At a time when the Mormon Church is drawing heightened public visibility because of Mitt Romney's presidential bid, the church is grappling more openly with one of its darkest chapters.
The "Utah War" has largely faded from American memory as the Mormon Church – and the public's acceptance of it – evolved. But one incident from that time stubbornly lingers and is now the subject of a fictionalized film that opens in theaters Friday.
On Sept. 11, 1857, Mormons aided by native American allies massacred about 120 unarmed men, women, and children bound for California by wagon train. The slaughter took place amid war hysteria: The US Army was marching toward Utah to confront Mormon leaders.
After covering up the Mountain Meadows massacre for years, the church is supporting an exhaustive Mormon research effort to leave no stone unturned. The findings, unflattering in spots, are being broadcast worldwide in the latest edition of the church's magazine.
"It's clear that at very important levels the church is opening itself in ways that it had not felt comfortable with [before]," says Sarah Barringer Gordon, a law professor and religion expert at University of Pennsylvania. "People [in Utah] really understand – perhaps as they hadn't until the last five, six years or so – that there's a need and a possibility for real investigation and acceptance of a painful past."
Kent Bylund, a Mormon who owned land at the site in southwestern Utah, has seen a shift in attitude. Tapped by Mormon President Gordon Hinckley to head up construction of a memorial in 1999, Mr. Bylund turned to the local Mormon community for donations of time and money.
"People wanted to be a part of this healing process. For Mormons, it's a part of their heritage, and it's hard for them to come to terms with it," says Bylund.
But Bylund also received death threats from Mormons unhappy with the effort. And when a backhoe accidentally dug up a shovel full of bones, distrust of the church flared among victims' relatives. Finally, at the dedication ceremony, Mr. Hinckley offered words of healing to the descendants, but punctuated them with a legalistic disclaimer of any church responsibility.
"Compared to what we've seen in the last 150 years, since 1999 [church officials] have made strides," says Patty Norris, head of the Mountain Meadows Massacre Descendants, a group of those related to the 17 children under age 7 who were spared. "But they need to go a lot further. We want them to openly acknowledge that church leaders were involved."
She says her group also wants the church to help round up property that was stolen from the train, agree to turn over the site to some other steward, and – very simply – apologize.
Leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have expressed sympathy. "My heart has gone out to the descendants," Elder Dallin Oaks said in a recent PBS documentary. "What a terrible thing to contemplate, that the barbarity of the frontier and the conditions of the Utah war, whatever provocations were perceived to have been given, would have led to ... such an extreme atrocity perpetrated by members of my faith."
The church, says author Will Bagley, is on the horns of a dilemma: "Until you can embrace confession, you can't repent. If you can't repent, there's no forgiveness."
His 2002 book on the massacre, "The Blood of the Prophets," argues that evidence points to Brigham Young hatching the plot to scare the US from its march to war. Religious leaders then used Mormon imagery of apocalypse and vengeance to whip up subordinates.
Like Mr. Bagley, the new movie "September Dawn," puts the blame on top Mormon leaders and religious fanaticism, at times using heavy-handed contrasts with the protestant piety of the immigrants.
The forthcoming history written by three Mormon authors sees many universal – rather than just Mormon dynamics at play. The book looks at other atrocities in different cultures and finds commonalities with Mountain Meadows, including the tendencies to demonize outsiders during times of war.
But the religion played a role: "There were statements made both in Salt Lake City and by local leaders down in southern Utah that tended to inflame emotions," says coauthor Ron Walker. "To that extent, ... there is a measure of culpability."
After reading their manuscript, Jan Shipps, a preeminent non-Mormon scholar, urged the writers to flesh out the religious backdrop. But she praises the book's research, and says it's a big deal that the church is publishing a synopsis in next month's church magazine.
"Can you imagine what that means in the official magazine of the church that's going all over the world to people who have just joined the church?" says Dr. Shipps.
Being a fifth-generation Mormon like Bylund doesn't make the massacre any less jarring to faith.
"The children who died – you can't be out here without thinking about them," he says, looking across the sage-strewn meadow. He could see the bullet holes in the bones dug up by the backhoe.
Yet he also thinks of his ancestors who were chased out of Missouri and Illinois by violent mobs. They feared the Army's arrival, and having to start over again.
He asks other Mormons whether they could imagine getting swept up in the massacre had they been in the local militia in 1857. "I've never met anyone who has this type of heritage who would say no," say Bylund. And would they regret it afterward? "They all said yes."