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'Massacre' authors want readers to ask questions

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 10 2008 12:12 a.m. MDT

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.

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