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?