“Dead Men Tell No Tales!”1 The Blood Atonement Balance Sheet
by McKay V. Jones
Table of Contents
The Blood Atonement Balance Sheet
Brigham Young & Co. Had Critics Pegged, Even Back Then
The Subjunctive Case in Blood Atonement Proof-texts
Temple “Blood Oaths”
“Destroyed in the Flesh”
The “David Clause”
The Witness of Results
Mountain Meadows Massacre
The Crux: Other Statements that are Problematic for Critics
Outright Laughable Logical Extensions and Implications
What about Doctrinal Underpinnings for “Blood Atonement?”
Dead Men Tell No Tales
For over 150 years, charges and denials of blood atonement have been a significant topic in pro and anti-Mormon polemics. Blood atonement has proven to be a lucrative and effective element in fiction, film, and anti-Mormon publications, providing a means of injecting an element of horror and weirdness into perceptions of Mormons. While Mormon apologists have dealt with blood atonement charges and criticisms from several different angles, this paper examines the complete picture of material from Journal of Discourses regarding blood atonement, pro et con. Critics have passed on and used and defenders have treated the same proof-texts from generation to generation, but looking at the big picture in context effectively exposes the weakness of critics’ claims about blood atonement and the extreme unfairness in how critics use the standard blood atonement proof-texts. When considered in its entirety, critics’ exploitation of blood atonement backfires against their intentions of emphasizing alleged Mormon atrocities and their alleged doctrinal causes.
The Blood Atonement Balance Sheet
Some surprising things become clear when thoroughly considering everything in the nearly 10,000 pages of talks in Journal of Discourses with any bearing on blood atonement (both potentially helpful to apologists and potentially helpful to critics):
- The shop-worn, standard anti-Mormon proof-texts have already been ferreted out by critics. The already well-known and small number of standard blood atonement proof-texts represents the extent of critics’ evidence; there are no more smoking guns or skeletons to uncover (pun intended).
- The sheer amount of material that undermines anti-Mormon treatments of blood atonement is staggering, and largely unknown even to those who are well-read in Mormon history. Very few have actually sat down and read through the 26 volume Journal of Discourses, and most people have outsourced their knowledge of its contents to others.
The massive imbalance between “pro” and “anti”—Mormon blood atonement proof-texts becomes even more obvious when mapping out the references graphically. By drawing a vertical line down the middle of a sheet of paper and listing the references in columns by sub-topic on their respective “pro/anti-Mormon” sides, the imbalance based on sheer numbers of references is visually striking.
When one analyzes and compares the content and implications of the individual references and sub-topics, however, the full extent of the blood atonement “shell game” becomes even more dramatically apparent. The deception and misdirection involved with the original critics who scoured Journal of Discourses for references (and later generations who uncritically parrot the original claims), is a classic example of B. H. Roberts’s “orchard” analogy. This tactic
is as one who walks through some splendid orchard and gathers here and there the worm-eaten, frost-bitten, wind-blasted, growth-stunted and rotten fruit, which in spite of the best of care is to be found in every orchard; bringing this to us he says: “This is the fruit of yonder orchard; you see how worthless it is; an orchard growing such fruit is ready for the burning.” Whereas, the fact may be that there are tons and tons of beautiful, luscious fruit…remaining in the orchard to which he does not call our attention at all. Would not such a representation of the orchard be an untruth, notwithstanding his blighted specimens were gathered from its trees? If he presents to us the blighted specimens of fruit from the orchard, is he not in truth and in honor bound also to call our attention to the rich harvest of splendid fruit that still remains ungathered before he asks us to pass judgment on the orchard?2
Critics, Roberts observed on another occasion, collect “the wind-beaten, blasted, mildewed, dwarfed, or shrunken fruit, and carefully raking this together, represent this as the fruit of the orchard” of Mormonism, while omitting the “scores of tons of beautiful, ripe, and perfect fruit that is a credit to the orchard and to the husbandman of it.” The overwhelming quantity of good fruit is “passed by, and you are asked to judge the orchard by the blasted specimens that have been raked together.”3
Critics, of course, continue to insist in the absence of corpora delicti (physical evidence of blood atonement victims) that the standard blood atonement proof-texts are enough on their own to discredit Mormon prophets and apostles, even without physical evidence, regardless of whatever else Mormon leaders have said. Critics’ primary aim is to influence people’s impressions and preconceptions of Mormons, and they will continue to frame their arguments in ways that they think present Mormonism in a bad light. Making the entire orchard available and accessible to investigators and the curious allows them to judge for themselves whether or not it is dishonest or dishonorable of critics to knowingly or ignorantly fail to deal with “the rest of the story.” Whether ignorantly or knowingly, critics who continue to use and encourage blood atonement claims to influence people’s impressions and perceptions of Mormonism are guilty of serious wrongdoing themselves, perhaps even rivaling what they accuse Mormonism and Mormon leaders of, as harsh as that sounds.4
Almost all blood atonement proof-texts arise out of what is known as the “Reformation” period of Church history. Concerned with increasing transgression (especially sexual sin) and lack of commitment among the Mormon people in the 1850s, Church leaders enacted a reformation and reemphasis on covenants and commitment. Of the Reformation, B. H. Roberts wrote:
Nearly all anti-Mormon writers have made much of the fierce denunciations of sin by church leaders in this period of the Reformation…Among the things to be regretted in connection with the Reformation, and from which the church has suffered much, through misapprehension of her real attitude in respect to the matters involved, are certain extreme and unqualified utterances of some of the leading elders of the church on what…has become…call[ed] “blood atonement;” by which is meant, as commonly represented by anti-Mormon writers, a claimed right on the part of the church to shed the blood of men guilty of heinous crimes, such as murder, adultery, and apostasy; and which, since such acts may not be done openly, and by legal authority vested in the church, then secretly, by assassination.5
“I am not so blind in my admiration of the Mormon people,” Roberts wrote,
or so bigoted in my devotion to the Mormon faith as to think that there are no individuals in the Church chargeable with fanaticism, folly, intemperate speech and wickedness; nor am I blind to the fact that some in their over-zeal have lacked judgment; and that in times of excitement, under stress of special provocation, even Mormon leaders have given utterance to ideas that are indefensible.6
“Mormon leaders,” wrote Roberts, “sometimes spoke and acted under the recollection of rank injustice perpetuated against themselves and their people; or rebuke[d] rising evils against which their souls revolted.”7
Sectarian critics emphasize the imperfection and fallen nature of man in their own theology and in their outreach to Mormons, but when leveraging Reformation-era statements by Mormon leaders in their attacks on the Church, they allow Mormon leaders no such failings. They claimed, after all, to be prophets and apostles, and God would never have allowed them to have made intemperate or ill-advised statements, according to their Pharisaical outlook. In prosecuting their selective “orchard” approach, critics reveal their unfair and unrealistic assumptions and expectations of how God works through men to further His work. In 1824, Sir Charles Butler wrote in response to Protestant attacks on his Roman Catholic faith:
I willingly admit that to produce against our creed or conduct all that research and fair argument can supply is legitimate controversy; but surely to conceal our merits or to represent them very briefly and imperfectly, and to display our defects at length and with the highest coloring; to impute to our general body what in justice is only chargeable to individuals; or to estimate the writings or actions of our ancestors in the dark ages by the notions and manners of the present age, is a crying injustice.8
This is precisely the method critics use in employing statements from Church leaders. “We are judged,” wrote Roberts
by the ill-advised and sometimes harsh expressions of some leading men when in a state of irritation and disturbance; thus contravening the principle long since laid down by Edmund Burke [concerning rash and intemperate statements by America's Founding Fathers during the American Revolution] and quite generally accepted that—”It is not fair to judge of the temper or disposition of any man or set of men when they are composed and at rest from their conduct and expressions in a state of disturbance and of irritation.”9
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) Reformation-era statements. To the likewise inevitable response when this is pointed out (“How are you going to account for these expressions which you declare are unwarranted by the law of the Church? How are you going to justify them?”), B. H. Roberts answered:
Well, I am not going to justify them at all, but I can account for them. It cannot be that the world is so ignorant in this enlightened age as not to know that churches cannot be held responsible for every utterance that is made in their name and from their pulpits.10
That is, of course, unless one is a critic of the Church, which really gets to the heart of the matter. Critics’ approach to blood atonement is simply a symptom of their overarching assumptions and expectations of prophets and apostles. While “all their religion and piety for many generations past have not produced one word of Scripture,” and “while they hold up the Bible as the all-sufficient guide to the possession of life eternal, they at the same time inculcate a principle which would never have given them a Bible” in their demands and hyper-criticism of Mormon Church leaders.11
Brigham Young & Co. Had Critics Pegged, Even Back Then
Critics of Mormonism want to have their cake and eat it too: they portray leaders who were cunning and conniving on one hand, while naïvely ignorant of how their intemperate rhetoric would play to Eastern audiences and later critics. Mormon leaders were keenly aware that Reformation-era rhetoric could and would be used by critics to attack the Church and raise outlandish allegations, and that their sermons and talks were available to readers outside of Utah Territory. “I am aware that persons, not members of our society, listening to the teachings from this stand, might infer that we certainly were in a very bad state,”12 declared Jedediah Grant, one of the main “fire-eaters” of the Reformation. Brigham Young acknowledged that Heber C. Kimball, another favorite blood atonement source for critics, “is very careless in the use of language.”13 While railing against the presence of theft among the Mormon people in the midst of the Reformation, Brigham Young clarified that, regardless of the intemperance of rhetoric against thieves, Reformation-era rhetoric centered around the concept of capital punishment for capital crimes, not ecclesiastical executions. It wouldn’t be represented that way back East, however:
What do you suppose they would say in old Massachusetts, should they hear that the Latter-day Saints had received a revelation or commandment to lay “judgment to the line and righteousness to the plummet?” What would they say in old Connecticut? They would raise a universal howl of, “How wicked those Mormons are; they are killing the evil doers who are among them; why I hear that they kill the wicked away up yonder in Utah.”
Emphasizing that he was referring to legal, state-administered capital punishment , Brigham wryly countered: “They do not kill anybody down there, do they?”14
In response to allegations that Brigham Young had ordered murders in Utah Territory, including the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the murder of Dr. Robinson, Brigham answered with characteristic humor and cutting insight. Important here is Young’s acknowledgment that he has said he would do things in certain instances (such as impale adulterers with a javelin) that could not reasonably be taken literally:
There is a gentleman here this afternoon who has said that he knows all about it. If he does, why does he not tell of it; and privately he places the murder upon President Brigham Young? Why do you not testify to what you know before the Courts? If President Young is guilty of any such crime, trace it to him. There are some things that Brigham has said he would do; but has never happened to do them; and that is not all, he prays fervently, to his Father and God that he may never be brought into circumstances to be obliged to shed human blood. He never has yet been brought into such a position. Still, let me find a dog in my bedroom, I would not say that he would be very safe; I hope he will never get there. If I should find a dog in my buttery, or in my bedroom as some have, I fear they would give their last howl. I hope and pray they never will come there. If they jump my claims here, I shall be very apt to give them a pre-emption right that will last them to the last resurrection. I hope no man will ever venture so far as to tempt me to do such a thing.15
Yet, even at this moment, Brigham Young presciently sensed that critics would cherry pick what they could out of his remarks to portray him as having enjoined blood atonement:
I do not care about the outsiders hearing this, as their opinion is neither here nor there to me; the Saints, however, are welcome to my views upon this matter. If the outsiders think that I am guilty of the crime, let them trace it to me and prove it on me. If any man, woman or child that ever lived has said that Brigham Young ever counseled them to commit crime of any description, they are liars in the face of heaven. If I am guilty of any such thing, let it be proved on me, and not go sneaking around insinuating that Brigham knows all about it.16
The Subjunctive Case in Blood Atonement Proof-texts
The subjunctive verb case, also known as “contrary to fact,” is an important element in the proof-texts critics use, and particularly in allegations they make about temple “blood oaths.” The subjunctive case is used to express ideas that are conditional or hypothetical. The subjunctive forms of the English modal auxiliary verbs “can,” “shall,” “and “will” are “could,” “should,” and “would,” respectively. The subjunctive forms of most verbs in English are rendered simply by using the past tense (e.g., “If I did that, I would be crazy”). Other uses of the subjunctive case in English are vestiges of its heritage as a Germanic language (compare the common “If I was you . . .” with the correct “If I were you . . .;” the use of were stems from the German wäre).
In the English sentence “If Jack did that, Jill would kill him,” Jack hasn’t done anything (yet), and Jill’s response is conditioned upon Jack’s action. The nature of the subjunctive case is such that it is doubtful that Jill will kill Jack, even if he does do “that;” in fact, it is pretty clear that this is just an expression and does not denote murderous intent on Jill’s part. The subjunctive case allows for much broader variety of expression than there would otherwise be without it, and is much more important (and complicated) in many foreign languages than in English. The subjunctive case allows a speaker to employ colorful expressions (like the above examples) to express thoughts that are notliterally true.
What would those give that were not faithful, if they had been as true as brother Brigham and brother Heber? They would give all they have got; yes, they would sit down and be skinned from head to foot, and have every nail pulled out of their toes and fingers. I am thankful that I was faithful; but I am sorry for them: but that man that has murmured, and complained, and tried to make brother Joseph a dishonest and unhallowed man, has great need to mourn for himself.17
Would anyone seriously claim from this that Mormon leaders skinned and de-nailed apostates? Yet, this is exactly how critics treat the shopworn blood atonement proof-texts. Critics’ abuse of Church leaders’ inflammatory Reformation-era rhetoric relies on an abject literal reading and interpretation of colorful, hyperbolic statements. Critics insist and absolutely depend on the strict literalism of Amelia Bedelia, and represent themselves as being completely tone-deaf to any type of figurative or colorful language.
Do you find such haunts of prostitution, degradation, and misery here, in the cities of the mountains? No. Were such things in our midst, we should feel indignant enough to see that such persons be blotted out of the page of existence. These would be the feelings of this community. Look upon those who committed such iniquity in Israel, in ancient days; every man and woman who committed adultery were put to death. I do not say that this people are going to do this; but I will tell you what we believe—we believe it ought to be done.18
Note the extensive use of the subjunctive case here. While leaving no doubt about how he feels about houses of ill fame, Elder Pratt makes it clear that people wouldn’t actually be put to death for violations of the law of chastity; Mormons believe it ought to be done.
When Perry Brocchus, an appointed territorial judge, returned to Washington, he made false allegations about conditions in Utah Territory, including that Brigham Young had given the sign to have him murdered. If true, it would be amazing that he was able to escape the bloodthirsty Mormons on their home turf and evade pursuit all the way back to the East, but the false allegations of such “runaway judges” brought the people of Utah Territory much trouble in the intervening years. Brigham Young, in speaking about press accounts from the East detailing Brocchus’ charges, commented:
It is true, as it is said in the Report of these officers, if I had crooked my little finger, he would have been used up, but I did not bend it. If I had, the sisters alone felt indignant enough to have chopped him in pieces. I did not, however, do it, but suffered him to fill up the measure of his shame and iniquity until his cup is running over. He was not hurt in the least.19
The extensive use of the subjunctive case is noteworthy (had crooked, would have been used up, if I had, to have chopped), but this passage is a classic example of the degree to which critics have to be tone-deaf to any level of figurative expressions in order to muster Church leader statements into service to attack the Church. Brigham Young is actually mocking the allegations by stating that if he had given the sign to kill Brocchus, even the women would have “chopped him to pieces.” In pointing out the end results (“He was not hurt in the least”), Brigham is pointing out the ridiculous nature of Brocchus’ claim to have escaped and evaded Mormons dead set on his capture and murder. Brigham Young was simply pointing out that Brocchus would never have made it if his allegations were true, similar to Joseph Smith’s wry comment on why Porter Rockwell couldn’t have tried to kill Governor Boggs, as alleged (Porter wouldn’t have missed).
Brigham Young often called attention to the absurdity of blood atonement allegations. In warning thieves and highwaymen to stay away from the territory, he referred to rumors of the infamous phantom “Danites,” noting that criminals “will not only find the Danites…biting the horses’ heels, but the scoundrels will find something biting their heels:”
I say to all such characters, if you come here and practice your iniquity, we will send you home quick, whenever we can catch and convict you. I wish such characters would let the boys have a chance to lay their hands on them. If men come here and do not behave themselves, they will not only find the Danites, whom they talk so much about, biting the horses’ heels, but the scoundrels will find something biting their heels. In my plain remarks, I merely call things by their right names. Brother Kimball is noted in the States for calling things by their right names, and you will excuse me if I do the same.20
In other words, thieves and highwaymen might just find themselves confronted by something in Utah Territory, not just the fictitious Danites.
While clearly stating that he has never had to shed blood (and hopes never to have to) or had legal trouble, Heber C. Kimball stated that he would rather die than be driven again or suffer his wives’ and daughters’ virtue to be compromised. These are sentiments many a non-Mormon would relate to, of course, but he uses strong language to express his feelings about these things:
Now, if any persons wish to begin another scrape, and desire to again break us up, and to corrupt this people, and to bring death, hell, and the devil into our midst, come on, for God Almighty knows that I will strive to slay the man who undertakes it. [The congregation said, "AMEN."] I am opposed to corruption; I wish every man to keep himself pure, whether he is Jew, or Gentile, or Latter-day Saint; keep yourselves pure. I do not allow my women to fondle with other men, or to sit in their laps, and they must not suffer other men to kiss or hug them, if they do, I will cast them off. Let my wives alone, and let my daughters alone, except you have my permission to pay them attention, and do as you wish to be done by…Notwithstanding I am a plain spoken man, I never had a difficulty that would bring me before a court of my country. I dislike and despise dissension, war, and bloodshed, and that is why I am not pleased with the lawyers. I may like their persons, but God knows that I do not like their works no their principles, when they strive to produce confusion and contention here, after we have made laws which suit us, good laws, and as few of them as possible. This people are a good people, and I love them as I love my life. But I would rather lay down my life, than to again pass through what I have already endured. I have never yet shed man’s blood, and I pray to God that I never may, unless it is actually necessary. I have never had occasion to fight, but I have often stood, with my fire-lock in readiness, guarding the Prophet Joseph, (with brother Brigham and others) for his life was sought all the time.21
One should keep in mind the circumstances surrounding many blood atonement proof-texts. For example, Heber C. Kimball’s celebrated statement that “when it is necessary that blood should be shed, we should be as ready to do that as to eat an apple” was made while the Mormons prepared to engage the advancing U.S. Army (the ensuing confrontation which, by the way, resulted in no bloodshed). Kimball and others’ war rhetoric needs to be placed in its proper context:
I feel the Lord designs the thing should move along and no blood be shed, because I do not consider God is so anxious that we should be blood-thirsty men as some may be. God designs we should be pure men, holding the oracles of God in holy and pure vessels; but when it is necessary that blood should be shed, we should be as ready to do that as to eat an apple. That is my religion, and I feel that our platter is pretty near clean of some things, and we calculate to keep it clean from this time henceforth and forever, and, as the Scripture reads, “Lay judgment to the line and righteousness to the plummet.” We shall do that thing, and we shall commence in the mountains. We shall clean the platter of all such scoundrels; and if men and women will not live their religion, but take a course to pervert the hearts of the righteous, we will “lay judgment to the line and righteousness to the plummet,” and we will let you know that the earth can swallow you up, as it did Korah with his host; and as brother Taylor says, you may dig your graves, and we will slay you, and you may crawl into them. I do not mean you, if you are not here. I mean those corrupt scoundrels. Well, this is just as brother Brigham has said here hundreds of times.22
Note that, even while anti-Mormon critics selectively glean portions from this passage for their purposes, they purposely leave out any talk that “God is [not] so anxious that we should be blood-thirsty men” and that God wanted there to be “no bloodshed.” Not even the most fanatical critics would take this entirely literally, and claim that mass Mormon graves exist somewhere filled with the remains of Mormons liquidated by blood atonement. Kimball is simply using hyperbolic rhetoric under duress.
Temple “Blood Oaths”
The subjunctive case figures prominently in allegations of temple “blood oaths.” Anti-Mormon critics allege that oaths Mormons made in temple endowment ceremonies obliged Mormons to submit to church execution if they revealed parts of the temple ceremony, or to commit murder against those who did. To those familiar with the actual oaths in question, the subjunctive element is obvious. The oaths followed the formula of “Rather than _________, I would __________.” They were an expression of the importance of keeping certain things sacred; they did not denote what was to actually happen if someone broke his or her temple covenants. A good illustration of this is a statement from Heber C. Kimball:
I would rather have my head laid upon a block, and severed from my shoulders, than ever make a proposal to any woman living upon the earth and marry her, unless I had permission from the chief shepherd. That tells it. I do not know that you can all understand me, but those who have their eyes open understand it. I only hint at these things, that you may be careful of the course you take.23
This is very similar to the temple oaths critics try to use to attack the Church with. Not even the most fanatical anti-Mormon critic would argue that Heber actually was stating an objective reality; he was clearly stating in forceful terms how important moral and ecclesiastical propriety are to him.
Similarly, while stating that the murderous mobocrats who drove the Mormons “if they had any respect to their own welfare…would be willing to have their heads chopped off,” Brigham Young makes it clear that vengeance is the Lord’s; it is not for Latter-day Saints to act in the capacity of avenger:
I will take the Government of the United States, and the laws of Missouri and Illinois, from the year 1833 to 1845, and if they had been carried out according to their letter and spirit, they would have strung up the murderers and mobocrats who illegally and unrighteously killed, plundered, harassed, and expelled us. I will tell you how much I love those characters. If they had any respect to their own welfare, they would come forth and say, whether Joseph Smith was a Prophet or not, “We shed his blood, and now let us atone for it;” and they would be willing to have their heads chopped off, that their blood might run upon the ground, and the smoke of it rise before the Lord as an incense for their sins. I love them that much. But if the Lord wishes them to live and foam out their sins before all men and women, it is all right, I care not where they go, or what they do.24
Church leaders sometimes used colorful subjunctive language to express their abhorrence for certain abominations, in the formula of temple oaths, but which clearly were not meant to be taken literally: “I would rather be cut into inch pieces than succumb one particle to such filthiness.”25 As with the temple oaths that critics allege obliged Mormons to carry out executions on backsliders, Church leaders often used colorful, figurative imagery to reinforce the importance of commitment, but in such a way that it is clear to reasonable people that they were not to be taken literally:
The Elders of Israel have not magnified their callings as they should have done. Had they known things as they really are, and seen them as they are in the bosom of eternity, they would rather have suffered their right hands to be cut off, or their heads to be severed from their bodies, than do as some have done.26
This could take the form of exhortations to “spiritual” warfare, or the use of martial imagery to emphasize the importance of combating and defeating sin and evil ( a la “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war . . .”):
Let it be remarked, that the disposition so prevalent in the hearts of many, not to abide the counsel of their superiors, has to be overcome; it must be slain, and laid prostrate at our feet; and we must say we came not to do our own will, but the will of him that sent us.27
What critics refer to in claims about Mormon temple “blood oaths” also has a solid Bible foundation. The very Hebrew word for “covenant,”berith, means literally “to cut,” and the Hebrew system of sacrifice and covenant aligns precisely with both the form and the application of elements of the Mormon temple endowment in question. The exegetical note in the Interpreter’s Bible for Jeremiah 34:18-19 (“when they cut the calf in twain, and passed between the parts thereof”) reads
For the ceremony that lies behind these words, cf. Genesis 15:9-17…Some exegetes emphasize the fact that the calf was killed and suppose that the ceremony involved some sort of self-imprecation. The parties to the rite took upon themselves a curse…”May Yahweh do to me as has been done to this calf, if I break the terms of this covenant.”28
This is supported by the Anchor Bible Dictionary and other Bible commentaries:
This seems to have two elements, the first a verbal assent to the covenant…and the second a ritual act involving the sacrifice of an animal, the blood of which is thrown upon an altar and upon the people (Exod 24:5-8). The latter was a symbolic action in which the people were identified with the sacrificed animal, so that the fate of the latter is presented as the fate to be expected by the people if they violated their sacred promise (i.e., it is a form of self-curse). Thus the ratification ceremony was, in effect, the pledging of their lives as a guarantee of obedience to the divine will. (In time the ratification ceremony simply became a ritual form signaling membership in the ritual society; i.e., circumcision.)29
This provides solid options for believers and defenders to answer critics who seek to leverage “Mormon temple blood oaths” against Mormonism. Would these same critics insist that innumerable ancient Israelites submitted to “blood atonement” or carried “blood atonement” out when covenants were broken? If not, why not, given the nature of the wording of Israelite covenant? Was this wording meant to be taken literally, or was it meant to emphasize the importance of the covenant? What is at issue is the actual wording of the temple covenant, and how it was conceived and applied by those who took it upon themselves. Critics’ claims that the endowment contained non-biblical death oaths are effectively answered by showing from the Bible and sound Bible scholarship that the format and application of temple oaths align very well with Biblical and Near Eastern covenant format and applications. Because nobody argues that Hebrew covenant penalties were literally carried out, Mormon explanations that they represent the gravity and sacred nature of temple covenants (how much Mormons would undergo before revealing them; i.e., “You can waterboard me, but I’ll never talk”) and not something to be taken literally, ring true.30
The greatest evidence that refutes the use critics try to make of subjunctive temple oaths are direct statements Church leaders have made that unquestionably counsel those who have made temple covenants to do exactly the opposite of what critics insist Church members were oath-bound to do. Brigham Young made it clear that, although he and the Saints “have been pretty severe upon” Utah apostate Gladden Bishop and his followers, this severity had taken place “nowhere, except in the pulpit.” When dealing with critics and apostates, Brigham Young feared that Church members could tend to be intemperate, so:
I counsel my brethren to keep away from [the Gladdenites'] houses; let them alone, and treat them as courteously as you would any other person. Do you enquire whether I have any grounds for giving this advice? I answer, I have. For there are few men in this congregation who know when to stop, should they find themselves engaged in a contest with one of that class of people, therefore let them alone entirely.31
Instead of preaching that Mormons were oath and duty-bound to kill apostates who revealed temple oaths and covenants, as critics claim, Brigham Young taught that such should be left strictly alone:
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.32
“Destroyed in the Flesh”
Critics who insist that Reformation-era rhetoric by Church leaders must have resulted in the execution of sinners, especially those who violated the law of chastity, sometimes point to a phrase in Doctrine and Covenants 132:26 that states that such “shall be destroyed in the flesh.”These critics inevitably fail to disclose what immediately follows in this verse: “…and shall be delivered unto the buffetings of Satan unto the day of redemption, saith the Lord God.” In other words, discussion of adulterers in the Church being “destroyed in the flesh” clearly does not refer to their execution. President John Taylor elaborated on this principle when discussing the ramifications of formal Church discipline for adultery. In one case, a man’s wife had committed adultery when her husband was on a mission. The man brought his wife (who had been excommunicated at the local level), three young sons, and “the villain who had done the damage” to visit with President Taylor. The husband sought clemency for his wife from the President of the Church, but President Taylor “told him I should be under the necessity of confirming the Bishop’s decision in the case.” President Taylor then read to them the passages in D&C 132 in question about “being destroyed in the flesh,” making it clear that this entailed spiritual agony and had nothing to do with church execution of “blood atonement:”
Now, said I, I did not make that law. I find it in the word of God. It is not my province to change it. I cannot make any change. I am sorry for these little children. I am sorry for the shame and infamy that has been brought upon them; but I cannot reverse the law of God. I did not commit this crime; I am not responsible for it; I cannot take upon myself, the responsibility of other peoples’ acts. Well, it made my heart ache. The husband wept like a child, so did the woman; but I could not help that. I speak of this for the purpose of bringing up other things, and of presenting them before the people. And the principle I desire to impress upon their minds is, that we have no right, any of us, to violate the laws of God.33
In discussing the seriousness of this “destruction,” President Taylor makes it perfectly clear that this refers to an internal hell, not ecclesiastical execution. The specific context of focusing on “destruction in the flesh” was to encourage bishops and stake presidents to ensure that people do not attend the temple unworthily, thereby bringing upon themselves this avoidable “destruction in the flesh:”
Here is a principle—and the same principle applies to the man—that if a man commits adultery, he also shall be destroyed. Can I change that? I did not make the law. Have I the right to change it?…The law says, “they shall be destroyed.” What else? “And shall be delivered unto the buffetings of Satan unto the day of redemption.” That is the law. Can I change it? Can you? I speak now to Presidents of Stakes and Bishops. We are told that we are not to be partakers of other men’s sins. Now, you send men with recommends to me to have me pass upon them. I trust to you. I suppose you are acquainted with these things. I suppose you act intelligently and understandingly. But if people do not fulfill the requirements of the Gospel, you have no right to recommend them to the house of the Lord. They do not belong there. People who do not observe the laws of the Gospel and live their religion, should not receive recommends, and if you do recommend such you will be held responsible…I have known cases where wicked and corrupt men have gone into the house of God. The parties administering did not know it, but nevertheless it was a fact. And what has become of them? They have come to me feeling as though they were in hell. They wanted to know what they could do. I told them I did not know; perhaps the Lord would indicate by and by. I say to all, you had better, unless you determine to fear God and keep His laws, quit at once, for God expects us to do right, and will hold us to an account for our acts.34
The “David Clause”
Preceding the Reformation era, President Brigham Young taught a significant principle that stands in direct opposition to what critics claim was taught and practiced under “blood atonement.” President Young, calling upon the example in Old Testament of the Lord not allowing David to build the temple in Jerusalem, stressed that the current commandment and obligation of the Saints to build temples required them to be completely free of the shedding of blood as a people. In direct rebuttal of charges of “Danites” and similar allegations, Brigham lamented that David had “had the privilege [of] defend[ing] himself and [his] people from mobocrats and murderers, while we have hitherto been denied this privilege.” While this, of course, directly rebuts claims about Danites and “blood atonement” against non-Mormons and persecutors, Brigham also significantly emphasized that atonement for martyrdom and injustice “cannot be atoned for on our earth. No man or nation of men, without the Priesthood, has power to make atonement for such sins.” This stands in direct contradiction to anti-Mormon claims about the standard proof-texts, because most of them center around allegations that Mormons ritually murdered non-Mormon “Gentiles.”
David was not permitted to build the house which he was commanded to build, because he was a “man of blood”…but commanded his son Solomon, who succeeded him on the throne, to erect the Temple at Jerusalem, which God had required at his hands…The souls of all [martyrs], since the days of Jesus, are “under the altar,” and are crying to God, day and night, for vengeance. And shall they cry in vain? God forbid! He has promised He will hear them in His own due time, and recompense a righteous reward.35
This emphasis on Latter-day Saints not being violent or a people of blood, built upon President Young’s use of the example of David and Solomon, forms a common thread throughout talks by Church leaders decades later:
This people and these Elders who bear the Melchizedek Priesthood, through the providence of Almighty God, will not be called upon to go forth, like David of old, and shed the blood of their fellow-man in their own defense. There were many things required of him which will not be required at our hands; and some things he was not permitted to do, because he was a man of blood.36
The great reason why David was not allowed to build a house to the Lord, was because he had been a man of blood. He had commenced to gather his thousands of talents of gold and silver together, and was ready to build, but the Lord told him he should not, that he had been too much a man of war, had shed too much blood; but that he might get the materials together, and that Solomon, his son, should build a temple to his name. It is plainly to be seen, in the wisdom of God, that the Saints are not to take that course; but on the contrary, the Lord requires of them that they preserve to themselves pure hearts and clean hands to build His Temples. Was not this a great and wonderful manifestation of his loving kindness, was it not a demonstration to a great people of his tender mercy in preserving us from that fratricidal strife that arose in the nation.37
My views and feelings in regard to the Twelve and leading men of this Church have been this, that when they leave this stage of action they will be permitted to lie down in peace surrounded by their families and friends; and also, that God will never require them to stain their hands with the blood of their fellow men, in order to protect themselves from violence; but, that the Lord will fight our battles, and frustrate the measures that would lead to such an issue. And the wisdom of this is manifested in the fact that part of our duty is to build Temples, and officiate in the same; and this we could not do so acceptably to God if our hands were stained with the blood of our fellow-men, even in our own defense.38
We are a people of peace. We only desire to be let alone to accomplish our mission in peace. God would not permit us to build temples, any more than He permitted David, if we imbrued our hands in blood. David was forbidden to build the temple of God at Jerusalem, because he had been a man of blood. It was reserved for his son Solomon, a man of peace, to build the temple. So it is with us. We will not need to fight, we do not propose to take up arms, we do not desire and will not be compelled to shed the blood of our fellow-men. We may have our own blood shed in instances, though the work of God will not be trampled out; but we will let them monopolize that part; they may shed our blood, but we must not shed theirs. We must build temples to the honor of our God, and administer in them for the salvation of the living and the dead; and thus go onward, spreading peace, pouring oil upon the troubled waters; and while there will be wars and rumors of wars, while nation will clash against nation and go down in the whirlpool of fury, the Latter-day Saints must preach peace on earth and good will to men, and be exemplars in all righteousness; seeking to let their light so shine that the glory of God will radiate from them to others.39
George Q. Cannon, in invoking the “David Clause,” emphasized that anti-Mormon claims about Mormons and violence were not only false, but contradictory to what Mormons are taught in their scriptures and by their leaders:
We have been accused, I know, and very freely accused, of…having sentiments of revenge and a disposition, if we had the power, to wreak vengeance upon those who are opposed to us. But if we did so we should falsify ourselves and the doctrines that we teach. We should deprive ourselves of the Spirit and blessings of God…The Lord knew…the spirit with which this people and the proclamation of this truth would be met, and He forewarned His people that they should be found worthy, or rather that they should be true even unto death…This revelation…shows unto us most clearly, my brethren and sisters, that there is no room for revenge in the heart of a true Latter-day Saint. God designs that we shall be a peaceful people, a people who shall love and cultivate peace, a people who shall seek by every means in their power to avert war and to avert bloodshed, to proclaim peace, and to entreat people for peace; and God has said to us most emphatically that He would fight our battles, that He would defend us against our enemies. He does not intend that the Latter-day Saints shall be a people shedding blood. God did not permit David, a man after His own heart, to build the temple at Jerusalem, because he was a man of war, but He gave unto His peaceful son Solomon, who was a peaceful ruler and had no occasion to fight—He gave unto him the privilege of building His holy temple. We are a temple-building people. God has given unto us a mission of this kind, to build temples in which we shall perform the ordinances of life and salvation, and…we should refrain from everything that would unfit us for the discharge of this high and holy calling. Therefore, I repeat, that of all people now living upon the face of the earth we are most urgently required by our God to be lovers and cultivators of peace, and to seek not for that revenge which gratifies human passion, which is not of God, and which is opposed to the Gospel of Jesus, and to the sentiments that Jesus invariably inculcated and endeavored to enforce upon His disciples. We have shown this repeatedly.40
The Witness of Results
The great advantage in Mormon responses to blood atonement charges is the fruit of Mormon doctrines and teachings. It is obvious to thoughtful people that blood atonement conditions represented by critics cannot have existed as critics represent and have yielded the discernable results for which Mormonism is famous. Also, the alleged “blood atonement” conditions critics represent to have existed are very difficult to reconcile with the realities that Mormon communities faced, both in the United States and in Utah Territory. This point is summarized well in Hugh Nibley’s treatment of blood atonement and Danitism:
As we review the charges (they are too long to repeat here), we are forced to the astonishing conclusion that, according to [critics] for many years in Utah (seven at the very least), if a person was a Gentile he was immediately killed; if he was an apostate he was immediately killed; if he was weak in the faith, he was immediately killed; if he was merely suspected of being weak in the faith, he was immediately killed; if he “dared to neglect the counsel of the Priesthood,” he “was at once charged with apostasy” and immediately killed; if he “committed even the most trifling offense to any member of the priesthood [including each and every male in the church above the age of eleven], he was immediately killed; if no charge of apostasy or deviation could be brought, he would still be accused of being a spy and instantly killed; if he was a casual visitor or transient and let slip one uncomplimentary word, he was immediately killed. Joseph Smith taught his people “openly that it was their duty to ‘destroy in the flesh’ all upon whom the leaders of the church frowned.” [Their] proof of this is Doctrine and Covenants 132:26, which has nothing to do with the case. Brigham Young, in turn, “set at naught all morality with his horrible and debasing teachings…the duty of assassination.” Insanity is no word for it. Are these people telling the truth or aren’t they? Is this a likely situation? Do you find it appealing, or convincing? For people living on the narrowest margin of survival, as the Mormons were in the 1850s and 1860s, this doctrine seems singularly weak in survival value; what would such a policy do to any society? It seems even weaker in its human appeal. Murder the order of the day year after year? People think nothing of it? We wonder. The vast majority of these people in Utah were recent emigrants from Northern Europe, where the too frequent assassination of one’s neighbors was frowned on, at least in the straight-laced nineteenth century. Why no protest from them? Why were the Mormons, to whom the liquidation of Gentiles and apostates was a sacred duty, never proud of their Danites? Why are none of their exploits known or praised by the Saints? Surely such a dedicated and efficient band must have at some time performed some useful service besides murder during the years when there was so much else to be done. The fact that they never appear, either in times of crisis or in those parades of which the Mormons were so fond, is, to say the least, a suspicious one41
The pitfall critics face in overdoing blood atonement charges is that people’s personal experiences with Mormons and Mormonism, past and present, prove to be the opposite of the expectations critics’ portrayals and representations create. This undermines confidence in critics as a source and makes people open to Mormon explanations. As this is true only of those who think critically and sift and weigh evidence, critics rely on a continued full-court press of dime novel blood atonement stereotypes to discourage people from questioning and investigating the validity of blood atonement claims.
“Many strangers have come to visit this city,” said Wilford Woodruff,
thinking that their lives were hardly safe because of the horrid stories they had heard about these terrible “Mormons,” when the fact is, if they had only known it, they were a great deal safer here, than in any of the great cities of the world.42
The powerful effect that actual experience and contact with Mormons and Mormonism has in changing perceptions encouraged by critics, “to the rout and overthrow of…expectations,”43 is perhaps best evident in Governor Cumming’s experience when installed as Utah’s territorial governor with an army escort. Even today, some people attribute the unity within Mormonism to “terrorism” or “cult-like” traits.
The world…[does] not understand the principle of our union. Some suppose it is a species of Daniteism or terrorism—a sort of tyrannical power that is made use of to bring men down into subjection; and hence, in accordance with these ideas, the Government sent out an army to give protection to the oppressed people of Utah, and escort back all who want to go back to the East or to California, and dare not, for fear of Brigham and the Twelve. When Governor Cumming came here first, he offered deliverance to the captives in Zion, and told the people in public that if there were any that wanted his protection, it should be had. How many sought it? I think his Excellency’s mind has become better informed since his association with the people.44
As humorous as it can sometimes be to Mormons, the outrageous stories and impressions critics encourage and foster can affect people’s perceptions and impressions, just as critics intend them to. George Q. Cannon noted that the withholding of statehood and full representation in Congress for the people of Utah Territory were a direct result of the lies that had been diligently promulgated by critics, in which blood atonement played a major role. There were very real consequences because of the false accusations:
I look for the time to come when this people throughout these mountains shall have the power they ought to have—the power to elect their own officers, enact their own laws and to enforce them; when the majority of the people shall have the right to say what shall be the rule in this land, a right that has been denied us up to the present time. Why is this right denied us? Partly because of the fears of people who live in our midst—their imaginary fears, or their pretended fears. There is a class of people in these valleys, particularly in this city and the country round about, who are using every influence in their power to prevent the Latter-day Saints having the power that citizens of the United States have elsewhere. They say that if we get this power and this authority it will be impossible for them to live here, that they will have to leave the land; that there will be such a reign of terror, or such a condition of affairs that no one will be able to endure it, except the Mormons, or Latter-day Saints, themselves; and by the publication of such stories as these, by magnifying all the trifling things they see done, by calling attention to plural marriage, and by giving a false representation of the power that is wielded by the leaders of the people, and by the circulation of the most infamous falsehoods, they create an impression abroad that is unfavorable to us and to our rights.45
The key is to expose the absurdities inherent in the stories, and to point out the logical extensions and results that should exist if critics’ claims were true:
We are lied about! Yes, all manner of lies are circulated concerning us. I have heard men say that when they came to Salt Lake they were actually afraid of their lives because of the falsehoods that had been sent abroad. Why, from some of the stories that have been circulated one would think that a “Mormon” Apostle ate a man for breakfast every morning; that he was never satisfied unless he breakfasted upon somebody not of his faith. I do not think that to look at the Apostles and the leading men that they would give anybody such an idea. They do not look very savage nor very ferocious. Yet, these lies are being told and circulated, and they have their effect upon certain classes. But like all the lies in the past, we shall outlive them. It would be amusing to read all the lies that have been used in days past and gone. But there is a new batch in process of incubation all the time, and when the old ones get stale the new ones come forth adapted to the change of the case. Yet notwithstanding all this we continue to live. Lies do not hurt us. I do not think they cause us to sleep any the less…We have learned that we can live and be lied about.46
Drawing attention to admirable conditions in the Salt Lake Valley, John Taylor pointed out the incongruity between critics’ claims about the murderous character of Mormon leaders and the tangible fruits of Mormon society obvious to all:
And yet they call our leader a murderer, and those who are his co-laborers the most infamous black-hearted scoundrels that ever existed. Are these the works of murderers that you see around here? Excuse me for referring to these things, but I do it to contrast between one thing and another. We always knew they were liars, and do today.47
One of the most powerful rebuttals to claims of violent terrorism lying at the heart of Mormonism as a means of silencing critics and maintaining internal control is the fact that the claims are made by ostensible insiders and close observers. Critics want to have their cake and eat it too; they require at the same time coolly efficient and blindly obedient legions of Mormons willing to murder at the command of their leaders, but also a pitiful success rate, judging by all that manages to leak out and be exposed. The two conditions are mutually exclusive; both can’t be true as critics represent. How does one account for the many apostates, critics, and correspondents who continued to live year in and year out among the Saints and “expose” blood atonement atrocities? Why were they never “blood atoned” for?
Two weeks ago to-day, I mentioned the course of some individuals in this place who are writing slanders concerning us, stating that a man cannot live here unless he is a “Mormon,” when at the same time they come here to meeting with perfect impunity. Some of them are in the meeting today, and are now preparing lies for their letters. A parcel of them clan together and fix up letters, and they write to the East how desperately wicked the “Mormons” are—how they are killing each other, killing the gentiles, stealing and robbing, and what wicked, miserable creatures the “Mormons” are. And when any of them go from here, they report, “We have barely escaped with our lives: Oh! it was a very narrow escape that we made; but we did manage to get out of the place with our lives; yes, we did get away without being killed.” They all safely escape to tell their lies. They say that it is with great difficulty that they can live with the Saints, when at the same time no one has molested them during all the time they have been writing lies to stir up the wicked to destroy us. They pass and repass in our streets with the same privileges that other citizens enjoy.48
What would things actually be like if “one-twentieth” of the charges and allegations were true?
It has been told of us that we were ready to commit murder at any time, in order to serve our own ends, that we were ready to shed the blood of the innocent, and that this feeling to destroy life existed among us…I sometimes think that if we were one-twentieth part as bad as we are accused of being, it would be very unhealthy throughout this country for a good many who are now unmolested. I know this, that no other community would have borne one-twentieth part the insult and injury that we have submitted to so quietly. What has caused us to do it?…Simply the knowledge that these men are ignorant, and I believe that the Latter-day Saints have partaken of that spirit which Jesus had when he hung upon the cross…It may be said they were restrained by fear. It has not been through the fear of man, but the fear of God has restrained this people. It is far better for us to suffer wrong than to do wrong; it is better to endure evil, ignominy, shame and persecution than to turn and practice any of these things ourselves.49
Despite the slanders and misrepresentations of clergy, journalists, federal appointees, etc., Church leaders recognized that actual, observable conditions and results are the most effective means of combating falsehood.
We know there are today…men who are…ever ready to misrepresent the purest motives of the best people on the earth…And we know too that among this class of vilifiers and defamers are many of the clergy…but being wolves in sheep’s clothing they…scatter broadcast lies and defamation. And many newspaper scribblers…who know not the facts in the case, take up and republish to the world the untruths and misrepresentations of the wicked men who are seeking notoriety at the expense of truth and justice. The history of Utah Territory gives the lie to all these misrepresentations. There is no part of the American continent that has been peopled and redeemed from its desolated condition with so little bloodshed as Utah. There is no other State or Territory where the general government has expended so little money or so little force, or where so few lives have been lost in settling a country and maintaining peace with the Indians as Utah. Today the American nation is indebted for the spirit of “Mormonism” that has been diffused through this mountainous country in the maintenance of peace, and the saving to the nation of millions of treasure as well as thousands of lives.50
Blood atonement claims provide a neat set of “straw men” and “air castles” that allow critics to cast legitimate law enforcement action in an ominous and odious light. The actual state of society in Utah Territory and areas under Mormon influence gives the “witness of results” that contradicts these claims.
In ninety-nine cases out of a hundred where the doctrines of the Latter-day Saints…are ridiculed and pronounced false and evil, they are so pronounced by a class of people who…build aerial castles in order that they may tear them down, or “make a man of straw” to shoot at so that they can create a great noise and excitement about the “Mormons,” and thus we are often charged by those who abuse us and write and preach against us with believing and practicing the most absurd things—things which no Latter-day Saint ever dreamt of believing or accepting as a principle of his faith…They accuse us of every abominable thing. They call us murderers; they say we are immoral, ignorant, superstitious; they call us dupes, they say we are deceived, that we are enslaved by the Priesthood; that we are fettered and in bondage…The people of Utah are charged with having committed terrible murders and robberies. “Danites” or “Destroying Angels” are talked about by sensational writers and believed in by the uninformed. Now, what is the fact? Utah stands head and shoulders above every other Territory in the United States so far as the crime of murder is concerned. You cannot find a western Territory or State within the United States where there has not been a hundred per cent more murders, lynching and lawlessness than can be found in the annals of Utah. Take the State of California, the State of Nevada, and all the surrounding Territories, and it will be found that there has been less violation of law, fewer murders and less lynching in Utah than in any one of these from the beginning. There is no man that knows anything about the history of the western States and Territories for the last thirty years but knows this to be absolutely the fact. But because a few horse thieves and murderers have per chance been summarily dealt with by officers of the law—who were the appointees of the United States, and acting under the authority of the parent government and the laws of the Territory—the whole people of Utah are accused of being murderers. I attended a Methodist revival meeting held in a big tent in this city a few years ago by some itinerant preachers, who had spent but a few days in Utah, and were totally ignorant of her history, and it fairly made one’s blood run cold to hear them relate their pious suspicions of the horrible murders that had been committed in Utah. They thought, or pretended to believe, that if the rocks of these mountain gorges could only speak, that nearly every rock could some terrible tale unfold of horrible secret murder and rapine. The most damnable nonsense that was ever uttered by man. But this is the sort of preaching that is generally done against the Latter-day Saints by this class of men, and as I have said, those who denounce the doctrines of this people as heresies and as abominable, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred know nothing whatever of the facts. If the Latter-day Saints had not been Latter-day Saints, if it had not been for their religion, and their faith in God and in His omnipotence to deliver them from the power of their enemies; or if the Territory of Utah had been inhabited by the same number of people composed of the various sects and denominations of Christianity, so-called, and the one-thousandth part of the infamies that have been perpetrated upon this people had been perpetrated upon them, many of the perpetrators of these infamies would have been long ago summoned to their final abode by “Judge Lynch.” But the patience of the Latter-day Saints, and their willingness to leave their cause in the hands of God has spared them from shedding the blood of their enemies, and preserved them from violence or harm. Men that have not deserved to live, and would not have been suffered to live in any other community under the same circumstances, have equal protection with the very best citizens, and no man would harm a hair of their heads. We have too much good sense to make martyrs of such characters, and consequently they are left alone to pursue their nefarious course. Sometimes it seems rather hard to bear it, but it is the best to do so, I suppose.51
Mormon leaders often expressed justifiable annoyance with people from societies plagued with much worse crime and social ills engaging in hand-wringing over Mormon “atrocities” that were absurd on their face. John Taylor astutely observed that inevitable objections from critics about comparing the crème of Mormon society with the dregs of Gentile society are never applied the other way: the deeds of Mormon renegades and outlaws are inevitably applied to the Mormons as a whole, and represented as being the fruits and extension of Mormon doctrine and practices.
We are, as I have said, represented as a very bad people, and I want to show a comparison between us and our reformers, or those that profess to be our reformers in relation to these matters…”At the above estimate of population the ratio or percentage would be one prisoner to every 10,000 Mormons, or one hundredth of one per cent, and of the Gentiles one convict in every 909, or about one ninth of one per cent.” So that the actual proportion of criminals is more than ten times greater among the Gentiles of Utah, with the above very liberal estimate, than among the Mormons. It is urged that these non-Mormon prisoners are not a fair representation of the average of crime throughout the country, but are the result of the flow of the desperate classes westward to the borders of civilization; with greater truth we reply that the Mormon prisoners are not representatives of Mormonism, nor the results of Mormonism, but of the consequences of a departure from Mormon principles; and of the 13 prisoners classed as “Mormons,” the greater portion were only so by family connection or association…As I have said before, if we were not on the defensive in this case, I would say nothing about these things; but it ill becomes men who have got ten criminals to our one to come here as our reformers, and try to disfranchise men who are ten times as good as they are. These are facts that are not of my getting up. They come from the public records and can be verified by the prison and other statistics. And the question is, how much of that rule do we want here?52
Occasionally it is said, and published in the world, “what a terrible people these Mormons are! No man’s life is safe in Utah!” Put this people by themselves and there would not be a law suit among them in a year, nor a murder in fifty years; nor ever, if they would live their religion…What is the condition of the world? If you go to Europe, to Germany to France, and other countries, what will you find? You need not go beyond the United States; not even beyond the City of Friends. I saw a reservoir there in which they found the bodies of twenty-nine children, when cleaning it, and it had been cleaned but a short time previously. Sometimes, I was informed, they had found more in it. It is a little better in England, for there they will keep their illegitimate children if they can, or give them away.53
While Mormons have always welcomed being held to a higher standard than the world at large, the double standard critics apply in order to capitalize on blood atonement charges is blatantly hypocritical. Critics give Mormons no credit for the historical foundation behind modern Mormonism’s reputation for morality and lawfulness, and they are singularly blind to the violence of contemporary non-Mormon communities. Both Mormonism’s nineteenth century background and the backgrounds of contemporary Gentile communities compare favorably with respect to the Mormons and critics’ claims about them. As in the case of Montana:
There is nothing new in relation to these matters. It is only a little piece of the same material that we have experienced in years gone by…In conversation lately, with a judge from Montana, I forget his name, I told him I had been judge of the probate court in Utah County, one of the largest counties in Utah, perhaps the largest with the exception of Salt Lake, and that during two years, while acting in that capacity, I had one criminal case—petty larceny—come before me, and three civil cases, two of which were decided by arbitration. I asked him how he got along in Montana. Said he, “in the same time while I was judge there, probate judge, I had to act as probate on upwards of eighty cases, most of whom came to their death by violent means.” Why didn’t they blame the Governor or the Mayors of cities for killing these men? Could so many murders be committed and the Mayors and Governors not do it? It is astonishing! Now I would rather be the friend and associate of these men whom they call murderers here than of their most honorable men, and so would this people…I know they are liars when they make these statements, and this people believe it too. Well, what shall we do then? Why…It is all right…The wrath of man shall praise the Lord.54
Or “cowboys and guerrillas” in Arizona:
If we had not possessed these narrow valleys and defiles they would have been in the possession of bands of Gadianton robbers, who would have preyed upon the people and their property, as “cowboys” and guerillas are now doing in Arizona. But our possessing them gave strength and protection to our more important settlements.55
While critics’ portrayals of Mormon violence rely on claims of secret, covered-up atrocities, the notorious outlaws of the “Wild West” cannot be laid at the feet of the Mormons. Critics invariably and inevitably strain to tie all killings, even ones by law enforcement officers in the line of duty, to the pervasive influence of “blood atonement.”
I was sorry for an expression made by one of our officials in relation to the late killing of three thieves. He considered that they were dealt with by mob violence. Our officers of the law are provided with means to defend themselves against those who would slay them. The three persons that were lately killed were notorious thieves, and resisted the officers in the discharge of their duty. I thank God that our officers will not suffer themselves to be shot down by notorious scoundrels.56
Much of the “blood atonement” rhetoric stemmed from conditions and problems that the camp followers and other outside opportunists brought about in Mormon territories. Church leaders denounced, sometimes intemperately, the social ills that were imported into Mormon areas.
Eleven thousand [troops] were ordered here by James Buchanan; seven thousand arrived, and about ten thousand hangers on—gamblers, thieves, and so forth. It made a pretty good army, but what did they accomplish? They used one another up. I recollect in the days of Camp Floyd it was thought nothing of to hear every morning to two or three men being killed; but now, if one is killed about once in six months, all hell is on the move. If the whiskey drinkers and gamblers who were here to winter, were to go to work, and kill off a few of themselves every night, it would stop all excitement about killing. What would be said if the United States mail were robbed in this neighborhood, as it is east, west, and north of this city every few weeks? It would be thought that we were becoming civilized; but in the absence of frequent deeds of this character, whenever a scoundrel meets with his just deserts here, there is a great outcry raised.57
As with much else, partisans tend to regard their authorities and sources as reliable and the “opposition’s” authorities and sources as having little credibility. This fact is actually an advantage to Mormonism, though, because Mormon sources and authorities compare very favorably to anti-Mormon sources and authorities, when their relative credibility is made a focus.
In the spirit of Sir Charles Butler’s observation regarding “legitimate controversy” (cf. footnote 8), Mormon leaders have often acknowledged that criticisms levied against the Church and its leaders sometimes have legitimate points, and to the extent that they do, Mormons as a people and as a church should learn and grow from them, while “keep[ing] at a respectable distance and…try[ing] not to need any more of [their] kind offices.” Inasmuch as criticisms have validity, Mormons should learn from them, and even consider the possibility that obviously false allegations may have some element of truth to them. This openness to “the truth,” and the fact that “the truth” may not always reflect favorably on Mormons, is a far cry from how “blood atonement” critics represent Mormon leaders. One wonders to what extent these critics would be willing to acknowledge that Mormons have a point in defending the Church against “blood atonement” charges?
I am accused of a thousand evils, but I have never feared but one thing with regard to myself—and that is, that I should be left to do an evil that people may truly blame me; while they cannot speak evil of me and tell the truth, it never harms me. I care nothing what false statements are made about me when I faithfully follow the counsels of Heaven; they are no more to me than the croaking of the crane that flies over my head. If a High Priest, and Elder, or any other man that comes within the purview of my influence does wrong, I would as soon tell him of it as not and show him how to do right; if he is offended at me for so doing; it proves that he is destitute of knowledge. If the angel of darkness reproves you for your evil deeds, thank him for it, but tell him to keep at a respectable distance and that you will try not to need any more of his kind offices.58
The pervasive effects of misleading information from accepted authorities can be very frustrating. George A. Smith related a conversation he had with a Dr. Vincent, a Methodist minister who had conducted camp meetings in Salt Lake City. Although being favorably impressed with the “four or five thousand children” they were permitted to address, and although
they gave us so much credit, they went away feeling very bitter towards us…And they went on and told how well they were treated; but…they said they had been told from the most reliable sources that a great many men had been killed in this country for not being ‘Mormons.’” Said I, “You have been most foully gulled by somebody.” Dr. Vincent replied, “The authority is most reliable, for it came from our officers.”
Smith’s response was effective, and sets a good example for dealing with critics who insist on their uninformed authorities, but dismiss Mormon authorities and sources out of hand:
- Sectarian partisans have no firsthand knowledge of what they allege.
- Many of them seek directly to cause trouble for Mormons.
- Categorical denial of “blood atonement:” “No man was ever killed in Utah for his religion.”
- Cases of murder in Utah are the result of “private quarrels.”
- Utah has much less violence than any other state or territory.
This, said George A. Smith, shows
that a man who had been so liberally treated by the Latter-day Saints, who had had the privilege of speaking to the largest collection of school children that he probably ever saw in his life, would believe lies told him by renegades, and carry them away and publish them rather than the real facts which he had the privilege of seeing, hearing and learning from reliable authority while here.59
Brigham Young wryly noted that the slanderers and libelers who could not have lived in Utah for one day if their charges were true tended to remain in Utah for long periods of time, continuing their slanders and libels:
There are a few in the Government who will listen to any testimony against us, no matter how false. The man who was referred to this morning has given testimony against us, respecting matters here, which is utterly false. After making such infamous statements, that man could not live here twenty-four hours, if it were not that we are Latter-day Saints who live here. By letting him alone, however, he will kill himself.60
The incongruity between Mormon horror stories and observable conditions in direct contradiction to them stands out strikingly:
Throughout these wild mountains and secluded valleys life has been more safe, property more secure, than in the streets of the best managed cities in the Union. There never has been a day since we came beyond these mountains that travelers could not pass from the North to the South, and from the East to the West, and through all parts with perfect security. There never was a day, when the Latter-day Saints lived alone in these valleys, that a woman would be insulted either by word or by gesture, night or day, whether an old lady or a young lady, in traveling from one end of our Territory to the other…Is it because we are incapable of feeling, or that we do not understand our rights, or that we do not want them, that we suffer ourselves to be imposed upon? No, it has not been because of these things. Our bosoms have burned, probably, with the fire of indignation, as much as any people on the face of the earth could under such circumstances. What has retained us? Simply the knowledge that these men are ignorant, and I believe that the Latter-day Saints have partaken of that spirit which Jesus had when he hung upon the cross.61
Mormon atrocity tales retain their public interest and gullible believability, even when proven wrong by direct evidence or experience. Critics know this, and continue to emphasize things that they know can be disproven or successfully refuted, because their main goal is to impact perceptions and impressions:
One by one the falsehoods that are propagated concerning us are exposed…Why, it is not 20 years ago that one of the stories most frequently circulated, published and dwelt upon, upon the platform and in the public press, was that ["blood atonement" conditions existed under a Danite reign of terror]. So firmly had this idea obtained possession of many minds that to-day it forms the staple of two or three dramas that are played upon the stage and that receive considerable patronage east and west…Now, as I have said, one by one we have proved the falsity of these statements. But does this misrepresentation and slander concerning us cease? Not in the least. The manufacture still continues. Every conceivable slander is manufactured and put in circulation. No sooner is one lie nailed to the counter than another is started and passes current, until there are many people who scarcely know what to think, they having such exaggerated ideas concerning the people of Utah Territory…There are men who [instead of] being willing that the truth should be told and known, they are ever willing to have every kind of story propagated however false it may be…It may be asked: Why is this? For the best of all reasons, that whenever God has attempted to do anything upon the earth…all hell has been aroused against that work and against those engaged in it…Our generation is no exception in this respect . . .This is not a new thing in the earth, the antagonism between error and truth, between wrong and right, between the followers of him who seeks to usurp dominion upon the earth, and the followers of the Son of God. That antagonism has been a perpetual one, an undying one. It cost the blood of the best Being that ever trod the earth, even the Son of God Himself, and all His Apostles and all the prophets.62
Much of public gullibility in uncritically accepting critics’ sensational “blood atonement” claims rests on their acceptance of the notion that Mormon-style unity and cohesion could only have been brought about by some sort of “terrorism and bondage:”
It is supposed by a great many people, that there is a spirit of tyranny and oppression existing in this Church, wielded by a few men, or concentrated in one man who stands at the head, by which the people are coerced…Now, this is a very great mistake. It seems difficult to convince people who are not of our faith that there is not some coercive power or organization among the Latter-day Saints by which people are obliged to do this, that, or the other. They have not learned the secret of the power that exists in this organization. They could find it out if they would investigate, but it is very difficult indeed to get people who do not believe as we do to look at this thing with any degree of impartiality. They are so prejudiced against it. They think that it must be wrong to start with, and hence do not look into it in the way they should if they want to find out the truth…Some people say they cannot understand how it is that these Latter-day Saints are so united, unless they are held together by some secret bond or some kind of tyranny. They cannot understand how it is that when the leaders of the people speak, the people are willing to move in a body, with scarcely a dissenting voice, unless it is that they are terrorized or coerced by some power that is not known on the outside. Now, all the bondage and terrorism that exist in this church is the ‘terrorism and bondage’—if such a thing can be—of conscience. The Latter-day Saints not only firmly believe in this work, but have received a spiritual influence which has given them an inward testimony or knowledge that this work is of God. They have no doubt, no dubiety, they know it is true. Hence, when any movement is necessary for the building up of the great work of God, which they know to be true, they feel it is their duty to respond. That is all the bondage there is; that is all the terrorism there is.63
When pressed for actual, physical evidence of “blood atonement,” though (e.g., church-ordered and carried-out executions, etc.), critics inevitably rely on and emphasize the standard proof-texts, which in turn rely on public perception and “common knowledge” for them to carry weight.
We are accused of many crimes. We are accused of being guilty of many misdeeds. But when the proof is asked for it is something that has happened some time ago, something that somebody else knows.64
An important consideration in dealing with “blood atonement” claims is the larger time and setting. As has been seen, Church leaders condemned lynchings and vigilante justice, so where such existed in Utah Territory, it cannot be laid at the feet of Mormon theology. However, rhetoric from Church leaders, especially during the Reformation period, was colored by the general spirit of “The Wild West,” and Mormon communities were affected by the larger society they found themselves in. Some statements, while making it clear that vigilantism was not condoned by the Church, make use of vigilante rhetoric.
For example, Jedediah Grant, the main figure in Reformation-era “blood atonement” rhetoric, spoke forcefully and sometimes intemperately against sexual immorality, theft, and other crimes that had been rising in Mormon communities.
I want the Gentiles to understand that we know all about their whoredoms and other abominations here. If we have not invariably killed such corrupt scoundrels, those who will seek to corrupt and pollute our community, I swear to you that we mean to, and to accomplish more in a few hours, towards clearing the atmosphere, than all your grand and traverse juries can in a year.
While critics predictably seize on this to suggest that Grant was calling for a wide-scale violent purge, they refuse to produce evidence that anything like that actually took place. In fact, looking at everything that Jedediah Grant had to say in this instance, it is clear that he was calling for the opposite, despite his colorful and forceful denunciation of crime. He reminded his audience that speaking with such frankness in other locales would have brought about violence in the form of duels or mob violence:
But when they take into consideration that we do not allow any evil, or any kind of wickedness, to grow and flourish in the midst of this community, without revealing and opposing it, they can then understand the subject more clearly. In the United States, generally, and perhaps in most of Europe, it would not be safe to speak so plainly from the pulpit concerning the wickedness existing in those regions, or to expose it so freely and fully as we expose, from this stand, the evils striving to creep into our midst…This course would not always be safe, in that portion of the southern States where I have travelled; you would be apt to be involved in a duel, or in a fight of some kind.65
Critics cite statements that appear to encourage “Wild West” vigilante justice, but they do not apply the same standard to the Bible, account for the use of the subjunctive case, discuss “the rest of the story” in the same passage, or deal with logical extensions and implications of the uses they seek to put these proof-texts to. They cite, for example, Brigham Young’s statement:
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.
Never mind that this would not be “blood atonement,” or that there are strong Bible overtones in this (cf. Exodus 22:2), or that these same critics would have no problem with people today confronting an intruder or burglar with deadly force. Critics never discuss what Brigham Young said immediately after this (“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”). Or that he, with recognizable hyperbole, next said:
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.66
Would critics really insist, when pinned down, that Brigham Young really would have lined up thieves in front of a cannon and fired away? Really? Trying to muster a passage like this into service against the Mormons is to be studiously tone-deaf to color and personality in language.
Similarly, other statements sometimes used to support allegations of “blood atonement” are really statements that reflect the climate of the times.
I have never been troubled with thieves stealing my property. If I am not smart enough to take care of what the Lord lends me, I am smart enough to hold my tongue about it, until I come across the thief myself, and then I am ready to tie a string round his neck.67
Would critics characterize “stringing up” thieves in non-Mormon communities during the 1850s as “blood atonement,” or something else?
Mormon leaders often referred to the mob violence that they were subjected to, and rhetorically mused about “tak[ing] the same law they have taken,” juxtaposing the Mormons’ experience back East with the irrational, hysterical calls for calm and level-headedness that were leveled at the Mormons.
In regard to those who have persecuted this people and driven them to the mountains, I intend to meet them on their own grounds. It was asked this morning how we could obtain redress for our wrongs; I will tell you how it could be done, we could take the same law they have taken, viz., mobocracy, and if any miserable scoundrels come here, cut their throats. (All the people said, Amen.) This would be meting out that treatment to wicked men, which they had measured to innocent persons. We could meet them on their own ground, when they will not honor the law, but will kill the Prophets and destroy the innocent. They could drive the innocent from their homes, take their houses and farms, cattle and goods, and destroy men, women, and children, walking over the laws of the United States, trampling them under their feet, and not honoring a single law. Suppose I should follow the example they have shown us, and say, “Latter-day Saints, do ye likewise, and bid defiance to the whole clan of such men?”…You know that almost every time that Gentiles address us in public, they are very mindful to caution the Latter-day Saints “not to fight, now don’t fight.” Have we ever wanted to fight them? No, but we have wanted to preach to them the Gospel of peace…Are we going to fight? No, unless they come upon us and compel us either to fight or be slain.68
This is simply a reminder that the Mormons could treat enemies as their enemies had treated them, and use violence on them, if they followed their example, but they actually wouldn’t “unless they come upon us and compel us either to fight or be slain.” Self-defense, in other words, but no “blood atonement.”
One can also sympathize with what the Mormon communities had to endure during the occupation of the U.S. Army (with the camp followers and other elements associated with it) in Camp Floyd and Camp Douglas, and fiery rhetoric that sometimes resulted. This cannot properly be cast as “blood atonement.”
There came a captain with troops into this city: they were a specimen of the virtue and morality of the United States. They came here and began to insult the people, and then tried to cover up their wickedness by the dignity of Uncle Samdom. Passing along, they came to a lone house, and there undertook to ravish a woman in open daylight; and the brother who interfered to prevent this villainous outrage was most shamefully maltreated by them, and got some of his bones broken. After this outrage, the officers of the company were soon told that if they did not take their troops out of the city, the “Mormons” would cut all their damned throats; and that was the last we had of them here.69
Some “vigilante” passages touch on the doctrinal underpinnings behind “blood atonement” rhetoric:
I spoke a harsh word here yesterday with regard to a man who professes to be a Latter-day Saint who has been guilty of killing an innocent Indian. I say today that he is just as much a murderer through killing that Indian, as he would have been had he shot down a white man. To slay an innocent person is murder according to the law of Moses. Not that we believe that the law of Moses should, in all its bearings, be observed by us; but we believe that it has been fulfilled in a great measure with regard to the law of sacrifice. The Lord said to Noah, before the law was given to Moses: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God made he man.” Those who shed the blood of the innocent at the present day will have to pay the penalty here, or come short of receiving the glory and the peace which they anticipate receiving hereafter. This may appear very hard and unreasonable to some.70
On its face, this could appear to support claims that “blood atonement” was practiced in Utah, because it touches on a doctrinal rationale for a guilty person choosing to be executed to mitigate eternal consequences. However, it is clear that “capital punishment for capital crimes,” administered by the state, and not by the church, is meant. Doctrinally, many members today would say that it would be in a penitent murderer’s best eternal interest to atone for what he has done, inasmuch as it’s possible, by forfeiting his life (i.e., it can’t hurt, and might help), although there is as little doctrinal certainty that this would be the case. But nobody would look to the church to carry it out.
Some “vigilante” rhetoric was brought about by concerted attempts by non-Mormons to contest Mormon titles to land they had possessed since 1847. Claim-jumping, lawsuits, squatting, etc., in the hopes of prevailing in court and wresting prime Mormon land away from them led to tension and conflict between Mormons and non-Mormons, and harsh and pointed language naturally resulted:
We have not been broken up, as has been anticipated, by military force, and now it is expected that a course of law suits will accomplish what the military failed to do. I will say one thing to my friends, or to my enemies as they may consider themselves (I myself am not an enemy to any man, yet I am an enemy to some actions), if you undertake to drive a stake in my garden with an intention to jump my claim, there will be a fight before you get it; if you come within an enclosure of mine with any such intent, I will send you home, God being my helper. You can occupy and build where you please, but let our claims alone. We have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taking out the waters of our mountain streams, fencing in farms and improving the country, and we cannot tamely suffer strangers, who have not spent one day’s labor to make these improvements, to wrest out homesteads out of our hands. There is land enough in the country: go to and improve it, as we have improved the country from its wild state.71
In yesterday’s Daily Telegraph you will see a card addressed to the authorities of the Church, and you will also see my answer to it. There is a class of men who are here to pick the pockets of the Latter-day Saints, and then use the means they get from us to bring about our destruction. They want my houses, and your houses, and the privilege of defiling our beds; and if there is anything said or done about it, lying dispatches are sent to the General Government to get an army sent out here as quickly as possible, for “O dear, we are in danger; and need protection!” What are you in danger of? You have not the privilege of driving a stake on any lot of land you want for the purpose of claiming it, when it has been owned and improved for years. There is a lot opposite the theatre that I took the fence off and rented to the City Council for a hay market. A man whom I now see in this congregation suggested its occupancy; said he, “why does not somebody go and sleep on it, and survey it in the morning and claim it.” If anybody had done so, undoubtedly he would have got a pre-emption right that would have lasted him as long as he would have wanted it…The laws of self-preservation demand this of us.72
The issue of tension over claim-jumping is a microcosm for how critics have used “blood atonement” charges in their efforts to undermine confidence in Mormon leaders. Despite insistence that critics back up their irresponsible and reckless charges with evidence, critics continued to rely on “whisper campaigns” and innuendo, and Brigham emphasized this state of things in frankly discussing the murder of Dr. Robinson (a notorious claim-jumper and agitator):
I am disposed to make a few remarks with regard to a circumstance that transpired here a short time ago; I refer to the death of Dr. Robinson. I have preached here a number of times since he was killed in the street…Ex-Governor Weller was assisted in the investigation of this matter by the best counsel that could be got. The great drift of that investigation was to trace that murder to the pulpit of the Tabernacle. I sent word to them by those who I thought would tell them while they were in session where they sat day after day and week after week, not to cease their investigations until they had traced that murder to Brigham Young if it was possible. I also sent word to them to call upon Brigham Young for examination. There is a gentleman here this afternoon who has said that he knows all about it. If he does, why does he not tell of it; and privately he places the murder upon President Brigham Young. Why do you not testify to what you know before the Courts? If President Young is guilty of any such crime, trace it to him.
Then, Brigham Young acknowledged having made impassioned, intemperate statements that critics have seized upon to support claims of “blood atonement.” Brigham emphatically underscored, though, that he had never acted upon and carried out these colorful utterances.
There are some things that Brigham has said he would do; but has never happened to do them; and that is not all, he prays fervently, to his Father and God that he may never be brought into circumstances to be obliged to shed human blood. He never has yet been brought into such a position.
With typical Brigham Young color, wit, and humor, he coined a phrase drawn from the current claim-jumping controversy: “a pre-emption right that will last them to the last resurrection.”
Still, let me find a dog in my bedroom I would not say that he would be very safe; I hope he will never get there. If I should find a dog in my buttery, or in my bedroom as some have, I fear they would give their last howl. I hope and pray they never will come there. If they jump my claims here, I shall be very apt to give them a pre-emption right that will last them to the last resurrection. I hope no man will ever venture so far as to tempt me to do such a thing . . .
He then placed the murder of Dr. Robinson firmly in the same class as the Martyrdom, Haun’s Mill Massacre, and the Mountain Meadows Massacre:
I see a notice in the Daily Telegraph that they are going to send a detective here to trace the murderers of Dr. Robinson. It is published to the world that the murdered man had no enemies only in the City Council. He had no enemies there. Were it not that there are many outsiders here to-day I would like the Saints to know how I feel about all such dastardly transactions. I will tell the Latter-day Saints that there are some things which transpire that I cannot think about. There are transactions that are too horrible for me to contemplate. The massacre at Haun’s mill, and that of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and the Mountain Meadow’s massacre and the murder of Dr. Robinson are of this character. I cannot think that there are beings upon the earth who have any claim to the sentiments and feelings which dwell in the breasts of civilized men who could be guilty of such atrocities; and it is hard to suppose that even savages would be capable of performing such inhuman acts. To call a physician out of his bed in the night under the pretext of needing his services, and then brutally kill him in the dark, is horrible.
He then closed by, again, exhorting people to seek to find the guilty party, and not solely trying to trace the crime back to Brigham Young. Those who would continue to seek simply to pin it on Brigham “are liars in the face of heaven.”
I say to all concerned, cease not your efforts until you find the murderers; and place the guilt where it belongs. I have not said this much before on that matter, and should not have spoken of it now, if the excitement which it created had not passed away. I do not care about the outsiders hearing this, as their opinion is neither here nor there to me; the Saints, however, are welcome to my views upon this matter. If the outsiders think that I am guilty of the crime, let them trace it to me and prove it on me. If any man, woman or child that ever lived has said that Brigham Young ever counseled them to commit crime of any description, they are liars in the face of heaven. If I am guilty of any such thing, let it be proved on me, and not go sneaking around insinuating that Brigham knows all about it.73
The irony of the army bringing violent crime to Utah, while any resulting crime was immediately attributed to the Mormons’ influence, was not lost on the Mormons.
James Buchanan did all he could do, and when he found he could do nothing, he sent a pardon here. What did he pardon us for? He was the man that had transgressed the laws, and had trampled the Constitution of the United States under his feet. We had neither transgressed against the one nor violated the other. But we did receive his pardon, you know, and when they find out they can do nothing they will be sending on their pardons again…There is not much danger, however, from that quarter. But are they not sending troops on here? Yes; and they will have plenty for them to do. Eleven thousand were ordered here by James Buchanan; seven thousand arrived, and about ten thousand hangers on—gamblers, thieves, and so forth. It made a pretty good army, but what did they accomplish? They used one another up. I recollect in the days of Camp Floyd it was thought nothing of to hear every morning to two or three men being killed; but now, if one is killed about once in six months all hell is on the move. If the whisky drinkers and gamblers who were here to winter, were to go to work, and kill off a few of themselves every night, it would stop all excitement about killing. What would be said if the United States mail were robbed in this neighborhood, as it is east, west, and north of this city every few weeks? It would be thought that we were becoming civilized; but in the absence of frequent deeds of this character, whenever a scoundrel meets with his just deserts here, there is a great outcry raised.74
Church leaders consistently taught against and discouraged “mobocracy and lynch law” and “taking the law in their own hands:”
They may try to usurp this authority, but they will always find us in their path under the Constitution, and under the laws; not by force of arms, not by violence, not by lynch law, not by mobocracy; but contending in the right place and under the right circumstances for those liberties that God has given to every human being and especially guaranteed to us as free men who were born free and who live under a free form of government. Mobocracy, from the bottom of our hearts, we hate every form of it, and every form of violence. Where men take the law in their own hands and seek to redress their own wrongs, it is abominable, and should be frowned upon everywhere. Better for us to suffer any number of wrongs than that we should resort to violence. It would not be right for us to do so, however just our cause may be. We must maintain law and good order, and we must frown down and put down every form of mobocracy and lynch law, and this disposition to execute vengeance outside the pale of the law. It is just as wrong for us to indulge in that spirit as it was for the mobbers of Missouri when they drove us from our homes there, or those in Illinois when they drove us from there.75
While Church leaders sometimes expressed support for laws making rape and seduction capital offenses, there is no evidence that the Church acted to carry out and enforce such laws in the capacity of law enforcement.
I want to see it in our country that our young ladies in the company of our young men, in any place and under any circumstances, in the darkest hours and in the most unprotected situations, will feel as safe as if they were in their mothers’ bed chambers so far as anything wrong from the opposite sex is concerned. I would rather see men punished with death—which we believe is a law that should be put in force against any man who ruins woman—than that there ever should be a time in our country when corruption and wrongs of this character should run riot and be unchecked.76
Mountain Meadows Massacre
Much has been written about the Mountain Meadows Massacre, and whether and to what extent top Church leaders were behind or complicit in it. Predictably, critics of the Church have seized upon it as “exhibit A” in demonstrating the effect that “blood atonement” rhetoric had on Mormons. Critics claim that the Mountain Meadows Massacre was the inevitable outcome of “blood atonement” statements. Mormons describe the massacre as a tragic convergence (“perfect storm”) of a number of factors that did not have to happen (a complete and tragic breakdown of local Mormons’ morals and ethics), with local Mormons and their priesthood leaders, acting against clear Church teaching and counsel, combining with Indians to wipe out an emigrant train from Missouri and Arkansas.
This matter has been treated much more fully elsewhere, in book-length studies, and consideration of the relative bona fides of pro- and anti-Mormon arguments related to the Mountain Meadows Massacre is outside of the scope of this paper. With respect to “blood atonement” statements of Church leaders, though, it is clear that they recognized that the real issue was using the tragedy to attack the Church, not bringing guilty parties to justice. Just like with the selectively chosen “blood atonement” proof-texts, critics’ point is to find the most effective sticks to beat the Church with, not to give a fair assessment of the context and intent of those statements.
A certain judge that was then in this Territory wanted the whole army to accompany him to Iron county to try the whites for the murder of that company of emigrants. I told Governor Cumming that if he would take an unprejudiced judge into the district where that horrid affair occurred, I would pledge myself that every man in the regions roundabout should be forthcoming when called for, to be condemned or acquitted as an impartial, unprejudiced judge and jury should decide; and I pledged him that the court should be protected from any violence or hindrance in the prosecution of the laws; and if any were guilty of the blood of those who suffered in the Mountain Meadow massacre, let them suffer the penalty of the law; but to this day they have not touched the matter, for fear the Mormons would be acquitted from the charge of having any hand in it, and our enemies would thus be deprived of a favorite topic to talk about, when urging hostility against us. “The Mountain Meadow massacre! Only think of the Mountain Meadow massacre!!” is their cry from one end of the land to the other.77
Church leaders also pointed out that those who seek the most assiduously to use Mountain Meadows against the Church generally can’t even muster lip-service against similar wrongs visited against the Mormons in their history. One waits in vain for these critics to agitate for hearings, investigations, and movements to correct anti-Mormon violence and injustice:
Great effort has been made to ferret out the guilty parties and bring them to punishment who were engaged in the horrid Mountain Meadow massacre. Had this been done in the spirit of justice and truth, free from that animus and extreme desire to criminate the whole Mormon Church that effort would have been praiseworthy and highly commendable; but conducted as it has been thus far, it will go down to the shades, covering with odium the conductors of that campaign. In contrast with the foregoing, I will now refer to the horrid massacre at Hawn’s Mill, in Missouri, wherein seventeen peaceable, quiet, and unoffending citizens, were shot down, in cold blood, and their bodies thrown into an old well; and for what? I am at the defiance of the whole world to show that it was for anything, except for the crime of being “Mormons.” I would here ask this government how much military and judicial investigation was had to ferret out and bring to punishment the perpetrators of that bloody deed, to say nothing of the wholesale banishment of an entire community by force of arms, and the sequestration of their property and inheritances?78
The Crux: Other Statements that are Problematic for Critics
There are many more examples that demonstrate that critics’ portrayal of the standard “blood atonement” proof-texts is ignorant and irresponsible at best, and deceptive and intentionally misleading at worst. These include outright commands to “be lovers and cultivators of peace, and…[not] to seek…for…revenge:”
Of all people now living upon the face of the earth we are most urgently required by our God to be lovers and cultivators of peace, and to seek not for that revenge which gratifies human passion, which is not of God, and which is opposed to the Gospel of Jesus, and to the sentiments that Jesus invariably inculcated and endeavored to enforce upon His disciples. We have shown this repeatedly. How many times would we have been stirred up to indignation, if we had allowed human feelings to prevail, at the abominable falsehoods which have been circulated in our midst, fabricated by men whose only object has been to bring down vengeance upon this people, to excite the ruling powers against us; to stir up congressional action against us, to create a public opinion against us, to make it justifiable to slay us, to deprive us of every right? How often has this been the case? How easy it would have been for us if we had followed the influences that seem natural to human beings under such circumstances, to have avenged ourselves upon them. But had we done so we should have forfeited the protecting care of our Father and our God. When we attempt to do this, we put ourselves outside of the pale of His protection…Therefore our path of safety is the path which God has pointed out for us; not to be a revengeful people, not to be a recriminating people, not to be an abusive people, but to be a meek people, a forbearing people, bearing patiently, but of course not sitting down idly and supinely, and permitting contumely to be heaped upon us without exerting the powers God has given us to dissipate falsehoods. But this can be done in the spirit of meekness, not in the spirit of revenge, not in the spirit of reviling, not in the spirit of hostility and hatred. This spirit is antagonistic to the spirit that Jesus possesses, and which we all ought to possess to be like Him…I feel that the present time is a fit occasion for us to bear these things in mind. There are many occurrences which are of a character to goad us to do and say things that would be unworthy of us.79
Brethren and sisters, do not be angry with them, for they are in the hands of God. Instead of feeling a spirit to punish them, or anything like wrath, you live your religion; and you will see the day when you will pray God to turn away from your eyes the sight of their afflictions.80
Do not be angry. I will permit you to be as angry as I am. Do not get so angry that you cannot pray: do not allow yourselves to become so angry that you cannot feed an enemy—even your worst enemy, if an opportunity should present itself. There is a wicked anger, and there is a righteous anger. The Lord does not suffer wicked anger to be in his heart…If God will turn them whithersoever he will, so that they do not come here, I shall be perfectly satisfied. But another man steps up, and says to the one that prays for our enemies to be turned away, “Brother, you are a coward; damn them, let them come, for I want to fight them.” Herein you perceive a conflict in our faith; and that should not be. If there was a perfect union of our faith, our enemies could never cross the Rocky Mountains; or, if they undertook to come some other way, they never could cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains, nor the Basin Rim, on our north, nor the deserts at the south. But, says one, “I want to fight.” Do all such persons know that they are not right? If they will examine their hearts, they will find a wicked anger and a malice there; and they cannot get into the kingdom of God with those feelings.81
When the U.S. Army was advancing towards Utah during the Utah War (in other words, during exactly the same time as critics’ standard blood atonement proof-texts), Brigham Young significantly stated that the Mormon people as a whole “love to fight a little too well,” and hence need to restrain their “ignorant and foolish audacity.” Critics never cite this or things like it, though, because it is exactly the opposite attitude and mindset that critics claim saturate the sermons of Jedediah Grant, Heber C. Kimball, and Brigham Young.
Upon the whole, I have no fault to find with the Latter-day Saints, or with the Elders of Israel upon that subject [cowardice in the face of battle], for they love to fight a little too well. If I were to have fears concerning them, it would not be that they would make war, but in the case of war being made on them, I should have more fear in consequence of the ignorant and foolish audacity of the Elders, than of their being afraid…So I will not find fault with regard to their courage. On that point I am a coward myself, and if people would do as I tell them, I would not only save my own life, but theirs likewise.82
A classic “blood atonement” proof-text shows how enterprising anti-Mormons can manipulate text by choosing when and where to start and stop the tape. Brigham Young once said: “What shall be done with sheep that stink the flock so? We will take them, I was going to say, and cut off their tails two inches behind their ears…”
Two inches below the ears? Why, that’s beheading! But what else did Brigham say, if one reads further?
…however, I will use a milder term, and say, cut off their ears. But instead of doing this, we will try to cleanse them; we will wash them with soap, that will come well nigh taking off the skin; we will then apply a little Scotch snuff, and a little tobacco, and wash them again until we make them clean. That is what I am doing now. Peradventure we shall find a few such sheep here in the flock, and a few that have got the itch; these are apt to spread the disease among those that are clean, for they will run along and rub themselves on others, until all are smitten with the disorder, and it would be hard to tell in which it originated. I do not want to destroy the people, I want to wash them, and, if necessary, apply the Scotch snuff.83
Critics like to focus on Brigham Young’s “javelin” statement (more on that later), but don’t give a complete picture of the totality of Brigham’s counsel and teaching. For example, he also (at around the same time of the “javelin” quote), said that “feel[ing] like taking instant vengeance on the perpetrator of the deed…would be wrong for you to encourage the least particle of feeling to arise in your bosom like anger, or revenge, or like taking judgment into your own hands:”
What kind of a sensation would it produce in my heart, should I hear at the close of this meeting that the Lord had suffered the devil to destroy my houses, my wives, and my children, and committed every particle of my property to the devouring flames—that I am left destitute, and alone in the world? I wish you all to apply this interrogation to yourselves. What would such a circumstance produce upon this people, provided they did not know the Lord was going to send a judgment upon them, as He has done in former times (though you need not be afraid of it)? how would you feel? Would there not be murmuring, and fault finding, and writing and plotting with apostates, and some fleeing to California, and some running back to the States? Or suppose, when you arrive at home from this meeting, you find your neighbors have killed your horses and destroyed your property, how would you feel? You would feel like taking instant vengeance on the perpetrator of the deed. But it would be wrong for you to encourage the least particle of feeling to arise in your bosom like anger, or revenge, or like taking judgment into your own hands.84
Critics sometimes focus on Brigham Young’s statement that “the murderers and mobocrats who illegally and unrighteously killed, plundered, harassed, and expelled us” should “be willing to have their heads chopped off, that their blood might run upon the ground, and the smoke of it rise before the Lord as an incense for their sins.” Never mind that even this (subjunctive!) portrayal of his statement clearly conditions this upon their voluntary willingness—Young also clearly connects this with legal, state-sanctioned execution, not execution carried out by the church:
I will take the Government of the United States, and the laws of Missouri and Illinois, from the year 1833 to 1845, and if they had been carried out according to their letter and spirit, they would have strung up the murderers and mobocrats who illegally and unrighteously killed, plundered, harassed, and expelled us.
Brigham significantly acknowledges, though, that “vengeance is [God's],” and enjoins the opposite of how critics portray “blood atonement” doctrine and practice:
But if the Lord wishes them to live and foam out their sins before all men and women, it is all right, I care not where they go, or what they do.85
In another anti-Mormon favorite (because it mentions throat-cutting of persecutors), Brigham Young merely points out that if Mormons applied the same law they had applied to Mormons (mobocracy and lynching—not ”blood atonement”) the Mormons could treat enemies as they treated the Mormons, and use violence on them. However, Brigham emphasized that this wouldn’t happen “unless they come upon us and compel us either to fight or be slain” (self-defense, in other words). No “blood atonement” here.
In regard to those who have persecuted this people and driven them to the mountains, I intend to meet them on their own grounds. It was asked this morning how we could obtain redress for our wrongs; I will tell you how it could be done, we could take the same law they have taken, viz., mobocracy, and if any miserable scoundrels come here, cut their throats. (All the people said, Amen.) This would be meting out that treatment to wicked men, which they had measured to innocent persons. We could meet them on their own ground, when they will not honor the law, but will kill the Prophets and destroy the innocent. They could drive the innocent from their homes, take their houses and farms, cattle and goods, and destroy men, women, and children, walking over the laws of the United States, trampling them under their feet, and not honoring a single law. Suppose I should follow the example they have shown us, and say, “Latter-day Saints, do ye likewise, and bid defiance to the whole clan of such men?”…You know that almost every time that Gentiles address us in public, they are very mindful to caution the Latter-day Saints “not to fight, now don’t fight.” Have we ever wanted to fight them? No, but we have wanted to preach to them the Gospel of peace…Are we going to fight? No, unless they come upon us and compel us either to fight or be slain.86
An Orson Pratt statement, while speculatively pointing to execution for sex sin, “and that immediately,” clearly looks to a future state that was not then in place. Note that he specifically says that the wicked among them at the time he said this “if they had met with their just deserts, would not now have been living to disgrace humanity.” In other words, this contradicts the contention that “blood atonement” conditions were ever in place, even during the Reformation period.
I was highly delighted with the remarks that were laid before us by our beloved brother this morning. And in speaking concerning the corruptions that men have brought into our midst, I perfectly agree with him, for all such corruptions and wickedness must be done away; they will not be suffered to exist in the kingdom of God; I mean by this that when there are crimes committed, they will be visited with their just reward and that immediately. In that kingdom, when its laws go forth, there will be officers of peace, and they will lay judgment to the line, and the axe will be laid to the root of every tree that will not yield fruit, and it will be hewn down and cast into the fire, and be utterly burnt up. I have not said much the past winter in regard to the corruptions that have been practiced in our midst, and why? Simply because there are men here, higher in authority, and whose place it is to rebuke sin; and they have borne testimony of the wickedness and corruptions that have been sent into our midst. I do not mean to say that all are corrupt, there are honorable exceptions, but all know that there have been men sent here, who were as corrupt as hell itself. Such characters, if they had met with their just deserts, would not now have been living to disgrace humanity. These are my feelings, and I will here say, that I have felt to be of one heart and one mind with the Presidency in relation to these things.87
Somewhat humorously, Jedediah Grant, the main “fire-eater” of the Reformation period, noted that the immediate application of temporal justice on earth would circumvent and pre-empt God’s justice in His due time (because it would prematurely prevent men from being rewarded for their works on earth). This is quite the opposite of what critics represent Grant as advocating (the immediate execution of sinners).
It is good that all men in the different dispensations of the Almighty, each in his situation, calling, capacity, and sphere of action, are to be, and of right should be, rewarded according to his works. We do not wish to reverse this law in relation to our enemies, we only wish them to be rewarded according to their works; we do not desire to warp the law in the least. I am aware that many suppose that we entertain some unchristian feelings to those out of the Church, but this is a mistake; we only wish that persons who have shed the blood of our Apostles may be rewarded just according to their works. And we expect that, sooner or later, they will have meted out to them that reward which the Almighty actually knows that they deserve. When speaking of governors, rulers, kings, emperors, judges, and officers of nations and states, would we wish to reverse the general law that every person shall be rewarded according to their works? No. It would not do to have some men die as soon as many might desire, for they would not meet their proportionate reward on the earth.88
Another statement lends itself to selective “ellipses” quotation from critics: Heber C. Kimball’s insistence that he “will strive to slay the man who undertakes” to “break us up, and to corrupt this people, and to bring death, hell, and the devil into our midst.” Heber also insists in the same quote, though, that he has never had to shed blood (and hopes never to have to) or had legal trouble, and his strong words center around the fact that he would rather die defending the virtue of his wife and daughters than have them violated (sentiments many non-Mormons share and relate to, of course). Otherwise, his strong words refer to how he would react if he were driven again, which cannot be categorized as “blood atonement.”
Now, if any persons wish to begin another scrape, and desire to again break us up, and to corrupt this people, and to bring death, hell, and the devil into our midst, come on, for God Almighty knows that I will strive to slay the man who undertakes it. [The congregation said, "AMEN."] I am opposed to corruption; I wish every man to keep himself pure, whether he is Jew, or Gentile, or Latter-day Saint; keep yourselves pure. I do not allow my women to fondle with other men, or to sit in their laps, and they must not suffer other men to kiss or hug them, if they do, I will cast them off. Let my wives alone, and let my daughters alone, except you have my permission to pay them attention, and do as you wish to be done by…Notwithstanding I am a plain spoken man, I never had a difficulty that would bring me before a court of my country. I dislike and despise dissension, war, and bloodshed, and that is why I am not pleased with the lawyers. I may like their persons, but God knows that I do not like their works no their principles, when they strive to produce confusion and contention here, after we have made laws which suit us, good laws, and as few of them as possible. This people are a good people, and I love them as I love my life. But I would rather lay down my life, than to again pass through what I have already endured. I have never yet shed man’s blood, and I pray to God that I never may, unless it is actually necessary. I have never had occasion to fight, but I have often stood, with my fire-lock in readiness, guarding the Prophet Joseph, (with brother Brigham and others) for his life was sought all the time.89
Sometimes Church leaders played humorously on the connotations of their rhetoric, like when Heber C. Kimball counseled men being sent to engage the approaching U.S. Army: “Let us be faithful, and the Lord will be on our side, and I doubt whether we shall be under the necessity of shedding much blood ourselves; but let us be ready, guns cocked; none of your half-cocked.”90 The Mormons’ holding the U.S. Army at bay at Echo Canyon and forcing them to winter at Fort Bridger was singularly free of bloodshed and violence, relying on cunning and use of weather and geography.
Critics sensationalize statements such as Heber C. Kimball’s that if “the Holy Ghost” commands bloodshed, “then it is just as right as it is for us to partake of the sacrament,” conveniently forgetting (or ignoring) that God has called upon good men to make just such difficult choices (e.g., Abraham, Nephi, etc.). Isn’t the principle of justified bloodshed how many critics of Mormonism justify participation in military service and combat, even when no one claims that such is inspired by God?
Brethren, let me tell you that I have no spirit in me to shed blood. I never had it in me but once in my life, except I have it in me when I am angry. Once I was inspired by the Almighty with that spirit, and that was in Nauvoo; and so was brother Brigham, and I felt to say that I was sorry that peace was declared. We had just got ready when the gap was shut up. Do I want to shed the blood of my brethren and sisters, or to see it shed? No: and neither do you, unless the Holy Ghost dictates for us to shed the blood of our enemies; then it is just as right as it is for us to partake of the sacrament.91
Impending military engagement is the context of Heber C. Kimball’s much quoted statement that “when it is necessary that blood should be shed, we should be as ready to do that as to eat an apple” (in a military context, not a “blood atonement” one). What critics don’t quote in selectively using this statement are other sentiments: the Lord doesn’t want bloodshed, God doesn’t want us to be “blood-thirsty,” etc.)
I feel the Lord designs the thing should move along and no blood be shed, because I do not consider God is so anxious that we should be blood-thirsty men as some may be. God designs we should be pure men, holding the oracles of God in holy and pure vessels; but when it is necessary that blood should be shed, we should be as ready to do that as to eat an apple. That is my religion, and I feel that our platter is pretty near clean of some things, and we calculate to keep it clean from this time henceforth and forever, and, as the Scripture reads, “Lay judgment to the line and righteousness to the plummet.” We shall do that thing, and we shall commence in the mountains. We shall clean the platter of all such scoundrels; and if men and women will not live their religion, but take a course to pervert the hearts of the righteous, we will “lay judgment to the line and righteousness to the plummet,” and we will let you know that the earth can swallow you up, as it did Korah with his host; and as brother Taylor says, you may dig your graves, and we will slay you, and you may crawl into them. I do not mean you, if you are not here. I mean those corrupt scoundrels. Well, this is just as brother Brigham has said here hundreds of times.92
Note the subjunctive case and the “next time” rhetoric (i.e., indications that he wasn’t addressing things that had happened). Are any critics really prepared to insist that these “mass Mormon graves” really exist?
Kimball made a similar comment a week later, substituting an ox for the apple in his analogy. He also tied the ability to avoid bloodshed directly to people’s diligence in living their religion.
If this people will live up to their profession—that is, every Elder, High Priest, Teacher, Apostle, and every person in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they never will be troubled; that is, we shall never be under the necessity of shedding much of the blood of our enemies. You have heard me say often that I do not believe God designs that we should delight in shedding blood. In a revelation which God gave to Joseph Smith, he says, “It is not pleasing in my sight for man to shed blood of beasts, or of fowls, except in times of excess of hunger and famine.” Go and read it for yourselves. If he is not well pleased with us when we shed the blood of beasts when we have no need of it, would it not be much more displeasing to him were we to shed the blood of man unnecessarily? It is not the Spirit of God that leads a man or women to shed blood—to desire to kill and slay. When the time comes that we have need to shed blood, then it will be necessary we should do it, and it will be just as innocent as to go and kill an ox when we are hungry or in the time of famine.93
Mormon leaders often counseled against intemperance in intention and thought, and praying for the demise of enemies. This counsel could be humorous, as when Brigham Young suggested that praying for 40 feet of snow to fall on the army stranded at Fort Bridger would be extreme, when “four or five feet” would fulfill the same purpose. Have critics, in the spirit of integrity and fairness, ever shared or dealt with statements like this?
How many times have I said here, within the last three months, I pray that God would so lead us and our enemies that there will be no bloodshed? And how many have come to meeting and prayed in their hearts that “our enemies would come on, for we want to slay them, for we have been mobbed and hunted enough;” and another would pray the same prayer, with a disposition to desire the spoil. One of the brethren prayed in camp that the snow might fall 40 feet deep on our enemies. I am satisfied if it falls only four or five feet deep.94
Mormon apostles publicly condemned Bill Hickman (whom critics allege killed and committed crimes with Church sanction, as Brigham Young’s “right-hand man”), and frankly acknowledged (and condemned) that some Mormons had advocated stealing from Gentiles as justified.
The spirit of thieving stalks abroad in our land, and it has its advocates among the people. It gets hold of the unguarded youth, and causes them to steal from their neighbors, being unguarded by the truth. You fathers, do you know this to be true? “Yes,” say some, “we hear that there is stealing done over yonder (pointing towards the west), and that it is Bill Hickman and his gang that do it. But do you know that there is a thief who visits your son and corrupts his morals, and who is making him believe there is no harm in stealing from a Gentile?95
Examples of exactly the opposite of what anti-Mormon critics portray through their limited and selective emphasis on the standard “blood atonement” proof-texts are so numerous, they become monotonous in their frequency and preponderance.
Therefore let us do right. Do right by everybody. Bear with the infirmities of men and the follies of men. Treat all men kindly, no matter who they may be—whether they are insiders or outsiders, or apostates, or anybody else—treat everybody kindly.96
Well, what would you do? Would you resent these outrages and break the heads of the men engaged in them, and spill their blood? No. Avoid them as much as you possibly can—just as you would wolves, or hyenas, or crocodiles, or snakes, or any of these beasts or reptiles; avoid them as much as you can, and take care they do not bite you. [Laughter.] And get out of the way as much as you can.97
Outright Laughable Logical Extensions and Implications
Critics’ allegations could border on the laughable back then, just as today. Brigham Young’s colorful, categorical denials of charges against him draw attention to the tendency towards the ridiculous in many of these claims. Critics should have to account for the outlandish and ridiculous excesses of their peers, past and present, every bit as much as they seek to hold the modern Church accountable for all statements made by Church leaders.
You have read that I have had an agent in China to mix poison in the tea, to kill all the nation; that I was at the head of the Vigilance Committee in California; that I managed the troubles in Kansas from the beginning to the end; that there is not a liquor-shop or distillery but what Brigham Young dictates it: so state the newspapers. In these and all other accusations of evil-doing, I defy them to produce the first show of evidence against me. It is also asserted that President Buchanan and myself concocted the plan for the army to come here, with a view to make money…All the army, with its teamsters, hangers-on, and followers, with the judges, and nearly all the rest of the civil officers, amounting to some seventeen thousand men, have been searching diligently for three years to bring one act to light that would criminate me; but they have not been able to trace out one thread or one particle of evidence that would criminate me. Do you know why? Because I walk humbly with my God and do right, so far as I know how. I do no evil to anyone; and as long as I can have faith in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to hinder the wolves from tearing the sheep and devouring them, without putting forth my hand, I shall do so. I can say honestly and truly, before God, and the holy angels, and all men, that not one act of murder or disorder has occurred in this city or territory that I had any knowledge of, any more than a babe a week old, until after the event has transpired. That is the reason they cannot trace any crime to me.98
How critics portray Mormons and conditions among them leads to expectations that fall apart upon actual contact and familiarity with them. “Terrorism,” “Danitism,” apostles eating non-Mormons for breakfast, etc. sound ridiculous to people personally familiar with Mormons, but belong to the impressions critics seek to make and hope will stick in people’s minds.
There is not a people upon the face of the earth that were ever degraded [in print] like the Latter-day Saints. They look upon you worse than they do upon any set of pirates that travel the open seas,—that is, if they believe their own words; for they circulate these things in their lectures and in their periodicals.99
While critics would like to have things both ways, and allow negative impressions to stick while avoiding responsibility for the irresponsibility of the literal implications and logical extensions of their claims, critics need to be made to account for them. For example, are critics prepared to claim that Brigham Young had his recalcitrant or rebellious children killed, or even that he really would have? Really? Or, should his phrase “it shall be death to him before I yield” be understood in some other way?
It is not for the mother to rise up and encourage her children to fight against their father. You know my feelings on this point—they are pointed, resolute, and strong. And when I undertake to conquer a child who wants to conquer me, it shall be death to him before I yield. I would rather see every child I have, go into the grave this day, than suffer them to rise up and have control over me.100
Critics need to be made to account for the literal, “Amelia Bedelia” reading they insist on for limited, selective quotes that they mine, and explain why this abject literalism should not be applied to other similar quotes. For example, in addressing the imminent prospect of military trouble with the United States, Brigham Young said:
They will learn better, I expect, by and by, for the people have never received such strict orders as they have got now. I will give you the pith of the last orders issued—”That man or family who will not do as they are told in the orders, are to be treated as strangers, yea, even as enemies, and not as friends.” And if there should be a contest, if we should be called upon to defend our lives, our liberty, and our possessions, we would cut such off the first, and walk over their bodies to conquer the foe outside.101
To treat this as critics treat the standard “blood atonement” proof-texts would be to claim that Brigham Young really killed numerous Mormons (or had them killed), and walked over their bodies. No critic will claim that, though, because it would make them look silly.
Similarly, Heber C. Kimball’s “George S. Patton” speech (with Johnston’s Army approaching), contained fiery and colorful language:
I wish that all such characters were in hell, where they belong. [Voice: "They are there."] I know it; and it is that which makes them wiggle so—the poor, miserable devils. They would make our Father and God a drudge—make him do the dirty work, kill those poor devils, and every poor, rotten-hearted curse in our midst. With them it is, “O Lord, kill them, kill them, damn them, kill them, Lord.” It is just like that, and their course has just as much nonsense in it. We intend to kill the poor curses ourselves, before they get to the Big Mountain. And we are going to dig a cache, or take some natural one, and put all the whining men and women into it, and let them whine. We want to be released from such poor hellions, and we will be; we won’t have a murmurer or complainer in the House of Israel. If we go out to war, let them stay here, and let the Devil handle them.102
But, will any critics claim that there are mass graves somewhere where the whining Mormons were buried? Or, would doing so make them embarrassingly tone-deaf to the type of colorful speech typical in oration of that era, and among Mormon leaders in particular?
What about Doctrinal Underpinnings for “Blood Atonement?”
In addition to critics’ primary goal of fostering an impression of past Mormon leaders as evil, murderous, and tyrannical, a secondary aim of using “blood atonement” is to portray Mormon doctrine as teaching that Christ’s blood cannot atone for all sins (and thereby contrasting the “Jesus of Mormonism” with the “Jesus of the Bible”). The “Jesus of the Bible,” critics insist, can forgive all sins.
From the very beginning, since this charge has been levied, Mormon apologists103 have referred to Bible passages that refer to unpardonable sins:
Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men. And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come. (Matthew 12:31-32; Luke 12:9-10; Mark 3:29)
For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins…He that despised Moses’ law died without mercy under two or three witnesses: Of how much sorer punishment, suppose ye, shall he be thought worthy, who hath trodden underfoot the Son of God, and hath counted the blood of the covenant, wherewith he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and hath done despite unto the Spirit of grace? (Hebrews 10:26, 28-29)
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. (1 John 5:16-17)
Regardless of whether Christ’s atonement cannot or does not, atone for “sins unto death,” critics have never adequately explained how the “Jesus of the Bible” is different from the “Jesus of Mormonism” in this regard, since the language of the Bible clearly sets forth that some sins will not be forgiven.
With this as a background, Mormon leaders have sometimes taught that God’s actions in the Old Testament to abruptly take large numbers of people from the earth (e.g., the Flood, Israel’s commands to annihilate certain peoples in Canaan, etc.) were in the best interest of the eternal destiny of those who were destroyed and others, present and future, whom they influenced.
“Well,” say some of our wise men, “was not that cruel to destroy so many people?” Perhaps it would be according to your ideas, but it was not according to the Lord’s ideas: because he looked upon men as immortal beings. These men were accountable to their Maker, they had a dual existence, they were associated with time and with eternity, and we might go still farther and say they were associated with the past, the present and the future, and the Lord as a great cosmogonist, took in the various stages of man’s existence, and operated for the general benefit of the whole. But was it not cruel to destroy them? I think God understood precisely what He was doing. They were His offspring, and He knowing things better than they did, and they having placed themselves under the power and dominion of Satan, He thought they had better be removed and another class of men be introduced. Why? There were other persons concerned besides them. There were millions of spirits in the eternal worlds who would shrink from being contaminated by the wicked and corrupt, the debauchee, the dishonest, the fraudulent, the hypocrite, and men who trampled upon the ordinances of God. It might seem harsh for these men to be swept off from the face of the earth, and not allowed to perpetuate their species thereon; but what about the justice of forcing these pure spirits to come and inhabit tabernacles begotten by debauched corrupt reprobates, the imagination of whose heart was only evil, and that continually—what about them? Had they no rights that God was bound to respect? Certainly they had, and He respected them. He cut off the wicked. What did he do with them? He did with them as we do with some of the wicked, and that we do not do with a great many others—that is, they were put in prison.104
Mormon leaders also expressed the view that wiping out the antediluvians or the Canaanites was a mercy to them and to their unborn future posterity. This view is not unique to Mormons—in fact, how would sectarian critics of Mormonism justify this as coming from a loving God to skeptics?
The Sodomites, Canaanites, &c., received the reverse of this blessing. Instead of giving them a multiplicity of wives and children, He cut them off, root and branch, and blotted their name from under heaven, that there might be an end of a race so degenerate. Now this severity was a mercy. If we were like the people before the flood, full of violence and oppression; or if we, like the Sodomites or Canaanites, were full of all manner of lawless abominations, holding promiscuous intercourse with the other sex, and stooping to a level with the brute creation, and predisposing our children, by every means in our power, to be fully given to strange and unnatural lusts, appetites, and passions, would it not be a mercy to cut us off, root and branch, and thus put an end to our increase upon the earth? You will all say it would. The spirits in heaven would thank God for preventing them from being born into the world under such circumstances.105
While one wouldn’t really claim that Heber C. Kimball advocated poisoning Gentile liquor, he did refer obliquely to the notion that murderers must atone for their murders by “blood atonement,” but it is clear that this was a rhetorical, hypothetical musing. There is simply too much evidence against the claim that actual, church-sponsored executions ever took place.
Brethren and sisters, if you feel willing to do as I do, you will stay at home and let the liquor go to hell, with those that corrupt themselves with it. The only wish I have to offer is, I wish there was a little more strychnine in it. I wish it for the sake of all those that will not forsake their evils; for, if I were in that position, I should wish I was where I could not sin any more…I believe that all will be saved that can be reached by the redemption of Jesus Christ; and there is a way to save everybody, except those that sin against the Holy Ghost, or shed innocent blood, or consent thereto; and they will be judged as brother Pratt said they would. If a man has shed innocent blood, he will have to pay the atonement, or he never can atone for his sin; therefore, at the day of judgment he will be judged according to men in the flesh, and condemned according to the law.106
Interestingly, Brigham Young indirectly acknowledged the modern controversy over “blood atonement” by pointing out that Joseph Smith sealed his testimony with his blood, “whether we believe in blood atonement or not.” That prophets throughout history have had to pay the ultimate price in insisting upon their call is, of course, a completely different matter from “blood atonement.”
He testified to the truth, he sealed his testimony with his blood. Whether we believe in blood atonement or not, the Lord so ordered it, that Joseph, as well as others of the Prophets, sealed their testimony with their blood.107
Some statements represented the Civil War as being a direct consequence of Joseph and Hyrum Smith’s martyrdom, but this also cannot be construed as “blood atonement” as critics represent it.
It costs something to shed innocent blood, it costs something to shed the blood of prophets and apostles. And I have sometimes taken the liberty, before strangers as well as Latter-day Saints, to express my views in regard to shedding the blood of Joseph Smith and other prophets. It has cost this nation four years’ war, laying in the dust nearly a million and a half of men, and it has also cost millions upon millions of dollars, creating a debt which it will never live to pay. This is the faith of Wilford Woodruff, and I think I have a right to exercise my faith in this matter. I say then, it costs something to shed the blood of righteous men in this as well as in previous generations.108
Mormon leaders also frequently pointed out the irony (in light of critics’ blood atonement claims) that the Mormons were spared from situations where they would have to shed blood, such as the Civil War and the Mormon Battalion’s service, because the Mormons had been driven.
It is a remarkable fact that God, through the acts of our enemies, caused us to be placed in a position where, in the war of the rebellion, we should not be compelled to shed the blood of our fellow-men. Had we remained in New York, where our people first settled; or afterwards in Ohio; had we remained in Missouri, to which State we subsequently emigrated and from whence we were cruelly driven; had we remained in Illinois, where we afterwards took refuge, and from whence we were also cruelly driven to the wilderness, we should have been made participants in that dreadful strife, we should have been compelled to have taken up the weapons of war, or the people would have said we were disloyal. Inaction at such a time would have been set down to disloyalty and sympathy with the rebellion, and we could scarcely have escaped, in view of the prejudices against us, being branded and treated as traitors to the Government. But we were here in the mountains, in a position where we could do nothing in the strife…God, in His Providence, did not place us in a position to imbrue our hands in the blood of our fellow-men. And when five hundred men—after we were driven from Illinois in 1846—were required to make up the Mormon Battalion for the Mexican war, the promise of God to these five hundred men was that they should not be compelled to shed blood during their absence, and in a remarkable manner this prediction was fulfilled. They never shrank from doing their duty as good, loyal citizens and soldiers, but there was no blood-shedding by the Mormon Battalion. We have been in all our troubles preserved from shedding blood. We are not a blood-shedding people. Our garments are not stained with the blood of our fellow-men—I mean as a people.109
Dead Men Tell No Tales
Going back to the title quote of this paper, dead men really do tell no tales. The dead men critics try to muster into service against the Church (Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Jedediah Grant, Orson Hyde, et. al.) have nothing to tell about anti-Mormon-style “blood atonement” when they are allowed to speak completely and in context. This phrase is also symbolic of the manner in which critics often wrest Journal of Discourses quotes for their purposes. While Parley P. Pratt uttering the phrase “dead men tell no tales” can be made to sound ominous, in reality he wasn’t addressing silencing through violence at all; he was referring to spiritual communication from the spirit world—to “dead men” such as Moroni indeed telling tales. Parley’s humorous banter that “if ['dead men tell no tales'] is not in the Bible, it is somewhere else” is also illustrative, for it would be absurd to claim that Parley really believed this phrase might come from the Bible. Anyone familiar with his written works and his recorded talks would know that; yet, many critics would pounce upon this, duly carved up by ellipses (if they only knew of it), as evidence that Parley did not know his Bible. Critics’ treatment, and lack of treatment, of relevant “blood atonement” material is perhaps the strongest example of how they use (and don’t use) sources, and how this can be meticulously exposed by making the whole “orchard” available to those who want to know the truth.
1 ”It is a saying, that ‘dead men tell no tales.’ If this is not in the Bible, it is somewhere else; and if it be true, it is just as good as if it were in the Bible.” Parley P. Pratt, April 7, 1853. Journal of Discourses 1:7. More on this title quote in the conclusion.
2 B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Provo: Maasai, 2002), p. 48.
3 Ibid., pp. 657-658.
4 ”To bear false witness against one’s neighbor even in matters that may be trivial is a contemptible crime; but when in bearing false witness the charge is that of murder, wholesale murder, and that under circumstances the most revolting and horrible, the crime then of bearing false witness rises above the merely contemptible, and to be seen in its true enormity, must be regarded as bearing a due proportion to the crime charged. That is, next to being guilty of the crime itself must be the crime of falsely charging it to the innocent.” (Ibid., pp. 49-50)
5 B.H. Roberts, Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of the Church, 1930), 4:124, 126.
6 Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, p. 48.
7 Ibid., pp. 48-49.
9 Ibid., pp. 656-657.
10 Ibid., p. 663.
11 Daniel H. Wells, September 14, 1862. Journal of Discourses 9:362.
12 Jedediah M. Grant, March 2, 1856. Journal of Discourses 3:232.
13 Brigham Young, September 20, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:256.
14 Brigham Young, October 6, 1855. Journal of Discourses 3:50. Elsewhere, Brigham Young referred to news dispatches from the East reporting capital punishment for adultery: “It appears, by our late news, that among our Christian brethren it is death to adulterers; and so say I, and I ask no odds of such characters. I am able to take care of myself, with the help of God and my good brethren. (Brigham Young, May 22, 1859. Journal of Discourses 7:146).
15 Brigham Young, December 23, 1866. Journal of Discourses 11:281.
16 Ibid., 11:281-282.
17 Heber C. Kimball, September 20, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:252.
18 Orson Pratt, August 29, 1852. Journal of Discourses 1:61-62.
19 Brigham Young, June 19, 1853. Journal of Discourses 1:186-187.
20 Brigham Young, July 5, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:6.
21 Heber C. Kimball, February 25, 1855. Journal of Discourses 3:163.
22 Heber C. Kimball, November 8, 1857. Journal of Discourses 6:34.
23 Heber C. Kimball, October 8, 1852. Journal of Discourses 1:207.
24 Brigham Young, February 18, 1855. Journal of Discourses 2:186-187.
25 Jedediah M. Grant, March 2, 1856. Journal of Discourses 3:232.
26 Brigham Young, September 16, 1860. Journal of Discourses 8:169.
27 Orson Hyde, October 6, 1853. Journal of Discourses 1:127. This is an approach that some Muslims use in explaining passages in the Quran that seemingly enjoin the sanctioned killing of infidels (i.e., these passages are meant to be interpreted figuratively or spiritually). It should be kept in mind that martial imagery as a means of exhorting to engaging and defeating evil is no stranger to the Bible. See, for example, 2 Corinthians 10:4, 1 Timothy 1:18, 1 Timothy 6:12, and 2 Timothy 4:7.
28 Interpreter’s Bible, Nashville: Abingdon Press , 5:1078.
29 Anchor Bible Dictionary, 1185.
30 I am indebted to Ben Spackman for the line of thought in this paragraph.
31 Brigham Young, April 17, 1853. Journal of Discourses 2:125.
32 Brigham Young, August 12, 1866. Journal of Discourses 11:262.
33 John Taylor, Journal of Discourses 24:232. Date unknown.
34 John Taylor, June 24, 1883. Journal of Discourses 24:269.
35 Brigham Young, April 6, 1853. Journal of Discourses 2:30, 32.
36 Wilford Woodruff, July 26, 1881. Journal of Discourses 22:233.
37 Franklin D. Richards, April 8, 1882. Journal of Discourses 23:108.
38 Wilford Woodruff, January 27, 1883. Journal of Discourses 24:54.
39 Orson F. Whitney, April 19, 1885. Journal of Discourses 26:203.
40 George Q. Cannon, August 31, 1884. Journal of Discourses 25:271-272.
41 Hugh Nibley, Tinkling Cymbals and Sounding Brass: The Art of Telling Tales about Joseph Smith and Brigham Young (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1991), 713-714.
42 Wilford Woodruff, April 7, 1873. Journal of Discourses 16:36.
43 Charles Dickens famously reported being favorably impressed by a group of 800 Mormon emigrants he encountered sailing for the United States, which he found, contrary to conventional wisdom and stereotype, to be “the pick and flower of England…to the rout and overthrow of all my expectations” (“Uncommercial Traveler,” 1863; quoted in Comprehensive History of the Church 5:92).
44 John Taylor, October 7, 1859. Journal of Discourses 7:320.
45 George Q. Cannon, October 6, 1879. Journal of Discourses 20:337.
46 George Q. Cannon, July 24, 1881. Journal of Discourses 22:367.
47 John Taylor, May 26, 1872. Journal of Discourses 15:173.
48 Brigham Young, July 19, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:56-58.
49 George Q. Cannon, July 20, 1879. Journal of Discourses 20:273-274.
50 Elder Erastus Snow, February 2, 1882. Journal of Discourses 23:8-9
51 Joseph F. Smith, October 29, 1882. Journal of Discourses 24:10, 12
52 John Taylor, October 6, 1884. Journal of Discourses 25:314
53 Brigham Young, January 13, 1867. Journal of Discourses 11:289
54 John Taylor, March 3, 1872. Journal of Discourses 14:341-342
55 John Taylor, Nov. 9th, 1881. Journal of Discourses 23:17
56 Brigham Young, January 19, 1862. Journal of Discourses 9:154.
57 Brigham Young, February 10 1867. Journal of Discourses 11:323.
58 Brigham Young, May 31, 1863. Journal of Discourses 10:191
59 George A. Smith, April 8th, 1872. Journal of Discourses 14:375
60 Brigham Young, August 12, 1866. Journal of Discourses 11:262
61 George Q. Cannon, July 20, 1879. Journal of Discourses 20:273-274
62 George Q. Cannon, September 24, 1882. Journal of Discourses 24:100-102
63 Charles W. Penrose, September 23, 1883. Journal of Discourses 24:303
64 George Q. Cannon, December 7, 1884. Journal of Discourses 26:43
65 Jedediah M. Grant, March 2, 1856. Journal of Discourses 3:232
66 Brigham Young, May 8, 1853. Journal of Discourses 1:108-109
67 Brigham Young, June 5, 1853. Journal of Discourses 1:255
68 Brigham Young, July 8, 1855. Journal of Discourses 2:311
69 George A. Smith, August 2, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:109
70 Brigham Young, July 28, 1866. Journal of Discourses 11:263-264
71 Brigham Young, August 12, 1866. Journal of Discourses 11:260
72 Brigham Young, December 23, 1866. Journal of Discourses 11:276
73 Brigham Young, December 23, 1866. Journal of Discourses 11:280-282
74 Brigham Young, February 10, 1867. Journal of Discourses 11:323
75 George Q. Cannon, June 20, 1883. Journal of Discourses 24:222
76 George Q. Cannon, June 20, 1883. Journal of Discourses 24:224
77 Brigham Young, March 8, 1863. Journal of Discourses 10:109-110
78 Orson Hyde, November 3, 1878. Journal of Discourses 20:97-98
79 George Q. Cannon, August 31, 1884. Journal of Discourses 25:273
80 Brigham Young, August 30, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:171
81 Brigham Young, September 13, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:228-229
82 Brigham Young, July 31, 1853. Journal of Discourses 1:165
83 Brigham Young, October 9, 1852. Journal of Discourses 1:213
84 Brigham Young, December 18, 1853. Journal of Discourses 2:135
85 Brigham Young, February 18 1855. Journal of Discourses 2:186-187
86 Brigham Young, July 8, 1855. Journal of Discourses 2:311
87 Orson Pratt, July 8, 1855. Journal of Discourses 3:73
88 Jedediah M. Grant, October 6, 1855. Journal of Discourses 3:126
89 Heber C. Kimball, February 25, 1855. Journal of Discourses 3:163
90 Heber C. Kimball, August 30, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:165
91 Heber C. Kimball, September 20, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:250
92 Heber C. Kimball, November 8, 1857. Journal of Discourses 6:34
93 Heber C. Kimball, November 15, 1857. Journal of Discourses 6:50
94 Brigham Young, November 15, 1857. Journal of Discourses 6:42
95 Amasa Lyman, December 25, 1859. Journal of Discourses 7:307
96 John Taylor, November 30, 1884. Journal of Discourses 26:76
97 John Taylor, February 1, 1885. Journal of Discourses 26:155-156
98 Brigham Young, August 12, 1860. Journal of Discourses 8:143
99 Orson Pratt, January 24, 1858. Journal of Discourses 6:205
100 Brigham Young, April 8, 1852, Journal of Discourses 1:68
101 Brigham Young, July 31, 1853. Journal of Discourses 1:167
102 Heber C. Kimball, August 2, 1857. Journal of Discourses 5:135
103 For only two of many apologetic responses, see Joseph Fielding Smith, Blood Atonement and the Origins of Plural Marriage: A Discussion(Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1905), pp. 12-16 and B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints (Provo: Maasai, 2002), p. 662
104 John Taylor, December 14th, 1884. Journal of Discourses 26:35, 36
105 Parley P. Pratt, April 10, 1853. Journal of Discourses 1:259
106 Heber C. Kimball, 28. August 1859. Journal of Discourses 7:232, 236
107 Brigham Young, May 6, 1877. Journal of Discourses 18:361
108 Wilford Woodruff, June 30, 1878. Journal of Discourses 19:361-362
109 George Q. Cannon, October 9, 1881. Journal of Discourses 22:327-328