The first sentence of the book Massacre at Mountain Meadows sums it up perfectly.
"On September 11, 1857, Mormon settlers in southern Utah used a false flag of truce to lull a group of California-bound emigrants from their circled wagons and then slaughtered them. When the killing was over, more than one hundred butchered bodies lay strewn across a half-mile stretch of an upland meadow. Most of the victims were women and children."
Written by three Mormon historians and funded by the LDS Church, this new book offers an emotional and gripping narrative of events that led to that day. It is a fair perception that readers will be skeptical of the results, but the book speaks for itself as a warts-and-all history uncommonly produced by the faithful.
The book makes no excuses, no justifications. Dedicated to the victims, it acknowledges the sin with rare starkness hardly seen in any official church pronouncement. It appears no less than an institutional act of confession.
The challenging questions that book raises are: How do "good people" do evil things? Is religion inherently violent? What does such violence say about the Mormons, of which some of us call our ancestors?
The authors convincingly argue that the massacre was a perfect storm for mass killing, through the various influences of demonizing, authority, obedience, peer pressure, ambiguity, fear, and poverty.
And while the massacre is a singular event in Mormon history, it was a part of a larger story, beginning with the Haun’s Mill massacre of 1838 in Missouri and culminating during the Utah War in 1857, when President Buchanan ordered Army troops to quell the perceived rebellion of Brigham Young's kingdom.
So, the central question people will ask: did Brigham Young order the massacre? According to the authors, the pioneer prophet did provide the backdrop of blood atonement talk, reformation rhetoric, and covered-up the massacre after the fact.
But they claim there is no "smoking gun" order that Young sent to the southern Saints to destroy the immigrants. Not surprisingly, they conclude that the opposite is true. Young sent a letter to Issac Haight, the stake president of Cedar City, saying "do not meddle with them," the immigrants. Tragically or strategically, depending on your point of view, the letter arrived two days after the slaughter.
The book is a nightmarish journey into one of Utah's darkest moments. The authors have said on recent radio and TV interviews, that they hope the book will help bring healing but also help to put the tragic event behind us. But, as Juanita Brooks presciently said, it "is a ghost which will not be laid" to rest. It is a story that will haunt Utah for a long time to come.
Originally published in the Salt Lake City Weekly, 08.20.2008