Notes From The Massacre at Mountain Meadows Panel, Part 2: Phil Barlow

By September 6, 2008


In the context of Mormon historiography this, as a piece of scholarship, is a formidable work, monumental accomplishment….My task here is an opportunity to think of the implications of the book.  What does the massacre teach us about Mormonism? About religion and its potential for good or evil…Is religion sick?  The answer is sometimes, sometimes not.  What does it mean for Mormon studies? This book is an important accomplishment…also important to comprehend a fact that the book represents an institutional decision, not just a work of history, but itself historic.  It is an institutional effort in some instances, a decision made at the highest levels of LDS church authority to give the authors complete ability to let the chips fall where they may, also given access to materials not accessed by other authors.  W/O the approval of Elder Jensen, the book in anything resembling its present form could not have been accomplished, not in 20 years.  Doors were open, a small army of researchers were given time and money to visit repositories in 2/3 of the states, this is not how my books get written! [Laughter]


The resulting book is exhaustive.  These three authors had to make decisions about what to include.  The book received resistance from some quarters.   Mike Landon drew my attention to electronic commentaries on newspaper sites.  There was an avalanche of readers condemning the work without reading it because people in the employ of the church had written it. There was resistance from some living descendants of participants, some said they should just let sleeping dogs lie…to borrow a phrase…the bones would not stay buried…they have had a literally difficult time staying under ground and symbolically as well. The bones cry out. 


Because the book is good and the painful enterprise was blessed by the LDS church many will read only this book especially LDS.  That’s ok if you are sparing yourself Sally Denton or September Dawn [laughter]…there are other books we’d do well to acquaint ourselves with.  Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets, he and the authors have carried on an arm wrestle on whether BY ordered it.  Bagley’s forthcoming Innocent Blood will be an important addition to the literature. Shannon Novak published a book through U of U press, House of Mourning, it is something that should be encountered, also Bill MacKinnon’s documentary history of the Utah War…the MMM was the most dramatic violence to erupt from the Utah War, a war which had much more violence than we think.  It was a war and there was violence.  The success of the Walker-Turley-Leonard book will mean a lot of things…the historical department will likely address other aspects of history of the church.  It will learn that the church will not crumble…perhaps treatments of blacks, or polygny with more maturity and the candidness of this MMM volume.


 Like the space program launched by Kennedy, we didn’t just get to the moon, but learned to eat Jello differently, lots of collateral stuff came of it, and much collateral will come of this as well.  Landon and Brian Reeve identified some of these…changes in Utah law regarding capital punishment came from observations of John D. Lee’s execution, Indian policy of Brigham Young, whites dressing as Indians in various settings, cattle disease on overland trails, the publication of this book will bring some cultural catharsis.  It is largely good and healthy in this context. Our authors have been candid, words like “unfortunate” “sinister plan” “atrocity” “desecration” lace these pages.  Though catharsis is culturally healthy for the LDS community, many have not heard of the MMM, many have distanced themselves, many have and will carry a distant, vague guilt of it, or excuse it thinking that men will be punished for their own sins.  I was not there, what can I do?  If your last name is Lee or Haight in the area of Cedar City, many people were steered away from interacting with such families, so there is a broad response.  Catharsis can sometimes be too thorough, leading them to neglect a truth the authors embrace, that humans are capable of evil.


I won’t recount the recipe for group violence, but Voltaire observed long ago that if people can be made to believe absurdities, they can be led to commit atrocities.  If we Americans who should be grateful of so much, if we forget a healthy discomfort for national mistakes, we can say that launching preemptive war, specifically prohibited in Mormon scriptures [is ok]….3 things in particular…I already said…under certain conditions, LDS are capable not merely of sins but of evil….this is more thoroughly explained in Catholic thought than LDS…Brigham Young, under the pressure of war did issue orders, “don’t start the violence, but if aggression comes, don’t leave witnesses to tell tales abroad to spread tales abroad.”  To women who left with soldiers… [Brigham Young warned that] continued fraternization could have lethal consequences…this attitude no doubt affected his followers.  Brigham Young was a human, it was a difficult situation of war, the pressure of war. I’m not putting myself in a position to judge, but those are hard words that need to be thought out. 

The book may present to LDS and others the option of another paradigm of how to construct their faith, that the church is not divine, but the church consists of human beings and all that this entails is that they are trying to respond to the divine…another implication is that there are proper limits to authority and regard for authority and obedience and faith…LDS culture and teaching emphasizes obedience, some call it the 1st law of heaven…not enough faith is bad,more faith is good…elevated notions of authority extremely high…there is nothing virtuous in blind obedience or blind faith…terrorists of all sorts have plenty of it. Proper obedience and faith require thought.  Thoughtful faith better than blind faith. All humans rely on sources of knowledge, but few are deliberate about it…secularists think their knowledge is all about reason…others on authority of things like the Bible…very few can articulate the argument but rely on authority.


Religious understandings may rest on leaders, or councils, tradition, revelation, community, experience, usually it’s a combination.  In the LDS case, there is extraordinary reliance on authority and their scripture and revelation.  The authors of M at MM demonstrate the need for people to be aware of the limits one gives ones self over to.  Dangers of theocracy…that all power concentrated in one’s hands. There may be time to say no, and Mormon doctrine says as much, the D&C speaks of unrighteous dominion…Though [Mormons] not likely to be called to participate in killing, but sometimes private feelings and church stances create tension. [The] LDS [Church] feel[s] differently about homosexuality and feel differently about policy preventing gay couples from marrying, and differently about church induced activism.  Those aren’t blood and guts issue, but they are issues. 


Let me conclude by saying that the fact that this book has been published…the flowering of Mormon studies and the internet makes it impossible to fence its history…it also means Mormon culture reached a place of greater confidence, leaders who are better able to see that nothing but the truth is good enough for the church. The church will not be undercut but gain credibility for demonstrating respect to the victims and take responsibility. 


Some writers like Krakauer say that violence is the heart of Mormonism. Others construe the massacre as a distortion of Mormon principles.  I think it is a distortion of it’s basic [principles] but I think too that there is a recessive gene within Mormonism that tends toward the violent.  Most saints will not know that the wounds from the 19th century ran deep enough that Mormon ritual until the early times of the 20th century [included portions that pleaded] that [their] arm would be strong to avenge the blood of the prophets.  Juanita Brooks wrote under difficult circumstances with crucial documents held from her…”nothing but the truth is god enough for the church that I belong to”…in one scene of an interview she haltingly said she was disfellowshipped, not literally true, but…her tongue spoke what her heart felt, she felt ostracized. Now in 2008 we read a book, institutional, tri-authored, that candidly…tries to face that episode. 


See also Parts 1, 3, 4, and  5.See also a transcript of the three authors speaking at Benchmark Books in August.

 Ardis has also put up her notes from the night.


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