Debating History: Did Brigham Young Order a Massacre?

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By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Religion News Service
Saturday, April 28, 2007

One hundred fifty years ago, a glorious September morning in the Utah mountains morphed into Mormonism's darkest hour when a militia opened fire on a wagon train, leaving more than 120 men, women and children dead in a flowery field.

Now the "Mountain Meadows Massacre" is becoming more than a subject of somber reflection within tight-knit Mormon circles. Two new films and a forthcoming book aim to tell the nation what happened, why and -- perhaps most important -- whether the revered Mormon prophet Brigham Young ordered the killing.

At stake are not just the details of a tragic moment in pioneer history. For the 5.8 million Americans who belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, as the Mormon church is officially known, the integrity of one of their most important heroes hangs in the balance. For others, the depictions stand to forge new impressions of a controversial religious minority that has known both violent persecution and substantial influence across its tumultuous 180-year history.

"As a society, we are definitely at a crossroads" in terms of rethinking Mormonism, says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "This is a huge moment, because it's a very important religion."

Throwing down the gauntlet June 22 is Christopher Cain's movie "September Dawn," which opens that day in more than 1,000 theaters nationwide. Although the romantic storyline is fictional, the film claims to be accurate in tracing the massacre to Young and portraying 19th-century Mormons as obedient, bloodthirsty fundamentalists. In one scene, for instance, an angry mob ignores a report that the wagon train's "gentiles" are friendly and chants for "blood atonement" in the form of death.

Other renderings, however, convey a more complex picture. The PBS documentary "The Mormons," which airs Monday and Tuesday, explains that Mormons had suffered bloody persecutions, which prompted their westward trek in the mid-1840s to settle in the Salt Lake Basin. By 1857, federal troops were marching on the Utah territory to depose the theocratic governorship of Young, and his followers were gearing up to defend their turf from yet another assault. In that touchy environment, bullets flew and travelers died. The ensuing massacre ensured that no adult witnesses would survive.

"The important thing is to place the massacre in context," Helen Whitney, director of the PBS documentary, said in an interview. "They believed they were at war. The president was arriving with his troops. . . . All of this was swirling around -- years of persecution, a kind of paranoia -- it really was sort of an explosive mixture in which the brakes just didn't hold."

On the high-stakes issue of Young's role, the official view from the Mormon Church is simple: He had none. Young sent a messenger to tell militiamen to let the travelers pass without interference, said church spokesman Michael Otterson. The full case for vindicating Young will appear later this year in an Oxford University Press book written by three church historians.

Although Mormons regard themselves as Christians, orthodox Christians reject key tenets of Mormonism, such as the exaltation of founder Joseph Smith to the status of prophet and the treatment of his Book of Mormon as scripture. Despite being controversial, Mormons have risen to prominence in society. Mormons lead numerous well-known companies, occupy leadership positions in government and have a presidential hopeful in the GOP campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

Some observers suspect a rising tide of anti-Mormonism accounts for today's intense focus on Mountain Meadows.

Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of religious studies and history at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis and an expert on Mormonism, doubts that Young was involved in the massacre.

"My sense is that Brigham Young was not that dumb as to order people to kill a wagon train" and stir up more ill feelings toward Mormons, she said.

Nevertheless, she said, the prospect of implicating Young and his church in a historic tragedy appeals to modern-day critics.

"The important thing is, why is all this coming up right now?" Shipps said. Mormons used to live largely in the West, she says, but now "Mormons are everywhere. They are making converts that the evangelicals would like to make, so evangelicals are saying Mormons aren't Christian. All of a sudden you get this [attitude of]: We're going to look at Mormon history, and we're going to find out what's really there."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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