42 Blood Atonement

Brigham Young and Blood Atonement (pt.2)

CES Letter Core Question

Did Brigham Young practice Blood Atonement?

If Brigham Young was really a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator, would it not be unreasonable to expect that God would give him a hint that racism is not okay, sexism is not okay, blood atonement is not okay, and God’s name is not “Adam”?

CES Letter, Page 69

Another reference to "blood atonement" is troublesome because there is no documented instance of a Church leader directing that someone be killed to fulfill a “blood atonement.” Nor is there a record of such a killing actually occurring. 

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. The exaggerated claims that appeared in the popular press and anti-Mormon literature are easily disproven.

Hard evidence of “blood atonement” offered by critics inevitably comes from questionable sources such as ghost-written “confessions” or third-hand accounts from critics. Even when purporting to offer solid, indisputable evidence that blood atonement was practiced, critics inevitably spend the vast majority of their time and print rehashing the same old (and limited) statements from Church leaders primarily in the late 1850s.

During the nineteenth century, 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. The Church never officially condoned taking life other than through legal processes. Responsibility for any reversions to primitive practices of blood shedding were the result of fanatical individuals and were brought to legal justice.

Most Latter-day Saints seem to have recognized that the blood atonement sermons were, in the words of historian Paul Peterson, “hyperbole or incendiary talk” that were “likely designed to frighten church members into conforming with Latter-day Saint principles. To Saints with good intentions, they were calculated to cause alarm, introspection, and ultimately repentance. For those who refused to comply with Mormon standards, it was hoped such ominous threats would hasten their departure from the Territory.” Antagonists were generally tone-deaf as they reported such hyperbole as factual directives.

Reformation-era (late 1850s) rhetoric centered around the concept of capital punishment for capital crimes, not ecclesiastical executions. However, it was not represented that way by critics and those hostiles to the Church who made unverifiable over-the-top accusations against Church leaders.

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.

References to “blood atonement” in The CES Letter reflect its commitment to an antagonistic agenda, rather than an attempt to find the truth.