Sally Gordon and Jan Shipps on the Mountain Meadows Massacre

“At Mountain Meadows, competing visions of the American Kingdom of God met head on.” So states a new article by esteemed historians Sarah Barringer Gordon and Jan Shipps in their new article, “Fatal Convergence in the Kingdom of God: The Mountain Meadows Massacre in American History,” Journal of the Early Republic (link here). This is a paper that has been nearly a decade in the making. I remember them presenting a very early (and very different) version at MHA quite a few years ago, and then helping workshop a drastically revised edition at the Danforth Center a few years later. I’m thrilled to finally see it in print. And though it has changed over the years, its main thesis is pressing: historians need to do better at centering religion in the story of Mountain Meadow’s tragedy.

This may be the most important article on the massacre that doesn’t explicitly deal with the massacre itself. Rather, the massacre mostly provides a launching point to discuss the fervent, patriarchal, and violent trends of Mormon and Methodist faiths in the antebellum period. We have too often succumbed to the oppositional language of religious competition, Gordon and Shipps argue, because Methodists and Mormons were much more similar that typically depicted. This makes the massacre all the more grisly and intimate. Once we remove the artificial distance between the perpetrators and victims, the tragedy’s relevance to America’s broader history is much clearer.

The article provides a very thoughtful and provocative overview of John D Lee, the leader of the Mormon atrocity, and Alexander Fancher, the Methodist captain of the ill-fated migrant company. Both lived lives full of violence, migration, and religious fervor. They exhibited the extremes of the faith’s traditions, as well as the mundane nature of patriarchal rule in their homes and congregations. Gordon and Shipps trace their movements across a terrain filled with conflict, slavery, and, again, violence. This is not so much a history of these two individuals,  or even of their denominations they represent, but rather of their age and its many paradoxes.

The article also has a lot to say concerning the historical craft. While there are a lot of records for Lee and the Mormons, the authors assume that similar records from the Fancher party were probably destroyed at the massacre. How do we reconstruct both sides of the conflict? How do we treat the many reminiscences and partisan accounts? Gordon and Shipps spend many pages turning to the reader and directly addressing these questions. This is one of those few articles that make sophisticated historiographical as well as historical points. Because of this, it would likely work well in the classroom with advanced undergraduate students.

So was the Mountain Meadows Massacre a religious event? I must admit I’m not completely convinced. While Gordon and Shipps are persuasive in showing that religion has been overlooked in the historiography, and they impressively demonstrate how central religion was in the lives of the massacre’s participants (especially in how they got to that southern Utah desert), it has yet to be seen how religion played out on that bloody field itself. But in using the massacre to explain the world that both led to it and made it possible, this is an important an thoughtful study.

The journal also includes responses from the paper by Ari Kelman, an expert on Civil War-era America, and Laurie Maffly-Kipp, a leading scholar on Mormonism. They both praise the article while also prodding it in insightful ways. Together, the article and its responses are a great example of scholarly rigor and dialogue. I hope to see similar formats going forward.

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