Listen to a 4-part Viewpoint on Mormonism podcast series on this topic originally airing in September 2012 by clicking on the following links: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4
In a 1994 article entitled “Concept of Blood Atonement Survives in Utah Despite Repudiation,” Peggy Fletcher Stack, staff writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, wrote, “In the past decade, potential jurors in every Utah capital homicide were asked whether they believed in the Mormon concept of ‘blood atonement'” (11/5/94, p.D1),
No doubt the LDS Church has given mixed signals regarding this teaching. In his article entitled “Quintessential Mormonism: Literal-Mindedness As a Way of Life,” University of Utah professor Richard J. Cummings noted:
Accordingly, the doctrine asserts that those who commit certain grievous sins such as murder and covenant-breaking place themselves beyond the atoning blood of Christ, and their only hope for salvation is to have their own blood shed as an atoning sacrifice. In his writings, Joseph Smith only hinted at the doctrine, Brigham Young successively denied and asserted it, Joseph F. Smith ardently defended it, and in more recent years, Hugh B. Brown repudiated it and Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie both have vigorously defended it in principle while staunchly denying that the Church has ever put it into actual practice, whereas most other General Authorities have prudently preferred to remain silent on the subject. It should be noted that the whole notion of blood atonement is so obviously linked to the Mormon literal mind-set that it does not seem to admit of a mitigated, symbolic interpretation and is either accepted or rejected outright, depending on one’s level of literalistic belief (Dialogue, Vol.15, No.4, p.93).
When child-killer James Edward Wood, a Mormon, was tried for the murder of 11-year-old Jaralee Underwood, he was visited by LDS Church leaders who “talked to him about shedding his own blood” (Salt Lake Tribune, 11/5/98, D1). The same article noted that the LDS Church headquarters tried to distance itself from this counsel by filing a document with the court that read, “The doctrine of blood atonement through the shedding of blood, as taught by the [the Mormon Church] refers only to the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.” This statement certainly does not reflect the position of many past LDS leaders.
Tenth Mormon president Joseph Fielding Smith wrote,
Man may commit certain grievous sins — according to his light and knowledge- -that will place him beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ. If then he would be saved, he must make sacrifice of his own life to atone – so far as the power lies – for that sin, for the blood of Christ alone under certain circumstances will not avail. Joseph Smith taught that there were certain sins so grievous that man may commit, that they will place the transgressors beyond the power of the atonement of Christ. If these offenses are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent (Doctrines of Salvation, 1:135,138 emphasis mine).
To assume that there are certain sins beyond the atoning power of Christ is certainly an idea foreign to the New Testament. Only God grants atonement for sins, and He is able to forgive any sin no matter how great or grievous. First John 1:9 tells us, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
King David recognized the forgiving power of the Lord when he wrote, “Who forgiveth all thine iniquities; who healeth all thy diseases” (Psalm 103:3).
Judas, a Victim of Blood Atonement?
The index to the Journal of Discourses (26 volumes of recorded sermons by early Mormon leaders) gives seven entries under the subject of Blood Atonement. One of the more interesting is a quote from Mormon leader, Heber C. Kimball (grandfather of the late 12th Mormon President, Spencer Kimball) who stated that because of Judas’ betrayal of Christ, the twelve disciples actually kicked him to death in order that he would atone for his sin. Volume 6:125,126 reads:
Jesus said to His disciples, `Ye are the salt of the earth, and if salt loses its saving principle, it is then good for nothing but to be cast out.’ Instead of reading it just as it is, almost all of you read it as it is not. Jesus meant to say, `If you have lost the saving principles, you Twelve Apostles, and you believe in my servants the Twelve, you shall be like unto the salt that has lost its saving principles: it is henceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men.’ Judas lost that saving principle, and they took him and killed him it is said in the Bible that his bowels gushed out, but they actually kicked him until his bowels came out.
On September 21, 1856, Brigham Young stated:
I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course” (JOD 4:43).
On that same day (in a different sermon), Young said:
There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins, and the smoking incense would atone for their sins, whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world (JOD 4:53).
Speaking in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on February 8, 1857, Young taught:
Now take a person in this congregation who has knowledge with regard to being saved in the kingdom of our God and our Father and being exalted, one who knows and understands the principles of eternal life, and sees the beauty and excellency of the eternities before him compared with the vain and foolish things of the world, and suppose that he is taken in a gross fault, that he has committed a sin he knows will deprive him of the exaltation 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 would say, `shed my blood that I might be saved and exalted with the Gods?’ All mankind love themselves, and let these principles be known by an individual and he would be glad to have his blood shed. That would be loving themselves, even unto an eternal exaltation. Will you love your brothers or 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 a woman to love their enemies in their wickedness, never (JOD 4:219,220).
In that same message, Young went on to say:
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, but who are now angels to the devil, until our elder brother Jesus Christ raises them up-conquers death, hell, and the grave. 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. This is loving our neighbour 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. Any of you who understand the principles of eternity, if you have sinned a sin requiring the shedding of blood, except the sin unto death, would not be satisfied nor rest until your blood should be spilled, that you might gain that salvation you desire. That is the way to love mankind (JOD 4:220).
Despite the evidence that shows that such a doctrine was indeed taught among the Latter-day Saints in the 1800’s, Mormon Apostle Bruce R. McConkie insists that enemies of the Mormon Church fabricated the idea that it was actually taught and practiced:
From the days of Joseph Smith to the present, wicked and evilly-disposed persons have fabricated false and slanderous stories to the effect that the Church, in the early days of this dispensation, engaged in a practice of blood atonement whereunder the blood of apostates and others was shed by the Church as an atonement for their sins … there is not one historical instance of so-called blood atonement in this dispensation, nor has there been one event or occurrence whatever, of any nature, from which the slightest inference arises that any such practice either existed or was taught (Mormon Doctrine, pg. 92.)
McConkie then proceeded to accuse critics of taking
one sentence from one page and another from a succeeding page and even by taking a part of a sentence on one page and a part of another found several pages away –all wholly torn from context – dishonest persons have attempted to make it appear that Brigham Young and others taught things just the opposite of what they really believed and taught.
After making such an adamant denial, McConkie, on the same page no less, makes a remarkable turnabout! “But under certain circumstances there are some serious sins for which the cleansing of Christ does not operate, and the law of God is that men must then have their own blood shed to atone for their sins” (Mormon Doctrine, pg. 92).
On page 93 of Mormon Doctrine, McConkie quotes his father-in-law, Joseph Fielding Smith, and church founder Joseph Smith, Jr. Both taught there are some offenses for which a sinner must atone for his sins by shedding his own blood. McConkie went on to write,
“This doctrine can only be practiced in its fullness in a day when the civil and ecclesiastical laws are administered in the same hands.”
Mormon writer Keith Norman, in his Sunstone article entitled “A Kinder, Gentler Mormonism Moving Beyond The Violence Of Our Past” (Aug. 1990, p.11), recognized McConkie’s duplicity and remarked:
Well, if I understand Elder McConkie, he was saying that, although earlier Church leaders never believed, preached, or practiced blood atonement, we actually do believe in it and would practice it if we had the legal and political power to do so. (Even though we didn’t when Brigham Young presided over the theocratic territory of Deseret.)
Crimes Warranting Blood Atonement
Murder: “I am 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 ascend thereof up to God…” (Joseph Smith, Documentary History of the Church 5:296).
Adultery: “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” (Brigham Young, JOD 3:247).
Stealing: “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, to put a stop to that abominable practice in the midst of this people” (Brigham Young, JOD 1:108).
Marriage to a person of black skin: “Shall I tell you of the law of God in regards to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty under the law of God is death on the spot. This will always be so” (Brigham Young, JOD 10:110)
Covenant Breaking: “I say, there are men and women that I would advise to got to the Presidency immediately, and ask him to appoint a committee to attend to their case; and then let a place be selected, and let that committee shed their blood. We have those amongst us that are full of all manner of abominations, those who need to have their bloodshed, for water will not do, their sins are too deep a dye … I believe that there are a great many; and if they are covenant breakers we need a place designated, where we can shed their blood … Brethren and sisters, we want you to repent and forsake your sins. And you who have committed sins that cannot be forgiven through baptism, let your blood be shed, and let the smoke ascend, that the incense thereof may come up before God as an atonement for your sins, and that the sinners in Zion may be afraid” (Jedediah M. Grant, JOD 4:49-51).
Grant would later be quoted in the Deseret News, as saying, “We would not kill a man, of course, unless we killed him to save him…”(7/27/1854).
Heber C. Kimball stated,
“If men turn traitors to God and His servants, their blood will surely be shed, or else they will be damned, and that too according to their covenants” (JOD 4:375). The phrase “according to their covenants” refers to the promises Mormons make in their sacred temple ritual.
It would be incorrect to assume that 19th century blood atonement was merely another term for capital punishment. Capital punishment is the act whereby a lawbreaker forfeits his life as a result of breaking a law or laws. The taking of a life in this manner satisfies the needs of the state to protect its citizens from further crimes perpetrated by the individual. In a biblical sense, the word atonement means to make amends or reparation; satisfaction for wrongdoing, as far as transgressions against God. Atonement was made in one of two ways. In the Old Testament, atonement was made when a penitent sinner offered a sacrifice on behalf of the sins he had committed. In the New Testament, atonement was made when Jesus Christ offered Himself as a sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. Nowhere in the Bible do we read of a person being saved as a result of capital punishment.
The teaching of blood atonement, as espoused by some LDS leaders, is a perversion of passages such as Hebrews 9:22 which states that “almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.” Never is it implied that a remission of sins would be granted based on a perpetrator shedding his own blood. As the great sacrifice, Christ’s blood needed only to be shed once for all of the sins of His people. Further sacrifices are no longer necessary.
“And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross” (Colossians 2:13, 14).
“…but by His own blood He entered in once into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us” (Hebrews 9:12).
“So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for Him shall He appear the second time without sin unto salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).
“By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Hebrews 10:10).