Tending the Garden
Lavina Fielding Anderson, editors
The Mormon Historian as Tragedian
Levi S. Peterson
[p.135]People speak to each other about tragic reality through many forms: through painting and sculpture, through ritual and folklore, through literature and theater, and through history. If it is written well, history can function as potently as either fiction or drama to capture our imagination, to arouse our emotions, to cause us to identify and project and to live vicariously in the scene portrayed by the historian. Juanita Brooks is widely known and widely respected as a historian of southwestern Utah. But it seems to me, particularly considering two of her works, The Mountain Meadows Massacre (1950; 2d ed., Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962) and John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat (1961; 2d ed., Glendale, CA: Arthur H. Clark Co., 1972), that she is a tragedian as well. Everything we know about this quiet little woman as a historian, a teacher, a wife, a Mormon, and a lifetime resident of Utah’s Dixie suggests that there is a profound emotional bond between herself and the people of whom she writes. Her purposes as a historian are means to an end. More elemental are her purposes as a tragedian, as one who has used history to express the tragic emotion of her region and her church.
Tragedy in art or ritual may best be defined by reference to tragedy in actual life. In actuality tragedy means intolerable loss and in-[p.136]tense suffering. The death of a loved one, failing health, the deterioration of our social status, the loss of any incalculable value can be tragic and can subject us to grief, terror, despair, or other painful emotion. The term tragedy also properly describes art or ritual which depicts such loss and arouses such emotion. This seems to me to be a sufficient generic definition. However, the most estimable and attractive tragedy does more than confront us with tragic fact: it provides some kind of recovery as well. We do not seek out tragic art and ritual simply to increase our suffering. We do so because they tend to relieve our accumulated burden of tragic emotion.
This relief may take many forms. Aristotle called it catharsis; later critics have disputatiously defined other qualities. Common to them all are the encouragement and enhancement of life. This is the paradoxical function of Juanita Brooks in her history of the Mountain Meadows massacre and in her biography of John D. Lee. Through them she brings about a Mormon confrontation with tragic fact; but in that very process she also brings healing and recovery.
There are those who may argue that Brooks’s works have no relevance of a tragic sort to Mormonism because, as some assert, “no genuinely Christian tragedy can exist.”1 In the words of modern Mormon prophet Spencer W. Kimball, life is not tragic because it is “an eternal thing stretching far into the premortal past and on into the eternal post-death future.”2 I would remark, however, that if belief in eternal life comforts Christians in certain tragic moments, it can never entirely obviate the instinctive grief, horror, and despair to which all human beings are susceptible. In some instances, Christian belief magnifies tragic emotion, as in the case of a person who feels unforgiven for a grievous sin. Christianity has developed a rich tragic tradition, which for the most part centers upon the death of Christ. The mass is in some degree a tragic ritual, and there are innumerable examples of tragic Christian art, of which I cite Rembrandt’s Descent from the Cross and Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. When we view Rembrandt’s Christ, all too human and so palpably dead, and when we hear the undercurrent of grief in Bach’s music, we know that centuries of Christians have sought relief from tragic emotion in the contemplation that God himself suffered and died.
Mormonism has a nascent tragic tradition. The monthly testimony meeting has evolved into a partially tragic ritual. Testimonies [p.137]begun as a declaration of faith often end in weeping, as Mormons seek recovery by sharing with their fellows the suffering to which their domestic lives are subject. The Mormon sacrament, as the celebration of the Lord’s Last Supper is called, retains touches of the tragic emotion of the mass. But the collective tragic feeling of Mormonism does not relate strongly to the death of Christ. Mormon art rarely depicts Christ in agony or death, and traditional art depicting these themes is alien to most Mormons. Rather the tragic themes which Mormons recognize most readily have to do with the persecutions and privations of the church’s frontier experience. The tragic losses inflicted upon the early church by its enemies and by the wilderness find an abundant expression in folklore, sermons, novels, paintings, and many other forms. Indignation over the stark injustice of the expulsions from Missouri and Illinois pervades B. H. Roberts’s A Comprehensive History of the Church, written almost eighty years after those events. Grief arising from the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, which Joseph Fielding Smith calls “the greatest sorrow” in all the history of the Mormons,3 has found eloquent expression in Clinton Larson’s poetic drama, The Mantle of the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1966). The countless graves that dot the Mormon trail from the Susquehanna to the Gila are tragically celebrated by Avard Fairbanks’s statue Tragedy at Winter Quarters, which depicts a pioneer couple looking down upon the grave of their child.
There are, however, some tragic themes from the frontier era which Mormons cannot accept readily. One is the portrayal of polygamy as severe deprivation for Mormon women, which we see, for example, in Maureen Whipple’s novel, The Giant Joshua (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1942). Even more difficult is the saga of the Mountain Meadows massacre. The massacre has been easy to recognize as a tragedy for those who were slaughtered, but hard to accept as a Mormon tragedy. The affair has been inaccessible as a Mormon tragedy because Mormons have imputed it to renegades from whom the church can properly be dissociated. From Charles W. Penrose to Joseph Fielding Smith, official Mormon interpreters have denounced the massacre as “a crime for which there can be no apology or excuse, a thing treacherous and damnable in the extreme.”4 The resistance to ascribing the massacre to responsible Mormons continues: only a year or so ago, a friend of mine, asking a clerk at Deseret Book for a [p.138]copy of Juanita Brooks’s history of the massacre, was told, “It’s in fiction where it belongs.” However, because of Brooks’s work, the conclusion is inevitable that good Mormons were involved in the massacre and that the causes of the massacre are deep within the character of frontier Mormonism. For Mormons, Brooks raises a stark confrontation with tragic fact.
The pivotal event of The Mountain Meadows Massacre is that moment in September 1857 when about fifty Mormon men of the Iron County militia, aided by several hundred Indians, slaughtered between 90 and 120 immigrants traveling from Arkansas and Missouri to California. By a deceitful promise of safe conduct, which John D. Lee carried to the immigrants, the Mormons lured them from their defenses and launched a treacherous assault in which individuals of the militia each shot a male immigrant while the Indians killed the women and older children with knives and hatchets. Only a few small children were spared. The massacre is similarly the pivotal event of John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat. From Lee’s conversion in 1838 until the massacre, Lee’s life was on the rise, and his progress and the progress of the Latter-day Saint church were inseparable. He was in the Missouri persecutions, he built and fought at Nauvoo, he suffered with the Saints at Winter Quarters, he built homes in the Salt Lake Valley, he went by mission call to Iron County and built again at New Harmony, where for a period he presided over wives, children, hired hands, houses, and fields—a man of prominence and property and an intimate to Brigham Young. Following the massacre, his fortunes declined. His neighbors inflicted contumelies upon him, he went into exile in the barren places along the Colorado River, he suffered the overwhelming indignity of an unexpected, arbitrary excommunication, and finally, twenty years after the massacre, singled out from among all those involved, he died before a firing squad at Mountain Meadows.
The most obvious tragedy with which these books confront us is of course that of the immigrant party. The simple details which Brooks gives of the massacre work upon our imagination; and as we read, we are struck by circumstances that heighten our tragic emotion: the deceived faith that the common bond of civilization would win the immigrants the protection of the Mormons against the Indians; the horror of the women and older children who had time to [p.139]understand their plight before the Indians reached them from their place of hiding; the gaping throats and smashed skulls; the Mormons’ appropriation of the immigrants’ property, including the clothes from their dead bodies; the trauma of the little children instantly orphaned in a world where there is rarely an adequate replacement for the love of a parent. And to these are added such poignant touches as the shocked comment of William H. Dame, commander-in-chief of the militia, as he reviewed the scene of the massacre for the first time: “I did not know there were so many of them”5; or the frantic plea of Rachael Hamblin, who in trying to comfort the surviving children at her ranch, told them that “if they would be quiet for a few minutes she would say a prayer for them all.”6
For Brooks, there is another tragedy too. In both books, the scapegoating of Lee is treated as an accumulation of mistaken responses to the massacre that itself amounts to a new and distinct tragedy. In the portrayal Brooks makes, Lee emerges as a man with both failings and virtues in notable proportions. Lee was a man of abrasive, egotistical personality who demanded deference from his subordinates. He accepted too literally the rhetoric of vengeance which Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, and a host of lesser church leaders preached. He was too confident of the prayerful process by which the high council at Cedar City arrived at its decision to exterminate the immigrants. He wrote in his journal, following his last trial, “I declared my innocence of doeing any thing designedly wrong; what we done was by the mutual consent & council of the high counsellors, Presidents, Bishops & leading Men, who Prayed over the Matter & diligently Sought the Mind & will of the Spirit of Truth to direct the affair.”7 But in the perspective of his entire life, his virtues outweigh his failings. He was energetic and unfailingly resourceful. He had a magnetic personal charm that attracted seventeen wives to him. He worked tirelessly to feed and clothe dozens of dependents. He abandoned old comforts and went unflinchingly into new deserts and wild places to build again and again. He had a gift for healing and he used it generously. He was unwaveringly loyal to Brigham Young and the church. Even in his final trial, Brooks says, Lee “did not make the public confession [of his and others’ guilt] that would have spared him,”8 maintaining to the end his life-long ideal of personal sacrifice for the good of the church.
[p.140]In a rough and homespun way, Lee is a tragic hero of the sort defined by Aristotle, a basically good and admirable man brought to suffering by a flaw in his own character. There is no question that Lee took a prominent part in the massacre and that afterward he seemed less repentant than others. But there is no question, either, of the injustice of singling him out as the person most responsible for the massacre. As Brooks makes her telling points—that more than fifty Mormons participated in the massacre, some of whom were Lee’s ecclesiastical and military superiors; that Brigham Young knew of and disguised the facts of the massacre for years before Lee’s excommunication; that Lee’s conviction was cooperatively agreed upon by the federal prosecution and leaders of the Mormon church—we respond with a vicarious sense of rejection and bitterness. We feel the special anguish Lee must have felt as the people with whom he had so passionately identified sacrificed him for their own safety and in the process remembered him, not as one of themselves, but as a villain.
There is one more tragic dimension to the Mountain Meadows massacre. In exonerating Lee, Brooks has indicted the church. Whatever human failings were responsible for the massacre, they were the failings of an entire people, not simply of an individual or a region. Lee was a representative Mormon, and Brooks’s biography is one of the very, best books a person can read to sense the complete character of early Mormonism. The massacre was not a tragedy simply for the immigrants or for John D. Lee; it was, and is, a Mormon tragedy.
It is a Mormon tragedy because Mormons have always been people of conscience. The imperative of perfection has been a major doctrine, and it has worked unceasingly upon Mormon hearts. In the millennial exuberance of their beginnings, Mormons took on the name of “Saints,” with explicit reference to the saints of the primitive Christian church. The idea of the restoration of the gospel after nearly eighteen centuries of apostasy; the renewed sense of intimacy with God which came from the presence of living prophets and apostles; the expectation of the speedy advent of the Lord all awakened Mormons to a sense of moral superiority and laid a stern injunction upon them to maintain that moral superiority.
For this reason we may infer that the men of the Iron County militia rode away from Mountain Meadows with the fire of damnation in their hearts. The grievances, the anxieties, the doctrines that led [p.141]them to the meadows, Brooks says, now “looked inadequate and flimsy indeed.”9 I think that their minds circled feverishly among irrepressible images of blood and horror and that they were seized by profound longings for the day before, for the previous year, for any time and place that would erase the massacre from the record of reality. Without knowing it, mute and inarticulate frontiersmen that they were, they were mourning the loss of their innocence. Their special place in God’s favor seemed gone. Their special pride in their moral superiority was shattered. They rode toward Cedar City under an alien sky and across an earth that no longer seemed the warm habitation of Christian people.
Undoubtedly the intensity of their anguish abated with time, but the evidence is that they did not cope very well with their tragic experience, and their horror and self-revulsion sifted into the hearts of their loved ones and neighbors. Brooks tells us that a “pall of darkness” lowered over Cedar City and that the population of the town diminished by over half within two years of the massacre.10 To relieve their suffering, people waxed indignant over this or that person who seemed more responsible than others; and in the end, their collective guilt fell on John D. Lee. Because of their inability to confront directly their own loss of innocence, they had gone on as a people to commit yet another injustice.
The tragedy of lost innocence is not over. Mormons still are hard put to confront the massacre. If good Mormons committed the massacre, if prayerful leaders ordered it, if apostles and a prophet knew about it and later sacrificed John D. Lee, then the sainthood of even the modern church seems tainted. Where is the moral superiority of Mormonism, where the assurance that God has made Mormons his new chosen people? For many Mormons, these are intolerable questions and they arouse intolerable emotions.
After the tragic confrontation comes the recovery. At least this is so if the tragedy we encounter is the work of an effective tragedian, one who, though dealing with the facts of destruction, wishes finally to heal rather than to destroy. Juanita Brooks is such a tragedian. Throughout her books are events, characters, and interpretations that bring us, particularly if we are Mormon readers, to resignation and acceptance and, in addition, to a paradoxical pleasure, to a feeling that our lives are somehow augmented and more significant [p.142]for our having read Brooks’s account of the Mountain Meadows massacre.
Brooks leads us from grief and disillusionment by conditioning our sympathy for those who committed the massacre and for those who made a scapegoat of John D. Lee. Our sympathy goes to all of them because, if, as I said, they shared John D. Lee’s failings, they also shared his virtues. As a people they were capable of the kind of courage demonstrated by one of his wives, Emma Lee, who, alone with her young children in the barren remoteness of the Colorado crossing, prepared the materials for her parturition, sent her children outdoors, and gave birth to a baby. In later years, she became a midwife and allowed no extreme of weather or distance to keep her from a woman in labor, as if to compensate for the unhealed loneliness of her own ordeal.
Our sympathy also goes to these people because we come to understand the reason for their violence. Brooks explains the anxiety and vengeance in the hearts of the people of Iron County by citing the persecutions and provocations which they and their fellow Mormons had undergone—the Haun’s Mill massacre, the martyrdom of Joseph Smith, the threatening march of Johnston’s army toward Utah, the insolence and truculence of the immigrants. It helps, too, to know that the violence of frontier Mormons was not an invention of their own. They were heirs to centuries of frontier warfare. The idea Mormons had that God condoned violence was not unreasonable in light of the logic to which the frontier had conditioned them. Our sympathies are further attached to those who committed the massacre by the knowledge that they were their own severest judges. They had learned in the presence of the slaughtered immigrants that there was a gross incongruity between godliness and violence. Knowing all of this, we forgive them, and in that forgiveness we experience a release of tension. The catharsis which Aristotle thought to be the single great effect of tragic drama has occurred: we have accepted our ancestors; we have forgiven them; and, in so doing, we forgive and accept ourselves. Our own guilts and trespasses, our own inadequacies and imperfections suddenly seem more tolerable, and we think that perhaps we are not so unworthy after all.
Tragedy is a strange kind of art and ritual. It is like a dark metal [p.143]surrounding a luminous stone and setting it into relief. The vicarious loss of value that we experience in tragedy enhances that value in our feelings in such a way that we paradoxically seem to possess it even more completely and intimately than ever before. The suffering to which the Mormons came because of their part in the tragedy at Mountain Meadows intensifies our appreciation for two great values. The first is the heroism of those Mormon people. In myth and fiction heroes often are nothing except heroes: they have no lesser traits of character to distract from the superlative attainment that their heroism implies. This is not the heroism of the early Mormons. Their unpolished, half-primitive character, when revealed by historians, often proves offensive to their more cultivated descendants. But they nonetheless possessed a heroic quality, the will to endure and survive, the impulse that sustained Rachael Hamblin as she tried to comfort orphaned children, or Emma Lee as she saw her child into this world without aid, or John D. Lee as he submitted with dignity to the humiliations of his final years.
The other great value intensified by the tragedy of the massacre is innocence. Innocence is harmony and reconciliation between the individual and moral authority. It is a universal human necessity, even among those unconscious of their need. The world had gone awry for the militiamen of Iron County because they no longer were at one with moral authority. As we contemplate their anguished self-rejection, and ourselves feel sympathy, forgiveness, and grief, we experience profoundly the value of innocence. Our sharpened appreciation for a great human value illuminates, uplifts, and pleases. We have undergone the transmutation by which tragic loss, vicariously experienced, produces affirmation and recovery.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre and John Doyle Lee: Zealot, Pioneer Builder, Scapegoat have become Mormon classics with a continuing effect upon Mormon culture. One effect has been the act by which the general authorities of the church posthumously restored John D. Lee to his former membership and status. Another effect is the inspiration which fellow historians have drawn from Juanita Brooks. The reverence in which many Mormon historians hold Brooks is not due to their assumption that she has given a definitive treatment to the massacre; it is entirely possible that later historians, privy to new sources, will add facts and improve upon explanations of moot [p.144]points. Their admiration is due, rather, to the spirit with which Brooks approaches her subject. The role of the Mormon historian has long been fraught with anxiety. In matters far beyond the Mountain Meadows massacre, historians have found evidence that comes into conflict with the image of the church as the repository of sainthood and moral superiority. Because she has unflinchingly confronted painful aspects of Mormon history in a mood of reconciliation and recovery, Brooks has become a mentor to a generation of Mormon historians who wish to be loyal to both their church and their profession.
Furthermore, Brooks’s history of the massacre and her biography of Lee are read by increasing numbers of Mormons who are not professional historians. The result will be the addition of the Mountain Meadows massacre to the growing tradition of Mormon tragedy. Tragedy is, as I have said, a strange sort of art and ritual. We need a certain portion of it in our lives, because in its own way it is as vital to our well-being as the art and ritual of devotion, love, and triumph. It is vital because the pain of tragic loss is best coped with through recognition and expression rather than through repression and denial. Because of the work of Juanita Brooks, more and more Mormons will be able to recognize and speak of the tragedy that occurred to Mormons at Mountain Meadows. More and more of her readers will respond to her realistic concept of sainthood, the saint-hood of those for whom, like John D. Lee, perfection is a struggle to achieve rather than the achievement itself. There will be more and more who can accept human frailty in prophets and apostles, knowing that if God has chosen to work through human beings, he has thereby chosen to work through imperfect means. No longer denied, the saga of the Mountain Meadows massacre will work in Mormon hearts the paradoxical alchemy whereby affirmation and relief arise from pain and despair.