The standard LDS historical narrative emphasizes the tribulations of humble settlers and displaced immigrants. However, it appears that Mormons themselves were often aggressors as well in both action and theology. Even the unique Mormon scripture, more similar in tone to the Old Testament than the New Testament, depicts epic battles, religious conflict, genocide, and many other instances of violent death.
Early LDS history and doctrines exhibit a theme of militancy and righteous persecution, which fostered frontier violence and doctrines, including Brigham Young’s doctrine of blood atonement and oath of vengeance upon the U.S. government for the assassination of the prophet. The strong theocratic (government ruled by religion) philosophies of Joseph and Brigham furthered violent Mormon culture. Mormons violated territorial boundaries and peace agreements, championed Zionist ideals in fiery speeches, threatened non-Mormons, and boasted of their regional political power.
Other isolationist sects in the region, such as the Mennonites and Shakers, managed to live peacefully within their communities. The Mormons experienced this combative culture with their neighbors largely due to their propensity to vote in blocks and raise militias. After the exodus to Utah, the Missourians never bothered the Whitmerites, nor did the people of Illinois ever bother Emma Smith when she remained behind; however, Brigham’s group was considered dangerous and anti-democratic.
The Mountain Meadows massacre, resulting in the wholesale slaughter of 120 men, women and children by Mormon aggressors, was one of the largest losses of life in the westward settlements. Although Brigham Young appears not to have directly ordered the executions, historians conclude that his and other church leaders inflammatory rhetoric played a pivotal role in inciting the massacre and that Young may have even participated in the elaborate cover-up. The frontier environment of paranoia and government mistrust was exacerbated by the swiftly approaching U.S. Army, and Young’s decision to place the entire territory under martial law.
Voltaire’s words perfectly fit early Mormon culture, in general. He wrote: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can also make you commit atrocities.”
- The 1838 Mormon War
- The Mormon Rebellion
- Sunstone: The Culture of Violence in Joseph Smith’s Mormonism, Quinn, Oct 2011
The Book of Mormon revolves around the notion that America is a land of promise for the House of Israel, whom members of the Church believed were the principal ancestors of the Native Americans. Righteous Gentiles could, of course, gain adoption into the tribe, but the Lamanites alone were prophesied to “blossom as the rose” (D&C 49:24) prior to Christ’s return and reign in a new civilization known as New Jerusalem. The first proselytizing mission within Mormonism was directed toward Native Americans in June 1830.
When Jesus Christ appeared to the Nephites in the Book of Mormon, he exclaimed: “…I will establish my church among them, and they shall come in unto the covenant and be numbered among this the remnant of Jacob [Native Americans], unto whom I have given this land [America] for their inheritance; And they shall assist my people…[to] build a city, which shall be called the New Jerusalem” (3 Nephi 21:22-23).
The role of the American Indian in LDS doctrine is not limited to mere redemption from their fallen state. The Book of Mormon prophecies that the Native Americans would one day go forth “as a lion” to lay waste to their oppressors and reclaim the land of their inheritance. The Indians were to “go through among them [Gentiles], and shall tread them down, and they shall be as salt that hath lost its savor…to be trodden under foot of my people…” (3 Nephi 16: 14-16).
Jesus is again quoted in the Book of Mormon to prophesy: “I say unto you, that if the Gentiles do not repent…after they have scattered my people- Then shall ye, who are a remnant of the house of Jacob [Native Americans], go forth among them; and ye shall be in the midst of them who shall be many; and ye shall be among them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, and as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he goeth through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver. Thy hand shall be lifted up upon thine adversaries, and all thine enemies shall be cut off…” (3 Nephi 20: 15-17).
LDS doctrine elaborates on the destruction that would surely befall America at the hands of the Indians. “And my people who are a remnant of Jacob shall be among the Gentiles, yea, in the midst of them as a lion among the beasts of the forest, as a young lion among the flocks of sheep, who, if he go through both treadeth down and teareth in pieces, and none can deliver. Their hands shall be lifted up upon their adversaries, and all their enemies shall be cut off. Yeah, wo be unto the Gentiles…I will cut off thy horses out of the midst of thee, and I will destroy thy chariots; And I will cut off the cities of thy land, and throw down all thy strongholds… And I will pluck up thy groves out of the midst of thee; so will I destroy thy cities… And I will execute vengeance and fury upon them…” (3 Nephi 21:12-21).
Joseph Smith himself prophesied strongly, in the name of the Lord, of America’s pending destruction and rise of Zion. He stated, “I am prepared to say by the authority of Jesus Christ, that not many years shall pass away before the United States shall present such a scene of bloodshed as has not a parallel in the history of our nation. Pestilence hail famine and earthquake will sweep the wicked of this generation from off the face of this land to open and prepare the way for the return of the lost tribes of Israel from the north country. …Repent ye and embrace the everlasting covenant and flee to Zion [Missouri] before the overflowing scourge overtake you. For there are those now living upon the earth whose eyes shall not be closed in death until they see all these things which I have spoken fulfilled” (as printed in American Revivalist, also Rochester Observer, Joseph Smith, Jan 4, 1833).
Thus, Mormon doctrine was a very real threat in American frontier towns where Indian relations remained tenuous. While Indian sympathizers were gaining prominence, few other religions were promoting the subversive notion that God himself would soon raise up the Indians to destroy America.
Among the many doctrinal proofs that early Mormons did not make great neighbors, is E. D. Howe’s 1834 reminder that “one of the leading articles of faith is that the Indians of North America, in a very few years, will be converted to Mormonism, and through rivers of blood will again take possession of their ancient inheritance.”
The Salt Sermon
In June 1838, shortly after he and Smith fled their banking scandal and collapsing church in Kirtland, Sidney Rigdon, First Counselor in the Presidency, delivered his infamous Salt Sermon in Far West, MO. He warned dissenters to depart the territory under threat of harm, providing fuel to an already agitated situation.
Sidney Rigdon followed up his Salt Sermon speech with fiery rhetoric to a large crowd of believers on the 4th of July. He declared: “We take God and all the holy angels to witness this day, that we warn all men in the name of Jesus Christ, to come on us no more forever. For from this hour, we will bear it no more, our rights shall no more be trampled on with impunity. The man or the set of men, who attempts it, does it at the expense of their lives. And that mob that comes on us to disturb us; it shall be between us and them a war of extermination; for we will follow them till the last drop of their blood is spilled, or else they will have to exterminate us: for we will carry the seat of war to their own houses, and their own families, and one party or the other shall be utterly destroyed.”
Thus, when Governor Lilburn Boggs used the term “extermination” in his October 27, 1838 expulsion order, he was merely drawing upon the inflammatory language of Rigdon’s recent introduction. Boggs declared “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.”
Promptly following Rigdon’s salt sermon, a secret vigilante group arose to enforce strict orthodox beliefs on Mormon communities. The group’s original task was to target dissenters within the Church, but they also presented themselves as the vanguard of Mormon interests. One violent incident broke out on August 6, 1838, in Gallatin, Missouri when county officials refused to let Mormons vote in the city’s local elections. A brawl quickly ensued between a group of Danites and anti-Mormons onlookers, and though no one was killed, the “incident smashed the fragile peace that had prevailed in upper Missouri” (No Man Knows My History, 225-227). Danite activities from this point began taking a dark turn, often involving themselves in clandestine radical activities, including in the looting and destruction of non-Mormon settlements.
Promptly following Rigdon’s salt sermon, a secret vigilante group arose to enforce strict orthodox beliefs on Mormon communities. The Danites played a pivotal role in the destruction of non-Mormon settlements, including Gallatin.
On July 27, 1838, Joseph recorded in his journal that Danites were organized according to revelation to “put right physically that which is not right, and to cleanse the Church of very great evils which hath hitherto existed among us.” This inconvenient portion of his journal was later crossed out and omitted from various official Church histories. While LDS apologists suggest that Joseph did not sanction the secret band, Joseph’s records and intimate involvement in every aspect of early Mormonism indicate that he did.
In 1992, Dean Jessee published a second volume of The Papers of Joseph Smith, including the part of Smith’s diary which had been previously omitted, thereby directly refuting the longstanding claim that Joseph did not sanction the organization (The Papers of Joseph Smith, vol 2, Jessee 1992, 262). “Historians need no longer argue if the Danites existed, or if they did ‘bad things’ to the gentiles. …the answer to both questions was yes” (Michael Riggs.) Today, the Church suggests that “Historians generally concur that Joseph Smith approved of the Danites but that he probably was not briefed on all their plans and likely did not sanction the full range of their activities” (lds.org, Church History Topics, Danites).
Porter Rockwell was Joseph Smith’s bodyguard and spent eight months in jail accused of the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs, but was ultimately released for lack of evidence. The dates of Rockwell’s temporary absence from Nauvoo coincided neatly with a possible trip to Independence. Many, including Rockwell’s sympathetic biographer, Harold Schindler, suggest he most likely did attempt to assassinate the Missouri Governor (Devil’s Gate, 58).
Governor Lilburn Boggs
On May 6, 1842, a gunman shot the former Governor of Missouri, Lilburn W. Boggs, through a window at his residence in Independence, Missouri. Two bullets penetrated his head and a third lodged in his body; miraculously, he lived. Almost immediately, suspicion fell upon Joseph Smith, who was promptly arrested. Governor of Illinois, Thomas Carlin, wrote Joseph Smith a letter stating that it was common knowledge that he, “had prophesied that Boggs should die a violent death.” The claim that Smith had prophesied in 1841 that Governor Boggs would die violent death within one year remains controversial, yet multiple sources are available among historical archives.
On June 27, 1844, the day Joseph Smith was killed, William Law recorded in his diary: “He [Smith] was unscrupulous; no man’s life was safe if he was disposed to hate him. He set the laws of God and men at defiance.” Law believed that Smith played a role in the attempted assassination of Governor Boggs. John C. Bennett and Joseph H. Jackson, both former intimates of Smith, also claimed that Smith confided in them that he ordered the murder.
The Thomas Marsh episode is one of Mormonism’s longest enduring myths. Church Sunday school curriculum has maintained the overly-simplified explanation that Apostle Marsh left the Church because he was offended over a milk sharing arrangement. According to the story, one of the women was skimming more than her share of cream.
This narrative is demonstrably false, as Marsh actually left the Church over his discomfort with the increasing violence of the Saints, while publicly speaking against Smith’s misuse of funds. Marsh himself declared, “I have left the Mormons and Joseph Smith for conscience sake, and that alone, for I have come to the full conclusion that he is a very wicked man; notwithstanding all my efforts to persuade myself to the contrary” (Marsh to Abbots, Oct 25, 1838).
Oath of Vengeance
Soon after Joseph Smith’s death in 1844, the Oath of Vengeance was added to the LDS temple ceremony. “You and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray and never cease to pray to Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and to your children’s children unto the third and fourth generation.”
Such canonized theology amplified the “us vs. them” thinking, which remains a subtle theme in Mormonism today. The sacred practice of covenanting to teach vengeance to children was not eliminated until approximately the early 1930s.
Brigham Young authored the notion that certain sins were so grievous that the Savior’s atoning sacrifice was insufficient; that only the spilling of the individual’s own blood may qualify them for redemption. Brigham’s extreme doctrine and strong theocratic tendencies contributed greatly to a perpetual atmosphere of frontier justice.
Brigham taught that a person who “has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of that exaltation which he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed he will atone for that sin, and be saved and exalted with the Gods, is there a man or woman in this house but what would say, ‘shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?’ All mankind love themselves, and let these principles be known by an individual, and he would be glad to have his blood shed. That would be loving themselves, even unto an eternal exaltation. Will you love your brothers or sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant.”
“I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain, in order to atone for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance (in the last resurrection there will be) if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty, but who are now angels to the devil… I have known a great many men who have left this Church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them. The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force. …and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. Any of you who understand the principles of eternity, if you have sinned a sin requiring the shedding of blood, except the sin unto death, would not be satisfied nor rest until your blood should be spilled, that you might gain that salvation you desire…” (Journal of Discourses 4:215-21).
Lest we attempt to discard blood atonement doctrine to the misguided ramblings of one early prophet, prominent LDS scholar Bruce R. McConkie advocated in 1967 that the doctrine could one day again be practiced. He exclaimed, “This doctrine of blood atonement can practice, can operate in a day when church and state are combined” (Calling and Election Made Sure, McConkie, part 3, 4).
As late as the 1990s, blood atonement remained an issue. “In the past decade [1984-1994], potential jurors in every Utah capital homicide were asked whether they believed in the Mormon concept of ‘Blood Atonement’” (Salt Lake Tribune, Nov 5, 1994, D1).
MURDER OF JESSE HARTLEY
The murder of Jesse Hartley illustrates the violent culture of Brigham Young’s unchecked power over Utah Valley. Within eight months of arriving in Utah, the young attorney was murdered in cold blood by Brigham’s confessed enforcer, Bill Hickman.
Arriving in Salt Lake City in Sept 1853, Jesse promptly began representing clients. David Hull, a wealthy non-member client, was poisoned to death under suspicious circumstances before his trial could commence. The following day, Hartley was falsely accused by two separate Mormons of stealing a horse and money. In response to what he had was witnessing during his very brief tenure in the community, Jesse penned an urgent letter to the Secretary of War, warning of a “coming storm…brewing in the Territory,” requesting Federal intervention to restore the rule of law. Hartley’s letter suggested that Hull was “charged with larceny…for no other purpose than to get hold of his property.” Unfortunately, Hartley was unaware that mail departing Utah Valley was screened; his letter was intercepted, ultimately residing in Brigham Young’s possession.
Upon obtaining a hearing on Sept 30, the judge released Hartley, finding insufficient cause to detain him. There exist ample documentation and context to suggest that frivolous lawsuits were a common tactic to extract money and property from strangers to the Valley. The following day, despite his acquittal, Deseret News – controlled by the Church – published a statement accusing Hartley of theft. With his reputation tarnished, Jesse relocated near Spanish Fork and accepted a teaching position. Things appeared to settle down, as Hartley joined the Church in January 1854 and restarted his law practice.
Jesse remained in good standing on April 8, receiving a call to serve a mission to Texas on the first day of General Conference. The very next day, Brigham Young stood before the congregation and denounced Jesse, accusing him of being “a vagrant, thief and a robber.” Brigham declared he “…ought to have his throat cut…ought to be baptized in Salt Lake with stones tied to him…to wash away one hundredth part of his sins.” The Prophet then motioned that Hartley be cut off from the Church. Despite protesting his innocence, he was excommunicated. Lacking any evidence, Jesse’s status devolved from missionary to threatened apostate within 24 hours.
On May 3, 1854, less than a month following Brigham’s condemnation and threats, Bill Hickman, Brigham’s enforcer, murdered Jesse Hartley as he fled toward Fort Bridger. Michael Marquardt surmised, “faithful [Mormons] may well object that the chain of evidence connecting the second prophet of their faith to the murder…is circumstantial. The weight of evidence, however, is shifting to support the conclusion that Brigham Young was ready to take whatever steps he felt necessary to defend Mormonism.”
- The Coming Storm: The Murder of Jesse Hartley, H. Michael Marquardt
- Brigham’s Destroying Angel, William Hickman
- Reminiscences of Early Utah, Robert Baskin
MOUNTAIN MEADOWS MASSACRE
September 11, 1857, marks the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a five-day long siege that culminated in the indiscriminate slaughter of 120 California-bound men, women, and children at the hands of Mormon militiamen from Parowan and Cedar City, Utah. The massacre, and the nuanced context surrounding it provide the sharpest example of the effects of early Mormon ideology in tightly controlled and isolated groups.
Brigham Young is well documented to have taught violent doctrines, coupled with the notion that Mormonism would eventually overtake the U.S. Government in partnership with the Indians. Immediately upon being appointed Prophet, Priest and King within the Council of 50, he said, “I tell you in the name of the Lord when we go from here, we will exalt the standard of liberty and make our own laws. When we go from here we don’t calculate to go under any government but the government of God. There are millions of the Lamanites who when they understand the law of God and the designs of the gospel are perfectly capable of using up these united States. They will walk through them and lay them waste from East to West. We mean to go to our brethren in the West & baptise them, and when we get them to give hear to our council the story is told” (Council of 50 Minutes, 1 March 1845).
By March 1849, Brigham Young had escalated his fiery rhetoric, declaring Deseret a “free and independent government.” The U.S. Federal Government remained at odds with Utah Territory, and Brigham Young in particular.
In July 1853, Chief Wa-Kara rode in procession into Salt Lake to lodge a complaint against the Mormons, claiming that they were killing settlers and blaming the Indians who bore the repercussions. Williams Gunnison’s surveying party of 8 was murdered in October 1853. Church leaders blamed the murders on local Indians. On May 3, just weeks after Brigham Young brazenly denounced lawyer Hartley in General Conference “that he ought to have his throat cut,” Bill Hickman murdered Jesse Hartley as he fled toward Fort Bridger. In Spring of 1856, Brigham Young initiated a “reformation,” resulting in increased fanaticism, control, and violence.
There remained only one U.S. official in all of Utah in 1857, as the Mormons had the others had either fled the territory in fear or had been driven out under threat of death. The U.S. Congress declared Utah to be in state of insurrection, sending the U.S. Army to remove Brigham as Governor and re-appoint the scattered judges. Brigham Young declared in Sept 1857 the State of Deseret (Utah) to be a free and independent people, no longer bound by the laws of the U.S., while ordering California and Nevada Saints to sell their property and return to Zion to fight the Government. Young publicly announced that he alone would decide which laws would be obeyed in Utah.
President James Buchanan appears justified when he declared Utah Territory to be in a state of rebellion. Repeated diplomatic efforts having failed, he ordered the U.S. Army to Utah Territory, warning the insurrectionists to “expect no further lenity, but look to be rigorously dealt with” (House Executive Document 2, 35th Congress, 2nd Session 72).
By the time the wealthy, California bound Fancher wagon train rolled into Utah Valley in the fall of 1857, tension and paranoia raged. The approaching U.S. Army was stationed to the south in Cedar City, awaiting the passing of winter before advancing to Salt Lake. Complicating matters further, a month before the emigrants departed Arkansas on their journey west, Parley P. Pratt (LDS Apostle) was killed by the estranged husband of his twelfth plural wife. Rumors circulated down the Valley, denigrating the emigrants, falsely suggesting that they had participated in Pratt’s demise and that they’d poisoned an Indian well. Apostate Mormons, desperate to escape the Valley alive, fell in with the caravan for safe passage out of the tightly controlled territory.
Motivated by the approaching army and a desperate need to keep capital in the region, Brigham sent George A. Smith of the twelve apostles on a speaking tour through Southern Utah in which he instructed the Saints not to trade with passing emigrants and stoked fear throughout the region with his fiery rhetoric regarding the approaching army. Denied resupply along the entire Wasatch front, the Fancher caravan pushed farther south, searching for anyone willing to trade and resupply their party. Brigham was later quoted as referring to the emigrants as wicked, and not to let them pass. Joseph Walker disobeyed his local Bishop, grinding the wagon party’s grain, resulting in his excommunication. Brigham also ordered Mormons to stop trading with the Indians, vacated many settlements, consolidated people in key cities while ordering the consecration of all excess animals. Some protested and were excommunicated.
While the Saint’s willingness to follow Brigham into folly may seem difficult to reconcile using modern standards, it is understandable why the Saints would literally interpret his extreme views. Brigham Young regularly pontificated upon his sole authority, even suggesting “I have never yet preached a sermon and sent it out to the children of men, that they may not call scripture” (Journal of Discourses, 13:95). In addition, Young had just finished enacting a sweeping reformation throughout the Utah territory in 1856-1857 requiring the majority of church members to be rebaptized as a symbol of their undying commitment to the Church.
The Fancher party eventually obtained shelter in beautiful and lush Mountain Meadows, to the south of Salt Lake. While the party rested and watered their stock, nearby Mormon leaders, including Isaac C. Haight (LDS Stake President) and John D. Lee (local Indian liaison and adopted son, sealed to Brigham Young), plotted an attack on the wealthy wagon train believing that the men of the company should atone for their sinful actions. Intending to create the appearance of Native American aggression, the militia schemed to arm Southern Paiutes and persuade them to join their larger party of militiamen—disguised as Native Americans—in an attack.
The next day on September 5th, Cedar City Stake President Isaac C. Haight called a high council together after sending John D. Lee to organize the Paiute Indians, who had already surrounded the Baker-Fancher Party at Mountain Meadows. The council debated the fate of the wagon party. Haight proposed that the men be brought to justice, inciting a range of inflammatory remarks among the men in attendance regarding the Arkansans. One high councilman, Laban Morrill, was deeply troubled by the mob-like emotion developing in the room and insisted that a rider be sent to Salt Lake City to receive Brigham Young’s opinion on the matter.
Although a rider was sent that night, Haight hastily ordered Parowan Stake President and Militia leader, William H. Dame, to surround the company until they could receive orders from Brigham. Still determined to punish the wagon train, Haight exclaimed, “I am prepared to feed to the Gentiles the same bread they fed to us. God being my helper, I will give the last ounce of strength and if need be my last drop of blood in defense of Zion.” Dame’s militia soon surrounded the wagon party. The rider returned from Salt Lake just days later with a letter from Brigham commanding the men to let the wagon party pass unmolested, but unfortunately the letter arrived too late.
During the militia’s first assault, the well-equipped wagon train fought back, incepting a five-day siege. Three men attempted to escape the wagon train to seek help. Two of the men were promptly shot, while the third retreated back to the wagon party having obtained a clear view of the Mormon attackers. Fear soon spread among the militia’s leaders that some emigrants had caught sight of white men, fueling their anxieties regarding the approaching U.S. army. If the Baker-Fancher party was permitted to go on their way, militia leaders felt that they would likely tell the story of their attack when they arrived in California.
A complicated series of exchanges and communications wound its way on horseback between local Stake leaders and Church headquarters in Salt Lake City. Regardless of whatever disputed narrative one chooses to accept, the irrefutable result was that militia commander William H. Dame ordered his forces to kill all the emigrants. John D. Lee later claimed that the High Council had met and voted Friday morning to kill all the emigrants.
Following a few days pinned down without water, William Aden volunteered to ride north to find the Dukes Train party of emigrants near Cedar City for help. He managed to sneak out of camp but was shot by the Mormons whose campfire he approached for help. As the emigrants quickly exhausted water and provisions, they allowed some members of the militia—who carried a white flag—to enter their camp. John D. Lee informed them that the Indians had departed, and if the Arkansans would only lay down their arms, he and his men would escort them to safety. Having no choice, the emigrants conceded.
The wagon party was separated into three distinct groups – the wounded and youngest children led the way in two wagons; the women and older children walking behind, while the men were individually escorted by an armed member of the militia. Lee led his charges three-quarters of a mile to a southern branch of the California Trail. Suddenly, a single shot rang out, followed by an order: “Do your duty!” The Mormon escorts promptly turned and shot the men in cold blood, while painted “Indians” jumped out of the brush and cut down defenseless women and children where they stood.
Though difficult to verify retroactively under a fog of violence, it has been alleged that the attackers were directed to slit the throats of disaffected leaders in blood oath style. That night, John Lee swore all to secrecy, each man standing in circle, hand on his brother’s shoulder, taking the oath of death to any man who talked. Any Mormon who attended the temple prior to 1990 will recognize the penal oath ritual and corresponding hand signals.
Following the massacre, the perpetrators hastily buried the victims in the rocky terrain, exposing the bodies to wild animals and the climate. Local LDS families assimilated the surviving 17 children under 8 years of age, intentionally separating siblings so they couldn’t talk about it together. All wagons, stock, and clothes were divided among local Church members or sent to Salt Lake City. The entire episode was made to disappear. A few days after the massacre, Indian agent Garland Hurt was tipped of a pending attack on his life, even as a large group approached his house. He narrowly escaped east, the last non-Mormon federal official to exit Utah. Hurt’s report of the incident became first account on record.
Initially, the LDS Church denied any involvement and attempted to remain silent on the massacre issue. An early investigation was conducted by Brigham Young, who interviewed John D. Lee on September 29th, 1857. Young sent a report to the Commissioner of Indian Affairs declaring the massacre to be the work of Native Americans. The Utah War delayed further investigation within the isolated territory by the U.S. government until 1859, when Jacob Forney and Major James Henry Carleton conducted investigations. Carleton’s investigation found women’s hair tangled in sagebrush and the bones of children still in their mothers’ arms. Carleton later said it was “a sight which can never be forgotten.” Carleton’s troops collected the scattered bones and remains, buried them nearby and erected a cairn and cross with the inscription, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay saith the Lord.”
Brigham Young visited the massacre site in May 1861 with a group of some 60 Saints. Viewing the inscription on the cross, Wilford Woodruff recorded President Young as saying, “it should be vengeance is mine and I have taken a little.” The cross was ordered torn down, the cairn dismantled, leaving little to mark the location.
Captain James Lynch, who visited the site of the massacre in 1859, recorded his impressions: “The scene of the fearful murder still bears evidence of the atrocious crime, charged by the Mormons and their friends to have been perpetrated by Indians but really by Mormons disguised as Indians, who in their headlong zeal, bigotry and fanaticism deemed this a favorable opportunity of at once wreaking their vengeance on the hated people of Arkansas, and of making another of these iniquitious ‘Blood offerings’ to God so often recommended by Brigham Young and their other leaders. For more than two square miles the ground is strewn with the skulls, bones and other remains of the victims. In places water has washed many of these remains together, forming little mounds, raising monuments as it were to the cruelty of man to his fellow man. Here and there may be found the remains of an innocent infant beside those of some devoted mother, ruthlessly slain by men worse than demons; their bones lie bleaching in the noon day sun a mute but eloquent appeal to a just but offended God for vengeance. I have witnessed many harrowing sights on the fields of battle, but never did my heart thrill with such horrible emotions, as when standing on that silent plain contemplating the remains of the innocent victims of Mormon avarice, fanaticism and cruelty.”
Wilford Woodruff’s official Church version of the massacre is full of lies, accusing “mobbers” of damning Brigham Young and other Church leaders, of wanting to do evil and poisoning an Indian well. He further denied that the Church had seized the wagon party’s property while blaming the massacre on local Indian tribes.
Only John D. Lee was tried in a court of law, although eight other men were charged with leading the slaughter but escaped capture by the authorities. Lee acknowledged his participation in the massacre but insisted that he was being used as a scapegoat to avoid further responsibility being placed on Brigham Young. Executed by firing squad on March 23, 1877, nearly twenty years after the massacre, Lee cited the following oath in his confession shortly before his execution: “I believed then as I do now, that it was the will of every true Mormon in Utah, at that time, that the enemies of the Church should be killed as fast as possible, and that as this lot of people had men amongst them that were supposed to have helped kill the Prophets in the Carthage jail, the killing of all of them would be keeping our oaths and avenging the blood of the Prophets.” In addition, he made known, “I do not believe everything that is now being taught by Brigham Young. I believe he is leading the people astray, downward to destruction” (The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Brooks, 151-152)
It is worth noting that Philip Klingensmith’s body was found dead in a prospector’s hole in Mexico in August 1881. A former LDS Bishop, he was the first to publicly expose the Mountain Meadows Massacre and feared he would be killed for his testimony in John D. Lee’s trial.
The Church eventually excommunicated only two individuals for their actions regarding the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Isaac C. Haight and John D. Lee. The fact that each of their blessings were quietly restored indicates to some that the Church acknowledges to a degree how the toxicity surrounding violent doctrine may have acted as a catalyst.
The Book of Mormon is essentially a nonstop tale of epic battles and massive destructions, culminating in the annihilation of millions of people in a single battle. The reader doesn’t make it four chapters before the Lord commands the decapitation of an unconscious man, enabling the protagonist to relieve him of his property. Numerous righteous decapitations and dismemberments are described throughout the book.
If one’s beliefs influence their judgments and actions, it seems appropriate to consider the role violence plays in Mormon doctrine. The Jesus portrayed in the Book of Mormon remains an Old Testament, vengeful type, despite his followers supposedly adhering to the New Covenant of baptism and repentance.
In 3 Nephi 9 we learn, “…that great city Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof. And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned…” Fifteen other great cities were additionally burned with fire, sunk in the depths, covered with earth, drowned or buried. “And many great destructions have I caused to come upon this land, and upon this people…because of their wickedness in casting out the prophets.”
While the notion of God’s annihilation of numerous great cities without leaving a trace merits further consideration, the most critical assault on the narrative’s credibility is found in the Lord’s own rebuke of violence just a few days prior (see Luke 9:53-56). After the transfiguration on the Mount, Jesus set out towards Jerusalem, sending disciples ahead to secure accommodation for the night. When refused, James and John became enraged, inquiring of the Lord, “wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven…” to destroy the village. Jesus rebuked them, reminding “The Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.”
The Book of Mormon asserts that mere days later, the Lord killed millions of innocent people. One may be left to wonder why the Lord enforced no such vengeance upon those halfway around the world – the ones that heard his words and still put him to death. Further, many struggled to reconcile Christ’s instruction to “forgive them, for they know not what they do” with the unprecedented destruction suggested in the Book of Mormon.
- Mountain Meadows Massacre
- Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Walker, Turley, Leonard
- The Mountain Meadows Massacre, Juanita Brooks, 1950
- Blood of the Prophets – Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, Will Bagley
- Shining New Light on Mountain Meadows Massacre, Gene Sessions, 2003
- LDS Gospel Topic Essay – Violence Among Latter Day Saints
- The William Law interview
- Arrest and Release of Joseph Smith – 1843
- Year in Polygamy, Mountain Meadows Massacre (podcast)
- Salt Lake Tribune, Mormon Church Mourns 1857 Tragedy
- HistoryNet: Mountain Meadows Massacre
- Last Confession and Statement of John D. Lee
- Affidavit of James Lynch