Mountain Meadows Massacre memorial
It seemed like an inspired idea: take a month off and travel from San Francisco to New York City, mostly by car, with pit-stops along the way at all of the major Mormon historical sites. Maybe even sell a couple of books along the way. Arrive in New York and take in the Tony Award winning musical, The Book of Mormon. This book, this book, this book can save your life!
The only fly in the ointment so far? The Mormons. Since they own and operate most of these historical sites, anyone who stops by for a tour can expect to be subjected to faith-promoting stories and, if yesterday is any evidence, these old men and women won’t let you alone without placing a copy of the Book of Mormon, bearing their testimony and exhorting you to read 3 Nephi.
Yesterday, I was in St. George. I learned recently that I’m related to Erastus Snow. He’s like a fourth great uncle. Since then I’ve read Maureen Whipple’s extraordinary novel, The Giant Joshua, about the hardships of polygamist wives during the founding of what was then known as the “Dixie Mission.” [Note: the word “Dixie” with all of its unsettling connotations is still prevelant here: e.g. Dixie College, with a big “D” (no, not for “Douche” on the side of a red rock mountain.) I was told it’s because most of the 300 original Mormon settlers were originally from the south and came here to grow cotton (some supposedly even had slaves).
So I went to see Brigham Young’s Winter Home, the St. George Temple (well, the visitor’s center), the Tabernacle (there’s a bronze bust of Erastus outside) and the Jacob Hamblin Home. Also stopped by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers’ Museum which has, among other artifacts, Erastus Snow’s Nauvoo Legion uniform. Great stuff, by and large. I learned some interesting tidbits about tick mattresses, rolling pins stored on top to flatten the mattress and kill bed bugs, and why Brigham’s house is painted green (they ordered white paint to paint the St. George Temple, constructed out of sandstone, but when they opened it, found out it was green and couldn’t return it). I also learned, according to one of the helpful missionary tour guides at the Jacob Hamblin Home, where the phrase “tying the knot” comes from: the box springs on old pioneer beds where intersecting lines of rope and you had to tie the knot tighter when it was a marriage bed. Interesting story, even if it’s just an old wives’ tale. But to get to these facts, I had to endure a lot of sermonizing.
On one hand, I can sort of understand this compulsion. If someone walks into a furniture store, you’re going to try to sell them a dinette set. On the other hand, just because you’re interested in history, doesn’t mean you should have to listen to these guys prattle on about the prophets and their supposed prognostications. And just try to stop one of these guys once they start winding up for the pitch. Damn near impossible. Nicest people on earth, though. So self-assured they come off as a little smug, but otherwise they’re like kindly, doting grandparents and since they’ve been “called to serve” in these places, they’re here to save souls first and foremost and their eyes glisten mischievously whenever they find out you’re “not a member.” Inform Lord Vader, our first catch of the day!
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. I think it’s fantastic that the Mormons are interested in preserving the past and I applaud their efforts, including the not insignificant amount of money that probably goes into running and maintaining these sites (I was told that many of the sites in St. George, because of the heat, have to be repainted every ten years). However, I suspect at the same time, they are all-too-often whitewashing history, dumbing it down to the lowest common denominator and, in the process, leaving out any inconvenient truths in order to make everything in their worldview coalesce. It’s probably money well spent. Since they own the sites, they can attempt to make people believe whatever they want about them while brushing aside any apocrypha. But should they do this?
Now I imagine there are a certain number of people–perhaps even the majority of their visitors–who already believe all this stuff lock stock and barrel. If that’s true, all the more reason, say I, to tone down the proselytizing efforts. I mean, really, why preach to the converted? As one of the old elders told me, these sites give contemporary church members much-needed perspective on how much our ancestors had to sacrifice in order to give us a better life. Okay. I get that. And, yes, they can believe an elementary school version of history with good guys and bad guys, if that’s what they want. But do they need to foist these beliefs on others?
As I left the Jacob Hamblin Home, I told the elder who was stationed there that I was heading to Mountain Meadows next and asked if he knew how to get there. “All the roads are well-marked,” he said, repeated nearly verbatim the line I’d heard from the elder who lead the tour at the Tabernacle (sounded suspiciously like a talking point, as I heard critique in the past about how difficult it is to find this place). Then he elaborated, said he’d never been there, had no desire to go, said it was awful what happened there, but (oh, oh, I thought, here we go, thought I), but, he could sort of understand it, given how Missourians had slaughtered our prophet, etc.
Well, I couldn’t wait to see who they had proselytizing at the Mountain Meadows Massacre memorial site. I thought, even for the Mormons, it’s going to be difficult to spin the brutal murder of 157 settlers from Arkansas (including women and children–and after they’d surrendered) into a faith-promoting story.
Imagine my surprise when I got to the memorial site to find it completely deserted. How refreshing. I was left, at last, to my own thoughts, able to reach my own conclusions about this difficult chapter in American and Mormon history.
But give it another one hundred years. These Mormons are nothing if not patient. They already own the land and they’ve constructed the official memorial on the site, dedicated by Ezra Taft Benson on September 11, 1999, a kind of awkward mea culpa. Soon enough, I’m sure there will be a missionary quonset out there with a referral card (featuring a pristine photo of the rock pile) and some elders wet behind the ears asking people where they’re from, eager to place a Book of Mormon.
I think at my next stop, I will tell the missionaries I’m from Provo just so they don’t urge me to read 3 Nephi.