Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Mountain Meadows

One of the chapters of the first part of the recent PBS special on the Mormons dealt with the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857, in which over 100 settlers from Arkansas were systematically killed by local residents as the settlers passed through southern Utah. In my 19 years growing up in the church, I never heard this subject dealt with in any meaningful fashion. Those who want to know more about it, and most people inside the church don’t, must search outside the faith.

This is Wikipedia’s description of the events that took place near Cedar City 150 years ago:

On Friday, September 11 two Mormon militiamen approached the Fancher party wagons with a white flag and were soon followed by Indian agent and militia officer John D. Lee.[34] Lee told the battle-weary emigrants he had negotiated a truce with the Paiutes, whereby they could be escorted safely to Cedar City under Mormon protection in exchange for leaving all their livestock and supplies to the Native Americans.[35] Accepting this, they were split into three groups. Seventeen of the youngest children along with a few mothers and the wounded were put into wagons, which were followed by all the women and older children walking in a second group. Bringing up the rear were the adult males of the Fancher party, each walking with an armed Mormon militiaman at his right. Making their way back northeast towards Cedar City, the three groups gradually became strung out and visually separated by shrubs and a shallow hill. After about 2 kilometers the prearranged order, "Do Your Duty!" was given.[36] Each Mormon then turned and killed the man he was guarding. All of the men, women, older children and wounded were massacred by Mormon militia and Paiutes who had hidden nearby. A few who escaped the initial slaughter were quickly chased down and killed.

Judith Freeman, an author of Mormon ancestry whose comments were included in the documentary, said, “The Mormons in the 19th Century really believed that the end was nigh.” They thought they stood on the brink of the apocalypse, and believed they would soon find themselves fighting for their lives in the battles preceding the Second Coming of Christ. They may have believed that their community’s very existence was threatened by hostile outsiders. Without Haun’s Mill, a massacre of 18 Mormons in Missouri in 1838, would there have been a Mountain Meadows? Perhaps not. Fear begets fear; violence produces more violence.

More importantly, Freeman commented, “If you can get men to believe they are doing God’s will, you can get them to do anything.” One of the LDS church’s foundational passages of scripture deals with Nephi’s murder of Laban. Nephi was a young prophet described in the Book of Mormon who led his family from Israel across the Atlantic Ocean to the Americas. While still in Israel, he came upon a man named Laban who has passed out blind drunk in an alley. Laban was a wealthy man who possessed the sacred scriptures, the brass plates, that would enable Nephi to carry the Lord’s work to the New World and plant the seeds of the gospel there, founding a new nation in the process. Nephi and his brothers had previously offered the riches of their family to Laban in exchange for the plates. Instead, Laban drove off Nephi and confiscated the family wealth. The Spirit of the Lord commanded Nephi to kill Laban in cold blood, issuing this rationale: “[T]he Lord slayeth the wicked to bring forth his righteous purposes. It is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief.” 1 Nephi 4:13. Nephi at first resisted, but then obeyed the voice of the Spirit.

This scripture is still taught today to children to show that the Lord at times requires mysterious things of his followers, and that when faith is tested, one must simply obey.

The men of Cedar City lured out the settlers with the promise of safe passage, then slaughtered between 100 and 140 of them. I would be surprised if Nephi’s slaying of Laban was not specifically discussed in the community meetings held before the massacre. As Nephi was absolved by the Lord of all guilt in his murder of Laban, so the killers likely believed they would be absolved of guilt for their actions.

The killers spared 17 children under the age of eight. To me this shows that the massacre was carefully planned and executed and that every action taken had a specific religious justification. According to Mormon doctrine, a child is not accountable for her sins until the age of eight, when she is old enough to be baptized.

A vow of silence was taken so that no one outside the community would learn the truth. There is some dispute over how high up the church leadership the decision to kill off the wagon party went. In my view, it matters less who ordered the executions than the ease with which the entire community carried them out. We know who pulled the triggers—it was the faithful men of Cedar City and the surrounding communities.

I don’t remember ever hearing about the massacre until after high school. Even after I left the church, it was not something I ever felt compelled to think about or deal with or become better informed about. The events were shrouded in “controversy” and I knew that they made people uncomfortable, to the extent that anyone talked about them at all. My mother’s ancestors lived in that area. Some of them may have been involved in the massacre for all I know. It is one of several sensitive topics of church history that the general membership has yet to really address or acknowledge.

I suppose alarms should be raised when people in a community come to a consensus that an outside group poses such a threat that they must be exterminated. I tend to be especially skeptical when we’re meant to believe that God is directing his followers to smite a foreign population, but no more so than if the smiters believe it’s their neighbor’s black Labrador issuing the orders. Killing because the voices in your head told you to do it is never ok.

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