelled from the Saints’ communities. The generalized atmosphere of hyper-devoutness and suspicion of the unfaithful that pervaded this period could have played a part in the motivations of the massacre’s perpetrators, although that influence, if any, is hard to track and was not specifically referenced by the relevant actors. In short, a generalized feeling of pious fervor could have played some role, but no evidence suggests that any doctrine or exhortation was used as justification.