There are many it seems who’d feel better with a separation between God, religion, church, and the actions taken against humanity in their name. The root of extremism is in conviction, conviction of the one and only truth, conviction of a conduit to God, conviction of one’s own narcissism. History is rife with evidence, from the crusades, the holocaust, Cambodia, Srebrenica, New York City, to the inevitable suicide bombing that happened this morning, regardless of what morning you read this.
And we don’t like that. When it comes to the Mountain Meadow Massacre, we don’t want to paint our ancestors with the same brush as militant Islamists, Nazis, or Croats. They’re the extremists, not my great, great uncle who was a Mormon pioneer and a member of the Iron County Militia. Fear is the impetus of extremism and when it’s fueled with self-righteous arrogance and aspirated with vengeance, regardless of the culture, someone is going to die.
I remember sitting in Stake and General Conferences. In the initial meetings an officiating Priesthood holder calls the roll of the hierarchy of the church from the First Presidency right down to the local structure of the Aaronic priesthood, if I’m not mistaken. As each tier is announced, members are asked to sustain them by raising their right hands (historically, the right arm was brought to the square and an allegiance was sworn). Each office is sustained as inherent to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The orders for the massacre came from a Stake President who was also a commanding officer in the Iron County Militia. He used the line of authority to deliver the orders to Lee, also an authority, a Bishop. There’s much debate as to whether the order had an even higher genesis, Brigham Young. Regardless, the order came from officers in the church, officers in its military organization. I cannot separate the actions of the murderers at Mountain Meadows from their association and submission to the church to which they belonged.
Also debated is the justification behind the orders. Were they simply a response to the conditions of marshal law or were they justified in the name of salvation? The film “September Dawn” does an apt job in depicting Brigham Young’s philosophy of blood atonement. Apologists are already saying, “Well that was President Young, not the Church.” In 1857 they were one in the same, just as today’s President and the church are one in the same.
From his Journal of Discourses, Vol. 3, p. 243-249, Brigham Young explained to a congregation gathered in the tabernacle…
“A few of the men and women who go into the house of the Lord, and receive their endowments, and in the most sacred manner make covenants before the Almighty, go and violate those covenants. Do I have compassion on them? Yes, I do have mercy on them, for there is something in their organization which they do not understand; and there are but few in this congregation who do understand it.
“You say, “That man ought to die for transgressing the law of God.” Let me suppose a case. Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; and under such circumstances, I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands. But you who trifle with your covenants, be careful lest in judging you will be judged.
“Every man and women (sic) has got to have clean hands and a pure heart, to execute judgment, else they had better let the matter alone.
“Again, suppose the parties are, not caught in their iniquity, and it passes along unnoticed, shall I have compassion on them? Yes, I will have compassion on them, for transgressions of the nature already named, or for those of any other description. If the Lord so order it that they are not caught in the act of their iniquity, it is pretty good proof that He is willing for them to live; and I say let them live and suffer in the flesh for their sins, for they will have it to do.
“There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it; and the judgments of the Almighty will come, sooner or later, and every man and woman will have to atone for breaking their covenants. To what degree? Will they have to go to hell? They are in hell enough now. I do not wish them in a greater hell, when their conscienes (sic) condemn them all the time. Let compassion reign in our bosoms. Try to comprehend how weak we are, how we are organized, how the spirit and the flesh are continually at war.”
Go back and read the entire quotation, please. To boil it down, Brigham Young indicates that if covenants made in the temple are broken, “The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it.” If you have a different interpretation, please share it here.
I was endowed at a time where punishments for breaking covenants were acted out during the endowment. We were instructed to draw our right thumbs across our throats for one covenant, illustrating spilling our own blood, and in a subsequent covenant, draw our right thumb across our abdomens illustrating disembowelment. There are ordained leaders today who deny this ever happened in the endowment.
I believe Brigham’s intentions of the blood atonement were pretty clear – break the oaths and covenants made in the temple and you’ve sinned beyond the atonement of Christ. So this is or was a doctrine that pertained to endowed members. But in the one-and-only true scheme of things, what could be worse than breaking temple covenants? Murdering the Prophet, Joseph Smith Jr., a crime rumored to be associated with some travelers with the Fancher-Baker Party.
Christopher Cain, the creator of “September Dawn” is blatant in his application of Brigham’s blood atonement philosophy in justifying the wholesale murder of 120 souls. According to this premise, the Mormons were doing their duty, spilling their blood and sending them to heaven. After my research and attempt to understand motives involved in the massacre, I can’t disagree with Cain.
Angry men? Yes, but they were more than that. They were obedient, convicted, fearful, vengeful, and Brigham-fearing. Remember at that time the temple endowment included avenging the blood of the church’s martyred prophet, a covenant later removed from the endowment in 1927.
Oh, and if you’re a latter-day Danite, by the above criteria, you’d be justified in killing me.