They have just finished the spiritual thought in ward council. The man looks down at the agenda, then up at the group in front of him. He’s about to ask Rachel, the Relief Society president, to discuss her organization when Katie, the Primary president, says, “Have you all watched the PBS documentaries on the Church?”
Dan, the man’s first counselor, says, “Yeah, actually. In fact, there’s kind of a lot I learned that I didn’t know before.”
Paul, the second counselor, says, “I’ve had several friends at work ask me about it.”
“Me, too,” says Christine, the young women’s president.
The man sets the agenda aside. “So what’s the reaction been like?” he says.
“I think PBS has done a nice job overall,” says Katie. “Most of my friends have been respectful.”
Keith, the man’s secretary and Katie’s husband, says, “Obviously, I need to watch this. But it’s been on mostly on weekends, right? I’ve been doing weddings.” Keith is a wedding photographer, and most weekends in the summer and fall he shoots all weekend.
“I DVR’d it,” says Katie.
“Do you feel like you all are able to respond to it when people ask?” the man asks. “It hits big issues. Blacks in the priesthood, plural marriage.”
Dan has dark brown hair and an immaculately trimmed mustache. He is an expert in carpentry, electrical, and plumbing. He supervises the facilities of an assisted living complex, but dresses for church like a top executive with patterned socks and wingtip loafers. He had left the Church as a teenager but returned to it about ten years before now.
“I knew that stuff pretty well and have talked with people over the years about it. I did not know anything about Mountain Meadows,” he says.
“See, that’s one of the things that bothered me,” says Katie. “The first episode was pretty balanced and hit a lot of topics. The second . . . I mean, I think they spent an hour on Mountain Meadows.”
Keith looks up from the pad where he is taking notes. “Wait, what’s Mountain Meadows?”
“A massacre,” says Christine.
“Of Mormons? Like Haun’s Mill?” says Keith.
“No, more like vice versa,” says the bald elders quorum president, Michael.
“We massacred someone?” says Keith.
Dan has his legs crossed and stares down at his hands. “That’s a very troubling bit of our history, and I don’t know how I never heard of it.”
“So what happened?” says Keith.
Katie grew up in the church but stopped attending during her teenage years. She met Keith during their college years, and they married. When their first kid came along, they wanted to agree on a church to bring them up in, and Katie insisted it would be her church. Keith had been baptized a few years later. He is balding, a couple of years older than the man, though their kids go to the same school and often hang out together.
“There was a group of non-LDS pioneers headed west–California or Oregon,” says the man. “It was around the time of high tensions between the government and the Church. The Utah War, they called it. Everyone was suspicious of outsiders. Brigham Young was giving speeches about the Lord smiting all their enemies. And these people appeared in southern Utah and asked if they could pass through Mormon lands and also buy provisions. Rumors ran wild about what they were really up to.”
“And we just killed them?” says Keith.
“More or less,” says the man.
“You can’t more or less kill anyone,” says Katie. “They were all pretty dead.”
They all laugh.
“But why? And who did it?” says Keith.
The man looks at him. “That’s the complicated part. The shooters were the local Mormon militia–definitely Church members. The Church insists it was the actions of the local Church leaders and people acting on their own authority. Some people believe there’s evidence that Brigham Young ordered it. Others say he knew about it and didn’t stop it. Others say he knew about it and told the people in southern Utah to let the company pass. There’s even a letter from Brigham Young saying to do that. But some scholars say it was manufactured well after the fact. Others say it’s a legitimate artifact.”
Keith looks at the man, questioning in his face. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know,” says the man. “The short story is that Mormon militia men laid siege to the group. After five days, they convinced the group to give up their weapons. Then, they went through and slaughtered everyone–men, women, and children. They spared the very youngest children and adopted them. But they slaughtered more than one hundred people in cold blood.”
“And Brigham Young might have ordered that?”
“Like I said, I don’t know. The history on that is weak and can probably never be determined. I would say that it would not be out of character exactly. Brother Brigham was a firebrand, and there was a huge level of paranoia at the time. He may not have given the order, but he would have contributed to the climate that permitted it to happen.”
Everyone is quiet. Dan finally says, “Yeah, that’s complicated. That’s tough.”
“Prophets are people,” says the man. “They make human judgments. It’s hard to judge from afar. But it’s a real dark mark on our history. President Hinckley even dedicated a monument there and apologized.”
They are all quiet again, a heavy somber feeling prevailing. “So what do you all think? How do you talk about that with people?” says the man. “Does it affect your ability to share the Gospel?”
Paul leans forward. He’s in his fifties, manages supplies at the Home Depot, grew up in Hanson, MA. “I think how you just explained it is really good. There’s no really good answer. You just have to be honest.”
Keith clears his throat. “I just wanna check something.”
“Sure,” says the man.
“I mean, we won, right?”
Everyone turns. “What?” says the man.
“We won, right? We killed everyone, so we won, right?”
Rachel breaks up laughing first. “Only you, Keith.”
Soon, they all follow. Keith shrugs. “I look at that as a great missionary tool.”
“Yeah?” says Dan.
“Yeah,” says Keith. “The missionaries are at your door, you tell them you don’t wanna listen to the Gospel, and they say, ‘Oh yeah? Remember the Massacre!’ I mean, you’re letting them in, right?”
Rachel tips her head onto the table, her blonde hair spilling everywhere. “Keith! You cannot say stuff like that!”
“That’s what I’d do if I were a missionary,” says Keith.
“Probably worked out for the best that you were baptized after mission age,” says Michael.
Katie looks down with her right thumb and middle finger on either side of her nose near her eyes. “Oh, Keith,” she says. “I can’t take you anywhere.”
The young man shakes his head. “Well, we’ve gotten a lot done in this ward council. Christine, can you say a closing prayer?”
“Sure,” she says.