Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith tangles with a quirk of Arkansas history
CARROLLTON, Ark. — On the wildflower-studded slopes of the Ozarks, where memories run long and family ties run thick, a little-known and long-ago chapter of history still simmers.
On Sept. 11, 1857, a wagon train from this part of Arkansas met with a gruesome fate in Utah, where most of the travelers were slaughtered by a Mormon militia in an episode known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Hundreds of the victims’ descendants still populate these hills and commemorate the killings, which they have come to call “the first 9/11.”
Many of the locals grew up hearing denunciations of Mormonism from the pulpit on Sundays, and tales of the massacre from older relatives who considered Mormons “evil.”
“There have been Fancher family reunions for 150 years, and the massacre comes up at every one of them,” said Scott Fancher, 58, who traces his lineage back to 26 members of the wagon train, which was known as the Fancher-Baker party. “The more whiskey we drunk, the more resentful we got.”
There aren’t many places in America more likely to be suspicious of Mormonism — and potentially more problematic for Mitt Romney, who is seeking to become the country’s first Mormon president. Not only do many here retain a personal antipathy toward the religion and its followers, but they also tend to be Christian evangelicals, many of whom view Mormonism as a cult.
And yet, there is scant evidence that Romney’s religion is making much difference in how voters here are thinking about the presidential election and whether they are willing to back the former Massachusetts governor.
“I think the situation right now is more anti-Obama than any other situation,” said Dave Hoover, chairman of the Carroll County Republicans.
It is impossible to know how Romney’s faith will play out in the November election. Polls point to a persistent skepticism about the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and not just among evangelical Christians. Thirty-five percent of Americans in a Bloomberg News poll in March said they had an unfavorable view of the church, while 29 percent had a favorable view.
But it may not have a major impact on their vote: Eight out of 10 Republicans and Democrats said Romney’s faith was not a major reason to support or oppose him, according to an April Washington Post-ABC News poll. And a recent study by the Brookings Institution found that Romney’s religion may actually increase his support from conservative voters, including white evangelicals.
Indeed, many here say their political values will be more important to their vote than religion or history. A rural and deeply religious community, many cite the cultural issues of abortion and gun rights as foremost on their minds. The weak economy has deepened their dislike of President Obama, who received less than 40 percent of the vote in Arkansas in 2008.
Still, Romney’s candidacy has prompted some soul-searching in this area, where a historical group estimates that more than half the residents can trace their ancestry back to the wagon train.
“There’s families all scattered in through this area who had ancestors in that, so there is a tinge of anti-Mormonism in this area, a little bit of bias I suppose,” said Republican Roy Ragland, a former state legislator and pastor who does not believe it will make an appreciable difference at the polls.
The massacre was an anomaly for the church, because it was Mormons who were more likely to be targeted in the early days of their religion, which was founded in the 1830s and 1840s.
Mormons had been attacked by mobs and forcibly ejected from states. They were viewed as a political threat and targeted for their now-abandoned practice of polygamy.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre remains one of the darkest episodes in the history of Mormonism. The church has apologized for the incident, and Romney addressed it during his 2007 presidential campaign in response to a reporter’s question.
“That was a terrible, awful act carried out by members of my faith,” he told the Associated Press. “There are bad people in any church, and it’s true of members of my church, too.”
Violence erupted between Mormons and non-Mormons elsewhere, such as Carthage, Ill., where Mormon founder Joseph Smith was murdered by a mob. And in Independence, Mo., site of the “Missouri Mormon War,” a conflict that resulted primarily in Mormon deaths.
In northwestern Arkansas, at least two monuments commemorate the massacre, including a towering wooden cross erected just six years ago. On it is carved a biblical saying: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay saith the Lord.”
Historians believe the wagon train of 30 families, laden with cattle and other goods, set off in early 1857 seeking a better life in California.
Their journey took them through Utah, where a skittish Mormon population had sought refuge from persecution but were preparing for an invasion by the federal government, which feared the Mormons were plotting treason.
Accounts differ about why tensions escalated, but local Mormon leaders decided to attack the wagon train with the help of a local Native American tribe, on whom they planned to lay the blame. After days of exchanging fire, a Mormon leader approached the camp to offer safe passage. But it was a ruse: The Mormon militia massacred the men and women and many of the children, 120 in all. Seventeen of the youngest were spared, and adopted by local families until federal authorities intervened to return them to Arkansas. Years later, John D. Lee, a Mormon, was tried and executed for the crime.
The Mormon Church has consistently said it was a renegade local militia, not church leaders, who authorized the killings, though some of the victims’ descendants are skeptical of that claim.
The massacre is a familiar story in this region, where blood ties and history are so respected that people can rattle off the myriad ways in which they are related to their neighbors, and every spring, they lay flowers at the graves of their ancestors.
Once impoverished, the area experienced a boom in the early part of this century, driven in part by Wal-Mart, which is headquartered a few miles away in Bentonville.
But it still carries the character of a modest mountain community, where people teach their children to hunt raccoons and relatives are referred to as “kin.” It is so conservatively Christian that former governor Mike Huckabee once derided its politicians as “Shiite Republicans.”
Descendants’ groups headquartered here for years have worked with, and sometimes clashed with, the Mormon Church to create a public memorial at the site of the massacre, which sits on church property. They succeeded last year, when the site became a National Historic Landmark.
“It’s an emotional thing for us,” said Phil Bolinger, president of the Mountain Meadows Monument Foundation. “When you come of age, when you mature, things to do with your own blood kin becomes more important and you become passionate about it.”
In another quirk of history, both of the main presidential candidates have ties to this region. Parley Pratt, an ancestor of Romney’s and an esteemed figure in the Mormon Church, was murdered in Arkansas shortly before the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Historians have speculated that anger over this killing may have played a part in the massacre.
And in a cemetery nearby is buried Nathaniel Bunch, an ancestor of Obama’s, according to local genealogists, who say Bunch was a contemporary of the wagon train emigrants.
Some here also are skeptical of the president’s faith, believing their choice this fall is between a Mormon and a Muslim (Obama has repeatedly affirmed his Christian faith).
None of that history, though, including the massacre, may make much of a difference at the polls.
“That was 200 years ago,” Doug Steele, 45, a Republican insurance agent related to some of the massacre victims, said over a chicken sandwich at Granny’s Kitchen in Huntsville. “It’s been a long time. You can’t hate forever.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.