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Tracing Conflict between Latter-day Saints and the Outside World

When the Latter-day Saints arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, they had reason to hope they'd escaped conflict with the American government forever. At the time, Mexico owned the territory that eventually became known as Utah, and that government was more than willing to leave the Mormons alone. However, only months later, Mexico lost its war with the United States and had to hand over all its lands in the West, including Utah. The Mormons found themselves right back in the thick of controversy.

Today, people often think of Mormons as flag-waving, staunch Republican supporters of the U.S. government. (The extensive presence of Mormons in military leadership, the CIA, and the FBI demonstrates pretty clearly that the U.S. has no lingering concerns about Mormon patriotism.) But in the nineteenth century, people saw Mormons as fugitives from the long arm of the law. Their stubborn practice of polygamy, as well as their determination to merge church and state in the Rocky Mountains, made the Mormons Public Enemy No. 1.

The Utah War and the Mormon Reformation

Utah became a U.S. territory in 1850 with Brigham Young as its governor. Before long, the federal government expressed grave concern about the "Mormon problem." Two basic issues were at stake:

  • The Mormons acknowledged in 1852 that they practiced polygamy, or plural marriage. This topic had long been grist for the rumor mill, but the Latter-day Saints had always publicly denied it. After they let the cat out of the bag, the nation cried foul. The 1856 Republican National Convention denounced polygamy as one of the "twin relics of barbarism" that afflicted the national conscience (the other was slavery).
  • U.S. government officials worried that the Mormons were trying to establish a theocracy, or a merging of religion and government. As a natural outgrowth of its role in promoting and coordinating economic development in Utah, the Church owned prominent businesses and held a stake in many of the industrial enterprises of the region: mines, sugar refineries, textile mills, and the like. It virtually controlled local politics and the judicial bench.

Anticipating war

The tensions between Mormons and the government erupted in 1857-58. When the federal government sent troops to Utah because Brigham Young wouldn't surrender his title as governor to a non-Mormon federal appointee, the so-called Utah War got underway. War is actually a bloodier name than the event deserves, because no one was killed — in fact, no one even fired any shots — during the smoldering conflict. But the fact that the government was willing to send the largest peacetime army in the nation's history all the way out to Utah shows how concerned it was about the Mormon question.

To the Mormons, the government's interference appeared to be a rehashing of the same old story that had always ended so badly for the Latter-day Saints in Ohio, Illinois, and Missouri. They saw it as the first strike in renewed persecutions and government attempts to force them to give up their beliefs and way of life.

The lingering image of the Utah War isn't bloodshed but Brigham Young's attempt to prevent it. Rather than risk the lives of any Latter-day Saints when the army arrived, Brigham evacuated 30,000 people from Salt Lake City so that the soldiers arrived to a ghost town. With military combat avoided, the people of Salt Lake returned peacefully to their homes.

Reacting with a reformation

In 1856, when the Mormons realized that the government was sending an army that could destroy them, no one could've predicted the peaceful and uneventful outcome of the controversy. Some Mormons saw the intrusion as a sign of the End Times and believed that they were about to see the obliteration of their beloved Salt Lake City.

With this fear in mind, they entered into a brief period of their history (1856–57) known as the Mormon Reformation. To prepare themselves spiritually for the end, they prayed more fervently, met more frequently, and performed round-the-clock ordinances in the Endowment House (the building that substituted for a temple while the temple was under construction). They also made a dizzying number of plural marriages, with some men marrying several women on the same day.

The Mormon Reformation was a time of deep, and even bizarre, fervor in Latter-day Saint history and played an important part in understanding the religion's greatest tragedy: the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Although the 1850s Utah War was bloodless, Mormon history in the 1850s wasn't. The government may not have traded bullets with the Mormons, but many of the Latter-day Saints suspected that civilians in emigrant trains crossing the Utah Territory were in league with the invading army. For this and other complex reasons, a group of Mormons made a large-scale attack on an emigrant train in September 1857. Interestingly enough, the worst of the bloodshed happened on September 11, a day that almost 150 years later similarly became associated with the violence that can stem from religious fanaticism.

The massacre occurred about 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, when a group of men, women, and children passed through southern Utah on their way to settle in California. Some accounts claim that Native Americans initiated the attack and that the Mormons joined in later; others claim that the Mormons planned and executed the whole affair. The latter explanation seems more credible to most historians. At the end of the day, more than 120 men, women, and older children were dead. Young children, the oldest of whom was 6, were left alive, and many were temporarily adopted into the families of local Latter-day Saints before being returned to their homes in Missouri and Arkansas.

Questioning the motive

Why would this group of Mormons, who'd been on the receiving end of violence and persecution themselves, carry out such an unforgivable atrocity? Historians have identified several possible motives for the attack. Some or all of these reasons may help to explain it, though nothing can excuse it. No one will ever know for certain exactly what happened and why, even though a new book on the massacre shows up nearly every year, it seems.

  • The Mormons, who were expecting an army of 2,500 soldiers to attack them any day, were swept up in a feverish, warlike mentality and believed they stood alone against the world. The emigrant party arrived in Utah at a very bad time.
  • The emigrant group was from Missouri and northern Arkansas, and historical evidence suggests that they may have taunted the Mormons with boasts of being the wildcats who drove Mormons from Missouri 20 years earlier. The massacre may have been a misguided attempt at Mormon justice for past wrongs, especially the much smaller massacre at Haun's Mill, where some Mormon children died.
  • One popular history suggests that the Mormons may have committed the massacre because the people of southern Utah were poor and coveted the emigrant party's wealth and livestock. (This theory doesn't satisfactorily explain, though, why the attack happened to this particular party at this particular time, when other emigrants passed through the region without incident.)

Reacting to the event

We'll probably never know the reason, or reasons, for the attack. The questions remain: How much did Brigham Young know, and when did he know it? Did he order the assault, or did the southern Mormons take matters into their own hands? Apparently, when Brigham found out what the southern settlers planned, he immediately sent a messenger ordering them to allow the emigrants to safely pass through. However, they acted before they received his message.

Unfortunately, the Church — caught up with the impending Utah War and anxious not to give the federal government any reason to attack — chose to cover up the evidence of the massacre for years, blaming local Native Americans even when Mormon involvement was obvious. Gradually, the Church claimed at least some responsibility, but only one man, a local Mormon leader named John D. Lee, was ever tried and executed for the crime.

In 1999, the Mountain Meadows Association, made up of the descendants of the known victims and criminals of the attack, reburied the remains of some of the victims, which were disturbed during construction of a memorial. In his dedicatory remarks, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley promised the descendants that the Church would always treat the two and a half acres as hallowed ground, "a sacred monument to honor all those who fell."

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