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The Church’s Recent Handling of Mountain Meadows: A Step in a New Direction?

September 14, 2007

By Steve M.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre has pretty much been thrust into Mormon consciousness this year. Between Helen Whitney’s PBS documentary, The Mormons, a large portion of which was devoted to the topic, and the film September Dawn (however bad it was), Latter-day Saints have essentially been compelled to grapple with the tragedy—in the public sphere, within their own faith communities, and individually.

When “outsiders” confront us with a perplexing and potentially damning episode of our history (especially when it’s done in a contentious, judgmental manner, as with September Dawn), there’s a temptation to react defensively, to fall back on unsympathetic rationalizations or inaccurate explanations, and to play the “persecution” card.

And we’re pretty good at doing that. Whenever someone so much as asks us about polygamy, we exasperatedly point out that we stopped the practice in 1890 (even though we didn’t), that only 3% of the Church practiced it (which isn’t exactly true, either), that it was primarily instituted to ensure that widows and other single women were cared for (why would you have to marry a widow in order to care for her?), and that it’s not a doctrine of the Church (despite D&C 132’s presence in our triple combinations and the continued practice of “temple polygamy”). And then we lament in testimony meeting and elders quorum about how we’re still persecuted, just like the pioneers were, but reassure ourselves that this is just one more sign that we’re the One True Church.

While Mountain Meadows’ recent stint in the public eye has undoubtedly drawn such reactions from some, I have been heartened by the Church’s handling of the situation. Rather than drawing the line in the sand and refusing to dialogue in a productive manner, the Church has shown an encouraging—and, admittedly, a surprising—amount of openness and even-handedness. Some of this is the product of the Church’s PR machines, no doubt, but inasmuch as our PR efforts contribute to institutional honesty and integrity, I can’t complain.

Prior to a few months ago, information on Mountain Meadows in official LDS literature was scant. A search of the lds.org gospel library reveals fewer than 10 references over the last few decades, most of which were in passing and revealed no substantive information regarding the tragedy. Given this long-standing silence on the issue, the publication of the Richard Turley article in the September Ensign is no less than revolutionary, in my opinion. The Church wisely chose to address the issue head-on, and the result was a remarkably comprehensive and even-handed article (for the Ensign, of course). The decision to advertise it and make it available online in advance appears to indicate that the Church actually wants this information to be disseminated.

Perhaps even more significantly, the Church sent Elder Eyring to participate in a memorial service that marked the 150th anniversary of the massacre, at which he expressed “profound regret for the massacre” on behalf of the Church and acknowledged the local church leaders’ orchestration of and responsibility for the attack. He said, “What was done here long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.” While not technically an apology, these sentiments express a sense of ownership for the massacre that was absent in the past. Most notably, they are untainted by defensiveness, and evince what seems to be a genuine desire to make things right.

Could this be the first indication of a new direction for the Church? Can we anticipate that doctrinal and historical controversy will be treated in a similarly straightforward manner in the future? Well, it certainly gives us reason to hope, and I can’t think of a better time to initiate this change of direction. In the Internet age, information (and therefore knowledge) is inexpensive and widely accessible. Sweeping the blemishes in our past under the rug and hoping that they’ll eventually die of neglect is simply not a workable strategy these days.

I personally believe that the Church’s recent handling of Mountain Meadows does signal a change in direction. Recently, the Family and Church History Department of the Church (of which Turley is the managing director) conducted a survey of members’ attitudes regarding the treatment of LDS history. The results indicate that members want “frank and honest” depictions of its history, and that they “want to be leveled with.” If this survey (or sales of Rough Stone Rolling) is any indication, many Mormons are legitimately interested in their own history, and they want the whole story. The fact that this survey was conducted by the Church indicates that it is trying to address the situation.

If you haven’t been to the lds.org Newsroom lately, I would suggest taking a look around. Webpages dedicated to topics such as “Polygamy,” “Early Church History,” and “Brigham Young” now acknowledge that plural marriage “was an important part of the teachings of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for half a century in the 1800s,” that Joseph Smith taught the principle of polygamy (although it doesn’t mention his personal practice of it), and that Brigham Young “married at least 20 women, 16 of whom bore him 57 children.” Does it still have a strong PR feel to it? Of course. But it’s better than silence, and much better than previous efforts to present a controversy-free version of history.

A recurring theme in the Church’s recent actions, statements, and publications regarding the Mountain Meadows Massacre is reconciliation. Many criticisms have been (and will yet be) leveled at the Church for its treatment and depiction of its past, particularly concerning this dark episode, and perhaps justifiably so. But in the spirit of reconciliation, I think it’s important to be willing to forgive those who, motivated by a desire to protect the Church and the faith of its members, have acted or spoken in a less-than-straightforward, defensive, or dismissive manner. It’s also important to give credit where it’s due. While I will not withhold constructive criticism when I feel it is justified, I will applaud the Church’s efforts at dialogue, reconciliation, and openness. And I think the Church has done a pretty good job in this department lately.

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6 comments

  1. No offense, but It irritates me that evey time the church does something good, we ask “is this a new direction?”

    In my opinion, as a member of 9 years, the church has been going in this same direction every moment I’ve been a member of it (yes I know it’s jsut 9 years, but still)

    Now I’ll go back and acutally read your post. (I’m sucha jerk)


  2. AP reporter Paul Foy states “Church leaders were adamant that the statement should not be construed as an apology. “We don’t use the word ‘apology.’ We used ‘profound regret,'” church spokesman Mark Tuttle told the Associated Press.”

    Until I read that statement, I agreed with you completely. But now it just seems like a backhanded sop. Mr. Tuttle stated in a private e-mail (cited over at Mormon Wasp) that he was just trying to clarify Elder Eyring’s statement. The effect, IMO, was to dismantle it.

    While I agree that the church has opened up a lot, I don’t give them a lot of credit for doing so. The Truth Is Out There, and if they don’t tell it, others will. They’re way behind the curve on putting out accurate history.


  3. Matt W,

    Are we members of the same church? While the Church’s recent progress in the area of the depiction of its history may not be monumental, I do think it is at least a subtle change of course. These days, I sense more of a desire to address popular concerns rather than ignore them or brush them off as unfounded or anti-Mormon criticisms.

    Ann,

    I hadn’t read Tuttle’s remarks. However, I think his “clarification” overstepped his bounds as church spokesman, and I don’t think we should interpret it as being representative of “official” Church sentiment. That having been said, I do think that Eyring intentionally did not use words like “apology” or “sorry.” While his expression of “profound remorse” may have been late-coming (150 years late, if you’re counting), and it didn’t go as far as I think they should have (why can’t we just say sorry?), I’m glad to see some progress.

    Traditionally, religious organizations haven’t been very good at objectiveness or straightforwardness, particularly with regard to science, history, and other disciplines that may conflict with and have the potential to undermine their truth claims and authority. Affronts to truth claims and calls for reform are often met with a conservative, fundamentalist backlash. The LDS Church isn’t unique in this respect. But if it wants to maintain its credibility and appeal to people in the mainstream of society, it will have to adapt itself and its message, and it will have to address their concerns. I see it trying to do this, and I think it’s a good sign.


  4. Steve–I very much agree that we should see recent developments in the Church’s stance toward its past as a positive. Although Tuttle’s unfortunate remarks do serve to negate in the minds of some this positive progress, I think that it’s just as much Foy’s fault as Tuttle’s.


  5. Well, I surely regret things that others have done, even if I wasn’t responsible for them. In such a case, is it really appropriate to call my statements apologies?


  6. Even if Elder Eyring’s statement was not technically an apology to begin with, Tuttle’s remarks detract from what was said, if you ask me.

    Should we expect an apology? I think it can be argued either way. Nobody in the modern Church had anything to do with the massacre, but then, it’s not like Eyring was expressing “profound regret” for the actions of some entirely disconnected third party, like Nazi Germany in the Holocaust–he was speaking as a representative of the people and the institution of which the MMM perpetrators were members. I got the impression that the Church was accepting at least some ownership of he massacre, which I feel is appropriate. As successors to the perpetrators and inheritors of their religion, would it be inappropriate to apologize on their behalf and try to make amends for what they did? I don’t think so.



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