The Restoration of Christ's Church

Hey guys! So in the last episode, we covered probably the worst event in Latter-day Saint history: The Mountain Meadows Massacre. If you don’t know what that is—go watch this episode right now to get caught up. Otherwise, this ain’t gonna make sense, because in this episode we’re going to look at what happened after the massacre and answer some common questions. 

Now, this is a challenging thing to do, because if you’ll remember the perpetrators tried to cover-up their crime by blaming the whole massacre on local Paiutes. When that plan failed, all sorts of conflicting stories came forward about what had happened. So we’re stuck with the job of sorting through the muck and deciding who is trustworthy and who is not. Let’s give it a shot! 

While dozens of men were guilty of the crime, prosecutors really only went after the leaders, instead of militia members “just following orders.” Only 9 men were ever indicted for the massacre, and only 1 of them, John D. Lee, was convicted and executed. A few of those 9 went into hiding for a very long time. One man got off easy by turning state’s evidence, some others were arrested, but ultimately prosecutors only pursued the case against John D. Lee. 

His first trial, years after the crime in the 1870s, was really only a facade for a larger political issue about the statehood of Utah and the power of the Church of Jesus Christ. The real goal was to implicate Brigham Young in the crime and strike a blow to the Church. But for John D. Lee, it ended with a hung jury. He was convicted and sentenced in his second trial soon after.

Why did prosecution take so many years? In 1858 after the “Utah War,” U.S. President James Buchanan made a proclamation of general amnesty, “offering to the inhabitants of Utah, who shall submit to the laws, a free pardon for the seditions and treasons heretofore by them committed.” There was confusion among government officials as to whether the massacre was covered under the amnesty. One judge initiated an investigation, but it didn’t lead to any indictments. Then the Civil War happened, postponing further federal investigation until the 1870s.

Did Brigham Young actually order the attack on the wagon train passing through Mountain Meadows? The evidence indicates he did not give the order and had no knowledge of the attack until after it happened. The real problem is that Brigham Young was, is, and will continue to be a controversial figure, and the possibility of branding him a mass murderer in a sinister conspiracy was (and is) too tempting for many to pass up. Most people who believe Brigham Young ordered the massacre will cite confessions of John D. Lee. Now, putting this into context: prosecutors offered to spare Lee’s life if he implicated Brigham Young. Lee chose death instead. But then in his autobiography published after his death, we read that he actually did “believe” that the massacre was the result of “the direct command of Brigham Young.” 

So something is certainly fishy about Lee’s story. Many scholars attribute these *clears throat* expansions, to Lee’s defense attorney, who edited and owned the rights to Lee’s autobiography. One newspaper wrote that the autobiography was “a little Lee and a Little Lawyer.”

On the other hand, there’s good evidence that Brigham was innocent. For example, we have a copy of the original letter from Brigham Young to Isaac Haight that arrived 2 days too late. In it, Brigham instructed the Saints to “not meddle with [the emigrants],” and to “let them go in peace.” It’s found, chronologically, just where it should be in Brigham’s letter books.

To be fair, some people think it’s all a conspiracy. A guy named Will Bagley wrote a book ominously called, Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, in which he tries to make a case to prove Brigham was the man behind the curtain. If you’re familiar with his arguments and want to know why many don’t find them credible, check out the relevant link in the description, because it’s a long story.

Did Brigham Young try to cover-up the truth about what happened? There are conflicting reports of how much of the truth Brigham knew, and when. Historian and author Thomas Alexander believes that when John D. Lee reported the massacre to President Young in late September 1857, as per the perpetrators’ invented alibi, he blamed it all on the Paiutes. But the real truth came incrementally. “By late June 1858, Young knew that Mormons had helped commit the murders, although he probably did not know the full extent of their involvement.”

Contrary to the usual story, which interprets Young’s role as the author of the massacre or faults Young either for refusing to investigate it or for erecting a stonewall against the investigation, it is clear that he consistently asked for an investigation and trials. Nevertheless, he wanted to protect his people, and he did a number of things to try to accomplish that end. At times … he could be less than forthright, and until 1870 he encouraged Lee to avoid public exposure and the federal marshals by living in secluded places … Could Young have done more to bring the perpetrators to justice? Certainly.” 

So while I think it’s clear that Brigham absolutely did not order or sanction this massacre, I will ding him for downplaying it after the fact, and before the massacre, his fiery rhetoric and preaching certainly fostered a culture which inadvertently made the massacre more possible. You can see a lot of war-time fear leading up to this tragedy. That’s understandable, considering the early persecution of the Saints, but I’ll still ding Brigham for stirring that pot of resistance. 

Alright, we’ve done 2 episodes on this topic and have barely scratched the surface still. If you want to dive deep, check out the resources in the description, and also go to the transcript of this episode on our website where I’ve filled in some of the details and answered more questions in the footnotes. And have a great day!

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