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But acknowledging that "Mountain Meadows was Mormon violence, and that there were Danites," says Stanford historian Richard White, "goes further than they have ever gone."
Penn’s Gordon, White and others do note some glaring omissions and one-sided accounts.
Highlights from the essay
» Mobs expelled Mormons from Missouri in 1839 after the governor issued an “extermination” order and from Nauvoo, Ill., in 1846, two years after the murders of LDS founder Joseph Smith and his brother Hyrum.
» At least 17 Mormon men and boys were slaughtered at Hawn’s Mill in October 1838 in Caldwell County, Mo. “Some Latter-day Saint women were raped or otherwise sexually assaulted during the Missouri persecutions,” the essay notes. “Vigilantes and mobs destroyed homes and stole property.”
» The rampaging Missouri mobs prompted some LDS leaders and members to form a paramilitary group known as the Danites. These vigilantes “intimidated church dissenters and other Missourians,” the article states. “ … Mormon vigilantes, including many Danites, raided two towns believed to be centers of anti-Mormon activity, burning homes and stealing goods.” Joseph Smith likely approved of the Danites, but historians doubt he was “briefed on all their plans and likely did not sanction the full range of their activities.”
» After their Missouri woes, Latter-day Saints formed a militia, the Nauvoo Legion, to protect themselves in Illinois. Feared by many outsiders, this legion, nonetheless, did not retaliate after the mob murders of the Smith brothers and eventually disbanded.
» Tensions between Ute Indians and Mormons mounted in 1849 after a Latter-day Saint killed a Ute known as “Old Bishop, whom he had accused of stealing his shirt. Back-and-forth skirmishes and accusations eventually prompted Mormon leader Brigham Young, who enjoyed friendships with several Indian leaders, to authorize “a campaign against the Utes.” “A series of battles in February 1850 resulted in the deaths of dozens of Utes and one Mormon,” the essay states. “In these instances and others, some Latter-day Saints committed excessive violence against native peoples.”
Source: LDS Church essay “Peace and Violence Among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints”
Gordon argues the essay could have explored more fully early comments about "blood atonement."
That teaching, as espoused by Young and others, was that "some sins were so serious that the perpetrator’s blood would have to be shed in order to receive forgiveness."
The topic could have used "more explanation and more details," Gordon says, especially in light of "how widely it is discussed in the literature" of the era.
White, an expert in Western American history, says that tales of horrific crimes attributed to the Danites were exaggerated "but not all accusations were wild or untrue."
Until nonpartisan historians are allowed to examine the evidence in LDS archives, he says, "we will never know what was really going on. Were they using armed bands to eliminate those who had defected?"
White maintains the essay also underplays the Mormon role in triggering the violence in the Midwest, framing it all as persecution of the believers.
"It turns out," he says, "Missouri was in the midst of a civil war."
Jan Shipps, an American historian specializing in Mormon history, also believes the essay downplays Mormon culpability before the exodus to Utah.
"In the description of the Hawn’s Mill Massacre and the Missouri War," Shipps says, "you would think the Mormons were sweet and charming to everyone."
Some of the actions came in response to early Mormon rhetoric.
When Missouri Gov. Lilburn Boggs’ issued his "extermination order" against the Latter-day Saints, Shipps says, he was echoing the language Mormon leader Sidney Rigdon had used in a sermon, talking about the church’s enemies. Joseph Smith had Rigdon’s speech printed and circulated among the faithful.
Today’s church, she says, would "find it difficult to accept the amount of hostility that was expressed by Mormons after they were driven from Illinois."
This essay, Shipps says, "goes a long way to helping Mormons see their ancestors as part of American Western history — with all its flaws."
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