Criticism of Mormonism/Online documents/"Questions and Answers" on Mormon Stories/Brigham Young and the priesthood ban

Table of Contents

Response to questions about Brigham Young, the priesthood ban and Mountain Meadows Massacre

Quick Navigation

"it was actually Brigham Young who implemented his restriction of LDS priesthood to black people"

The author's unresolved question

"(25 June 2014 revision): I learned that Joseph Smith ordained black men to the LDS priesthood while he was alive, and that it was actually Brigham Young who implemented his restriction of LDS priesthood to black people"

Author's source(s)



Gospel Topics: "During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood"

"Race and the Priesthood," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013):

During the first two decades of the Church’s existence, a few black men were ordained to the priesthood. One of these men, Elijah Abel, also participated in temple ceremonies in Kirtland, Ohio, and was later baptized as proxy for deceased relatives in Nauvoo, Illinois. There is no evidence that any black men were denied the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s lifetime.

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church.[1]


Question: What do we know about the origin of the priesthood ban on Church members of African descent?

The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban

The origin of the priesthood ban is one of the most difficult questions to answer. Its origins are not clear, and this affected both how members and leaders have seen the ban, and the steps necessary to rescind it. The Church has never provided an official reason for the ban, although a number of Church leaders offered theories as to the reason for its existence. The Church currently provides the following background information regarding the initiation of the ban in its Gospel Topics essay "Race and the Priesthood":

In 1852, President Brigham Young publicly announced that men of black African descent could no longer be ordained to the priesthood, though thereafter blacks continued to join the Church through baptism and receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost. Following the death of Brigham Young, subsequent Church presidents restricted blacks from receiving the temple endowment or being married in the temple. Over time, Church leaders and members advanced many theories to explain the priesthood and temple restrictions. None of these explanations is accepted today as the official doctrine of the Church. [2]

Given that none of these theories regarding the reason for the ban is accepted today, Church members have generally taken one of three perspectives:

  • Some members assume that the ban was based on revelation to Joseph Smith, and was continued by his successors until President Kimball. However, Joseph Smith did ordain several men of African descent to the priesthood.
  • Some believe that the ban did not originate with Joseph Smith, but was implemented by Brigham Young. The evidence supports the idea that Brigham Young implemented it, but there is no record of an actual revelation having been received regarding it.
  • Some believe that the ban began as a series of administrative policy decisions, rather than a revealed doctrine, and drew partly upon ideas regarding race common in mid-19th century America. The passage of time gave greater authority to this policy than intended.

The difficulty in deciding between these options arises because:

  • there is no contemporary account of a revelation underlying the ban; but
  • many early members nevertheless believed that there had been such a revelation; and
  • priesthood ordination of African blacks was a rare event, which became even more rare with time.

The history behind the practice in the modern Church of withholding the priesthood based on race is described well by Lester Bush in a 1984 book.[3] A good timeline can be found at FairMormon's BlackLDS site: FairMormon link.

Many leaders have indicated that the Church does not know why the ban was in place

  • Gordon B. Hinckley in an interview:
Q: So in retrospect, was the Church wrong in that [not ordaining blacks]?
A [Pres. Hinckley]: No, I don't think it was wrong. It, things, various things happened in different periods. There's a reason for them.
Q: What was the reason for that?
A: I don't know what the reason was. But I know that we've rectified whatever may have appeared to be wrong at the time.[4]
  • Elder Dallin H. Oaks:
If you read the scriptures with this question in mind, 'Why did the Lord command this or why did he command that,' you find that in less than one in a hundred commands was any reason given. It's not the pattern of the Lord to give reasons. We can put reasons to commandments. When we do, we're on our own. Some people put reasons to [the ban] and they turned out to be spectacularly wrong. There is a lesson in that.... The lesson I've drawn from that, I decided a long time ago that I had faith in the command and I had no faith in the reasons that had been suggested for it.
...I'm referring to reasons given by general authorities and reasons elaborated upon [those reasons] by others. The whole set of reasons seemed to me to be unnecessary risk taking.
...Let's [not] make the mistake that's been made in the past, here and in other areas, trying to put reasons to revelation. The reasons turn out to be man-made to a great extent. The revelations are what we sustain as the will of the Lord and that's where safety lies.[5]
  • Elder Jeffrey R. Holland:
One clear-cut position is that the folklore must never be perpetuated. ... I have to concede to my earlier colleagues. ... They, I'm sure, in their own way, were doing the best they knew to give shape to [the policy], to give context for it, to give even history to it. All I can say is however well intended the explanations were, I think almost all of them were inadequate and/or wrong. ...
It probably would have been advantageous to say nothing, to say we just don't know, and, [as] with many religious matters, whatever was being done was done on the basis of faith at that time. But some explanations were given and had been given for a lot of years. ... At the very least, there should be no effort to perpetuate those efforts to explain why that doctrine existed. I think, to the extent that I know anything about it, as one of the newer and younger ones to come along, ... we simply do not know why that practice, that policy, that doctrine was in place.[6]
  • Elder Alexander B. Morrison:
We do not know.[7]

Is racial prejudice acceptable?

  • President Hinckley in priesthood session of General Conference:
Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be. It seemed to me that we all rejoiced in the 1978 revelation given President Kimball. I was there in the temple at the time that that happened. There was no doubt in my mind or in the minds of my associates that what was revealed was the mind and the will of the Lord.
Now I am told that racial slurs and denigrating remarks are sometimes heard among us. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ. Nor can he consider himself to be in harmony with the teachings of the Church of Christ. How can any man holding the Melchizedek Priesthood arrogantly assume that he is eligible for the priesthood whereas another who lives a righteous life but whose skin is of a different color is ineligible?
Throughout my service as a member of the First Presidency, I have recognized and spoken a number of times on the diversity we see in our society. It is all about us, and we must make an effort to accommodate that diversity.
Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children.
Brethren, there is no basis for racial hatred among the priesthood of this Church. If any within the sound of my voice is inclined to indulge in this, then let him go before the Lord and ask for forgiveness and be no more involved in such.[8]


Question: Did Joseph Smith confer the priesthood on several black men?

Missouri was a slave state, and the locals persecuted the Missouri saints and destroyed their press in part because of W. W. Phelps's editorials supporting abolition

As Mormons settled into Missouri, some of their viewpoints about slavery (D&C 101:79,87:4) did not mesh well with those of the older settlers. The 1831 Nat Turner Rebellion left many southerners nervous as church leaders later recognized: "All who are acquainted with the situation of slave States, know that the life of every white is in constant danger, and to insinuate any thing which could possibly be interpreted by a slave, that it was not just to hold human beings in bondage, would be jeopardizing the life of every white inhabitant in the country."[9] Unfortunately, this recognition came after mobs persecuted the Missouri saints and destroyed their press in part because of W. W. Phelps's editorials supporting abolition.[10]

Early missionaries were instructed to not teach or baptize slaves without their master's consent, but Joseph Smith conferred the priesthood on several free black men

Under these precarious conditions, early missionaries were instructed to not teach or baptize slaves without their master's consent (see D&C 134:12). Late, perhaps unreliable, recollections suggest that Joseph Smith received inspiration that blacks should not be ordained while contemplating the situation in the South.[11] These accounts must be weighed against records of free blacks receiving the priesthood such as Black Pete (1831 OH), Elijah Abel (1835 OH), Joseph T. Ball (1837 MA), Isaac van Meter (<1837 ME), and Walker and Enoch Lewis (Fall 1843-Nov. 1844 MA). Since Ohio had a law discouraging Blacks from migrating there, this put a damper on early proselyting efforts which were largely based on the principle of the gathering.[12] Parley Pratt wrote in 1839 that the Church had less than a dozen Black members.[13]

Those who hold that the ban had a revelatory basis see the early ordinations as events which occurred prior to the revelation or without knowledge of it, while those who see the ban as more of a social/cultural phenomenon point to these ordinations as an example of the "pragmatic grounds" upon which decisions about black ordination were made.

Outsiders do not seem to have regarded members of the Church in the 1830s as sharing typical American ideas about race

Outsiders do not seem to have regarded members of the Church in the 1830s as sharing typical American ideas about race. In 1835, a skeptical account of their doctrines and beliefs noted:

As the promulgators of this extraordinary legend maintain the natural equality of mankind, without excepting the native Indians or the African race, there is little reason to be surprised at the cruel persecution by which they have suffered, and still less at the continued accession of converts among those who sympathize with the wrongs of others or seek an asylum for their own.

The preachers and believers of the following doctrines were not likely to remain, unmolested, in the State of Missouri.

“The Lord God hath commanded that men should not murder; that they should not lie; that they should not steal, &c. He inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness: and he denieth none that come unto him; black and white—bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.” Again: “Behold! the Lamanites, your brethren, whom ye hate, because of their filthiness and the cursings which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father, &c. Wherefore the Lord God will not destroy them; but will be merciful to them; and one day they shall become [58] a blessed people.” “O my brethren, I fear, that, unless ye shall repent of your sins, that their skins shall be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God*. Wherefore a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins,” &c. “The king saith unto him, yea! if the Lord saith unto us, go! we will go down unto our brethren, and we will be their slaves, until we repair unto them the many murders and sins, which we have committed against them. But Ammon saith unto him, it is against the law of our brethren, which was established by my father, that there should any slaves among them. Therefore let us go down and rely upon the mercies of our brethren.”[14]


Question: Why did Brigham Young initiate the priesthood ban?

The start of Brigham Young's administration saw a continuation of Joseph Smith's policies

The start of Brigham Young's administration saw a continuation of Joseph Smith's policies. William McCary was baptized and ordained at Winter Quarters in October 1846. The following March, Brigham acknowledged the validity of the ordination of Walker Lewis that likely occurred during Joseph's tenure, "we [have] one of the best Elders an African in Lowell [,MA] -- a barber." [15]

The priesthood ban became more comprehensive to include not only slaves and free blacks in the South, but all persons deemed to have inherited the curse of Cain through Ham

The priesthood ban then became more comprehensive to include not only slaves and free blacks in the South, but all persons deemed to have inherited the curse of Cain through Ham. Three pivotal events in this development were the apostasy of William McCary, the interracial marriage of Walker Lewis's son, and the passing of slavery legislation in Utah Territory.

McCary approached Brigham Young with complaints that racial discrimination was a motive behind other Mormon leaders questioning his strange teachings. President Young satisfied McCary that ideally race should not be the issue. Praising Walker Lewis as an example, Young suggested "Its nothing to do with the blood for [from] one blood has God made all flesh" and later added "we don't care about the color." [16] Shortly thereafter McCary was excommunicated for apostasy. In April, Brigham Young departed with the vanguard pioneer company for the Rocky Mountains only to return around December to face additional race-based problems.

In April, Elder Parley P. Pratt had warned of the Saints about following schisms led by those like James Strang and William McCary. Significantly he referred to William McCary as "this black man who has got the blood of Ham in him which linege was cursed as regards the priesthood".[17] McCary had married a Stake President's white daughter and advocated polygamy before his excommunication and afterward he began drawing away Mormon women to be sealed to him in a carnal manner.

Brigham was adamantly against racial amalgamation

Also awaiting Brigham was William Appleby, the president over eastern branches of the Church. He had encountered the Lewises and suspected William Smith had acted improperly by ordaining a black elder. He was also alarmed that Enoch Lewis had married a white wife and had a child. Brigham responded to this news in a manner that is, by modern sensitivities, quite disturbing. He was adamantly against racial amalgamation (see Brigham Young on race mixing for more context). While allowing that interracial couples should not be denied baptism, he introduced a ban on temple service for them and/or their offspring.

Brigham Young never presented a specific revelation on priesthood or temple restrictions he imposed

However, Brigham Young did not present a specific revelation on priesthood or temple restrictions he imposed. A definitive statement wasn't made by him until 1852 in a legislative, rather than ecclesiastical forum. Governor Young declared "any man having one drop of the seed of [Cain] ... in him cannot hold the priesthood and if no other Prophet ever spake it before I will say it now in the name of Jesus Christ I know it is true and others know it." [18] Like the Missouri period, the Saints were externally pressured to adopt racial policies as a political compromise. At the time, this was deemed to be the best pathway to statehood.

Those who believe the ban had a revelatory basis point to these pivotal events as examples of a prophet learning "line upon line," with revelation being implemented more rigorously. Those who see the influence of cultural factors and institutional practice behind the ban consider this evidence that the ban was based on Brigham's cultural and scriptural assumptions, and point out that such beliefs were common among most Christians in Antebellum America.[19]


Question: What did Church leaders after Brigham Young think of the priesthood ban?

John Taylor conducted an investigation and concluded the policy had started under Joseph Smith, rather than Brigham Young

In 1879, John Taylor conducted an investigation and concluded the policy had started under Joseph Smith, rather than Brigham Young, despite receiving mixed information.[20] As part of this investigation Zebedee Coltrin recalled that Joseph Smith said in 1834 that "the Spirit of the Lord saith the Negro had no right nor cannot hold the Priesthood." However, this claim is suspect given Coltrin's errors on the circumstances of Elijah Abel's ordination, participation in Kirtland temple ordinances, and retention in the Seventies quorum all under the supervision of Joseph Smith.[21]

President George Q. Cannon in 1895 asserted that some of Young's teachings about miscegenation and the seed of Cain had first been taught by Joseph Smith.[22]

B.H. Roberts was the first to argue, based on the Book of Abraham, that the curse of Cain had continued to modern blacks through the lineage of Ham

Nearly forty years after the ban started, B.H. Roberts was the first to argue, based on the Book of Abraham, that the curse of Cain had continued to modern blacks through the lineage of Ham.[23]

George Albert Smith, indicated that the priesthood ban had been imposed by "direct commandment from the Lord"

President George Albert Smith, indicated that the priesthood ban had been imposed by "direct commandment from the Lord."

The attitude of the Church with reference to Negroes remains as it has always stood. It is not a matter of the declaration of a policy but of direct commandment from the Lord, on which is founded the doctrine of the Church from the days of its organization, to the effect that Negroes may become members of the Church but that they are not entitled to the priesthood at the present time.
—First Presidency statement, August 17, 1949

Joseph Fielding Smith opined that blacks may have been less valiant in the pre-mortal conflict between God and Satan

Joseph Fielding Smith opined that blacks may have been less valiant in the pre-mortal conflict between God and Satan (however, he rejected that they may have been neutral in the war in heaven).[24]

David O. McKay believed that the ban was "not doctrine but...policy"

  • David O. McKay believed that the ban was "not doctrine but...policy," as reported by Sterling McMurrin,[25] his son Llewelyn McKay,[26] and Elder Paul H. Dunn.[27] President McKay told Elder Marion D. Hanks that "he had pleaded and pleaded with the Lord, but had not had the answer he sought."[28]
  • The "Missouri policy theory" attributing the ban to Joseph Smith arising from condition in Missouri was first popularized in 1970 by author Stephen Taggert,[29] and President Hugh B. Brown reportedly embraced it.[30] Other authors found this theory wanting.[31]

Harold B. Lee was inclined to reconfirm the ban

  • Harold B. Lee was inclined to reconfirm the ban,[32] though Church Historian Leonard Arrington
...asserts that President Lee, shortly before his death, sought the Lord's will on the question of blacks and the priesthood during'three days and nights [of] fasting in the upper room of the temple,...but the only answer he received was "not yet." Arrington relied on an unidentified person close to President Lee, but President Lee's son-in-law and biographer found no record of such an incident and thought it doubtful.[33]

Following Joseph Fielding Smith's death, President Lee did say, "For those who don't believe in modern revelation there is no adequate explanation. Those who do understand revelation stand by and wait until the Lord speaks...It's only a matter of time before the black achieves full status in the Church. We must believe in the justice of God. The black will achieve full status, we're just waiting for that time."[34]

President Kimball said that the day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but should the day come it will be a matter of revelation

President Kimball began his administration by holding a press conference. When asked about the ban, he said:

[I have given it] "a great deal of thought, a great deal of prayer. The day might come when they would be given the priesthood, but that day has not come yet. Should the day come it will be a matter of revelation. Before changing any important policy, it has to be through a revelation from the Lord."[35]

He had previously written to his son:

"...I have wished the Lord had given us a little more clarity in the matter. But for me, it is enough...I know the Lord could change His policy and release the ban and forgive the possible error (?) which brought about the deprivation. If the time comes, that He will do, I am sure."[36]

In 1976, he mentioned

"his concern for giving the priesthood to all men, and said that he had been praying about it for fifteen years without an answer...but I am going to keep praying about it."[37]


"Brigham Young held and taught incredibly horrific racist views during his life"

The author's unresolved question

"(25 June 2014 revision): I also discovered that Brigham Young held and taught incredibly horrific racist views during his life"

Author's source(s)

Response to the author's claim


Almost any inhabitant of the nineteenth century America would have held views about race that do not match 21st century ones. The author seems to expect all prophets to completely escape their culture and environment—but LDS doctrine and theology insist that this is precisely what does not happen (D&C 1:24).

It almost seems like the author is trying to use his laundry list of concerns as a way of speaking to the press—whose attention he has vigorously sought once the risk of a Church disciplinary council appeared—of the things most likely to shock and offend modern audiences. This allows him to play the enlightened rationalist, and paint prophets as backward and bigoted. The author ignores, however, that his relative lack of racist sentiment owes a great deal to his culture and upbringing, just as Brigham's views owe a great deal to his. The author's "enlightened" stance is much less to his credit, and Brigham's racism much less to his condemnation, than the author apparently wishes us to believe.



Question: Was Brigham Young a racist?

Brigham Young made a number of statements which are now considered blatantly racist

Brigham Young made a number of statements which are now considered blatantly racist. [38]

Why did past prophets make racist statements? God had already revealed to Peter that he should not call anything "common" that God had cleansed (Acts 10:9-16), yet some modern-day prophets thought that blacks were inferior to whites; why is that?

Elder Neil L. Anderson said,

A few question their faith when they find a statement made by a Church leader decades ago that seems incongruent with our doctrine. There is an important principle that governs the doctrine of the Church. The doctrine is taught by all 15 members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve. It is not hidden in an obscure paragraph of one talk. True principles are taught frequently and by many. Our doctrine is not difficult to find.

The leaders of the Church are honest but imperfect men. Remember the words of Moroni: “Condemn me not because of mine imperfection, neither my father … ; but rather give thanks unto God that he hath made manifest unto you our imperfections, that ye may learn to be more wise than we have been” (Ether 12:6). [39]

We should be forgiving of past prophets who we today would perceive as being "racists," or otherwise unsophisticated when compared to the present day

We should be forgiving of past prophets who we today would perceive as being "racists," or otherwise unsophisticated when compared to the present day. Lest we judge harshly, we ought to consider that even the Savior himself spoke of "outsiders" using language that we today would consider grossly offensive (Matthew 15:26).

We are warned, however, that we will be judged in the same manner in which we judge others (Matthew 7:2, Mark 4:24). If we condemn those of the past for being imperfect or influenced by their culture, what can we expect for ourselves?

“On the day I arrived, students had seen the segment in which Governor Ross Barnett physically bars James Meredith from registering at Ole Miss. In the ensuing discussion, the teacher asked students why Barnett objected to Meredith’s enrollment. One boy raised his hand and volunteered, ‘Prejudice.’ The teacher nodded and the discussion moved on.

“That simple ‘prejudice’ unsettled me. Four hundred years of racial history reduced to a one-word response? This set me to wondering what would it take before we begin to think historically about such concepts as ‘prejudice,’ racism,’ ‘tolerance,’ fairness,’ and ‘equity.’ At what point do we come to see these abstractions not as transcendent truths soaring above time and place, but as patterns of thought that take root in particular historical moments, develop, grow, and emerge in new forms in successive generations while still bearing traces of their former selves?”

— Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadeliphia: temple University Press, 2001), 17.

The perception that past prophets were "just like us" is incorrect

In the Church we spend a lot of time "likening the scriptures unto ourselves," to use Nephi's phrase (1 Nephi 19:23).

This approach has the advantage of making the teachings of the scriptures and early Church leaders apply to us, so they become agents of change in our lives, rather than just artifacts to be studied in a detached way.

The disadvantage of this approach, though, is that it can build the perception that past prophets were "just like us" — having all the same assumptions, traditions, and beliefs. But this is not the case at all. Prophets in all dispensations have been "men of their times," who were raised with certain beliefs and interacted all their lives with others who shared those beliefs.

For example, the Old Testament peoples believed the earth was a flat expanse, with the sky a solid dome made out of a shiny, brass-like substance. But this was the way everyone understood things at that time, so we don't begrudge Isaiah and Ezekiel of speaking of the "four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12; Ezekiel 7:2), or Job for thinking the sky was a mirror (Job 37:18), or the Psalmist for thinking the earth stood still while the sun went around it (Psalms 93:1; Psalms 19:4-6).

The same principle holds true when examining the beliefs of earlier prophets about people of different races. Most nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints were raised in a world where all Black people were either slaves or illiterate poor. At the time there was much debate among American Christians in general as to how Blacks fit into God's overall plan as described in the Bible. Many theories abounded, with virtually all of them justifying, in one way or another, slavery or relegation of Blacks to the role of second-class citizens. There was even debate as to whether or not Blacks were human beings with souls that could receive salvation. (In contrast to this general Christian view, Joseph Smith declared rather progressively that yes, Blacks did have souls and could be saved.[40]

Some LDS leaders were wary of the civil rights movement that started in the 1950s, and publicly stated their concerns

This continued into the twentieth century. Some LDS leaders were wary of the civil rights movement that started in the 1950s, and publicly stated their concerns. But there were differences of opinion among the brethren on this. At one end was Elder Ezra Taft Benson, who believed that the American civil rights movement was a front for communism; at the other was President Hugh B. Brown, who felt that the Church should publicly support the civil rights movement.[41]

From our perspective as "enlightened" people of the early twenty-first century, virtually everyone in America up until the last few decades — prophets and other LDS leaders included — held beliefs that we could now consider racist. But that was the culture of the times, and we, like the rest of society, have progressed (line upon line, precept upon precept, see 2 Nephi 28:30) to become better people in this respect, more tolerant, more accepting. Fifty years from now, people will probably look back at our time and say, "How could they have been so bigoted?" Or, "How could they have missed issue X, which seems so clear to us now, in retrospect?"

The key point here is that the Lord works with the people who are available

The key point here is that the Lord works with the people who are available. He does not make them into radicals; he gives them just enough light and understanding to lift the Saints a little and make them more fit for the kingdom. In his mercy, God works with people where they are, and does not wait for them to be perfect before he will deign to speak to them.

Non-LDS Biblical commentators have noted this same tendency is present with Biblical prophets:

Though purified and ennobled by the influence of His Holy Spirit; men each with his own peculiarities of manner and disposition—each with his own education or want of education—each with his own way of looking at things—each influenced differently from another by the different experiences and disciplines of his life. Their inspiration did not involve a suspension of their natural faculties; it did not even make them free from earthly passion; it did not make them into machines—it left them men. Therefore we find their knowledge sometimes no higher than that of their contemporaries.[42]


"guilty of covering up....The Mountain Meadows Massacre"

The author's unresolved question

"(25 June 2014 revision): I also discovered that Brigham Young....also was guilty of covering up one of the most horrific massacres in the history of the Western United States (i.e., The Mountain Meadows Massacre)."

Author's source(s)

Response to the author's claim


The evidence does not support the author's confidence in his "discovery."



Question: Was prosecution of those responsible for Mountain Meadows Massacre blocked by the Church?

There is no evidence the Church blocked prosecution of the Massacre perpetrators

It is claimed that actions of Brigham Young and the institutional Church and/or local Mormons prevented federal officials from prosecuting those guilty of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

There is no evidence the Church blocked prosecution of the Massacre perpetrators. There is substantial evidence that poor federal organization, infighting, and refusal to deputize LDS lawmen played a role in slowing the process. When presented with evidence by lawful authorities, LDS juries returned indictments.

  • The post-Utah war amnesty led some non-members to believe that the massacre was covered under the presidential amnesty.
  • There was a long-running dispute over jurisdiction and tactics between the judiciary and the executive (i.e., federal prosecutor) branches. This had nothing to do with the Mormons, but hampered prosecution.
  • Disputes between the above groups also led to difficulties with the army, something also not under Mormon control or influence.
  • Judges' meddling in the arrest process made it virtually impossible to properly arrest and indict perpetrators.
  • The grand jury in southern Utah was never asked to indict anyone for the Massacre during their first session. When presented with the opportunity, they returned indictments later that same year.
  • The Mormons did not, as claimed, insist on the right to dictate who sat on petit juries. Other federal officials declared this to be completely false.
  • Federal officials and judges refused to deputize or use LDS lawmen to make arrests.
  • The U.S. attorney general refused the district attorney's request to reopen the investigation in 1872—once again, this was beyond the Mormons' control or influence.
  • Brigham Young had been relieved of his position as territorial governor. He had no secular authority to directly arrest or charge perpetrators.

One reviewer described the difficulties with this theory: [43]

The Amnesty

Blood of the Prophets has charged high-ranking church officials with two decades of obstructing the federal investigation. Bagley's emphasis is in Mormon history, so he sometimes shows his lack of breadth in political and social matters that originate outside the Great Basin. One of the areas in which he displays this weakness is his failure to discuss the effect of President Buchanan's general amnesty upon the massacre prosecutions (p. 205).
[U.S. President] Buchanan issued an amnesty for all crimes of the Mormons related to the claimed acts of sedition and treason [during the U.S. army's assignment to Utah in the abortive "Utah War"]. Governor Alfred Cumming announced a broad interpretation of that amnesty to the Saints on 14 June 1858. Certainly, by the date of the amnesty, federal officials believed that Mormons had directed the massacre, and they believed that John D. Lee was one of the leaders. One might reasonably conclude that the amnesty was intended to cover the massacre participants.
Some in the federal government and the press believed that Buchanan intended to pardon the massacre perpetrators. Indian superintendent Jacob Forney was so upset with U.S. District Court Judge John Cradlebaugh's massacre investigation that he cursed Cradlebaugh's name, citing the amnesty as the basis for his objections, or so we are told from a source hostile to Forney. Non-Mormon U.S. District Attorney Alexander Wilson and non-Mormon U.S. District Court Judge Charles C. Sinclair disagreed over the application of the amnesty, with Wilson refusing to present to the jury bills of indictment. Harper's Weekly noted the conflict over the amnesty in the prosecution of the massacre. The New York Post opined that the amnesty excused the massacre crimes because it was an aspect of the Utah war intended to come within the amnesty's scope. It is no wonder that prosecution was uncertain. But, given the controversy the amnesty sparked in the Eastern press with regard to the massacre investigation, it seems that Blood of the Prophets would have discussed it. This is a significant omission.

Disputes between the executive and judicial branches

The presidential amnesty contributed to the lengthy delay in federal prosecution. In addition, the federal judiciary and federal prosecutor fought over control of the massacre investigation. This internecine dispute stymied federal investigation of the massacre for several years. Bagley does not discuss this feud as a source for delay.
At the national level in the early nineteenth century, the federal judiciary and the prosecutors repeatedly jockeyed for power in ways that would appear unseemly today. Thomas Jefferson said that the "great object of my fear is the federal judiciary. That body, like gravity, ever acting with noiseless foot & unalarming advance, [is] gaining ground step by step. . . . Let the eye of vigilance never be closed." He condemned the judiciary's usurpation of the legislative prerogatives with its pious interpretation of its own brand of Christianity.55 The U.S. Constitution gives little direction to the judiciary compared to what it gives to the legislative and executive branches. The Hamiltonian Federalists saw the federal judiciary as a way to expand federal power and to crush state self-determinism (read: slavery). The Jeffersonian republicans believed states' rights were paramount except as to powers specifically delegated to the federal government. The Federalist judiciary gained the upper hand with the enforcement of the Sedition Act of 4 July 1798, which crushed Jeffersonian dissent. As historian James Simon explains, their "blatantly partisan actions [of stifling criticism of the John Adams administration] in pursuit of convictions under the Sedition Act reinforced Jefferson's profound distrust of the federal judiciary." Supreme Court Justice Salmon Chase's prosecutions under the Sedition Act, while a sitting Supreme Court justice, were notorious, eventually leading to an attempt to remove him by impeachment.
Utah's federal judges replayed this high national drama on a frontier stage. As with the amnesty, Blood of the Prophets fails to see the broad political and social issues of the struggle for federal power. Brigham Young's demand for local self-determinism replaced Thomas Jefferson's urbane urge for state self-determinism. Polygamy, rather than slavery, was an affront to federal power and needed to be crushed. In the early days of Utah, federal judges of questionable character—a point Van Vliet conceded—directed the investigation of crime, requested army troops to march against the local citizenry, harangued citizens in their places of worship about the lack of virtue in their plural wives, and testified in Congress about Mormon debauchery. These judicial efforts to crush the Mormon theocracy would be unthinkable today in any social context.
Blood of the Prophets accepts Cradlebaugh's account of the dispute uncritically, condemning the U.S. district attorney as "pliant" (p. 235) and "'closely allied to the Mormons by some mysterious tie'" (p. 217) for failing to do anything about the massacre. Citing Cradlebaugh and Sinclair, we are told that Wilson's "whole course of conduct has been marked with culpable timidity and neglect." Bagley would have us believe that the U.S. district attorney was too cozy with the Mormons and that the Mormons lobbied him to ignore the massacre.
The official correspondence, however, shows that the executive and judicial branches of government distrusted each other and that neither was effective in the prosecution of the massacre. The purported investigation began, at least in Cradlebaugh's view, with grand jury proceedings from 8 to 21 March 1859 in Provo. Mormon accounts say Cradlebaugh called out the army to terrorize the local Provo population with the might of federal power. Cradlebaugh and Bagley assert that the troops were necessary to protect the court and witnesses from Mormon Danite assassins. Governor Cumming sided with the Mormons, who were outraged with Cradlebaugh's use of the troops. Cumming believed that he, as the federal executive, had the sole civilian authority to call out the troops in the Territory.
Attorney General Black in Washington, D.C., said that it was not Cradlebaugh's job to determine whom to prosecute or when to call out the troops. He instructed U.S. District Attorney Wilson to "oppose every effort which any judge may make to usurp your functions. . . . If the judges will confine themselves to the simple and plain duty imposed upon them by law of hearing and deciding the cases that are brought before them, I am sure that the business of the Territory will get along very well."
President Buchanan approved of Wilson's efforts to resist the judiciary's incursion into his prerogatives and the use of federal troops. General Albert Sidney Johnston, commanding Camp Floyd, implied that he was unhappy being called into the fray to support the judiciary.
Black attempted to rein in the Utah judges, explaining to them the judiciary's function to "hear patiently the causes brought before them." The executive branch has a "public accuser, and a marshal." As the U.S. Supreme Court said in an 1868 landmark case, public prosecutions are within the exclusive jurisdiction of the U.S. district attorney until indicted offenses are in trial before a petit jury. Judges have no role in prosecutions until then.
Addressing a defensive letter to President Buchanan, Cradlebaugh and fellow judge Charles Sinclair admitted that "the difficulty [which has] arisen between the judiciary and executive is deeply to be deplored." Nonetheless, the judges attacked Governor Cumming and U.S. District Attorney Wilson for failing to faithfully execute their duties, especially in connection with the 1859 Provo grand jury.
Cradlebaugh's grasping for prosecutorial power made prosecution nigh impossible. Prosecutors must work with judges to obtain warrants and convene grand juries, but Cradlebaugh would not cooperate. He complained to Buchanan that Wilson refused to execute (i.e., serve) bench warrants for witnesses, but Wilson countered that Cradlebaugh would not give him the warrants for execution. Wilson wanted the massacre grand jury to be empanelled in southern Utah, close to the scene. He also urged the Justice Department to provide funds "to enable the officers of the court to make a patient and thorough search for evidence." Cradlebaugh (remember, he is the judge, not the prosecutor) responded to Wilson's request by traveling to Santa Clara and issuing arrest warrants in 1859. None of them were executed. Why not? Cradlebaugh failed to include in his entourage the person with prosecutorial discretion, the U.S. district attorney. He further refused to respond to Wilson's request for information about the warrants so that they could be served. Cradlebaugh also refused to tell Wilson about his activities in Santa Clara. Blood of the Prophets does not explain how the prosecutor could be expected to prosecute when the judge shuts him out of the process.
The significance of this episode is unmistakable. The prosecution delayed as it resisted the judiciary's grasping for control of the massacre investigation. This material escapes Bagley.

Mormons would not indict in 1859 grand jury?

According to Bagley, the 8—21 March 1859 grand jury proceedings in Provo provide a lurid but relevant detour in the story of the massacre prosecutions. He uses the story of the grand jury to show that Mormons obstructed prosecutions by refusing to indict their own for the massacre and for other crimes. The book claims that the grand jury "'utterly refused to do anything'" about the massacre and other crimes against non-Mormons. Thus the federal grand jury "ground to a halt" (p. 218). The implication of Bagley's claim is that church authorities instructed grand jurors to obstruct voting when bills for indictment against Mormons were presented to them. Bagley, however, has missed primary source material which contradicts his conclusions.
This tale of the grand jury is central to one of Bagley's more salacious themes. Blood of the Prophets paints a picture of a community of priests dripping in gentile blood, with Mormon laity thumbing their noses as federal authorities sought to staunch the flow. Bagley and Cradlebaugh make much of the all-Mormon Provo grand jury's failure to return any criminal indictments, including in the notorious Parrish and Potter case and the Henry Jones case. Blood of the Prophets does not have the facts right in the Henry Jones case, confusing it with a different and unrelated crime. Bagley tells us that church authorities obstructed not only the massacre investigation, but also the investigation of other notorious crimes for which, he says, there were never any indictments (pp. 75—76).
The official correspondence refutes these claims. Bagley has the facts wrong because he does not rely upon the official files. U.S. District Attorney Wilson's diary (again, it was his duty to bring indictments, not Cradlebaugh's) and his report to the U.S. attorney general indicate that no indictment was obtained from the Provo grand jury for the Mountain Meadows Massacre because none was requested by the U.S. district attorney. Yes, Judge Cradlebaugh may have asked for indictments in his initial charge, but this was an empty request because it was not his lawful request to make. It was U.S. District Attorney Wilson's job alone to control the grand jury's reception of evidence and the timing of decision. Wilson never asked the grand jury to indict for massacre offenses. The grand jury's term was occupied with other crimes, and then Cradlebaugh discharged the grand jury before Wilson could ask the grand jury to act. An army officer, familiar with the proceedings, opined that the reason Cradlebaugh dismissed the grand jury precipitously was not that Cradlebaugh was upset with its performance, but that General Johnston withdrew Cradlebaugh's army escort. In addition, when a second grand jury was empanelled in 1859, no indictments were sought for the massacre. Yet, Bagley would have us believe on the sole basis of Cradlebaugh's claims that the grand juries refused to indict for the massacre.
Just as Bagley has the facts wrong about the 1859 grand jury's treatment of the Mountain Meadows Massacre, so does he miss important facts about the grand jury's treatment of other crimes. The second 1859 grand jury handed down indictments for the Parrish and Potter and the Henry Jones cases, yet Bagley tells us that no indictments were ever obtained for these crimes.

Church would not help capture fugitives?

Bagley claims that high Mormon officials refused to cooperate in apprehending the massacre fugitives. For example, Cradlebaugh reports that he told Buchanan that church officials offered to produce fugitives upon condition that the church dictate the composition of the petit juries. Bagley does not tell us that U.S. District Attorney Wilson declared this "an unqualified falsehood." Mormons did no such thing.
The federal judiciary denied Mormon law enforcement officers the power to assist federal officers in the pursuit of criminal convictions. Governor Cumming complained that the federal judges refused to admit to the bar federal territorial prosecutors. Indeed, Cradlebaugh and fellow judges refused to permit the Mormon territorial attorney (even though he was technically an officer of the United States) to enter their courtrooms and present bills for indictments.
U.S. District Attorney Wilson attempted to persuade non-Mormon Deputy U.S. Marshal William Rodgers to effect service of process upon massacre participants. Rodgers rebuffed the request, claiming a lack of resources. Then, on 6 August 1858, Wilson told the federal marshal that the Mormon territorial marshal, John Kay, would accomplish the investigations and the arrests. According to Wilson, "Kay was a Mormon, had a knowledge of the country and of the people, and expressed a determination, if legally deputized, to make arrests if possible." But, Rodgers refused to deputize Kay on the ground that Kay "was a Mormon." For the federal government, a crook on the lam was better than a crook collared by a Mormon.
The federal marshal was also less than diligent, frequently complaining about a lack of pay. However, federal surveyors had no difficulty locating and using the services of the fugitives. The surveyors' accounts mock the progress of the investigation, recounting jokes with and pranks upon the fugitives. Additionally, in 1872, the U.S. attorney general denied a request by the U.S. district attorney to reopen the investigation of the massacre.
As another example of silly officiousness, immediately prior to Lee's first trial in 1875, lawyers Jabez Sutherland and George C. Bates offered to surrender indictees William Stewart, Isaac Haight, George Adair, and John Higbee in return for accommodating their request for bail. U.S. District Judge Jacob Boreman was incensed with this proposal, refused it, and instead commenced disbarment proceedings against these lawyers. Blood of the Prophets touches on this briefly but not fairly (p. 290). Although a defense lawyer may not shield a fugitive, it is common for fugitives to negotiate the terms of their surrender indirectly through lawyers. Judge Boreman's 13 February 1875 letter to Sutherland and Bates shows that the judiciary petulantly refused to deal with Mormons or even attorneys for Mormons. The judge condemned Sutherland for taking on a Mormon as a client because Mormons have "the very soul of corruption." Boreman's refusal to discuss bail is ironic in light of the bail he later granted Lee.
Federal judges denied Mormons permission to assist federal officials with criminal prosecutions. These judges considered Mormons as disloyal "foreigners," as un-American, "perverted, oppressed, [and] alien." Mormons could not be trusted to do anything, including fight crime. Avoiding collaboration with the Mormons was of greater social value than justice.
Bagley fails to report accurately early efforts at apprehension. Skipping over legitimate offers of help, Bagley accuses the church of obstructing justice by frustrating the investigation. That is not appropriate, given the evidence.

Brigham Young took no official action?

Blood of the Prophets criticizes Brigham Young for doing nothing in his official capacity to prosecute the massacre (p. 379). Young, however, explained that he took no official governmental action against the perpetrators because President Buchanan stripped him of these powers and Governor Cumming possessed all the powers of the executive. Once he was stripped of civil power, the church may have well taken the position that the Mormon prophet's control over wrongdoers was limited to the remedies specified in section 134 of the church's Doctrine and Covenants. Nothing required Brigham Young to hunt down the participants and turn them over to the very powers seeking to jail him for bigamy (see D&C 134:4).
There is no competent evidence of a Mormon cabal to influence the executive branch to delay prosecution. There is much speculation, but nothing more. The Eastern press occasionally blamed the delay upon the Buchanan and subsequent administrations. The will to prosecute was not there. Both Cradlebaugh and Wilson gave up and left town before the Civil War. [article cited ends here]

Notes

  1. "Race and the Priesthood," Gospel Topics on LDS.org (2013)
  2. "Race and the Priesthood," Gospel Topics, LDS.org.
  3. Lester E. Bush, Jr. and Armand L. Mauss, eds., Neither White Nor Black: Mormon Scholars Confront the Race Issue in a Universal Church, (Salt Lake City, Signature Books, 1984). ISBN 0941214222. off-site
  4. Anonymous, "On the Record: 'We Stand For Something' President Gordon B. Hinckley [interview in Australia]," Sunstone 21:4 no. (Issue #112) (December 1998), 71. off-site
  5. Dallin H. Oaks cited in "Apostles Talk about Reasons for Lifting Ban," Daily Herald, Provo, Utah (5 June 1988): 21 (Associated Press); reproduced with commentary in Dallin H. Oaks, Life's Lessons Learned: Personal Reflections (Salt Lake City, Utah: Deseret Book Co., 2011), 68-69.
  6. Jeffrey R. Holland, Interview, 4 March 2006.
  7. Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), chapter 24, page 4; citing Alexander Morrison, Salt Lake City local news station KTVX, channel 4, 8 June 1998.. ISBN 1590384571 (CD version)
  8. Gordon B. Hinckley, "The Need for Greater Kindness," Ensign (May 2006), 58–61.
  9. Neither White nor Black, 56; citing Editor, "Outrage in Jackson County, Missouri," Evening and Morning Star 2 (January 1834), 122. off-siteGospeLink (requires subscrip.)
  10. Neither White nor Black, 55.
  11. Neither White nor Black, 61,77.
  12. Newell G. Bringhurst, Saints, Slaves, and Blacks: The Changing Place of Black People within Mormonism (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1981), ??.
  13. Saints, Slaves, and Blacks, ??
  14. E.S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, from April, 1833, to October, 1834, 3 Vols., (London: John Murray, 1835), 3:57-58 (emphasis added). off-site
  15. Church Historian's Office. General Church Minutes, 1839–1877, March 26, 1847, in Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2 vols., DVD (Provo, Utah: BYU Press, 2002), 1:18.
  16. General Church Minutes, March 26, 1847.
  17. General Church Minutes, April 25, 1847.
  18. Neither White nor Black, 70–72.
  19. For a history of such ideas in American Christian thought generally, see H. Shelton Smith, In His Image, But...: Racism in Southern Religion, 1780–1910 (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1972), 131. ISBN 082230273X.
  20. Neither White nor Black, 77–78.
  21. Neither White nor Black, 60–61, 77–78.
  22. Neither White nor Black, 79–81.
  23. B.H. Roberts, "To the Youth of Israel," The Contributor 6 (May 1885): 296–97.
  24. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 65.
  25. Sterling M. McMurrin and and L. Jackson Newell, Matters of Conscience: Conversations with Sterling M. McMurrin On Philosophy, Education, and Religion (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 1996), 199–201; cited in Edward L. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride: The Presidency of Spencer W. Kimball (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2005), chapter 20, page 5, footnote 17. ISBN 1590384571 (CD version)
  26. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20, page 5, footnote 17.
  27. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20, page 5–, footnote 17.
  28. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, chapter 20 working draft, 13.
  29. Steven Taggert, Mormonism's Negro Policy: Social and Historical Origins (Salt Lake City, Utah: University of Utah Press, 1970).
  30. Edwin B. Firmage, "Hugh B. Brown in His Final Years," Sunstone 11:6 no. (Issue #67) (November 1987), 7–8. off-site
  31. Newell G. Bringhurst, "The 'Missouri Thesis' Revisited: Early Mormonism, Slavery, and the Status of Black People," in Newel K. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith, eds., Black and Mormon (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 13. ISBN 978-0252073564. ISBN 0252073568.
  32. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, 204–205.
  33. Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22, footnote 105; citing for the affirmative Arrington, Adventures of a Church Historian and Arrington to author, February 10 and June 15, 1998; for the negative, L. Brent Goates, interview by author, February 9, 1998.
  34. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 20, page 22; citing Goates, Harold B. Lee, 506, quoting UPI interview published November 16, 1972.
  35. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 1; citing Charles J. Seldin, "Priesthood of LDS Opened to Blacks," Salt Lake City Tribune (10 June 1978), 1A.
  36. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 4; citing letter of 15 June 1963 to Edward Kimball.
  37. Kimball, Lengthen Your Stride, working draft chapter 21, page 7; citing F. Burton Howard to author, June 15, 1995; F. Burton Howard, interview by author, July 30, 2002.
  38. John Dehlin, "Questions and Answers," Mormon Stories Podcast (25 June 2014).; Bill McKeever and Eric Johnson, Mormonism 101. Examining the Religion of the Latter-day Saints (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2000), Chapter 16. ( Index of claims ); Simon Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church (Salt Lake City, UT: Signature Books, 2004) 10–11. ( Index of claims ); Watchman Fellowship, The Watchman Expositor (Page 3)
  39. Neil L. Anderson, Trial of Your Faith, Ensign (November 2012)
  40. Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected by Joseph Fielding Smith, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 269. off-site
  41. See Gregory A. Prince and Wm. Robert Wright, David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2005), chapter 4. ISBN 0874808227.
  42. James R. Dummelow, A Commentary on the Holy Bible: Complete in one volume, with general articles (New York : Macmillan, 1984 [1904]), cxxxv.
  43. Robert D. Crockett, "A Trial Lawyer Reviews Will Bagley's Blood of the Prophets," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 199–254. off-site Headings and minor punctuation changes for clarity have been added; footnotes have been omitted. Readers are advised to consult the original review.