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Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows
by Will Bagley
Reviewed by Jeff Needle
8/6/2005 4:11:42 PM
(Note, please, that the edition I reviewed is a pre-publication galley proof. It is already known that the final product will have several additional pages due to typographical improvements, so page numbers in this review may not correspond to the final product.)

(Additional note: this is a tough review of a very tough book. Some may be offended by the content of the book, but my job is to present its subject matter, without attempting to judge its accuracy or bias, something I'm not equipped to do.)

"Blood of the Prophets" is the latest, and an impressive, addition to the literature covering a pivotal episode in Mormon history, the Mountain Meadows Massacre. The blurb on the back cover of the book says it well:

The massacre at Mountain Meadows in southwestern Utah on September 11, 1857 was the single most violent act to occur on the overland trails, yet it has been all but forgotten. "Blood of the Prophets" is the most extensive investigation of the events surrounding the mass killings since Juanita Brooks' ground-breaking study, "The Mountain Meadows Massacre," in 1950.
Has it really been half a century since anyone studied this episode in any depth? I can't bring to mind any major work. And given the magnitude of the tragedy, this is somewhat surprising.

Bagley's intense and detailed work attempts to separate the myth from the history, stepping outside the role of loyal member to curious historian. Bagley doesn't disagree that he is "disengaged" from active participation in Church life, and thus has no problem observing a loyal Mormon view of the episode as ahistorical and untrustworthy. Typical of this view is a citation from Preston Nibley:

It is an old and apparently a true saying that troubles never come singly, for in those dark days of the fall of 1857, particularly during the month of September, while President Brigham Young's mind was wrestling with perhaps the greatest problem that ever confronted him, that of coping with an armed force of the United States government, a messenger, James Haslam, rode into Salt Lake City, post haste from Cedar City, with word to President Young, that a group of Arkansas emigrants had been surrounded by Indians at the Mountain Meadows, about forty miles southwest of Cedar. What was the President's order? Should the emigrants be allowed to pass?
Hurriedly writing a letter to Isaac Haight, who was presiding at Cedar City, he said:

"In regard to the emigration passing through our settlements, we must not interfere with them, until they are first notified to keep away. You must not meddle with them. The Indians we expect will do as they please, but you should try to preserve good feelings with them. There are no other trains going south that I know of. If those who are there will leave, let them go in peace."

Haslam rested only four hours in Salt Lake City, after his strenuous ride from Cedar, and then took off again on his return trip of two hundred sixty-seven miles on horseback, which he completed in three days. As President Young handed him the letter to Haight, he said:

"Go with all speed, spare no horse flesh. The emigrants must not be meddled with, if it takes all Iron county to prevent it. They must go free and unmolested."

It was while Haslam was riding with this message, on the eleventh of September, that the horrible Mountain Meadows affair took place. Its history is well known, and I shall not attempt to relate any of it here, but I do deny any implication that President Brigham Young was ever concerned in it, except to order that the emigrants were to be allowed to go free and unmolested. Repeated attempts have been made by critics of "Mormonism," for the past seventy years to connect President Young with the perpetration of this atrocious crime, but they have all proved unavailing. (Preston Nibley, Brigham Young: The Man and His Work, 4th ed.[Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1960], 294.)

Even moderated criticisms, such as the following from Brooks' "The Mountain Meadows Massacre" falls short of Bagley's views of Brigham Young's responsibility:

1. While Brigham Young and George A. Smith, the church authorities chiefly responsible, did not specifically order the massacre, they did preach sermons and set up social conditions which made it possible.
and . . .

3. While he did not order the massacre, and would have prevented it if he could, Brigham Young was accessory after the fact, in that he knew what had happened, and how and wy it happened. Evidence of this is abundant and unmistakable, and from the most impeccable Mormon sources. ("The Mountain Meadows Massacre," p. 219)

Drawing on a wide array of historical sources, Bagley presents a stronger, more indicting view of leadership and responsibility.

Bagley begins with a strong historical survey of the American condition in the mid-19th century, giving a good summary of the emigration of the Saints from their eastern cities to an arid, bleak Western territory. Opposition from both government and society at large created a hostile atmosphere in which Mormonism could not thrive. Emigration was inevitable.

Settlement of Great Salt Lake City was, of course, not without its challenges. Brigham Young's leadership was not unanimously accepted, and apostates often became bitter enemies. Opposition to his aggressive leadership style, and practices such as polygamy and blood atonement, considered odious to the world, created an atmosphere of suspicion and mutual distrust.

The assassination of Parley P. Pratt while on a mission call in the east became, in Bagley's view, the perfect occasion for violent reprisal on the part of the Saints. Pratt, who had "stolen" the wife of another man (I suppose "stolen" is in the eye of the beholder), was pursued by the aggrieved husband and slain. Non-Mormons found it difficult to work up any sympathy for the murdered Mormon leader.

The link between the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the assassination of Parley P. Pratt was obvious to the anti-Mormons:

Years later an anti-Mormon pamphlet charged that a few weeks after the [Mountain Meadows] massacre, Young spoke in the old tabernacle before thousands of people, some of whom were still living in Salt Lake in 1884. These witnesses claimed Young said, "The blood of those emigrants and of the whole of the people of Arkansas would not atone for the blood of Apostle P.P. Pratt." Allegedly, the prophet repeated the statement the next spring in the Seventies Hall. (p. 179)
The Mountain Meadows Massacre was seen as an act of revenge for the assassination of Pratt.

But central to the discussion is the question, What was Brigham Young's role in the Massacre? Did he order it? Was he aware of it? How did he react after the fact?

Here is Bagley's take on this question:

Federal investigators were later convinced Brigham Young sent letters south "authorizing, if not commanding," the destruction of the Fancher train, but it is unlikely Young would commit such an order to writing. [John D.] Lee's tale of his ambiguous conversations with [George A.] Smith on the Santa Clara may best reflect what actually happened. If Smith gave orders to kill the emigrants, they may have been no more explicit than to "use them up" or "give them a good drubbing." Mormon leaders often spoke in code words whose meaning was clear only to insiders. One of Young's favorite phrases, "A word to the wise is sufficient," meant, "Don't make me spell it out." This ambiguity had many advantages: it sheltered Mormon leaders from accountability and shifted responsibility from top leaders to local authorities. But orders couched in such enigmatic terms were easily misinterpreted, a serious problem given the volatile atmosphere and the slow place of communications in Utah Territory. (p. 85)
If this is true, then how can one really determine what really happened? How does one assign blame, responsibility, accountability? To a degree, one must infer facts from the documentary evidence, a task fraught with problems.

And here is where Bagley parts company with Juanita Brooks -- I don't think Bagley believes that Brigham Young would have stopped it if he had the chance. I may be wrong, but this is how I read Bagley's work.

Bagley takes us through a minute-by-minute account of the slaughter, accumulated from hundreds of documents, many not available to Brooks when she wrote her important book. His chapter headings bring on a gloom strongly supported by the text. "The Work of Death," "The Scene of Blood and Carnage." Page after page of bloody death. This is not light reading; neither is it happy reading.

Equally unpleasant are the events following the Massacre. It became one of most important events in Mormon history, insofar as Mormonism's place in American society is concerned. Reaction to the Massacre was swift and violent, bringing the Church into a state of crisis. His chapter, "All Hell is in Commotion," details the evacuation of San Bernardino as news of the Massacre traveled west. The Mormons were in the midst of a public relations catastrophe.

Ultimately, the furor would die down, and the Church would succeed in its quest for statehood for Utah. How could this happen? Bagley sees the hand of Brigham Young in this:

At a critical moment, Brigham Young diverted the attention of the beleaguered Buchanan administration from a question of mass murder to one of legal technicalities. His obstruction of justice in Utah delayed the prosecution of the Mountain Meadows criminals until the outbreak of the Civil War absorbed the nation. The public lost interest in the affairs of a remote and inconsequential territory, and for fourteen years Young's power stopped any federal prosecution of the crime. (p. 237)
Bagley rounds out his discussion with a glimpse of the tortured lives of those who survived Brigham Young, and finally a brief summary of Juanita Brooks' writing of "The Mountain Meadows Massacre."

Now, in case you haven't been paying attention, Bagley lays the blame for the Massacre squarely at the feet of Brigham Young. The subsequent trial, and conviction, of John D. Lee is told in excruciating detail, a picture of a bitter, betrayed former leader of the Saints. In the interest of brevity, I won't cite the text at length here, trusting the interested reader to pursue this section.

In the end, Bagley summarizes his thesis with a closing statement that will no doubt anger many:

As a religion claiming direct divine inspiration, the LDS church is caught on the horns of an insoluble dilemma. Its leaders cannot admit that the Lord's anointed inspired, executed, and covered up a mass murder, and as long as modern prophets deny that the LDS church had "any complicity in the occurrences of that fateful day," they can never come to terms with the truth. The church's doctrine of repentance dictates that without acknowledging sin, there can be no forgiveness. There is, ultimately, no easy way for the Latter-day Saints to resolve the problems posed by this awful tale until they admit their historic responsibility for a terrible crime. The faith must accept its role, open all of its records on the subject, acknowledge its accountability, and repent -- or learn to live with the guilt. Church leaders might wish until the end of time that the matter could be forgotten, but history bears witness that only the truth will lay to rest the ghosts of Mountain Meadows. (p. 371)
Tough, tough words. Words that will not be welcomed by true believing Mormons. But Bagley's passion is unmistakable. As a historian, he is compelled to push to the side any feelings of loyalty to an organization, and lay out the facts as he sees them. And that last phrase, "as he sees them," will be the point where his detractors will likely attack. Is his telling of the story selective and prejudicial? I'm not a historian; I know of these events only from the accounts I've read, so I have no apparatus sufficient to deal with this situation.

And this raises the same, old questions we've asked over the years: how is history, in particular sacred history, to be told? Should the story be told at all? And if so, how much of the story is enough? And should the parts support, or question, official accounts?

Stylistically, the book is difficult in that it enhances the story with a plethora of information surrounding the theme. At times I thought he told us a bit too much -- too many names, too many details. But I suppose this is what a historian does. On several occasions I found myself distracted from the central story, and early gave up remembering names and places. Such detail is helpful to the historian, but the casual reader will find it distracting.

Now, the book is not without its comic elements. In describing George A. Smith:

George A. "was surprisingly vain, and bad taste led him to acquire outlandish clothes and ill-fitting red wigs. According to legend, after watching him insert his false teeth, adjust his toupee, and put on his glasses, the Indians dubbed him 'Man Who Comes Apart.'" (p. 31)
And later:

[Jedediah] Grant created a catechism to quantify the sinfulness of the Saints. Distributed in spring 1856, it asked some eighteen questions, for example: "Have you ever committed murder [or] shed innocent blood?" "Have you betrayed your brethren?" "Have you ever committed adultery?" It reflected Grant's obsessions, asking, "Do you wash your bodies once a week?" Even Brigham Young had trouble with the last requirement. When asked if he washed once a week, Young said, "that he did not [but] he had tried it. He was well aware that this was not for everybody." (p. 49)
The occasional comic relief was most welcome.

I found "Blood of the Prophets" to be an exhausting read. My emotions were stretched to their limit as I absorbed account after account of murder, duplicity, etc. At times I simply put the book down, took a breath, and returned to it after a cool drink. Is this the sign of a good book? It depends on where your interests lie. Bagley is a compelling writer. Whether he is an *unbiased* compelling writer is a matter of taste and perspective.

I suspect you won't find this volume at Deseret Book. But if you have a passion for history, and can sustain a strong challenge not only to the Church's version of the account, but to the veracity of the Church itself, then this will be a helpful volume.

I have long viewed the Church as something of a football field, a large arena with goalposts at either end. Perhaps Preston Nibley stands at one goalpost, Will Bagley stands at another. And, perhaps, the truth lies somewhere in between.

My congratulations to Will Bagley for his tireless research and the courage to speak his convictions.