The Moral Panic Causes Trouble in Zion

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Trouble in Zion Poster

Kenny Ballantine is in the process of producing a documentary called Trouble in Zion.  The documentary discusses the events leading up to the 1838 Mormon War in Missouri.  It highlights the Extermination Order and Haun’s Mill Massacre, as well as events leading up to these terrible events.  Kenny showed a pre-release version of the film at the Mormon History Association in Independence, Missouri in May, and he is also showing the film at Sunstone here in Salt Lake City in August.  I really enjoyed the film, and highly recommend it.  I thought Kenny was pretty even-handed, and had experts discuss reactions by both Mormons and non-Mormons which escalated the violence.

Following the presentation at the MHA Conference, Ballentine explained that he didn’t want his documentary to look like a Ken Burns documentary.  A fan of comic books, Kenny found a comic book illustrator to show scenes depicting the conflict.  It took me a while to get used to the comic book art, but it is starting to grow on me.  Kenny was kind enough to give me an advanced copy, and I would like to offer some of my impressions about the film and the conflict.  I hope he stops by to answer questions too!

I was really impressed with the lineup of experts Kenny interviewed.  The most famous people include Richard Bushman, LDS assistant historian Richard Turley, CoC Apostle Andrew Bolton, Washington State University Religion and Sociology professor Armand Mauss, and BYU Church History professor Alex Baugh, among an impressive list of guests.  He outlined a series of events leading up to the Hauns Mill Massacre and the Extermination Order.  Here are some of the key events:

  • July 20, 1833.  Bishop Partridge is told to leave Jackson County immediately.  He refuses and is tarred and feathered.  Three days later, he signs an agreement to leave the county.  Ballentine doesn’t really address the reasons why the Missourians were upset at the Mormons, though he does mention that the first Missourians wanted slavery to be legal, while the Mormons from the North were generally against slavery.  WW Phelps published an article in the Evening and Morning Star that Mormons wanted to welcome people of all color.  This is the reason the Missourians were upset, which is why they attacked Bishop Partridge, and destroyed the Mormon printing press.  (Joseph was living in Kirtland at this time.)
  • July 4, 1838.  Rigdon issued another fiery patriotic sermon (following his “Salt Sermon”) stating that the Mormons and Missourians would wage a “war of extermination…one party or the other”.  It seems the subsequent Extermination Order by Governor Boggs wasn’t quite what Rigdon had in mind.
  • Aug 6, 1838 – Mormons in Daviess County were prevented from voting.  The Whig candidate said Mormons were only supposed to live in Caldwell County and should be ineligible to vote.  He was concerned that Mormons would vote for the Democratic Candidate, because Mormons were overwhelming Democrats back then.  A big brawl broke out that has often been called a “battle”.  There were exaggerated rumors that Mormons were killed.
  • Aug 19, 1838 – Mormons were expelled from DeWitt, in Daviess County.  Following the election, Missourians decided to expel Mormons.
  • Oct 18, 1838 – The Mormons decide to retaliate.  Known as the Daviess Expedition, a group of Danites (a secret Mormon militia group) led an effort to expel Missourians from Gallatin, Millport and Grindstone Fork.   Mormons plundered the property and burned the stores and houses to the ground.
  • Oct 24, 1838 – The Battle of Crooked River.  Mormons attack and scatter the Missouri Militia.  Many of the Missouri Militia erroneously believe all others are killed.  Only 1 Missourian was killed, but LDS Apostle David Patten (known as “Captain FearNot”), Danite leader Gideon Carter were both killed; 9 other Mormons were wounded.
  • Oct 27, 1838 – Governor Lilburn Boggs issues the Extermination Order; “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace…”
  • October 30, 1838 – The Hauns Mill Massacre; 18 Mormons are killed, ranging in age from 10-year old Sardius Smith, to 62 year old Thomas McBride.  I would like to quote directly from the film.

“On October 30, 1838, a large group of armed Missourians marched on the small and peaceful Mormon settlement known as Haun’s Mill, primarily in retribution for the Mormon gutting of Daviess County.

Amanda [Barnes Smith]’s two little boys, Sardius and Alma had followed their father into the blacksmith shop.  The men had hoped to use the shop like a fortress in the event of an attack.  Instead, it quickly proved to be a death trap.  Seeing no other alternative, the men made a desperate dash for the woods, nearly all of them being gunned down in the process.  Many of the attackers looted, humiliated, and brutalized the wounded and dying.  The oldest victim was 62 year old Thomas McBride who after surrendering his weapon was hacked to death with a corn knife.  And the youngest was 10 year old Sardius Smith.  An enraged Missourian leveled his gun against the small boy’s head, and after proclaiming that ‘nits become lice” pulled the trigger.

Amanda found her husband and 10 year old son Sardius dead, and her 6 year old son’s hip was “all shot to pieces.”Apostle Andrew Bolton of the Community of Christ said,

“Hauns Mill was a tragedy:  17 boys and men are killed and another one dies later from his wounds.  Hauns Mill was a peaceful settlement of Mormons: 15 miles from the main group in Far West, but therefore isolated and vulnerable in the sectarian war that was erupting around them.  Two days before the massacre they reiterated their commitment to live in peace with their neighbors.  This was a genuine, authentic group that didn’t want any part of the violence and suffered horrible tragedy.  The lesson from Haun’s Mill is the innocent get hurt whenever there is human violence.  It spills over, and there is tragedy.

So how does such a tragedy happen?  Why do neighbors turn so quickly on each other?  In my previous post, I discussed the Rwandan Genocide.  Armand Mauss describes the “Moral Panic” in Ballentine’s film.  He is professor emeritus of Sociology and Religious Studies at Washington State University.  He retired in 1999, but continues to be active on Mormon studies.  He is probably most famous for his book The Angel and the Beehive.  The Moral Panic explains how groups turn so quickly violent.

When a society is gripped by a moral panic, that society is apt to respond as though their facing matters of life and death.  That leads to violence that is considered justifiable in almost any extreme, because of what we see is at stake.  It makes it possible for people who yesterday felt very friendly toward another people, suddenly see those people not only as enemies, but as less than human.”

All of the restraints that people normally feel about the way human beings should treat human beings, those restraints gradually melt away, and people who are perfectly nice, decent people, find themselves doing things that they would have never thought that they could do….Under other circumstances a group of Mormons and a group of Missourians might have gone to dinner together and had a good time, but under these circumstances, they faced the Moral Panic.”

It is truly astonishing how quickly neighbor can turn against neighbor.  It is truly a tragedy when cooler heads do not prevail.

As I said before, I really enjoyed Ballentine’s film.  There is much more to the film than I have presented here.  If you get a chance to see this film at Sunstone, I encourage you to see it.  I know Ballentine is still trying to obtain financing to finish the film.  While it is not yet complete, I think it is an excellent film at this point.  If you would like a preview, click here to watch some clips from the official website.  I’ve invited Kenny to stop by, and I am sure he would welcome questions and comments.

Comments 25

  1. I love the term “moral panic” and it certainly can be applied to both groups here. When people begin to act as if the intangible (ideals, fears, beliefs) are more real than the tangible (people, real-life things related to human survival) then quickly, the tangibles are sacrificed to the intangibles. This to me is the basis of fanaticism. When you see jihadists whose lives are difficult, who throw away the little they have to lose for an ideal, that’s the same thing. Or when a spouse throws in the towel on a marriage over difference in belief, that’s moral panic.

  2. I don’t think that sacrificing tangibles for intangibles is necessarily moral panic. I think moral panic happens when we don’t stop and self-analyze our motives and feelings before acting. History is full of examples of those who sacrificed tangibly for intangibles, and are lauded for it. The question is whether or not it is a conscious sacrifice or a reactive one.

  3. This is a bit of a digression but the last time I taught primary the lesson on Haun’s Mill had to do with obediance. JS had asked the residents to leave and join the other saints for safety but they didn’t and the result was the massacre.

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    gbsmith, I think your point is excellent. I asked kenny about why that was not included in the film, and he said that the experts he interviewed didn’t bring it up, and he didn’t want to unduly influence them. I agree with you, however, and I think it would have been nice for them to address.

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  6. I hesitate to post, as it might seem too self-promotional. You can delete or ignore this comment if you like…

    I found this discussion of Haun’s Mill fascinating. A while ago, I wrote a song, called “Martyrs”. It cites the book of Mormon story of Alma and Amulek, Haun’s Mill, and Carthage. I did some research as I was writing the song, and became quite interested in the event, and the points leading up to it. It’s not always as clear-cut as “good guys” vs “bad guys”.

    The song can be accessed as a free download (with lyrics) at this address:

    I’d welcome any comments, pro or con.

    Thanks for your indulgence.


  7. “When you see jihadists whose lives are difficult, who throw away the little they have to lose for an ideal, that’s the same thing.”

    The odd thing is, many or most “jihadists” are not the wretched of the earth the conventional wisdom imagines them to be. (And of course if “difficult lives” were what made terrorists, sub-Saharan Africa would be the focus of the problem, not the relatively well-fed Arabs.) Certainly the leadership tend to be well-off. (Medical doctors are extraordinarily overrepresented among them.) You saw the same thing in the French Revolution — it wasn’t the truly destitute who made the Terror, it was the second-tier self-imagined intellectuals, embittered with frustration that their obvious gifts weren’t being properly rewarded, who were the true fanatics.

    “Moral panic” is more likely to come from cultural frustration, than personal economic desperation (which seems to be Hawkgrrl’s larger point.) While an Arab medical doctor may personally be doing fine, his own prosperity is not all that goes into his identity. He has a cultural identity, too — and he sees his culture, which his religion conditions him to believe is based on God’s own revealed prescription for ordering a good society, as stagnating in contrast to the wicked secular world society. He has two choices: (1) Adjust his religious thinking, or (2) conclude that his righteous society is only being kept out of its rightful place by the efforts of satanic enemies. Thence the whiff of cordite that’s often found among proud but backward peoples. Nietzschean ressentiment writ large.

  8. I’ve been thinking about this, and wondered if perhaps the “Moral Panic” is only one aspect among many for why a group of people quickly turn violent over moral issues. It’s probably the tipping point, sure, but it would theoretically be easier to treat the symptoms that lead up to that tipping point, rather than try to stop the panic itself. The Salem Witch hunts, for example, utilized those caught in moral panic to quickly spread something for which the groundwork had already been laid.

    Most of the time, it seems to me that this phenomenon occurs because, first, a group of people feel threatened. They then band together for safety and create a sort of feedback loop, a crucible wherein their feelings become concentrated and stoked because they are being validated by others who feel the same way. It is during this crucible phase that groundwork is laid. Then, the feelings ignite into panic because they have made an emotional whirlwind out of several smaller dust devils. They believe that the perceived threat is large enough that they must not only prepare to defend, but to take initiative on the attack, striking before they are struck.

    I think the best link to break in this chain of events would be at the beginning, in the banding-together phase. If a rational element can be inserted successfully at that point, a sort of breakwater, if you will (let’s count how many analogies I incorporate into this post, shall we?), the tensions can be diffused before they careen out of control. That rational element could be anything from a meeting of opposite sides to a wise leader inserting calming guidance at the right time.

    But either way, the moral panic is not the cause. It is the closed-loop feedback that is the cause.

    Anyways, just a few thoughts.

  9. “They then band together for safety and create a sort of feedback loop, a crucible wherein their feelings become concentrated and stoked because they are being validated by others who feel the same way.”

    Yes. Ironically, this happens most in a group that values authority. Because then everybody’s incentive is to show how dedicated to authority they are, by taking ever more extreme positions. There is no real brake on this process.

    On the other hand, in a group which values independence, there is an inherent brake on a runaway I’m-more-independent-minded-than-you cycle: the potential that the members get so independent, that the group just splinters and disappears.

  10. “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace…”

    I’ve read this before but was struck in the order of Bogg’s options: exterminate FIRST and the alternative being driven from State if necessary. Not a logical progression–if the first option worked, then you wouldn’t need the second as he laid them out. Did he place the option of being “exterminated” before the option of being driven from the state in direct response to Sidney Rigdon’s challenge? Was he, in this following imagined extrapolation, implying:

    “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated (if according to Mr. Rigdon–one party or the other must be exterminated) OR driven from the State (which, unlike Mr. Rigdon’s demand is much more palatable) if necessary for the public peace.

  11. #12 — I’ve always kind of looked at both Rigdon’s and Bogg’s “extermination” references as reflecting more of the typical nineteenth-century Jacksonian American drama queenery than any serious intent for genocide. They were a windy bunch back then.

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    rigel, I don’t think boggs wrote ‘exterminated or driven’ as a progression. I think if the order was reversed, he would have been just fine with that order as well, so I don’t think he wrote that with a progression in mind. once the mormons were gone, he didn’t go after them in a genocidal manner, though he did still try to have joseph smith arrested in nauvoo and returned to missouri for ‘justice.’

    I think rigdon’s extermination remark was more bluster than intent. he was really trying to stand up for mormons and indicated we were fighting back now.

  13. Great discussion – I really agree with SilverRain’s analogy on analogy comment. Salem Witch Trials are also an example of something called a social epidemic (a term that also describes the emotional aspects of the current peanut allergy phenomenon). Social epidemics are strongest in insular environments (as SilverRain points out) because the ideas are reinforced by shared perspective and not challenged by broader perspectives.

  14. Mormon Heretic: Thanks again for posting this.

    The film will be showing at Sunstone on Saturday the 7th during the first two sessions of the morning. I would welcome any questions or comments there or here. Cool discussion.

  15. Massacre at Mountain Meadows (Walker, Turley, and Leonard), an excellent, and even-handed account, of that atrocity has the same discussion–I don’t recall if the term was ‘moral panic’ but the concept is the similar.

  16. Re #15

    Did you see the movie, “The Crucible” with Daniel Day Lewis, Joan Allen, and Winona Ryder? A good dramatization of a process where circumstances prevent the rational solution from becoming the solution. Great performances.

    Re #13 and 14

    So do you think “extermination” was a common term of threat in that time period? Has anyone ever done any word searches in period documents to see how the term was batted around? It is certainly possible that it was nineteenth century drama exemplified, I had not ever thought of that before. And maybe Boggs meant nothing by the order of the options. I was just now looking at the photo image of the order on wikipedia. I wonder if it was penned personally by Governor Boggs or by an assistant. The handwriting looks very neat. The Bogg’s signature seems to match the rest of the handwriting.

  17. I did some research on the term “extermination” while working on the film. The word was also used to mean removing someone from within your borders. This is a legal definition and only someone with a formal law education would use it this way. It is possible that this is what Boggs meant. It is impossible to know for sure. However, I think we can reasonably assume that when Sidney Rigdon used the term he meant extermination as in wiping out, killing, or destroying. After all, he follows the phrase by saying “we will carry the seat of war to their own houses and their own families, and we follow them until the last drop of their blood is spilled and one party or the other shall be destroyed”.

  18. Rigel, I’m not a historian. (Where is John Hamer???) So I can’t really answer your questions authoritatively. I do know that Rigdon was well known for his fiery sermons, and was known as “spokesman” for the church. His eloquence is well-noted, so it wouldn’t surprise me that he was using a bit of hyperbole in using his “extermination” remark. I don’t know how common the word “extermination” was used in the context of Sidney and Boggs terminology.

  19. I always feel like Oliver Cowdery was the good faithful but boring counselor and Sidney Rigdon was the flashy trophy counselor, which put Oliver in the role of the jilted housewife. But like all trophy wives, once Rigdon opens his mouth and gets going, you start to see the problems.

  20. “Yes. Ironically, this happens most in a group that values authority.”

    I don’t know if that is necessarily true, or if it is that when authority is the binding factor, it is easier to label. I don’t think that people who value “independence” are often truly as independent as they would like to think. There is always some binding ideal of some kind or other, or there would not be a group to begin with. Even if each member has differing interpretations of that ideal, eventually one interpretation becomes the defining one by democracy or committee. Take any social movement that eschews authority in favor of independence: goths, punks, etc. Sometimes such groups are the most vicious to those who they perceive as deviating from their ideals or brand image.

  21. “Take any social movement that eschews authority in favor of independence: goths, punks, etc. Sometimes such groups are the most vicious to those who they perceive as deviating from their ideals or brand image.”

    Heh. True. “A herd of independent minds.”

    Although you could then ask whether that group truly values independence, or just the appearance of it.

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