Under the banner of heav.., p.27

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, page 27


Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith

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  It also strains belief that three Shivwits would have been able to surprise and kill three seasoned, well-armed mountain men. The Shivwit tribe had no firearms of any kind; they were known to be a docile, dirt-poor band of “seed gatherers and bug eaters.” Dunn and the Howland brothers, on the other hand, had two rifles and a shotgun and were ever alert to the possibility of an ambush after years of tangling with Indians. Before joining Powell's expedition, William Dunn had been wounded four times by Comanches, and as a consequence was especially wary of further attacks.

  While the evidence may not be conclusive that the three men who disappeared from Powell's expedition were murdered by the inhabitants of Toquerville, credible evidence that Powell's men were shot full of arrows by Shivwits, as Hamblin reported, is in even shorter supply. It is thus hard to countenance scholars (and their numbers are legion) who blithely assert that Indians killed William Dunn, Oramel Howland, and Seneca Howland—especially given the Mormons' unfortunate (and thoroughly documented) history of framing Indians for crimes that were actually committed by Latter-day Saints.

  As for the Shivwits, two decades after their parley with Powell and Hamblin, the Saints forced the Indians to leave their vast ancestral homeland on the Arizona Strip because the range was wanted for grazing Mormon cattle. The Mormons relocated the Shivwits onto a minuscule reservation on the outskirts of St. George, barely six miles across by six miles long.

  In the years following the Mountain Meadows massacre, most of the culpable Saints fled to remote desert settlements in order to elude their Gentile pursuers—but not John D. Lee, who had become the wealthiest man in southern Utah during this period and was loath to abandon the comforts of his several homes and eighteen wives. In 1869, though, after President Ulysses S. Grant ramped up federal efforts to catch the guilty parties, Brigham Young grew quite concerned that Lee would be arrested, so he advised his adopted son to sell off his property and make himself scarce.

  Lee, however, brushed the proposal aside and remained on his old stamping ground, preferring simply to hightail it into the local hills whenever federal agents or bounty hunters approached. During their little jaunt with John Wesley Powell in September 1870, Brigham finally ordered Lee to move far from Washington and Iron Counties and establish residency deep in the wilderness; Brigham feared that if Lee were caught, he might spill secrets that could bring down the entire church. According to Juanita Brooks's biography of Lee, during their 1870 excursion onto the Arizona Strip, the prophet told him, “Gather your wives and children around you, select some fertile valley, and settle out here.”

  Conveying a distinct lack of enthusiasm for this suggestion, Lee halfheartedly replied, “Well if it is your wish and counsel . . .”

  “It is my wish and counsel,” Brigham impatiently commanded. A month later, for good measure, he excommunicated Lee from the church, eventually exiling him to the upper end of the Grand Canyon to run a shuttle service across the Colorado River. Lee called this forlorn settlement Lonely Dell; today it's known as Lee's Ferry. In the wake of this turn of fortune, eleven of Lee's wives divorced him, and only two of his remaining spouses ever joined him at the desolate outpost that now bears his name.*

  The fact that Lee and the massacre's other prime suspects had gone deep into hiding didn't deter authorities in Washington from their pursuit of justice; to the contrary, the feds only turned up the pressure, making it clear that they would not let the matter rest until the guilty were punished.

  In November 1874, a U.S. marshal named William Stokes cornered Lee in the settlement of Panguitch, where he was visiting one of his remaining wives. Stokes discovered the fugitive hiding in a chicken coop under a pile of straw, and arrested him. Lee was put on trial in Beaver, Utah, eight months later, but the jury deadlocked and failed to convict. To the American populace, this outcome was the nineteenth-century equivalent of the 1995 O. J. Simpson verdict. Newspapers from coast to coast expressed rabid outrage, generating a hurricane of anti-Mormon sentiment that did not escape the notice of Brigham and his counselors in Great Salt Lake City.

  Conceding the inevitable, Brigham adopted a pragmatic new strategy that was as brilliant as it was callous. He stopped claiming that the Indians were responsible for the massacre and decided to blame the whole thing on Lee, offering up his adopted son as a scapegoat.

  Lee was put on trial a second time in 1876. On this occasion the LDS First Presidency carefully screened the jurors, all Mormons, to ensure that Lee, and Lee alone, would be convicted. Jacob Hamblin, who had been far from the Mountain Meadow when the killing took place, proved to be the star witness for the prosecution; his convincing, if perjured, testimony of Lee's savagery sealed the latter's fate. “So carefully had the questions been placed,” wrote Juanita Brooks, “so patient and delicate had the lawyers been with the witnesses, that the combined sins of all the fifty men who were present were laid on the shoulders of John D. Lee.” On September 20, after considering the witnesses and evidence that Brigham had very selectively provided to the prosecution, Brigham's jury found Lee guilty of first-degree murder.

  The court sentenced Lee to die, thereby satisfying Gentile America's demand for justice, or at least the appearance thereof. “Someone had to be sacrificed,” one of the jurors admitted afterward, alluding to the passage from The Book of Mormon in which Nephi slays Laban (the same passage that had inspired Dan Lafferty to kill): “Better for one man to die than for a whole nation to dwindle in unbelief.”

  In prison, awaiting execution, Lee used the time remaining to him to pen his life story, which was published posthumously under the title Mormonism Unveiled, and became a national best-seller. At the conclusion of his book Lee wrote,

  I was guided in all that I did which is called criminal, by the orders of the leaders in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I have never knowingly disobeyed the orders of the Church since I joined it at Far West, Missouri, until I was deserted by Brigham Young and his slaves.

  On the morning of March 23, 1877, under the watchful eye of his guards, Lee stepped out of a carriage onto the sandy loam of the Mountain Meadow, the first time he had returned to the site of the massacre in twenty years. The condemned man completed his will, sat down on the coffin that would shortly hold his corpse, and listened to a marshal make a formal recitation of his death warrant. Then he stood and calmly addressed the crowd of some eighty people who had traveled to the meadow to watch him die. “A victim must be had, and I am the victim,” Lee declared with a mix of resignation and accusation. “I have been sacrificed in a cowardly, dastardly manner.”

  After Lee finished speaking, the marshal tied a blindfold across his eyes, and Lee sat down again on the edge of the open coffin, imploring of the firing squad, “Let them shoot the balls through my heart! Don't let them mangle my body.” A moment later, a deafening blast shattered the peace of the morning and four bullets tore into his chest. John D. Lee tipped back from the waist into the wooden box, his feet still planted on the meadow, as the rifles' report echoed from the surrounding hills.



  Civil libertarians have consistently insisted on America's sacred duty to make the country a place of unprecedented religious tolerance. Faced however, with the realities of religious pluralism—multiplying sects and excessive fervor for seemingly bizarre religious tenets—they have reacted with something short of enthusiasm.



  In his day, John D. Lee was renowned not only for his role in the Mountain Meadows massacre but also as a gifted healer and oracle. He cured many an ailing Mormon by the laying on of hands. Numerous Saints were awed by the accuracy of his prophecies—and never more so than on the occasion of his final prediction. According to a family memoir, shortly before Lee was executed he prophesied, “If I am guilty of the crime for which I am convicted, I will go down and out and never be heard of again. If I am not guilty, Br
igham Young will die within one year! Yes, within six months.”

  On August 23, 1877, exactly five months after Lee's death, Brigham was overcome with fever, gastrointestinal cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting. Six days later “The Old Boss,” as Lee called him, was dead, most likely from a ruptured appendix.

  Brigham had hoped that offering up Lee for sacrifice would appease the Gentile powers in Washington and win the Saints at least a modicum of relief from the hounding of federal minions. He was sorely mistaken. From the time Rutherford B. Hayes moved into the Oval Office in 1877 through the end of Grover Cleveland's term in 1897, each successive American president increased pressure on the Mormon Church to forsake polygamy and submit to the laws of the land.

  John Taylor, who replaced Brigham as the Saints' president, prophet, seer, and revelator, refused to cede an inch to the government in Washington; if anything, he was even less acquiescent than the Old Boss had been. Taylor had believed passionately in Joseph Smith and his doctrines ever since their first encounter, when Joseph had grasped Taylor's hand and caused “an electric current” to race up his arm. On that bleak afternoon when Joseph was shot dead in the Carthage jail, Taylor had been within arm's reach of the prophet, and had been gravely wounded himself. The truest of true believers, Taylor was not about to compromise the most sacred principles of the Kingdom of God to appease the church's Gentile oppressors.

  “God will lay his hand upon this nation,” Taylor proclaimed in 1879. “There will be more bloodshed, more ruin, more devastation than ever they have seen before. . . . We do not want them to force upon us that institution of monogamy called the social evil.”

  A year later Taylor's recalcitrance and rage had only intensified. “W[hen] they enact tyrannical laws, forbidding us the free exercise of our religion, we cannot submit,” he pronounced, on January 4, 1880, during a Sunday assembly in Great Salt Lake City.

  God is greater than the United States, and when the Government conflicts with heaven we will be ranged under the banner of heaven and against the Government. The United States says we cannot marry more than one wife. God says different. . . . Polygamy is a divine institution. It has been handed down direct from God. The United States cannot abolish it. No nation on earth can prevent it, nor all the nations of the earth combined; these are my sentiments and all of you who sympathize with me in this position will raise your right hands. I defy the United States; I will obey God.

  Every right hand in the vast Assembly Hall instantly shot heavenward. Taylor was a man of the highest integrity who had devoted his life completely to the church. Among the Saints, his words held enormous sway.

  Back in Washington President Hayes thought little of Taylor's rhetoric. After paying a personal visit to Great Salt Lake City in 1880, Hayes urged Congress to enact laws ensuring that the “right to vote, hold office and sit on juries in the Territory of Utah be confined to those who neither practice nor uphold polygamy.” Over the next fifteen years Congress obliged him by passing legislation that did exactly that, and more. After the Edmunds Act was passed in 1882, Mormons could be prosecuted not only for engaging in polygamy, which was difficult to prove, but also for “unlawful cohabitation,” which wasn't.

  Thereafter, Utah's polygamists were derogatorily referred to as “cohabs,” and swarms of federal agents descended on Utah to carry out “cohab hunts” in virtually every town in the territory. By the late 1880s, some one thousand Saints had been thrown in jail, but still the Mormons remained defiant. Going to prison on a polygamy conviction became something to brag about.

  Although they didn't reveal their concern to the brethren, Mormon leaders were nevertheless feeling the heat. John Taylor dispatched increasing numbers of Saints not only to far-flung desert settlements around the American West (such as Lee's Ferry) but also to Mexico and Canada in order to establish safe havens where a man could have a plurality of wives without fear of harassment or arrest. Thriving colonies of cohabs sprung up in such places as Cardston, Canada (in the province of Alberta, just north of the Montana border), and at the foot of the Sierra Madre Occidental in Mexico. Then, in 1885, a warrant went out for Taylor's arrest, forcing the prophet himself to go into hiding. One year after that, he thumbed his nose at the feds by marrying twenty-six-year-old Josephine Roueche, his sixteenth wife. The groom was seventy-eight years old at the time.

  The harder the Saints resisted federal control, however, the more Washington resolved to bring them to heel. In March 1887, Congress passed the harshest legislation yet directed at the Mormons, the Edmunds-Tucker Bill. Four months later John Taylor died, still in hiding, and a day after he was laid to rest, federal lawyers initiated a series of legal actions intended to bankrupt the Mormon Church. On May 19, 1890, they achieved their desired end when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on these actions against the Saints, allowing church holdings to be seized by the government.

  The whole of Mormondom was wobbling on the brink. With the death of Taylor in 1887, an eighty-two-year-old apostle named Wilford Woodruff had been installed as the fourth Mormon prophet. And he recognized, with great pain, that the Kingdom of God had no choice but to surrender to Washington's demands. After taking to his bed on the evening of September 23, 1890, Woodruff reported, he “struggled all night with the Lord about what should be done with the existing circumstances of the church.”

  In the morning he called together five trusted Mormon leaders and, “with broken spirit,” informed them that God had revealed to him the necessity of relinquishing “the practice of that principle for which the brethren had been willing to lay down their lives.” To the shock and utter horror of the other men in the room, President Woodruff explained that “it was the will of the Lord” that the church stop sanctioning the doctrine of plural marriage.

  On October 6, 1890, Woodruff's momentous revelation was formalized in a brief document that became known as “the Woodruff Manifesto,” or simply “the Manifesto.” It read, in part,

  Inasmuch as laws have been enacted by Congress forbidding plural marriages, which laws have been pronounced constitutional by the court of last resort, I hereby declare my intention to submit to those laws, and to use my influence with the members of the Church over which I preside to have them do likewise. . . .

  And I now publicly declare that my advice to the Latter-day Saints is to refrain from contracting any marriage forbidden by the law of the land.


  President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

  The impact of the Manifesto shook Mormondom to its roots, but it did not end polygamy—it merely drove it underground. For the next two decades members of the Mormon First Presidency privately advised Saints that polygamy should be continued, albeit discreetly, and top leaders of the church secretly performed numerous plural marriages. When this casuistry came to light, it unleashed a nationwide howl of indignation. In October 1910, the Salt Lake Tribune—which had been established as a rabidly anti-Mormon alternative to the church-owned Deseret News—published the names of some two hundred Saints who had taken plural wives after the Manifesto, including six members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

  When the church leadership's deceit about polygamy was made public, it wasn't just Gentiles who were outraged—a number of prominent Mormons were upset as well, sparking a groundswell within the church to enforce the Manifesto and eradicate polygamy altogether. By the 1920s most Saints, including their leaders, had turned against polygamy and were encouraging the prosecution of cohabs.

  A significant number of dedicated Saints, however, were convinced that Wilford Woodruff had been grievously mistaken when he'd issued the Manifesto, and that heeding it ran counter to the religion's most sacred principles. These hard-core polygamists argued that the Manifesto had not revoked Section 132 of The Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith's 1843 revelation about plural marriage—that it merely suspended the practice under extenuating (and presumably temporary) circumstances. They pointed out that D&C 132 was still an ac
cepted part of Mormon scripture (as, indeed, it remains today).

  These Mormon Fundamentalists, as they would proudly call themselves, took special inspiration from a revelation dispensed by the Lord to their departed hero John Taylor on September 26, 1886, while he was hiding out from federal cohab hunters.* Perhaps the most contentious revelation in the history of the Mormon Church, it had come in response to a question President Taylor had posed to God, inquiring if His earlier revelation to Joseph concerning the sacred doctrine of plural marriage should be abandoned. God's reply was clear and unambiguous:

  Thus saith the Lord All commandments that I give must be obeyed by those calling themselves by my name unless they are revoked by me or by my authority. . . . I have not revoked this law nor will I for it is everlasting and those who will enter into my glory must obey the conditions thereof, even so Amen.

  At the time he received this revelation, Taylor had been hiding out in the home of a Saint named John W. Woolley. During the night, Woolley's son Lorin had noticed an eerie light “appearing under the door leading to President Taylor's room, and was at once startled to hear voices of men talking there. There were three distinct voices.” At eight o'clock the next morning, when Taylor emerged from his room, Lorin recalled, “we could scarcely look at him on account of the brightness of his personage.”

  Young Woolley asked Taylor whom he had been talking to in the middle of the night. “I have had a very pleasant conversation all night with Brother Joseph,” the prophet replied cheerfully, adding that the third voice Lorin had heard was that of Jesus Christ himself.


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