To understand the impact of the event known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre, it is useful to focus on the date of that atrocity: September 11, 1857. On that Friday morning, Mormon militiamen lured the members of a California-bound wagon train into an ambush. Collaborating with Paiute Indian allies, the Mormons slaughtered 120 people. Many victims were shot at point-blank range; some of the children were clubbed to death.
In his 1877 memoir, massacre participant John D. Lee described a meeting of Mormon leaders in Cedar City before the attack. “Brethren, we have been sent here to perform a duty,” declared a person described by Lee only as “some one in authority.”
The orders of those in authority are that all the emigrants must die. Our leaders speak with inspired tongues, and their orders come from the God of Heaven. We have no right to question what they have commanded us to do; it is our duty to obey.
Historian Will Bagley wrote The Blood of the Prophets in order “to examine how decent men, believing they were doing God’s work, committed a horrific atrocity”—what was, until the Oklahoma City bombing of April 1995, the bloodiest act of terrorism perpetrated on American soil.
Mormon historians have habitually “laid the blame on the victims and Indians, and that tradition is...