Continuing this magical mystery tour of doctrines that were once believed by the LDS Church, and no longer are, I thought I ought to clarify what I’m trying to accomplish. I’m really not trying to destroy anyone’s faith. I just think that LDS doctrine is evolving, and mostly in healthy and productive ways. And I think there’s some value in charting doctrinal changes. Change is a human constant. Societies change, culture changes, ideas change. That’s why a central LDS doctrine is ‘continuing revelation.’ And sometimes, a theologically innovative Church gets it wrong.
In the old TV show, The West Wing, Toby Zeigler has a conversation with his rabbi about the death penalty.
You may say that this isn’t really what Mormons believe by continuing revelation. But I think it is, close enough. And especially when it comes to the idea of the death penalty. There may have been a time when it made sense to execute convicted murderers. It doesn’t make sense anymore. The constitutional standard prohibits ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments. And society’s standard for cruelty changes, and so does our understanding of what an ‘unusual’ punishment would be. The meanings of those words are ever shifting, like the meanings of all words, always. And the law can and should reflect that reality.
The doctrine I want to write about today is, blood atonement, is one the Church has genuinely repudiated. But it certainly was taught, by Brigham Young and others, especially during the Mormon Reformation period in the mid-1850s. Let me reiterate; I am not an historian and I am not a theologian. I’m a playwright with wifi. I have no authority in these matters, and quite possibly don’t know what I’m talking about.
Here’s my best sense of things. At some point in the past, some Church leaders (including the President of the Church, from the pulpit, in General Conference), taught that Christ’s atonement may not actually be efficacious for some very serious sins, like murder and apostasy. Serious sinners could voluntarily ask to be executed, for the sake of their eternal souls. But Brigham’s rhetoric on the subject was over-the-top. And his oratory led to conspiracy-theory style accusations that Brigham Young sent out hit squads of Danites to murder apostates.
Here’s what Brigham Young actually said. It’s a long block quotation, and I edited it a bit for length; apologies:
Now take a person in this congregation . . . and suppose that he is overtaken in a gross fault, that he has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of exaltation that he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed, he will atone for that sin and be saved and exalted with the Gods. Is there a man or woman in this house but that will say “shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?”
Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant. He never told a man or woman to love their enemies in their wickedness, never.
I can refer to where the Lord had to slay every soul of the Israelites that went out of Egypt, except Caleb and Joshua. He slew them by the hands of their enemies, by the plague, and by the sword, why? Because He loved them, and promised Abraham that He would save them. And He could save them upon no other principle, for they had forfeited their right to the land of Canaan by transgressing the law of God, and they could not have atoned for the sin if they had lived. But if they were slain, the Lord could bring them up in the resurrection, and give them the land of Canaan, and He could not do it on any other principle.
I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain in order to atone for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance (in the last resurrection there will be), if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty. I have known a great many men who have left this Church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them. The wickedness and ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.ignorance of the nations forbid this principle’s being in full force, but the time will come when the law of God will be in full force.
This is loving our neighbors as ourselves. If he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. . . . That is the way to love mankind.
Nobody talks like this anymore. Nobody anywhere, except the kookiest kooks in cuckoo-ville. Al Qaeda, maybe: Isis.
But this kind of rhetorical flourish was common in the 19th century. This talk of Brigham Young’s took place in 1857. The year before, 1856, John Brown was engaging in acts of violent terrorism in Kansas, and a US senator, Charles Sumner, was caned to within an inch of his life on the floor of the US Senate, by a fellow Senator, Preston Brooks. Within 3 years, the ferociously extreme language used by both sides in the slavery/abolition argument led to civil war. Here’s an example of that rhetoric: “Though our rivers should be covered with the blood of their victims, and the carcasses of the Abolitionists should be so numerous in the territory as to breed disease and sickness, we will not be deterred from our purpose.” And on and on.
Nineteenth century American society was violent and racist and sexist and . . . immoderate. We Americans were a muscular people, and we expressed ourselves vigorously. And the LDS church was theologically adventurous. I think it likely that Brigham Young genuinely believed that hundreds of sinners would welcome getting their throats slit, as an act of mercy. It goes without saying that essentially nobody thinks that anymore.
Were any apostate Mormons actually killed in this fashion? Jerald and Sandra Tanner’s book on the subject makes a case for it, and I don’t doubt that it’s possible. Quite possibly further research may validate claims of 19th century blood atonement homicides. I just don’t see what it has to do with Mormonism as it’s practiced today.
The Church today does not preach blood atonement, nor does it support the death penalty politically, nor does it require that the death penalty be administered via firing squad. Here is the official position of the Church:
In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives. However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.
This is as close as we’ll ever see to the Church repudiating public comments from a former President. Brigham Young engaged in ’emotional oratory.’ Boy, did he ever. And that’s really all that needs to be said. We don’t need to distort our theology to accommodate the publicly stated views of past leaders. We cannot, and shouldn’t try to correlate every syllable of the Journal of Discourses with current views. Brigham Young loved to engage in what we might call speculative theology. He floated ideas that probably made sense at the time, but which, in our time, our culture, seem pretty wacka-doodle.
Why can’t we just admit the obvious? Brigham Young was wrong. Maybe his ideas reflected the best wisdom of his age. But it’s just plain wrong by any modern standard.