SACRAMENTO, Calif. There is insufficient evidence to say former LDS Church President Brigham Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and ample evidence that says he did not, according to the church's assistant historian.
Richard Turley is one of three authors employed by the LDS Church who has spent the past six years writing a book about the 1857 massacre of 120 Arkansas wagon train emigrants in southern Utah. He told participants at the annual conference of the Mormon History Association on Saturday his conclusion, "based on the totality of evidence, is that Brigham Young did not order the massacre."
The book is scheduled for release sometime this summer or fall.
"He did not order it. Instead, local (church) leaders in the charged environment of the Utah War made a series of horrible decisions" that "led to the murder of 120 men, women and children, not one of whom deserved to die," Turley said.
The question of Young's potential culpability has "haunted our dreams and pressed itself upon our memories" the past six years, Turley said, as the authors worked with "several dozens and maybe hundreds" of researchers that examined documents from archives across the country, looking for any evidence related to the murders.
Before seeking to verbally dismantle two different theories some historians have used as evidence that Young did order the massacre, Turley said his research had not brought him to a personal crisis of faith because "my faith is in the Lord, Jesus Christ" and not in human beings, including church leaders.
When asked what he would do if he had found Young did order the massacre, he said, "I would highlight it. Some may question that, but it's true. We were committed to follow the evidence wherever it took us and to let the chips fall where they may.
"Some might wonder whether I would have had my hand slapped if I learned Brigham Young ordered the massacre." As an employee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Turley said he made senior church leaders "aware of my intent to follow the evidence to its conclusion. They supported it and, to a man, were willing to accept it and follow the truth."
Critics have long charged that church leaders in both the 19th and 20th centuries covered up evidence surrounding LDS culpability in the massacre. In September, then-Elder Henry B. Eyring now a member of the faith's First Presidency read a public statement at Mountain Meadows acknowledging that local LDS leaders in Cedar City planned and carried out the murders, then tried to blame local Indians.
The statement, delivered during the 150th anniversary commemoration of the massacre by descendants of the victims, expressed "profound regret" for the murders.
Turley said he and his co-authors approached Young's role "as a historical question, not as a theological or a political one. We were open to any possibility."
Much of what has been written in the past decade about Young's involvement relies on one or two theories, he said.
One theory says Young ordered the massacre to avenge the death of church leader Parley P. Pratt, who was murdered earlier that year in Arkansas. No evidence has been found in letters Young wrote around that time showing he sought to avenge Pratt's murder, Turley said.
The theory "requires the supposition that (Young) must have been seeking vengeance. But that runs contrary to the evidence," he said, adding it amounts to "little more than a personal statement of what the theorists believe. They can believe whatever they want, but personal belief is not the same as historical proof."
The second theory that Young ordered the murders is based on minutes of a meeting 10 days before the massacre between Young and Indian leaders from central and southern Utah. That meeting was "sketchily documented" in the journal of an Indian interpreter on whom Young relied, he said, and contains evidence that Indian leaders "declared themselves afraid to fight" Americans.
There is "no proof any of the Indian leaders in the meeting made it to Mountain Meadows or participated in any way" in the massacre, Turley said, or that the meeting precipitated the attack. "We do have evidence that many of them were still in the area of Salt Lake City around the time of massacre."
One Indian leader named Ammon did go to southern Utah after the meeting, "but he didn't arrive there until after they (the Fancher party) had been attacked," and had negotiated peacefully with the emigrants on his way south, Turley said.
The theories put forward by some that Young ordered the massacre include "untenable theses and strained arguments" that Turley said are not credible based on existing evidence.
Co-author Ron Walker, a recently retired professor of history at Brigham Young University, said his six years of research into the massacre have been a "dark and lonely place where no man should have to go."
Historically, genocide like that in the Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenia and South Africa has been preceded by the existence of several common characteristics, including demonizing the "other," authority, obedience, peer pressure, ambiguity, fear and deprivation. All those conditions were present in Cedar City at the time of the murders, he said.
There are several lessons to be learned from the events, he said, which parallel in significant ways the Salem witch trials in early New England:
• "Latter-day Saints must never put down another people, or for that matter, other Mormons, as fellow human beings or allow distinctions to become a cause for self-righteousness."
• "Tolerance and forgiving are the means of avoiding extreme behavior."
• "Obedience to religious authority ceases to be a virtue in my mind when it is unquestioned or untested, especially when leaders display a natural tendency for unrighteous dominion."
• "Authority requires checks and balances," he said, which failed when leaders in southern Utah functioned as a combination of both religious and civil leadership.
• "Misguided religion can cause great harm, even as proper and true religion may do great good."
The structure of their book intentionally "adopts the form of a great tragedy," Walker said. "I hope many will learn a few lessons about human nature and about themselves."
He said his experience with details of the events include the "pain of knowing, the pain of admitting, the pain of actively remembering." Yet "it is, in fact in my mind, the only way we can move forward."
Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a professor at Harvard University, responded to the papers, discussing the role of religious authority in naming and condemning wrongdoing. Though a Catholic archbishop in Boston did not personally abuse children in the church's recent sexual abuse scandal, news surfaced that he knew about it and failed to either reveal it or prevent future abuse, she said.
"The concern was why he didn't hold those responsible accountable. He kept them in positions, reassigned them. The blame then went to the pope. People felt the archbishop had done a terrible thing, and rather than be disciplined, he ended up a cardinal at the Vatican."
Such events, when placed in context with the massacre, lead to the question of a cover-up by LDS leaders, Ulrich said. "Was Brigham Young responsible for the cover-up? If so, we have a whole new set of questions."
The Salem witch hunts provide many lessons about "group hysteria and what responsible people with ecclesiastical authority do," Ulrich said. Why did some of those trials end in death and others didn't?"Are we nurturing in this scholarly community a stance where people can say, 'No, sorry, I can't do that' to someone who is a sustained, ecclesiastical authority?"