September 11 American Intolerance

Random Lengths News | September 18, 2007
September Dawn, A film by Christopher Cain, staring Jon Voight

One of the least understood eras of religious intolerance in America came between 1824 and 1877 with the rise of Mormonism also known as the Church of the Latter Day Saints. In the early days of the American frontier offshoots of Christianity were prevalent with itinerant preachers of various sects interpreting the Bible widely. The Mormons through the revelations of Joseph Smith, their founder, wrote a completely new bible known as The Book of Mormon, and most-God fearing Christians considered this blasphemy! The Christians and the Mormons fought and killed each other on the frontier in Missouri and Illinois, ultimately killing Joseph Smith in 1844, after which Brigham Young assumed the leadership of the LDS and ordered the historic 800 mile retreat to Great Salt Lake where the they believed they could live in peace and religious freedom and unity. With the end of the Mexican-American War, what is now the American South West was ceded to the US by Mexico as reparations for the war and Utah became a US territory.

Herein begins the story behind the film September Dawn and the unveiling of one of the most hidden secrets of Mormon religious fanaticism– the Mountain Meadows Massacre of September 11, 1857. To the credit of producer, writer and director Christopher Cain this film adheres to forgotten history of a California bound Christian wagon train of some 140 men, women and children massacred by 50 Mormons disguised as Paiute Indians, commanded by John Doyle Lee, a prominent lieutenant of Brigham Young. This history only emerged with excavation of the massacre site in 1999, the Sally Denton book American Massacre: the Tragedy at Mountain Meadows, September 1857 and the republication of John D. Lee’s biography and confession Mormonism Unveiled University of New Mexico Press––the latter of which was printed by this newspaper from one of the last original copies extant. The others were burned by the LDS.

The film takes up this tragic story with the arrival of a wagon train coming from Alabama and heading to the gold country of California headed by Captain Alexander Fancher, played by Shaun Johnston. The Fancher wagon train stops in Mountain Meadows, just outside of Cedar City to rest and water their livestock. Rumors were circulating that US President Buchanan was sending US Army troops to displace Brigham Young as Territorial Governor and replace him with a “Gentile.” Young in turn, declared martial law and warns his followers to turn back any interlopers by any means necessary. The wagon train is met with hostile indifference by Mormon deacon John D. Lee, a Danite part of the Mormon enforcers. The Mormons refuse to sell provisions to the Christian immigrants, telling them to move on.

It is only after Mormon Bishop Jacob Samuelson (Jon Voight), a fictional character, returns from Salt Lake where he consulted with Brigham Young that the story turn sinister. Samuelson preaches in a fanatical meeting for “blood atonement” against the Christians, for they have come from one of the places that their brethren had been murdered and it is God’s will to kill the Christians as enemies of the church. Meanwhile Bishop Samuelson’s son Jonathan (Trent Ford) has been sent to spy on the Gentiles and through a series of events comes to recognize the generous spirit of the Christians and falls in love with the daughter of the train’s minister Emily (Tamara Hope).

It is only when Jonathan returns and hears his father speak of blood atonement against the Gentiles that he questions his father and speaks out against the edict of the Mormon church. His father has him shackled as the Danites plot out their attack, then go to the local Paiute Indians to ask for their help telling them that they will be protected by God for their service.

On the day of the first attack, the Paiutes surround and charge the unsuspecting encampment with the help of the Danites dressed as Indians, but after the settlers repulse the onslaught and after losing many of his own men, the Indian chief withdraws, realizing he has been duped. As the Christians help their wounded and prepare for the next onslaught, John D. Lee returns under a white flag of truce. Telling them that he will lead them to safety if they will leave their wagons and possessions behind, after much discussion they agree and the Mormons separate the men from the women and the children and march them off through the Mountain Meadows. He betrays them in a ambush and all but the children were slaughtered.

It is unclear whether the first attack on the wagon train happened on September 11, 1857 or it was the subsequent massacre, but the intention is clear to draw an analogy between then and now. The confession of John D. Lee, the only man convicted of this crime some 20 years later in Federal court, states specifically how the members of the wagon train marched single file with the babies and kids in one wagon and the guns in another. Cain says, “I believe this document because (Lee) is the only person who was there who wrote anything” about the events.

John D. Lee was executed by firing squad on the site of the massacre 20 years later and wrote out a full confession believing to the end that he was taking the bullet for the Mormon leaders of that time.

One can argue that religious intolerance has been with America from the very beginning starting with the Pilgrims fleeing from it when they landed on Plymouth Rock or perhaps the Puritans burning “witches” in Salem, Massachusetts. These experiences and the resistance to having a “state religion” are what prompted Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers to place religious freedom and thusly liberal religious tolerance in our founding documents. But as we all know the rights ascribed in our Constitution are one thing and the actions of individuals and institutions can be quite another.

It is from this history that America once again struggles with its own sense of faith and religious tolerance or lack there of, which is why a film such as September Dawn has significance in confronting our understanding of religious fanaticism and those of any faith, creed or religion to do violence in the name of their God.

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