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War and Prayer

Religion is supposed to be about peace, but often it is about war.  Some of the worst religious wars include Islamic Jihad, Christian Crusades, and Joshua’s Unholy War.  I wish Mormons didn’t have anything to be ashamed of, but I’ve been reading The Mountain Meadows Massacre by Juanita Brooks.

One of the things I didn’t realize about this shameful episode is the Utah War.  It wasn’t much of a war, but it was one of the leading causes of this tragedy.  In 1857, President Buchanon sent 5000 troops to Utah to put down a supposed rebellion in Utah.  Exaggerated reports of rebellion had come to Washington, DC.  The US had just finished the Mexican-American War in 1848, and Civil War rhetoric would boil over into war just 4 years later.

There was a tremendous amount of war rhetoric leading up to this time throughout the country.  The Mormons had been driven out of Missouri and Illinois, arriving in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847.  Brigham Young publicly made many belligerent statements that they would not be driven again, but privately, he had no intention of engaging a war with the US government.  He did his best to slow them down, sent Mormons to harass the US Army, but he had explicit instructions not to engage the US army.  When the army finally arrived in the Salt Lake Valley, no shots were fired, and there was uneasy peace.

Prior to the arrival of troops, the Mormons were training for war.  The militias took part on military exercises, and supplies were tightened.  They were instructed not to sell food to emigrants passing through.  The Fancher and Baker companies were passing through Utah from Arkansas to California.  Bad feelings ensued. The emigrants needed supplies, but the Mormons refused to sell to them–thinking they might need these supplies for the war effort with the US.

There were unsubstiantiated rumors that the Fancher party poisoned a well which killed Indian cattle and other rumors that the Fanchers boasted of killing Joseph and Hyrum Smith.  Obviously, this would create tensions in Southern Utah.  Apostle Parley P Pratt had been recently killed in Arkansas, and the Fanchers apparently bragged about the killing, and threatened to come back with an army from California to take care of the Mormons.  Supposedly they derisively named their oxen Brigham and Joseph.

Militias were told that they may need to defend themselves for the oncoming US army, and if the army arrived sooner than expected.  War fervor was very high.  Brigham Young issued orders to make alliances with the Indians–they were often referred to as the “battle-axe of the Lord.”

Apparently, the Fancher-Baker parties provoked enough anger among the Mormons, that it was decided to do something about them.  The Mormons first tried to have the Indians attack the emigrants, but the Fancher party repelled both attacks, killing some Indians in the process.  The Indians were furious, and said if the Mormons didn’t help them, the Indians would attack the Mormons.  Indians outnumbered Mormons 4 to 1 in the area.

John D. Lee, who was later executed for the massacre, says they knelt in prayer about what to do.  From page 81,

The discussions went on, [Lee] says, until at last the Mormons knelt in a circle amid the sage and asked God for guidance and strength to do the thing that was required, or to give them some sign that they might know what to do.

[Quoting from Lee’s Confessions, page 232]  ‘After prayer, Major Higbee said, “Here are the orders and handed me a paper from Haight.  It was in substance that it was the orders of Haight to decoy the emigrants from their position, and kill them all that could talk.  The order was in writing.  Higbee handed it to me and I read it, and then dropped it to the ground, saying,

“I cannot do this.”

….The order was signed by Haight, as commander of the troops at Cedar City.

Haight told me the next day after the massacre, while on the Meadows, that he got his orders from Colonel Dame.

I then left the council, and went away to myself, and bowed myself in prayer before God, and asked Him to overrule the decision of that Council.  I shed many bitter tears, and my tortured soul was wrung nearly from my body by the great suffering.  I will here say, calling upon Heaven, angels, and the spirits of just men to witness what I say, that if I could then have had a thousand worlds to command, I would have given them freely to save that company from death.

While in bitter anguish, lamenting the sad condition of myself and others, Charles Hopkins, a man I had great confidence in, came to me from the Council, and tried to comfort me….

At the earnest solicitation of Brother Hopkins, I returned with him to the Council.  When I got back, the Council again prayed for aid.’  [Brooks stops quoting Lee here.]

Finally convinced that he was doing what had to be done, Lee accepted the decision and helped to make plans for the execution without further protest or weeping.

It boggles my mind that they actually knelt in prayer before this horrific atrocity.  Of course, religious fanaticism is common to Islam, Judiaism, Hinduism, and Christianity too, but that doesn’t make it right or justifiable.  I was a bit encouraged that some Mormons did not want to participate.  The emigrant men were marched single file with a Mormon escort.  Sick, wounded, women, and children were loaded in wagons.  Everyone knew that when “Halt” was shouted, the escorts were to shoot the men standing next to them.  Higbee explains on page 90,

Some say Clingensmith gave Order who was at head of company.  One thing is Known by all Persons out there   It was Major Lee’s Orders whoEver gave them.  That was the signal for guns to fire.  Lee said that those that are too big Cowards to help the Indians can Shoot in the air then Squat down So Indians can rush Past them and finish up their Savage work begun Many days Since.

It is said Most of the Company were nervious and afraid of Indian Treachery and Kept their guns loaded for their Own Protection    no doubt Each Individual knows more about that than any other Person Living and How they felt at that Particular Moment when Some Guns were fired and the Men Squated down and Indians Seemed to be there the Same Moment as they jumped out of the Brush, and rushed like a Howling tornado apast us.  And the Hideous Deamon like yells of the Savages as they thirsting for blood rushed Past to Slay their helpless Victims it Seemed to chill the Blood in our veins.

Brooks goes on to say,

Higbee’s account closes with a plea that the truth of this should be told, so that men who had been deceived into going to the Meadows in the first place and forced to participate in the butchery after they got there might be cleared of responsibility.  These men, he insisted, had been done a grave injustice.

That some of the Mormons in the ranks did not approve of what was done is generally admitted.  A legend is gold of young Tom Pierce, who refused to have anything to do with the affair and turned and walked away.  When his own father, who was an officer, ordered him into the ranks and he still did not return, the father shot at him.  The bullet grazed the side of Tom’s head, leaving a permanent scar just above his ear.

The Mormon teaching of unquestioning obedience to authority, added to the strict military law then in force in the territory, would, in the eyes of their neighbors, relieve the men in the ranks of responsibility.  For this reason, only a few went later into permanent hiding, and they were the men who had been in positions of command.

Brooks says there are many conflicting witness accounts.  Most witnesses tried to make themselves look good at the expense of others.  Some people have discounted all of Lee’s testimony, but Brooks doesn’t believe all of Lee’s testimony should be discounted.  She makes efforts to show how reliable it is.

I’m impressed with Tom Pierce.  I don’t know what I would have done with such a terrible choice, but I hope I would have followed his example.  What do you make of this prayer before the massacre?  Is killing in the name of God ever a good thing?  What about Joshua and Jericho, Nephi and Laban, Abraham and Isaac, Elisha and Jezebel?

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12 comments on “War and Prayer

  1. Wow, I had no idea about them kneeeling in prayer beforehand, MH. And I thought that MMM couldn’t get any more troubling…

    It raises a whole lot of questions for me, but this is the part that is most worrisome:

    “The Mormon teaching of unquestioning obedience to authority, added to the strict military law then in force in the territory, would, in the eyes of their neighbors, relieve the men in the ranks of responsibility.”

    My friend mormongandhi brought something interesting to my attention, which I will paste here:

    “While looking through old bookmarked links, I came across BKP’s famous conference address “Military Service in Vietnam, Not a Conscientious Objector”. There is significance to this address, as it exhorts LDS to not oppose a war draft, should there ever be one. In addition, it was given on 05 April 1968, the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed. MLK was an avid critic of the Vietnam War. Here is the quote in question from BKPs address:

    “Though all the issues of the conflict are anything but clear, the matter of citizenship responsibility is perfectly clear. Our brethren, we know something of what you face and sense, something of what you feel. I have worn the uniform of my native land in the time of total conflict. I have smelled the stench of human dead and wept tears for slaughtered comrades. I have climbed amid the rubble of ravaged cities and contemplated in horror the ashes of a civilization sacrificed to Moloch; yet knowing this, with the issues as they are, were I called again to military service, I could not conscientiously object!”

    I don’t think we can underestimate the pressure that these men (who felt conflicted about MMM but participated anyways) felt, but at the same time it just doesn’t feel right to me to use religious cohercion in matters of something so serious as taking innocent lives — whether it be MMM or Vietnam, or wherever else. Unfortunately, Mormon culture doesn’t seem to have much regard for conscientious objectors.

    Also, the story of Tom Pierce reminds me of the fictional family in September Dawn, which I felt was waaaaay over the top when I saw the movie. But there are perhaps some similarities that we’d rather weren’t true.

  2. I think that decisions about life and death — whether personally or tribally or nationally — ought to be made with most solemn prayer. MMM is not part of my own history, but decisions about VietNam certainly were. Although my diabetes would have made me unfit for service and I drew a “safe” number in the 1967 draft lottery anyway, it was a question all my high school and college friends faced. I couldn’t avoid thinking about it in the political campaign the next year, throughout college, and ultimately in deciding about whether to accept a job at a USN contract laboratory.

    I decided FOR ME, refusing to fight would make it rational for others to kill the innocent (as happened when the US withdrew) and that I would then be complicit in those deaths. Therefore I could not call myself a conscientious objector. Others come out on the opposite side of the calculation and I can sincerely respect their beliefs. I’m glad we don’t have the draft anymore and hope we never go back to it, but I hope everyone who considers a military career or who votes for a national government considers issues of war and peace with deep prayer. There is so much that goes on hidden in the weeds that we are forced to trust leaders to some extent, so we’d better not mess up THAT decision.

    I’d like to raise another point: if participation in MMM was immoral, wouldn’t it also be immoral to fail to warn the settlers of the ruse while they still had weapons and were not exposed?

  3. FD, I don’t know if you saw my previous post discussing books about the MMM. I believe September Dawn was based on Sally Denton’s (an investigative reporter) book, though I could be mistaken. I’m sure filmmakers added some drama to the story. Are you saying that there is a part which describes the Tom Pierce episode?

    I respect those who are truly conscientious objectors. I admit there is a part of me that wonders if some people claim conscientious objector status with less than honest intentions. I think some people join the military only wanting to reap the benefits (pay for education, extra money). Perhaps that is judgmental, but I think there are some who fit that description.

    Yes, FireTag, I think it is immoral not to warn the settlers of the ruse. This is a combination of military orders and religious orders–a truly dangerous combination. If we take the religious implications away for a minute and view this as a military order (which it apparently was–Lee claims to have read a written order), then secrecy is paramount. In war, there are often terrible choices. Betraying your leaders can not only get yourself killed, but fellow soldiers.

    I just watched Batman: The Dark Knight a week or two ago. There’s a line about a hero becoming a villain, and comparisons to the Emporer of Rome becoming a dictator when needed. Michael Caine talks about a madman robber in Burma that stole for fun (and the Joker seems to imitate as well.) Batman asks how they stopped the madman, and Caine replies that they burned down the whole forest.

    Batman has opportunities to kill the Joker and end the suffering, but he keeps trying to show that laws are important, and we shouldn’t take matters into our own hands. I love the conflicts in the movie, because the good guys aren’t perfectly good, and have to make terrible choices. Joker’s social experiment to see if people will kill the people on the other ferry to save our own lives was a diabolical choice.

    Anyway, my point is that people like Tom Pierce were faced with awful decisions: lose your own life to save unruly emigrants, or exact some revenge for all the sufferings your people have been through? We all know the answer, but I’d have a hard time keeping my composure if I heard people bragging about killing Mormons. Perhaps I wouldn’t want to kill them, but I wouldn’t want to save them either.

  4. I didn’t like September Dawn because of the fictional family storyline (the father played by John Voigt), as well as the liberties they took with Brigham Young’s direct involvement. In that regard, it was historically misleading. I know they added a whole lot of Hollywood drama there and the movie really portrayed all Mormons as Taliban-like figures, except for the young man (Voigt’s son) who is troubled by all the rhetoric and tries to run away, but is almost murdered by his father and fellow Mormons. In the end, the father murders the love interest of his son (one of the settler girls) in cold blood in a scene that was a little over the top for me. But the story about Pierce (which I had never heard of) shows that there was perhaps a willingness to even kill one’s own son if he did not submit to authority.

    I thought that the movie had its strengths, though. The massacre itself was portrayed the way I understand it happened in the history books. As well, there was a brief scene from a temple ceremony — which caught me totally off-guard and made me really uncomfortable since I was watching it with my husband — and at the time I dismissed it as anti-Mormon rubbish because at the time I wasn’t aware of the washing and annointing in big vats of water, nor the blood oath, which the characters partially recited in full temple dress. It all happened so fast and was portrayed in a sort of hazy fashion, so it added to the eeriness of the whole thing. I was freaked out by it myself. 🙂

    So I wouldn’t recommend SD to anyone and I hated the fictitious storyline. And like I said, the conclusions it makes about BY’s involvement are not historically accurate based on the evidence we have today. But I think it actually did a decent job of capturing the atmosphere that led up to the massacre and the massacre itself — the most troubling, perhaps, being the temple ceremony at the time.

  5. MH:

    I appreciate the Dark Knight analogy. I wanted to link to a scholarly treatment of some of the moral issues raised by the movie that you caught as relevant to this discussion, but I haven’t found the link yet. This is one of the deepest superhero myth movies ever made, and there are thousands of references burying the article I’m trying to find.

  6. I would be more concerned if people did NOT kneel in prayer before going to war. Of course they should seek HF’s counsel and guidance before committing bloodshed. There are plenty of wars and killings in the Book of Mormon that were preceded with prayer.

    To me it seems like it was the perfect storm…if there hadn’t been threats from the US, if there had been more food to go around, if they hadn’t been already persecuted, if JS hadn’t been killed, etc…then perhaps MM never would’ve happened. In high stress situations even the best of men can make bad choices driven by emotions and fears.

  7. And if its true that the other parties were making threats, then they were partly to blame.

  8. FD, thanks for the movie review. It’s a movie I have wanted to see, but I’ve heard it was terrible, so I haven’t bothered. It sounds like there may be some elements of truth, mixed with quite a bit of fiction.

    FireTag, I’d love to hear of a scholarly treatment of The Dark Knight. I thought it was a really amazing movie, and it did make you think.

    Olive, it is in high stress situations where I am always concerned about whether I am getting Heavenly Father’s guidance, or am I listening to my own emotions and fears. That’s what makes prayer so hard to discern. As I understand it, Will Bagley disputes Juanita Brook’s contention that the Fanchers were making threats. I haven’t read Bagley’s book yet, but that is one point of dispute.

  9. […] I also bought a couple new books and had them autographed.  John Hamer autographed my copy of Scattering of the Saints: Schism within Mormonism.  Brother Rick Turley, assistant LDS Church Historian autographed his book Massacre at Mountain Meadows.  He has a new book called sdfhksjh with material unavailable to Jaunita Brooks (she wrote The Mountain Meadows Massacre, that I blogged about previously). […]

  10. […] to cover up the tragedy and blame it on the Indians.  I have previously discussed the massacre here and here, if you’re interested in more detail.  Families of the Fancher party along with the […]

  11. […] discuss the Utah War too, which led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  They shy away from blaming Brigham Young for the massacre, and do note that Juanita Brooks […]

  12. […] discuss the Utah War too, which led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre.  They shy away from blaming Brigham Young for the massacre, and do note that Juanita Brooks […]

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