During the 1850s, tension and miscommunication between Latter-day Saints and officials of the United States government led to the Utah War of 1857–58. In September 1857, conflict also arose between some Latter-day Saints and members of an emigrant wagon train passing through Utah. Motivated by anger and fear, some Latter-day Saints in southern Utah planned and carried out the massacre of about 120 emigrants traveling to California. This atrocity is now known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Explain that on July 24, 1857, President Brigham Young was with a group of Saints celebrating the 10th anniversary of their arrival in the Salt Lake Valley when he received confirmation of earlier news that an army was coming to Salt Lake City. In previous years, disagreements and miscommunication had resulted in growing tension between the Latter-day Saints and officials of the United States government. The Saints wanted to be governed by leaders of their own choosing and had rejected federal appointees who did not share their values. That led some federal officials to consider them in rebellion against the United States government. Without approval from Congress, United States President James Buchanan sent approximately 1,500 troops to Salt Lake City to force Utahns to accept new officials.
If you had been a Latter-day Saint in 1857 and had heard that a large army was approaching your city, what concerns might you have had? (Students might mention that the Saints had been violently driven from Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois; many had lost valued possessions and land; and some had been killed or had died during these persecutions. News of the approaching army produced concerns that such events might also occur in Utah.)
Invite a student to read the following paragraph aloud:
In sermons to the Saints, President Young and other Church leaders described the coming troops as enemies. President Young, who for years had asked the Saints to save grain, renewed his instructions so they would have food to eat if they needed to flee from the troops. As governor of the Utah Territory, he also directed the territory’s militia to prepare to defend the territory.
Display a map similar to the one included here, or draw one on the board. Invite a student to read aloud the following two paragraphs:
An emigrant wagon train traveling west from Arkansas to California entered Utah just as Latter-day Saints were preparing to defend the territory against the coming United States troops. Some members of the wagon train became frustrated because they had a difficult time purchasing much-needed grain from the Saints, who had been instructed to save their grain. The emigrants also came into conflict with Saints who did not want the wagon train’s horses and cattle to consume food and water resources the Saints needed for their own animals.
Tensions erupted in Cedar City, the last settlement in Utah on the route to California. Confrontations occurred between some members of the wagon train and some of the Latter-day Saints. Some members of the wagon train threatened to join the incoming government troops against the Saints. Even though the captain of the wagon train rebuked his companions for making these threats, some Cedar City leaders and settlers viewed the emigrants as enemies. The wagon company left town only about an hour after arriving, but some of the settlers and leaders in Cedar City wanted to pursue and punish the men who had offended them.
Invite students to think of times when they have experienced conflicts with another person or a group of people. Invite a student to read 3 Nephi 12:25 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for a principle Jesus Christ taught that can guide us when we experience tension with others.
What do you think it means to “agree with thine adversary quickly”?
To help students understand this phrase, you may want to ask a student to read aloud the following statement:
Elder David E. Sorensen of the Seventy taught that the phrase “agree with thine adversary quickly” means to “resolve our differences early on, lest the passions of the moment escalate into physical or emotional cruelty, and we fall captive to our anger” (“Forgiveness Will Change Bitterness to Love,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2003, 11).
How would you summarize the Savior’s teaching in 3 Nephi 12:25 in your own words? (As students respond, write a principle similar to the following on the board: If we resolve conflict with others in the Lord’s way, then we can avoid the harmful effects of contention.)
How might obeying the principle in 3 Nephi 12:25 have helped the Latter-day Saints who had become upset with members of the wagon train?
Explain that because these Saints did not resolve their conflict with the emigrants in the Lord’s way, the situation became much more serious. Isaac Haight, the Cedar City mayor, militia major, and stake president, requested permission from the militia commander, who lived in the nearby settlement of Parowan, to call out the militia to confront the offenders from the wagon train. The militia commander, William Dame, counseled Isaac Haight to ignore the emigrants’ threats. Instead of yielding to this counsel, Isaac Haight and other Cedar City leaders decided to persuade some local Indians to attack the wagon train and steal their cattle as a way of punishing the emigrants. Isaac Haight asked John D. Lee, a local Church member and militia major, to lead this attack, and the two planned to blame Indians for the deed.
What should the Cedar City leaders have done when William Dame counseled them not to use the militia? What did rejecting counsel then lead them to do? (After students respond, write the following principle on the board: If we ignore counsel to do what is right, then we become more susceptible to making poor choices.)
Point out that these men acted contrary to their priesthood responsibilities. Invite a student to read aloud Doctrine and Covenants 121:36–37. Ask the class to follow along, looking for the Lord’s warning to priesthood holders who act unrighteously.
What warning does the Lord give to priesthood holders who seek to cover their sins or act unrighteously?
Read or summarize the following paragraphs, and invite students to listen for how Cedar City leaders continued to make poor choices after ignoring the counsel they had received.
Isaac Haight presented the plan to attack the wagon train to a council of local leaders in the Church, community, and militia. Some council members strongly disagreed with the plan and asked Haight if he had consulted with President Brigham Young about the matter. Saying he had not, Haight agreed to send a messenger, James Haslam, to Salt Lake City with a letter explaining the situation and asking what should be done. However, because Salt Lake City is approximately 250 miles from Cedar City, it would require about a week of hard riding on horseback for the messenger to reach Salt Lake City and return to Cedar City with President Young’s instructions.
Shortly before Isaac Haight sent his letter with the messenger, John D. Lee and a group of Indians attacked the emigrant camp at a place called the Mountain Meadows. Lee led the attack but concealed his identity so that it would appear that only the Indians were involved. Some of the emigrants were killed or wounded, and the remainder fought off their attackers, forcing Lee and the Indians to retreat. The emigrants quickly pulled their wagons into a tight circle, or corral, for protection. Two additional attacks followed during a five-day siege on the wagon train.
At one point, Cedar City militiamen became aware of two emigrant men who were outside the wagon corral. The militiamen fired on them, killing one. The other man escaped and brought news to the wagon camp that white men were involved in the attacks against them. Those who planned the attacks were now caught in their deception. If the emigrants were allowed to go on to California, news would spread that Latter-day Saints were responsible for the attack on the wagon train. The conspirators feared this news would bring negative consequences upon themselves and their people.
What resulted from the decision to disobey the counsel of the militia commander?
At this point, what choices did those responsible for the attacks have? (They could confess what they had done and receive the consequences, or they could try to hide their crimes and sins. See D&C 121:37.)
What should they have done?
Invite students to ponder the following questions:
What do you do when you do something wrong? Do you confess what you have done wrong and receive the consequences, or do you try to hide the sin through deception?
Explain that the Church members involved in the attacks against the emigrants chose to try to hide their sins. Invite the class to listen for what occurred as a result of this decision as you read or summarize the following paragraphs:
In an attempt to prevent news from spreading that Latter-day Saints were involved in the attacks on the wagon train, Isaac Haight, John D. Lee, and other local Church and militia leaders made a plan to kill all the remaining emigrants except for small children. Enacting this plan, John D. Lee approached the emigrants and said the militia would protect them from further attacks by guiding them safely back to Cedar City. As the emigrants were walking toward Cedar City, the militiamen turned and fired on them. Some Indians rushed from hiding places to join the attack. Of approximately 140 emigrants who were part of the wagon train, only 17 small children were spared.
Two days after the massacre, James Haslam arrived in Cedar City with President Young’s message of reply, instructing the local leaders to allow the wagon train to go in peace. “When Haight read Young’s words, he sobbed like a child and could manage only the words, ‘Too late, too late’” (Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Ensign, Sept. 2007, 20).
Explain that the choices of some Latter-day Saint leaders and settlers in southern Utah Territory led to the tragic Mountain Meadows Massacre. In contrast, Church and territory leaders in Salt Lake City resolved the conflict with the United States government through peace talks and negotiation in 1858. During this conflict—later called the Utah War—the United States troops and Utah militiamen engaged in acts of aggression but never in battle.
How would you summarize the choices that led to the Mountain Meadows Massacre?
What principles can we learn from this tragedy? (Students may identify a variety of principles, but their responses may include the following: Choosing to hide our sins can lead us to commit further sins. Choosing to hide our sins can bring regret and suffering.)
Explain that the Mountain Meadows Massacre not only resulted in the deaths of about 120 victims, but it also caused great suffering to the surviving children and other relatives of the victims. Paiute Indians also suffered from being unjustly blamed for the crime. In addition, those “who carried out the massacre labored the rest of their lives under a horrible sense of guilt and recurring nightmares of what they had done and seen” (Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” 20).
Assure students that if they have started down a path of mistakes and sin, they can prevent future heartache and regret by turning to the Lord and repenting of their sins.
Explain that because a number of local Latter-day Saints were responsible for planning and carrying out the Mountain Meadows Massacre, some people have allowed this event to negatively affect their view of the entire Church.
Why is it important to realize that the wrong actions of some Church members do not determine the truthfulness of the gospel?
Invite a student to read the following statement by President Henry B. Eyring of the First Presidency:
“The gospel of Jesus Christ that we espouse, abhors the cold-blooded killing of men, women, and children. Indeed, it advocates peace and forgiveness. What was done [at the Mountain Meadows] long ago by members of our Church represents a terrible and inexcusable departure from Christian teaching and conduct” (“150th Anniversary of Mountain Meadows Massacre,” Sept. 11, 2007, mormonnewsroom.org/article/150th-anniversary-of-mountain-meadows-massacre).
Invite a student to read Helaman 5:12 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for what we can do to develop and maintain our testimonies so that during difficult times, such as when we learn of instances when Church members have failed to live according to the teachings of Jesus Christ, our faith will not be shaken.
According to Helaman 5:12, what can we do to develop and maintain our testimonies? (After students respond, you may want to write the following principle on the board: We can develop strong testimonies by building our faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ.)
To illustrate this principle, invite a student to read the following paragraph:
“James Sanders is the great-grandson of … one of the children who survived the massacre [and is also a member of the Church]. … Brother Sanders … said that learning his ancestor had been killed in the massacre ‘didn’t affect my faith because it’s based on Jesus Christ, not on any person in the Church’” (Richard E. Turley Jr., “The Mountain Meadows Massacre,” 21).
How can our faith in Jesus Christ strengthen us when we learn of instances when Church members have failed to live according to the Savior’s teachings?
What do you do that helps you to build your faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ?
Testify of the importance of living the Savior’s teachings and basing our faith on Him and His gospel. Invite students to ponder how they might better build their faith on the foundation of Jesus Christ and to set a goal to do so.