Why Did Latter-day Saints Commit Violent Acts like the Mountain Meadows Massacre? (Knowhy 633) – powered by Happy Scribe
In September 1857, a wagon company from Arkansas that was passing through southern Utah on its way to California was attacked, and eventually every member of the company except 17 young children was slaughtered by Latter-day Saints at a place called Mountain Meadows.
This tragic and senseless act of violence was inexcusable and contrary to the principles of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Some have tried to use this event as evidence that Latter-day Saints are violent people or that our faith tradition is inherently violent. The truth is much more complicated. Violence is tragically an all too common part of mortal life in this fallen world.
It was an especially prevalent reality on the American frontier in the 19th century, where it was often directed towards minority groups, including religious minorities, who were unfairly perceived as the source of various social ills. As such, Latter-day Saints were regularly victims of violence. In the 1830s and 40s, incidents like the Hauns Mill Massacre, set amidst the violent expulsion of Latter-day Saints from Missouri and the later martyrdom of Joseph and Hiram Smith, followed by another violent expulsion, this time from Illinois, had a generational impact upon the Latter-day Saints, who endured these injustices and lost loved ones, either in the violence or its aftermath. In Utah, the Saints were hoping to live and practice their religion in peace, but conflicts with outsiders continued. On July 24, 1857, word reached Utah of an approaching army sent by the US.
Government. The intentions of this military force were initially unclear, but given the Saints past experience with violent persecution, many assumed the worst. Brigham Young and other leaders throughout Utah gave wartime speeches rallying the Saints to defend themselves and encouraging them to store up any surplus grain, guns and ammo. As the wagon company from Arkansas made its way south through Utah territory, its members repeatedly experienced frustrations trying to obtain needed food and other supplies, which most Saints were unwilling to sell to them due to the council of their leaders. To store up surplus resources in preparation for a potential war, saints and Cedar City would ask exorbitant prices of these immigrants for services.
Men of the company railed against the Mormon businessmen and threatened to join the approaching army and returned to Cedar City to exact their revenge. Mayor of Cedar City, Isaac C. Hate, sought permission from William Dane of Heroin, the leader of the local militia, to use the militia against the immigrants. Dame and the Periwan council instead advised Hate to not use force with the immigrants, but to seek to maintain peace until they passed through the area. Hait ignored this council and hatched a scheme to get some of the local pilots to attack the wagon company at the Mountain Meadows, John Dye Lee was recruited to persuade the payouts, who only agreed to do it if Lee led them.
When Hate convened a council meeting in Cedar City to try obtaining approval for this attack, he was opposed by other local leaders who forced him to agree to sending a messenger to Brigham Young about how to proceed. Before a messenger could be sent, however, an ambush was launched on the immigrants by Lee and some pairs. The wagon company encircled their wagons in a defensive position and settled in for what became a five day siege. A messenger was still sent to Brigham Young, but before he could return, events began to spiral out of control. The immigrants became aware that it was not merely an Indian attack, but that Mormons were involved.
Fearing the consequences if word got out that Mormons had attacked a wagon train, hate and others determined that they could not allow survivors to escape, but he felt he needed permission from William Dane to execute his deadly plan. Once again, a council was called in periyan with Dame and other leaders, but these men did not approve an attack on the immigrants, and instead a plan was made to help the company continue on its way to California. Hate believed this was unacceptable. He and one of his councilors privately met with Dame and pressed upon him his fear that letting the emigrants survive to tell of the attack would unleash aggression on the southern Mormon settlements. Reports on exactly what was said and agreed to in this meeting are conflicting and uncertain.
But Hate came away believing that he had David support for his subsequent actions. The plan was made to have John Dye Lee approach the wagon train under the pretense of offering assistance. Lee would convince the immigrants to give up their arms and let the Saints lead them out of the meadow and into safety instead of protecting the immigrants. However, when the signal was given, the militiamen, aided by some palates, killed all the immigrants except 17 small children. Two days later, the writer returned with word from Brigham Young, telling Hate not to interfere or meddle with the immigrant train, but to let them go in peace.
Upon receiving the message, Hate reportedly sobbed like a child, saying, too late. Too late. It is difficult to fully grasp or understand why events like the Mountain Metals Massacre happened. It can be easy or even comforting to assume that religious fanaticism caused this unspeakable tragedy. Such an explanation makes it easier to process and dismiss.
But according to historians, for the most part, the men who committed the atrocity of Mountain Meadows were neither fanatics nor sociopaths, but normal and in many respects, decent people. Speaking on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of this tragic event, president Henry B. Iring said the Gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse abhors the cold blooded killing of men, women and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.
We cannot change what happened, but we can remember and honor those who were killed here. Studies have shown that the conditions that led to this tragedy were consistent with those found in other instances where seemingly normal people have committed mass killings. Thus, the source or cause of this massacre was something not religion, but something deeper than religion, something embedded deep within the fallen condition of humanity itself. Only the atonement Jesus Christ can overcome this lost and fallen state and bring the peace and healing this world desperately needs.