The man who stood before Annie Elizabeth Hoag’s southern Utah congregation on Sep. 6, 1857, was dressed in military attire, a red sash tied around his waist. His name was John D. Lee.
Lee spoke “of an emigrant company of gentiles” and claimed they were on their way to California where they would stir up an “army” to join the thousands of U.S. troops already gathered to depose Brigham Young as governor of the Utah territory, Hoag recalled.
Local leaders had decided “it was best to put (the emigrants) out of the way before they did any harm,” Lee explained and then asked the congregation for their support. For a moment, Hoag signaled her disapproval along with two or three others in the room but then reconsidered — a decision she later regretted.
Before the week was over, the mission would result in the deaths of more than 100 innocent travelers.
Hoag’s testimony is one of dozens that Richard E. Turley and Barbara Jones Brown employ in their new book, “Vengeance Is Mine: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Its Aftermath,” to fully bring to light one of the greatest tragedies in Utah history.
In addition to unveiling new details about the massacre and subsequent attempts to cover it up, “Vengeance Is Mine” also reveals a pattern of intergroup conflict and escalating tensions that bears an uneasy resemblance to today’s polarized environment.
“I think it’s important that we learn the lessons from the past, such as what we’ve learned from our study of the Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Turley said in an interview with the Deseret News. “Extremism and polarization push people in a direction that extinguishes the Spirit. … And when that happens, then people are much more inclined to do extreme things.”
Forty years in the making
“Vengeance Is Mine,” officially out May 30, comes as a much-awaited sequel to 2008’s groundbreaking book, “Massacre at Mountain Meadows,” which Turley, a former assistant church historian for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, coauthored, and Brown, the company director of Signature Books, edited.
Whereas the first book unravels the sequence of events leading up to the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the details of the crime, Turley and Brown’s new book begins with the attack and examines efforts to cover it up, as well as the subsequent government investigations and eventual conviction of Lee.
The book also explores myriad psychological and emotional consequences to befall the participants who avoided legal punishment.
In 1859, a cedar cross was erected by U.S. Soldiers at the site of the massacre. On the cross was inscribed, “Vengeance is mine: I will repay saith the Lord,” hence the title of the book.
The book’s authors have now spent a combined total of 40 years working on the Mountain Meadows Massacre project, Brown said, making its completion the end of an era.
“To work so hard on it for all these years, and then see it finally come out and hold it in your hands is just an indescribable feeling,” Brown said in an interview with the Deseret News.
Though the Mountain Meadows Massacre had already been treated at length in several books, Turley and Brown and their colleagues were given unprecedented access to sources by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for this project, making its contribution unique and allowing the authors to move beyond established narratives.
Turley and Brown’s research relied on primary documents, many of them previously unused, including never-before-transcribed passages from legal proceedings and new transcriptions of Lee’s two trials.
“I think that our digging deeper than anyone else has ever dug before on this topic and finding the truth of what happened leading up to the massacre and what happened after the massacre, as this new book tells, has helped and will continue to help people become freed from the emotional prisons in which they found themselves,” Turley said.
In preparation for writing the book, Turley and Brown researched what prompted mass killings around the world. They noticed a distinct pattern: First, a disrupting event, like war, economic instability or rapid demographic change, produced general anxiety among a population, which in turn, exacerbated group divides.
“At the polar opposites people on both ends are more inclined to use violence against the other side than they would have been previously, which I think is a good example of what happened in 1857,” Turley said. “As people became caught up in their extremism ... they became much more inclined to do that which previously might be considered unthinkable.”
Latter-day Saints thought they were leaving conflict behind when they fled west. But by 1857, in a move dubbed “Buchanan’s blunder,” President James Buchanan determined Utah was in a state of rebellion and sent troops to replace Brigham Young with a new federally appointed governor.
This news came during the “Mormon Reformation,” an effort by Young and other church leaders to encourage renewed religious commitment. Often sermons during the period spoke of past persecution, including the martyrdom of church leaders Joseph and Hyrum Smith, as well as apostle Parley P. Pratt who had been murdered in Arkansas in May 1857.
Though these messages were fresh on the Saints’ minds as federal troops approached that year and a caravan of over 100 emigrants, mostly from Arkansas, headed south, the book provides evidence that dispels the myth that the massacre was carried out as retaliation for Pratt’s death.
A message from Brigham Young admonishing the local leaders to let the travelers pass in peace arrived too late. And horrors followed.
The problem of polarization
In many ways the conditions that surrounded the bloodshed of Sept. 11, 1857, were idiosyncratic to the time and place, but “modern readers may recognize similar tensions today,” Turley and Brown write in the book’s preface.
“In the last five or 10 years we’re seeing a lot of changes in terms of the level of partisan acrimony and animosity,” Daniel Cox, senior fellow in polling and public opinion at the American Enterprise Institute, said to the Deseret News. “Partisans on both sides are increasingly likely to view their political opponents as a threat, as opposed to just someone that they disagree with over policy.”
Cox pointed to one study that found 39% of Democrats and 41% of Republicans see the other side as “downright evil.”
The underlying factors that cause individuals to view members of other groups as enemies may be built into human psychology, said Jocelyn Bélanger, director of the Violent Extremism & Environmental Psychology Lab at New York University Abu Dhabi. “You can see groups being created and already there is this ‘us versus them’ mentality that emerges,” Bélanger told the Deseret News.
This effect is multiplied exponentially when groups clash, said Clark McCauley, professor emeritus of psychology at Bryn Mawr College and an expert on intergroup conflict. “An attack from outside produces this big increase in in-group cohesion, more power and status given to leaders, and more readiness to sanction any kind of deviant,” McCauley said.
Similar processes may have been at play leading up to and following the Mountain Meadows Massacre, according to McCauley, who read portions of “Vengeance Is Mine” before the interview.
Overcoming evil with good
McCauley says that a necessary step in overcoming polarization is addressing the fears that lie behind it out loud. Then they can be heard, and better yet, listened to.
The importance of groups listening to each other is a central lesson from the events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre, Turley and Brown both emphasized.
“Even if we think that another person’s position is unreasonable, we respond not with unreasonable emotion, but that we respond with love and as much understanding as we can muster,” Turley said.
This is the way healing has and will come to the different communities affected by the massacre — and to the country — Turley and Brown said.
In the last few decades, efforts have been made by the residents of southern Utah and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to understand the Mountain Meadows Massacre and foster reconciliation between the descendants of the victims and the descendants of the perpetrators.
A memorial was dedicated at Mountain Meadows in 1990, with relatives of the Arkansas emigrants, representatives of the Paiute Nation, residents of southern Utah and church leaders present. Another was dedicated in 1999.
And on Sept. 11, 2007, President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency of the church spoke at the memorial, marking 150 years since the massacre.
“The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse, abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women and children,” he said. “What was done here long ago by members of our church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct.”
Turley and Brown say they hope “Vengeance Is Mine,” as well as its predecessor, will help readers live up to the admonition found in the book’s epigraph.
“Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good,” the scripture, found in Romans 12:21, says.
“I think that scripture has just inspired us to not be overcome,” Brown said. “But ultimately to overcome evil with good, and we hope that’s what this book does.”
Corrections: A previous version of this article cited the number of deaths from the Mountain Meadows Massacre as 120. The book authors’ research shows that the number was closer to 100. Also, the text has been updated to remove the number of troops (2,500) sent by President Buchanan. The number of troops that actually arrived was less than 1,000.