Mormons, Catholics both deal with dark side of their histories

(To see Cal Grondahl’s cartoon that goes with this post, go here.) There’s an interesting article in the Fall 2013 issue of The Journal of Mormon History. “Evil in the Family: Mormons and Catholics Struggling with the Dark Side of Their Histories,” by Father Daniel P. Dwyer, notes that both the Catholic and Mormon faiths claim their church as the one established by Jesus Christ. Yet, he adds, both faiths share atrocities committed by the most seemingly devout members of the respective faiths.

A lot of Mormons may take offense at their church being adversely compared to Catholicism’s long history of misdeeds. But compare these two accounts of atrocities, offered by Dwyer. Here is the first:

Enrico and the rest of the band held a council and, after sunrise, attacked the Jews in the hall with arrows and lances. Breaking the bolts and the doors, they killed the Jews, about seven hundred in number, who in vain resisted the force and attack of so many thousands. They killed the women also, and with their swords pierced tender children of whatever age and sex. The Jews seeing that their Christian enemies were attacking them and their children, and they were sparing no age, likewise fell upon one another, brothers, children, wives and sisters, and thus they perished at each other’s hands. Horrible to say, mothers cut the throats of nursing children with knives and stabbed others, preferring them to perish thus by their own hands rather than to be killed by the weapons of the uncircumcised.

Here’s the other example:

I saw several bones of what must have been very small children. Dr. Brewer says from what he saw he thinks some of the infants were butchered. The mothers doubtless had these in their arms, and the same shot or blow may have deprived both of life.

“The scene of the massacre, even at this late day, was horrible to look upon. Women’s hair, in detached locks and masses, hung to (sic) the sage brushes and was strewn over the ground in many places. Parts of little children’s dresses and of female costume dangled from the shrubbery or lay scattered about; and among these, here and there, on every hand, for at least a mile in the direction of the road, by two miles east and west. there gleamed, bleached white by the weather, the skulls and other bones of those who had suffered. A glance into the wagon when all these had been collected revealed a sight which can never be forgotten.

The former is an account of Catholic crusaders in 1096 killing Jews trapped in a hall, put there by a bishop for their “protection.” The latter is an 1859 account of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Two years earlier Mormon “crusaders” had massacred non-Mormon settlers traveling to California. The massacre occurred as the settlers were being led to “safety.”

These are acts of pure evil, encouraged by Satan, if one is a believer. How does one square these massacres with belief in a faith? Dwyer offers three options: “we can try to rationalize the evil and explain it away; we can abandon our respective faiths and deal with, or ignore evil, from the perspective of outsiders; or we can try to admit and understand the evil and look for ways our traditions can help us cope with the aftermath and prevent recurrences.

The third option is often attempted — at least in part — on a singular basis. The LDS Church, for example, has expressed regret for the massacre, among other gestures. The Catholic Church has attempted apologies for much of its sordid history and the priest sexual abuse scandals of the past several decades. However, to fully attempt to live the third option requires consistency. Example: the first option — rationalize and explain away — more or less still defines the LDS Church’s reaction to its “Jim Crow” policies toward blacks in the church, which lasted until 1978.

And, as Dwyer notes, the third option, to be consistent, must apply to all members of a faith, even the most powerful. Compare these two declaration, both from the same era. The first, from Pope Pius IX, in 1864, the Syllabus of Errors (NOTE THAT THE FOLLOWING WAS URGED NOT TO BE BELIEVED BY CATHOLICS):

Good hope at least is to be entertained of the eternal salvation of all those who are not at all in the true Church of Christ.”

“Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion.”

“The church is not a true and perfect society.”

“The Roman pontiffs have, by their too arbitrary conduct, contributed to the division of the Church into Eastern and Western.”

“Catholics may approve of the system of educating youths unconnected with the Catholic faith and the power of the Church.”

“The Church ought to be separated from the State, and the State from the Church.”

“In the present day it is no longer expedient that the Catholic religion should be held as the only religion of the state.”

“The Roman Pontiff can, and ought to, reconcile himself, and come to terms with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.”

And, in early 1857, several months prior to the Mountain Meadows Massacre, LDS Church leaders Brigham Young shared this with the Saints in Salt Lake City, relates Dwyer:

I have known a great many men who have left this church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them. The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force.

“This is loving your neighbor as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. Any of you who understand the principles of eternity, if you have sinned a sin requiring the shedding of blood, except the sin unto death, would not be satisfied nor rest until your blood should be spilled, that you might gain that salvation you desire. That is the way to love mankind.”

Both statements, from Pius IX and Brigham Young, are repugnant, and remind of the theology of radical Islam today. While Young’s words are more violent, the state theology espoused by the late pope would have likely led to violence. Yet, I’m glad Dwyer chose these two examples, precisely because both Pius IX and Young are beloved, often-honored figures within their faiths. Nevertheless, they made statements that no sensible Catholic, or Mormon, would adhere to today.

As Dwyer notes, there are contexts to the above statements. Both faced challenges by hostile powers. Both wanted to consolidate power for what they felt was a good cause. When looking at these examples, it’s best to understand that doctrine and practices for both faiths, Catholic and Mormon, is dynamic, in fact more dynamic than many members or leaders might see or admit to. That’s a good thing. A failure for any religion to change many of its practices or beliefs would nearly always lead to, at least, social ostracism, or at worst, violence and tragedy.

Later in the JMH essay, Dwyer compares the doctrine of papal infallibility with the role of a Mormon prophet. What happens when a pope, or an LDS prophet, spouts something that isn’t true? One example is Young’s failed effort to institute the “Adam-God Doctrine.” Dwyer offers these explanations:

“... even some of our own people misunderstand the doctrine of papal infallibility. It does not mean that a pope is always correct — even when he teaches doctrine. His teaching is infallible only under severely limited conditions. … So if Pope Francis told me the sky was green, it would still be blue.” Later, Dwyer answers the confusion Mormons may feel over Young’s insistence that Adam was God by writing, “If he was wrong, how could he have been a prophet, seer and revelator? Or, as in Catholicism, is the exercise of of the prophetic ministry something that happens only in very defined situations?

These are interesting topics, and Dwyer’s article explores even more similarities and conflicts between Catholicism and Mormonism. What’s most beneficial is the advice that both faiths acknowledge a sometimes adverse, and wicked, past and that practical dynamism, and human fallibility, will create leaders who make mistakes, even in a church that proclaims itself THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST.

As Dwyer notes, in Romans 3:23, it reads “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” The late Mormon scholar Eugene England extolled the strength of the church, its structure, its fellowship, and its role as a place to gain strength and learn to be a more godly individual; all of that occurs, of course, in the present and the future.





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12 Responses to Mormons, Catholics both deal with dark side of their histories

  1. Steve says:

    In the mid-90s I glanced at my mother’s Relief Society manual (or maybe Home Teaching manual, I can’t remember which) and it stated that at the Mountain Meadow Massacre the Mormons only shot the men, while the Indians shot the women and children. I was so stunned by this that I had to read it several times to convince myself it actually said that. I wondered then (and still do) if anyone actually believed that crap.

    So as late as the mid-1990s Native Americans were being scapegoated for the atrocities at Mountain Meadow by the Mormon church, and according to an official church manual killing men was just fine. This is the kind of moral Twister you end up playing when you’re unwilling to acknowledge anything bad in your past.

    • trytoseeitmyway says:

      Since you apparently can’t cite a source, you ought to be a bit more hesitant about drawing firm conclusions.

  2. Howard Ratcliffe says:

    9/11/1857 “Mountain Meadows Massacre” and 500 years of “Inquisition” is more than a little history to deal with

  3. Gregory A. Clark says:

    Good blog, Doug. But, you know me: It doesn’t go far enough.

    The problem isn’t simply the bad side of these religions’ past histories. The problem is also these religions’ *present.*

    Further, the problem is these religions’ *future.*

    If these religions retain their holy texts, then they retain their bigotry. Alternatively, if these religions admit that their holy texts are bunk…then so is their religion.

    Religion: It’s a lose-lose proposition.

    As just one example, the reality is that, although Mormonism can tap-dance around its racist policies that persisted till 1978, and although Mormonism may one day acknowledge these official, racist policies were a mistake, Mormon scripture still today proclaims that black skin is a curse from god.

    When it comes to Mormonism, that’s a “dark” past, present, and future.

    As Twain wrote: “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand.”

  4. Lasvegasrichard says:

    The biggest problem here is that anyone on Earth would attribute the leadership positions in any capacity as that of one that represents a supreme being . But alas, in all of history and future history , they absolutely do not as proven by their stance and behavior .

  5. Hi Gregory,
    I enjoyed Doug’s post as well, but whereas you think that he did not go far enough, I believe that you went too far in your criticism of both the Mormon and Catholic religions, and my guess is that you would extend that criticism to most if not all religions.

    Every religion has a dark side, and every other institution as well. The Catholic heirarchy performed better than the Nazi’s and other facsicsts, communists of various stripes not to mention rising liberal states that colonized much of the world based on brutally extractive political and economic institutions.

    The same can be said of the Mormon heirarchy in the United States. On race, Joseph Smith was at least as progressive as Abraham Lincoln and Brigham Young was certainly not as bad as most leaders of his era. During the same period that the U.S. government permitted slavery and then turned a blind eye toward Jim Crow laws at the state level, Mormon leaders were sending missionaries to teach people of all colors and most ethnic groups. You condemn Mormon, and by inference other holly text, but that same text has transfored racists into loving leaders of various ethnic congregations.

    If we are summing the bad, we should sum the good as well.

      “We know there is a portion of inhabitants of the earth who dwell in Asia that are negroes, and said to be jews. The blood of Judah has not only mingled almost with all nations, but also with the blood of Cain, and they have mingled there seeds together; These negro Jews may keep up all the outer ordinenances of the jewish releigeon, they may have there sacrifices, and they may perform all the releigeous seremonies any people on earth could perform, but let me tell you, that the day they consented to mingle their seed with Cannan, the preisthood was taken away from Judah, and that portion of Judahs seed will never get any rule, or blessings of the preisthood until Cain gets it. Let this Church which is called the kingdom of God on the earth; we will sommons the first presidency, the twelve, the high counsel, the Bishoprick, and all the elders of Isreal, suppose we summons them to apear here, and here declare that it is right to mingle our seed, with the black race of Cain, that they shall come in with with us and be pertakers with us of all the blessings God has given to us. On that very day, and hour we should do so, the preisthood is taken from this Church and kingdom and God leaves us to our fate. The moment we consent to mingle with the seed of Cain the Church must go to desstruction, — we should receive the curse which has been placed upon the seed of Cain, and never more be numbered with the children of Adam who are heirs to the priesthood untill that curse be removed.”
      (Bringham Young)

      • And the above leaves us with a problem. The Scriptures teach that if someone prophesies something that does not come to pass, then God didn’t send him. So, if Bringham Young was wrong that the priesthood would be taken from Mormonism (blacks were allowed into the mormon priesthood in 1978) then God didn’t send him. If he was right, then mormonism lost the priesthood in 1978 and were left to their own fate.

        • Zen Wordsmith says:

          The Mormon Church can never “loose” it’s priesthood. Especially with the ordination of people of color, to the Priesthood. {circa’1978}. It can only dissolve.
          It is probable Dave that “new revelation” by our Prophets, Seers and Revelators can “push” a significant amount of the Kingdom’s demographic, [further underground].
          As with President [Woodruff's] Polygamous Manifesto and just the beginning of the “great chasim”.

          Great conference weekend to you.
          May you have an “Eternal Easter”.

  6. The biggest mistake people make is to be unfamiliar with the Scriptures (the Bible) and to rely on others who say they will tell them what God says. For those who claim to speak to us on behalf of God, what they say should always line up with the Word of God. If it doesn’t, then it is the Bible that is always right. The Apostle Paul commended the Bereans for searching the Scriptures to make sure what he was saying was true. The Scriptures also tell us to test the spirits.

  7. Rockgod28 says:

    Thank you for this article. Brigham Young was a mortal man, imperfect and did his best as governor of Utah as well as president of the Church. He made mistakes. His biggest mistake was instituting the policy of the ban of blacks from holding the priesthood. It was racist, none of the Church guidelines were followed to sustain the policy and as a consequence persisted for over 100 years.

    Did God condemn the people his Church because of their weakness, transgressions and mistakes? No. How do we know.

    July 18th, 1857 Federal Troops leave Kansas on what was called the Utah Expedition comprised of 2,500 men. Under the threat of attack the situation did not improve. On September 11, 1857 the massacre happened. Both President Buchanan and Brigham Young attribute the cause of the massacre to be poor communication between them. The U.S. President wanted a face to face meeting and the Mormon leader said telegrams (a 1850′s telephone call) would have worked. Neither happened thus the massacre.

    The Mormon Church does not deny the massacre happened, in fact by a joint effort of descendants of the massacre and the Church in 2011 it is now a National Historic Landmark.

    As Paul Harvey said the rest of the story of the massacre and the Utah War became known as ‘Buchanan’s Blunder’. The press of the day laid most of the blame for the conflict in Utah squarely upon the President’s shoulders. He is considered one of the worst presidents in US history. Trading places every few years or so with Warren G. Harding when the presidents are ranked by historians.

    While Brigham Young was removed as governor of Utah he went on the lead the Church with the respect of the members for another 20 years. It was not until 1907, fifty years after the Utah War began, that the issues between the federal government and Utah were resolved and many years for other mistakes to be resolved.

    Did Brigham Young, leader of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, make mistakes? Yes. Yes he did. Did people die, suffer and have distress because of his mistakes? Yes. It is a ‘dark side’ we will always have to face as members of the Church. A reminder to members of the Church that we are mortal, weak and must rely upon the Lord, not our traditions, former leaders and history for our strength.

  8. John says:

    The Power of Jesus Christ! +++ Giving Is The Key to Heaven! Give and You Shall Receive: 18JSEBZWXeeCajgRt7PqXUHRxzHUGpjZ4r +++ Praise The Lord and His Son Jesus Christ! +++

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