MORMON BLOOD ATONEMENT: Fact or Fantasy?
By Jerald & Sandra Tanner
(This article originally appeared in The Salt Lake City Messenger, Issue No. 92, April, 1997)
It is a well-known fact that the early Mormons suffered a good deal of persecution at the hands of the Gentiles-i.e., non-Mormons. The prophet Joseph Smith and his brother were murdered by a cowardly mob that took the law into their own hands. A number of Mormons lost their lives during these early years. Unfortunately, however, many Mormon historians have overlooked the other side of the story.
During the early years of Mormonism it was frequently alleged that the leaders of the church sanctioned the practice of putting both Gentiles and Mormon apostates to death. In 1969-70, we made a detailed study of the charges and published our conclusions in a book entitled, The Mormon Kingdom, Vol. 2. The evidence that we marshalled convinced us that many of the claims were genuine. Since doing this research we found even more evidence to verify that there was a conspiracy to destroy dissenters and other people that the Mormon leaders hated.
While many Mormon scholars would like to scoff at those who have seriously studied this matter, there is incontrovertible proof that Brigham Young, the second prophet of the Mormon Church, publicly preached a doctrine called “blood atonement.” Although one might think that the name of this doctrine came from the atonement of Jesus on the cross, the truth of the matter is that it relates to people being put to death. Brigham Young explained this in a sermon given on September 21, 1856:
There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins, whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world.
I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them….
And further more, I know that there are transgressors, who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course. I will say further; I have had men come to me and offer their lives to atone for their sins.
It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit…. There are sins that can be atoned for by an offering upon an altar, as in ancient days; and there are sins that the blood of a lamb, or a calf, or of turtle dove, cannot remit, but they must be atoned for by the blood of the man. (Sermon by Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4, pages 53-54); also published in the Mormon Church’s Deseret News, 1856, page 235)
These are only two of many “blood atonement” sermons preached by Mormon leaders. Sandra Tanner, one of the authors of this newsletter who is also the great-great-granddaughter of Brigham Young, was greatly shocked when she read Young’s sermons. This, in fact, was an important factor in her decision to leave the Mormon Church.
In 1958, Gustive O. Larson, Professor of Church History at the church’s Brigham Young University, acknowledged that blood atonement was actually practiced. He related the following:
To whatever extent the preaching on blood atonement may have influenced action, it would have been in relation to Mormon disciplinary action among its own members. In point would be a verbally reported case of a Mr. Johnson in Cedar City who was found guilty of adultery with his stepdaughter by a bishop’s court and sentenced to death for atonement of his sin. According to the report of reputable eyewitnesses, judgment was executed with consent of the offender who went to his unconsecrated grave in full confidence of salvation through the shedding of his blood. Such a case, however primitive, is understandable within the meaning of the doctrine and the emotional extremes of the [Mormon] Reformation. (Utah Historical Quarterly, January, 1958, page 62, note 39)
This may be the same case spoken of by John D. Lee, who was sealed to Brigham Young and was a member of Young’s secret Council of Fifty:
The most deadly sin among the people was adultery, and many men were killed in Utah for the crime.
Rasmos Anderson was a Danish man who came to Utah… He had married a widow lady somewhat older than himself… At one of the meetings during the reformation Anderson and his step-daughter confessed that they had committed adultery… they were rebaptized and received into full membership. They were then placed under covenant that if they again committed adultery, Anderson should suffer death. Soon after this a charge was laid against Anderson before the Council, accusing him of adultery with his step-daughter. This Council was composed of Klingensmith and his two counselors; it was the Bishop’s Council. Without giving Anderson any chance to defend himself or make a statement, the Council voted that Anderson must die for violating his covenants. Klingensmith went to Anderson and notified him that the orders were that he must die by having his throat cut, so that the running of his blood would atone for his sins. Anderson, being a firm believer in the doctrines and teachings of the Mormon Church, made no objections… His wife was ordered to prepare a suit of clean clothing, in which to have her husband buried… she being directed to tell those who should inquire after her husband that he had gone to California.
Klingensmith, James Haslem, Daniel McFarland and John M. Higbee dug a grave in the field near Cedar City, and that night, about 12 o’clock, went to Anderson’s house and ordered him to make ready to obey Council. Anderson got up… and without a word of remonstrance accompanied those that he believed were carrying out the will of the “Almighty God.” They went to the place where the grave was prepared; Anderson knelt upon the side of the grave and prayed. Klingensmith and his company then cut Anderson’s throat from ear to ear and held him so that his blood ran into the grave.
As soon as he was dead they dressed him in his clean clothes, threw him into the grave and buried him. They then carried his bloody clothing back to his family, and gave them to his wife to wash… She obeyed their orders…. Anderson was killed just before the Mountain Meadows massacre. The killing of Anderson was then considered a religious duty and a just act. It was justified by all the people, for they were bound by the same covenants, and the least word of objection to thus treating the man who had broken his covenant would have brought the same fate upon the person who was so foolish as to raise his voce against any act committed by order of the Church authorities. (Confessions of John D. Lee, Photo-reprint of 1877 edition, pages 282-283)
In the same book John D. Lee made this startling statement:
I knew of many men being killed in Nauvoo… and I know of many a man who was quietly put out of the way by the orders of Joseph and his Apostles while the Church was there. (Ibid., page 284)
Lee also revealed another very cruel practice which took place both in Nauvoo, Illinois, and in early Utah:
In Utah it has been the custom with the Priesthood to make eunuchs of such men as were obnoxious to the leaders. This was done for a double purpose: first, it gave a perfect revenge, and next, it left the poor victim a living example to others of the dangers of disobeying counsel and not living as ordered by the Priesthood.
In Nauvoo it was the orders from Joseph Smith and his apostles to beat, wound and castrate all Gentiles that the police could take in the act of entering or leaving a Mormon household under circumstances that led to the belief that they had been there for immoral purposes…. In Utah it was the favorite revenge of old, worn-out members of the Priesthood, who wanted young women sealed to them, and found that the girl preferred some handsome young man. The old priests generally got the girls, and many a young man was unsexed for refusing to give up his sweetheart at the request of an old and failing, but still sensual apostle or member of the Priesthood. As an illustration… Warren Snow was Bishop of the Church at Manti, San Pete County, Utah. He had several wives, but there was a fair, buxom young woman in the town that Snow wanted for a wife…. She thanked him for the honor offered, but told him she was then engaged to a young man, a member of the Church, and consequently could not marry the old priest…. He told her it was the will of God that she should marry him, and she must do so; that the young man could be got rid of, sent on a mission or dealt with in some way… that, in fact, a promise made to the young man was not binding, when she was informed that it was contrary to the wishes of the authorities.
The girl continued obstinate…. the authorities called on the young man and directed him to give up the young woman. This he steadfastly refused to do…. He remained true to his intended, and said he would die before he would surrender his intended wife to the embraces of another…. The young man was ordered to go on a mission to some distant locality… But the mission was refused…
It was then determined that the rebellious young man must be forced by harsh treatment to respect the advice and orders of the Priesthood. His fate was left to Bishop Snow for his decision. He decided that the young man should be castrated; Snow saying, ‘When that is done, he will not be liable to want the girl badly, and she will listen to reason when she knows that her lover is no longer a man.’
It was then decided to call a meeting of the people who lived true to counsel, which was held in the school-house in Manti… The young man was there, and was again requested, ordered and threatened, to get him to surrender the young woman to Snow, but true to his plighted troth, he refused to consent to give up the girl. The lights were then put out. An attack was made on the young man. He was severely beaten, and then tied with his back down on a bench, when Bishop Snow took a bowie-knife, and performed the operation in a most brutal manner, and then took the portion severed from his victim and hung it up in the school-house on a nail, so that it could be seen by all who visited the house afterwards.
The party then left the young man weltering in his blood, and in a lifeless condition. During the night he succeeded in releasing himself from his confinement, and dragged himself to some hay-stacks, where he lay until the next day, when he was discovered by his friends. The young man regained his health, but has been an idiot or quite lunatic ever since….
After this outrage old Bishop Snow took occasion to getup a meeting… When all had assembled, the old man talked to the people about their duty to the Church, and their duty to obey counsel, and the dangers of refusal, and then publicly called attention to the mangled parts of the young man, that had been severed from his person, and stated that the deed had been done to teach the people that the counsel of the Priesthood must be obeyed. To make a long story short, I will say, the young woman was soon after forced into being sealed to Bishop Snow.
“Brigham Young… did nothing against Snow. He left him in charge as Bishop at Manti, and ordered the matter to be hushed up.” (Ibid., pages 284-286)
Mormons today would be appalled if such a dastardly deed was committed and would demand that the persons responsible be severely punished. Brigham Young, however, approved of many violent acts perpetrated by those he put in authority. Interestingly, D. Michael Quinn found documented evidence showing that President Young supported Bishop Warren S. Snow’s cruel mistreatment of the young man:
In the midsummer of 1857 Brigham Young also expressed approval for an LDS bishop who had castrated a man. In May 1857 Bishop Warren S. Snow’s counselor wrote that twenty-four-year-old Thomas Lewis ‘has now gone crazy’ after being castrated by Bishop Snow for an undisclosed sex crime. When informed of Snow’s action, Young said: ‘I feel to sustain him…’ In July Brigham Young wrote a reassuring letter to the bishop about this castration: ‘Just let the matter drop, and say no more about it,’ the LDS president advised, ‘and it will soon die away among the people. (The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, Vol. 2, pages 250-251)
On November 30, 1871, T. B. H. Stenhouse received a letter by an individual who was present at a meeting in Provo, Utah. The letter indicated that Bishop Blackburn was also strongly pushing for the emasculation of men who were disobedient to their leaders:
Dear Stenhouse: I Have read carefully the accompanying statement about the “Reformation.”… If you want to travel wider and show the effect in the country of the inflammatory speeches delivered in Salt Lake City at that time, you can mention the Potter and Parrish murders at Springville, the barbarous castration of a young man in San Pete, and, to cap the climax, the Mountain-Meadows massacre… Threats of personal violence or death were common in the settlements against all who dared to speak against the priesthood, or in any way protest against this “reign of terror.”
I was at a Sunday meeting in the spring of 1857, in Provo, when the news of the San Pete castration was referred to by the presiding bishop-Blackburn. Some men in Provo had rebelled against authority in some trivial matter, and Blackburn shouted in his Sunday meeting-a mixed congregation of all ages and both sexes-“I want the people of Provo to understand that the boys in Provo can use the knife as well as the boys in San Pete. Boys, get your knives ready, there is work for you! We must not be behind San Pete in good works.” The result of this was that two citizens, named Hooper and Beauvere, both having families at Provo, left the following night… Their only offence was rebellion against the priesthood.
This man, Blackburn, was continued in office at least a year after this…The qualifications for a bishop were a blind submission and obedience to Brigham and the authorities, and a firm unrelented government of his subjects. (The Rocky Mountain Saints, by T. B. H. Stenhouse, 1873, pages 301-302)
This is a very important letter because it throws additional light upon President Brigham Young’s knowledge regarding emasculation in early Utah. According to Wilford Woodruff’s journal, not long after Warren S. Snow’s cowardly attack on Thomas Lewis, President Young discussed the matter of castration being used to save people:
I then went into the president office & spent the evening. Bishop Blackburn was present. The subject Came up of some persons leaving Provo who had Apostatized. Some thought that Bishop Blackburn & President Snow was to blame. Brother Joseph Young presented the thing to presidet Young. But When the Circumstances were told Presidet Brigham Young sustained the Brethren who presided at Provo….The subjects of Eunuchs came up… Brigham Said the day would Come when thousands would be made Eunochs in order for them to be saved in the kingdom of God. (Wilford Woodruff’s Diary, June 2, 1857, Vol. 5, pages 54-55)
In 1861, Apostle Orson Hyde met with Wilford Woodruff and indicated that he believed Warren Snow was guilty of stealing. Wilford Woodruff wrote the following in his journal:
He spoke of his mission in sanpete and the unwise Course of Bishop Warren Snow, & George Pecock his first councillor. They have squandered a large amount of tithing funds, County taxes &c & Brother Hyde thinks from Testimony guilty of stealing many Cattle. (Ibid., Vol. 5, page 554)
It is astounding to think that the prophet of the Mormon Church would allow such a man as Warren Snow to function as a bishop in the church. Unfortunately, however, President Young went so far as to give him a special blessing. Wilford Woodruff recorded the following in his journal under the date of April 1, 1861:
Warren Stone Snow was Blessed By Presidet Young who gave him a very good Blessing.” (Ibid., page 571)
Moreover, in 1867, he was given the opportunity to preach in the Mormon Tabernacle (see Vol. 6, page 319). In a public discourse President Young acknowledged that the church had use for some very mean devils who resided in early Utah:
And if the Gentiles wish to see a few tricks, we have ‘Mormons’ that can perform them. We have the meanest devils on the earth in our midst, and we intend to keep them, for we have use for them; and if the Devil does not look sharp, we will cheat him out of them at the last, for they will reform and go to heaven with us. (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 6, page 176)
Orrin Porter Rockwell was certainly one of Brigham Young’s “meanest devils.” Rockwell, who had served as a bodyguard for Joseph Smith, did not hesitate to shed blood…. Bill Hickman was another ruthless man who killed many people. In his book Brigham’s Destroying Angel, Hickman confessed that he had committed murders for the church.
In 1858, an extremely grotesque double murder was committed. Henry Jones and his mother were both put to death. These murders were obviously the direct result of Brigham Young’s doctrine of “blood atonement.” Two months before Henry Jones was actually murdered, he was viciously attacked. Hosea Stout, a very dedicated Mormon defender, wrote the following regarding the first attack on Jones:
Saturday 27 Feb 1858. This evening several persons disguised as Indians entered Henry Jones’ house and dragged him out of bed with a whore and castrated him by a square & close amputation.(On the Mormon Frontier; The Diary of Hosea Stout, Vol. 2, page 653)
One would think that this would have ended the vendetta against Jones. Unfortunately, this was not the case. On April 19, 1859, the newspaper Valley Tan printed an affidavit by Nathaniel Case which contained a statement implicating a bishop and other Mormons who lived in Payson:
Nathaniel Case being sworn, says: that he has resided in the Territory of Utah since the year 1850; lived with Bishop Hancock (Charles Hancock) in the town of Payson, at the time Henry Jones and his mother were murdered… The night prior to the murder a secret council meeting was held in the upper room of Bishop Hancock’s house; saw Charles Hancock, George W. Hancock, Daniel Rawson, James Bracken, George Patten and Price Nelson go into that meeting that night…. About 8 o’clock in the evening of the murder the company gathered at Bishop Hancock’s… They said they were going to guard a corral where Henry Jones was going to come that night and steal horses; they had guns.I had a good mini rifle and Bishop Hancock wanted to borrow it; I refused to lend it to him. The above persons all went away together… Next morning I heard that Henry Jones and his mother had been killed. I wnet [sic] down to the dug-out where they lived… The old woman was laying on the ground in the dugout on a little straw, in the clothes in which she was killed. She had a bullet hole through her head… In about 15 or 20 minutes Henry Jones was brought there and laid by her side; they then threw some old bed clothes over them and an old feather bed and then pulled the dug-out on top of them….The next Sunday after the murder, in a church meeting in Payson, Charles Hancock, the bishop, said, as to the killing of Jones and his mother he cared nothing about it, and it would have been done in daylight if circumstances would have permitted it.-This was said from the stand; there were 150 or 200 persons present. He gave no reason for killing them. And further saith not. Nathaniel Case. Sworn to and signed before me this 9th day of April, 1859. John Cradlebaugh, Judge 2nd Judicial District.
Those who murdered Henry Jones and his mother may have remembered President Brigham Young’s sermon which was delivered just two years prior to these murders:
Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; under such circumstances. I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands. (Journal of Discourses, Vol. 3, page 247)
In his book, The Mormon hierarchy: Extensions of Power, Vol. 2, pages 241-261, Dr. Quinn presented compelling evidence showing that “blood atonement” was endorsed by church leaders and actually practiced by the Mormon people. Quinn gave the names of a number of violent men who served as “enforcers” for Brigham Young. In addition Quinn wrote:
During this period Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders also repeatedly preached about specific sins for which it was necessary to shed the blood of men and women. Blood-atonement sins included adultery, apostasy, ‘covenant breaking,’ counterfeiting, ‘many men who left this Church,’ murder, not being ‘heartily on the Lord’s side,’ profaning ‘the name of the Lord,’ sexual intercourse between a ‘white’ person and an African-American, stealing, and telling lies….Some LDS historians have claimed that blood-atonement sermons were simply Brigham Young’s use of ‘rhetorical devices designed to frighten wayward individuals into conformity with Latter-day Saint principles’ and to bluff anti-Mormons. Writers often describe these sermons as limited to the religious enthusiasm and frenzy of the Utah Reformation up to 1857. The first problem with such explanations is that official LDS sources show that as early as 1843 Joseph Smith and his counselor Sidney Rigdon advocated decapitation or throat-cutting as punishment for various crimes and sins.
Moreover, a decade before Utah’s reformation, Brigham Young’s private instructions show that he fully expected his trusted associates to kill various persons for violating religious obligations. The LDS church’s official history still quotes Young’s words to ‘the brethren’ in February 1846: ‘I should be perfectly willing to see thieves have their throats cut.’ The following December he instructed bishops, ‘when a man is found to be a thief, he will be a thief no longer, cut his throat, & thro’ him in the River,’ and Young did not instruct them to ask his permission. A week later the church president explained to a Winter Quarters meeting that cutting off the heads of repeated sinners ‘is the law of God & it shall be executed…’ A rephrase of Young’s words later appeared in Hosea Stout’s reference to a specific sinner, ‘to cut him off-behind the ears-according to the law of God in such cases.’…When informed that a black Mormon in Massachusetts had married a white woman, Brigham Young told the apostles in December 1847 that he would have both of them killed ‘if they were far away from the Gentiles.’ (The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, Vol. 2, pages 246-247)
While we do not have room for extensively quotations from Quinn’s book, the following are some extracts:
In September 1857 Apostle George A. Smith told a Salt Lake City congregation that Mormons at Parowan in southern Utah ‘wish that their enemies might come and give them a chance to fight and take vengeance for the cruelties that had been inflicted upon us in the States.’ Smith had just returned from southern Utah where he had encouraged such feelings by preaching fiery sermons about resisting the U.S. army and taking vengeance on anti-Mormons. Just days before his talk in Salt Lake City, members of Parowan’s Mormon militia participated in killing 120 men, women, and children in the Mountain Meadows Massacre….Although most accounts claimed that the militia killed only the adult males and let their Indian allies kill the women and children, perpetrator Nephi Johnson later told an LDS apostle that ‘white men did most of the killing.’ Perpetrator George W. Adair also told another apostle that ‘John Higbee gave the order to kill the women and children,’ and Adair ‘saw the women’s and children’s throats cut.’…As late as 1868 the Deseret News encouraged rank-and-file Mormons to kill anyone who engaged in sexual relations outside marriage….Under such circumstances the Mormon hierarchy bore full responsibility for the violent acts of zealous Mormon[s] who accepted their instructions literally and carried out various forms of blood atonement. ‘Obviously there were those who could not easily make a distinction between rhetoric and reality,’ a BYU religion professor has written…. It is unrealistic to assume that faithful Mormons all declined to act on such repeated instructions in pioneer Utah…. Neither is it reasonable to assume that the known cases of blood atonement even approximated the total number that occurred in the first twenty years after Mormon settlement in Utah…. LDS leaders publicly and privately encouraged Mormons to consider it their religious right to kill antagonistic outsiders, common criminals, LDS apostates, and even faithful Mormons who committed sins ‘worthy of death.’ (The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, Vol. 2, pages 251-53, 56-57, 60)
On pages 804-805, of the same book, Quinn reported concerning a murder committed in 1902:
“5 Apr., ‘Clyde Felt has confessed to cutting the throat of old man Collins, at his request. The old man was a moral degenerate. The boy is a son of David P. Felt.’ Grandson of former general authority, Clyde Felt is fourteen. Despite this blood atonement murder, LDS leaders allow [the] young man to be endowed and married in temple eight years later.”
Although we cannot be certain, this may be the last known case of “blood atonement” committed by Mormons. It should be noted, however, that at least two groups (the Lebarons and the Laffertys) broke off from the Mormon Church and still hold to Brigham Young’s teaching of “blood atonement.” Consequently, they committed a significant number of “blood atonement” murders between 1972 and 1988.
While Dr. Quinn’s book, The Mormon Hierarchy: Extention of Power, Vol. 2, presents plenty of evidence to establish the fact that “blood atonement” murders were committed by the early Mormons, Quinn did not have the space to deal at length with this important issue. To compliment Quinn’s excellent work we highly recommend our book, The Mormon Kingdom, Vol. 2. In this book we have actual photographs from the church’s Deseret News confirming that church leaders strongly supported the doctrine of “blood atonement.”…
Other references on the doctrine, teaching, and practice of “Blood Atonement”
Salt Lake City Messenger, February 1991: Brigham Young and Wild Bill Hickman – A comprehensive look into J. H. Beadle’s Book on Bill Hickman. Included are answers to Mormon apologist’s attempts to discredit Beadle’s book, and a look at Hickman’s great-granddaughter’s book, “Wild Bill” Hickman and the Mormon Frontier, which confirms much of Beadle’s work.
Brigham’s Destroying Angel: Chapter V of Bill Hickman’s autobiographical manuscript, edited by J. H. Beadle. Contains the full transcripts of many events referred to in the above article, including the murder of Richard Yates, the Massacre of the Aiken party from California, and other incidents related to Danite activities, “blood atonement,” and the “Utah war” of 1857-58.
The Life and Confessions of John D. Lee-Chapter XVIII. In 1857 and emigrant train of one-hundred and twenty-one men, women and children traveling through the Utah territory, was brutally massacred by a combined force of Indians and Mormon militia at what has become known as the “Mountain Meadows Massacre.” The Life and Confessions of John D. Lee, was written by Lee before his execution for his involvement in the killings, and published 1877 by his attorney William W. Bishop. It offers a great insight not only into the circumstances that led to that tragic event, but also details such topics as The Danites, blood-atonement, the murder of gentiles and dissenting church members, and the abuse of power.
The Life and Confessions of John D. Lee-Chapter XIX . The conclusion of Lee’s testimony tells how church leaders attempted to cover-up the massacre at Mountain Meadows. When testimony from Mormons and Gentiles pointed to church leaders’ involvement in the affair, Lee was used as a scapegoat to appease the American people, and protect “God’s Anointed.” Lee’s testimony, given just seven days before his execution, gives additional information on the Danites or “Avenging Angels.” He details the murders, and attempted murders, of both Gentiles and church members ordered by LDS leaders. Included are the willing “blood-atonement” of Rasmos Anderson for adultery, and the castration of a young man who would not give his fiancee as a plural wife to Bishop Snow of Manti, Utah.
Source: Recovery from Mormonism, retrieved from http://exmormon.org/d6/drupal/bloodatn