Last week I heard Ron Walker conduct a Q&A about Massacre at Mountain Meadows with a small group in Southern California. He made a couple of comments in passing that are worth discussing. When asked for one thing that could be learned from the whole episode, he said that in his view the men who brought to pass the massacre were not evil men, but that there is often not much separating goodness from evil in individuals. He said that he has gained a greater appreciation for the simple virtues like kindness, patience, and gentleness and their effect of keeping us on the right side of that narrow divide.
That response echoes an observation in one of the more touching paragraphs from the book.
For the most part, the men who committed the atrocity at Mountain Meadows were neither fanatics nor sociopaths, but normal and in many respects decent people. The modern age, confronted with mass violence and killings, has rediscovered a fundamental aspect of old theology. "If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them," wrote Russian Nobel Prize winner Alexander Solzyenitsyn. "But the line dividing good and evil cuts through every human being. And who wants to destroy a piece of his own heart." (p. 128)
In a similar comment, Walker noted that he had changed personally as a result of the roughly ten years spent researching the events related in the book, becoming mellower and more patient. It's not often that I hear historians comment on how their research has affected them personally. How unexpected that extended contemplation of Mountain Meadows would point to the lesson that simple virtues matter or would move an author or reader to exercise more patience and kindness.
Originally published with comments at Juvenile Instructor.