On Being Descended from John D. Lee

For FHE a couple of weeks ago I pulled out our pedigree from createfan.com and started telling family history stories. There was Shadrack Holdaway, who marched with the Mormon Batallion and was there when gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill. And Lucinda Haws Holdaway, who was baptized in water so cold they cut through the ice to reach it. There’s Seymour Brunson, at whose funeral Joseph Smith taught one of his first lessons on baptism for the dead.

And then there’s John D. Lee.

“We’ve got a bad guy in our history too,” I told my kids.

They were charmed by the romance of evil. “Ooh, what did he do? A bad guy?” Someone did an evil bwa ha ha ha laugh.

“No,” I said. “He’s not a silly bad guy. He was a real bad guy. He was the leader of some Mormons who pretended they were Indians and killed a bunch of settlers who were traveling to California.”

They sobered. “Why did they do that?” my son asked.

“It’s complicated,” I said. “They were mad about all the things people from the settlers’ states had done to the Mormons. But that doesn’t excuse what they did. It’s called the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and it was a terrible, terrible thing.”

And then we returned to stories of more-worthy, less black sheep ancestors.

But the conversation lingered with me all week long.

***
Also that week I followed the fallout of the Washington Post article concerning the history of the Church’s policy on blacks and the priesthood. I am grateful for their recent statement, and yet it feels like it’s not really mine to claim. I have not experienced racism personally, and I feel like I’m not equipped to own either the pain of our racist past or the joy of renouncing it.

I find myself in an odd place with both of these stories: I believe that they can all be healed. That there is infinite atoning healing available to any who were hurt by the Mountain Meadows Massacre, that those who have been wounded or shattered by racism can find peace. I believe there is healing for both the victims and the perpetrators, because they (we?) need it too. I don’t think the healing can come if we never talk about the hurts, if we pretend they don’t exist, or that they existed but never affect anyone now, or that that people who mention or find them problematic are just being troublemakers.

But I also don’t think that wallowing in the problems and discussing them over and over is a good path to healing, either. By the end of the week of reading blog posts on the Washington Post article, I felt saturated with righteous indignation and more than a little schadenfreude. And left hollow by it all–what good is gleeful triumph in the face of real pain?

I believe that we will heal from our past sins and mistakes when we learn to listen to and tell true stories about them, when we embrace the stories of our past and present. Not to excuse away our sins, but to understand better where we have come from, and where we are now. Healing as a process, not an event.

For all my talk about the power of true stories, though, I have not told my children the horrific details of the Mountain Meadows Massacre. We are easing into it; I’m not fully aware of them myself, although at some point I will read up on it more. I don’t have a resolution for the pain caused by the priesthood ban and its various doctrinal claims either. I just know that I come from both sides, from the notorious and the noble. I don’t want to pretend away the pain or the glory, and I don’t want to wallow in them either, spending so much time on one side that I deny the existence or the importance of the other.

About Emily M.

(Poetry Board) graduated from BYU in Comparative Literature, but it was long enough ago that most of what she learned has leaked out. She would like to mention other hobbies or interests, but to be honest she spends most of her free time reading (although she does enjoy attempting yoga). She used to blog at hearingvoices.wordpress.com. For now, though, Segullah is her only blogging home, and it's a good one.

21 thoughts on “On Being Descended from John D. Lee

  1. “As Elder Holland says, the subtext of the Mountain Meadows Massacre is Haun’s Mill.”

    Um, he may insinuate that from the PBS interview, but that is actually a pretty bold and extremely uncomfortable thing to claim. I’m sure if he read this sentence, he would back away very quickly from that meaning.

  2. I’ve edited out that sentence, trusting in your interpretation of the PBS interview over my own. He called it context rather than subtext.

    Here is what Elder Holland actually said in the transcript, found
    here:

    I’m willing to be held to the highest possible standard, … although I have thought why hasn’t the Haun’s Mill experience, prior to Mountain Meadows, why hasn’t anybody been exorcized about that? What about the parents who lost children there? Now, two wrongs do not make a right. … It should not be justification, but I think it’s at least context, and it’s history. And probably, while a great many people may or may not know the phrase Mountain Meadows, I don’t know that anybody knows Haun’s Mill. And I’m just very happy, frankly, that they don’t. That’s why I say two wrongs don’t make a right. Let’s not dredge up anything that doesn’t have to be dredged up. …

    ***
    So that’s interesting–he says “let’s not dredge up anything that doesn’t have to be dredged up.” So maybe telling true stories isn’t the answer, and maybe there’s more drama than truth to them.

  3. Emily, I don’t have a lot of time to comment, but I just wanted to quickly say that I think this is a great piece and I appreciate your take on these complicated issues. Thanks for posting it.

  4. I really appreciated you talking to your children about both sides. We all make choices – bad and good. I don’t have time to comment thoughtfully, but I thank you for this piece. Mel

  5. I am a descendant of John Henry Willis who was a participant in massacre.He and his wife took in one of the children who survived the massacre until was returned to her family in Arkansas.

    I don’t know if you have seen the documentary “Burying the Past” which has in it a dramatization of the events. It was shall we say an “interesting” experience to see the actions of my great great grandfather and namesake portrayed with a narration using the words of the little girl who was taken into his home talking about how she saw “John Willis” at massacre.

    If you haven’t already you MUST read Richard Turley and others book “Massacre at Moutain Meadows”

    I have met Turley and discuss the book with him. I refered him to a book about the Holocaust “Ordinary Men” by Chirstopher Browning which discusses how members of a German Reserve Police unit killed thousands of Jews in Poland in 1942. The conclusion of the book is that the men were not monsters or psychopaths but oridnary men placed in an extraordinary situation who made was now is clear terribly wrong choices. I think there are a lot of similarities between Reserve police Battalion 202 in 1942 and the Iron County milita in 1857

  6. I think one of the keys to coming to terms with history (family, church, or even one’s own) is to get to know the people and their stories rather than to think of it all in editorial terms. That is, slavery and murder and family abandonment are all admittedly bad things. They’re still bad things even when performed by people we want to love and respect. But there’s more to Thomas Jefferson than slavery, more to John D. Lee than murder, more to somebody’s grandfather than his leaving his family. Nobody cares about the person if they’re focusing on righteous indignation — but getting to know and care about the person first allows people to come to terms with the crimes. You don’t forget or excuse or justify the crime, but the crime doesn’t replace the human being, either.

  7. “You don’t forget or excuse or justify the crime, but the crime doesn’t replace the human being, either.

    Lovely, Ardis.

  8. Yes. This is such a good post. I think it’s so important to tell the stories we know about all of our ancestors.

    I’ve always appreciated that my husband’s grandfather, who was a temple president and various other things, also wrote in his life history about choices he made when he was younger that he regrets.

    I have one ancestor in particular whose full story I will not tell my children right now. One part that’s hard is that he hurt others of my ancestors terribly- it’s not just his story, but that of his wife, his children, and his grandchildren. But another part that’s hard is sifting through the all the layers that have piled up on this family’s story. Even though their story is horrible and painful, it’s getting buried because we’re ashamed of both of them. But like Ardis said, I don’t want to lose my ancestors completely just because we focus on the negative things in their lives.

  9. My father explained, quite matter of factly the mountain meadows massacre with me when I was about eleven or twelve. He was straightforward about what happened and I appreciated his honesty then, and still do.

    My family tree has an non-genealogical connection with the massacre. None of my ancestors lived anywhere near there but a number of them were first taught the gospel by John D. Lee when he was a missionary in Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky in 1839. And a conversation with Lee was pivotal in the decision of one of them to head west instead of returning to Tennessee when the saints were driven out of Nauvoo. So, Emily, I am grateful for that mission work which your infamous ancestor did under difficult circumstances years before mountain meadows.

    That doesn’t excuse his sins or diminish their seriousness, but it does, perhaps, flesh out Ardis’s very good observation.

  10. I appreciate your frankness and your thoughtfulness in this Emily. Some great comments, also. Thank you!

  11. I love this:
    “I believe that we will heal from our past sins and mistakes when we learn to listen to and tell true stories about them, when we embrace the stories of our past and present. Not to excuse away our sins, but to understand better where we have come from, and where we are now. Healing as a process, not an event.”

    I also liked what Ardis said–“You don’t forget or excuse or justify the crime, but the crime doesn’t replace the human being, either.”

    I have found in my life (particularly lately) that by confronting (if only in my mind) wrongs and hurts from others in my past, calling them what they are and then trying to understand who and what was going on and then extend forgiveness (if only in my mind) is what has helped me the most to move on. Ignoring or pretending that something did not happen has generally not been very helpful.

  12. This is a powerful post, and the comments are very thoughtful. I have avoided too much study of church history, because I haven’t wanted to deal with the mixed characters of my literal ancestors (I’m 5th generation Mormon up my 4 grandparents lines) and the mixed characters of my religio-cultural “family.” I saturated myself in biblical studies as a youth / college student instead. But from the OT to my own family members, we have the good, the bad and the ugly. I haven’t moved forward from avoidance yet, but the statements Emily and Ardis have made give me encouragement that I can find a way to deal with the complexities of human histories including family histories.

  13. Hi, Cousin
    I’ve had my own share of struggles to come to terms with what happened at Mountain Meadows, and after. The outlines of a story of compounding errors resulting in a calamity that none of the otherwise decent and honorable men (and yes, I count John D. as one of them) had intended are there, in the book by Turley et. al. What those errors were can be an instructive lesson to us all.

  14. Thanks, Angela and Mel.

    John, I have not seen the documentary. Richard Turley’s book is on my to-read list. The parallels you describe between the German Reserve unit and the massacre sound sadly intriguing.

    Ardis, thank you for articulating what I meant so well–yes. The crime does not replace the human being. Exactly.

    mmiles, that was my favorite line, too.

    Amira, it’s true that there is a ripple effect of pain through generations, and I think it is indeed wise to ease into some of the painful stories. Not hide them, but they’re children, and they don’t need to know it all now, as long as it’s there for them to learn from eventually. Milk before meat.

    MB, I love your story fleshing out John D. Lee–thank you!

    Thanks, Dalene and Michelle.

    Ana, yes–that is just what I mean. Understanding both the wrong and the reasons behind it helps me forgive more than anything else.

    KDA, I have that kind of ancestry too, and it’s true that you find all the complexities of the human family. Polygamy seems to add another wrinkle of complexity, and yet it’s another set of stories I wish we were more open about.

    Confutus, that is the hard part of it: the fact that these were otherwise decent and honorable men, my ancestors, tells me that I am as much capable of evil as I am of goodness, and that I need to guard against that in myself.

  15. Emily, I loved this : I don’t want to pretend away the pain or the glory, and I don’t want to wallow in them either, spending so much time on one side that I deny the existence or the importance of the other.

    I’ve realised lately that I am someone’s ancestor. I hope they can see the many sides of my story, and it inspires me to make sure I write about all the aspects, not just the pretty or vetted stuff.

  16. “I’ve realised lately that I am someone’s ancestor. I hope they can see the many sides of my story, and it inspires me to make sure I write about all the aspects, not just the pretty or vetted stuff.”

    I also hope they’ll be charitable as they realize how very imperfect I was.

    “Ignoring or pretending that something did not happen has generally not been very helpful.”

    I agree with this. I’ve been thinking about the process of trying to understand truth as it relates to where we have come from, especially in our personal lives. But there’s such a danger in it, too…of holding onto hurts rather than letting the Savior heal. That’s a lot easier said than done, and can take time and effort. But I’m realizing that I can’t look back hoping others will change, I can only look back and seek to have God help change my heart with relation to what may have happened.

    Like I said, easier said than done.

  17. The most interesting take-away I got from the Turley/Leonard/Walker book was the realization (and I think it was an intentional thesis by the authors) that extreme thought leads to extreme action which in that case resulted in tragedy and injustice.

    It’s one of the reasons why I chafe when war metaphors are used from the pulpit to inappropriately describe situations that don’t require extreme responses. Because extreme rhetoric inevitably leads to extreme actions/responses from the members. And extreme thinking is very catching; more impressionable members take another’s version of extreme thought and apply it to many aspects of the doctrine. And when we boil it all down, extreme thinking and rhetoric are usually based in fear. And that emotion doesn’t often come from God.

    Do war metaphors inevitably lead to events like the Mountain Meadows Massacre? No. But even in daily life, extreme reactions to situations that don’t warrant it can be harmful both to the individual and society.

  18. I have mixed feelings about sharing information with children. On one hand, it is important to know. As a Catholic who went to Catholic schools, we were taught about the Crusades, Martin Luther and other black marks in Catholic history but certainly not a lot of which I would later study on my own. But it was probably good to know the Catholic teacher was forthcoming and explained what she did. But thinking of my little nieces(not LDS family) and history, I wonder if we could just spare them. Do they really need to know the horrible things that happened in WWII? Do they need to know what happened to slaves? Isn’t it enough to teach them to be good? Do they have to know how evil people are capable of being? Mormon Meadows Massacre is so complicated and I don’t want to judge anyone involved. Those were scary and paranoid times coming off a lot of persecution in Missouri. Those involved may have had a mob mentality at the time, which makes you do things you would not normally do but may have had the terrible pangs of conscience later.

  19. Do they really need to know the horrible things that happened in WWII?

    Yes. If we don’t examine what happened in the past, it is more likely to happen in the future.

    Do they need to know what happened to slaves?

    Absolutely. People really do need to know what kind of things we, as humans are capable of, both good and bad.

    I think age appropriate learning is key, but still honesty is necessary. Would you rather not know what happened to slaves, in WWII, etc?

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