Mormon Scripture – The Articles of Faith/Part 29

By: Marvin W. Cowan; ©2004
The Mountain Meadows Massacre is still a difficult part of Mormon history. Marvin Cowan explains how recent events have helped to bring this scandalous event back into public focus, and the Mormon leadership’s response to it.

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In our last article we began a discussion of the twelfth LDS Article of Faith which states, “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.” We said that most Mormons today are very moral, patriotic, and law abiding citizens. But we also pointed out that sometimes even Mormon leaders didn’t “obey the law” of the land. The destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor printing press and the Mountain Meadows Massacre are examples of such behavior.

There are some other things related to the Mountain Meadows Massacre that we haven’t mentioned which should help explain why it is still a controversial issue. The massacre began on September 7 and ended on September 11, 1857 when LDS leaders in southern Utah and members of the Nauvoo Legion organized a militia which killed 120 people in a wagon train bound for California. Many bodies of the victims were left lying where they fell until the US Army buried them a year and a half later.

Although at least 54 LDS men who participated in killing the victims were well known, only John D. Lee was tried and convicted for the crime. All attempts to put any of the others on trial were thwarted by Mormons who refused to cooperate with the trials. Lee was Brigham Young’s adopted son but Young allowed him to be the scapegoat for the LDS Church. In order to dis­tance himself and the LDS Church from Lee and the massacre, Young excommunicated him in 1870 stating that he should never be allowed back into the Mormon Church. Lee was finally executed for the Mountain Meadows Massacre in 1877, twenty years after it happened. But that is not the end of the story.

A small marker was put up at the site of the Mountain Meadow Massacre by the US Army in 1859 when they buried the victims. But when Brigham Young later visited the site he had the marker torn down. Other markers were put up at different times but they all met the same fate. The Mormon Church now owns the property where the massacre took place.

In recent years an association of the descendents and relatives of the victims of the Mountain Meadows Massacre was organized to see that the victims aren’t forgotten. They put up a new monument in 1990, but weather and vandals soon destroyed it. So, in 1999 the LDS Church agreed to help put up a new monument.

Workers from BYU were digging the footings for it when they accidentally uncovered the remains of some of the victims. Utah State law requires that all human remains which are un­covered are to be examined by forensics to authenticate them. So, the bones were examined at BYU and quickly reburied.

Very little information from that brief forensic study was made available to the public, but what was published showed that most of the men had been shot in the head while women and chil­dren were killed by blunt force or trauma to their heads. That forensic study did not support the Mormon story that the Piute Indians did much of the killing. While the Mormon Church had a large, new monument placed at the site of the massacre, it is primarily a tribute to the LDS Church for installing it! It says that 120 emigrants were killed there, but it doesn’t say how, why or who killed them!

When Brigham Young excommunicated Lee, he said that Lee could never be readmitted into the LDS Church. But Lee’s membership and his former priesthood offices were restored to him through proxy Mormon temple work in 1961. Now Washington City (near St. George, UT) plans to erect a seven-foot tall bronze statue of John D. Lee on May 7, 2004 for his leadership in helping to settle that area. Since Lee was a leader of the Mountain Meadows Massacre which took place about 30 miles away, some feel that a statue of him there would be an insult to the victims.

A relative of one of the massacre victims said that putting a statue of Lee in that area would be like putting a statue of Timothy McVeigh near the Murrah Building that he blew up in Okla­homa City. McVeigh probably did some good things during his life, but the bombing of the Fed­eral Building in Oklahoma City overshadowed anything good that he did. Likewise, John D. Lee may have done some good things too, but his leadership in the Mountain Meadow Massacre overshadowed anything good that he did. Washington City leaders knew that a statue of Lee could be controversial so they asked the highest authorities of the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City if they had any objection to putting a statue of Lee in their town. The LDS Church leaders said they had no position on the matter!

The fact that they took no position shows that they are still ambivalent about the Mountain Meadows Massacre. When LDS President Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated the new Monument at Mountain Meadows he considered accepting the blame for the massacre on behalf of the LDS Church, but he didn’t do it because it could open the door for law suits against the LDS Church according to newspaper reports. Is money more important than doing what is right?

President Hinckley was very pleased this month when the Illinois legislature sent a formal apology to the Mormon Church for the way Mormon pioneers were treated when they left Illinois in 1846. He and other Mormon leaders were also very pleased a few years ago when they received an apology from the State of Missouri for the extermination order that Gov. Boggs issued when the Mormons settled there during the 1830’s.

While history shows that there were wrongs committed by both Mormons and non-Mormons in Illinois and Missouri, Mormon leaders have never apologized for the earlier LDS message by Sidney Rigdon which threatened the people of Missouri with “extermination.” Nor have they apologized for their destruction of the Nauvoo Expositor printing press in Illinois or their threats to the people in the surrounding towns. And Mormon leaders still have not apologized for the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Are Mormon leaders afraid to admit any wrongdoing because it would tarnish their image? Again we want to emphasize that most Mormons are good, law abiding citizens. But some LDS leaders and members haven’t always lived up to that standard.

For those who want to read more on this subject we suggest Forgotten Kingdom by David L. Bigler, published by Utah University Press in Logan, UT in 1998. We will conclude our study of this Article of Faith next time.

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