A new book about the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre lays the blame on local Latter-day Saint leaders in Cedar City who, the authors say, had no justification for murder and over-reacted to a complex environment of fear and inflamed political and religious tension.
The much-anticipated "Tragedy at Mountain Meadows," by LDS Church historians Ronald Walker, Richard Turley and Glen Leonard, has gone to Oxford University Press but is still in manuscript form.
The authors had each been researching the massacre independently over a combined total of several decades before they came together several years ago to write it, Turley said, adding they are hopeful it will be published before year's end. At present, the manuscript totals some 400 pages.
An overflow audience at the annual meeting of the Mormon History Association on Friday heard a panel of scholars discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the book, which will include a list of both the known participants in the massacre as well as the victims.
The scholars lauded the "unparalleled research and documentation" that went into the book, while asking several questions. They include:
"Why there was no discussion of the LDS Church's attempts to cover up church involvement in the massacre for two decades after it happened?"
Turley said the authors came to the conclusion that there are really two stories: the one they've written about why the massacre occurred and who was involved, and another — yet to be written — about the aftermath.
He said the authors were "surprised by what we were able to find in our own institution and others about that" second part of the story. No mention was made of when that book will be written.
"As a fundamental part of the LDS world view at the time, why was polygamy left out of the story?"
Leonard said that by his count, the manuscript has already gone through 12 different revisions, each of them cutting parts of the text that "we may need to put back in." That could include how the government's anti-polygamy stance helped trigger the long-delayed prosecution of the massacre's perpetrators.
He also addressed a question many have asked the authors over the years. Because they accept Brigham Young as a prophet, could they accept information that indicted him as the instigator if they found it?
"We kept our minds open to all the eventualities," he said, adding they initially overlooked the significant role that Isaac C. Haight played in ordering an LDS militia to carry out the massacre. Ultimately, "we put him in the responsible chair many have said Brigham Young occupied."
Earlier in the day, Walker derided recent books that have blamed Young in various degrees for the massacre, written by people he called "revisionist historians."
He pointed to Mountain Meadows books by local author Will Bagley and journalist Sally Denton, saying they and others who have written about early LDS history, including David Bigler and D. Michael Quinn, "write with unmistakable flair," but "seem to have an attitude."
"A strain of skepticism runs through their work, especially about pious Mormon claims. In approaching early Mormon Utah, they tend to focus on a few themes."
Bigler suggests the key to understanding Utah history is plural marriage, Walker said, while Bagley "believes the Mountain Meadows Massacre suggested the real nature of early Mormonism." He quoted Bagley's writing that such behavior was less an aberration than "a fulfillment of (church founder Joseph) Smith's radical doctrines."
"Though each of the authors has his own concerns, generally their portraits are the same," he said.