CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

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The 2002 CESNUR International Conference

Minority Religions, Social Change, and Freedom of Conscience

Salt Lake City and Provo (Utah), June 20-23, 2002

“Will You Love that Man or Woman Well Enough to Shed Their Blood?”
Brigham Young’s Culture of Violence and the Murders at Mountain Meadows

Will Bagley
A paper presented at CESNUR 2002, Salt Lake City & Provo. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

In 1845, the Mormon apostles issued a proclamation to “to the Rulers and People of all Nations,” declaring, “the kingdom of God has come: … even that kingdom which shall fill the whole earth, and shall stand for ever.” As drafted by apostle Parley P. Pratt, the proclamation was an ultimatum to world leaders to join the Mormon millennial plan “to reduce all nations and creeds to one political and religious standard, and thus put an end to Babel forms and names, and to strife and war.” The Earth’s rulers must “take a lively interest with the Saints of the Most High, and the covenant people of the Lord” or “you will become their inveterate enemy.”

This unambiguous statement of objectives by a revolutionary new religious movement inspired Mormonism’s fifty-year conflict with the American Republic. With this charter, Brigham Young sought to complete the work of Joseph Smith at any cost and by any means necessary. During his first decade in the West he built a religious theocracy that employed the techniques of a modern totalitarian state to establish the Kingdom of God in the Great Basin. In the process, he created what historian D. Michael Quinn has called a culture of violence. The decision to do whatever was necessary to build the Kingdom “encouraged Mormons to consider it their religious right to kill antagonistic outsiders, common criminals, LDS apostates, and even faithful Mormons who committed sins ‘worthy of death.’”

Mormon apologists have long argued that the “occasional isolated acts of violence that occurred” in Mormon Country “were typical of that period in the history of the American West.” This is not true. What made Utah’s violence unique even in the West was that it occurred in a settled, well-organized community whose leaders publicly sanctioned doctrines of vengeance and ritual murder. Its grim consequences made it terrible. The Mountain Meadows Massacre, the betrayal and execution of some forty men and eighty women and children at a remote oasis in Southern Utah on September 11, 1857, is the most infamous consequence of Brigham Young’s doctrines of blood and vengeance.

What was different about Mormon religious violence is that it was preached from -the pulpitand for decades Utah’s extremely powerful religious-political leaders sanctioned murder and protected murderers through a cynical manipulation of justice. Financial interests endorsed vigilante violence in California and Montana and a displaced slaveocracy encouraged systematic terror in the South, but in no place but theocratic Utah did political and religious leaders advocate “holy murder.”

The nature of this culture of violence, which is not atypical of new religious movements, baffles today’s Latter-day Saints and bedevils their faithful historians. They lack the historical imagination to appreciate the differences between the radical, millennial nature of early Mormonism and today’s conservative religion, which for the last decade has striven mightily to become no more controversial than Methodism. But, as Wallace Stegner observed, “to pretend that there were no holy murders in Utah and along the trails to California, that there was no saving of the souls of sinners by the shedding of their blood during the ‘blood atonement’ revival of 1856, that there were no mysterious disappearances of apostates and offensive Gentiles,” is simply “bad history.”[1]

The atrocity at Mountain Meadows did not happen because its victims stumbled into a typically violent Western confrontation or poisoned a spring or called the Mormons names. I struggled for five years to come up with a coherent explanation of this event, and much to my surprise, I found compelling evidence that this mass murder was a calculated act of misdirected retribution, which Brigham Young sanctioned as a righteous act of vengeance. In May 1861, the Mormon prophet himself explained to John D. Lee why it had to be done: “Pres. Young said that the company that was used up at the Mountain Meadows were the Fathers, Mothers, Brothers, Sisters & connections of those that Murdereds the Prophets. They Merited their fate, & the only thing that ever troubled him was the lives of the Women & children, but that under the circumstances [this] could not be avoided.”[2]

Two early Mormon practices - the Oath of Vengeance and Blood Atonement - help us understand what happened on that grim Friday afternoon 145 years ago - and why.

Following Joseph Smith’s murder, Brigham Young incorporated this oath into the Mormon temple ceremony: “You and each of you do covenant and promise that you will pray, and never cease to pray, Almighty God to avenge the blood of the prophets upon this nation, and that you will teach the same to your children and your children's children unto the third and fourth generations.[3]

Juanita Brooks concluded (perhaps incorrectly) that every Mormon participant at Mountain Meadows had taken this oath as part of their sacred endowment. But as participant John D. Lee later wrote about the victims of the massacre, “This lot of people had men amongst them that were supposed to have helped kill the Prophets in the Carthage jail, the killing of all of them would be keeping our oaths and avenging the blood of the Prophets.”

Could the murder of Parley Pratt, a Mormon prophet, on the border of Arkansas in May 1857 have contributed to the decision to destroy the Fancher party, however innocent they may have been of the crime? Two months before the murders, the Alta California thought it entirely possible:

Whether the hot blood which must now be seething and boiling in the veins of Brigham Young and his satellites, at Salt Lake, is to be cooled by the murder of Gentiles who pass through their territory, whether the “destroying angels” of Mormomdom [sic], are to be brought into requisition to make reprisals upon travelers, or whether, as has been done before, “Saints” disguised as Indians are to constitute themselves the supposed ministers of God’s vengeance in this case, we are not informed, but have no doubt that … such intentions as these, are prevalent among those saintly villains, adulterers and seducers of Salt Lake.[4]

During a two-year famine that ravaged Utah in the mid-1850s, Mormon leaders subjected the people of Utah to an orgy of religious fanaticism known as the “Reformation.” John M. Higbee, who gave the orders to kill the Arkansans at Mountain Meadows, recalled in 1896 that Cedar City was in the grip of “a craze of fanaticism, stronger than we would be willing now to admit.” Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Reformation was the Mormon leadership’s obsession with blood and their public calls for murder. Their rhetoric dripped with sanguine imagery, and their Old Testament theology incorporated this dark fascination in a perplexing doctrine known as “Blood Atonement.” Joseph Smith taught that certain grievous sins put a sinner “beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ.” Their “only hope is to have their own blood shed to atone.” Strictly interpreted, the doctrine may have applied only to believing Mormons, but the words of its prophets suggest the LDS church shed the blood of apostates “as an atonement for their sins.”[5] As the doctrine evolved under Brigham Young, it would have a powerful-and confusing-influence. Of all the beliefs that laid the foundation of Utah’s culture of violence, none would have more devastating consequences.

If a Saint committed an unpardonable sin, Young asked early in 1857, “Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood?” He knew hundreds of people who could have been saved “if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty, but who are now angels to the devil.” If a man wanted salvation and it was “necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he might be saved, spill it … That is the way to love mankind.” It was strong doctrine to cut “people off from the earth,” he conceded, “but it is to save them, not to destroy them.” Sinners should welcome blood atonement and “beg of their brethren to shed their blood.”[6]

Young’s private statements exceeded even the violent language of his public sermons. “I want their cursed heads cut off that they may atone for their sins,” he told the Council of Fifty in March 1849.[7] His interpretation of blood atonement evoked the Saints’ vision of themselves as an Old Testament people, an identification so strong that the plans for the Salt Lake temple included an altar “to Offer Sacrifices.”[8] The gory details of blood atonement shock modern observers, but the common experience of butchering animals made them less repellent to a farming people.

The Saints had a “right to kill a sinner to save him, when he commits those crimes that can only be atoned for by shedding his blood,” Jedediah Grant insisted. At the beginning of the Reformation, Grant advised sinners to ask Brigham Young “to appoint a committee to attend to their case; and then let a place be selected, and let that committee shed their blood. We have those amongst us that are full of all manner of abominations, those who need to have their blood shed, for water will not do, their sins are of too deep a dye.”[9]

Modern Mormon authorities insist blood atonement was a “rhetorical device” and “has never been practiced by the Church at any time,” but historian Juanita Brooks concluded that in Utah Territory, blood atonement was “a literal and terrible reality. Brigham Young advocated and preached it without compromise.”[10] The appearance in 1859 of the decapitated remains of two Mormon women who had consorted with soldiers at Camp Floyd -documented in army sources and in the Church Historical Department journal-puts the lie to claims that is it impossible to prove blood atonement ever happened.

Last summer historian Michael Quinn put the implications of such irresponsible rhetoric into perspective. Suppose the archbishop of Dublin incited his congregation with a rehearsal of Protestant crimes against Irish Catholics. Suppose further that he said the solution to the problem was to slit Protestant throats, and that the bishop then published his sermon in the Irish Catholic press. If Protestants suddenly began showing up with their throats slit, Quinn asked, would even Mormon historians pretend the archbishop had nothing to do with the crime?[11]

Whatever the doctrine’s precise practice, the blood atonement sermons of Brigham Young and Jedediah Grant helped inspire their followers to acts of irrational violence. By encouraging such criminal acts and then covering them up, Mormon leaders betrayed the Mormon people.

The most difficult question confronting anyone trying to understand Mountain Meadows is how decent men acting on their best and firmest beliefs can commit a great evil. To dismiss this crime as just another Western massacre and ignore its religious motivation does nothing to address this problem. Trapped in an authoritarian theocratic state that punished disobedience with death and inspired by a radical millennialistic faith, the true believers who executed this awful crime did so believing they were doing God’s will. The same motives that led devout, god-fearing Mormons to treacherously murder 120 unarmed men, women, and children in 1857 inspired nineteen devout Muslims to fly airplanes into buildings full of innocent people exactly 144 years later.

Late in life, Juanita Brooks described her first visit to Mountain Meadows and its broad sage-covered plain. “Men did not gather here by chance or mere hearsay,” she thought as she contemplated the desolate site. “If they were here, they had come because they were ordered to come. And whatever went on was done because it had been ordered, not because individuals had acted upon impulse.”[12]

As a last word, here are comments of a noted authority, John Doyle Lee, the only man who, as he said, “stood up and faced the music” for his crimes at Mountain Meadows:

you Know the policy of Brigham is to get into possession & control everything where there is a dollar to be made . . . if he considered [himself] no accessory to the deed why would he bring men whose hands have been died in human Blood to swear away my life & make an offering of me to save his guilty Petts . . . he thinks it a friendly act, to sacrifice me, to make me attone for the sins of his Pets as well as my own by shedding my blood you know that is one of his peculiar ways of showing his Kindness to some men by killing them to save them but that Kind of Friendship is getting too thin, it is too much like the love that a Hungry wolf has for an innocent lamb.[13]

[1] Stegner, Mormon Country, 96.

[2] Cleland and Brooks, eds., A Mormon Chronicle, 314. Spelling corrected.

[3] David John Buerger, “The Development of the Mormon Temple Endowment Ceremony,” Dialogue 20:4 (Winter 1987) 52-53.

[4] “The Killing of Pratt-Letter from Mr. McLean,” Alta California, 9 July 1857. Punctuation edited for readability.

[5] McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 87–88. McConkie insisted “there is not one historical instance of so-called blood atonement” in modern times.

[6] Brigham Young, 21 September 1856 and 8 February 1857, Journal of Discourses, 4:53, 219–20.

[7] Brooks, ed., Mormon Chronicle, 1:98–99 contains the Council of Fifty’s discussion about whether to behead Ira West in public or in secret.

[8] Kenney, ed., Wilford Woodruff's Journal, 18 December 1857, 5:140.

[9] Grant sermons of 12 March 1854 and 21 September 1856, in Sessions, Mormon Thunder, 127, 211.

[10] Ludlow, ed., Encyclopedia of Mormonism. 1:131; and Brooks, ed., Mormon Chronicle, 1:129n143. In the 1950s official LDS commentary on such doctrines was more forthright. An apostle noted that those who understood blood atonement “could and did use their influence to get a form of capital punishment written into the laws of various states of the union so that the blood of murderers could be shed.” See McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 86–88. Beheading was an execution option in Utah until 1888.

[11] “Violence on the Mormon Frontier: Fact or Fiction?” 2001 Salt Lake City Sunstone Symposium with Polly Aird, Willam Bagley, Edward Lyman, Michael Quinn, William Shepard.

[12] Brooks, Quicksand and Cactus: A Memoir of the Southern Mormon Frontier, 250, 255.

[13] John D. Lee to Emma B. Lee, 9 December 1876, John D. Lee Collection, Huntington Library.

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