So called ‘blood atonement’ was a theoretical principle never given to the Church as a practice in this dispensation. This video discusses the concept, why it was used in early church rhetoric at times, and why critics are misguided in their attacks on this topic.
Okay. So in this video I want to talk about blood atonement, and what that means in Church history. I wanted to start actually with a Church statement that was issued in 2010, June 16th of 2010. “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.” Now, blood atonement was a theoretical principle. It was never given by the Lord to the Church in this dispensation, and in fact, I’ll elaborate on this towards the end of the video.
It is a theoretical principle that it could only be applied during a period of theocracy where the Church and state were combined like in the day of Moses. So I’ll talk about that very particularly at the end of the video. So why were the leaders, especially Brigham Young, talking like this? Let’s look at this from the Gospel Topics Essay, Peace and Violence Among the 19th Century Latter-day Saints. “In the mid 1850s, a reformation within the Church and tensions between the Latter-day Saints in Utah and the U.S. federal government contributed to a siege mentality and a renewed sense of persecution that led to several episodes of violence committed by Church members. Concerned about spiritual complacency, Brigham Young and other Church leaders delivered a series of sermons in which they called the Saints to repent and renew their spiritual commitments. Many testified that they became better people because of this reformation.”
Now, this is key. “Nineteenth-century Americans were accustomed to violent language, both religious and otherwise. Throughout the century, revivalists had used violent imagery to encourage the unconverted to repent and to urge backsliders to reform. At times during the reformation, President Young, his counselor Jedediah M. Grant, and other leaders preached with fiery rhetoric, warning against the evils of those who dissented from or opposed the Church. Drawing on biblical passages, particularly from the Old Testament, leaders taught some sins were so serious that the perpetrator’s blood would have to be shed in order to receive forgiveness. Such preaching led to increased strain between the Latter-day saints and the relatively few non-Mormons in Utah, including federally appointed officials.” They talked often about the Old Testament, but there’s even this passage from the New Testament. If you look here in 1 John 5, there’s evidence that some crimes were considered worthy of death even in the apostolic age among Christians.
This is the verse. “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.” So basically in that scripture it says that there is a sin unto death. So they viewed that there were some sins that possibly have some affiliation like in the Law of Moses of death. Okay. Now from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under “blood atonement”, we read this: “Several early Church leaders, most notably Brigham Young, taught that in a complete theocracy, the Lord could require the voluntary shedding of a murderer’s blood as part of the process of atonement for such grievous sin.”
“This was referred to as ‘blood atonement’. Since such a theocracy has not been operative in modern times, the practical effect of the idea was it’s use as a rhetorical device to heighten the awareness of Latter-day Saints of a seriousness of murder and other major sins. This view is not a doctrine of the Church and has never been practiced by the Church at any time.” Now, let’s look at Brigham Young’s preaching style in particular, especially during this period, a reformation where there was a lot of people that were getting casual in their commitments to the gospel. And so there was this extra focus on trying to bring them back into compliance with their covenants. He said, “I will tell you what the people need with regard to preaching. You need figuratively to have it rain pitchforks, tines downward … instead of the smooth, beautiful, sweet, still, silk velvet lipped preaching. You should have sermons like peals of thunder.”
He goes, “When you wish the people to feel what you say, 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. 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 any individual but to his salvation.” And I love what he said here about how the Saints loved him regardless of this. And it was because of the love he had, and they viewed his preaching very differently than we do today. Look at these two quotes. “My heart yearns over the Saints with all the emotions of tenderness so that I can weep like a child, but I am careful to keep my tears to myself. “
“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.” And then he said, “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.” I love that. Now this was also a crazy period. If you recall, President Buchanan had received reports that there was a rebellion in Utah against the federal government. So he decided to replace Brigham Young as the territorial governor, and he sent Johnson’s army, the one who ended up coming out, the 1500 troops. And this was the Utah War period. At the same time, Parley P. Pratt had been murdered in Arkansas.
And the Saints had even received reports from eastern newspapers celebrating this murder of Parley P. Pratt, one of the 12 apostles. So Brigham declared at this moment in time that you could have martial law on the territory. And brought in all the missionaries and the outlying areas in, and the settlers back and guided preparations to resist the army. There were a lot of defiant sermons with the pending army coming in, had to create an environment of fear and suspicion in Utah during this period. Okay. Another quote from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism under “blood atonement” said, “Early anti-Mormon writers charged that under Brigham Young, the Church practiced ‘blood atonement’, by which they meant Church-instigated violence directed at dissenters, enemies and strangers. This claim distorted the whole idea of blood atonement, which was based on voluntary submission by an offender into a supposed justification of an involuntary punishment. Occasional isolated acts of violence that occurred in areas where Latter-day Saints lived were typical of that period in the history of the American West, but they were not instances of Church-sanctioned blood atonement.”
I will say there was one exception to a … There was a very horrific experience. The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Now this was not related to blood atonement. I did an entire video on that. I would suggest it would be a great one to watch and a critical component of that was the Church did not request this to happen. In fact, Brigham Young, specifically just the opposite. He asked them to let them pass through. So it’d be a great video just to watch on this, but it had nothing to do with blood atonement. Now to combat the anti that was going on at that time, it became so bad that by 1889 the First Presidency actually issued this statement. It says, “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 have remained, until the present day, without receiving the slightest personal injury. We denounce as entirely untrue the allegations which had 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 our fundamental principles.” And then one more. This is from FairMormon.org. I thought this was very helpful on even looking at broader crimes critics use in their blood atonement claims.
It says here, “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. 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 blood-thirsty, violent organization.” Now, there’s no doubt people are able to dig up examples of blood being shed by those of the Latter-day Saint faith, but accusations are unsupported, which seek to establish that these activities were promoted or condoned or even concealed by the Church or by the leaders generally.
And in fact, here’s a summary of a research article that was published in Utah Historical Quarterly by the historian Gustave Larson. And here’s the three summary points of the article. He says, “Denials of murder charges, which rode in on the backwash of the reformation gradually resolved into defensible positions that number one, some known killings of the reform period resulted from motives not related to blood atonement. Two, that in spite of extreme statements by some of its leaders, the Church did not officially condone taking life other than through legal processes. And three, 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.” Now lastly, I saved the best for last, in my opinion.
This was a phenomenal letter that Bruce R. McConkie wrote. The First Presidency asked him to write to give some detail to blood atonement. This was a request that had come from Thomas McAffee at the Utah Law Review, College of Law at University of Utah, and this is … I pulled together the critical parts from his letter. It says, “Dear Mr. McAffee, this is in reply to your letter of September 20th, 1978, to President Spencer W. Kimball of the Church, which you asked some questions about the so called doctrine of blood atonement. I had been asked by President Kimball and by the First Presidency to respond to your inquiries. You note that I and President Joseph Fielding Smith and some of our early Church leaders have said and written about this doctrine, and you asked if the doctrine of blood atonement is an official doctrine of the Church today. If by blood atonement is meant the atoning sacrifice of Christ, the answer is yes.”
“If by blood atonement is meant the shedding of the blood of men to atone in some way for their own sins, the answer is no. We believe that the blood of Christ, shed in the Garden of Gethsemane and on the cross of Calvary, cleanses all men from sin on condition of repentance. As expressed by a Book of Mormon scripture: ‘Salvation was, and is, and is to come, in and through the atoning blood of Christ, the Lord Omnipotent’. We do not believe that it is necessary for men in this state to shed their own blood to receive remission of sins. This is said with a full awareness of what I know that’s been written and said on the subject in times past. In order to understand what Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Charles Penrose and others have said, we must mention that there are some sins for which the blood of Christ alone does not cleanse a person.”
“These include blasphemy against the Holy Ghost as defined by the Church, and that murder, which is the unlawful killing of a human being with malice.” Now this is key. Listen, “However, and this cannot be stressed too strongly, this law has not been given to the Church at any time in this dispensation. It has no application whatever to anyone now living, whether he is a member or a non-member of the Church.” And he goes on to say, “There simply is no such thing among us as a doctrine of blood atonement that grants a remission of sins or confers any other benefit upon a person because his own blood is shed for sins. Let me say categorically and unequivocally that this doctrine can only operate in a day when there is no separation of Church and State and when the power to take life is vested in the ruling theocracy, as was as the case in the day of Moses.”
“From the day of Joseph Smith to the present, there has been no single instance of so-called blood atonement under any pretext. Anything I have written or anything said by anyone else must be understood in the light of the foregoing limitation. Brigham Young and the others were speaking of a theoretical principle that operated in ages past and not in either their or our day. As I recall, Brigham Young’s illustrations were taken from the day of Moses and the history of ancient Israel and could not be applied today. There is no such doctrine as blood atonement in the Church today, nor has there been at any time. Any statements to the contrary are either idle speculation or pure fantasy. It is certainly not the current teaching of the Church, and I have never in over 60 years of regular Church attendance heard a single sermon on the subject or even a discussion in any church class.”
“You asked that the statements of our leaders of the past, including those found in the Journal of Discourses represent the official stand of the Church. The answer, as indicated by the comments above set forth, is that they do not. The statements pertain to a theoretical principle that has been neither revealed to nor practiced by us. If by blood atonement is meant capital punishment, then any proper analysis of the subject would call the matter by the name capital punishment and not by the name blood atonement. To use this latter term is holy misleading and stirs up the idea that we believe in that which we most emphatically do not believe.”.
That was a long letter, but you can see why I thought it was so critical. I thought to share really the bulk of it. And lastly, I’ll just share this quick official Church statement actually on capital punishment today is, “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed process of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.” Hope you found the video helpful. Subscribe for more. Thanks.
McConkie letter used in the video: https://www.shields-research.org/Gene…
Encyclopedia of Mormonism – Blood Atonement: https://eom.byu.edu/index.php/Blood_A…
Fairmormon coverage of Blood Atonement: https://www.fairmormon.org/answers/Mo…
2010 Official Church Statement on Blood Atonement: https://www.deseretnews.com/article/7…
Church Gospel Topics Essay – Peace and Violence Among 19th Century Latter-day Saints: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/s…
Latter-day Saints’ Q&A is a video series not produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but by me, an ordinary member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, an independent voice, with a passion for studying Church history and defending the faith. In this series, I provide evidences for the restoration, and address tough questions posed by critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, offering faithful answers based on accurate research and historical references which will be posted at the end of each video.