“Hell on Wheels” and its portrayal of Mormons

While I certainly don’t think Mormons are the only religious group shown in a negative light in popular media, I’ll freely admit to being sensitive to the way my religious heritage is portrayed. Perhaps that’s because the depictions are so rarely positive.

This past weekend, the AMC show “Hell on Wheels” premiered its third season. The series, set during the building of the Transcontinental Railroad in the late 1860s, has been favorably received by critics and viewers alike.

(**Spoiler alert** Stop reading now if you don’t want to know some major plot points of the episode.)

In the second half of the two-part opener, we meet Mr. Hatch, the father of a large polygamous Mormon family. The law of the land allows the railroad to claim his property through eminent domain and when a work-around can’t be found, he shoots and kills the law enforcement officer who comes to notify him that the family must leave their homestead. The head of the railroad crew returns with a regiment of soldiers, and Mr. Hatch turns his teenage son over to them, insisting that it was the boy who shot the police chief. He then watches as his son hangs for the murder. Mr. Hatch’s actions were brash and cowardly, and certainly not representative of Mormons then or now.

While I don’t relish seeing despicable characters who just happen to be Mormon, I can make allowances for the fact that there are both admirable and not-so-admirable people to be found in every group, organization and religion. However, over the course of the episode, Mormons as a people were described as “nasty,” “violent,” and “not a legitimate church of Christ.” Several characters said that they “treat[ed] their women as slaves,” took “child brides,” and were “without moral principles.” While that was all standard public opinion for the time, it’s simply not accurate and feeds into hurtful stereotypes, some of which continue to this day. At best you could say that those statements painted with a very broad brush what may have accurately described some individuals, but hardly an entire people.

In addition, Mr. Hatch’s statement that his family wouldn’t survive without him (his supposed justification for sacrificing his son in his stead) was rather ridiculous, too. A significant number of LDS women homesteaded and raised their families without their husbands for long periods of time, whether they were dead, away on missions, or absent for other reasons.

Another historical point to make: twice in the episode characters mentioned that Mormons of the time weren’t “keen on Negroes.” While most didn’t consider themselves abolitionists, Mormons were anti-slavery. Joseph Smith made that part of his platform when he ran for president in 1844. Mormons weren’t, as a group, much more progressive than the mainstream on racial issues, but they weren’t any more antagonistic toward blacks than the general populace of the time either.

For the most part, the Latter-day Saints welcomed the railroad coming through Utah, in large part because it provided jobs. They desperately needed the money after several years of drought and poor crop yields. Brigham Young negotiated contracts for thousands of Mormons to work on both Central Pacific and Union Pacific crews in Utah. The Mormon workers were, by all reports, among the most hard-working, productive and non-violent railroad employees in either company, quite a contrast to the real-life “hell on wheels” towns, where bloody altercations, drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, and even murder were rampant.

Making the reprehensible Mr. Hatch a Mormon was lazy storytelling and added nothing of value to the plotline. It was the writers’ shorthand attempt at a nefarious backstory for the episode’s antagonist, based on caricatures and stereotypes. The history of Mormonism provides a treasure trove of fascinating people like Martha Hughes Cannon, Emmeline B. Wells, my own illustrious ancestor Cornelius Peter Lott, and, yes, even a few scoundrels like Porter Rockwell. I’d love to see someone in popular media brave enough to delve into the richness of these imperfect and compelling real human beings and use them as patterns for a character who happens to be a Latter-day Saint, instead of settling for the tired old “evil Mormons” trope.

About Emily Geddes

Emily H. Geddes was born to two physicists and grew up as a Navy brat. Born-and-raised as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, she holds a bachelor's degree in theatre from Brigham Young University, and earned an MBA from Eastern Washington University.

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  1. Very well written, I was personally offended at this story line on Hell on Wheels because I know what the Mormons went through at the hands of the government and general population. To deface their struggle in a way like this is disgusting.

  2. The shows “Big Love” and “Sister Wives” doesn’t help with public perception of the Mormon/LDS religion either.

    I watch the show and faith has been a very real thread through the show. The failings of both the father & daughter Protestant leaders/pastors has been rough but real.

    Human sin is part of all lives. Some leaders fail and fall and like in the show rise…again.

    The lead character actually took a step of prayer in the season opener. I’m sure the Mormons storyline will come back around but it will be true to life the good, bad and often ugly.

  3. Thanks for commenting, Lance. It is frustrating to see a rich heritage portrayed so often from a consistently negative perspective with little context.

    Eric, I’m glad to hear that faith has been dealt with in a positive way with other characters on the show, and that other religious characters have been shown to be real human beings with both admirable qualities and failings. (Your comment on facebook was the first I’d ever heard of the show and I’ve only watched the one episode, so I didn’t have that context.) If only that courtesy was extended to Mormons as well! While I’m glad that at least some religion is portrayed positively here, I think it’s a shame that the Mormon people and their faith are used so poorly (not to mention inaccurately in an historic sense, too). As a Mormon myself, I’m open to the idea that I’m particularly sensitive to it, but it seems that almost all Mormon storylines in popular media feature copious amounts of the bad and ugly, and precious little of the good.

    It will be interesting to see where this storyline goes if it’s picked up later this season. They certainly left an ominous opening for the Hatch family to return and wreak vengeance, which doesn’t bode well for a future improvement in how Mormons are portrayed on the show.

    I’m afraid I haven’t watched either “Big Love” or “Sister Wives” either – I really don’t watch much television at all – but neither of those shows is actually about the modern Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The misperception that Latter-day Saints still practice polygamy is an ongoing irritation. It’s my understanding that, at least occasionally, those shows do clarify that they are depicting fundamentalist Mormon sects that are not associated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whether in the text of the shows or in a pre-show on-screen blurb.

    I agree that human sin is a part of all lives. And some leaders fail and fall and rise again and again and again. I’d love to see that kind of deep, rich, human characterization of a Mormon character instead of the flat, one-dimensional caricature in “Hell on Wheels”.

  4. Thank you for a very well written article, Emily.

  5. And god laid his mark upon them! And they shall not hold the priesthood in any manner!
    Joesph Smith

  6. Emily how can you make those statements about Mormons views of blacks being similar to most Americans in light of your churches teaching prior to 1978?

    • Are we watching the same show here? Your “Christian” folks spent the past two seasons hanging blacks because they could and did you forget enslaving and raping blacks is part of your beloved Christian heritage and not Mormons.

  7. Eric – that’s a great question that deserves a much better answer than I can give in a comment section. In fact, I have a whole column coming up about it.

    The short answer is, things change. Joseph Smith ordained black men to the priesthood and was openly anti-slavery. After his death and the move to Utah, things changed. Brigham Young and succeeding leaders taught different views about blacks and would not ordain them to the priesthood or allow them to enter the temple. Those teachings became so entrenched in the culture that they came to be viewed as policy and then, by some, doctrine. It was felt by more modern leaders (in the 1950s to 1970s) that a revelation would be needed to change the policy and that revelation came in 1978.

    Personally, I wish it were different, that Mormons had stayed on the course that Joseph Smith set by ordaining blacks to the priesthood. Everyone, including our leaders, is human and subject to their own biases and prejudices. Everyone makes mistakes, sometimes big ones. Or as you said above, human sin is a part of all lives.

    Not to excuse Mormon views and teachings, but I believe that in the mid- and late-1800s the general population didn’t have particularly enlightened views on race either. This was right after the Civil War, after all, and there were incredible tensions all through the country regarding racial issues. Even those who were in the North and had fought to end slavery often still held prejudice regarding those of other races and nationalities.

    Hope that helps for now. It’s a difficult topic, and one I hope to address more fully soon.

  8. I appreciate your response and look forward to a post digging into the issue because the issue of race and racism with the Trayvon Martin case is a hot button.

    A lot of convo going on about the subject and these shows reflect opportunities to confess both our sins and our steps forward. Cultural Confession is needed in the drama and trauma of race relations. Humility and honesty about what was, still is and what could be or would be needs to be owned.

    1978 is not that long ago and I’m still unsettled about the issues surrounding the change, the answers given and even the thinking at arose from some of the Mormon Scriptures that seem to identify judgement, curse and color.

    I would like to hear how those matters are worked through since they are present passages not just past. I know is is a sticky issue but in light of the challenges we all face in explains our doctrine, practice and leaders, such conversations need answers.

    I feel the same about Islam in the face of the current bloodshed in Egypt, Iraq, Pakistan and of course our own struggles on our continent with radicalized followers of Islam. The world is connected now and the past, the present and the future are laid open for all to see…it a vulnerable place but we must embrace the challenge.

    I’m interested in seeing how you handle such topics.

  9. Ridiculous portrayal of Mormons! Largest number if new converts are black and from predominantly black countries. Mormons never persecuted blacks. One of the major reasons for Joseph Smith being assassinated was his strong feelings against slavery.

    Anciently in Israel the Levitical priesthood was held by only those of certain specific lineages. During Christ’s sojourn on earth only Jews were eligible to hold the priesthood. It’s never been about unworthiness or prejudice, Only timing.

    Every thing about that so-portrayed Mormon family in Hell on Wheels show was in violation of everything the Mormon church teaches and believes in. The father was a coward liar and murderer of the police officer and his son. The other members of his family were cowards and passive when they should’ve had the courage to tell the truth. The daughter was morally loose, as portrayed.

    Trying to say that Mormons are not legitimate Christians is a complete falsehood. If you believe that Jesus Christ was literally the son of God, that he suffered and died on the cross as he atoned for our sins as only he could, and rose from the dead, and will come again to bless and save the earth and usher in the resurrection of the dead, then you are Christian. If you believe that salvation can only come through Jesus Christ, then you are Christian. That is at the core of everything the church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints believes and teaches. Rather than the thousands of Christian churches fighting over differences, we ought to rejoice in those things that are precious in common that are at the root of Christianity and Christian belief. The Gospel that the Mormon believes in also teaches the eternity of the family unit, that Families are forever.

    In our Temples, The house of The Lord, families of loved ones who have passed are reunited, eternal marriages are solemnized, every one of God’s children are given the opportunity to accept Christ and all the precious promises and covenants that they would have had they been able to or had knowledge of him in this mortal life. in other words everyone has a chance to accept Christ, here or in the hereafter.

    Finally, you will never hear a bad or disparaging word about another religion in any Mormon church services on Sunday. Never!

  10. Thanks for commenting, David. The phrase “not a legitimate church of Christ” is certainly a frustrating one for me as well. I appreciate your statement that “we ought to rejoice in those things that are precious in common that are at the root of Christianity and Christian belief.” That’s a major reason I write for SpokaneFAVS and participate in interfaith discussions.

    Do you have a source for your statement that the largest number of new converts to the Church are black and from predominantly black countries? It was my understanding that the Church didn’t keep stats on race. I have heard, anecdotally, that the Church is experiencing significant growth in both Africa and South America.

    I’ll talk about it more in a later column, but the “timing” explanation for the priesthood ban doesn’t hold much water for me, in large part because several black men were ordained to the priesthood during Joseph Smith’s time and the practice was discontinued later.

    Also, I’m glad that it’s been your experience that Mormons don’t speak badly of other religions. Unfortunately, I’m afraid I have heard some individuals speak disparagingly of other faiths, including during services or Sunday school classes. It’s not common or widespread, and certainly not officially sanctioned, but Mormons are not immune to the same biases and prejudices that everyone struggles with, and the same tendency to see people they disagree with as “other”. In general, I believe that we Latter-day Saints, as a people, truly try to follow Christ’s example and do what He would do, but we are all flawed, imperfect people and we will all, inevitably, fall short of that mark.

  11. For the life of me I can’t understand why Christian teachers and pastors who should know better refuse to comment on the heretical doctrine of Mormonism. The Jesus of Mormonism is not the same Jesus who has revealed Himself in the Bible. Rather than quibble about historical events, which are bad enough, why not discuss that the Mormon Jesus is the brother of Lucifer, a created being, or that Mormons believe that “as man is, god once was, as God is man can become”. These are doctrines that affect the eternal destinies of real men, women, boys and girls. God will not give a pass to sincere believers in a false Jesus.

    • Dennis you make a great point. Let us not also forget that mormons believe that God has a body and is not a Spirit, even though His word clearly tells us He is Spirit and must be worshipped as Spirit. The church teaches that the mormon god came down from heaven and had sex with Mary. Many followers of the church believe that Jesus had not just one but many wives during his walk on earth. They believe this because Joe Smith said this to be truth, he also said that he was a direct blood descendant of Christ himself. And let us not forget that Joe Smith himself taught that he will be right beside Christ on judgement day……oh and a few years latter not to be left out of coarse, Brigham Young said he will also be on the other side of Christ on judgement day. How can mormons call themselves Christains when what they believe is not found in Gods Word?? Well I will tell you why, Joe Smith told them that the Bible can’t be trusted….but he a convicted con man could be trusted. The man wouldn’ t even live the “Word of Wisdom” that he said was given to him by the mormon god….yes that would be the same god that came to earth had sex with mary, and is also the father of not just our Saviors, but you, me and the devil. Sorry Joe Lucifer was an angel, and the Bible clearly tells us the angels are not human, never have been never will be. Man did that guy ever read his Bible? The lies of one man has destroyed the lives of so many people. To this day the church continues to spread those lies and many more.

      • Crack kills. Mormons don’t believe half of what you terrorists “Christians” claim we do.

      • Sandra, your comment is full of inaccurate, incomplete, offensive, and simply completely wrong statements. If you have any questions you’d like to ask and are willing to have a respectful conversation, please feel free to submit your questions to my “Ask a Mormon” column and I’d be happy to address them.

        As Tracy Simmons, the editor of SpokaneFAVS said in her comment below, “Folks – let me remind you that this post and this thread is about a TV show. This isn’t the place to attack the Mormon faith, or any other religion. That’s not what Spokane Faith & Values is about.”

  12. Don’t be hypocritical Emily. I am a born-again Christian. I do not believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet; therefore, Brigham Young declares that I am “of Antichrist.”

    Here is the quote:
    “I will now give my scripture: `Whosoever confesseth that Joseph Smith was sent of God to reveal the holy Gospel to the children of men, and lay the foundation for gathering Israel, and building up the kingdom of God on the earth, that spirit is of God; and every spirit that does not confess that God has sent Joseph Smith, and revealed the everlasting Gospel and through him, is of Antichrist'”
    – Brigham Young

    • Lonnie, it’s easier to believe in Joseph Smith then to believe a prophet you believe in lived in a whale for three days. Which story sounds more real to you?

  13. Wow, hadn’t heard that one! That is the problem with false doctrine and groups that espouse them. Total exclusivity according to their “man”. They always deny the believer in Jesus Christ alone in favor of their works based religion descended from Nimrod, the father of false works based religion. The Roman Catholic Church is even an example of that philosophy. In their own doctrinal writings it’s them only following their “seven sacrament” works based salvation.

  14. The article was a response to the tv show and points brought up in the show that takes place in the old west, so historical discussions are appropriate. I’m not sure if going for the jugular on doctrinal differences between the religions was the main point. Im sure Emily or Diane would address issues brought up but hostility probably won’t set the best table for such dialogue. We can have major disagreements about subjects connected to Mormonism and Christianity but how we treat one another and give opportunity to respond should be done with respect and kindness even if we are passionate about differences. I think there is plenty of confusion regrading LDS beliefs and this format does give them a chance to clarify but it doesn’t have to be set up like a trial.

  15. How do you equate bringing up factual information in response to David’s post hostile? There was no name calling or overused capital letters. Of course you are entitled to your opinion but I would respectfully disagree. Mormonism is not some endangered species that needs to be coddled back into existence. It is an aggressive and growing cult that needs to be addressed and stood against by those who love the truth. See Rev. 2&3.

  16. We are not talking about Mormonism only…we are talking to Emily.

    She isn’t a position or a doctrine, she is a person, a writer and a pretty humble, self-reflecting contributor to this site. She doesn’t project Mormonisim in a china hut image but even pushes back or asks for sources for the stuff commented on in this post. All I’m saying is that honey more than vinegar works best in working through differences of opinion, truth or ideas. The slash and burn posture of many commentators online is a dirge for heathy debate. Arguments, defensive responses, accusations, allegations, undocumented reports, hearsay, etc fills reams of Internet space and discredits the testimony of Truth.

    Someone can be right but handle their right-ness in a wrong way. I think that happens when we fail to handle writers as people not just positions. I’m sure I share most of your concerns about Mormonism but I value Emily as a new voice on this site and I hope she doesn’t get scarred off because of us barking and biting at her heels.

    Flushing out the doctrinal faithful is an old tactic that sidesteps the issue of how people deal with one another. History is full of right people killing people in the name of rightness. When we reduce people to positions only we are on the way to devaluing them completely.

  17. I am LDS. I have many black LDS member’s in my ward. Saying Mormons are the same as FLDS is like saying my lovely Baptist church down the street is the same as Westbouroh Baptist church.
    People are told all kinds of things why we are against blacks. It’s not so. My ward back in 1980 when my daughter was born had two missionary’s serving just in my ward and they were both black. We are ALL Gods children. My great great grandmother was killed coming to Utah….happened every day.
    Do you studying. Joseph Smith NOR Brigham Young were perfect people. None of us are. However, I love the peace my religion brings me. I love the peace your religion gives you!…I love to go to other faiths. I am a Follower of Christ. Don’t Tell Me What I Belive In…..
    I was very sad that the Hell on Wheels show protrayed such a coward as a member of our faith. And looking at the next episode, it might be the same next week. Then, I will just have to watch something else. I love the show. But remember how much these people suffered and endured. It’s just not right.

  18. Excellent article.

  19. I have seen a few articles responding to the “Hell on Wheels” take on Mormons (probably due to the fact that I currently reside in Utah) :). But this is the most thought out and impressive article I have seen by far. Well said.

  20. The Mormon storyline is in full play…but not looking too good for them right now, 3 dead so far and the shows main murdering psychopath has joined the flock. Next weeks show includes more Mormon story I think they visit Joe Smith settlement or something.

    • They can’t visit Joe smith settlement .. this is supposed to take place in the 1860s. Smith died in Illinois in 1844. Any Mormon devoted to Smith thinking the true church remains with smith, remained behind in Illinois and those Smiths who decided NOT to follow Brigham Young.

      Its understood only a tiny group stayed behind while 12,000 – 15,000 members of the church began their trek west in 1846.

      By 1869 – the railroad was complete and that was the end of the pioneer era for the church.

      Though certain early saints were encouraged to settle areas other than Salt Lake City, and its possible saints could have taken up residence along the railroad in Cheyenne, Wyoming, i seriously doubt they built and resided in a military fort wearing bandit masks. Be serious.

      Its clear the writers of Hell on Wheels and their depiction of the Mormons in the 1860s is downright lazy, false and wrong.

  21. As a Black Mormon, I can assure you that race relations in the church aren’t as rosey as Emily will have you belief. Having been raised in Salt Lake City, I know from personal experience there are many Mormons who within my lifetime were raised to believe Blacks were cursed with Black skin because they were less than valiant in the premortal life, as it was a message supported by the prophets (post Joseph Smith) and taught by so-called church leaders (racist apostle Mark Petersen).

    Church history clearly shows the use of child brides in polygamy, before and after the Federal legal condemnation of the practice. Records reflect the marriage of both prophets Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to multiple young girls ages as young as 13.

    The church abandoned Black saints early, as we were an inconvenience to the new church and it’s establishment of legitimacy. The resulting false racist doctrine, (that was in now way inspired by our Savior or Heavenly Father) hence the lack of prophetic declaration regarding the institution of the priesthood ban, we so lovingly dismiss as an important influence on what is still considered, a new religion.

    There are various accounts of Mormon-led massacres, including Haun’s Mill and Mountain Meadows, that reflect an image of aggression and less-than-Christian reaction by the LDS.

    Oh yes, and as for slavery, many early Utah homesteaders, including Brigham Young, were slaveholders.

    Emily, I can appreciate your reaction to this fictional television show. It’s hurtful when someone incorrectly interprets something that represents you, negatively. However, there is no responsibility of the media to represent our religion positively, void of the historical embarrassments that we, LDS, chose to avoid being educated or having an adult conversation about. We have a beautiful history, which in its fullness, shows a people who have struggled. We have been led by many great prophets who had struggles with sin, such as philandering and racism. Your blog post reminds me of Sunday School (Gospel Doctrine and Gospel Essentials) where we discuss the valiant leaders of our church and reflect on stories of your pioneer ancestors, and ignore the full truth of that history while proclaiming we have the fullness of the Gospel.

    • I can’t speak to how a black individual is treated within the church in Utah or anywhere. It would be most unfortunate if any individual of any race was considered above another. But i understand we are all human — and Mormon or not, the world is full of idiots.

      However, speaking historically . .Haun’s Mill . .as you called out WAS NOT PERPETRATED BY MORMONS . . You are false. It was inflicted upon Mormons. As was the extermination order by Gov Boggs. Listen, im not suggesting early Mormons traveling west and settling in Missouri, Ohio or Illinois weren’t void of head scratching moments. But they were NOT killers.

      Regarding Brigham Young having slaves, that is most laughable and false. He employed individuals who were black and Asian. – but none were slaves.

      Ive done some research regarding the way blacks were treated in the early church and there’s not enough space here to type everything, but to be clear, it was well documented the Mormons were opposed to slavery. Though admittedly it wasn’t common, a few blacks DID join the church, were baptized and even endowed in the temple. – however in the late 1800s – and early 1900s its believed ideas among the bretheren had mysteriously changed and the common belief of Blacks being the descendants of Cain began to take shape and though they were still permitted to join the church, and remain in the church, they were no longer given the priesthood. Sadly, this is true.

      I know there are still those who have a problem with this flip-flopping of stances towards the blacks and the pristhood, Im glad since 1978 all races are equally given the priesthood.

  22. Kemmic-

    I apologize if my post came across as justifying in any way the racist words and actions of any Church leaders or members. That was absolutely not my intent.

    Yes, racist “doctrines” were taught from the pulpit within the living memory of many members. And many members developed their own rationalizations or “folk doctrine” that made the priesthood ban make sense to them. Fairly recently a BYU professor made headlines for repeating some of these ideas to the great embarrassment of many members, including myself, who had hoped our culture had grown past them and recognized how wrong and undoctrinal they were.

    I was referring primarily to Joseph Smith’s anti-slavery platform during his presidential campaign, and his documented ordination of several black men to the priesthood. Years later, when it became politically expedient as more slaveholding members of the Church, particularly from the South, were emigrating to Utah, Brigham Young, as both the ecclesiastical and political leader of the Mormons in Utah, spoke before the legislature supporting allowing slavery in Utah. But while the Saints lived in Missouri, a great deal of the tension with the local population came because the Missourians, who were mostly southern and pro-slavery, were afraid that the large influx of Mormons, who were mostly northern and anti-slavery, would tip the balance against slavery for the state.

    Also, the Haun’s Mill massacre was perpetrated *against* the Mormons, not by them. 17 members of the church were killed, included children as young as 9 and the elderly, and 13 more were injured. Only 3 of the more than 200 attackers were even wounded.

    I wrote in an earlier post about the Mountain Meadows massacre and how I feel the Church needs to do a much better job educating its members about the “dark corners” of our history, as well as the members need to take more responsibility learning the history themselves. You can read it here: http://spokanefavs.com/2013/07/26/every-religion-has-dark-corners/.

    Have you seen the documentary “Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons”, Kemmic? I recently watched it and I’m hoping to get a post up about it soon. I’d be very interested to hear your thoughts on it.

    • I would have to disagree about the Hauns Mill massacre being against the Mormons. Being a mormon myself and actually having ancestors that participated I can tell you without a doubt it was by the Mormons. We are not blameless here… There is I fact even a monument at Hauns Mill dedicated to this event. Not a proud moment for our religion. Every religion has these unfortunate events… Ours unfortunately are a lot more recent then other churches. Denying them however does no one any good.

      • Ms Geddes is correct. You’re confused. Haun’s Mill was a savage killing of Mormons by NON-Mormons. – Mountain meadow massacre located in southern Utah in the 1850s is one where it was believed Mormons or Utah Militia perpetrated the killing of innocent. Its believed by most historians that as gravely unfortunate the incident was, it was a mistake during a time when Utah and the Mormons were once again paranoid and under a lot of scrutiny by the US Government. – still doesnt make it right. But its believed to have been a mistake and not the actions of a blood thirsty people.

        • Thanks for your comments, Mark. I have to say that I am not comfortable with characterizing the Mountain Meadows massacre as “a mistake.” That word seems to me to trivialize the murder of 120 men, women, and children who did not deserve to die, and minimizes the deliberate actions of those who were responsible.

          Have you read “Massacre at Mountain Meadows” by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, Jr., and Glen M. Leonard? It was published in 2008 and the three authors are professional historians who are also active Latter-day Saints and were given unprecedented access to Church historical archives with the full support of Church leaders. Excellent book. My review is here: http://www.buildenoughbookshelves.com/2013/07/book-review-massacre-at-mountain.html

  23. Lindsay – You are mistaken. Are you perhaps confusing Haun’s Mill massacre, which was committed *against* Mormons, with the Mountain Meadows massacre, which was committed *by* Mormons? I spoke about the Mountain Meadows massacre in a previous column (http://spokanefavs.com/2013/07/26/every-religion-has-dark-corners/).

    Not that wikipedia is the ultimate source, but here are a couple of links that confirm the facts of the Haun’s Mill and Mountain Meadows:

    Haun’s Mill: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haun%27s_Mill_massacre

    Mountain Meadows: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_Meadows_massacre

  24. A traveler on his way to California passed through Salt Lake City in September 1849 and paid tribute to them in this way: “A more orderly, earnest, industrious and civil people, I have never been among than these, and it is incredible how much they have done here in the wilderness in so short a time. In this city which contains about from four to five thousand inhabitants, I have not met in a citizen a single idler, or any person who looks like a loafer. Their prospects for crops are fair, and there is a spirit and energy in all that you see that cannot be equaled in any city of any size that I have ever been in.”

  25. Folks – let me remind you that this post and this thread is about a TV show. This isn’t the place to attack the Mormon faith, or any other religion. That’s not what Spokane Faith & Values is about.

  26. I appreciate the comments here, but I’m afraid it’s time to turn the comments off on this thread. It’s just gotten too nasty.

  27. Just one point to make. The show tells stories in an arc and the character who described the mormons as a “dangerous cult,” “not a legitimate church” was pulled up for her bigotry. It’s easy to take an episode out of context. She was the main preacher woman in the show and when she was pulled up she was mortified by her own unkindness. I’m not speaking to the portrayal as a whole just that one aspect. I pretty much think everybody on the show is in a moral grey area so it’s not like Mormons are a villainous group; they are no better or worse than any others portrayed on the show. Humanity as a whole is not portrayed well and the show has a theme of redemption.

    • I agree, there is a lot of moral sifting going on in the show. It’s not as simple as bad and good guys. The show is exploring themes rarely touched and I give them props for that, even though it’s an adult themed show for sure.

    • “pulled up?” She was executed in what was the silliest plot line of the entire series unfortunately. I did not take it as some sort of balancing for what she said about Mormons.

      • I made the comment long before the episode where she was executed. She was pulled up in that she saw the hurt she cause Bohannon’s wife and felt sincere remorse. So that was one character’s thoughts of what Momanism was. If Mormon’s want to be upset with the show I would think it would be the portrayal of Brigham Young as megalomaniacal immoral creep that doesn’t care that one of his own priests was murdered as long as the swede can make him money or the father that lets his own son hang for a crime he committed. I don’t have a dog in this race, just thought it was wrong of the writer of the article to say that one character’s view was actually the view of the show. There really aren’t any characters with a moral high ground just some are less wrong than others.

  28. David Nathan Viger Jr

    This most recent episode of “Hell on Wheels” showing Brigham Young forgiving a lying murderer, “the Swede”, an imposter, and asking him to join with him, under divine inspiration in the running the affairs of the Church is such a mean and misleading portrayal of Brigham Young and the teachings of the Church, it is disgusting! The Swede would have been tried for murder, thrown out of the Church and imprisoned. When it comes to Mormonism, this whole show is glaringly anti-Mormon, and packed with lie upon lie!

    This whole show slanders Mormonism and it’s leadership, and it’s completely unnecessary and deceitful!!

    • I’m sorry you feel that way David. As a non-mormon, I’d have to say that the show has humanized Mormons for me. It brought them into a cast of understandable characters, not just historical or cultural oddities. I think the story line has had moments where they stand taller than the others, even the more accepted Christians. I’m a bit nervous too, with the whole B. Young story line. I felt myself starting to get a bit defensive, knowing friends who would be hurt by a negative portrayal. But I loved how Brigham brought the Swede to his knees in open confession of what he had done and who he was. I think, just maybe, B.Y. was getting a confession and will ultimately bring him to justice. We will see, I think B.Y. is being set up to be more than a villain. I hope I am right, but we will see. Nevertheless, my fascination, and slight admiration has increased because of the show. I hope that has some merit.

      • Didn’t Brigham Young have a kind of “secret service” or “body guards” called Avenging Angels who operated sort of outside of the law, including assassinations. It is my understanding that the mormans had both external threats from anti Morman folks, and also some internal fueds that involved these Avenging Angels.

        • Proud Conservative

          No, he didn’t – people who did those things acted on their own – NOT at Brigham Young’s request. By the way, it’s Mormons, not Mormans.

      • I, for one, didn’t see that BY was being set up as some villainous character. He reproached Swede for his wicked ways for sure.

        • Proud Conservative

          Yeah, and then he has him join with him for nefarious purposes. It’s completely removed from reality – This is a series that purports to be historically accurate, yet producers then portray Mormons as falsely as they can.

          • I have enjoyed the show and am in no way Mormon, but I couldn’t help but notice this ongoing thrashing of Mormons on the show. BY turning blind eye to swede was over the top. It is interesting 9and maybe not significant) that BY uses his announced gift of discernment to extract confession from Gunderson as to identity, however, he was a bit more vague on “confession” of murdering the Bishop, et al. If you recall, all Swede says on that issue is that “Bishop Dutson was alive when he found him.” He says nothing more and BY, unlike on identity question, doesn’t press the issue. It almost sounds like he could be crawfishing by saying Dutson and family were barely alive when he found them after some sort of disaster or Indian attack.

            Of course, now we have actual son of BY attacking BY in his house with a bloody free-for-all spilling out onto the porch. Oh, don’t forget the season three episode where Mormon Militia attacks Cheyenne (!!) and takes Bohannon captive. But do not forget the quick scene where the camera pans the inside of the hotel after the raid and BOTH black hotel servants were shot through the head behind the counter. Both black, both non-combatants and with shots through the head? Hmmm… almost looks like the message is that Mormons just shot the two blacks because they were black and handy.

            Further insult is displayed when Swede arrives at “Ft. Smith” and is accepted by Hatch and friends. I would assume Hatch, et al., would not have ignorant of Mormon teaching and ways, yet Swede is able to sell himself to these congregants (some in leadership positions) as a believer – and a Bishop, no less. I don’t think his brief interactions with Dutson and family would have quite been enough for such a con job.

    • On its face, I believe you… However…Brigham Young (probably from his dealings with so many people) KNEW what Swede was all about. He knew that Swede wanted to go back and kill Cullen Bohannon.

  29. It’s unfortunate media like this feed these negative stereotypes and prejudice; I certainly felt them growing up Mormon. But “Mormons then or now” is a broad brush, too. In fact, this kind of incident—where Mormon colonists lashed out against outsiders—was very common. Case in point, I’m thinking of the Mountain Meadow Massacre, September 1857, an enormous tragedy against Native Americans and non-Mormon migrants, ordered by President Brigham Young himself. But you are right, these historical fictions should not be the basis on which viewers judge the Mormon Church or its members.

    • I suggest stepping back from saying they were common if the Mountain Meadow Massacre (horrible as it was) is your only example. There’s also no consensus on whether or not Brigham Young ordered the attack.

      • ...in a handbasket

        Yep. God told them to do it, not brother Brigham.

        • Nicolas Garaycochea

          God didn’t tell them to do it. Their fear of outsiders did. It wasn’t ordered by Brigham Young or God. nice try though.

      • Proud Conservative

        No consensus? Brigham Young did not order the attack. The evidence is clear. The local leaders sent a rider to ask Brigham Young what they should do about the wagon train – he sent back a message to leave them alone. The evidence is clear on that.

    • disqus_UZrzuW8WD3

      Utterly False…. There is ZERO evidence Brigham Young “ordered” the Massacre, in fact there is direct evidence he didn’t, because the day after the Massacre the “Saints” in that area got a letter from Brigham Young telling them to leave the Wagon Train alone, but it was too late. More so, all letters were direct carbon copied, and scholars that have went back and looked at the copy’s, it clearly shows that there was no forgery, no indication of anything that Brigham sent another letter telling them to kill the wagon train. That is all made up anti-mormon crap, like most things that come from anti-mormons are, using a little truth to lie.

      You even further have your facts wrong. Local Indians and Mormons together are who killed the wagon train. Mormons were actually on good terms with the Indians of the west, traded with them etc.

      Anyway, I appreciate the respectful and even responce otherwise, even though you got some serious facts wrong. Thanks much.

      • Nicolas Garaycochea

        The Indians followed the rogue members because the rogue members lied to the Indians. It was these rogue members who wanted to blame the Indians for the massacre. It’s sad, but those rogue members were excommunicated and turned into the authorities.

    • Proud Conservative

      It was not common, and you are buying into the negative stereotypes. You need to get your facts straight. Brigham Young had nothing to do with the Mountain Meadow Massacre. It was the local leaders who made the decision for that despicable act.

    • Nicolas Garaycochea

      It wasn’t ordered by Brigham Young, it was ordered by a rogue Stake President (a leader in our church) and a Bishop. Brigham Young ordered them to let the non-members pass in peace. All those involved were excommunicated by Brigham Young and turned into the authorities. It’s obvious you don’t know your history like you’d like others to think you do.

  30. I had the same thoughts about the episode. (Congrats on being the first search result for “portrayal of Mormons in Hell on Wheels.”) Thinking about it for a bit after, I realized something rather interesting.

    The person who said Mormons had no moral principles and would therefore turn to violence … was a military Captain(?) who rode with scalps on his saddle and completely un-phased by the hanging of a young man.

    The person who said Mormons weren’t legitimate Christians … was a priest who funneled booze to her alcoholic father so she could continue an extra-marital affair.

    The person who said Mormons were racist … well, he might be the only guy who hasn’t done something despicable in the entire show.

    In any case, I try to tell myself that portrayals of Mormons in the media are going to continue to become more prominent as the church’s profile increases. (Just imagine if Mitt Romney would have been elected.) Some might be accurate, but most won’t be … just as I’m sure it is with Catholics, Buddhists, the Amish, etc.

    If only most people realized that.

    • ...in a handbasket

      Yep. Joseph Smith never drank, or had extramarital affairs, or taught that skin color had anything to do with righteousness.


      • Proud Conservative

        He didn’t.

        • It’s fine to believe that his marriages to other women, some of whom were already married, were valid marriages and/or didn’t have sex occurring and thus Joseph never committed adultery, but those other two items are more than a little difficult to deny with just a firm, “He didn’t.” Joseph opened a whisky bar in his Nauvoo House hotel for a short time before his wife forced him to close it, enjoyed both wine and beer on occasions including his last day at Carthage (though it can be said that he seems to have always been careful to avoid being drunk), and the Book of Mormon and the Book of Moses feature groups of people cursed by God who also receive a skin of blackness. The real history is a bit more nuanced than the picture we get from a typical BYUTV documentary.

          • Proud Conservative

            It’s nowhere near what you twist it to be.

          • Believe it or not, but I always want to fix any bad knowledge I have. I have had to give up on history favorable to the narrative of LDS Church history, and I have had to give up on history from critics as well. Please elucidate how I have “twisted” things so that I may better myself. Over the past six months have you found that the wine at Carthage was merely grape juice or sacramental wine? That the bar at the Nauvoo House was not started by Joseph? That the Canaanites in the Book of Moses were not given a skin of darkness as a curse? Please illuminate where I have gone wrong with the facts.

          • Proud Conservative

            Really? Like your charge below about “God” ordering the Mountain Meadows attack is not twisting things? You’re just as much a bigot as the show’s writers.

          • You have me confused with someone else, I’m afraid. As for the charge of “bigot”, I’ll embrace that if it means having to accept what the historical record indicates about the foibles and frailties of real historical persons. Though I’m not sure how that makes me a bigot.

          • Also, I don’t believe that Brigham Young ordered the massacre (again, I think you’ve gotten me confused with someone else). The history to me shows that while he certainly did NOT enjoy having unknown, unvetted outsiders traveling through Utah in the approaching shadow of Johnston’s Army, it seems he knew the implications of violence and tried to prevent it. And then, after failing to prevent the results of the extreme war-time rhetoric he helped foster throughout the territory, he did his best to obscure the facts from discovery for decades afterwards. The LDS Church historian’s office was supposed to release a sequel to their phenomenal book on the massacre that would go over the cover-up. Hopefully it will someday be released. Until then, might I recommend to you the recent biography of President Young by Dr. John Turner? It will help show that Young was a complicated figure and was often terrible to get along with and often said and did things others found to be terrible. He was a fascinating figure with both his many warts of character and his constant planning for the future of his people. https://deseretbook.com/p/brigham-young-pioneer-prophet-john-g-turner-85576

          • No name calling here. This conversation isn’t productive, so we’re shutting comments down here. Take it somewhere else.

  31. On the racist note: I don’t think it’s much of something to object to, there was a lot of racism back then – it’s history. Not something to be denied or used for a modern day interpretation of people’s moral code.

    Beyond that, racism is pretty well documented in the Mormon church. So pretending otherwise is just silly. Take a look at the history of the Mormon church, or more accurately, it’s literature.

    Book of Mormon – nephite’s skin turned brown when they sinned and they turned to lamanites.

    Pearl of Great Price – was amended to have sections removed including death through blood atonement for a daughter having layed with a black man i.e. Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross wasn’t enough to cover such an act.

    It is what it is… and it’s ok. No point in hiding from history or trying to change it. It doesn’t mean anything about you or what you believe.

    • Honestly, you don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not saying there wasn’t racism in our nations past, there might have even been a few Mormons who were a bit racist themselves, but believe it or not most Mormons were and obviously still are against slavery. A very large part of the people who persecuted the Mormons also persecuted slaves and free blacks.
      These are sad excuses of documentation of racism in the Mormon church.
      Book of Mormon – Yes, the difference between Nephites and Lamanites, or part of the difference anyways, was that the Nephites had light skin and the Lamanites had dark skin. But if you actually read the book, you’d know that there were good and faithful Lamanites as well as wicked and sinful Nephites throughout the stories. And the Nephites that sinned and dissented over to the Lamanite nations (when the Lamanites were being wicked) were said to be more wicked than the Lamanites themselves. And when those Nephites dissented, their skin did not change color, they were still light skinned. And at the end of the Book of Mormon, the entire Nephite civilization is destroyed by the Lamanites, because by that time the Nephites as a whole were more wicked than the Lamanites.
      Pearl of Great Price – I have one thing to say about this example… BULL CRAP. The only contents that were removed from the Pearl of Great Price were revelations or historical documentation that was transferred to the Doctrine and Covenants. But you are actually probably talking about the Doctrine and Covenants anyways without realizing it because you said “sections” (there are no sections in the Pearl of Great Price, it’s chapters; there are sections located in D&C). But you won’t find the “section” that you’re talking about in there or anywhere for that matter because… it doesn’t exist! You’re spouting of about an utterly bs story that’s completely made up by anti-Mormons, who I might add are infamous for making up these lies about the church. I’ve seen it first-hand where anti-Mormons will give me a reference in say “The History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” (volume, chapter, page, and all) with some ridiculous story of how Joseph Smith made prediction about the world ending in 57 years from the time he made the statement. I literally looked this up and there was no such thing. I’ve confronted them about this and they will never offer a valid explanation. How can you rely on people that give false references to quotes that don’t exist?
      I can tell you right now that this supposed “section” does not exist and most likely never has. If not, then give me a reference. A reliable reference at that.
      And shame on you! You’re going to say that Mormons don’t believe that Christ’s atonement and sacrifice can allow all to be forgiven of sin?! First of all, that “sin” that you listed is only considered a sin if the two were not married. And even then, the atonement allows forgiveness for breaking the law of chastity. Race has nothing to do with sin and sin has nothing to do with race, and Mormons have always believed that. Even murder is forgivable, after like a thousand years of punishment. The only unforgiveable sin, according to the LDS Church, is denying God or his existence when in fact the individual in question knows fully well without any doubt that God is and does exist. This would only happen if this person literally saw God face to face. And that is very hard to come by.
      Go rethink and recheck.

      • I think you’re reading more into that comment than really exists

      • M’am: the Mormon Church was segregationist until the federal courts threatened them in the 60s or 70s and the Mormon leader had an epiphany and opened the Church or else. That is just a fact. The fact that Mormons were not in favor of slavery does not mean they were not racist. Plenty of northerners wanted the south to end slavery back then but, like Lincoln, wanted blacks to relocate to another country.

        • @jack …there were not any federal courts ordering the LDS church give blacks the priesthood. The pressure came from the mixed blood LDS members in Brazil.

          • You are unsuccessfully promoting the PR fiction that is the official line of LDS (policy change re: Blacks was NOT due to federal pressure). At least 2 issues dispute this claim:

            1. LDS policy change towards blacks was coincident with a liberal decade (1970s) and a liberal Christian President (Carter).

            2. LDS decision re: blacks had already occurred:

            >>Bob Jones v. IRS, wherein the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that religious schools which practice racial discrimination could be constitutionally stripped of federal tax exempt protection.<<

            This is obviously a precedent setting motion that was clearly tied to tax exempt status and the racist Mormon policy. Bob Jones University folded when it came down to an issue of money as did the LDS church later. Even if this was not correct, Mormons should be ashamed to have had such an obscene racist policy EVER let alone in the 70s. LDS religion is a ridiculous, bigoted institution with depraved men in its leadership like Brigham Young who was little more than a low-life con artist. SHAME!

          • Nicolas Garaycochea

            Yes and your obviously unbiased as well…

        • In order to be a segregationist there has to be black population to seperate your self from. In order to go west you had to have enough money to buy a wagon a supplies to last a year. There was and still is a low black population in the west.

        • And, although Joseph Smith was anti- slavery, Brigham Young is a well documented racist. It’s Brigham who is portrayed in the television show, but no mention of that by the author.

          • Proud Conservative

            Prove it. Provide some proof. Prove that you’re something more than just a bigot. Brigham Young wasn’t a racist – he was also anti-slavery. His words that people like you condemn him with are often misunderstood, taken out of context, or are completely fabricated.

            If he was racist, he would have mistreated the Native Americans. Did Young condone or encourage killing of Native Americans as was common at the time? No. He had an enlightened approach and tried to live in peace with them. If he was a racist as you allege him to be, that wouldn’t be the case.
            You also need to realize that what is deemed racist today can’t be applied to thoughts and actions of the past. You have to judge them by the time period they existed in. That’s just intellectual honesty.

          • “taken out of context” [citation needed] “or are completely fabricated” [citation desperately needed].

            It would wonderful/terrible if the Church ever decided to do a Brigham Young Papers Project. I wonder why they don’t? They have a lot more material and a lot more contextual information than they do with the JSPP… I wonder why there’s no interest in having faithful historians professionally evaluate his sermons and writings?

        • Proud Conservative

          The Church has never been segregationist. Church units weren’t formed along race lines. Nor did the courts ordered any such thing. That would be interfering in religious belief – something that’s prohibited by law. Read the Constitution. And read your history. Your understanding of it is disgusting.

      • Just FYI, but Mr. Hatch redeems himself later on in the storyline.

  32. I think ya’ll are making more of this then should be. It’s a movie show. And if you think about the time period that it covers, its pretty accurate about the feelings a lot of people had towards Mormons. The show isn’t saying that is what Mormons are like, but that was the aditude towards them at the time. Its not saying the aditude was correct. Just like the way most people felt about the Indians. Every one thought they were uncivilized people, but in truth they were very civilized, they just lived a different life. So dont make more of it then it is. Its history shown through Hollywood, which isnt always the most accurate.

    • Proud Conservative

      It doesn’t just portray the negative attitudes about people towards the Mormons. It actively portrays the Mormons and Brigham Young as evil people.

      • About the only thing this show gets right is durant was a crook.there was no shortage of Mormon workers n Utah so why show poaching and holding of workers? The mormons subcontracted much of the grading work for both railroads in Utah/Nevada. Brigham young had to threaten durant with selling the grading to the central pacific unless he was paid for the work.he magically showed up the next day with 1/2 of what was owed. Of course those Mormon workers did not spend their wages in hell on wheels. They took it home which was near by.

      • Because Mr young often was. Get over it. For a proud conservative you sure sound like a whiney liberal.

        • Proud Conservative

          No, like a true Conservative, I’m concerned about the truth. You’re the liberal hack, that falsely accuses people.

          • Says the whiney liberal who’s whining.

          • Proud Conservative

            If you or your religion were libeled and slandered, you’d denounce it, too. You’re more of a bigot than the writers of the show – worse, as you defend and condone such bigoted attacks. A real Conservative defends religious belief from attacks – and you’ve put yourself on the other side of the line by your hateful assaults – – just like your shameful attacks on law enforcement that are plastered on your profile. Do you march with BLM members calling for the death and outright murder of cops, as well?

  33. You also need to realize that this is no coincidence that these plot lines coincided with the 2012 elections, it is Hollywood subtlety implying that Mitt Romney was an evil Mormon.

  34. If we pop out of the movies for a minute, it is just plain human nature for members of the Mormon faith to be sensitive and protective of thier image. I would point out that none of the posters here would be able to hold up as example any church that is without flaw. Or any nation for that matter. The United States allowed lawfull slavery, the Catholics have the inqusistion and child abuse in their history, the Mormans clearly have thier issues. Who doesnt? TO ALL : dont be self rightous and judgemental, Remember “Pull the log from your own eye before trying to remove the splinter from your neighbors eye. “I love the show”

  35. I wonder why this author didn’t address what I thought most Mormons would find outrageous:” the duplicitous way Brigham Young allows the Swede to come in and flourish even after he admits to Young he “found Bishop Dutner alive” and then had this vision that he should have Dutner’s life in Utah!!

  36. The leaders of the Mormon faith should be happy that every thing portrayed in the television show is not completely accurate; for if the actual truth came out it would be far more devastating. Follow the link and do some independent research before you accuse me of being a Mormon hater, because I’m not… I only hate it when innocent people are misled by others who financially profit and gain power over them all in the name of God, whether they be the Mormon leaders or some other religious leaders http://www.4mormon.org/facts-mormon-church-doesnt-want-you-to-know/ Read whats available on the link, then question all of it. Verify everything on the site. Disprove it, or prove it. It’s your life and your relationship with God. Why not put it to the test. Do the same with the bible and every other holy writing. What is there to be afraid of… surely God directs and guides those who whole heartedly and honestly search. Not even a clever unbeliever or Satan the Devil can misleed an honest pursuit for truth guided by God, right?

    • Proud Conservative

      So you claim not to be a Mormon hater, but then you link people to a Mormon hate-site for information about their beliefs. Yet you hate for people to be misled? If you wanted people to know the truth, send them somewhere that has the correct information that they can judge for themselves , not one that is tainted with hate and purposefully misrepresents everything. Surely you aren’t afraid that those honestly searching will be misled? See Mormon.org or Lds.org or http://josephsmithpapers.org, or http://jesuschrist.lds.org, or https://history.lds.org

      • then you refer us all to obvious organs of the Mormon Church for the “correct” information. I just visited the site you claim is “hate (all to common refuge from truth nowadays, btw, so don’t be one of them “Proud Conservative”)” and found intense doctrinal differences and claims that the Mormon Church is doctrinally errant and is built on sand. That would be a standard doctrinal, spiritual attack made by a person or group that sincerely or maliciously wanted to undermine the Mormon Church. The malicious would do it to be, well, malicious. the sincere because he believed the Mormon Church was misleading people into eternal error. The latter may be disagreeable to a Mormon but it is not “hate,” unless we are going to start using the progressive or leftist definition of that now over used word.

        • I agree with the cult statement, where we diverge is they are all cults IMO A.D., B.C., A.B.C.D… some are more destructive than others…but no one deserves to be wiped of the face of the earth. So, I have flagged your comment. I wise person once said if you hate something don’t you do it too. It’s no better than the blind hatred or discrimination found in cults.

  37. the fact that they even have a Book of Mormon, seems to signal that the Bible isn’t enough. Many contradictions between Book of Mormon and Bible. Mormons prefer Book of Mormon over Bible when defending their religion.