This essay has almost nothing to do with the September 11th attacks. If anything, the attacks that many of us saw only served as a catalyst. I am thinking of 9/11/1857. And the hero? Not a fireman, but rather a lumbering, stuttering, 200-lb councilman from Ft. Johnson, Utah.
I recently re-read a chapter from the recent book, Massacre at Mountain Meadows written by three faithful LDS historians who had access to practically every document there is to be had on the subject of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. For those unfamiliar with the topic, there were a number of Latter-day Saints in pioneer Utah who attacked an emigrant train as they passed through a little region called Mountain Meadows not far from Cedar City, Utah. They killed everyone in the group over the age of 7–men, women, children. The reasons for the massacre are, as always, complex: between the thousands of federal troops marching towards Utah under the belief that Utah was rebelling and the delusions of a few religious zealots, the situation was ripe for just such a war crime.
I read about the days leading leading up to the massacre when some of the plotters planned a general meeting of the Saints in the area to drum up support for attacking the emigrants. These emigrants were here to kill the Mormons! They had poisoned the water, engaged in profanity, and were tools of the Americans. And plus, they had the gun that killed Joseph Smith! (they didn’t). They claimed to have the support of the leadership, both military and ecclesiastical (local militias stood ready should invasion come). The plotters called for all to show support for the plan. These were eminent men–stake president, bishop, etc.–making these accusations. Little to the congregation’s knowledge, the leadership had already sent men to the region to stir up the local Indian population (the Paiutes) against the emigrants, in hopes that the Indians could serve as a proxy for the Mormon settlers.
“All in favor make it manifest…” And as many of us do, they raised their hands without much of a second thought…until a man from an outlying settlement named John walked in.
You might as well call him Big John. A muscular man of 200 lbs with a speech impediment (he had a way of repeating his phrases in an annoying, staccotto fashion) and a high councilman, John saw the ruckus and asked what was wrong. The leadership retold him the tale of supposed atrocities committed by the hands of these emigrants. John urged moderation and compassion–should we not treat our enemies kindly? He dared to question the politics of Utah foreign policy based on nothing more than Christian love. John persuaded the leadership to contact Brigham Young before they make any further decisions. Other members recognized John’s courage and immediately began to question the wisdom of attacking the train. The leadership promptly sent a messenger to contact Brigham about the proper course of action–what good stake president would refuse to contact the Prophet?– however, by that point, it was too late. The party sent out before the meeting started hostilities with the emigrants the next day.
We face different challenges now. Every Mormon in America I know would proudly sing “I’m Proud to Be An American” or “God Bless America.” In the 1850s, the Mormons would be the last one would have come to blows if you dared to associate them with America. Rather, they gave sermons that were uncomfortably close to Reverend Wright’s “God Curse America” speeches (though I think both modern conservatives and liberals can agree that slavery and religious persecution was quite deserving God’s cursing). But we can take one lesson on this Sept. 11th from this dark episode in Mormon history: when our government leaders make any claims about an impending threat, we shouldn’t feel as we do in church meetings: that we default to raising our hands in support. Of course, my Republican friends will wholeheartedly agree about the necessity of questioning government leaders; but not too many years ago, the Democrats were urging that we similarly question Bush’s foreign policy. And since this incident bares a somewhat closer resemblance to questions of foreign policy, I’m going with that comparison.
Hopefully all of us, because we love our people and our country as much as John Morrill, can dare to question kindly (kindly being an operative word) our political leaders’ intents in matters of both foreign and domestic affairs. And you can even question it with a stutter.