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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What We Think Isn't What We Should Know and Other Reflections on Mormon Violence

In political science I was taught that peace is more than the absence of war. I would add that war is more than strong rhetoric and there was plenty of rhetoric in the early church and on the frontier. Most of the rhetoric from that time period would sound harsh to modern ears, especially those tempered by current ideas of tolerance.

The new topic page on lds.org entitled, "Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints," addresses violence against Mormons, as well as violence by Mormons. I like it. It said things I had long since assumed.

For example, I figured the Danites probably existed; but their numbers, activities and importance was probably exaggerated, especially by Sampson Avard.

At the Latter-day Saint settlement of Far West, some leaders and members organized a paramilitary group known as the Danites, whose objective was to defend the community against dissident and excommunicated Latter-day Saints as well as other Missourians. Historians generally concur that Joseph Smith approved of the Danites but that he probably was not briefed on all their plans and likely did not sanction the full range of their activities.
Entities such as the Danites probably organized with worthy ideals, but quickly degenerated into lawlessness and a sort of twisted vigilante justice. It's very difficult to morally control the masses, once they get out of hand. I only bet on the highly moral, thinking individuals to maintain their ideals.

The notion that this Danite organization continues to our modern day, in secret, and is controlled by the First Presidency has always been absurd. Robert Kirby's observations are insightful:
If the First Presidency really does maintain a secret Danite squad, how come I'm still here? More importantly, why haven't I been asked to serve on it?
Kirby further points out that after years of lampooning the church, while remaining a member:
...[A]ll I ever get is pissy feedback telling me that I'm going to hell. Nobody ever actually tries to send me there.
As I look around our modern world and analyze the news and commentary that surround us, I can't help but reflect. We can't agree about what's happening in our world now, let alone why it's happening. Why do we think that shining a magnifying glass on fragmentary evidence from the past will give us a complete picture of history?

Historians, along with everyone else, keep looking at correspondence, directives, news articles and other so-called objective evidence to decide the questions that darken our LDS history.

I don't think this will help. Whether or not Brigham Young ordered the Mountain Meadows Massacre is irrelevant. (For the record, I don't think he did and no one can prove it one way or the other.) The real question in understanding this tragedy is whether the perpetrators thought he did, or if they thought he would have if he knew what they thought they knew.

People act on their imperfect beliefs and their imperfect knowledge, rather than objective evidence. Historians study objective evidence, what there is of it, and it can't prove anything. Historians can't get into people's heads and that's where the real evidence is. They can only study other stuff and the other stuff isn't that helpful.

I'm glad we have historians and that they study history. Just don't expect me to swallow it all.


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