Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Reformation and the Threat of War

In 1856, Young and his counselors looked out at the Utah Territory and were angered by what they saw. The influx of emigrants passing through the territory and the slow, inevitable creep of American civilization toward the Mormon theocracy, combined with the general freedom from oppression had made the Saints weak in their faith. This falling away from the teachings of the Prophet not only endangered the everlasting souls of the Saints, it loosened the hold the Church leaders had on their people and increased the likelihood of U.S. reassertion of control.

The Church had been beset by apostasy and protests against the practice of polygamy, a teaching that was particularly noxious to the European converts who made their way to Salt Lake City. One of the problems with polygamy at the time was that there were few women of marrying age in the territory, and for every man who was given permission to take a second or third wife, another man went without one. The temporal discomforts of bachelorhood were bad enough, but a Mormon mans pleasure and power in the afterlife would be determined by the number of people he brought into heaven with him. Many of the women, despite having nominal veto power over their husbands choice of another wife, found the double standards particularly troublesome.

The solution, Young decided, was a Reformation of the Church. In fact, it was more like an inquisition or a purge. The Reformation rekindled the fears of persecution among the Mormons and set neighbor against neighbor in an effort to prove their loyalty to Brigham and the Church. Survival often hinged upon ones ability to convince roving mobs of enforcers of ones ideological solidarity with the cause, writes Sally Denton in American Massacre.

American Massacre
American Massacre
From the Prophet on down, Church officials were ordered to conduct examinations of everyone in their flock to root out the poisons that had weakened the Mormons. Priests, Teachers, and Deacons, be active in the discharge of your duties, said Orson Hyde, Brighams right-hand man, in a sermon. You are watchmen in your wards, and stand in a similar relation to your Bishops that the Apostles do to the Presidency. Great responsibility rests upon you. Every person in your wards should be known to you, and his business or occupation also. You should not only know the man or the woman and his business, but should likewise know his spirit and be able to weigh it in the balance of truth.

As the faithful zealously took Brighams exhortations to cut down the backsliders to heart, many instances of sectarian vigilante justice were recorded between 1856 and 1857. In addition to solidifying Utahs reputation as a dangerous place for the non-faithful, the Reformation had two major outcomes. The purge prompted an exodus of apostates from Utah and revitalized the Saints through fear and religious frenzy. As a direct result, the last federal officials in Utah, save a single Indian agent, fled the territory. Federal Judge Stiles was literally forced to run for his life from his courtroom. On the basis of his erroneous assumption that the Mormons had stolen his court files and thus taken federal property, President Buchanan ordered federal troops to move into Utah and take control from Brigham Young and his Church. This announcement alarmed the Mormons, who feared that an occupying army would not just take control, it would systematically annihilate the Saints.

Across the territory, but particularly in the southern area, zealots used the cover of the Reformation to practice atrocities against Gentiles, apostate Mormons, and even individual rivals. In the Manti district, Bishop Warren Snow had his eye on a young lady who was being courted by a younger man. Under the guise of punishment for sexual misconduct, Snow captured his competitor and castrated the young man. As a warning to others, Snow, who never answered for his barbaric crime, nailed the mans body parts to the schoolhouse wall. Historian Josiah Gibbs reported in 1910 that the young man later died, insane, in a California hospital.

Josiah Gibbs
Josiah Gibbs
Another elderly man, William Parrish, was preparing to leave the territory with his family to try their luck in California when he was ambushed with another man and found with his throat slashed open, the Danites preferred method of blood atonement.

The stories of these and other crimes, including a chase through the Utah forests by a group of zealots determined to kill a group of Gentiles, were reported in such newspapers as Horace Greeleys New York Sun and the New York Times, although none of the crimes ever merited mention in the Churchs official organ, the Deseret News.

Parley Pratt
Parley Pratt
While Brigham Young was busy purging the Saints of the undesirables and reasserting his control over the territory, the Mouthpiece of the Lord, Parley P. Pratt, was running for his life back east in Arkansas. Pratt, who rivaled Young in both oratorical skills and popularity among the faithful, would lose his race; the unfortunate timing and location of his death would help seal the fates of 140 men, women, and children who were, at the time, already hundreds of miles away on the trail to Salt Lake City.

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