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Ahead of 'September Dawn,' Mormon Church revisits dark period

In response to the new movie, the church sheds light on the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre.

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At a time when the Mormon Church is drawing heightened public visibility because of Mitt Romney's presidential bid, the church is grappling more openly with one of its darkest chapters.

The "Utah War" has largely faded from American memory as the Mormon Church – and the public's acceptance of it – evolved. But one incident from that time stubbornly lingers and is now the subject of a fictionalized film that opens in theaters Friday.

On Sept. 11, 1857, Mormons aided by native American allies massacred about 120 unarmed men, women, and children bound for California by wagon train. The slaughter took place amid war hysteria: The US Army was marching toward Utah to confront Mormon leaders.

After covering up the Mountain Meadows massacre for years, the church is supporting an exhaustive Mormon research effort to leave no stone unturned. The findings, unflattering in spots, are being broadcast worldwide in the latest edition of the church's magazine.

"It's clear that at very important levels the church is opening itself in ways that it had not felt comfortable with [before]," says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor and religion expert at University of Pennsylvania. "People [in Utah] really understand – perhaps as they hadn't until the last five, six years or so – that there's a need and a possibility for real investigation and acceptance of a painful past."

Kent Bylund, a Mormon who owned land at the site in southwestern Utah, has seen a shift in attitude. Tapped by Mormon President Gordon Hinckley to head up construction of a memorial in 1999, Mr. Bylund turned to the local Mormon community for donations of time and money.

"People wanted to be a part of this healing process. For Mormons, it's a part of their heritage, and it's hard for them to come to terms with it," says Bylund.

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