37 Blood Atonement

Blood Atonement Never Practiced

CES Letter Core Question

Brigham Young and several early church leaders taught that some sins required a voluntary shedding of ones blood to fully atone for them. Was this an incorrect teaching?

Blood Atonement

Along with Adam-God, Brigham taught a doctrine known as “Blood Atonement” where a person’s blood had to be shed to atone for their own sins as it was beyond the atonement of Jesus Christ.

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.

I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them...

And furthermore, 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 thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course. I will say further;

I have had men come to me and offer their lives to atone for their sins. It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit...There are sins that can be atoned for by an offering upon an altar, as in ancient days; and there are sins that the blood of a lamb, or a calf, or of turtle dove, cannot remit, but they must be atoned for by the blood of the man.

UPDATE: The Church now confirms in its Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints essay that Blood Atonement was taught by the prophet Brigham Young.

As with the Adam-God theory, the Blood Atonement doctrine was later declared false by subsequent prophets and apostles.

Yesterday’s doctrine is today’s false doctrine. Yesterday’s prophet is today’s heretic.

CES Letter, Pages 63-64

No Evidence of Blood Atonement Being Implemented

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. It continues to be discussed as a propaganda tool for voices who are antagonistic to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

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.