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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.

In 2007, President Henry B. Eyring of the church's First Presidency spoke at a sesquicentennial event at the site and expressed "profound regret" for the massacre.

“The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women and children," he said. "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.”

The church opened its archives to three church historians who wrote the book "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," which was published by the Oxford University Press in 2008.

Last week's essay summarized the book's finding by saying that "intemperate preaching about outsiders by Brigham Young, George A. Smith and other (church) leaders contributed to a climate of hostility, (but) President Young did not order the massacre.

"Rather, verbal confrontations between individuals in the wagon train and southern Utah settlers created great alarm, particularly within the context of the Utah War and other adversarial events. A series of tragic decisions by local Church leaders — who also held key civic and militia leadership roles in southern Utah — led to the massacre."

Baugh said that while non-LDS historians may not agree with every conclusion, the essays have been well-received in the academic community.

"They are well-done, well-annotated," he said. "They are straightforward, honest and balanced."

Baugh's dissertation, "A Call to Arms: The 1838 Mormon Defense of Northern Missouri," was one of the citations among the 47 footnotes to the newly posted essay.

The governments of Missouri and Illinois apologized in recent decades for the 19th-century violence committed in their states against Latter-day Saints.

In 1838, Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs ordered the expulsion or extermination of all Mormons. Though Latter-day Saints began to return to Missouri around 1860, the 1838 Mormon extermination order stayed on the books for more than 137 years.

In 1976, Missouri Gov. Christopher "Kit" Bond issued a new executive order that rescinded the extermination order. Bond expressed "deep regret for the injustice and undue suffering" caused by the 1838 order, which eventually forced more than 10,000 Latter-day Saints to abandon the state.

In 2004, the Illinois Legislature apologized to Latter-day Saints for violent events that included the murder of church founder Joseph Smith in 1844 and the expulsion of more than 20,000 church members from Illinois.

The Legislature's lengthy resolution sought "the pardon and forgiveness" of Latter-day Saints.

Baugh called the release of the essays a positive step in reviewing LDS Church history.

The church posted the latest essay, as it has the others, in the Gospel Topics section of LDS.org.

The church began to enhance or add new topic pages late last year.

Other Gospel Topics pages enhanced or added at LDS.org since early December include "Race and the Priesthood," "First Vision Accounts," "Plural Marriage and Families in Early Utah," "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies," "Book of Mormon Translation" and "Becoming Like God."

Baugh said he shares the topic pages with students in his BYU classes about early LDS history. He also emails links to the topic pages to many in his own LDS congregation.

"It demonstrates the church's openness about these issues and demonstrates the church's stand on these issues," Baugh said. "I think it's absolutely terrific."

Email: twalch@deseretnews.com

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