More on the Murders of Elders Ball and Wilson (and Hidalgo and Ugarte and Zapata)

May 29, 2009

A reader made this comment on an earlier post, and I thought it was important enough to post it in its entirety here. Thank you, Ryan, for a thoughtful and informative response. I don’t presume to assign blame, especially not to President Wright. In hindsight, it certainly seems as if more could have been done to protect the missionaries, but decisions are never made with the benefit of hindsight. I should note that, given my perspective on the church, I don’t see God’s hand in these deaths, either way. Anyway, here’s Ryan’s excellent response:

I’m Ryan Reeder; I wrote the paper you cited in your blog entry while I was a student at BYU in April 2001. Greg Anderson, who just commented, and whom I met shortly afterward, alerted me to this discussion.

Part of the reason I became interested in this topic was because of the influence it had on my mission in Cochabamba and Santa Cruz, Bolivia from early 1995 to early 1997. Early in my mission, all of the American missionaries were greenies; the Bolivians and other South Americans in the area had been running things for the entire duration of their missions. Thus, as Americans began being called to leadership positions, and quickly even being called to a majority of those positions, some of us sensed some resentment toward us from some of these older natives, a sentiment which we did not feel from those Latin missionaries who had been arriving contemporaneously with the North American missionaries.

One thing I observed in researching this topic was that in Utah, the assassinations of Elders Ball and Wilson (twenty years ago yesterday, by the way) was covered pretty heavily in the media. I compiled a number of the articles and sources I used in writing this paper here: There were a number of Church News, Deseret News and Salt Lake Tribune articles. Then the August 22, 1990 murders of Manuel Antonio Hidalgo and Cristian Andreani Ugarte in Peru were covered in maybe two or three articles and the March 6, 1991 murder of Oscar Zapata was barely mentioned.

However, the response seemed to be quite different. As has been mentioned, following the Ball and Wilson assassinations, most North American missionaries stayed in Bolivia. A few were reassigned, a state department official (an LDS church member) came to instruct them on some points of safety precautions, and American missionaries were assigned to be with native companions, for the most part. But drastic action didn’t seem to occur until after the Peruvian murders. While I’ve heard rumors about President Wright’s sexuality, I don’t know how big of a factor that was in the decision to pull North American missionaries for a time. I don’t believe any of that was known at the time; Elder Ballard told a story in his next General Conference address in October about a dream which President Wright had related to him regarding the work which Elders Ball and Wilson were continuing to do on the other side of the veil.

At any rate, following the Peruvian murders, North American missionaries were pulled from both countries for about three or four years. These assassinations, by the way, as I discovered in my research, were not the result of anti-Mormon sentiment in the region per se, as was the motivation in the Joseph Standing murder in Georgia in 1879 and the Cane Creek massacre in Tennessee in 1884. As David Knowlton pointed out in a Sunstone article, the problem partly stemmed from a different mindset and culture in Bolivia about the roles of church and state. In the US, the two are seen as separate; the LDS Church is not the United States of America any more than the US is McDonald’s or Disneyland. Its headquarters are based in the country, but that’s all.

Because of the long Spanish influence in Bolivia, a different conception of the roles of church and state have grown up in Bolivia. There, religion is perceived as an arm of the state. Consequently, these American missionaries were seen not just as representatives of the LDS Church, but also as representatives of the United States of America. This idea extended to include those indigenous missionaries who wore the badge and had adopted the name of the Church. For cultural–and terrorist–reasons, the distinction was erased.

Additionally, the politics of the time, particularly the war on drugs during the Reagan and especially the elder Bush years, led to quite a lot of unrest and anti-American sentiment among certain segments of society. The coca plant, from which cocaine is derived, is native to the area, is widespread, and has many traditional uses. Coca farming also provides an income for a number of impoverished Bolivians. Surely the rank-and-file Bolivians didn’t have strong enough feelings to warrant violence and terrorist acts, and most missionaries were never in any danger. However, it doesn’t take many people to create enormous tragedy in the lives of a few people and gain attention.

I’m not really cognizant of how the decision was made to send North Americans back into the region, or how quickly it was done or what the process was like in the La Paz and Peruvian missions. I do know what it was like in the Cochabamba mission. The first American missionaries called to that mission entered the MTC in July 1994 and Bolivia in September 1994. Between September 1994 and September 1995, a total of 55 Americans arrived, including two sisters with the third group. I was in the seventh. Then fourteen sisters, most of whom had welfare assignments, arrived between October 1995 and March 1996. During these six months, only four American elders arrived, one of whom actually came from the Guatemala MTC (along with the only native Central American missionary I knew). As sisters’ term of service was six months less than that of the elders, this could be conceived of as the first generation of returning American missionaries to the region.

During the next several months, there were only a trickle of new North American missionaries. A total of five arrived over the next five months. Perhaps interesting to some, despite Capt Jack’s earlier assertion that “I’d believe you that this was the church’s philosophy if they’d subsequently sent grandchildren of General Authorities to the ‘hot spots’ in Peru and Bolivia. Trouble is they didn’t; in fact, they pulled out all the North American missionaries and left the Latin Americans in place, even though more of them had been murdered than had North Americans,” at this time, in mid-1996, two of those five missionaries were, in fact, sons of General Authorities. Then, with the last groups that I saw arrive beginning in September 1996, new groups of missionaries arrived with what I imagine are fairly standard proportions of elders and sisters.

I don’t know all the details of the current political situation, but I understand that about a year or so ago (probably about the time this blog entry was originally written), North American missionaries were again pulled out of Bolivia. This, as I understand, was due to precautions surrounding some anti-American blips on the radar screen with the leftist Hugo Chavez (Venezuela)-aligning administration of Evo Morales. Recently, the Church News reported that Sisters Beck and Lant, general presidents of the Relief Society and Primary, respectively, visited Bolivia and Peru, meeting with the first ladies of the countries while there ( A personal conversation I had three days ago with an individual whose brother was affected by this more recent pullout, indicated that after having spent a year in Peru, he was now preparing to return to Bolivia. I would surmise that these actions took place with a clear remembrance of and in an attempt to avoid the situations which led to the tragic events of 1989-1991.

Just another quick point or two; Elder Eastland’s name has been brought up on this and/or an earlier post–he was actually serving as an AP (Assistant to the President) at the time of his death (an AP is one of only two missionaries given leadership assignments over all of the missionaries in the entire mission), (which was why he was in a car with the President’s son, incidentally). The causes of his death, while tragic, had nothing to do with the deaths of Elders Ball and Wilson. It was just an accident. The effects it had, occurring shortly after the assassinations, probably did have some significant emotional and psychological impact on many of the missionaries, and possibly particularly the mental state of President Wright.

Could these murders have been prevented? Was it a mistake? My personal feeling is that if the situation were to repeat itself, in an environment where LDS meetinghouses were being bombed and other potential threats against the safety of the missionaries, with anti-American rhetoric in an area where the Church is perceived as representing the US, the Church would quickly remove North American missionaries from the area. But I don’t blame anyone for what happened then (other than the FALZW and other terrorist perpetrators, of course). I believe that those involved acted according to the best of their knowledge with the information they then had available. When Mormon handcart pioneers decided to leave late in the season of 1856, and were caught unprepared in the snows of Wyoming, they and their rescuers experienced terrible hardships and many died as a result of exposure, including some of my ancestors. But, as Francis Webster is quoted as saying, “Cold historic facts mean nothing here for they give no proper interpretation of the questions involved. Mistake to send the Handcart Company out so late in the season? Yes. But I was in that Company and my wife was in it and Sister Nellie Unthank whom you have cited was there too. We suffered beyond anything you can imagine and many died of exposure and starvation, but did you ever hear a survivor of that Company utter a word of criticism? Not one of that Company ever apostatized or left the church because every one of us came through with the absolute knowledge that God lives for we became acquainted with him in our extremities.”

I think the same could be said about the 1989-91 murders. Were mistakes made? Maybe. However, the Lord works in many ways to the salvation of his children. He has a plan, He knows what’s going on, and He is in control. I suspect that His purposes have, are, and will accomplish significantly more than a handful of lukewarm conversions. As President Hinckley indicated at Elder Wilson’s funeral, their names “will be engraved forever in the history of this church as those who lived as faithful servants of God and died as martyrs to his eternal work.”

Ryan Reeder

Can the LDS canon be revised?

May 21, 2009

Obviously, the LDS church teaches that the canon is open to new revelation, but what about currently canonized scripture? Can it be revised, rewritten, or emended?

Joseph Smith seems to have had a more fluid intepretation of the written canon than most believers in the Bible, for example. Far from being an inerrantist, Joseph seems to have believed that the text could and should be revised to meet changing needs.

Joseph revised revelation and even ancient scripture as needed. For example, he made significant revisions to the revelations originally printed in the 1833 Book of Commandments for what would become the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants (see Melvin J. Peterson, “Preparing Early Revelations for Publication,” Ensign, Feb. 1985, 14). Similarly, in the process of reviewing and correcting the 1837 edition of the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith made intentional changes to the text as “clarifications or amplifications of the meaning of the text. The Prophet Joseph Smith, of course had a perfect right to clarify to anything that he felt needed improvement” (see Stan Larson, “Changes to the Book of Mormon“). This notion of “improving” scripture helps explain the project of revising the Bible for a latter-day church.

These examples suggest that Joseph Smith viewed canonized scripture less rigidly than perhaps modern church members do. Robert Matthews argues that “too often we make the faulty assumption that the established scriptures are the ultimate source of doctrine, rather than revelation. This was the basic argument Jesus had with the Jews in John 5:39, wherein Jesus told the Jewish rulers that they had placed their confidence in the written scriptures instead of listening to him. For both Jesus and Joseph Smith, the Bible was a teaching tool rather than the basic source of their information” (Ensign, September 1981).

Given this idea that revelation, not scripture, is the “ultimate source of source of doctrine,” is it possible that future prophets could by revelation revise the current canon in response to changing needs in the church?


May 21, 2009

Last night I noticed my youngest doing a “wordsearch” puzzle. I assumed, incorrectly, that it was something from school, but at one point, he said, “Dad, I got all of them except ‘matrimony.'”

 Of course, I immediately wondered why my son was doing something with ‘matrimony’ in it, so I checked it out. The puzzle was labeled “Protect the Family” and had a list of words and phrases, ranging from “ELIMINATEFILTH” to “FAMILYHOMEEVENING” to “DEFENDMARRIAGE.”

I asked him where he got this puzzle, and he said he found it on the coffee table in the living room. It was then that I turned the page over and saw that it had been printed on the back of the Relief Society newsletter for the month.

I don’t know if my son even knows what matrimony means, but it seems really odd to put this kind of thing on a newsletter for grown women. Of course, it’s not really appropriate for kids, either.

What a weird church it is sometimes.

Suspending Relief Society

May 12, 2009

In early 1844, a few months before the murder of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, the Relief Society, organized two years earlier and headed by the prophet’s wife, Emma Smith, suspended its operations. The society would not meet again for more than twenty years.

In the weeks before the suspension, a man named Orsimus F. Bostwick had circulated rumors about Hyrum Smith’s practice of polygamy. At Joseph Smith’s instruction. W. W. Phelps wrote a refutation of the rumors entitled “A Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo,” which Emma presented to the Relief Society on March 9, 1844.

She explained that the women had met to lend their collective voice to a proclamation that countered Orsimus Bostwick’s slander of Hyrum Smith. Emma read the “Voice of Innocence from Nauvoo” aloud to the group. … Emma received a unanimous positive vote from the women, who were willing to “receive the principles of Virtue, keep the commandments of God, and uphold the Prest. in putting down iniquity.” With a remark that may have seemed pointed toward Elizabeth Whitney and Vilate Kimball, whose young daughters had married Joseph, Emma told the women, “It is high time for Mothers to watch over their daughters and exhort them to keep the path of virtue” (Newell and Avery, Mormon Enigma, p 173).

She then read the First Presidency’s original letter to the Relief Society on its founding in 1842:

We therefore warn you, and forwarn you … we do not want anyone to believe anything as coming from us contrary to the old established morals & virtues, & scriptural laws. … All persons pretending to be authorized by us … are and will be liars and base imposters & you are authorized … to denounce them as such … whether they are prophets, Seers, or revelators, patriarchs, twelve apostles … you are alike culpable & shall be damned for such evil practices” (Ibid., 173-174).

In a later session that afternoon, Emma emphasized that the church had publicly declared itself opposed to plural marriage in the Doctrine and Covenants and reiterated that the Relief Society’s original charge was to root out iniquity.

[Emma] then presented both the “Voice of Innocence” and the presidency’s letter, stating that the two documents contained the principles the society had started upon, but she “was sorry to have to say that all had not adhere’d to them.” Referring to Joseph’s original charge to search out iniquity, Emma reminded the women that she was the president of the society by the authority of Joseph. The minutes record, “If there ever was any Authority on earth [to search out iniquity] she had it–and had [it] yet.” Emma urged the women to follow the teachings of Joseph Smith as he taught them “from the stand,” implying that his private teachings should be disregarded. Reminding them that “there could not be stronger language than that just read,” she emphasized that those were Joseph’s words” (Ibid., 174).

The Relief Society would not meet again. “When Emma had the women take a public oath with their hands raised in support of virtue, she caused enough consternation in the men’s councils to stop the Relief Society meetings” (Ibid., 174). Church president John Taylor explained that the “reason why the Relief Society did not continue from the first organization was that Emma Smith the Pres. taught the Sisters that the principle of Celestial Marriage as taught and practiced by Joseph Smith was not of God” (174).

Yet the official history of the Relief Society states that the Relief Society’s meetings “were suspended in 1844 due to the various calamities which befell the saints” (174). At the Relief Society’s sesquicentennial. Sheri Dew wrote that “by 1844 Relief Society membership exceeded 1,300. But after the martyrdom, and with increasing persecution, Brigham Young decided to “defer” operations of the society, and it ceased to function” (Ensign, Mar. 1992, 51).

Here’s how the CES Manual “Church History in the Fulness of Times” describes it:

Although at that time Latter-day Saint women had to apply to become members, the Relief Society was very popular and grew rapidly. Membership had grown to over thirteen hundred women at the time of Joseph Smith’s death. Because of the crisis created by the Martyrdom and the exodus to and settlement in the West, there were few Relief Society meetings until the organization was revived in 1867.

Some apologists constantly ridicule critics and former members for stating that the church “covers up” embarrassing history. But this kind of rewriting of history is exactly that. The truth is uncomfortable, so it is swept under the rug, and church members are left to choose to believe Sheri Dew over John Taylor.