Blood Atonement and Capital Punishment

What is blood atonement?

It is the belief that Jesus did not atone for certain types of sins,[1] so the sinner must atone for these sins by voluntarily being killed.[2] This was first taught[3] by Church leaders in the mid-1850s but was never put into practice.[4] Blood atonement is often associated with capital punishment.[5]

Doesn't this fundamentally contradict the idea that all sins are atoned by the blood of Christ?

Yes.

Does the Church still teach this?

No. The Church denounced this teaching in 1889,[6] and again most recently in 2010.[7]

Timeline of Blood Atonement Teachings

Reformation Era[8]

March 3, 1849

John D. Lee[BIO] records a Council of Fifty meeting in which shedding blood was referenced as a method to atone for crimes.[9]

February 5, 1852

In an address to Utah Territorial Legislature about slavery, Brigham Young[BIO] first introduces the concept of killing as a method of atonement.[10]

1854–1859

Various Church leaders make public statements related to "blood atonement."[11]

Post Reformation[12]

1873–1877

Critics of the Church publish books that accuse the Saints of practicing blood atonement by killing apostates of the Church.[13]

April 30, 1877

In an interview, Brigham Young responds that he does believe in blood atonement.[14]

January 1884

John Taylor[BIO] says that "some crimes can only be atoned for by the life of the guilty party" but executions should be done by officers of the law.[15]

December 14, 1889

The First Presidency issues a statement that denounces the rumor that the Church believes in killing apostates.[16]

Modern Era[17]

1954–1958

Joseph Fielding Smith[BIO] and Bruce R. McConkie[BIO] write in support of blood atonement.[18][19]

June 18, 2010

The Church publishes a statement denouncing blood atonement.[20]

Is blood atonement the same thing as capital punishment?

Sometimes, it seems. Some Church leaders taught that under a religious form of government that blood atonement could be practiced as a form of capital punishment.[21] However, this was never put into practice.[22]

Timeline of Capital Punishment as it related to Blood Atonement

Capital Punishment

March 4, 1843

In a Nauvoo city council meeting, Joseph Smith[BIO] voices his opinion that execution by shedding blood is preferable to hanging.[23]

January 19, 1851

State of Deseret criminal code is passed into law which directs murderers to be executed by firing squad, hanging, or beheading.[24]

March 23, 1877

John D. Lee is executed for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre.[25] John claimed that his execution was an implementation of blood atonement.[26]

April 30, 1877

While answering a question on blood atonement, Brigham states that capital punishment for "offenses deserving death" should be done "by the shedding of blood instead of by hanging."[27]

December 14, 1889

The Church releases a statement denying the claim that apostates are killed by the Church but supporting the civil and legal process as it relates to capital punishment.[28]

2004

Utah removes firing squads as a possible execution method in most instances.[29]

Did Joseph Smith teach blood atonement?

No, probably not. There are no contemporary records of him teaching something like this. However, there are records that indicate that Joseph Smith favored capital punishment[30] and gave the example of Peter killing Judas.[31]

When was blood atonement first taught?

The earliest indication of the blood atonement was in the March 3, 1849 minutes of the Council of the Fifty,[32] but the earliest explicit teaching was from Apostle Jedediah Grant in 1854.[33] Brigham Young and other Church leaders began teaching this principle after 1855[34] during what historians refer to as the "Mormon Reformation" period.[35] Scholars characterized this period as one where Church leaders used fiery rhetoric in hopes it would prompt repentance or cause people to voluntarily leave Utah if they would not abide by the teachings of the Church.[36]

Was the practice of blood atonement ever Church policy?

No. Historical records indicated that although the idea of blood atonement was taught, Church leadership specifically stated that it should not be practiced.[37]

For example, in 1856, when specifically asked if a man should be killed to atone for his fornication, Brigham said he should instead be rebaptized for his sins.[38] This was consistent with other contemporary letters from his private correspondence.[39]

Was it practiced by individuals?

Probably. There are purported accounts of killings related to blood atonement by members of the Church.[40]

Why did Church leaders teach that it shouldn't be practiced?

Brigham and Jebediah Grant taught that it would be implemented at some point in the future.[41] Charles Penrose taught that "because of the laws of the land, and the prejudices of the nation, and the ignorance of the world, this law cannot be carried out."[42]

Wasn't John D. Lee put to death for the Mountain Meadows Massacre and wasn't that an example of blood atonement?

Yes, arguably. John D. Lee was convicted in federal court and sentenced to death in 1876 for his role in the Mountain Meadow Massacre.[43] In his last written confession, Lee implied his execution was a form of blood atonement,[44] though scholars dispute whether the writings published after his death were fully his.[45] When Brigham Young was asked about his execution, he also implied that this was a form of blood atonement.[46]

An 1886 engraving depicting John D Lee's execution after his involvement in the Mountain Meadows Massacre, from Massacres of the Mountains: A History of the Indian Wars of the Far West by Jacob Piatt Dunn, 1886.

Is blood atonement ever taught in the scriptures?

Not specifically, though capital punishment has been referenced in multiple scriptures, specifically for murder.

Scripture

Text

Genesis 9:6[47]

Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.

JST Genesis 9:12–13[48]

And whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed; for man shall not shed the blood of man.

For a commandment I give, that every man’s brother shall preserve the life of man, for in mine own image have I made man.

Numbers 35:16–19[49]

And if he smite him with an instrument of iron, so that he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. And if he smite him with throwing a stone, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death. Or if he smite him with an hand weapon of wood, wherewith he may die, and he die, he is a murderer: the murderer shall surely be put to death.

2 Nephi 9:35[50]

Wo unto the murderer who deliberately killeth, for he shall die.

Alma 1:13–14[51]

And thou hast shed the blood of a righteous man, yea, a man who has done much good among this people; and were we to spare thee his blood would come upon us for vengeance.

Therefore thou art condemned to die, according to the law which has been given us by Mosiah, our last king; and it has been acknowledged by this people; therefore this people must abide by the law.

Alma 1:18[52]

And they durst not steal, for fear of the law, for such were punished; neither durst they rob, nor murder, for he that murdered was punished unto death.

Alma 34:12[53]

But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered; therefore there can be nothing which is short of an infinite atonement which will suffice for the sins of the world.

D&C 42:18–19[54]

And now, behold, I speak unto the church. Thou shalt not kill; and he that kills shall not have forgiveness in this world, nor in the world to come.

And again, I say, thou shalt not kill; but he that killeth shall die.

Was blood atonement ever part of the temple endowment ceremony?

No. However, the endowment ceremony reportedly contained death penalties for revealing parts of the ceremony[55] as well as a promise to pray for God to avenge Joseph Smith's death.[56] Critics of the Church have asserted that the penalties had been enacted on occasion.[57]

Did some members of the Church commit acts of violence because of this teaching?

Yes, probably. There are several documented incidents of violence that critics have alleged were instances of blood atonement.[58]

Did the Church ever issue any official statement on blood atonement?

Yes. In 2010, the Church published a statement stating "so-called 'blood atonement,' by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."[59]

Much earlier, in 1889, the Church issued a statement that condemned vigilante justice and denied that the murder of apostates by the Church had ever occurred, but affirmed that capital punishment was acceptable to God and urged Church members to follow the rule of law.[60] However, the statement did not specifically refer to blood atonement by name.[61]

Is blood atonement the reason that Utah used the firing squad as a method for capital punishment?

Probably. Early Church leaders have taught that shedding blood was an important part of capital punishment,[62] and this could have influenced the development of the laws in Utah.[63]

George A. Smith[BIO] wrote an early draft of what would later become Utah's criminal code and was known to have discussed capital punishment with Joseph Smith.[64]

Some People Say . . .

"Blood atonement is a myth and a false doctrine."

— overheard in Sunday School

The Facts

  • Brigham Young, John Taylor, Joseph Fielding Smith, and other Church leaders taught that there are some serious sins that require the shedding of the sinners' blood to be atoned for.

  • This idea is referred to as "blood atonement."

  • There are no known instances of Church-sanctioned enactment of blood atonement.

  • John D. Lee was executed by the State of Utah in 1876, and Brigham Young implied that this was a form of blood atonement.

  • There are several documented incidences of violence from various local Church leaders that have been characterized as acts of blood atonement.

  • Capital punishment in Utah was established in 1851 with three approved methods: hanging, beheading, or firing squad.

  • In 2010, the Church denounced "blood atonement."

Our Take

Blood atonement is a heavy topic. Does the idea of blood atonement reveal violent characteristics in the Latter-day Saint religion? What about violent episodes in early Church history or the violence in the scriptures? Members of the Church have used the idea of blood atonement to commit atrocities, harming individuals and families. And its definition seems to contradict the idea of an infinite Atonement made by Jesus Christ.

Even though the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of peace, the histories of God's disciples contain horrible bloodshed. Violent stories and rhetoric are found in the Bible, Book of Mormon, and other scriptures. Brigham Young sometimes employed violent language in his sermons. While there are no known instances of Church-sanctioned blood atonement, the violent rhetoric surely influenced some to commit acts of violence.

The concept of blood atonement was only briefly taught, but it influenced death penalty laws in Utah and left a legacy of questions related to why it was taught in the first place. It is unclear how blood atonement ideas can be reconciled with the central Latter-day Saint doctrine of the infinite atonement of Jesus Christ.

The Church denounces the teachings of blood atonement and affirms a gospel of peace and love towards all. Studying past teachings, scriptures, and history can remind us of our obligation to promote peace and abolish violence.

What's Your Take?

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These takes are curated for a general audience and may contain minor edits when posted.
  • Jordan Braginton
    Seems to me like blood atonement was a messy way to reconcile capital punishment in a theocracy. In other words, we do believe that their are sins we commit in this life that have consequences in this life even though Christ paid for them.
  • Fred
    I've always been under the impression that blood atonement was another inheritance from Protestant/Catholic doctrine, as the killing of heritics had been common among both groups, and theologically justified.
  • Shane W.
    I don't know that blood atonement contradicts an infinite atonement. Conditions of repentance vary for sins. Bishops and members know this. I think blood atonement contradicts unforgivable sins which are outlined in scripture. The doctrine seems to just be a product of the MR.
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