What if you had been there?
What if you had been a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in southern Utah in 1857? What if you had been asked to participate in what later would be called the Mountain Meadows Massacre? What would you have done?
The three authors of a new book, "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," hope their readers ask themselves these questions. Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley Jr. and Glen M. Leonard asked themselves similar questions as they researched and wrote about what they call the worst event in Mormon history.
In an article in the LDS Church's Ensign magazine (September 2007) and in several other interviews and articles, the authors have discussed in detail the circumstances of the massacre. Walker, Turley and Leonard met in a recent interview to discuss their new book published by Oxford University Press.
People often ask Leonard who is to blame. Was it Brigham Young? Was it the Indians? Turley said people also ask how basically good people could destroy other basically good people.
"And to find answers to that question, we turn to the scholarly literature on violence," Walker said. "And we found that really what happened at the Meadows fits with the pattern of religious/ethnic violence during a time of great stress like war."
Mountain Meadows is where a band of LDS militia members — aided by Indian allies — killed a party of California-bound emigrants, including more than 120 men, women and children, on Sept. 11, 1857, southwest of Cedar City, under a false flag of truce.
In their research, the authors went through about three dozen books dealing with religious and ethnic violence during many periods of history and within a wide variety of cultures. "This thing isn't unique. This thing fits the pattern of violence elsewhere," Walker said.
"I think what happens in all of these incidents of violence across the board, and the sociologists tell us this, is first of all you have to construct an 'other.' The person becomes so different from you, it helps you, almost allows you to do things you wouldn't do otherwise," Leonard said.
Ironically, the very impulse to affix blame is an attempt to create an "other." It is an effort to create a wall between the atrocity and us. The authors do not allow their readers this luxury. Brigham Young did not order the massacre. The emigrants were not evil. Even the perpetrators were basically good except for that one dark day.
"One question we hope our book evokes in people's minds is, 'What would I have done?'" Turley said. "I think too often in the past people have looked at the massacre from a vantage point of distant righteous indignation..."
"Finger pointing," Walker interjected. "...finding it easy to dismiss it as something that they would never do," Turley continued. "And yet the book draws readers into that lonely valley in September 1857 and walks them through the cascading series of events that occurred and, in many ways, brings them face-to-face with that question, 'Had I been there, what would I have done?'"
"Not just the lonely valley of the meadows, but it's the lonely valley of the soul," Walker said. "Each one of us has the capability of doing awful things."
"I think it is a book that teaches lessons in tolerance, teaches lessons in patience, teaches lessons in cross-cultural understanding," Turley said.
By taking the reader through the events that led to the massacre, the authors want the reader to have an experience that makes them less likely to conclude they are incapable of committing such acts. At the same time, they hope readers will resolve to act and to think differently — not just to prevent atrocities such as the massacre, but to change their thinking on smaller things as well.
"Because all people face moments of peer pressure, moments of great temptation, and it's easy to say when you are not in that moment that, 'I would not do it,'" Turley said.
Leonard said readers could also learn from watching how the people in southern Utah reached their decisions.
"One after another were a series of councils and meetings in Cedar City, Parowan, at the meadows — and in each case these leaders, these men of influence, got together and talked about what they were planning to do," Leonard said.
To Leonard, if the people had waited to come to consensus and abided by the decisions made in their councils, history would have been different.
"There were some in the councils who opposed any violence at all and some who approved and wanted a stricter kind of discipline. But what happened as you go through these councils is someone steps out and says, 'I will ignore that and find another way to get done what I think is right.' So the lesson for us is there is safety in counseling together. And sometimes when they did (counsel) they came to good decisions, but then ignored those decisions and walked around them and didn't wait for the counsel they were seeking," Leonard said.
Even with all the ugliness of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and after spending years researching and reliving the events through the various historical sources, the authors balked at the idea that anything they discovered would affect their faith in the truthfulness of the LDS Church.
"We came through this with our faith intact because to us this was not the fulfillment of ideals, this was the violation of ideals. And those ideals remain," Turley said.Comment on this story
"Part of the experience of all believers is to try and fall short sometimes," Walker said. "I think we, all of the three of us, have come through this study with our general faith in the goodness and high integrity of our heritage and the people that have created that heritage for us.
"But there is humanity there, too."
Read more about the Mountain Meadows Massacre: