Blood atonement

Attempting to explain why he adores music over religion, the narrator of James Wood’s recent The Book Against God replies, “Music, when I last looked, has not caused centuries of wars.”

In the past decade, some of the world’s most prescient historians, from James Carroll to Bernard Lewis, have turned their attention to this uncomfortable fact and have sought to understand why religion has fostered, underwritten and endorsed so much bloodshed.

This summer, America’s most successful homegrown religion—Mormonism—goes under the microscope of this pressing concern as one of America’s most respected investigative journalists, Sally Denton, delivers a tale of shocking violence carried out in the name of the Mormon faith.

American Massacre recreates the event known as the Mountain Meadows massacre of 1857, when close to 140 peaceful Arkansas farmers traveling through Utah territory were slaughtered by Mormon settlers. Although this event has been told and retold throughout the years—most recently in Judith Freeman’s superb novel Red Water—Denton’s version has much to offer because it recasts the history of the Mormon religion through the lens of this event.

Violence, she argues, was there from the beginning. Relying on journals, historical documents and scores of newspaper archives, Denton, who was raised Mormon herself, painstakingly conjures the cult of personality that founder Joseph Smith developed after he published the Book of Mormon and began attracting followers.

Even before Mormons were heavily persecuted, driven farther west by angry mobs who loathed their faith—and, more importantly, resented their financial dominance—there was a military-like air to the church. Denton describes how Smith was known to carry a rifle and several pistols and to walk with a bulldog on a leash. He later gave up the title of church president for “general.”

Like many military leaders who rise to power, Smith—and then his successor, Brigham Young—often ruled with an iron fist and, as Denton depicts it, used their flock’s persecution and paranoia to their advantage, especially when the controversial practice of polygamy was instituted.

As internal strife grew in the church, Denton writes, Smith repeatedly sought out and exacerbated outside conflicts to draw attention away from the church’s divisions. Loyalty was tested by conscripting followers to arms, and in this fashion, Smith at one time amassed an army one-fourth the size of that marshaled by the entire United States.

To enforce his rule, Smith also organized a militia of avenging angels known as the Danites, or the Sons of Dan, who introduced a ritualized type of murder called “blood atonement,” in which the murderer provided “the victim with eternal salvation by slitting his throat.”

John Doyle Lee, a convert who became Brigham Young’s second in command, “believed passionately” in blood atonement, writes Denton. “The killing of [non-Mormons] was considered a means of grace and virtuous deed,” Lee once wrote.

According to Denton, Young was aware of this belief and used it to his advantage—just as he often had hid behind other murders carried out by Mormons—most notably, of a government surveyor by the name of John Gunnison—by blaming them on nearby Indian tribes.

And so, whatever part Young had in the events, Lee took the fall for the Mountain Meadows massacre, which Denton recreates here in grim, numbing detail. Many of the victims were children, who were said to cling to their attackers’ legs while being slaughtered, offering themselves up as slaves in exchange for their lives.

Although Denton makes the case that Lee felt he was under direct orders from Young to attack the wagon train, we will never truly know how he could carry out such orders. His journals, however, do let us know that he deeply regretted it—and felt led terribly astray by his faith.

After years of delay and two trials, he told a cautionary tale when he finally faced a firing squad in 1877 for the massacre: “See how and what I have come to this day. I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner.”