Sunday, November 30, 2008

Major works on Mountain Meadows

Excerpts from "Nailing down the nightmare of Mountain Meadows Massacre" by Gary James Bergera
  • Beginning in 1950, with the pioneering work of Juanita Brooks, historians have attempted to grapple with the causes and personalities at the center of this tragedy. Brooks concluded in her Mountain Meadows Massacre that "the complete—the absolute—truth of the affair can probably never be evaluated by any human being." Despite the modesty, Brooks provided what has become the generally accepted narrative of the massacre.
Brooks, a native of southern Utah, was the first to propose a scholarly, balanced interpretation. She was followed by brief treatments in The Story of the Latter-day Saints (1976) by James Allen and Glen Leonard; Establishing Zion (1988) by Eugene Campbell; Ronald Esplin and Richard Turley in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism (1992); Morris Shirt in Utah History Encyclopedia (1994), and in Forgotten Kingdom by David Bigler (1998).
  • Then in August 2002, Utah historian Will Bagley published Blood of the Prophets. A narrative tour de force, Bagley's analysis pointed to, as probable precipitating causes, the May 1857 assassination of an LDS apostle and the so-called oath of vengeance once administered in LDS temples, charging believers to avenge the deaths of God's prophets. Though Bagley did not explicitly say Brigham Young ordered the massacre, he insisted that "claiming that Brigham Young had nothing to do with Mountain Meadows is akin to arguing that Abraham Lincoln had nothing to do with the Civil War."
  • The next year, Sally Denton's engaging but controversial American Massacre appeared nationwide. 
  • And the winter 2005 issue of the Utah Historical Quarterly included "Pursue, Retake, and Punish," Ardis E. Parshall's eye-opening account of an ambush in Santa Clara, Utah, in 1857. Parshall's discussion, detailing Brigham Young's involvement in the deadly assault on a small group of outsiders making their way through the Utah Territory only months before Mountain Meadows, is as insightful as it is illuminating.
  • Finally in August 2008, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints historians Ronald Walker, Richard Turley, and Glen Leonard released their eagerly awaited account of the tragedy entitled Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Some seven-plus years in the making, and drawing upon the full resources of the LDS Church (including access to the First Presidency archives), Massacre offers a straightforward, spartan narrative couched in nuanced language more focused on explaining than on blaming. Though its sympathies toward their church and its pioneer members are apparent, the book's objectivity is sobering. The massacre was not so much the result of one or two immediate precursors, but the frenzied culmination of out-of-control psychological forces, including a culture that encouraged blind obedience, conformity, and the "dehumanization" of outsiders.  "For the most part," Walker, Turley, and Leonard write, "the men who committed the atrocity at Mountain Meadows were nether fanatics nor sociopaths, but normal and in many respects decent people."
  • A companion volume treating the cover-up of the massacre is planned.
  • Following the Walker-Turley-Leonard book, Bagley and David Bigler last month produced a compilation of "essential narratives" of the massacre, Innocent Blood.
  • Bergera also recommends Polly Aird, "'You Nasty Apostates, Clear Out': Reasons for Disaffection in the Late 1850s," in the Journal of Mormon History;
  • William P. MacKinnon, At Sword's Point: A Documentary History of the Utah War of 1857-1858; and
  • Shannon Novak, House of Mourning: A Biocultural History of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

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