Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Guess What, Brigham Didn't Do It

The Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune (via the Associated Press) carried stories this weekend about a presentation made by Richard Turley to the Mormon History Association. For those of you who don’t know, the MHA is made up of professional and amateur historians interested in exploring a variety of Mormon topics at conferences and in publications. It includes members of the LDS Church, Community of Christ (RLDS) and other denominations that trace their roots to Joseph Smith.

Richard Turley, who is the LDS Assistant Church Historian, along with retired BYU history professor Ronald Walker and Glen Leonard, former Director of the LDS Museum of Church History and Art, are the authors of the upcoming book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows. They were hired by the LDS Church to write the book, and it appears they are laying groundwork in advance of its release. While the book purports to be an objective synthesis of their findings and conclusions, it seems as though it is seen by non-Mormons as a conduit for the LDS Church’s side of the story. How fair that perception is, I don’t know.

The big news Turley announced at this year’s MHA conference is that Brigham didn’t order the massacre. Deseret News religion editor Carrie Moore reported Turley as saying:

“There is insufficient evidence to say former LDS Church President Brigham Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre and ample evidence that says he did not.”

Turley’s announcement was no surprise. After all, the book was commissioned and paid for by the Church. But that doesn’t mean Turley is wrong -- just that he concluded what was expected. Of course, the book will be expected to produce compelling analysis and argument, if not concrete evidence, to back up his assertion.

I have tried to educated myself about this horrible incident, first by reading Juanita Brooke’s Mountain Meadows Massacre, then Will Bagley’s Blood of the Prophets and lastly, Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer. Along the way I have seen a lot of debate and commentary about who is the most biased, who is the best historian, and who has the biggest chip on his or her shoulder. What appears to be consistent is that there is no reliable smoking gun showing Brigham Young ordered the deed. There is a lot of discussion about culpability before -- and cover up after -- the event, but nothing that concretely shows Young saying, “DO IT.”

Massacre at Mountain Meadows is set for release this summer or fall. My hunch is that it will not settle the debate as to what really happened. And I suspect that given the Church’s sponsorship, it probably won’t be seen as a reliable and unbiased account of the event by those outside the Church. Even I have a hard time believing the authors would produce a volume that was seriously damaging to the Church. Turley said that he would go where the evidence led him, but I find it hard to believe that the authors can produce a book and not be mindful of who is paying the bills. Turley's response to this, Carrie Moore reports:

"Some might wonder whether I would have had my hand slapped if I learned Brigham Young ordered the massacre." As an employee of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Turley said he made senior church leaders "aware of my intent to follow the evidence to its conclusion. They supported it and, to a man, were willing to accept it and follow the truth."

Well, in spite of my skepticism, I will read the book and see if it feels believable and fair. Two of the other three books I read certainly didn’t seem evenhanded to me. I found the Bagley book unpersuasive because I felt he had an agenda and stacked his evidence and conclusions in such a manner as to back up his thesis irrespective of the support. I suppose that’s what an author is supposed to do when making an argument, but I didn’t trust his judgment. And the Krakauer book seems even more sensationalistic and agenda-driven. I felt Krakauer completely missed the boat when he left the impression that the LDS and fundamentalist Mormons are essentially the same. That certainly has not been my experience and I thought he muddily lumped us together. So that leaves me with Juanita Brooks, and I am OK with that. I found her book compelling and plenty damning of the Church, if that’s what one seeks. It certainly didn’t whitewash anything. I thought she placed plenty of blame without going beyond what she could reasonably conclude about the event.

And while I note my default position of skepticism about the upcoming book’s impartiality, I hope to be open-minded enough not to dismiss it if it is compelling. And the book has one very good thing going for it – Ronald Walker. I admire him as a historian and have been impressed with his career and ability to produce quality and, I believe, trustworthy work. And it doesn't hurt that he was the Bishop that saw me off on my mission.

So my question is this, is there anything that could come out in this book that could change your mind about the event? Do people’s feelings about the culpability of Brigham Young and the LDS Church hierarchy rest upon whether they believe in the Church or not? And does a person simply pick the historical exposition that best fits what they already think, or can people be convinced to think otherwise despite preconceived notions?


mormon heretic said...

Sanford, I was always under the impression that "Under the Banner of Heaven" was about the Lafferty brothers murders in American Fork. Am I wrong in this? How deeply does it delve into Mountain Meadows Massacre?

pb said...

"Can people be convinced to think otherwise despite preconceived notions?" It depends on what's riding on the conclusion. People are unlikely to be convinced of anything that is going to require them to fundamentally change the way they do business. As to the specific question of whether BY ordered the MMM -- a true mormon will have no difficulty rationalizing this one so that no real changes are required, whatever the conclusion may be.

Fifthgen said...

I have only read the Brooks book, and it was so long ago that I don't really remember it very well. But I do not remember it being jarring to my cosmic view or feeling that it could not be right.

That said, I think some biases are pretty hard to overcome, and many people tend to look for support for what they already believe. I don't think believing Mormons are unique in this regard. But, I also think that there are Mormons that fall all along the persuadability spectrum. For example, I think there are Mormons that would never believe that Brigham had any culpability in the MMM, and that there are Mormons who think that Brigham was imperfect and maybe allowed a dangerous situation to develop, and then obscured the events, believing that Mormons would never get a fair shake from the authorities. Correct me if I am wrong, but even Bagley doesn't go much beyond that (as I said, I have not read his book).

reddirtgirl said...

I prefer to read fiction and believe that it's true. Try 'Ferry Woman' by Gerald Grimett.

Sanford said...

Mormon Heretic -- what a sensible question. After reading your comment, I got my copy of Under the Banner of Heaven off the and reviewed its coverage of the Mountain Meadow Massacre. It is funny how you remember things a few years after you read them. I realized upon review that Krakauer book does address the Massacre, but mostly in just a couple of chapters. His book really is about religious and Mormon fundamentalism and the massacre is just one particularly horrific example of what can happen. The books by Brooks and Bagley conversely are devoted pretty much to the massacre alone. I remember thinking at the time I read the Krakauer book that no non-Mormon is going to understand after they read this that LDS Mormons aren’t a bunch of psycho killers. And they are also going to see as bunch of practicing polygamists. I don’t know about you but I don’t know any Dan Lafferty types nor do I know any practicing LDS polygamists.

pd – so do you think it is possible to get yourself in a place where you can allow yourself to follow the evidence no matter the change it requires? Is that just too much to expect ourselves or are their some people who manage it?

Fifthgen, I think the big difference between Bagley and Brooks is that Bagley believes that the circumstantial evidence virtually requires a conclusion the Brigham Young ordered the deed. And if don't conclude the same your being either dishonest or stupid. Brooks on the other hand is not willing to push that conclusion. She has plenty of blame for Young and for many others as well but she doesn’t accuse him of ordering it.

I stumbled across a really interesting discussion of the books on the blog, bycommonconsent. Levi Peterson, Juanita Brooks’ biographer, posted an entry in which he gave his take. The blog draws a bunch of responses, the most unexpected of which are comments from Will Bagley. It’s worth a look.

Reddirtgirl – you crack me up.

mormon heretic said...

Sanford, thanks for the link to the other blog--that was really interesting!

FWIW, my wife personally knows both Ron and Dan Lafferty, who served on the city council, and in a bishopric. She says they were pretty normal at one time, until they turned psycho....

She is still good friends with Dan's daughter (or Ron's--I get them mixed up.) So, I feel strangely familiar with them. I actually went to my wife's high school reunion, and one of my wife's friends asked Dan's daughter, "so do you ever talk to your dad?" They answer was a curt "no."

I also grew up in Ogden during the Hi-Fi murders, and met one of the people who was forced to swallow drano. I guess he faked swallowing it, and ended up surviving, but he has some serious emotional trauma.

Anyway, I can't claim any real insights into their mind, but it is interesting to hear my wife talk about them.... Of course, MMM has been interesting to learn about too.

pb said...

Well interesting that you should ask that question b/c I've been thinking about it a bit since I posted. Mostly thinking about what I am willing to do or not do based on what I learn or come to believe. I came to believe at one point, for instance, that it was best not to take life. Yet I continued to kill snails in my garden. So then I revised my belief to be more like "its best not to take life except for the life of animals that I think are pests. " So I guess I'm rationalizing the principle to fit what I'm wiling to do. On the other hand, if I were to become convinced based on very credible evidence that snails indeed suffer and are sentient on some level, I may be willing to do something else to contain them in my garden, like I guess start a little snail colony where they can all live out their little snail lives but not eat my plants.

I think some people are able to make huge changes in their lives to remain consistent with the evidence as they come to see it. But upon reflection, I wonder if this is necessarily a good thing. Ron & Dan Lafferty for instance appear to have descended into complete madness by taking a very unmeasured approach to the implementation of the evidence as they saw it. I guess the answer that I have for today (maybe not tomorrow) is that it's probably best to take a gradual approach to change, while continuing to remain completely open (if such a thing is possible) to exploration of the evidence and where it may lead.

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