Mountain Meadows massacre and Mormon theology

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Mormon theology has long been thought to be one of the causes of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The victims of the massacre, known as the Baker–Fancher party, were passing through the Utah Territory to California in 1857. For the decade prior the emigrants' arrival, Utah Territory had existed as a theocracy led by Brigham Young. As part of Young's vision of a pre-millennial "Kingdom of God", Young established colonies along the California and Old Spanish Trails, where Mormon officials governed as leaders of church, state, and military. Two of the southern-most establishments were Parowan and Cedar City, led respectively by Stake Presidents William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight. Haight and Dame were, in addition, the senior regional military leaders of the Mormon militia. During the period just before the massacre, known as the Mormon Reformation, Mormon teachings were dramatic and strident. The religion had undergone a period of intense persecution in the American mid-west.

Utah Territory's political structure during the massacre[edit]

A decade prior the Baker–Fancher party's arrival, Mormons had established in the Utah Territory a theocratic community (see theodemocracy). There Brigham Young presided over The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as LDS Church president and Prophet of God,[1] until Christ's assumption of world kingship at his Second Coming.[2] U.S. President Millard Fillmore appointed Young governor of the Territory of Utah[3] and its Superintendent of Indian Affairs. Yet there was minimal effective separation between church and state until 1858.[4]

Brigham Young envisioned a Mormon domain, called the State of Deseret, spanning from the Salt Lake Valley to the Pacific Ocean,[5] and so he sent church leaders to establish colonies far and wide. These colonies were governed by Mormon officials under Brigham Young's mandate to enforce "God's law" by "lay[ing] the ax at the root of the tree of sin and iniquity", while preserving individual rights.[6] Despite the distance to these outlying colonies, local Mormon leaders received frequent visits from church headquarters, and were under Young's direct doctrinal and political control.[7] Mormons were taught to obey the orders of their priesthood leaders, as long as they coincided with LDS gospel principles.[8] Young's view of theocratic enforcement included a death penalty for such sins as theft.[9] However, there are no documented cases showing that such threats were ever enforced as actual policy,[10] and there were no accusations of thievery against the Baker–Fancher party. Mormon leaders taught the doctrine of blood atonement, in which Mormon "covenant breakers" could in theory gain their exaltation in heaven by having "their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins". More clearly stated, this doctrine holds that capital punishment is requisite for offenses of murder.[11]

Brigham Young: LDS Church President, governor and American Indian superintendent of Utah Territory

Mormon historian Thomas G. Alexander argues that most violent speech by LDS leaders was rhetorical in nature. He further states that statistical studies are needed in order to determine whether frontier Utah was in reality any more violent than surrounding regions. But he argues that the limited statistical evidence which does exist (although dating from the 1880s) shows Utah to be far less violent than other contemporaneous western states and territories.[12] Referring to the frequent Mormon declarations that there were fewer deeds of violence in Utah than in other pioneer settlements of equal population, the Salt Lake Tribune reported on January 25, 1876: "It is estimated that no less than 600 murders have been committed by the Mormons, in nearly every case at the instigation of their priestly leaders, during the occupation of the territory. Giving a mean average of 50,000 persons professing that faith in Utah, we have a murder committed every year to every 2500 of population. The same ratio of crime extended to the population of the United States would give 16,000 murders every year."[13] Brigham Young's typical response to such charges was undisguised sarcasm. Speaking on July 26, 1857, he stated "what is now the news circulated through the United States?...That Brigham Young has [had] killed all the men who have died between the Missouri River and California."[14] He had previously retorted to similar charges, "just one word from Brigham, and they are ready to slay all before them...It is all a pack of nonsense, the whole of it."[15] Whatever the case, there is consensus that William H. Dame and Isaac C. Haight, the two most senior local church leaders in southern Utah complicit in the massacre, took the rhetoric of such doctrines seriously as they contemplated sanctionable applications of violence.[16]

According to rumors and accusations, Brigham Young sometimes enforced "God's law" through a secret cadre of avenging Danites.[17] The truth of these rumors is debated by historians. While there existed active vigilante organizations in Utah who referred to themselves as "Danites",[18] they may have been acting independently.[19] Historian Leonard Arrington attributes these rumors to the actions of "Minute Men," a law enforcement organization created by Young to pursue hostile Indians and criminals. However, these became associated with the Danite vigilantes which had operated briefly in Missouri in 1838.[20] Haight and Dame were never Danites; however, Young's records indicate that in 1857 he authorized Haight and Dame to secretly execute two recently released convicts traveling through southern Utah along the California trail if they were caught stealing cattle or other livestock.[21] Dame replied to Young in a letter that "we try to live so when your finger crooks, we move".[21] Haight and/or Dame might have been involved in the subsequent ambush of part of the convicts' party just south of Mountain Meadows.[22]

Prior Mid-West Persecution against Mormons and their calls for vengeance[edit]

Parley P. Pratt: Mormon apostle murdered by jealous husband in Arkansas in April 1857 and viewed as martyr by Latter-day Saints

At the time of the massacre, Mormons had an acute memory of recent persecutions against them, particularly the death of their prophets, and had been taught that God would soon exact vengeance. The persecutions began in the 1830s, when the state of Missouri officially opposed their presence in the state, engaged with them in the Mormon War, and expelled them in 1838 with an Extermination Order. During the Mormon War, prominent Mormon apostle David W. Patten died of wounds suffered after leading Mormon insurgents in an attack against the Missouri Militia at Crooked Creek, and a group of Mormons were massacred at Haun's Mill. After the Mormons established a new home in Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1839, they were again forced to leave behind homes and land in Illinois after conflicts with locals culminated in the 1844 death of Joseph Smith and his brother, Patriarch Hyrum Smith by a mob of Illinois militia. Brigham Young led the majority of Mormons westward in 1846 to avoid civil war.[23]

In Utah, just months before the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Mormons received word that yet another "prophet" had been killed: in April 1857, apostle Parley P. Pratt was shot in Arkansas by Hector McLean, the estranged husband of one of Pratt's plural wives, Eleanor McLean Pratt.[24] Mormon leaders immediately proclaimed Pratt as another martyr, and compared his death with that of Joseph Smith.[25] Many Mormons held the people of Arkansas responsible.[26]

In 1857, Mormon leaders taught that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent,[27] and that God would soon exact punishment against the United States for persecuting Mormons and martyring "the prophets" Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, David W. Patten, and Parley P. Pratt.[28] In their Endowment ceremony, faithful early Latter-day Saints took an Oath of vengeance against the murderers of the prophets.[29] As a result of this oath, several Mormon apostles and other leaders considered it their religious duty to kill the prophets' murderers if they ever came across them.[30]

The sermons, blessings, and private counsel by Mormon leaders just prior to the Mountain Meadows Massacre can be understood as encouraging private individuals to execute God's judgment against the wicked.[31] In Cedar City, Utah, church leaders taught that members should ignore dead bodies and go about their business.[32] Col. William H. Dame, the ranking officer in southern Utah who ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, received a patriarchal blessing in 1854 that he would "be called to act at the head of a portion of thy Brethren and of the Lamanites (Native Americans) in the redemption of Zion and the avenging of the blood of the prophets upon them that dwell on the earth".[33] In June 1857, Philip Klingensmith, another participant, was similarly blessed that he would participate in "avenging the blood of Brother Joseph".[34][35] The train led by Alexander Fancher waited outside Salt Lake City for more than a week as other groups caught up with them. The other, led by Captain John Twitty Baker was the last to arrive. Here the groups decided which route to take across the Great Basin to California. The Northern route to the California Trail, involved travelling along the Humboldt River in Northern Nevada, west across the Nevada desert to California and across the Sierra Nevada mountains into Sacramento. This route put emigrants at risk of becoming snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains in California as the Donner party had done ten years before. The Southern route went to the Old Spanish Trail, which would take them through the settlements in Southern Utah, through Southern Nevada (now Las Vegas) and then West through the arid dry Mojave Desert of San Bernardino County and eventually into Los Angelesbasin.[36] At least one couple, Henry D. and Malinda Cameron Scott, chose to take the Northern route while others from the woman's family went south with the united parties under Captain Fancher.[37]

It was reported to Brigham Young that the party was from Arkansas.[38] It was also rumored - as presented in the "Argus" letters later published in the Corinne Daily Reporter - that Eleanor McLean Pratt, one of the apostle Pratt's plural wives, recognized one of the party as being present at her husband's murder.[39] Other sources, however, state that Eleanor Pratt herself was not present at the murder.[40][41][42]


  1. ^ Quinn 1997, p. 238 (citing Minutes of meeting of Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, 12 February 1849, p. 3 [LDS Archives]).
  2. ^ Melville 1960, pp. 33–34; Smith et al. 1835, sec. XXIV, p. 151 ("The keys of the kingdom of God are committed unto man on the earth, and from thence shall the gospel roll forth unto the ends of the earth, as the stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands shall roll forth, until it has filled the whole earth…. [T]he Son of man shall come down in heaven, clothed in the brightest of glory, to meet the kingdom of God which is set up on the earth;… that thou O God may be glorified in heaven, so on earth, that they enemies may be subdued."); Roberts 192, 6:290, 292; Young 1855, p. 310; Taylor 853, p. 230; Quinn 1997 (citing John D. Lee diary, 6 December 1848).
  3. ^ Fillmore 1850, p. 252
  4. ^ Taylor 1857, p. 266 ("We used to have a difference between Church and State, but it is all one now. Thank God."). Removed as governor during the Utah War, Young yet retained a great deal of control until his death in 1877 Melville 1960, p. 48.
  5. ^ Hunter, Milton R. (2004), Brigham Young the Colonizer, Kessinger Publishing, ISBN 1-4179-6846-X, 70 (citing Brigham Young, Latter-day Saint Journal History, October 27, 1850, Ms.).
  6. ^ In 1856, Young said "the government of God, as administered here" may to some seem "despotic" because "[i]t lays the ax at the root of the tree of sin and iniquity; judgment is dealt out against the transgression of the law of God"; however, "does not [it] give every person his rights?" Young 1856c, p. 256.
  7. ^ Quinn 2001, pp. 143–45, 147.
  8. ^ Lee 1877, p. 235; Beadle 1870, p. 495 (describing what is said to be a portion of the Mormon Endowment in which participants are commanded to "obey all orders of the priesthood, temporal and spiritual, in matters of life or death").
  9. ^ On the Mormon Trail, Young threatened adherents who had stole wagon cover strings and rail timber with having their throats cut "when they get out of the settlements where his orders could be executed" Roberts 1932, p. 597. Young also gave orders that "when a man is found to be a thief,...cut his throat & thro' him in the River" (Diary of Thomas Bullock, 13 December 1846). In Utah, Young said "a theif [sic] should not live in the Valley, for he would cut off their heads or be the means of haveing [sic?] it done as the Lord lived." (See the Diary of Mary Haskin Parker Richards, 16 April 1848). The preferred method of execution was by exsanguination or decapitation, the latter being "the law of God & it shall be executed". (See the diary of Willard Richards, 20 December 1846; Watson, Manuscript History of Brigham Young, 1846-1847, p. 480.)
  10. ^ Alexander, Thomas G. (1992). "Wilford Woodruff and the Mormon Reformation of 1855-57" (PDF). Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. Dialogue Foundation. 25 (2): 25–39.
  11. ^ Young 1856d, p. 53. Mormon leaders stated that this practice was not yet "in full force" (1857, pp. 219–20), but the time was "not far distant" when Mormons would be sacrificed out of love to ensure their eternal reward (Young 1856b, pp. 245–46; Kimball 1857a, p. 174; Young 1857b, p. 219.)
  12. ^ Thomas G. Alexander. Review: Will Bagely. Blood of the Prophets Archived 2011-06-09 at the Wayback Machine, BYU Studies Review (2003). Alexander referenced available statistics dealing with the period from 1882 to 1903, however it was estimations of violence from earlier (Mormon Reformation period) Utah compared with neighbors such as (Bleeding Kansas period) Kansas that Alexander said was needed.
  13. ^ CONTENTdm Collection : Compound Object Viewer
  14. ^ CONTENTdm Collection : Compound Object Viewer
  15. ^ CONTENTdm Collection : Compound Object Viewer
  16. ^ Quinn 1997, p. 249 (referring to a request Haight sent to Brigham Young asking permission to enforce blood atonement against an adulterous Mormon desirous to voluntarily submit for blood atonement — a request, however, that Young denied.
  17. ^ Briggs 2006, p. 320, n.26. The southern Utah pioneer and militia scout of the time John Chatterley later wrote that he had received threats from a "secret Committee, called ...'destroying angels'"
  18. ^ Young 1857c, p. 6 (warning "mobocrats" that if they came to Utah, they would find "Danites").
  19. ^ Cannon & Knapp 1913, p. 271.
  20. ^ Leonard Arrington. Brigham Young: American Moses. 250.
  21. ^ a b Parshall 2005, p. 74.
  22. ^ Parshall 2005, p. 79.
  23. ^ Ford 1854, pp. 411–12
  24. ^ Pratt 1975, pp. 6, 24 n.26 (Parley and Eleanor entered a Celestial marriage under the theocratic law of the Utah Territory), but Hector had refused Eleanor a divorce. "When she left San Francisco she left Hector, and later she was to state in a court of law that she had left him as a wife the night he drove her from their home. Whatever the legal situation, she thought of herself as an unmarried woman."(p. 6)
  25. ^ "Murder of Parley P. Pratt, One of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints", JD 19(27):417 (July 4, 1857) ("Another Martyr has fallen—another faithful servant of God has sealed his pure and heavenly testimony of the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon with his blood."); Pratt 1975, p. 16; "Reminiscences of Mrs. A. Agatha Pratt, January 7, F564, #16, LDS Church Archives, stating that Brigham Young said, "Nothing has happened so hard to reconcile my mind to since the death of Joseph.").
  26. ^ Eleanor McLean Pratt, "Mrs. McLean's Letter to the Judge", JD 19(27):426 (July 4, 1857) ("[T]he blood of innocence has freely flowed to stain the soil of the fair State of Arkansas."); Brooks 1950, pp. 36–37; Linn 1902, pp. 519–20: "It was in accordance with Mormon policy to hold every Arkansan accountable for Pratt's death, just as every Missourian was hated because of the expulsion of the church from that state.").
  27. ^ Young et al. 1845, p. 5 ("[t]here are those now living upon the earth who will live to see the consummation" of the Millennium). Based on a somewhat ambiguous statement by Joseph Smith, some Mormons believed that Jesus would return in 1891 Erickson 1996, p. 9. See also Doctrine and Covenants 130: 14-17.
  28. ^ Grant 1854, p. 148 "[I]t is a stern fact that the people of the United States have shed the blood of the Prophets, driven out the Saints of God,… [c]onsequently I look for the Lord to use His whip on the refractory son called 'Uncle Sam'."
  29. ^ Diary of Heber C. Kimball (21 December 1845); Beadle 1970, pp. 496–97 (describing the oath prior to 1970 as requiring a "private, immediate duty to avenge the death of the Prophet and Martyr, Joseph Smith"); George Q. Cannon (Daily Journal of Abraham H. Cannon, 6 December 1889, p. 205). In 1904, several witnesses said that the oath as it then existed was that participants would never cease to pray that God would avenge the blood of the prophets on this nation", and that they would teach this practice to their posterity "unto the 3rd and 4th generation" Buerger 2002, p. 134. The oath was deleted from the ceremony in the early 20th century.
  30. ^ Diary of Heber C. Kimball (21 December 1845) (saying that in the temple he had "covenanted, and will never rest…until those men who killed Joseph & Hyrum have been wiped out of the earth"); George Q. Cannon (Daily Journal of Abraham H. Cannon, 6 December 1889, p. 205) (stating that he understood that his Endowment in Nauvoo included "an oath against the murders of the Prophet Joseph as well as other prophets, and if he had ever met any of those who had taken a hand in that massacre he would undoubtedly have attempted to avenge the blood of the Martyrs").
  31. ^ Diary of Daniel Davis, 8 July 1849, the LDS archives, as quoted in Quinn 1997, p. 247 (A Mormon who listened to a sermon by Young in 1849 recorded that Young said "if any one was catched stealing to shoot them dead on the spot and they should not be hurt for it."); Young 1856b, p. 247 (stating that a man would be justified in putting a javelin through his plural wife caught in the act of adultery, but anyone intending to "execute judgment…has got to have clean hands and a pure heart,…else they had better let the matter alone"); Young 1857, p. 219 ("[I]f [your neighbor] needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it"); Young 1857, p. 311 ("[I]n regard to those who have persecuted this people and driven them to the mountains, I intend to meet them on their own grounds.…I will tell you how it could be done, we could take the same law they have taken, viz., mobocracy, and if any miserable scounderels come here, cut their throats. (All the people said, Amen)."); Quinn 1997, p. 260 ("LDS leaders publicly and privately encouraged Mormons to consider it their right to kill antagonistic outsiders, common criminals, LDS apostates, and even faithful Mormons who committed sins "worthy of death.").
  32. ^ Letter from Mary L. Campbell to Andrew Jenson, 24 January 1892, LDS archives, in Moorman & Sessions, Camp Floyd and the Mormons, p. 142
  33. ^ Patriarchal blessing of William H. Dame, 20 February 1854, in Harold W. Pease, "The Life and Works of William Horne Dame", M.A. thesis, BYU, 1971, pp. 64-66.
  34. ^ Patriarchal blessing of Philip Klingensmith, Anna Jean Backus, Mountain Meadows Witness: The Life and Times of Bishop Philip Klingensmith (Spokane: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1995), pp. 118, 124.
  35. ^ See Salt Lake Cutoff and the California Trail and Spanish Trail Cut a Roundabout Path Through Utah; Scott 1877
  36. ^ Bagley 2002, p. 99.
  37. ^ Scott 1877.
  38. ^ Young 1875.
  39. ^ Stenhouse 1873, p. 431 (citing "Argus", an anonymous contributor to the Corinne Daily Reporter whom Stenhouse met and vouched for)
  40. ^ Grow, Robert J. (April 26, 2008). "Who Was Parley P; Pratt?". Church News. Retrieved June 12, 2016. A local blacksmith, Zealey Wynn, witnessed the murder and gathered some neighbors. Though surprised to find Pratt alive, they cared for him in his final minutes. ... Eleanor and Elder Higginson soon arrived
  41. ^ Armstrong, Greg. "Parley P. Pratt (Murder of)". (The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture). Retrieved June 12, 2016. There, Eleanor was brought before Judge John Ogden, who released her without further charges. Pratt, whose trial was postponed because of public outrage and general hostility, was kept overnight and secretly released early the next day. Hector McLean learned of Pratt’s release and caught up with Pratt on the Zealey Wynn property in Fine Springs (Crawford County), some twelve miles northwest of Van Buren, where he shot and stabbed Pratt.
  42. ^ Pratt, Steven (Winter 1975). "Eleanor McLean and the Murder of Parley P. Pratt". BYU Studies Quarterly. 15 (2): 15–17. At about half past noon a lady came to the hotel in Van Buren where Eleanor was staying and told her that Parley had been shot. ... After Eleanor received definite word that Parley was dead, she asked Marshal Hays if she and George Higginson might go prepare the body for burial.

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