New history book prompts Mormon debate

Controversy centers on Brigham Young’s role in 1857 massacre
AP, Oct. 12, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY – A month after hitting bookstores, debate over a book that blames early Mormon leader Brigham Young for ordering the Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. The University of Oklahoma Press sold out its initial 7,000-book printing and expects to also run out of the next 4,000 in the works, said Caroline Dwyer, assist marketing manager.

It has been almost a century and a half since the group of California-bound pioneers was ambushed and killed by Mormon settlers and their Indian allies. In his new book, author Will Bagley writes that circumstantial evidence suggests that Young ordered the killings.

Historians with the

“I would characterize [Mr. Bagley’s] book as very much written in the tradition of the polar extremes of Mormon historical writing. It’s the us-vs.-them affliction,” said Brigham Young University history professor Ronald W. Walker, one of the book’s co-authors.

At issue is who’s telling the truth: the Mormon church, which acknowledges much of the massacre’s evidence had initially been covered up, or a historian who has been labeled by critics as anti-Mormon.

“If people confuse an honest presentation of facts with anti-Mormonism, there’s nothing I can do about it,” Mr. Bagley said.

Victims of what’s known as the “Mountain Meadows massacre” included women and children, many shot to death at close range.

Brigham Young at the time was the church’s prophet and president, its second, and the man who brought the faith’s headquarters to the West in 1847 after founder Joseph Smith was murdered in Illinois.

As the ill-fated Arkansas wagon train moved through the Utah territory, the U.S. Army was preparing to squelch Utah’s resistance to federal control and its practice of polygamy, Mr. Bagley writes. As troops drew closer, Utah became immersed in war hysteria.

In addition, tales were spreading about the death of a Mormon leader, Parley Pratt, in Arkansas. Eventually, rumors grew to link the Arkansas wagon train to the murder, Mr. Bagley argues. So Young ordered the killings in a mixture of revenge and a show of force to illustrate his hold on the territory, the author asserts.

“The key to this is how you interpret the evidence, not the evidence itself,” said Jan Shipps, a non-Mormon scholar who has written several books about the faith. She compares the debate about the massacre to that surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

Weber State University history professor Gene Sessions, who also is a Mountain Meadows Association board member, offered a different comparison: to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the way it “inflamed the North against slavery.”

“Mainstream Utah historians are not impressed,” Mr. Sessions said. “He began with the thesis, and set out to prove it.”

“The Mountain Meadows massacre has, for many many years, has been a refuge for those uncomfortable with Mormonism,” he said.

But for Barbara Hoagland, co-owner of The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, the book is a needed look at the event.

“I think the church has done a real disservice of trying to cover up some of their history,” she said.

At the Mountain Meadows Association’s annual meeting in September, descendants of those killed in the ambush agreed with Mr. Bagley’s findings, Mr. Sessions said.

“They’ve been wallowing in this for a long time,” he said. “They are bitter. They are having a hard time coming to grips with this. They already think Brigham Young was involved.”

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