SALT LAKE CITY – A ranking Mormon church official voiced regret Tuesday for the massacre of 120 California-bound pioneers moving through Utah on a wagon train, marking the 150th anniversary of the ambush.
Church Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve, the second tier of leadership in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, addressed a memorial service attended by hundreds at Mountain Meadows, the massacre site 35 miles northwest of St. George, Utah.
The church released Eyring's full remarks on its Web site.
"We express profound regret for the massacre carried out in this valley 150 years ago today, and for the undue and untold suffering experienced by the victims then and by their relatives to the present time," Eyring said.
On Sept. 11, 1857, the Arkansas emigrants were tricked into laying down their arms with a promise of safe passage and then killed for reasons still not fully understood. The massacre occurred in a climate of war hysteria as Utah Mormons prepared for an invasion by federal troops sent to deal with a defiant Mormon theocracy under church president Brigham Young. Seventeen children, all 6 or younger, were spared.
Eyring's statement stopped short of making an apology — a word he didn't use, a church spokesman said. Nor did Eyring take responsibility on behalf of the church for the massacre. Instead, he blamed "local leaders" of the church in Cedar City, Utah, for taking matters into their own hands.
Eyring cited research by church historians that put the responsibility on the local leaders and others acting under their direction. He said Brigham Young tried to convey an order of protection for the wagon train, but the message didn't arrive in time by horseback.
Some characterized the statement as an apology or close to it.
"We don't use the word 'apology.' We used 'profound regret,"' church spokesman Mark Tuttle told The Associated Press.
Eyring also expressed regret to Paiute Indians, "who have unjustly borne for too long the principal blame for what occurred during the massacre," he said. "Although the extent of their involvement is disputed, it is believed they would not have participated without the direction and stimulus provided by local church leaders and members."
Local Mormon leaders managed to enlist only a few Paiutes for the massacre, said Forest Cuch, executive director of the Utah Division of Indian Affairs.
"The LDS Church has got to stop making that association. They're constantly associating the Mormon militia with the Indians. Instead, say there were 60 members of the Mormon militia and two Paiute Indians," he told the Deseret Morning News.
The only person ever held accountable for the massacre was Mormon convert John D. Lee, a major in the Iron County Militia who was tried, convicted and executed at Mountain Meadows 20 years after the slaughter.
A bitter Lee considered himself a scapegoat for the church.
Descendants of the pioneers said Eyring's remarks came close to being an apology.
"He seemed to genuinely regret what happened — and that's more than we have gotten in the past," Patty Norris, president of the group Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, said Tuesday.
"He did point out church leaders were involved in the massacre — certainly people involved in the church. That's probably as far as he could go with it, and it's the first time the church admitted that," said Norris, from rural Carroll County, Arkansas, where the wagon train originated.
Norris said church President Gordon Hinckley expressly ruled out giving any apology when he presided over a 1999 ceremony at Mountain Meadows.
"This is as close as we've ever gotten to an apology so for the time being, we'll take it," she said.