Question: Were Brigham Young and the entire Church hierarchy responsible for the "Parrish-Potter" murders?

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Question: Were Brigham Young and the entire Church hierarchy responsible for the "Parrish-Potter" murders?

Parrish’s widow visited Brigham four months later, and reported he was unaware of events in Springville

It is claimed that Brigham Young and the entire Church hierarchy were responsible for the murder of two apostates, called the "Parrish-Potter" murders.

Local members may well have been responsible for the murder of Potter and Parrish. But, the account is remarkable not—as the some claim—because it was so emblematic of "blood atonement" or the murder of apostates, but because it was an anomaly.

As discussed here, violent crime and vigilantism in Utah was much less frequent than elsewhere in the Union, especially on the frontier.

There is likewise no evidence, beyond several testimonies taken two years after the murders that only suggest that the murders were orchestrated by the Church, that Brigham Young ordered or condoned the murder.[1] And, Bagley (and Denton who follows him) are wrong in claiming that local Mormons did nothing to bring the perpetrators to justice—they were indicted by a Mormon grand jury.

Polly Aird has written the most descriptive account[2] to date of the murder in Springville, Utah, of Mormon apostates William and “Beason” Parrish and spy “Duff” Potter. At the time, Aird found the evidence regarding Brigham Young’s foreknowledge of the crime conflicting enough to call for further analysis.[3] Witnesses reported a letter from Brigham Young being present at meetings where killing the Parrishes was plotted by the bishop of Springville, Aaron Johnson, and other local leaders. However, conspirators were told not report to higher authorities and William Parrish was threatened with death if he attempted to go to Brigham Young to appeal for recovery of illegally confiscated horses. Parrish’s widow visited Brigham four months later, and reported he was unaware of events in Springville. Young undercut the actions of the local perpetrators by arranging for some of the horses to be returned, but did not investigate much further.

Ardis Parshall discovered a copy of Brigham Young’s letter that set events in motion.[4] The contents exonerate Young from being an accessory before the fact.[5] Brigham warned that two non-Mormon ex-convicts (John Ambrose and Thomas Betts) might attempt steal livestock from a farm in Spanish Fork or somewhere else on their way to California. Brigham advised vigilance so that Bishop Johnson’s guards would avoid the mistake “of not locking the door until after the deed is stolen.” However if a theft “should occur we shall regret to hear a favorable report; we do not expect there would be any prosecutions for false imprisonment or tale bearers left for witnesses.” Young was essentially authorized extra-legal violence in the event that specific individuals were fleeing the territory with stolen livestock. Such a response was typical for such a serious crime in the western frontier and Brigham had presented his views on deterring theft in 1853.

William MacKinnon described the conditions Brigham Young labored under while trying to prevent a recurrence of Ambrose and Betts’s earlier crime spree.

Brigham Young was then beset by crushing personal, leadership, and health problems that would have sapped the patience and stamina, if not the judgment, of many leaders. Among Young's most obvious burdens were completing the faltering Reformation; recriminations over the large-scale loss of emigrant life among the Willie and Martin handcart companies; the unexpected death on December 1, 1856, of his second counselor Jedediah M. Grant, spearhead of the Reformation; a troubling rash of livestock thefts; a mysterious, debilitating illness that kept Young absent from church services for weeks; worries about the viability of restless Mormon colonies in San Bernardino and Carson Valley; anxiety over the launch of his ambitious, expensive Y.X. Carrying Company; congressional efforts to eradicate polygamy, truncate Utah's borders, repeal its organic act, and split the offices of Utah's governor and superintendent of Indian affairs; and a continuing deterioration in federal-Mormon relations that threatened both Utah's bid for statehood and Young's hold on the governorship.[6]

In targeting the Parrish family, Aaron Johnson convinced others that the letter gave him license to use extra-legal measures in widely different circumstances than those outlined by Brigham Young. Later in life Johnson defended Young from being complicit in murders, yet sometimes condoning or pardoning the abuse of criminals:

“How about Brigham Young, and his Danites, his Destroying Angels? Didn’t Brigham and his Angels kill a lot of men in Salt Lake City during the early days there?” I was asked. I replied “Brigham Young was not a murderer. He was a man a vision, one who did much to establish peace, and good order in Salt Lake City and elsewhere.” “Judgement to the line and righteousness to the plummet was his slogan.” Brigham Young had men around him who aided in ridding Salt Lake City of gamblers and desperados. “Your Mayor and police are doing the same here Nelson. You are trying to do as Brigham did, to have a clean town.”[7]


  1. Sally Denton, American Massacre: The Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, (Secker & Warburg, 2003), 190. quoting Polly Aird, "Escape from Zion: The United States Army Escort of Mormon Apostates, 1859," Nevada Historical Society Quarterly 44/3 (Fall 2001) :202. Aird notes, based on the testimonies taken by John Cradlebaugh, that "[s]everal testimonies taken two years after the murders suggest the direction of the plot [of the Parrish murders] involved the entire church reporting line from Brigham Young down to Aaron Johnson, bishop of Springville."
  2. Polly Aird, "'You Nasty Apostates, Clear Out': Reasons for Disaffection in the Late 1850s," Journal of Mormon History 30 (Fall 2004): 129–207 off-site
  3. Aird p. 191
  4. Ardis Parshall, ˜'Pursue, Retake & Punish': The 1857 Santa Clara Ambush," Utah Historical Quarterly 73 (1): 64-86 off-site
  5. Brigham Young to Aaron Johnson, Feb. 3, 1857, CR 1234 1, Box 3, Letterpress Copybook Volume 3, Pages 345-363in Selected Collections from the Archives of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2 vols., DVD (Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, [Dec. 2002],
  6. William MacKinnon, “‘Lonely Bones’: Leadership and Utah War Violence.” Journal of Mormon History 33 (Spring 2007): 121–78 off-site
  7. Paul H. Peterson, "The Mormon Reformation," PhD Dissertation, Brigham Young University, 1980, 176–199 citing Aaron Johnson Autobiography p. 95-96