Scholars discuss 3 LDS authors' massacre account
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Salt Lake Tribune
The much-anticipated book by three senior LDS historians about the
Mountain Meadows Massacre is a detailed, thorough exploration of the
horrific crime told in a compelling narrative, but it still omits
crucial contextual elements of the story and certainly won't end all
That was the conclusion of three historians who have read a
version of Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald Walker, Richard
Turley and Glen Leonard, due out later this year by Oxford University
Press. The critics presented their views before a packed audience
Friday at a session of the Mormon History Association's annual meeting
in Salt Lake City.
The heinous events of Sept. 11, 1857 - during which a group of
Mormons slaughtered 120 Arkansas emigrants crossing through southern
Utah, including men, women and children older than 7 - have been the
subject of books, documentaries and, next month, a major motion
picture, "September Dawn." But Walker's, Turley's and Leonard's
forthcoming volume is the first written with express approval and
cooperation of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The LDS historians have spent the past six years poring over the
church's vast historical holdings as well as documents, journals,
trial records and court records available in archives from coast to
"This manuscript rests on a body of evidence that is as factually
complete as historical research is ever likely to make possible," said
Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of American religion and history at
Indiana University/Purdue University at Bloomington, Ind. "Every point
that is made is supported not by a single, but by multiple
For years after the massacre, Mormon participants denied
involvement, blaming it on American Indians. Eventually, parts of the
story emerged in the courtroom and one man, John D. Lee, was executed
for his role in it.
But the questions remained: Was the massacre the work of southern
Utah Mormons run amok, as many Mormons believe, or was it orchestrated
by Brigham Young at church headquarters, as authors such as Will
Bagley argue? Walker and the others were willing to follow the trail
wherever it led, they said, even if it meant laying the blame on
Young. But that's not what they concluded.
"They marshal evidence that directly indicts John D. Lee . . .
with the complicity of his immediate ecclesiastical superior Isaac
Haight," Shipps said. "With the Lee-Haight duo providing a foundation
for local villainy, these authors moved forward to construct an
elaborate argument that the massacre was essentially a local affair."
Walker et al worked so hard at being objective, Shipps said, that
they neglected the religious aspects of the story. They have failed to
paint a backdrop to these events in the decade between 1847, when
beleaguered Mormon pioneers arrived in Utah after being driven from
their homes in the mid-West, and the 1857 massacre.
"It was a point in time in which Mormonism was most religiously
intense - white hot," she said.
Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor at the University of
Pennsylvania, said the volume signals "a new openness" on the part of
LDS historians, "a willingness to share dark times with the world."
How courageous it is, she said, "to admit that even Saints in the
19th century were human in the ugly ways we are all human."
But why was there virtually no mention of polygamy, she wondered.
"Polygamy was vital to the religious revival of mid-1850s Utah
U.S. President James Buchanan may have sent troops to Utah to
unseat Young as territorial leader, but eliminating polygamy was the
"The cover-up of the massacre protected polygamists who, of
course, had multiple wives," she said. "Opponents of the Saints
connected the open denials of polygamy before 1852 with the denials
after 1857 of responsibility for the massacre. What else, they said,
could you expect of a bunch of lawless and polygamous fanatics?"
The book is a "page-turner," said Gene Sessions, a history
professor at Weber State University. "Even the footnotes are fun to
No matter how thorough, objective or well-written the Mormon book
is, however, it will never be credible with some readers because its
authors are all employed by the church, Sessions said. "Revisionist
historians and those suspicious of the church are not going away."
The authors said they would take all the suggestions into account
as they make their final revisions.
"This is not even the penultimate version," Walker said. "I am
confident we can raise it to the level of something we can be proud
of, something significant."