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Official LDS essay details violent acts against and by Mormons during 1800s

Published: Tuesday, May 20 2014 12:00 p.m. MDT

The LDS Church released another in a series of new or updated essays last week.

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SALT LAKE CITY — Violence committed by some Latter-day Saints on the rough American frontier during the 1800s was tragic, "deplorable" and "inexcusable," according to an essay posted on the LDS Church's website.

The essay, "Peace and Violence Among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints," also detailed how early members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were frequent victims of violence from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois.

The piece boldly rejects all violence, stating that LDS Church leaders always have taught that Christian discipleship is a path of a peace.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemns violent words and actions and affirms its commitment to furthering peace throughout the world," the essay states.

The essay is the latest in a series of official articles added to or updated in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org with the approval of the church's First Presidency.

Each of the essays is grounded in research. The latest weighed in at more than 3,500 words and 47 footnotes. It includes information about attacks on Mormons by mobs in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois and vigilante attacks carried out by some LDS Church members in Missouri, Illinois and Utah.

"I think (the essays) are absolutely wonderful because church membership and the general public needs to see the church's explanation," said Alex Baugh, a BYU professor of early LDS Church history and an expert on the Missouri violence. Baugh has a chapter on that episode in the new book, "The Mormon Wars." "Otherwise, people sometimes go to sources that are antagonistic or non-credible. These are balanced, fair and accurate assessments of issues that may trouble some."

Like several of the earlier essays, "Peace and Violence" provides historical context to explain what was happening on the American frontier in the 1800s and how violence fit in that larger picture.

The context is not offered as an excuse.

"While historical context can help shed light on these acts of violence, it does not excuse them," the essay states.

One example of context in the essay is the explanation of the existence of community militias, like the Mormon Battalion in Nauvoo, Ill., and those of cities and counties in Missouri.

The idea of communities maintaining their own militias is odd today, but it was a regular feature of the 1800s. In fact, by act of Congress in 1792, every American man 18 to 45 was required to belong to a community militia.

Eventually, those militias evolved into the National Guard, but in the mid-1800s they contributed to vigilante violence, often sanctioned, throughout the American West.

Another example is the context of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, when Latter-day Saints in southern Utah slaughtered 120 men, women and children on a wagon train emigrating from Arkansas to California in September 1857.

Earlier that year, a beloved LDS apostle named Parley P. Pratt had been murdered in Arkansas, with news reaching Utah in late June. Tensions already were high in Utah over an approaching U.S. army force of 1,500 soldiers.

The army's role, in what became known as the Utah War, was to replace LDS Church President Brigham Young as the territorial governor, and many Latter-day Saints feared the army might renew the violence of Missouri and Illinois.

Some in the wagon train had threatened to join the troops and fight the Mormons. Southern Utah settlers sent word to President Young asking for advice, but his message to leave the wagon train alone arrived two days too late.

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