Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Panel on Mountain Meadows Massacre

I was able to attend the Salt Lake Public Library panel discussion on the book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows.  Apparently the book is very popular and has already gone through several printings. This scholarly panel seems to have indirect-church sanctioning, as the church issued a news release about the presentation.

The presenters seemed to agree the reason behind the massacre was blind faith and blind obedience.   One of them added that demonizing by church leaders creating an "other" that was then denounced and demonized.  Another added the violent rhetoric by the church as another catalyst.  These ingredients led everyday people to commit this atrocity..

John Mack Faragher, a historian from Yale  felt there was not enough emphasis on the role of obedience by the church.  There were no confirmed accounts of any Mormon refusing to go along with the massacre.  He also felt the Springville blood atonements (anyone have info on these?) received too little attention and that the relationship to violence in the west should have been explored more.

Faragher points out that sociologist Max Weber notes that part of the definition of of a state is that it has a legal and moral monopoly on the use of violence.  When a state is firmly in control, public violence drops.  When that control is contested, or weak, public violence increases.  Utah had two states contesting for power over the same people; the Mormon theocratic state of Deseret and the U.S. appointed governor of the territory.  Because state control was not firmly in place, it opened the way for more violence.

Violence is learned.  John D. Lee, who largely headed the massacre  had a mother who "beat him senseless" more times then he could recall.  He also participated in an Indian massacre, and was accused of domestic violence.  Interestingly he and other Mormons used the same phrase used at Hauns Mill, and at the Indian Massacre by those perpetrators when killing children.  Also coupled with the experiences of the church in Missouri, they had learned how to do violence.

Phillip Barlow, head of the new Mormon studies program at USU felt this was a major milestone in the history of doing Mormon history.  The decision to write a frank, complete, honest history about a very difficult subject was made at the highest level with the understanding that the "chips would fall where they may."  They were given full material access including materials in the 1st Presidency's vault, and the church made a monumental amount of human and financial resources available to the authors.

He felt this book would be painful for members of the church to read, but in the long run good for the church by being cathartic.  He compared the Cedar City Mormons to the early American Puritans (witchcraft trials), 20th century Germans (holocaust) and the 21st century guards at Guantanamo Bay & in Iraq (prisoner abuse).  They were all ordinary people in a bad situation with the wrong ingredients.

He notes that this may cause some to shift to a new paradigm of understanding the relationship of God and the church where it may be inverted from it's current view of God directing the church, to instead imperfect humans striving to follow God.  He  notes the problem of absolute obedience ("1st law of heaven") and  blind faith (the continual emphasis that not enough faith is bad, and more faith is good), noting that terrorists have plenty of this.  Proper faith requires thought.  Well though out faith is much better than blind faith.  The emphasis of thinking and personal conscience are also important and could be more integrated into Mormonism.  Few truly understanding a system of thinking or belief, be it secularism or theism; and rely on an authority figure.  Few can articulate what they believe in and why.  More thinking and understanding needs to take place.

The creation of an "other" has occurred repeatedly in Mormon history.  The current "other" are homosexuals and those lobbying for homosexual marriage rights.  Barlow suspects the demonization of this new "other" will cause difficulty for the church in the future.

Richard Turley, one of the co-authors said he and his co-authors felt that if they could tackle this difficult topic, which they subjectively considered to be Mormonism's most problematic issue, the church could tackle any other.  They hope this might be a standard for future topics, such as blacks and the priesthood or polygyny.  They have made all their research materials open to researchers and a new website has been put in place about the book.  He invited researchers to continue to explore the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Here are  partial typescript/summaries of the evening's proceedings from The Juvenile Instructor.  These pages contain links to more of the evening's discussion.


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