Friday, October 6, 2006

The Culpability of the Church at Mountain Meadows…and Elsewhere

I got all hot under the collar over some comments I read over at T&S lately. But rather than ruin the spirit of a beautiful post by Margaret, “We Have Nothing to Apologize For…But Should We Do It Anyway?”, I thought I would blog about my thoughts here.

In speaking of incidents for which the Church has need or has no need to apologize, the issue of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is usually our event of choice. But before one renders an opinion upon the culpability of the Church at Mountain Meadows, one should do some thorough research. Those who have not read Juanita Brooks’ seminal work, or any of the more recent publications such as Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets, or even this discussion of the subject on the FAIR website might make a statement such as the following by Mark Butler:

“One can only apologize for something that one was morally culpable for. I do not think the Church was morally culpable for what happened… we see that the MMM perpetrators were not true members of the Church at all, but rather the most vile of apostates. The Church cannot go around taking corporate responsibility
for the actions of lunatics, outlaws, and murderers.”

This statement merely showcases how ill-informed Mark Butler is on the subject of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. First, there are compelling reasons for believing that Brigham Young, acting as governor of the territory of Utah, and prophet, seer and revelator of the LDS Church, did by written letters and verbal messages “aid and abet in the said murder as accessory before the fact.” (Bagley) But even those who refuse to believe that Brigham Young was involved have been forced to confront the reality that “some 50 Mormons taking orders from local ecclesiastical leaders actually went out and tricked these 120 people out of their encampment with a white flag and then proceeded to murder them in cold blood with the exception of 17 small children.” (FAIR) This was not simply the independent action of a small group of “lunatics, outlaws, and murderers.” The Mountain Meadows Massacre was committed by an entire community of True Blue Mormons, who under the direction of their priesthood leaders, believed they were performing a religious duty. Like it or not, the Church was deeply involved in this tragedy.

But Mountain Meadows is not the only locale at which mistakes were made by the official arm of the Church. Joseph McGee, neutral Missouri resident who observed many of the tensions between the Mormons and the Missouri mobs at Gallatin tells of several incidents which happened in the county. He relates,

“…the Mormons were overrunning Daviess County. On the morning of 1838 October 18, 150 of them came to Gallatin & finding but 17 men in the place they run them out, & took possession of the town. They removed the goods out of Stallings store House & burned the house. They then took the goods to Diammon. (Adam-ondi-Ahman) They burned my (tailor) shop after taking all there was in it, leaving me only the suit of clothes I had on my back. They took me prisoner & after keeping me about 2 hrs. They turned me loose & told me to git.”

After going to his father’s house, Joseph McGee describes how “we could stand in our door yard & see houses burning every night for over 2 wks. The Mormons completely gutted Daviess county. There was bearely a Missourians house left standing in the county. Nearly every one was burned. Their flight from the county had been so precipitate, that they left all they had behind taking only their families & teams. The Mormons secured all their property & took it to Diammon & there placed in what was termed the Lords storehouse, to be issued out to the Saints, as they might need.” After Governor Boggs ordered troops to be sent in, the “Lord’s storehouse” was thrown open for the Missourians to look for their goods. McGee found three pairs of pants from his tailor shop there, but they were in such poor condition that they had to be thrown away.

Our official LDS retelling of the events in Missouri are quite different than that of Joseph McGee. As emotions were running high in this frontier town, I am sure there were many regrettable actions on both sides.

I am proud and stirred by our Mormon pioneer heritage. I honor the sacrifices that were made. But there is much of Mormon history that makes me ashamed. I believe that even men acting in official priesthood capacities can be mistaken. Fortunately, they can also repent and apologize. As a rank and file member of the LDS Church, I would like to apologize for anything in our history which has caused pain and sorrow to others. I would like to tell the Fancher party how much I regret what happened at Mountain Meadows. I wish I could make amends to the 17 children who had to grow up without their parents. I would like to tell Joseph McGee that I am sorry we took the clothing from his tailor shop. There are many, many others we have wronged.

Some of us would like to apologize.


Ronan said...

Nice post. As an analogy, if an entire LDS ward committed a crime, would the Church be culpable?

Ardis Parshall said...

BiV - Although I understand (and publicly echoed) some of your sentiments on the T&S discussion, I feel your essay here should not go unchallenged for exactly the same reasons. Joseph McGee was hardly a "neutral" observer of Missouri events, as he claimed to have suffered loss at the hands of Mormons; his tone in your quotations is anything but neutral. Also, the descriptor of "compelling" for evidence of involvement of Brigham Young in the massacre is overstated, my good buddy Will Bagley's claims notwithstanding.

I'm with you all the way if you say that a one-sided presentation of history is harmful to everybody's cause. It's just as harmful to accept uncritically the claims of another side.

Bored in Vernal said...

Joseph McGee was as neutral as anyone in Missouri at the time could be. He was well acquainted with Joseph, Oliver Cowdery, and others; listened to the gospel message, though he didn't join the Church; and refused to be involved in the harassment of the Mormons. He was present at Gallatin, and rather than join in the brawl, climbed atop a wagon and watched the events that ensued. His overall tone in his memoir is neutral, irritation at the Mormon appropiation of his goods notwithstanding.

Anonymous said...


If an entire LDS ward committed a crime at the bishop's behest, then it seems that promotion of unthinking obedience would be at least partially culpable. How many times have you heard the following story from Marion G. Romney?

I remember years ago when I was a Bishop I had President [Heber J.] Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home....Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: "My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church, and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it." Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, "But you don't need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray."
(Emphasis mine.)