Book confronts LDS tragedy

Published: Sunday, July 20 2008 12:02 a.m. MDT

Richard Turley, left, and Ron Walker, co-authors of "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," at the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City in June.

Mike Terry, Deseret News

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As they meticulously pieced together what some are calling the most complete history ever written of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, much of the agony was in the irony for three Latter-day Saint authors.

"What did the terrible atrocity say about the killers?" who were led by local LDS Church leaders in southern Utah. "What did it say about their church and its leaders? Did early Mormonism possess a violent strain so deep and volcanic that it erupted without warning?"

The questions in the book's preface played out not only in the authors' daily research, but it haunted their daydreams and served up nightmares, they said.

As active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all current or former church employees, Ron Walker, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard found themselves immersed in the twisted horror of seemingly godly men trying to justify the cold-blooded murder of 120 men, women and children during nearly a decade of research and writing.

Yet their new book, "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," is dedicated to those most often overlooked in most of the scholarly and secular accounts of the tragedy: "To the victims."

Scheduled for release next month by Oxford University Press, the long-awaited historical account was purposely constructed as a narrative for general readers, bolstered with copious footnotes and indexes, rather than as a scholarly point-counterpoint treatise to address the work of previous historians.

Unlike many previous LDS accounts of the tragedy, it portrays the wagon train emigrants passing through southern Utah in September 1857 as ordinary people with bright futures and some flaws rather than as scoundrels who somehow deserved to die.

Instead of defending the perpetrators — as some both inside and outside the LDS Church believed the book would do — it names the local LDS leaders and their dark deeds in detail, culling from affidavits given to a 19th century church historian by those who participated in the slaughter or learned of it firsthand. The information, which has never before been available to researchers, came from archives owned by the LDS Church, including those of the faith's First Presidency.

What the book doesn't do is implicate then-LDS Church President Brigham Young in directing or ordering the killings. It does describe how his wartime preaching and that of other top LDS leaders contributed to the atmosphere of unquestioned authority, conformity, fear and suspicion that ended with terrible, "unexpected consequences."

Digging for truth

A former LDS Institute teacher and historian at church-owned Brigham Young University, Ron Walker came to the task with questions of his own, he said. Some people asked whether the project should go forward, and Walker conceded it was a question they asked themselves as much as anyone.

"There is a collective sense of guilt here that's part of our heritage. The only way you can really deal with it — you can't put it in a closet. Ultimately, you have to open it up, open the windows. There is short-term pain, but it seems the only way to get beyond that is with honesty and open disclosure and a sense of regret. Maybe even a sense of confusion."

Yet the long-standing confusion about who did what and when regarding the planning and execution of the massacre was addressed by a set of statements and affidavits collected by assistant church historian Andrew Jenson in 1892, Walker said.

Sent by the LDS First Presidency to southern Utah to secure confidential accounts from those who participated or had been told by the perpetrators about the events, Jenson found himself dealing with memories that were 35 years old.

"With any lapse of time, historians have to be suspicious of faulty memory," Walker said. Yet, "by and large, these statements were given on a confidential basis and have a ring of honesty to them."

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