Jerald Dee Tanner (June 1, 1938 — October 1, 2006) was an American writer and researcher who, with his wife Sandra McGee Tanner (born January 14, 1941), was noted for publishing archival and evidential materials about the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church). They are both ex-Mormons. The Tanners founded the Utah Lighthouse Ministry, whose stated mission is “to document problems with the claims of Mormonism and compare LDS doctrines with Christianity”. Sandra Tanner continues to operate it.
The Tanners printed original versions of early Mormon writings and scripture in which they annotated and highlighted doctrinal changes, such as the rejection of Brigham Young’s “Adam–God theory“. They jointly published more than 40 books about many aspects of the Church, but primarily its history.
As a child I grew up thinking that it was the greatest blessing to be a great-great-granddaughter of Mormon Prophet Brigham Young. However, my LDS family was careful to only mention the most favorable aspects of Young’s life and early Mormonism. Unlike some LDS children I was well aware of Mormonism’s polygamist past. I knew I was descended from Brigham Young and his legal wife, Mary Ann Angell, but didn’t know how many other wives he had. The number is still debated today with some counts going as high as 57. He evidently had 56 children by 16 of his wives.
My great-grandfather was LDS Apostle Brigham Young, Jr. His last living plural wife, Abbie Stevens Young, was still living when I was thirteen. I never knew her son, my grandfather, Walter Young as he died years before I was born.
Less known to me were the family of my maternal grandmother, Sylvia Pearce. Walter Young married Sylvia Pearce in 1917. Sylvia’s father, James and his father, Harrison Pearce, both participated in the murders at Mountain Meadows (see Confessions of John D. Lee, p. 380). James would have been only 18 at that time. The Salt Lake Tribune provided a brief summary of the massacre:
“A California-bound wagon train of about 140 Arkansas emigrants led by John Baker and Alexander Fancher camped near the present-day southwestern Utah town of Enterprise in September 1857. Fears that the U.S. Army was preparing to forcefully remove Brigham Young as Utah territorial governor and impose martial law were at their height. Spurred by inflammatory sermons of LDS leaders, a siege mentality focused Mormon resentment on the ‘gentile’ wagon train.
“Early on Sept. 7, a group of American Indians and local Mormon ‘Indian missionaries’ attacked the encircled wagon train without warning. … With their ammunition, food and water almost gone, the emigrants were persuaded by Mormon officials on the afternoon of Sept. 11 to surrender their arms in exchange for a safe escort past the Indians to Cedar City. … On a pre-arranged command, the rescuers turned upon the emigrants, joined by Indians who had been lying in wait. Estimates of the death toll include 14 Arkansas men shot in the head, 12 women and 35 youngsters clubbed or knifed to death, with 17 children younger than age 8 surviving the double-cross.
“Nine cowhands hired to drive cattle also were murdered, along with at least 35 other unknown victims. In all, 120 people, mostly women and children, were slain.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 14, 2000, p. A-4)
Part of the motivation for the first attack on the wagon train seems to have been an effort to steal their cattle. The Baker-Fancher train was one of the wealthiest trains to come through Utah territory. Historian David Bigler writes:
“The Arkansas company was relatively affluent. Most of its wealth took the form of a large herd of cattle, estimated by various observers to number from three hundred to a thousand head, not including other animals, work oxen, horses, or mules. … John W. Baker later placed the value of property his father took on the journey at ‘the full sum of ten thousand dollars.’ Besides animals, some thirty or forty wagons and equipment, members also carried varying amounts of cash…” (Forgotten Kingdom, p. 160)
Evidently Brigham Young had promised all of the Fancher cattle to local Indian leaders:
“…Hamblin and some twelve Indian chiefs on September first met with Brigham Young and his most trusted interpreter, 49-year-old Dimick B. Huntington, at Great Salt Lake. Taking part in this pow-wow were Kanosh, the Mormon chief of the Pahvants; Ammon, half-brother of Walker; Tutsegabit, head chief of the Piedes; Youngwuds, another Piede chieftain, and other leaders of desert bands along the Santa Clara and Virgin rivers.
“Little was known of what they talked about until recently when it came to light that Huntington (apparently speaking for Young) told the chiefs that he ‘gave them all the cattle that had gone to Cal[ifornia by] the south rout[e].’ The gift ‘made them open their eyes,’ he said. But ‘you have told us not to steal,’ the Indians replied. ‘So I have,’ Huntington said, ‘but now they have come to fight us & you for when they kill us they will kill you.’ The chiefs knew what cattle he was giving them. They belonged to the Baker-Fancher train.” (Forgotten Kingdom, p. 167-168)
While the first attack may have been primarily to obtain the cattle, the final attack, on Sept 11th, seems to have been motivated by the Mormon secret oath to avenge the blood of their prophets. Harrison Pearce, my great-great-grandfather, was one who argued for wiping out the wagon train. Western historian Will Bagley recounts:
“After leaving the Fancher party, John Hawley arrived at the village of Washington to find Lee and the other leaders had sent their interpreters to incite the Paiutes to attack the emigrant camp. The town’s military and religious authorities sought to inflame the passions of their followers. The first counselor in the local bishopric, Nauvoo Legion captain Harrison Pearce impressed Hawley as the most militant authority. In a public meeting, Pearce said he wished to ‘see all the Gentyles strippt naked and lashed on their backs and have the Sun scorch them to death by inches.’
“Yet the response of the militia companies to their call was not universally enthusiastic, as men of conscience resisted orders to assault civilian Americans. Two other men gave similar harangues, and then Hawley was called on to report as he had just come down from Salt Lake. He argued against Pearce’s warlike position. Before he would take another’s life, he would have to be convinced his own life was in danger. As for avenging the blood of the prophets, Hawley asked, who could say for certain these people had any hand in killing the prophets? The oath of vengeance required him to be certain he could justify killing a man, but the local Saints had no assurance that anyone in the Fancher party had participated in the murder of Joseph Smith. ‘You only suppose and that will not do for me.’ Hawley said.
“In retaliation, Captain Pearce called a secret council to debate Hawley’s fate. Some thought Hawley ought to die, but others pleaded his case. The next day a friend warned him to be more guarded and not to oppose authority.” (Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows, by Will Bagley, University of Oklahoma Press, 2002, p. 119-120)
Even though James Pearce, my great-grandfather, evidently participated in the Mountain Meadows massacre, it was said he tried to spare one child. Will Bagley writes:
“Legends told that the horrific work turned father against son. An unhappy wife of Brigham Young told the most plausible story, claiming Jim Pearce’s father (Capt. Harrison Pearce) shot him as he tried to assist a girl.” (Blood of the Prophets, p.148. Juanita Brookes mentions this incidence but attributes it to Tom, James’ brother.)
The “unhappy wife of Brigham Young” referred to above is Ann Eliza Webb Young. In her book, Wife #19, she related:
“To the honor of many of the men be it said,—the younger ones, especially,—they refused to join in this horrible work, and some of them made efforts to protect these helpless women from their fiend-like tormentors. I used often, while living in Payson, to see a man named Jim Pearce, whose face was deeply scarred by a bullet wound, made by his own father, while the brave young fellow was trying to assist a poor girl, who had appealed to him for succor.” (Wife #19, by Ann Eliza Webb Young, 1875, p.248)
The Mormon efforts to cover-up the details and white wash the massacre continues even today. A recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune told of the accidental unearthing of “the skeletal remains of at least 29 slain emigrants” at Mountain Meadows in Southern Utah (Salt Lake Tribune, March 13, 2000, p. A1) Scientists wanted to do a full study of the remains. However, Gov. Mike Leavitt, a descendent of one of the participants of the massacre, “encouraged state officials to quickly rebury the remains, even though the basic scientific analysis required by state law was unfinished…. the governor’s intercession was one of many dramas played out last summer, all serving to underscore Mountain Meadows’ place as the Bermuda Triangle of Utah’s historical and theological landscape. The end result may be another sad chapter in the massacre’s legacy of bitterness, denial and suspicion.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 12, 2000, p. A-1)
A rushed examination of the bones prior to reburial show:
“At least five adults had gunshot exit wounds in the posterior area of the cranium — a clear indication some were shot while facing their killers….Women also were shot in the head at close range….At least one youngster, believed to be about 10 to 12 years old, was killed by a gunshot to the top of the head. … Virtually all of the ‘post-cranial’ (from the head down) bones displayed extensive carnivore damage, confirming written accounts that bodies were left on the killing field to be gnawed by wolves and coyotes.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 13, 2000, p. A-5)
Ten years after the massacre, my great-grandfather James Pearce married Mary Jane Meeks and they had eleven children. In 1878 he moved his family to Arizona where they started the town of Taylor. On July 1, 1978, their descendents gathered for a family reunion to honor their pioneer efforts and celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of Taylor.
At the founders day ceremony, James and Mary Jane were remembered as being “unselfish and always ready to give a helping hand to whoever needed them.” James was known for “his honesty and generosity to the widows and orphans. He would just send them a sack of flour, when he thought they needed help” (Taylor’s Centennial Stories, 1878-1978). His various missions for the LDS Church were mentioned as well as his and Mary Jane’s ministry to the sick, plus various business accomplishments. One granddaughter related: “In the same year, 1857, James Pearce was sent with a Company [group of Mormon militia] to annihilate General Albert Sidney Johnson’s [U.S.] Army. They feared he would over-run the territory, and take their homes” (Taylor’s Centennial Stories). What is missing is any mention of his involvement in the massacre.
Looking at James’ later life it is hard to imagine him as a teenager at Mountain Meadows. What would induce an otherwise moral, religious man to participate in one of the bloodiest massacres of American citizens? Weber State University professor Gene Sessions commented on the pressure to go along with the crowd:
“Somebody made a terrible decision that this has got to be done…I don’t justify it in any way. But I do believe it would have taken more guts to stay home in Cedar City on those days in 1857 than it would to go out there to the meadows and take part.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 14, 2000, p. A-4)
To understand that type of fanaticism, one must understand early Mormon trials, fears, prejudices, oaths of obedience sworn in the temple and Brigham Young’s teachings on “blood atonement.” Historian David Bigler, author of Forgotten Kingdom, says: “When you have 50 to perhaps more than 70 men participate in an event like this, you can’t just say they got upset…. We have to believe they did not want to do what they did any more than you or I would. We have to recognize they thought what they were doing is what authority required of them. The only question to be resolved is did that authority reach all the way to Salt Lake City?” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 14, 2000, p. A-4)
Whether or not Brigham Young directly ordered the massacre may never be known. However, he seemed to have no problem with the bloody deed after the fact. When Young visited the site a few years later Apostle Wilford Woodruff wrote in his diary:
“May 25  A very cold morning much ice on the creek. I wore my great coat & mittens. We visited the Mt. Meadows Monument not up at the burial place of 120 persons killed by Indians in 1857. The pile of stone was about twelve feet high but beginning to tumble down. A wooden cross is placed on top with the following words, Vengeance is mine and I will repay saith the Lord. Pres. Young said it should be Vengeance is mine and I have taken a little” (Mountain Meadows Massacre, p. 182).
Twenty years after the massacre John D. Lee, one of the Mormon leaders in Southern Utah, was the only man convicted and executed by the US government for the crime. Lee was stripped of his church membership and his plural wives. One of the curious aftermath’s of this terrible period was the reinstating of Lee’s church membership in 1961:
“For more than a hundred years, the families of John D. Lee have borne the opprobrium of the massacre alone. For that reason, they have welcomed every effort to probe the question; certainly no truth could be worse than the stories to which they were subjected. Now they have special cause to rejoice, for on April 20, 1961, the First Presidency and the Council of Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints met in joint council, and: ‘It was the action of the Council after considering all the facts available that authorization be given for the reinstatement to membership and former blessings [temple marriages]to John D. Lee.’ Word of this was sent out to members of the family, and on May 8 and 9, the necessary ordinances were performed in the Salt Lake Temple. A complete record is in the files of the Latter-day Saints Genealogical Society.” (Mountain Meadows Massacre, p. 223)
This raises the question as to whether or not the LDS Church views the perpetrators of the massacre as committing “murder” or do they consider their acts “justified”? The Mormon scriptures, Doctrine and Covenants 42:18, declares: “…he that kills shall not have forgiveness in this world, nor in the world to come.” Also, Section 132:27 proclaims: “The blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, which shall not be forgiven in the world nor out of the world, is in that ye commit murder wherein ye shed innocent blood,…after ye have received my new and everlasting covenant…” Since Lee had his temple blessings and marriages restored the LDS leaders must not consider him guilty of murder or shedding “innocent blood.” [Section 132]
After I left the LDS Church my grandmother, Sylvia Pearce Young, told me about the family secret. She told me about the time her cousin, Mildred (whom I knew) came to visit Grandma during the 1960’s. She saw Grandma’s original copy of John D. Lee’s Confession in the bookcase and asked if she could borrow the book. When some time had passed and she had not returned it, Grandma asked for it back. Mildred righteously declared that she burned the book to “save the family name.” After all, it listed James and Harrison Pearce at the back of the book as part of the men who participated in that awful deed.
The Salt Lake Tribune quoted the following from Gene Sessions, president of the Mountain Meadows Association:
“It raises the old question of whether Brigham Young ordered the massacre and whether Mormons do terrible things because they think their leaders want them to do terrible things.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 14, 2000, p. A-4)
The paper went on to report:
“Noted Mormon writer Levi Peterson has tried to explain the difficulty that Mormons and their church face in confronting the atrocity of Mountain Meadows.
” ‘If good Mormons committed the massacre, if prayerful leaders ordered it, if apostles and a prophet knew about it and later sacrificed John D. Lee, then the sainthood of even the modern church seems tainted.’ he has written. ‘Where is the moral superiority of Mormonism, where is the assurance that God has made Mormons his new chosen people?’ …
“But acknowledging any complicity in Mountain Meadows’ macabre past is fundamentally problematic for the modern church.
” ‘The massacre has left the Mormon Church on the horns of a dilemma,’ says Utah historian Will Bagley, author of a forthcoming book on Mountain Meadows. ‘It can’t acknowledge its historic involvement in a mass murder, and if it can’t accept its accountability, it can’t repent.’ ” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 14, 2000, p. A-4)