One voice in the recent PBS documentary on the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints entitled “The Mormons” expressed the opinion that when Brigham Young was the leader of the Church he ordered Latter-day Saints in southern Utah to massacre a wagon train of emigrants passing through the territory with approximately 140 emigrants and over 400 head of cattle. In the Mountain Meadows Massacre that occured on September 11, 1857, approximately 120 men, women, and children from this wagon train were killed by a mixed band of Mormons and Paiute Indians. Children younger than eight years old were spared and raised in local households.
In claiming that Brigham Young ordered the massacre, author Will Bagley articulates a minority view. A consensus seems to exist that the historical evidence shows that Brigham Young did not order the massacre but rather sent a message to let the wagon train pass unmolested.
The decision to perpetrate this act appears to have been made purely on the local level.
Consistent with the historical evidence, I personally believe that Brigham Young did not order the massacre. Still, my thoughts were directed to the subject as I recently read a troubling scripture (with which many are very familiar) in the Old Testament, which forms part of the Bible that many creedal Christians, including Evangelical Christians, believe to be sufficient and inerrant. In this episode, the prophet Samuel reveals to Saul, King of Israel, that the Lord has commanded Saul to wage war against a society of people called the Amalekites. Samuel tells Saul that God has commanded Saul as follows:
Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass. (1 Samuel 15:3)
Saul followed the prophet Samuel’s commandment and had his armies kill everyone, man, woman, and child; he perpetrated outright genocide as the prophet Samuel said that God commanded. But, as the story goes, Saul spared the king of the Amalekites (arguably the most important person of them to kill) and allowed the people to spare the best of the animals and other wealth of the Amalekites, ostensibly so they could sacrifice it to the God of the Old Testament.
The prophet Samuel delivered Saul a stark message from God based on Saul’s actions in failing to kill all the Amalekites and their animals, and to destroy their civilization entirely. Samuel said that God rejected Saul because he did not kill everyone and that the Kingdom of Israel would be split because of this disobedience.
If, contrary to what appears to be historical fact, Brigham Young had ordered the massacre on September 11, 1857, would this fact alone be a sound reason for people believing in the Old Testament to reject Mormonism? There might be other reasons for God-fearing people who believe that the Old Testament is scripture to reject Mormonism — for instance, a belief that Brigham Young was not a true prophet like Samuel and thus could not order the massacre. But the massacre itself could not be a reason to invalidate Mormonism for believers in the Old Testament.
Conversely, for people who, believing that Brigham Young ordered the massacre, feel that the massacre itself is sufficient reason to reject Mormonism or by itself sufficiently demonstrates that Mormonism can’t be true, they must also reject Judaism and even Christianity altogether to the extent that it incorporates any view that Samuel really was a prophet of God.
There is a very good argument that God would never order genocide as the prophet Samuel conveyed to King Saul. Luckily, Mormonism does not face this dilemma (because the historical evidence does not seem to support the idea that Brigham Young commanded the massacre or claimed that God commanded it) in a self-referential way but the Samuel episode remains in both the Jewish and Christian bibles. Because Latter-day Saints believe that the Bible is scripture, Latter-day Saints must confront this issue because the Jewish prophet Samuel — and not the Mormon prophet Brigham Young — ordered a massacre.
As difficult as this might be for Latter-day Saints to face, it appears to be far more complicated for people who believe that if Brigham Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre, then it is proof that he was not a prophet of God and that Mormonism is a fraud.
[Updated May 15, 2007 to change title]