Robert A. Rees
Salt Lake Tribune
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence.
- W.H. Auden, "September 1, 1939"
The recent commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the massacre
at Mountain Meadows was perhaps the most significant marking of this
tragic event since its occurrence. What made it so was that for the
first time there was open and official acknowledgment that the
massacre was planned, coordinated and executed by leaders and members
of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, facts that have
been denied or repressed for a century and a half.
An article in the September Ensign magazine by church historian
Richard Turley Jr. acknowledges the responsibility of Latter-day
Saints for the murder of 120 men, women and children, calling the
massacre a "horrific crime."
At a ceremony marking the event at Mountain Meadows, LDS Apostle
Henry B. Eyring expressed "profound regret for the massacre ... and
for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and
by their relatives to the present time." He also expressed regret "to
the Paiute people who have unjustly borne for too long the principal
blame for what occurred during the massacre."
There are many lessons that can be learned from what happened at
Mountain Meadows. One of these is that, under the right circumstances,
most if not all of us are capable of committing what in our more sober
reflections we would consider barbaric acts.
The Milgram Experiment at Yale and the Stanford Prison Experiment
both demonstrate that ordinary people are willing to inflict enormous
pain on others, either because they are directed to do so by someone
in authority or because they have the power to do so.
A second lesson is that blind obedience to authority often leads
to tragic consequences. In an article on his experiments, Milgram
comments on "the extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any
lengths on the command of an authority . . . ." While such blind
obedience seldom leads to the extreme behavior seen at Mountain
Meadows, we need to remind ourselves that it has that potential.
A third lesson is that attempts to deny history and suppress the
truth invariably fail and that the consequences of such denial and
suppression are always greater than the consequences of the truth
itself, no matter how painful it may be at the time. Had church and
civil authorities (which in frontier Utah tended to be the same) fully
investigated the murders and brought the perpetrators to justice, or
had the church itself in later decades acknowledged what leaders
certainly must have known about the event from its archives, the
suffering of those who committed the crime, the survivors, the
descendants of both, and generations of Latter-day Saints who have
felt a communal guilt over the affair would have diminished long ago.
A fourth lesson, one that may be particularly relevant today, is
that stereotyping and scapegoating have dangerous consequences. The
polarizing, demonizing, categorical rhetoric that swirls around us is
akin to that which swept up and down the Wasatch Front during those
first years in the Great Basin and which surely contributed to the
deaths of those innocent Arkansas pioneers and to the persistent
racism of our culture connected to the Mormons' laying the blame on
the heads of Native Americans for all these years.
A fifth lesson is that religious extremism often leads to the
worst kind of offenses against humanity. The zeal that inspired the
massacre is related to the fundamentalist religious terrorism that
rages across much of the world today. Killing other people in the name
of God always uncivilizes us.
The most important lesson from Mountain Meadows is that if we deny
history we cannot learn from it, and if we cannot learn from history,
we are likely to repeat it.