In the state of Missouri, up until 1976, it was legal to shoot a Mormon on sight.
Actually, it probably wasn’t, because more recent murder statutes would have taken precedence over the so-called “Extermination Order” issued in 1838 by then-Governor Lilliburn Boggs. That order read, in part, as follows:
The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace.
In terms of practical application, by the late 20th Century, the order was little more than a silly “blue” law, like laws against spitting on Sunday or whistling past graveyards. No one was shooting Mormons in Missouri in 1976. But the Extermination Order was still on the books.
Those not of my faith may not have heard this before. They may not know how many times the Mormons were driven from their homes or how many saw their own children murdered before their eyes. They may not know of the cities and temples they had built with their own hands at great personal sacrifice, only to have them razed to the ground by bloodthirsty mobs. They may understand that the Mormons wound up in Utah because they fled the United States, where President Martin Van Buren had told them “your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.” They slogged West to find a place where, in Brigham Young’s words, “the devil can not dig us out.” They settled in the desert of the Salt Lake Valley because, frankly, it was a place that no one else wanted. (Having lived through many a Salt Lake winter, I can see why.)
Mormons tell these stories among themselves, but they do so without bitterness or resentment. It’s part of our history, and we’re proud of our ancestors who sacrificed so much to preserve our faith. At the same time, we try to look forward and not backward.
The Latter-day Saints who braved the elements to cross the plains in the mid-eighteenth century sang a song that is still popular among modern LDS congregations. It’s called “Come, Come, Ye Saints.”
Come, come, ye Saints, no toil nor labor fear;
But with joy wend your way…
Why should we mourn or think our lot is hard? ’
Tis not so; all is right…
We’ll find the place which God for us prepared,
Far away in the West,
Where none shall come to hurt or make afraid;
There the Saints will be blessed.
We’ll make the air with music ring,
Shout praises to our God and King;
Above the rest these words we’ll tell–
All is well! all is well!
Most of the people who sang this song had suffered horribly as a result of manmade and natural disasters. But, like Job, they refused to curse God and die. They chose, instead, to sing of joy and celebration.
In other words, this is not the song of victims.
I offer this as information as a historical context for those of you who might be tempted to see the new movie “September Dawn,” which opened in theatres two days ago. The movie dramatizes the horrific events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, in which 120 innocent people were butchered by a handful of Mormons who may have sung the song but not absorbed its lessons. They weren’t interested in wending their way with joy. They were frightened and paranoid. They had suffered; they wanted someone to pay. So they did an utterly evil thing. And, to this day, the wounds from that event haunt the families of both victims and perpetrators alike.
Given the amount of abuse the Mormons themselves suffered, and the thousands of lives lost, it’s remarkable that this one hideous incident of revenge stands unique in Mormon history. You’d think, if terrorist-style massacres were, in fact, rooted in some secret, unspeakably evil Mormon doctrine that these kinds of slaughters would happen more than once every 150 years.
The film, which I have not seen, reportedly attempts to equate Mormons with al Qaeda Muslims, which is exactly wrong. Even in the early days of the Church, the Mormons weren’t interested in retaliation. That’s why they trekked across the plains in the first place. They went West to leave their grievances behind.
It doesn’t matter, really. The movie is getting savaged by the critics, and it is unlikely to set the box office on fire. It’s a bit like the extermination order in 1976 – it’s there, yes, but no one is paying attention to it.
So now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to Church, where I will wend my way with joy with five screaming young’uns who are still angry that I made them bathe this morning.