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

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But Bylund also received death threats from Mormons unhappy with the effort. And when a backhoe accidentally dug up a shovel full of bones, distrust of the church flared among victims' relatives. Finally, at the dedication ceremony, Mr. Hinckley offered words of healing to the descendants, but punctuated them with a legalistic disclaimer of any church responsibility.

"Compared to what we've seen in the last 150 years, since 1999 [church officials] have made strides," says Patty Norris, head of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, a group of those related to the 17 children under age 7 who were spared. "But they need to go a lot further. We want them to openly acknowledge that church leaders were involved."

She says her group also wants the church to help round up property that was stolen from the train, agree to turn over the site to some other steward, and – very simply – apologize.

Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have expressed sympathy. "My heart has gone out to the descendants," Elder Dallin Oaks said in a recent PBS documentary. "What a terrible thing to contemplate, that the barbarity of the frontier and the conditions of the Utah war, whatever provocations were perceived to have been given, would have led to ... such an extreme atrocity perpetrated by members of my faith."

The church, says author Will Bagley, is on the horns of a dilemma: "Until you can embrace confession, you can't repent. If you can't repent, there's no forgiveness."

His 2002 book on the massacre, "The Blood of the Prophets," argues that evidence points to Brigham Young hatching the plot to scare the US from its march to war. Religious leaders then used Mormon imagery of apocalypse and vengeance to whip up subordinates.

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