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NOTE: This post contains spoilers about the Netflix series Godless.
Since the nineteenth century, a public battle has been waged about the citizenship of Mormons in “Christian America.” Entire books have been written about ways Mormons have been otherized while fighting for perceived respectability. This battle resurfaced recently in the new “must-see” Netflix series Godless.
The world of Godless opens on the bloody scene of a vengeful massacre which laid waste to the town of Creede, Colorado. The perpetrators’ quest for vengeance was so thorough that even those merely travelling by train through the town were slaughtered. Immediately we see a violent west of shootouts and destruction.
Although the show’s trailer might make Godless look like a feminist western, and the characters at the story’s periphery display greater diversity of gender, color, and nuance than your typical western, its central characters trod a well-worn western path filled with violent men gripped by vengeance. What is less obvious, and generally missed by most reviews, is how the program replays nineteenth- and early twentieth-century concerns of American authenticity, Christian boundaries, and their direct connection to a critique of Mormonism.
Consider Frank Griffin, played by Jeff Daniels of Dumb and Dumber fame (and many more serious and substantive roles besides). He doesn’t wear a black hat like many stereotypical Western movie villains from the past, but the audience quickly learns Griffin is a visionary baddie often mistaken for a preacher with his cadence of scripture and his flat brimmed hat. He consistently quotes from “the good book”—but it isn’t the Bible he’s quoting. In in a striking moment in the first episode, a church congregation sings the hymn “Nearer My God to Thee” and Griffin barges into the service on his horse, takes the place of the preacher on the dais (still on his horse), and demands loyalty. Using feigned markers of religiosity, he shields his most menacing actions. But the audience can increasingly see through Griffin’s facade of niceness.
In the second episode, we learn the source of Frank Griffin’s evil. As a child, he “come up west on a wagon train.” Things were “going just fine” until they reached a place called Mountain Meadows in Utah Territory. There his “mammy and pappy and most everybody else” were massacred “by Indians, it looked like—until their war paint washed off in the creek. These were not Indians, but men “from Salt Lake…men of religion, they say.” Though the word Mormon is not used, many Latter-day Saints will recognize that Griffin was orphaned by Mormons.
The Mountain Meadows Massacre did happen “IRL,” as one columnist recently reported. In what former LDS Church historian Richard Turley called “the worst event in Latter-day Saint history,” a Mormon militia recruited Native Americans to help them slaughter an emigrant wagon train from Arkansas in 1857. One hundred and twenty people were killed. Seventeen traumatized children were spared and temporarily adopted by Mormon families until they were returned to their extended families in Arkansas in 1859. I became intimately familiar with many of the details as general editor of the collected legal papers about the massacre, recently published by University of Oklahoma Press, and as I completed my dissertation “In Search of Punishment: Mormon Transgressions and the Mountain Meadows Massacre.”
From the day of that horrific massacre, tales of Mormon atrocity spun throughout the country and later across the Atlantic, offering the ultimate proof that Mormons were not Christian and definitely not American (countless examples of American violent vigilantism aside). Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes mystery featured a terrible Mormon murdering band. Even those who couldn’t muster much antipathy for polygamy could recoil in horror at such violence and savagery. Some saw a direct corollary: When the United States Supreme Court considered a test case of polygamy’s legality in 1879, U.S. Attorney General Charles Devens argued that if Mormons were allowed to practice polygamy then atrocities like the Mountain Meadows Massacre would become commonplace. Mormon religion was not religion at all. It was a godless and violent counterfeit.
While the basics of the massacre horror are no longer disputed by historians, Godless makes an already horrific tale worse, spinning a sensational nineteenth-century tale of gruesome hyperbole. Sharing many elements with nineteenth-century narratives of Native Americans capturing hapless innocent white settlers, Frank Griffin’s account of the massacre in Godless also includes several common tropes found in popular Mountain Meadows stories: Mormons were “playing Indian” by raping women, smashing babies’ heads on wagon wheels, stealing gold and cattle, and wearing war paint. The fake religion of Mormonism caused white men to devolve from civilization to become savages. Stories also frequently lamented the fate of massacre victims’ children who were not returned to Arkansas, but integrated into Mormon families, perhaps to grow into violent threats themselves. Such was Griffin’s fate when he was adopted by Mormon leader Isaac Haight, his “new [Mormon] pappy.”
Haight, who figures centrally in planning the massacre, preached a counterfeit gospel that “required blood to purify.” By killing the emigrant company, Mormons would actually be offering “salvation” to the murdered, Haight preached, and they proceeded to adopt and convert the few spared children, Griffin included. Rather than hating the man who murdered his family, Griffin accepted Haight’s teaching how to love with “a stick and a bullwhip and a knife.”
Griffin follows in his adoptive father’s footsteps, later choosing another orphan, Roy Goode, to be his son. (Yes, that last name is a bit on the nose.) When it comes to family, Griffin asserts that bonds of choice are even stronger than biological bonds. But like Luke Skywalker to Darth Vader, Griffin’s son recognizes that his father’s Mormon teachings about family bonds are counterfeit. It becomes Goode’s Christian responsibility to expose the counterfeit—a Christianity he learned at the orphanage from nun Lucy Cole. Responsibility for the bloodbath of Godless rests on Mormon shoulders. Will Goode ultimately reject Griffin, his adoptive father, and his counterfeit gospel? Ironically, Griffin must be killed to enable truth and goodness to help the West, and thereby America, flourish.
The basic narrative of Godless mirrors a litany of nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century articles and books featuring Mormons. Consider just a few examples.
When Mark Twain writes of the tranquility of Salt Lake City in his 1872 travel account Roughing It, he doesn’t know how to reconcile what he’s heard of the Mormons with what he experienced. Learning of Mountain Meadows revealed something sinister beneath Salt Lake’s tranquil surface. To supplement his relatively positive assessment of Salt Lake, Twain added an appendix on the massacre to ensure American readers kept the larger context in mind.
The 1899 novel The False Star features a young girl whose parents were slaughtered in the massacre. She is adopted into a Mormon family and, as an adult, and like Roy Goode, learns to throw off the pretended religion of the Mormons. The book’s author hoped to both entertain and save America from the Mormon threat.
In the 1903 novel Lions of the Lord, Mormon leaders force a recent Mormon convert to Mountain Meadows. There he witnesses the death of his former fiancé. He rescues her daughter and they both escape Mormonism and its evil religious imitation.
In Jack London’s 1915 Star Rover, a young boy is likewise the one to recognize the counterfeit and hypocrisy of the Mormons when his parents doubt it. The boy takes on a salvific role, again like Goode, to save America from destruction by Mormons masquerading as Americans.
Contemporary Latter-day Saints generally think of the massacre at Mountain Meadows as a horrific exception to generally good Mormon behavior. Even Broadway’s popular Book of Mormon Musical revolves entirely around Mormon niceness! But Godless isn’t the first, and likely won’t be the last instance of casting doubt on perceived Mormon niceness. Questioning Mormon religiosity and Mormon Americanness is a well-established pastime. So although Godless may include some peripheral innovations to the typical male-centric heroic tales of the wild west—most especially depicting women as more central power brokers and heroes rather than maidens in distress—it is not breaking a new path of nuance and understanding when it comes to religion, the Mormons, and the events surrounding the Mountain Meadows Massacre.
Ultimately, Godless spends more time on fictitious expansions than with historically accurate details about the massacre, which might serve the purposes of an exciting plot, but at the expense of greater historical understanding.
Janiece Johnson is a research associate at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Laura F. Willes Center for Book of Mormon Studies. She specializes in American religious history—specifically Mormon history, gender, and the prosecution for the Mountain Meadows Massacre. She is co-editor of Mountain Meadows Massacre: Collected Legal Papers (University of Oklahoma Press). Her current research project focuses on early Latter-day Saint reception of the Book of Mormon.
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