Utah/Crime and violence/Crimes critics allege to have been "worthy of death" in the 1800's
- Critics expand to idea of blood atonement to include a long list of crimes that were alleged to be "worthy of death."
There is no doubt that Brigham Young had strong words for those who committed crimes. One should note, however, that although Brigham had very distinct (and rather harsh) opinions on what should be done, he always deferred to God's opinion. The historical record shows that in reality people were not being killed for committing the crimes listed by the critics. Critics wish to conflate the concept of "blood atonement" with a variety of comments mined from various sources in order to portray the 19th century church as a bloodthirsty, violent organization.
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).
Critics have created a long list of crimes for which they claim the 19th century church required death through blood atonement. The critics conflate blood atonement with capital punishment in order to promote the idea that the 19th century church was willing to kill anyone who disobeyed the law.
Blood atonement: what is it?
Blood atonement is a concept taught by Brigham Young and several other early Church leaders. It states that:
1. There are certain sins of apostasy that may not be covered by Christ's atonement. Such apostasy would involve church members who had already been endowed and made covenants in the temple.
2. That a person willing to repent of such sins might need to be 'willing allow their own blood to be shed to do so.
Critics mine statements from early church leaders to make it appear that "blood atonement" was being applied to others for a variety of crimes against their will. The following table lists the crimes that the critics claim were "worthy of death," and the sources that they use to support this assertion.
|Crime the critics claim was "worthy of death"||Critics' use of sources|
|Murder||History of the Church 5:296; Doctrines of Salvation 1:136; Mormon Doctrine, 1958, p.314|
|Adultery and immorality||Journal of Discourses 3:247; Journal of Discourses 7:20; Journal of Discourses 6:38; Journal of Discourses 7:19; Journal of Discourses 1:97|
|Stealing||Times and Seasons, vol. 4, pp.183-84; History of the Church 7:597; Journal of Discourses 1:108-9; Journal of Discourses 1:73|
|Using the name of the Lord in vain||Journal of Hosea Stout, vol. 2, p.71; p.56 of the typed copy at Utah State Historical Society|
|Not receiving the Gospel||Journal of Discourses 3:226|
|Marrying an African||Journal of Discourses 10:110; Wilford Woodruff's Journal, January 16,1852; Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Spring 1973, p.26|
|Lying||"Manuscript History of Brigham Young," December 20, 1846|
|Counterfeiting||"Manuscript History of Brigham Young," February 24,1847|
|Condemning Joseph Smith||Quest for Empire—The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History, p.127; Daily journal of Abraham H. Cannon, December 6, 1889, pp.205-6|
The allegation that murder was a crime worthy of death is based upon a quote from Joseph Smith during a Nauvoo City Council meeting:
- In debate, George A. Smith said imprisonment was better than hanging. I replied, I was opposed to hanging, even if a man kill another, I will shoot him, or cut off his head, spill his blood on the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God; and if ever I have the privilege of making a law on that subject, I will have it so.
It is apparent that Joseph Smith had an opinion regarding what should be done with a man who kills another. The quote above shows that Joseph preferred certain other modes of execution to hanging. However, this statement says little regarding the crimes for which this punishment would be applied, other than the statement "even if a man kill another."
The idea that murderers ought to be executed for their crimes is certainly not new or unique to Joseph Smith's time. Even today there is an ongoing and vigorous debate regarding the merits of capital punishment. The question here is whether or not this issue relates to blood atonement. Recall that the concept of "blood atonement" required that an apostate be willing to sacrifice his own life. This does not seem to relate to Joseph Smith's expressed preference regarding forms of execution.
It appears to have been Bruce R. McConkie who connected the form of execution with blood atonement. In his first edition of Mormon Doctrine, which was later recalled, Elder McConkie stated:
- As a mode of capital punishment, hanging or execution on a gallows does not comply with the law of blood atonement, for the blood is not shed.
Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:
- ...the founders of Utah incorporated in the laws of the Territory provisions for the capital punishment of those who wilfully shed the blood of their fellow men. This law, which is now the law of the State, granted unto the condemned murderer the privilege of choosing for himself whether he die by hanging, or whether he be shot and thus have his blood shed in harmony with the law of God; and thus atone, so far as it is in his power to atone, for the death of his victim. Almost without exception the condemned party chooses the latter death.
The Tanners conclude that "[a]s long as the Mormon church teaches the doctrine of blood atonement there is probably little chance of Utah using a gas chamber or electric chair for the condemned murderer." Utah, however, replaced hanging with lethal injection in 1980. This provided two choices to the condemned: firing squad or lethal injection. If the condemned failed to make a choice, lethal injection was to be employed.
Adultery and immorality
Among the various references used to "prove" that adultery is "punishable by death," the critics employ a well known quote from Brigham Young. Here is the quote as the Tanners present it:
- Let me suppose a case. Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; and under such circumstances, I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands....
- There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it ... (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, p.247).
As is always the case with the Tanners' work, it is always a good idea to fill in the parts that they omit in order to find out what Brigham was actually talking about. Here is the same quote with the parts mined by the Tanners highlighted.
- A few of the men and women who go into the house of the Lord, and receive their endowments, and in the most sacred manner make covenants before the Almighty, go and violate those covenants. Do I have compassion on them? Yes, I do have mercy on them, for there is something in their organization which they do not understand; and there are but few in this congregation who do understand it.
- You say, "That man ought to die for transgressing the law of God." Let me suppose a case. Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; and under such circumstances, I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands. But you who trifle with your covenants, be careful lest in judging you will be judged.
- Every man and women has got to have clean hands and a pure heart, to execute judgment, else they had better let the matter alone.
- Again, suppose the parties are, not caught in their iniquity, and it passes along unnoticed, shall I have compassion on them? Yes, I will have compassion on them, for transgressions of the nature already named, or for those of any other description. If the Lord so order it that they are not caught in the act of their iniquity, it is pretty good proof that He is willing for them to live; and I say let them live and suffer in the flesh for their sins, for they will have it to do.
- There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it; and the judgments of the Almighty will come, sooner or later, and every man and woman will have to atone for breaking their covenants.
There are a few things that are important to note.
- Brigham is talking about the breaking of covenants. The adultery example was used to illustrate a point.
- Brigham was talking about having compassion for those people.
- Brigham's reference to the use of a javelin was taken directly from Numbers 25:6-9.
- And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand. (Numbers 25:6-9)
It is clear that the point of Brigham's story is not to claim that adultery was "punishable by death." Brigham was relating a modern, literal interpretation of the Old Testament account of Phineas.
Once again we will examine how the Tanners interpret the words of Brigham Young:
- If you want to know what to do with a thief that you may find stealing, I say kill him on the spot, and never suffer him to commit another iniquity... if I caught a man stealing on my premises I should be very apt to send him straight home, and that is what I wish every man to do.... this appears hard, and throws a cold chill over our revered traditions ... but I have trained myself to measure things by the line of justice.... If you will cause all those whom you know to be thieves, to be placed in a line before the mouth of one of our largest cannon, well loaded with chain shot, I will prove by my works whether I can mete out justice to such persons, or not. I would consider it just as much my duty to do that, as to baptize a man for the remission of his sins (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, pp.108-9).
Looking at the first part of that quote, with some of the missing parts restored, and the Tanners' quote mining highlighted:
- If you want to know what to do with a thief that you may find stealing, I say kill him on the spot, and never suffer him to commit another iniquity. That is what I expect I shall do, though never, in the days of my life, have I hurt a man with the palm of my hand. I never have hurt any person any other way except with this unruly member, my tongue. Notwithstanding this, if I caught a man stealing on my premises I should be very apt to send him straight home, and that is what I wish every man to do, to put a stop to that abominable practice in the midst of this people.
- I know this appears hard, and throws a cold chill over our revered traditions received by early education. I had a great many such feelings to contend with myself, and was as much of a sectarian in my notions as any other man, and as mild, perhaps, in my natural disposition, but I have trained myself to measure things by the line of justice, to estimate them by the rule of equity and truth, and not by the false tradition of the fathers, or the sympathies of the natural mind. If you will cause all those whom you know to be thieves, to be placed in a line before the mouth of one of our largest cannon, well loaded with chain shot, I will prove by my works whether I can mete out justice to such persons, or not. I would consider it just as much my duty to do that, as to baptize a man for the remission of his sins. That is a short discourse on thieves, I acknowledge, but I tell you the truth as it is in my heart.
Notice how Brigham's statement that he has never harmed a man except with his tongue is carefully excised from the quote. Also notice that there is no mention of blood atonement, apostasy, or a willingness to give one's life to atone for some grievous sin. Brigham is simply expressing his disgust with thievery.
Brigham's remark was made in 1853—the Saints were in the midst of a serious struggle for subsistence in the Salt Lake Valley. Famine was often a real threat in these years. Those who thieved from their neighbors under such conditions put others' well-being and even lives at risk. If livestock were stolen, for example, this reduced a man's ability to plow his fields or do other animal-powered work. Such theft also took food and dairy animals from poverty-stricken settlers. Supplies, machinery, hardware, tools, or other items imported at great effort from the east could not be easily replaced in the Territory, even had the Saints had the money to do so.
The frontier was also known for lawless behavior among some, far from military or police power. Under these conditions, thievery could well result in the suffering and death of victims and others in their communities—hence Brigham's determination to stamp it out.
Using the name of the Lord in vain
The Tanners use a second hand quote to "prove" that Brigham Young considered taking the name of the Lord in vain to be worthy of death:
- In the journal of Hosea Stout, Brigham Young is recorded as saying: "... I tell you the time is coming when that man uses the name of the Lord is used the penalty will be affixed and immediately be executed on the spot ..." (Journal of Hosea Stout, vol. 2, p.71; p.56 of the typed copy at Utah State Historical Society).
As with any Tanner quote, it is best to see the quote in full context before proceeding further:
- If ever we live to see the kingdom of God set up we shall see the judgment poured out upon that man who seeks to overthrow the kingdom, for righteousness shall be put to line. I [Brigham Young] would also caution you against using the name of God in vain; it has been used too much and will be with us; like the ancients of old, they forbade them the frequent use of the same. For I tell you, the time is coming when that man [who] uses the name of the Lord [and] is used, the penalty will be affixed and immediately be executed on the spot. Why should we use it in our private and public conversation--the ancients have given us an example of reverencing they had for the name of the deity by calling the priesthood not after God, but after Melchizedek. It must be held sacred, nor must it be the common practice from this time and hencefor. If we do not purify ourselves we shall be devoured by our enemies. Even if we are gathered into the wilderness He will there destroy them either by famine or by Indians, who will be brought upon us and thereby destroyed.
Notice that Brigham says "the penalty will be affixed and immediately be executed on the spot." Brigham does not state what the penalty is. He is not saying that the person who takes the Lord's name is vain will be "executed on the spot," although that is what the Tanners apparently hope to achieve with this quote.
It is interesting that the Tanner's had to dig into secondary sources to make their point. There are plenty of primary sources in which Brigham's own words on the subject of "taking the Lord's name in vain" were recorded:
- No gentleman takes the name of the Deity in vain. Some who do take his name in vain may be called gentleman, but it is a mistake, they are not gentlemen. A gentleman carries himself respectfully before the inhabitants of the earth at all times, in all places and under all circumstances, and his life is worthy of imitation. 
Not receiving the Gospel
The Tanners use the following quote from Brigham Young to conclude that those who do not receive the gospel should be killed:
- The time is coming when justice will be laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet; when we shall ask, 'Are you for God?' and if you are not heartily on the Lord's side, you will be hewn down.
The critics would like us to believe that Brigham was literally talking about killing those who were opposed to the Gospel. The first thing to note is that the Tanner have removed a phrase from the quote without indicating it's absence. The actual quote says:
- The time is coming when justice will be laid to the line and righteousness to the plummet; when we shall take the old broad sword and ask, "Are you for God?" and if you are not heartily on the Lord's side, you will be hewn down. (emphasis added)
One wonders why the critics felt they needed to remove the reference to "the old broad sword"—Perhaps it is because this phrase clearly indicated that Brigham was speaking figuratively rather than literally? Consider also, that just prior to the statement shown above, Brigham said:
- I would rather that this people should starve to death in the mountains, than to have the Lord Almighty hand us over to a cursed, infernal mob. I would rather go down to the grave in peace than to fight a mob, unless the Lord would give me enough Saints to fight and kill the poor devils; in such case I wish to live and fight them.
Brigham is clearly not advocating that anyone who does not receive the gospel should be put to death.
Marrying an African?
The critics propose that lying is "worthy of death" based upon a statement made by Brigham Young. According to the Tanners:
- Brigham Young made this statement in 1846: "I ... warned those who lied and stole and followed Israel that they would have their heads cut off, for that was the law of God and it should be executed" ("Manuscript History of Brigham Young," December 20, 1846, typed copy; original in LDS church archives).
The quote in context:
- I instructed the Bishops to hold meetings where the Saints might assemble, confess their sins, pray with and for each other, humble themselves before the Lord and commence a reformation that all might exercise themselves in the principles of righteousness; and, if those who had received the Holy Priesthood did not abide their covenants and walk uprightly before the Lord and their brethren, that those who did would be taken away from their midst, and the wicked would be smitten with famine, pestilence and the sword, and would be scattered and perish on the prairies. I said I would prefer traveling over the mountains with the Twelve only than to be accompanied with the wicked and those who continued to commit iniquity; and warned those who lied and stole and followed Israel that they would have their heads cut off, for that was the law of God and it should be executed.
It is obvious that Brigham had strong words for "the wicked." Brigham Young himself once said on March 2, 1856:
- I will tell you what this people need, with regard to preaching; you need, figuratively, to have it rain pitchforks, tines downwards, from this pulpit, Sunday after Sunday. Instead of the smooth, beautiful, sweet, still, silk-velvet-lipped preaching, you should have sermons like peals of thunder, and perhaps we then can get the scales from our eyes. This style is necessary in order to save many of this people.
What is not obvious in this quote is what relationship this is supposed to have to "blood atonement." Brigham is not talking about apostates who willingly wish to sacrifice their lives to atone for their sins—He is talking about thieves and liars, and he is expressing his desire that harsh judgment be brought upon them. It is also important to note that, despite the harsh words and rhetoric, the historical evidence shows that people didn't get their throats cut for committing such crimes.
Again, a quote from Brigham Young is used to imply that the penalty for counterfeiting is "blood atonement."
- Brigham Young declared: "I swore by the Eternal Gods that if men in our midst would not stop this cursed work of stealing and counterfeiting their throats should be cut" ("Manuscript History of Brigham Young," February 24,1847, typed copy).
The quote in context:
- Wednesday, 24 -- I met with the brethren of the Twelve. We investigated several orders purporting to be drawn by J. Allen, Lieut. Col., signed by James Pollick; which I requested should be burned. I swore by the Eternal Gods that if men in our midst would not stop this cursed work of stealing and counterfeiting their throats should be cut.
As mentioned previously, there is no doubt that Brigham had harsh feelings toward those who committed crimes. And again, there is no historical evidence that any such punishment was ever applied to such perpetrators.
Condemning Joseph Smith
The critics really have to stretch on this one, since if everyone who condemned Joseph Smith were "worthy of death," there would have been few critics left! This was obviously not the case during the 19th century, and the only support that the critics can gather for such a far-fetched idea is a second-hand quote from Brigham Young and a single entry in Apostle Abraham H. Cannon's journal. Cannon's journal says:
- Bro. Joseph F. Smith was traveling some years ago near Carthage when he met a man who said he had just arrived five minutes too late to see the Smiths killed. Instantly a dark cloud seemed to overshadow Bro. Smith and he asked how this man looked upon the deed. Bro. S. was oppressed by a most horrible feeling as he waited for a reply. After a brief pause the man answered, "Just as I have always looked upon it—that it was a d—d cold-blooded murder." The cloud immediately lifted from Bro. Smith and he found that he had his open pocket knife grasped in his hand in his pocket, and he believes that had this man given his approval to that murder of the prophets he would have immediately struck him to the heart.
The only other evidence offered by the critics is a second hand quote said to have come from Brigham Young. Norton Jacob claims that Brigham said:
- A man may live here with us and worship what God he pleases or none at all, but he must not blaspheme the God of Israel or damn old Jo Smith or his religion, for we will salt him down in the lake.
The critics take the story about Joseph F. Smith's emotional reaction to hearing of the death of Joseph and Hyrum, along with an alleged quote from Brigham Young from a second hand source, and ridiculously expand this to mean that "blood atonement" requires death for anyone who condemns Joseph Smith. The evidence for such an assertion by the critics is practically non-existent, and one must assume that they added this for the simple reason that they wanted to make the list of "crimes" that they relate to "blood atonement" more impressive.
- [note] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:296. BYU Studies link
- [note] Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 1958, p.314.
- [note] Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, vol. 1, p.136.
- [note] CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN UTAH, Utah History Encyclopedia
- [note] Mike Parker, Did Brigham Young Say that He Would Kill an Adulterous Wife with a Javelin?, FAIR Web Site
- [note] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 1:108-109.
- [note] Diary of Hosea Stout (1810 - 1899)
- [note] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 17:118.
- [note] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:226.
- [note] Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 3:224.
- [note] "Daily journal of Abraham H. Cannon," December 6, 1889, pp.205-6.
- [note] Klaus J. Hansen, Quest for Empire—The Political Kingdom of God and the Council of Fifty in Mormon History, (1967), p.127; Hansen in turn quotes Dale Morgan, The Great Salt Lake (New York 1947) p. 202.