The Mountain Meadows Massacre: moral compasses calibrated for the unthinkable

On September 11, 1857, a bunch of Mormons mass murdered at least 120 members of an emigrant wagon train in southern Utah.  The event is now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

The wagon train was made up mostly of families from Arkansas, headed to California.  The Mormons disguised themselves as Native Americans, perhaps with the hope of simply scaring off the wagon train.  But after a five day siege, the commander of the militia, called the “Nauvoo Legion,” ordered that everyone over the age of seven be killed.

The militia sent in several members bearing a white flag.  They persuaded the travelers that the militia had “negotiated a truce” with the Native Americans, and the militia would escort the travelers to safety.  Each male traveler was paired with a militia men, and the men were separated from the women.  After marching, and on a signal, each militia man turned and shot the traveler by his side.  The militia then attacked the women and children, aided by further militiamen who were hiding in bushes and ravines.  The militia only spared children who they deemed young enough to not relate the story of what they saw – with some accounts saying these children were seven years old or younger.

Jump forward to today, and many a common refrain from a person defending the faith is “But Brigham Young never OKed the plan!”  It’s true.  Brigham authored a letter telling the local militia to leave the caravan alone.  Unfortunately, the letter arrived too late.

While the letter may have solved the immediate problem of not murdering 120 people – Brigham had a much bigger problem on his hands. A problem of a people with poorly calibrated moral compasses. The Massacre only made it apparent just how poorly calibrated those compasses were.

Brigham did not originate the problem.  It started long ago.  Perhaps with the story of Abraham and Isaac.  It was repeated again by Nephi and Laban.  And again, by Joseph Smith and Vilate and Heber Kimball.  These, and similar stories, each work to calibrate the moral compass of succeeding generations to accept the morally unthinkable.

Abraham’s story is familiar.  Abraham was ordered by God to murder his second son, Isaac (Ishamel was the first child, the child of Abraham’s slave, Hagar).  Abraham dutifully goes to a mountaintop, somehow convincing Isaac to accompany him.  Abraham then builds an altar, ties up his son, and picks up his knife to murder his son, when he is stopped by an angel – the angel tells him it was all just a test to determine whether Abraham truly loved God.

Joseph Smith had a similar test for Vilate Kimball and her husband Heber Kimball. An article in BYU’s “Studies Quarterly” describes what occurred, using language from Heber Kimball’s son-in-law, James Lawson:

After I [Heber Kimball] returned from my second mission to England in 1841, the Prophet Joseph came to me one evening and said, “Brother Kimball, I  want you to give Vilate to me to be my wife.”  Heber said that in all his life before he had never had anything take hold of him like that.  He was dumbfounded.  He went home, and did not eat a mouthful of anything, nor even touch a drop of water to his lips, nor sleep, for three days and nights.  He was almost continually offering up his prayers to God and asking Him for comfort.  On the evening of the third day he said, “Vilate, let’s go down to the Prophet’s” and they went down and met him in a private room.  Heber said, “Brother Joseph, here is Vilate.”  The Prophet wept like a child, said Heber, and after he had cleared the tears away, he took us and sealed us for time and all eternity, and said, “Brother Heber, take her, and the Lord will give you a hundredfold.”

Incidentally, some time later, Joseph married one of Vilate and Heber’s children – 14 year old Helen Mar Kimball.

Then there is perhaps one of the *most* famous stories for Mormon youth: Nephi beheading Laban.  Nephi’s dad, Lehi, receives a vision that the family must leave Jerusalem – but not before they go and obtain some records from a prominent man in Jerusalem – a man named Laban.  These records appeared to contain essentially what we now know as the Old Testament.  But, according to Nephi, they also “contained the genealogy of my father” (1 Nephi 3:12).  This strongly suggests that Laban and Nephi were related in some fashion.

Nephi and his brothers go to retrieve this record from this prominent man named Laban.  After several failed attempts, Nephi encounters the Laban in the street. Nephi is apparently commanded to “slay [Laban]” after which Nephi lists a variety of rationalizations for why this was ok (1 Nephi 4:10-17).  Emboldened by a direct commandment, followed by perhaps the longest thread of logical justification in the scriptures, Nephi decides to behead Laban, dress up in Laban’s clothes (presumably soaked in blood), impersonate Laban, infiltrate what Nephi called Laban’s “treasury,” dupe a treasury guard into unlocking the vault for Nephi, and steal the record and kidnap the servant – taking both back to their journey in the wilderness.

Two of these stories are commonplace in Mormon theological teaching: Abraham/Isaac and Nephi/Laban.  The Vilate/Kimball story is probably mostly unknown.  But for the Nauvoo Legion, most of whom probably personally knew Vilate and Kimball?  This third story was directly personal.

And what sort of person emerges from a culture that venerates these three stories?  A person who is ready to admit that in the right circumstances, they should be prepared to murder their own children – murder their own relatives – and give up their own spouses – if asked.

I was “commanded” to do a lot of low-key distasteful things on my mission – I had the top two missionary leaders in my mission demand that I do push ups during interviews.  I had a regional missionary leader demand that I call every single one of the members in the congregations I worked with (most of whom were low income) to get them to drive a missionary for eight hours so he could attend the baptism of someone he taught.  I had two other regional leaders require me to knock on eight separate homes and tell the residents that they were sinners and that I was commanding them, in the name of Jesus Christ to repent and be baptized in the name of the Lord and Savior.  I am not proud of those things.  But I did them because I had been raised on the very common teaching, found in LDS scriptures, “whether by mine own voice of by the voice of my servants,  it is the same.” (D&C 1:38) (the voice here being God’s voice of course).

When I questioned these demands – I was usually confronted with “you are just too prideful to do what your leaders ask” or “do you not have enough faith?  Do you not think the Lord will provide?”

And what was I to say?  My role models were people who had the faith to kill their own children – and the Lord would provide in the very last minute.  Or in Nephi’s case – they just wouldn’t be caught for murder and executed by the civil authorities.

So is it any surprise that people who had been preconditioned to give up everything – is it any surprise to see them having trouble not following the commands of their leaders to murder innocent people?

I don’t know what the discussion around the campfire looked like – but I know when it came time for the Mormons to cross the plains, the Willie and Martin Handcart Companies were told things like that there would be no snow on their journey, or that the snow would be so light, the leader making the promise of no snow would personally “eat every snowflake the pioneers encountered.”  Of course this was a local leader, but such language had the implicit backing of the First Presidency: “let them gird up their loins and walk through, and nothing shall hinder or stay them (From a general epistle of the First Presidency, Millennial Star, January 26, 1856, page 54).  Ultimately 16% of the Willie company died on the journey and 25% of the Martin company died, or about 202 deaths in total.  It’s considered the worst non-military tragedy of the emigrant trails during that period.

So again – what did that campfire look like?  Probably like a lot of men looking hard at their moral compasses, calibrated with the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Nephi, Laban, Kimball, Vilate, Helen, and others.  Probably a lot like what Nephi went through before murdering Laban.

And who can blame them if their moral compass directed them to murder instead of mercy?

One Comment

  1. Bellamy said:

    Wonderful essay. You raise fundamental issues with which each of us must wrestle. Ironic isn’t it the the two greatest disasters in the history of the 19th century settlement of the West came as a result of “following the prophet”. There is an important distinction to be made here however. Abraham had experience with distinguishing voices. He had been visited by angels and seen God before the commandment to sacrifice Issac. Gen 18 Abraham 2. Likewise Nephi had similarly had experience with being lead by the spirit and being visited by angels before the Laban encounter 1 Nephi 2:19, 1 Nephi 3:29. Likewise the decision of the Kimballs was only taken after days of praying to know the Lords will.

    I have searched the historical record of both the meeting of the Willey and Martin companies where the decision to proceed with the journey despite it being late in the year was held and the records of the Saints just before the Mountain Meadows Massacre took place. In neither case was there even any discussion of seeking revelation or trying to determine the will of the Lord or need for guidance of the Spirit.

    The lesson is clear if we follow men, even our ecclesiastical leaders without spiritual confirmation we will be lead astray. As you note about your experiences in the mission field, institutions abuse their members (see D and C 121). The only safe course is as S Dilworth Young said many years ago. “follow the Spirit. If it leads into conflict with the church follow the Spirit”

    I know in this toxic world such sentiments seem naive but that is the fundamental issue will we seek the Spirit earnestly and develop the faith to entertain angels or be satisfied to follow men or disparate voices. Consider also Moroni 7 regarding visitation of angels – or lack thereof.

    Thanks again for a very thought provoking essay.

    12 September 2021

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