Criticism of Mormonism/Books/Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows/Use of sources/Double standards of skepticism

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Use of sources: Speculative and dubious evidence related to the Mountain Meadows Massacre

A FAIR Analysis of: Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, a work by author: Will Bagley

The author draws on dreams, anonymous sources, family traditions, folklore and other such speculative or dubious evidence to condemn the Church or its members in the matter of the Mountain Meadows Massacre.

Source(s) of the criticism

Secondary source(s) dependent upon this source

Critics often apply the necessary historical skepticism only to material which might exonerate the Church or its members; any critical tale is often judged adequate for inclusion or mention.

Noted one reviewer:

Bagley's analysis of the provocation evidence displays the kind of healthy cynicism he should have applied to the rest of his book, but Bagley is cynical where the evidence abounds. He discounts stories of provocation by the Fancher train as having been fabricated long after the fact. We are told that "no two witnesses told the same story" and that the stories were "usually based on hearsay, multiplied over the years." There is "no evidence to determine whether they had a basis in fact or were popular myths created to justify murder." They appeared "years after the events supposedly occurred." Some of the stories "originated with murderers such as Lee and Higbee" (p. 117). Bagley should have applied this same analysis to the frightfully slim and speculative evidence (dreams, anonymous sources, family traditions, folklore) upon which he relies to indict Brigham Young and George A. Smith.

On the issue of provocation, Bagley tends to agree with Argus's [an anonymous source that was likely not even near the Massacre site—see here] claim that the Fancher train was "one of the . . . most respectable and peaceful that ever crossed the continent." Press accounts in California days after the massacre, however, reported fairly detailed Mormon claims of provocation by the Fancher party, so it is impossible to say that these accounts were made up long after the fact. In contrast, Brooks gives the provocation accounts some credit, noting that they "come to us from many sources."...

If Bagley wants to implicate Brigham Young, George A. Smith, and the nineteenth-century Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself, we should expect him to weigh and sift what will probably be voluminous evidence of dubious quality offered against an unpopular religion. Bagley accepts this dubious evidence as well as raw speculation. He rejects or misses competent evidence. I challenge the right of any historian to toss competent evidence on the ash heap in favor of salacious rumor.

But salacious rumor is what we are often served up by Blood of the Prophets is an agenda-driven account of history. We should approach the work with a healthy dose of cynicism. I, for one, am convinced even more after reading Blood of the Prophets that there is no competent evidence to show that Brigham Young and George A. Smith were accessories before or after the fact. [1]

Another reviewer noted that:

Most significantly, [Bagley] declines to credit Mormon accounts, especially reminiscent accounts. In fact, he frequently denigrates accounts because they come from Mormon sources. The major exception is John D. Lee's Mormonism Unveiled, which he cites approvingly in a number of places.11 Historians understand that Lee's reminiscences must be used with care because the original manuscript for the book does not exist, and it was edited by his attorney W. W. Bishop after Lee's death and before its publication.

On the other hand, Bagley shows no similar reservation about citing reminiscent accounts by those critical of the Mormons. Most significantly, he fails to identify the religious persuasion of other writers, apparently believing that such information is irrelevant. This is a serious mistake. Recent studies, specifically the work of Sarah Barringer Gordon, show that other Americans, especially Evangelical Protestants and their political supporters, carried on a sustained and deceitful anti-Mormon campaign throughout the nineteenth century. [2]


  1. 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 may have been added to citations in this article; footnotes have been omitted. Readers are advised to consult the original reviews.
  2. Thomas G. Alexander, "Review of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows," Brigham Young University Studies 31 no. 1 (January 2003), 167–. off-site