MADELEINE BRAND, host:
September 11th was a notorious day long before 2001. Way back in 1857, on September 11th, a Mormon militia in Utah seized a wagon train from Arkansas and murdered 120 people, including women and children. The Mountain Meadows Massacre, as it's called, is still troubling for the descendants of both the attackers and the victims. A new book by Mormon authors is the latest attempt to explain what happened and why. NPR's Howard Berkes reports.
HOWARD BERKES: There is little doubt about some of what happened in a grassy mountain valley near Cedar City, Utah, 151 years ago today.
(Soundbite of wagon wheels)
BERKES: A monument marks the spot, a stack of rocks rising skyward. In 1857, this meadow held butchered bodies and tufts of hair clinging to grass. Arkansas pioneers heading to California were tricked into leaving their circle of wagons. A Mormon militia then shot the men pointblank. Women and children were chased, clubbed, knifed and shot, some while pleading for their lives. Only those too young to bear witness were spared.
Mr. RICHARD E. TURLEY (Assistant Historian, Family and Church History Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints): The Mountain Meadows Massacre is the worst event in Latter-day Saint history. If Latter-day Saints could face, head-on, this worst event in their history, they could face any historical topic.
BERKES: Richard Turley is the assistant historian of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. He and two other Mormon historians wrote "Massacre at Mountain Meadows," the latest of more than a dozen books on the subject, but the only one written with the support of Mormon leaders.
Mr. TURLEY: What happened at Mountain Meadows was horrific. It was terrible. It has been used as one of the biggest clubs to beat Mormonism over the years, and so it keeps coming up over and over and over again.
BERKES: Mormon leaders long blamed Paiute Indians who denied any significant role. The victims were also blamed. They were characterized as belligerent and bragging about the killing of Mormon founder, Joseph Smith, and the violent ejection of Mormons from settlements in Missouri. Heavy blame was also placed on local Mormon leaders. The new book by Mormon historians lays all that out, but concludes something that could be disturbing to Mormons, says Richard Turley.
Mr. TURLEY: These people who carried out the massacre were, in many ways, ordinary individuals who got caught up in emotion, caught up in the circumstances of their times, and began to make decisions that led to committing an atrocity. And what was disturbing about that was the realization that the difference between ordinary people, like us, and these people who committed atrocity was really a short distance.
BERKES: The distance was breached, Turley says, by a war-like atmosphere. Mormons knew the U.S. Army was marching toward them, and they believed war was imminent. They were told to save food, ammunition and supplies for themselves, and not to trade with wagon trains, which might be in league with the Army. And Turley and his coauthors point out that these were violent times in the Frontier West.
Mr. WILL BAGLEY (Author, "Blood of the Prophets"): They raised a critical question. What makes otherwise decent men commit atrocities like this? As a historian, I think their biggest failing is their failure to look at the religious elements in all of this.
BERKES: Will Bagley is a historian who was raised Mormon, but no longer practices the faith. He wrote "Blood of the Prophets," which also focused on the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Mr. BAGLEY: Part of it is that it's white-on-white violence. What motivates that? These people did it not because they were ignoring their religion. They did it because they believed they were living their religion. I see this as a religiously motivated act of violence.
BERKES: Bagley bases that on the role of obedience in the Mormon faith and in the massacre. Attackers said they did what they were told by religious superiors, who demanded strict obedience in 1857. Mormon leaders then also delivered stern, sometimes violent talks, condemning the non-Mormons considered threats. Some of those talks were given in and around Cedar City, Utah, just before the massacre. These were leaders who were considered to have divine authority. To Bagley, the faith itself is at stake when explaining Mountain Meadows.
Mr. BAGLEY: It's because it raises so many questions about the religion and its divine authenticity, and it makes you wonder, if this still could happen in the religion, doesn't it challenge the whole notion that we Mormons are God's chosen people?
BERKES: Bagley also firmly believes that Mormon prophet Brigham Young ordered the massacre, but he acknowledges there's no solid evidence of that. In his new book, Mormon historian Richard Turley refers to the roles faith and obedience played in the attack, but that doesn't challenge his faith.
Mr. TURLEY: It's the recognition that this type of behavior occurs around the world and throughout time. It's not unique to this period of history or to this locale. And it shows that any principle that people think is good, when pressed to the extreme, can become evil, and here's a perfect example of how it operated.
BERKES: Turley plans another book on the aftermath of the massacre, when records were destroyed and when one local Mormon militia leader was tried and convicted, taken to Mountain Meadows, propped against a coffin, and shot. Howard Berkes, NPR News.
BRAND: How much homework is too much? Our series on education begins when Day to Day continues.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.