Investigating History: Mountain Massacre (The History Channel)

Mountain Massacre is another documentary film on the Mountain Meadows massacre. For two other documentaries that deal with this subject on different levels, see my reviews of Burying the Past, and The Mormon Rebellion. Mountain Massacre differs from these two other films in being the most historically focused film on this event.

Mountain Meadows is an area in the southwest corner of Utah, and it was the scene of one of the worst terrorist attacks on United States soil (Utah was a territory of the U.S. at the time). The Mountain Meadows massacre was begun on September 7th and ironically ended on September 11th, 1857. It was an attack upon the Fancher/Baker wagon train, which originated from Arkansas, and was on its way to California. When it was all said and done, some 120 innocent men, women, and children were murdered. Only 17 small children survived the ordeal.

The pursuit of culpability for the event runs throughout this film. The LDS Church officials, during the immediate aftermath of the event, tell the newly arrived federal troops that the Indians were responsible. But with the inception of the Civil War, investigating the matter went cold for about a decade. Afterwards the LDS Church stonewalls, but finally offers Brigham Young's adopted son John D. Lee as the sacrificial lamb to pacify those demanding justice. Lee was executed for his role, and was the only one ever punished for this horrific event. He led a group of Indians as well as LDS painted and dressed up like Indians to murder those in the wagon train. The film questions Young's involvement in giving the order, but leaves it still at the level of a mystery.

Mountain Massacre deals with the question of what influence the doctrine of "blood atonement" played in this whole matter. This is basically the doctrine of killing someone in addition to Christ in order to pay for that individual's own misdeeds, and thereby saving one's soul. The film asks if it could have been based on a doctrine in the Book of Mormon, and then mentions that the founder of the LDS Church, Joseph Smith, taught this doctrine in the 1830's. But Mountain Massacre fails to mention anything from the Book of Mormon or what Smith may have said about this doctrine. For the latter, perhaps the film had The Reed Peck Manuscript in mind where Peck claims Smith spoke of a revelation that it was really the disciple Peter who "hung Judas for betraying Christ". Nonetheless, the film did cite a little of Young's February 18, 1857 sermon where he clearly teaches blood atonement as a way of loving our apostate neighbor who wants salvation (Journal of Discourses 4:219-20).

This was not an isolated sermon either. Mountain Massacre could have added more quotes from Young on this subject. For example, almost a year earlier to the Mountain Meadows massacre, he said on September 21, 1856,

[t]here are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins, whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world.

...I do know that there are sins committed, of such a nature that if the people did understand the doctrine of salvation, they would tremble because of their situation. And furthermore, I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course. I will say further; I have had men come to me and offer their lives to atone for their sins.

It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit. As it was in ancient days, so it is in our day; and though the principles are taught publicly from this stand, still the people do not understand them; yet the law is precisely the same. There are sins that can be atoned for by an offering upon an altar, as in ancient days; and there are sins that the blood of a lamb, of a calf, or of turtle doves, cannot remit, but they must be atoned for by the blood of the man. That is the reason why men talk to you as they do from this stand; they understand the doctrine and throw out a few words about it. You have been taught that doctrine, but you do not understand it (Journal of Discourses 4:53-54).

Then on March 16, 1856, Young said,

Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, an [sic] 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. (Journal of Discourses 3:247).

As a final example I will offer, Young also taught on March 8, 1863 that there was supposed to be "death on the spot" for any white guy mixing his seed with a Negro, and that this law was to always continue (Journal of Discourses 10:110). In reference to another sermon in 1852 in which Young basically said the same thing but with the addition of taking the life of the offspring, LDS Apostle, and later President, Wilford Woodruff stated that the rationale for this was that blood atonement was "the ownly [sic] way he could get rid of [the sin] or have salvation" (Wilford Woodruff's Journal, January 16, 1852).

Mountain Massacre did a great job in allowing LDS Church officials ample time to give their perspectives on this tragic event. Richard Turley, the director of the LDS historical department, said that Young's teaching on blood atonement was merely rhetorical. It was simply intended to get people to straighten up, but it was never meant to be taken seriously. Then Turley said "that rhetoric in the minds of extremists, individuals that were prone to excess, uh... became a problem."

So there's some way to put a javelin through an adulterer's heart without using excess? How in the world were these so-called "extremists" supposed to know the difference between mere rhetoric vs. the literal command of God? Perhaps then all the unique features of Mormonism should be understood in this way. Perhaps the command for polygamy was really mere rhetoric to get a husband to love his wife more. Nothing was really intended about taking other wives. Furthermore, perhaps all this business of men having to grow up to become Gods like God had to grow up to be a God (Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 347-7 [pre-2002 edition]) is just mere rhetoric to get us all to shape up and be responsible like God is, even though the literal truth is that there is only one God for all worlds.

For The History Channel's discussion board on this film, click here.

R. M. Sivulka
Salt Lake City, UT
June 13, 2005

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