A Thin Line Between Good and Evil

By September 26, 2008

Dave B. has been a longtime blogger at Mormon Inquiry and a regular commenter here at Juvenile Instructor. Once upon a time he earned a master’s degree in economic history, but he comes by his knowledge of and interest in Mormon history the old-fashioned way, by reading books. We’re happy to have him as a JI guest blogger for a few weeks.

Last week I heard Ron Walker conduct a Q&A about Massacre at Mountain Meadows with a small group in Southern California. He made a couple of comments in passing that are worth discussing. When asked for one thing that could be learned from the whole episode, he said that in his view the men who brought to pass the massacre were not evil men, but that there is often not much separating goodness from evil in individuals. He said that he has gained a greater appreciation for the simple virtues like kindness, patience, and gentleness and their effect of keeping us on the right side of that narrow divide.

That response echoes an observation in one of the more touching paragraphs from the book.

For the most part, the men who committed the atrocity at Mountain Meadows were neither fanatics nor sociopaths, but normal and in many respects decent people. The modern age, confronted with mass violence and killings, has rediscovered a fundamental aspect of old theology. “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them,” wrote Russian Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzyenitsyn. “But the line dividing good and evil cuts through every human being. And who wants to destroy a piece of his own heart.” (p. 128)

In a similar comment, Walker noted that he had changed personally as a result of the roughly ten years spent researching the events related in the book, becoming mellower and more patient. It’s not often that I hear historians comment on how their research has affected them personally. How unexpected that extended contemplation of Mountain Meadows would point to the lesson that simple virtues matter or would move an author or reader to exercise more patience and kindness.


  1. I think that those of us who were waiting for the book also got a lesson in long suffering. Welcome Dave.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 26, 2008 @ 4:21 pm

  2. I love that Solzyenitsyn quote. I think I’ve used it in Institute and around the Nackle a few times. I first saw it posted in the hallway of the German dept. at BYU.

    Comment by Nitsav — September 26, 2008 @ 4:32 pm

  3. Good stuff. I think that this paragraph will likely continue to get a lot of play. I think it is somewhat problematic in the sense that it appears that one or more of the principle actors were fanatical and (even though the authors are vague) clinically sociopathic (depending on what definition you use for that).

    Still, Walkers comments are very inspiring. We have him up here next month and I am looking forward to it.

    Comment by J. Stapley — September 26, 2008 @ 5:04 pm

  4. Welcome, Dave. Thanks for this, and I look forward to your future contributions.

    Comment by Christopher — September 26, 2008 @ 5:08 pm

  5. Welcome, Dave. I agree that is a powerful quote.

    Comment by David G. — September 26, 2008 @ 5:53 pm

  6. I guess I can accept good men can do evil things. But I am troubled by the idea of a “Thin Line”. I just feel I am farther away than a thin line from committing evil acts.
    Does the book help us understand why men cross the line?

    Comment by Bob — September 26, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

  7. Bob, the book gives some consideration to a framework drawn from the social science literature for understanding group violence, which is of course a different phenomenon than individual violence. I think the comments the book makes about it are interesting, but I would have liked a longer and more detailed discussion.

    Comment by Dave — September 27, 2008 @ 3:26 am

  8. “He (Dave) comes by his knowledge of and interest in Mormon history the old-fashioned way, by reading books.” That would describe me too.
    The “theme” Good Men/Evil Acts, is approached in a different literary style by Michael Shaara in his historical novel “The Killer Angels”. Do you (as a book reader), think this ‘style’ can be, or should be used with Mormon historical topics?

    Comment by Bob — September 27, 2008 @ 9:46 am

  9. Bob, I’m not a real fan of the historical fiction genre — it seems to invite selective, spectulative, and even plain invented depictions of historical events and characters.

    I’m not familiar with The Killer Angels, but the linked Wikipedia entry notes it won a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. So I suppose that whatever can be done right in historical fiction is exemplified by that book. The entry also notes that the book inspired Joss Whedon to create the Firefly series, which may be the greatest single accomplishment of the genre.

    Comment by Dave — September 27, 2008 @ 10:15 am

  10. This is a wonderful post and I am not surprised by your great experience with Ronald Walker. After his great book on the Godbeites came out he spoke in SoCal and it was one of the best presentations I have ever attended and quite personal. The paragraph you quote is excellent and I think the only way it could be better is if they had used the word Faragher suggested ?ordinary? instead of ?normal?. After reading the book and listening to the panel with Faragher I became more troubled by this question of evil and violence. I decided to re-listen to a panel presentation at Sunstone about 10 years ago on Utah violence that included Mike Quinn.

    Quinn discusses the events in the former Yugoslavia and Milosevic reign of terror. How people who had lived together for fifty plus years as neighbors and friends and then the Serbs started killing the Muslims in the most horrific ways. Why, because Milosevic was able through rhetoric to turn it into an ?us? versus ?them? state. Quinn?s model is brilliant and I suggest reading his ?culture of violence? in ?Mormon Hierarchy II?. Some of the historical work has already become dated, but the model found on page 260 second paragraph is absolutely brilliant.

    Faragher also made some interesting comments as well. His discussion on violence towards Indians was quite interesting and his discussion about John D. Lee’s participation in the Massacre at Bad Ax was mind expanding. The authors of the new book call it a Battle, when in fact it was as horrible as the massacre at the Meadows. After his comments I could not help but think that it took a Lee to carry out the massacre. Young, Haight and Dame did not have the stomach for a massacre. Young, as Bill MacKinnon shows so well in “At Swords Point”, could give orders for killing but then gets ill shortly after when tragedy struck. Dame and Haight made sure they were as far away from the meadows as they could be and still get the details. They would also give a show for everyone by crying like a baby or sending out messengers saying “don’t kill the emigrants”. It seems the only other person capable of the massacre was Higbee and you have to wonder what rock he crawled out from under.

    Faragher did not comment on the problem that this massacre is unique and does not fit his model. This was a case of whites massacring whites. As Quinn points out this was done by a religious body who lived in a theocracy. As Ardis Parshall and Paul Reeve point out in their review of ?Blood of the Prophets? many people who visited Utah and compared it to other places in the west saw a much different society, here is Franklin A. Buck?s experience: ?In Pioche we have two courts, any number of sheriffs and police officers and a jail to force people to do what is right. There is a fight every day and a man killed about every week. About half the town is whisky shops and houses of ill fame. In these Mormon towns there are no courts, no prisons, no saloons, no bad women; but there is a large brick Church and they keep the Sabbath?a fine schoolhouse and all the children go to school. All difficulties between each other are settled by the Elders and the Bishop. Instead of every man trying to hang his neighbor, they all pull together. There is only one store on the co-operative plan and all own shares and it is really wonderful to see what fine towns and the wealth they have in this barren country. It shows what industry and economy will do when all work together.? As both Will Bagley and David Bigler point out ?Cedar City was no Dodge City?.

    Comment by Joe Geisner — September 27, 2008 @ 11:47 am

  11. #9: I share your caution on historical novels. But in defense of Michael Shaara’s book, he did rely mostly on the personal journals of four Generals: Lee and Longstreet for the South, Hancock and Chamberlain for the North.
    The book came out at the height of the Vietnam War, and failed to sell because no one wanted to read a war novel a this point in time.

    Comment by Bob — September 27, 2008 @ 12:16 pm

  12. Was this at CGU? If so, I’m sorry that I didn’t get to meet you personally.

    Comment by the narrator — September 27, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  13. Dave writes that historical fiction

    seems to invite selective, spectulative, and even plain invented depictions of historical events and characters

    This is true. Of course, I have found few historical works that do not engage, to some degree, in selectivity, speculation, and invention. I think that historical fiction and fictive history can both be useful to the degree that readers understand the aims and limitations of each genre and are prepared and willing to critically evaluate what they read.

    Comment by SC Taysom — September 27, 2008 @ 1:32 pm

  14. narrator, I heard Walker at the Miller-Eccles meeting in Orange County. I imagine he covered some of the same topics and questions at Claremont.

    Comment by Dave — September 27, 2008 @ 3:46 pm

  15. […] DMI Dave Guest blogs at the Juvenile Instructor, and shares the thoughts of historian Ron Walker on the notorious, horrific and tragic episode in Mormon History that was the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  He thoughtfully reflects on Walker’s report that studying this event changed him for the […]

    Pingback by Points of Interest, #32 « Mind, Soul, and Body — October 3, 2008 @ 7:36 pm

  16. Bob,

    A good book about this phenomenon is Phillip Zimbardo’s write up of his Stanford Prison Experiment. It came out in 2007 and is called The Lucifer Effect: Understanding how good people turn evil.

    One of his main points is it is not so much a few bad apples that turn a situation, rather it is the apple basket that is bad. I think Massacre at Mountain Meadows attempt to show this by spending a lot of time detailing the “perfect storm” of politics, history, religion, and rhetoric that led to the events of September 11th.

    Another point made is that common attitude held by good people that they are far removed from the people of these events. As in the belief I would never have done that. The Milgram experiment and the SPE, among others, show that ordinary people in the right environment can commit terrible atrocities.

    Comment by TStevens — October 17, 2008 @ 3:16 pm


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