Sin, Seminary, and Mountain Meadows.

By February 18, 2014

Last week a new Doctrine and Covenants seminary manual popped up on My pragmatic self tends to try and manage expectations with new manuals, but I was pleased to see a new chapter on “The Utah War and the Mountain Meadows Massacre” with most of the chapter focusing on the massacre. The prior seminary manual (2001) included nary a mention of the massacre.[1] This manual also includes a quite extensive chapter on plural marriage (extensive in comparison to other chapters).

The LDS Seminary program is clearly devotional in nature. The chapter provides a didactic walk through the context and event in 4 pages. The didacticism comes in the form of questions asked of the students how might they feel or respond to specific events with Book of Mormon and New Testament scriptures to guide the answers. The main theological gist intended with the lesson is in bold text: “Choosing to hide our sins can lead us to commit further sins. Choosing to hide our sins can bring regret and suffering.” The source for the historical narrative is Rick Turley?s 2007 Ensign article, which is a very capable summary of the basic elements of a tragic event. I believe that the biggest plus here is the presence of the chapter; a close second is the accuracy of the history, despite its condensed nature. Likewise important is using the category of sin, focusing mainly on Isaac C. Haight and John D. Lee.

The polygamy chapter is very explicit that teachers use only appropriate or authorized sources: “Seminary and institute curriculum materials are provided as the main resources to help you prepare and teach effective lessons. You may use additional resources, such as Church magazines, as you support students” understanding of the scripture block. Other resources should not be used to speculate or sensationalize lesson topics or to teach ideas that have not been clearly established by the Church. Even if something has been published before, it may not be appropriate for use in the classroom. Choose lesson materials wisely so lessons can build students “faith and testimonies.” (477) Later in the plural marriage chapter it also mentions and are likewise appropriate sources. Despite the lack of trust that seems implicit in that limitation, the manual does move to provide considerable supplemental information to aid the teacher in the both the polygamy and the Mountain Meadows chapter though much of this material is included in the online versions of the chapters and not in the complete manual (or the .pdf). The massacre chapter references Turley’s 2007 article as a main source, rather than the much more complete 2008 Massacre at Mountain Meadows book by Turley, Walker, and Leonard. Under the letter of the manual’s “law” of “appropriate sources,” the complete book would regrettably not apply.

Though I think the chapter as a whole is a significantly positive step, I would like to examine two problems I see. I believe the collapsing of the narrative has created the first historical problem. This comes after the Indians (led by Lee) begin to attack the emigrants. The section reads: “At one point, Cedar City militiamen became aware of two emigrant men who were outside the wagon corral. The militiamen fired on them, killing one. The other man escaped and brought news to the wagon camp that white men were involved in the attacks against them.” As I read it, I see two men trying to sneak out and one is shot as he tries to escape. To me, the way it is written suggests a lack of proximity to the emigrants–murder from afar. However, those two emigrants made it out of the meadows and were riding back towards Cedar City, presumably to ask for help from the Mormons. (MatMM 159-160) When they got in the vicinity of Leach’s Spring, two militiamen reached them–Joel White and William Stewart, asked for water, and then Stewart shot 18-year-old William Aden in the head at close range. The other emigrant escaped back to the wagon corral in the meadows amidst a hail of gunfire. I still don?t know what I might qualify as an appropriate level of descriptive violence here, but for me, this summarized version seems much less conscious of the personal nature of this significant act of violence that led to the horrific violence of the massacre.

The second item includes the culpability of William Dame and the role of leadership. Dame, Parowan Stake President and southern Utah militia commander, enters the story when he initially tells Isaac Haight, Cedar City Stake President and the militia major immediately under Dame, to not use the militia in response to the confrontation with the emigrants in Cedar City. I wish they would have used the record of Dame’s response? “Words are but wind.” (Not essential, but I think powerful words to make that point.) The manual then asks: “What should the Cedar City leaders have done when William Dame counseled them not to use the militia? What did rejecting counsel then lead them to do?” The manual then reminds the students of Doctrine and Covenants 121 and what happens to priesthood leaders who seek to “cover their sins” or “act unrighteously.” Haight ignoring Dame’s original counsel is implied to be sin.

Then comes the night that the final decision was made to wipe out the emigrants–the notorious tan bark council. In the manual’s version John D. Lee and Haight and “others” made the decision. Dame is not included by name. Though he was mentioned by name earlier, his participation in the final decision is ignored. Mentioning Dame by name adds significant complexity to the story. Dame told Haight initially to ignore the offensive words (a good response). After the Parowan council meeting where Haight was unable to convince the council to move against the emigrants, Dame then allowed Haight to convince him. They went outside the decision of the council (the second time for Haight) to make the final fatal decision (a decidedly bad response made by not only the two militia leaders but by two stake presidents).

Dame’s guilt here complicates simplistic analyses of good and bad characters. By avoiding Dame’s participation in the final decision, the student might avoid asking “What if my priesthood leader asks me to sin?” The manual is ok with one leader sinning–perhaps two is too much? The question of sin might become very murky if extended beyond the simplistic questions asked in the text. Despite these difficulties, the accountability of (at least some) Mormons is explicit (and in bold text)–“some Latter-day Saints plan and carry out the Mountain Meadows Massacre.” Despite any failings or limitations, it is still a really significant step forward.

When I first started working on Mountain Meadows, some Latter-day Saints asked me if I was going to tell what really happened. The tone of their remarks made me feel like they were asking me to show that the Mormons were innocent. I think they could have really used this lesson in seminary. Bold text means at least a general idea of Mormon guilt won’t be misunderstood, right?

[1] Church History in the Fulness of Time (2003) includes a section on the massacre within a larger Utah War section. Regrettably, that chapter did not benefit from Turley’s Ensign article. Though an improvement on past versions, it leaves me very uncomfortable with much accountability unforgivably left to the Native Americans–including the beginning of the ambush that resulted in the massacre. I would hope that will now come up quickly on the curriculum refresh list.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. This is terrific, Janiece – thanks for combing through this lesson with such care. I am so glad these events are making it into official curricula at last, and that the “approved materials” increasingly include scholarly and original primary sources. All to the good – and yet: the more light shed on where the curriculum can be improved (as you do so well in this post), the better, since the Church certainly seems to be in an improving mood lately.

    Comment by Tona H — February 18, 2014 @ 2:21 pm

  2. Thanks, Janiece. Good stuff.

    Comment by Christopher — February 18, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

  3. This is really interesting, Janiece. Thanks for the thorough write-up.

    Comment by Saskia — February 18, 2014 @ 4:31 pm

  4. Great stuff, Janiece.

    Comment by Ben P — February 18, 2014 @ 5:39 pm

  5. Thanks, Janiece. I had similar reactions as I read through the manual. Certainly a big step, but not entirely what historians would hope for.

    One minor point: while I imagine Glenn Rowe contributed a great deal to MatMM, Glen Leonard may be wondering where his name is.

    Comment by David G. — February 18, 2014 @ 6:25 pm

  6. Oh thank you David. 🙂 Fixed.

    Comment by JJohnson — February 18, 2014 @ 7:00 pm

  7. David – I was also disappointed in the absence of a chapter or a significant section that I’ve seen on Native Americans other than the 1831 mission to the Indians. In the last version, there was at least a couple short paragraphs on Native Americans–even if they were just on how nicely Mormons treated them.

    Comment by JJohnson — February 18, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

  8. Great review! I agree that while the story is still more complicated than what the update presents, this is a great step forward for a devotional curriculum. I’m really happy with the church’s efforts to be more historically responsible within a faithful context.

    Comment by Brian Whitney — February 18, 2014 @ 8:14 pm

  9. JJ, I too was disappointed in the lack of coverage on Mormon-Indian history. The discussion of the 1831 mission to the Indians wasn’t all that great, either.

    Comment by David G. — February 18, 2014 @ 11:10 pm

  10. I have read in numerous places that John D. Lee was the scape goat. Is that true?

    I think we do not have a total picture of what really happened though I am probably wrong. I have read about this tragedy from the view point of LDS critics and the ancestors of the murder victims, and I have read the view point from the LDS church. Completely polar opposite information. I would like to read unbiased information, if that is possible.

    Comment by jg — February 19, 2014 @ 9:34 pm

  11. jg-
    There is a lot in what you ask, but here are a few thoughts:

    In regards to Lee as a scapegoat, it depends on how you are defining scapegoat. The term originated with the Jewish day of atonement and the goat was to take the sins of the community. The goat had no sin. (Christians of course, see this as a type for Christ.) Lee was guilty. I think he should have been convicted. So by that original definition, no. Yet, as with many words the use changes over time. And the lack of prosecution of any others that were likewise guilty adds to the idea of a scapegoat.

    Others have said that Lee’s execution took the heat off Brigham Young and the rest of the Mormons, it didn’t work that way–there were still attempts to prosecute the massacre after Lee’s execution and there was as much or more attention to MMM at Young’s death than at Lee’s. The first mention of a scapegoat came in the Lee confession his defense attorney published the day before his execution (I’m pretty sure that is the original reference, but I’d need to research further to be sure). The statement was not in his other confession published by the U.S. Attorney the day after his execution. (The prosecution and popular narrative of the massacre is my specific expertise.)

    I was part of the Massacre at Mountain Meadows effort, so clearly I have bias–and I used that narrative as a standard here. I do not think it is perfect, but I do think that it is the most complete and most balanced history of MMM. (Claims to objectivity are really difficult–good historians will always acknowledge our limitations, I think balanced is the best we can do. We all have bias.)

    One reviewer said MatMM’s biggest problem will always be that its authors are linked to the church, I believe that. But without the institutional support, no single individual would have the resources to replicate the scope of research done for the book. From one who knows the sources, it is good work.

    Comment by JJohnson — February 20, 2014 @ 5:41 am

  12. I was pleasantly surprised by the sections I read from the new manual; checked first to see how they treated the Sweetwater rescue myth (not in there), looked at polygamy (decent coverage), etc. The manual is a positive change, and I appreciate your thoughts on its coverage of the MMM.

    Comment by Amy T — February 21, 2014 @ 9:24 am


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