KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Not for the faint of heart, a May 28 session at the 2010 Mormon History Association Conference took up the topic of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Sarah Barringer Gordon, professor of constitutional law and history at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Jan Shipps, professor emeritus of history and religious studies at Indiana University-Purdue, shared thoughts on both the event and the recent publication of "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," written by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley and Glen M. Leonard. Richard Bushman, visiting professor of Mormon studies at Claremont Graduate University, responded to their comments.
Gordon suggested that perhaps something was missing to aid understanding of the tragedy, where members of an emigrant party were killed by Mormons in southern Utah in 1857. She recommended looking at the massacre as an event in religious history set in a much larger national context.
Gordon proposed that rather than emphasizing the profane in the massacre, historians could view the massacre as a way to understand how a faith does or does not work over time. She also suggested placing the event in the context of how faith and violence have functioned throughout history.
Bushman agreed that the historiography of the massacre is best understood in a religious context. He admitted that Mormons are hard-pressed to make sense of such an event.
However, to simplistically associate religious violence with fanaticism is to create a stereotype — and stereotypes stop thought, he said.
Shipps discussed the history of the tragedy leading up to the publication of "Massacre at Mountain Meadows" in 2008. Mormon involvement was regarded as a fact by 1859. When Wilford Woodruff became prophet, he sent historian Andrew Jensen to gather information on the massacre.
In his 1892 History of Utah, Orson Whitney "blamed everyone but the Mormons." But in 1950, Juanita Brooks changed the discourse on the massacre by unveiling much of the horror surrounding that event.
Decades later, LDS Church historians proposed a new book on the subject. The authors contracted to publish through Oxford University Press and were given free access to all material held in church vaults.
Gordon argued that while those in the church see the massacre as an individual problem, many outside the faith see the massacre as a church problem. John D. Lee himself claimed he was being sacrificed by others and Mormons became "fiends" to those outside the faith.
In the early 20th century, the massacre faded from historical consciousness and Mormons disappeared from Western history. But recently, Mormonism has become an area of historical research and investigation.
Shipps said that although the church has made genuine and profound efforts to shed light on the massacre, self-critique and the credibility of institutional self-study makes "Massacre" more believable to insiders and less believable to outsiders.
Both concluded that the book is important but not definitive, and historians in and outside the church need to continue to study the Mountain Meadow Massacre.
Bushman, who is LDS, said challenging the veracity of "Massacre" simply because the book was written by members of the LDS Church is a sad commentary on historical writing. Rather, the best approach to judging "Massacre" is to focus on the scholarship behind the book.
Bushman believes the book will have an influence; that it met its responsibility to members of the church, exhibits historical balance and allows Mormons to confront their past.
He suggested that while Mormons do feel collective shame, they ought not feel guilt.
"We can find one detail after another (in the massacre) to explain the breakdown, a tragic departure from Mormon rule," he said. While there is no excuse for the massacre we are reminded that "Mormons can commit atrocities and this is sobering."
More importantly, the massacre ought to induce each of us to "pray to God that we can find forgiveness for our darker selves."