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Friday, May 04, 2007

Mountain Meadows and the Honorable Thing

by Sharon

On May 1st, two Associated Press articles related to the Mountain Meadows Massacre showed up in my inbox. Journalist Jennifer Dobner wrote both articles, each discussing different aspects of the 1857 Mormon execution of pioneer emigrants in southern Utah.

One AP article ("Controversial Lee statue may finally have a home") relates the mini-saga of trying to find an appropriate resting place for a bronze statue of John D. Lee, the only man ever convicted (and later executed) for the slaughter of the members of the Fancher wagon train at Mountain Meadows.

In 2004 artist Jerry Anderson was commissioned to cast the John D. Lee statue which was planned to be installed outside the government offices in Washington City, Utah. Before the installation could take place, enough people complained about the inappropriateness of paying tribute to "a killer" that city officials changed their minds. Since then the statue has either been in storage at the artist's gallery or standing outside a souvenir shop. Soon, however, it may be moved to a permanent place at Fort Harmony, a fort that Lee helped build in 1854.

The AP article says of the Lee statue,
"He's just standing there with a book in one hand. He's holding his vest on the left side," said Anderson, 72. "I wanted to capture his face first of all and show the man, not really defiant, but standing up for what he believes in and the church he loved."

Karen Platt, a co-founder of the New Harmony Historical Society, which is involved in the Fort Harmony restoration, said,
"There may be a problem, but we just want to talk about the history of the valley, and we don't want to bring (the massacre) in. It's not [John D. Lee's] total story and a lot of his work gets ignored because of Mountain Meadows. He did a lot of good. He was a good family man."

Furthermore, according to The Associated Press,
[Artist Jerry] Anderson hopes the placement of the statue will comfort Lee descendants, many of whom have come to his gallery for a glimpse and a photograph of their ancestor.

"They've lived in degradation so long, maybe this will help them out," Anderson said. "I think Mormons overall really didn't like what John D. Lee did."

The other AP article ("Movie revives debate about massacre") focuses on the Christopher Cain motion picture, September Dawn, due to hit theatres on June 22nd.
"The reason I made the movie about this specific incident was not to blame anybody," Cain told The Associated Press. "At the core of the whole thing is religious fanaticism. I thought by making this movie we could take a look at how that evolved and how that can happen."

Some people who previewed the movie and were interviewed for the article supported the film's portrayal. Tom Kimball, a spokesman for the Mormon History Association, said,
"The new part that this film brings out is that the Fanchers were probably pretty decent people just trying to get to California. That's the first time that's ever been presented to me as a Latter-day Saint."

Past portrayals of the massacre suggested the Fancher party "brought it on themselves," Kimball said.

"Here's a story that has not been accurately portrayed and has been sequestered by my people, and it's very important that this story is finally told," he said.

Yet one man seemed to disagree. He said,
"I think [the movie] went a little too far in making the Mormons bad, bad, bad and the emigrants good, good, good," said Leroy Lee, a Mormon and the great-great-grandson of John D. Lee.

A businessman offered this opinion:
With its "R" rating, many Mormons may not even see the film, bookseller Curt Bench said. Those who do may walk out, irritated by what Bench and others said was a stereotypical, one-dimensional portrait of blindly obedient church members that bordered on cartoonish at times.

A non-Mormon in Salt Lake City commented,

"It's a story I've lived with my entire life, being a so-called gentile in Salt Lake City," bookseller Ken Sanders said. "It's my belief personally that any faithful, believing Mormon will never accept that Brigham Young had anything to do with the Mountain Meadows massacre. I simultaneously feel that there's no non-Mormon or gentile that will ever believe otherwise."

This is an interesting observation. I see in these AP articles that sometimes people hold unsupportable positions while choosing to remain closed to facts that challenge those positions. Or at least they justify and minimize the issues.

In southern Utah we have people who want to honor John D. Lee -- in spite of his participation in the unconscionable murders of 120 men, women and children -- because apart from leading the execution, "he was a good family man." It's okay to honor him -- the Historical Society just won't talk about the massacre. It's good to honor him, because it will help Lee's descendents rise above the stigma associated with their ancestor's crimes.

Then, in September Dawn, we have the story of Mountain Meadows, 150 years later, being told accurately for the first time. Finally the emigrants are being portrayed as "pretty decent people" who actually didn't "bring it on themselves."

But at least one Lee descendent doesn't like that. He thinks the movie makes the emigrants look too good, and the Mormon murderers look too bad. He wants to cling to that unsupportable position, the fabricated cover-up that has been repeated for so long among Latter-day Saints. This attitude makes me think twice about Curt Bench's criticism of September Dawn's "stereotypical, one dimensional portrait of blindly obedient church members." Is there still a hint of "religious fanaticism" alive and well in the matter of Mountain Meadows?

I really appreciate the contrasting attitude of the Mormon History Association's Tom Kimball as expressed in the AP article:
After 150 years, it would be nice to lay the issue to rest, Kimball added.

"Not in the sense that we're trying to hide it," he said. "But to finally tell the truth about our role in this horrible thing, so that we can tell our children we [have now done] the honorable thing."

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3 Comments:

  • At May 05, 2007 10:20 AM, Blogger Wer62 said…

    Sharon,

    While I agree the Mormon Meadows event is the "black eye" of Mormon History, one really has to look at the facts before making to many judgments.

    Fact 1 ignored:
    From Diary entries we know that the Arkansas wagon train was not totally innocent of wrong doing even one member claimed to be a part of the group that killed Joseph Smith.

    Fact 2 not ingnored but downplayed:
    20% of the current standing United States forces were being marched on Utah which was at the reccomendation of a man from Arkansas.

    Fact 3. The LDS membership has had an extermination order placed against them in Missouri, Run out of Ohio and Illinois (Nauvoo) as well as had their 1st Prophet Josph Smith Killed in Carthage.

    Fact 4. Freedom of Religion not really supported by the US Goverment even though it is a constitutional right.

    While I do not support the LDS membership at Moutain Medows, I certainly understand the events that lead up to this horrible event.

    All this proves, (nothing).. We are all human with failings. How many LDS people were killed in Nauvoo for example, or how about Hauns Mill? Were these people brought to "justice"?

    It only proves that the Church is "true" to me while the membership may not be perfect. It proves to "you" or others what ever you interpret out of events like this from your perspective.

    I hope things are going well for you as we have not corresponded in a while.

    Wer62 (Ed)

     
  • At May 21, 2007 6:01 PM, Blogger cromike said…

    "...or how about Hauns Mill?"

    17 or 18 depending on the account. No where near the 120 killed in the MMM.

     
  • At May 23, 2007 2:50 PM, Blogger Matt said…

    Sharon and Ed,

    To say that Mountain Meadows Massacre is a "black eye" to Mormon history is a total understatement. Ed's comments are totally irrational. He cannot excuse the guilt of murderous Mormons due to frivolous facts. Below is my reply to Ed's ignored facts.

    Ed's Fact 1 ignored: From Diary entries we know that the Arkansas wagon train was not totally innocent of wrong doing even one member claimed to be a part of the group that killed Joseph Smith.

    MATTS RESPONSE: Sure, we do know that a group of evil masons killed Joseph Smith. Does this mean that all masons bear some responsibility for the killing of Smith? Many Mormons are part of the Masonic Lodge! Do Mormon masons retain some guilt for the gun battle at the Carthage Jail? Of course, not. The Illinois masons were upset that Smith had violated his oath not to reveal the Masonic rituals and they killed him. Do we pass the murderous guilt to other members of the Masonic Lodges that are 1,500 miles away in Arkansas? No.

    Ed's Fact 2 not ingnored but downplayed: 20% of the current standing United States forces were being marched on Utah which was at the reccomendation of a man from Arkansas.

    MATTS RESPONSE: On June 29, 1857, U.S. President James Buchanan declares Utah in rebellion of the U.S. government. Buchanan was from Pennsylvania. Even if he was from Arkansas, how could Mormons hate one person from Arkansas with enough intense hatred to provoke them to kill everybody over the age of eight from Arkansas or Pennslyvania? That is no reason to kill innocent people! In fact, the United States military forces had no battles with Utah Mormons. The train's leadership may not have been aware of Young's martial law order since it was not made public until September 15. The massacre most likely happened on September 11th. In any event, the Utah War was a minor political conflict and Brigham Young was in full charge of the Mormons. A civil war was no reason to slaughter 120 innocent civilians from Arkansas.

    Ed's Fact 3. The LDS membership has had an extermination order placed against them in Missouri, Run out of Ohio and Illinois (Nauvoo) as well as had their 1st Prophet Joseph Smith Killed in Carthage.

    MATTS RESPONSE: The Mormon doctrines of polygamy incited Governor Boggs of Illinois to issue an extermination order. However, this order was issued in 1838, about 19 years before the Mountain Meadows massacre. How does one act to eliminate polygamous Mormons from Illinois justify the cold killing of 120 innocent settlers?

    Ed's Fact 4. Freedom of Religion not really supported by the US Government even though it is a constitutional right.

    MATTS RESPONSE: What does freedom of religion have to do with the Mountain Meadows massacre??? Is there a freedom to kill innocent people in America? Where was justice evere carried out in Mountain Meadows massacre? Why was only one Mormon, John D. Lee, executed for this terrible crime when as many as 60 Mormons took part in the massacre???

    There are good reasons to believe that Brigham Young and 59 other Mormons got away with murder. See the movie September Dawn coming out June 22, 2007 and see http://www.mtnmeadowsmassacre.com/

    Matt Paulson
    CARM and author of "Breaking the Mormon Code"
    www.breakingthemormoncode.com

     

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