Mormonism and doctrine/Repudiated concepts/Blood atonement
What is "blood atonement"?
Were apostates secretly put to death during the administration of Brigham Young? Did LDS leaders at the time teach that apostasy was the unforgivable sin, and that the only thing an apostate could do to redeem himself was to give his own life, willingly or unwillingly?
To see citations to the critical sources for these claims, click here
THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF LATTER-DAY SAINTS
Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered",
Improvement Era, (September 1912)
Question 9: Do you believe in "blood-atonement," or in other words, do you accept and believe in the principles taught in Brigham Young's sermon of 8th of February, 1857, Journal of Discourses, volume 4, pages 219, 220?
Answer: We believe in "blood atonement" by the sacrifice of the Savior, also that which is declared in Genesis 9:6. A capital sin committed by a man who has entered into the everlasting covenant merits capital punishment, which is the only atonement he can offer. But the penalty must be executed by an officer legally appointed under the law of the land.
There is also a man down the street who tried to exhibit the endowments to a party who was here. You will see what becomes of that man. Do not touch him. He has forfeited every right and title to eternal life; but let him alone, and you will see by and by what will become of him. His heart will ache, and so will the heart of every apostate that fights against Zion; they will destroy themselves. It is a mistaken idea that God destroys people, or that the Saints wish to destroy them. It is not so. The seeds of sin which are in them are sufficient to accomplish their destruction.
- Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 11:262. (12 August 1866).
While one is no doubt able to dig up examples of blood being shed by those of the LDS faith, accusations are unsupported which seek to establish these as activities promoted, condoned, or concealed by the LDS church or its leaders generally. As Larson noted:
- Denials of murder charges which rode in on the backwash of the Reformation gradually resolved into defensible positions that (1) some known killings of the reform period resulted from motives not related to blood atonement, (2) that in spite of extreme statements by some of its leaders the church did not officially condone taking life other than through legal processes, (3) responsibility for any reversions to primitive practices of blood shedding must rest upon fanatical individuals. The whole experience continued in memory as a reminder of ill effects growing out of good causes carried to extremes.
The Deseret News reported the following on June 17, 2010, reporting the Church's recent statement on the subject of Blood Atonement:
- The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints released this statement Wednesday:
- 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.
Despite a number of rhetorical statements by LDS leaders in the late 1850s, there is no evidence that anyone was "blood atoned" at the orders of Brigham Young or any other general authority. Contemporary claims for such actions uniformly come from anti-Mormon books and newspapers with lurid titles such as The Destroying Angels of Mormondom and Abominations of Mormonism Exposed.
The First Presidency issued an official declaration on the matter of killing apostates, as a form of blood atonement, in 1889. This declaration reads, in part:
- Notwithstanding all the stories told about the killing of apostates, no case of this kind has ever occurred, and of course has never been established against the Church we represent. Hundreds of seceders from the Church have continuously resided and now live in this territory, many of whom have amassed considerable wealth, though bitterly opposed to the Mormon faith and people. Even those who made it their business to fabricate the vilest falsehoods, and to render them plausible by culling isolated passages from old sermons without the explanatory context, and have suffered no opportunity to escape them of vilifying and blackening the characters of the people, have remained among those whom they have thus persistently calumniated until the present day, without receiving the slightest personal injury.
- We denounce as entirely untrue the allegation which has been made, that our Church favors or believes in the killing of persons who leave the Church or apostatize from its doctrines. We would view a punishment of this character for such an act with the utmost horror; it is abhorrent to us and is in direct opposition to the fundamental principles of our creed.
Despite the critics' claims, there is evidence that some crimes were considered worthy of death, even in the apostolic age among Christians:
- Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him....[Chapter 5] If any man see his brother sin a sin which is not unto death, he shall ask, and he shall give him life for them that sin not unto death. There is a sin unto death: I do not say that he shall pray for it. All unrighteousness is sin: and there is a sin not unto death. We know that whosoever is born of God sinneth not; but he that is begotten of God keepeth himself, and that wicked one toucheth him not" (1 John 3:15; 1 John 5:16-18) (italics added).
This section will respond to specific examples of people purportedly "blood atoned."
Thomas Coleman (or Colbourn)
Thomas Coleman (referred to as "Colbourn" in some sources) was a black Mormon employed by Brigham Young at the Salt Lake House hotel. In 1866, Coleman was apparently discovered talking discreetly with a woman he was believed to be courting, and the men who discovered them together killed him and mutilated his body. A label was placed on his body: "Notice to all niggers! Leave white women alone!!!" His death was purportedly covered up by an all-Mormon grand jury.
The difficulty here is that "blood atonement" was supposedly applied to endowed Mormons who apostatized. While Coleman may have been a Mormon, he definitely wasn't an endowed member, nor was he an apostate. Assuming the reported circumstances of his death are true, they are a tragic example of racism and lynching, one all too common in that time period.
Exaggeration and sensationalism
As one historian noted,
- That the doctrine [of blood atonement] was preached by high officials is a matter of record; the intent of the sermons became a matter of conjecture; and the results therefrom set vivid imaginations working overtime. Blood fairly flowed through the writing of such men as Beadle in Life in Utah or the Mysteries of Mormonism and Polygamy, in Linn's The Story of Mormonism, and even Stenhouse's anonymous chapter on Reformation and Blood Atonement in his Rocky Mountain Saints. Numerous killings, including the Mountain Meadows massacre, were credited as the fruits of the doctrine....
- Omitted from quotations used by the anti-Mormons were restraining clauses such as follow from Brigham Young:
- . . . The time has been in Israel under the law of God that if a man was found guilty of adultery, he must have his blood shed, and that is near at hand. But now I say, in the name of the Lord, that if this people will sin no more, but faithfully live their religion, their sins will be forgiven them without taking life.
- 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.
- The doctrine of blood atonement which involved concern for the salvation of those to be subjected to it, could have little meaning in the [p.62] Mountain Meadows massacre, or any other of the murders laid unproved on the Mormon threshold (emphasis added).
Brigham Young's preaching style
Furthermore, critics have often misunderstood or misrepresented Brigham Young's (and others LDS preachers') preaching style, seeing them in ways differently than the Saints of the day did:
- There grew between the Mormon leader and his congregation a bond that permitted...irreverence [toward Brigham personally]. Brigham cast himself as the Saints' gruff but loving father, alternately scolding and befriending his flock. As lawgiver, he felt he should preach without compromise.
- "I will tell you what this people need, with regard to preaching," he said. "You need, figuratively, to have it rain pitchforks, tines downwards.... Instead of the smooth, beautiful, sweet, still, silk-velvet-lipped preaching, you should have sermons like peals of thunder."
- True to his word, Brigham gave saints and sinners pitchforks aplenty. The latter might be especially hard hit if guilty of malicious anti-Mormonism....
- But his outbursts were the exception rather than the rule, and even when thundering he often softened his blows with humor....He conjectured that some women's dresses might conceal a six-horse team, with "a dozen dogs under the wagon."....Far from rankling under his thrusts, the Mormon membership came to tolerate, expect, and even enjoy the show....
- One did not have to go far to find the keys to his speaking popularity. For one thing, his audience sensed that behind his strong words lay a genuine concern". my heart yearns over [the Saints]... with all the emotions of tenderness, so that I could weep like a child," he said, but I am careful to keep my tears to myself." He assured his people that he never intended malice. "There is not a soul I chasten but what I feel as though I could take them and put them in my bosom and carry them with me day by day."
- Brigham believed that his strong words had not separated him from his flock. "Although I may get up here and cuff... [the people] about, chastising them for their forgetfulness, their weakness and follies, yet I have not seen a moment when they did not love me The reason is, because I love them so well." He had rebuked with caution, he thought, employing a primary rule: "When you have the chastening rod in your hands, ask God to give you wisdom to use it, that you may not use it to the destruction of an individual, but to his salvation."...
- The Saints also understood that there was little bite to his celebrated bark. Young admitted as much. "I have had some people ask me how I manage and control the people," he once remarked. "I do it by telling them the truth and letting them do just as they have a mind to."...
- Thus, Young's words and platform manner were often calculated for effect. For a typical Tabernacle congregation, he thought normal and respectable words were like "wind," going "into the ear and... [soon] forgotten," Therefore, he used stronger measures. "When you wish the people to feel what you say," he once said revealingly, "you have got to use language that they will remember, or else the ideas are lost to them. Consequently, in many instances we use language that we would rather not use."
- [note] Charles W. Penrose, "Peculiar Questions Briefly Answered," Improvement Era 15 no. 11 (September 1912).
- [note] Gustave O. Larson, "The Mormon Reformation," Utah Historical Quarterly 26/1 (January 1958): 62.
- [note] See Deseret News Thursday, June 17, 2010 off-site
- [note] "Achilles" [pen name for Samuel D. Sirrine], The Destroying Angels of Mormondom; or a Sketch of the Life of Orrin Porter Rockwell, the Late Danite Chief, (San Francisco, 1878).
- [note] William Hall, Abominations of Mormonism Exposed; Containing Many Facts and Doctrines Concerning That Singular People, During Seven Year's Membership with Them; From 1840 to 1847 (Cincinnati: I. Hart, 1852).
- [note] Official Declaration, 12 December 1889, signed by the First Presidency (Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, and Joseph F. Smith), the Quorum of the Twelve (Lorenzo Snow, Franklin D. Richards, Brigham Young Jr., Moses Thatcher, Francis M. Lyman, John Henry Smith, George Teasdale, Heber J. Grant, John W. Taylor, M.W. Merrill, A.H. Lund, and Abraham H. Cannon), and counselors (John W. Young and Daniel H. Wells).
- [note] Union Vedette, (13 December 1866): page 3. A scan of the article is available here off-site
- [note] Gustave O. Larson, "The Mormon Reformation," Utah Historical Quarterly 26/1 (January 1958): 60-62.
- [note] Ronald W. Walker, "Raining Pitchforks: Brigham Young as Preacher," Sunstone 8 no. (Issue #3/3) (May 1983), 5–9. off-site off-site This article is a worthwhile discussion of Brigham Young's preaching style generally, and how the Saints saw it.