On May 1st, two Associated Press articles related to the Mountain Meadows Massacre showed up in my inbox. Journalist Jennifer Dobner wrote both articles, each discussing different aspects of the 1857 Mormon execution of pioneer emigrants in southern Utah. One AP article (“Controversial Lee statue may finally have a home”) relates the mini-saga of trying to find an appropriate resting place for a bronze statue of John D. Lee, the only man ever convicted (and later executed) for the slaughter of the members of the Fancher wagon train at Mountain Meadows.
In 2004 artist Jerry Anderson was commissioned to cast the John D. Lee statue which was planned to be installed outside the government offices in Washington City, Utah. Before the installation could take place, enough people complained about the inappropriateness of paying tribute to “a killer” that city officials changed their minds. Since then the statue has either been in storage at the artist’s gallery or standing outside a souvenir shop. Soon, however, it may be moved to a permanent place at Fort Harmony, a fort that Lee helped build in 1854.
The AP article says of the Lee statue,
“He’s just standing there with a book in one hand. He’s holding his vest on the left side,” said Anderson, 72. “I wanted to capture his face first of all and show the man, not really defiant, but standing up for what he believes in and the church he loved.”
Karen Platt, a co-founder of the New Harmony Historical Society, which is involved in the Fort Harmony restoration, said,
“There may be a problem, but we just want to talk about the history of the valley, and we don’t want to bring (the massacre) in. It’s not [John D. Lee’s] total story and a lot of his work gets ignored because of Mountain Meadows. He did a lot of good. He was a good family man.”
Furthermore, according to The Associated Press,
[Artist Jerry] Anderson hopes the placement of the statue will comfort Lee descendants, many of whom have come to his gallery for a glimpse and a photograph of their ancestor.”They’ve lived in degradation so long, maybe this will help them out,” Anderson said. “I think Mormons overall really didn’t like what John D. Lee did.”
“The reason I made the movie about this specific incident was not to blame anybody,” Cain told The Associated Press. “At the core of the whole thing is religious fanaticism. I thought by making this movie we could take a look at how that evolved and how that can happen.”
Some people who previewed the movie and were interviewed for the article supported the film’s portrayal. Tom Kimball, a spokesman for the Mormon History Association, said,
“The new part that this film brings out is that the Fanchers were probably pretty decent people just trying to get to California. That’s the first time that’s ever been presented to me as a Latter-day Saint.”Past portrayals of the massacre suggested the Fancher party “brought it on themselves,” Kimball said.
“Here’s a story that has not been accurately portrayed and has been sequestered by my people, and it’s very important that this story is finally told,” he said.
Yet one man seemed to disagree. He said,
“I think [the movie] went a little too far in making the Mormons bad, bad, bad and the emigrants good, good, good,” said Leroy Lee, a Mormon and the great-great-grandson of John D. Lee.
A businessman offered this opinion:
With its “R” rating, many Mormons may not even see the film, bookseller Curt Bench said. Those who do may walk out, irritated by what Bench and others said was a stereotypical, one-dimensional portrait of blindly obedient church members that bordered on cartoonish at times.
A non-Mormon in Salt Lake City commented,
“It’s a story I’ve lived with my entire life, being a so-called gentile in Salt Lake City,” bookseller Ken Sanders said. “It’s my belief personally that any faithful, believing Mormon will never accept that Brigham Young had anything to do with the Mountain Meadows massacre. I simultaneously feel that there’s no non-Mormon or gentile that will ever believe otherwise.”
This is an interesting observation. I see in these AP articles that sometimes people hold unsupportable positions while choosing to remain closed to facts that challenge those positions. Or at least they justify and minimize the issues.
In southern Utah we have people who want to honor John D. Lee — in spite of his participation in the unconscionable murders of 120 men, women and children — because apart from leading the execution, “he was a good family man.” It’s okay to honor him — the Historical Society just won’t talk about the massacre. It’s good to honor him, because it will help Lee’s descendents rise above the stigma associated with their ancestor’s crimes.
Then, in September Dawn, we have the story of Mountain Meadows, 150 years later, being told accurately for the first time. Finally the emigrants are being portrayed as “pretty decent people” who actually didn’t “bring it on themselves.”
But at least one Lee descendent doesn’t like that. He thinks the movie makes the emigrants look too good, and the Mormon murderers look too bad. He wants to cling to that unsupportable position, the fabricated cover-up that has been repeated for so long among Latter-day Saints. This attitude makes me think twice about Curt Bench’s criticism of September Dawn’s “stereotypical, one dimensional portrait of blindly obedient church members.” Is there still a hint of “religious fanaticism” alive and well in the matter of Mountain Meadows?
I really appreciate the contrasting attitude of the Mormon History Association’s Tom Kimball as expressed in the AP article:
After 150 years, it would be nice to lay the issue to rest, Kimball added.”Not in the sense that we’re trying to hide it,” he said. “But to finally tell the truth about our role in this horrible thing, so that we can tell our children we [have now done] the honorable thing.”