As they meticulously pieced together what some are calling the most complete history ever written of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, much of the agony was in the irony for three Latter-day Saint authors.
"What did the terrible atrocity say about the killers?" who were led by local LDS Church leaders in southern Utah. "What did it say about their church and its leaders? Did early Mormonism possess a violent strain so deep and volcanic that it erupted without warning?"
The questions in the book's preface played out not only in the authors' daily research, but it haunted their daydreams and served up nightmares, they said.
As active members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all current or former church employees, Ron Walker, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard found themselves immersed in the twisted horror of seemingly godly men trying to justify the cold-blooded murder of 120 men, women and children during nearly a decade of research and writing.
Yet their new book, "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," is dedicated to those most often overlooked in most of the scholarly and secular accounts of the tragedy: "To the victims."
Scheduled for release next month by Oxford University Press, the long-awaited historical account was purposely constructed as a narrative for general readers, bolstered with copious footnotes and indexes, rather than as a scholarly point-counterpoint treatise to address the work of previous historians.
Unlike many previous LDS accounts of the tragedy, it portrays the wagon train emigrants passing through southern Utah in September 1857 as ordinary people with bright futures and some flaws rather than as scoundrels who somehow deserved to die.
Instead of defending the perpetrators as some both inside and outside the LDS Church believed the book would do it names the local LDS leaders and their dark deeds in detail, culling from affidavits given to a 19th century church historian by those who participated in the slaughter or learned of it firsthand. The information, which has never before been available to researchers, came from archives owned by the LDS Church, including those of the faith's First Presidency.
Digging for truth
A former LDS Institute teacher and historian at church-owned Brigham Young University, Ron Walker came to the task with questions of his own, he said. Some people asked whether the project should go forward, and Walker conceded it was a question they asked themselves as much as anyone.
"There is a collective sense of guilt here that's part of our heritage. The only way you can really deal with it you can't put it in a closet. Ultimately, you have to open it up, open the windows. There is short-term pain, but it seems the only way to get beyond that is with honesty and open disclosure and a sense of regret. Maybe even a sense of confusion."
Yet the long-standing confusion about who did what and when regarding the planning and execution of the massacre was addressed by a set of statements and affidavits collected by assistant church historian Andrew Jenson in 1892, Walker said.
Sent by the LDS First Presidency to southern Utah to secure confidential accounts from those who participated or had been told by the perpetrators about the events, Jenson found himself dealing with memories that were 35 years old.
"With any lapse of time, historians have to be suspicious of faulty memory," Walker said. Yet, "by and large, these statements were given on a confidential basis and have a ring of honesty to them."
Richard Turley, an attorney by training who now serves as assistant church historian, said the combined evidence in the affidavits proved helpful in ferreting out truth from lies. "When they vacillate or try to protect themselves (in the documents), you can triangulate on other data to verify the information."
Jenson was charged with securing the information not only to help flesh out a history of Utah being written by Orson F. Whitney, but for a larger purpose, Turley said. "He was told to 'learn all you can about the subject ... so the world may know at some future day what really happened."'
Combined with other sources, the authors were able to determine that most of the perpetrators "gave a statement of one kind or another during their lifetimes. Of those, some survived, but not all. Some of them were intended to be alibis and not accounts. What makes it important for historical purposes is that they tend to be self-justifying. They tended to want to cover for themselves and their closest friends, but they often gave details that would indict others, that when accumulated with other information, indicted themselves."
Turley said the information in affidavits, combined with other data researched by a team that combed archives across the country, would likely result in criminal convictions for many of the perpetrators if heard by a fair-minded jury in court today. The book identifies 68 militiamen whose names have been associated with the massacre, indicating whether there is either "strong" or "inconclusive" evidence that they either planned, authorized, participated in or witnessed the murders.
Research also yielded not only names and other biographical information about the approximately 120 victims and the 17 surviving children, but a listing of their considerable property (including about 900 head of cattle), much of which ended up in the hands of massacre participants, and some of which was taken to Cedar City "and sold at a public auction held at the tithing office."
With affidavits of participants documenting the atrocities in possession of the church for decades, why did it take 150 years for such a full accounting?
History as a weapon
Walker said in the 19th century, when the massacre "was being used as a club to hurt and destroy the church, you have to be defensive, I suppose. You have to be careful. I'm sure that played into the thinking and policy of Brigham Young. But I think this book is an expression of the strength of the Mormon culture today. Now we can take a look at some unfortunate things in our past and deal with them honestly. I think we should be happy about that."
Two religious historians who did not work on the book but have watched its progress said there were also other factors at play in bringing the depth of the historical record to light.
Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue University, said the information age and ready access to technology have created permanent changes in the ability of any institution to keep sensitive information under wraps. For decades, most Latter-day Saints knew little or nothing of the massacre, she said.
For young Latter-day Saints learning about LDS history, "they used to send them to seminary and give them the Mormon story and that was that, and they went away from it and kept it and that's what they had in their heads when they went on their missions. Some came back and realized that was not the whole story, just the canonized story." The advent of the Internet and entire ministries devoted to attacking the LDS Church has provided "too much detailed information that's readily available" about the massacre and other sensitive topics.
Philip Barlow, a historian who holds the Leonard Arrington Chair in Mormon History and Culture at Utah State University, said he sees it not only as a mark of the faith's "maturity and confidence to be able to come to terms with their past," but the subject has also become "too big now for the church to ignore with any credibility," in part because the academic study of Mormonism has burgeoned in recent years.
"This was not only a trauma to the victims, their families and descendants, but it was a deep psychological trauma for Latter-day Saints themselves. There has been tremendous denial and avoidance. ... People inside and outside the church will see that the church isn't going to crumble," in light of the book's detailed account of wartime hysteria turned tragic. "Its credibility will deepen and not lessen by its ability to face its warts and difficulties. ...
"People, including Latter-day Saints, want some substantive, authentic history. There's a whole segment of people that are very hungry for that sense of honesty, credibility and self-understanding."
Walker said the book, which includes almost 200 pages of appendices, indexes and footnotes, won't be the end of the story because the narrative concludes only with the finger-pointing in the days after the massacre. It chronicles the crime but doesn't address the punishment, so a second book is in the works, he said.
Caught up in a time
Walker said there is a tendency toward easy finger-pointing without a detailed understanding of the context of the time in which the massacre occurred. As he researched and wrote, he found himself "far more sympathetic and empathetic with the protagonists on both sides than when I started out. I could realize that had I been in that very unusual and peculiar atmosphere in southern Utah in 1857, I could have been in the middle of it myself."
Most of the men who participated were "good men and would have been the pillars of any society" save for one or two weeks during which the planning and execution of the massacre took place. "I kept asking myself the question, 'What would I have done had I been there?' and I'm not sure. We hope leaders will find a lot about human nature and maybe a little about themselves as they read it."
Turley said as they studied the scholarly literature on the history of violence and mass killing, they saw the conditions in southern Utah under which "ordinary people get swept up in a combination of their environment and group psychology to do things that they would never consider doing alone. I don't think it's unique to being 'God-driven,' but clearly people who get swept up in this kind of act do so because of a combination of factors we describe in the book."
Walker said the authors saw "very little unique about Mountain Meadows that is not replicated in many cultures and mass killings throughout history. It fits the pattern. We wanted the book to move beyond the polarity of Mormon vs. non-Mormon. Our overwhelming hope was to understand. We felt we couldn't do that unless we understand how people as a group, in group psychology in a time of stress, act. What happened in southern Utah is virtually a template of religious and ethnic violence in a time of war."
Turley said church founder Joseph Smith "cautioned against zeal without knowledge. That's been a theme throughout church history. I think the church's system of checks and balances works when it's allowed to. But in the case of the massacre, those were overridden. People got caught up in the emotions, in their own self-assuredness. They were caught up in feelings of retribution, caught up in trying to hide their own wrongdoing."
"Mormons are going to be reminded that church is made up of human beings," Barlow said. "The church needs to be conceived by its members as not essentially divine with a few freckles and warts, but as a group of people fully human trying to respond to the divine. I think there might be a mental paradigm shift to come to terms with the full humanity of the church as responding to the divine rather than being divine."
LDS scripture details the concept of "unrighteous dominion and lists specific things that contribute to it," Turley said. "One of them is to cover sin, another is to exercise unrighteous control over others. Both of those things came into play in this case. Leaders hatched a plan that went awry and tried to cover it with a greater wrong. It continued from one cascading wrongdoing to another."
Walker said he's come to see the massacre as a cautionary tale in making judgments about those who are different.
"It's a primer to teach us about humility and long-suffering. ... It's a case-study in how not to apply religion and how one should apply true religion in one's own life," he said.
As for "digging up the past," as many had worried they were doing for no good purpose, Walker said he believes it could be that the importance of the book "will not be in its historical findings but in its possible legacy for truth-telling," as a copy of the affidavits held by the church for more than a century are published and made available to the public.
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