Sunday, January 04, 2009

Christian Century review of Massacre at Mountain Meadows

Excerpts from the review Mormon Ghosts by Matthew Avery Sutton.  It appears that Sutton is unaware of plans to write a 2nd volume regarding the cover-up of the massacre.  I don't own a copy of the book, so I'm not sure if the planned volume is mentioned in the book.

In recent years the story of the massacre has received a lot of attention from authors, filmmakers, journalists and even the descendants of the migrants, forcing the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to address the event. After years of silence and evasion, three Mormon scholars with close links to the church have tackled the story in Massacre at Mountain Meadows. Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley and Glen M. Leonard faced a number of challenges from the outset. How do you tell a story of mass murder when it involves your own religious community? How do you speak after a century and a half of silence? And most important, can you honestly deal with the fact that your church's own prophet may have been an accessory to murder—or at the very least likely covered up a violent crime?

Ever since [the massacre], scholars and laypeople alike, both Mormon and gentile, have sought to understand how this horrific event could have happened and who was responsible. Some point to evidence suggesting that Young may have ordered the massacre; others believe that he was an accessory after the fact who shielded the killers. Although dozens of people were involved in the tragic event, only a few faced grand jury indictments, and only John D. Lee was punished. He was tried and found guilty almost 20 years after the massacre and was executed by the U.S. Army in 1877 at Mountain Meadows.

Lee was the scapegoat in 1877, and he has reprised that role in Walker, Turley and Leonard's telling of the story.  These scholars left their own skipping pattern behind as well. I had hoped that they would take on some of the recent scholarship on the massacre.

Massacre at Mountain Meadows provides a good narrative of the events leading up to September 11, 1857, and makes a compelling case that Young did not order the massacre. But it does not delve into the Mormon response to the massacre and how that response should impact our understanding of Young, Mormon leaders or the Saints' understanding of their own difficult history.

Despite my disappointment, I do sympathize with the authors. Like most scholars of religion who study their own traditions, they found themselves in an impossible situation. They are certainly good historians, but they are also faithful Mormons. They probably could not find any way to tell the rest of the story without sacrificing one of these two commitments—either they would compromise historical integrity or they would anger their church.

Scholars of religion constantly have to make difficult choices. They are often drawn to studying their own faiths, and they often write much better histories than do outsiders since they understand their own traditions better than anyone else. Yet they also have to struggle far more than outsiders with the most negative aspects of their religion, especially since church leaders never make it easy for such scholars to explore the dark sides of faith. Massacre at Mountain Meadows had the potential to chart a new path in Mormon history by dealing honestly with the past—all of it—but it did not. This is unfortunate for readers and for Mormons themselves, because if Walker, Turley and Leonard cannot tell us the entire story, we are forced to rely on the scathing accounts written by skeptics. As a result, everybody loses.

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