Criticism of Mormonism/Books/One Nation Under Gods/Use of sources/Brigham Young on thieves

Brigham Young on what to do with thieves

A FAIR Analysis of: One Nation Under Gods, a work by author: Richard Abanes

Author's Claims

One Nation under Gods, page 443 (paperback)

  • Brigham said "[W]hen a man is found to be a thief, he will be a thief no longer, cut his throat, & thro' him in the River."

Author's Sources

Endnote 16-18, page 615 (paperback)


Theft at this period had serious consequences for the victims and other innocents, and could have resulted in much loss of life. The lack of formal police forces or civil government meant that (as often on the frontier) justice and order was maintained by threat of community violence against those who broke moral codes. Summary execution for thieves was not unusual in the American west, and in the Saints' circumstances, in some cases it may have been the only viable option.

The author exploits the presentist fallacy to make Brigham's words seem violent and out of control, rather than simply the practical necessity forced by the harsh realities of nineteenth century frontier life.

Detailed Analysis

Nauvoo after the martyrdom

The author provides no historical context for these remarks. In 1846, the Saints were under pressure to leave Nauvoo. Surrounded by hostile anti-Mormon settlers, they were constantly harassed by trouble-makers, thieves, and those who sought to do them harm. The Nauvoo charter had been revoked, removing all civil government from Nauvoo. The Saints were preparing feverishly for their exodus. The theft of food, animals, equipment, or other goods might mean the difference for some between a successful crossing of the plains and death. That which was stolen could not be easily replaced—if at all. Theft was a threat to the Saints' lives and health.

Furthermore, successful thievery would only encourage more of the same as surrounding trouble-makers decided the Mormons were unable or unwilling to defend themselves. This could lead to more thefts, or more violent crimes. A strong "zero tolerance policy" would act as a deterrent and, likely save lives and property in the long run. It could also prevent what the Saints feared most—a full-scale mob or military action to force them from their homes before they were ready.

These elements have been discussed previously in other cases where the author ignores these factors. (See: here.)

The westward migration

These difficulties were magnified as the Saints began to move west. In the History of the Church citation, we read:

President Young then spoke against thieving, cutting strings from wagon covers, and said the brethren had gone contrary to counsel in cutting rail timber, etc., on the camp ground and they must stop all such practices; that they had not made him their leader of the camp as yet, but if they should do it, when they get out of the settlements where his orders could be executed, they would have justice done them, and, said he, I should be perfectly willing to see thieves have their throats cut; some of you may say, if that is your feelings Brigham, we'll lay you aside sometime, well, do it if you can; I would rather die by the hands of the meanest of all men, false brethren, than to live among thieves. He then called upon the captains of companies to report those who were most destitute and he would divide among them the corn and oats he had brought for horse feed; there is no need of stealing, if one suffers we will all suffer, this great 'I' and little 'you', I cannot bear, if the guard consider the Twelve as privileged characters they must consider the high council also, and if the high council, the high priests, etc., and we should all be privileged characters; and what is the use of any guard? None at all. When I want to pass the guard I will go to the sergeant and get the password, and I want all the brethren to do the same. Let no man crowd upon the guard and let the guard know no man as a privileged character.
President Young retired from the meeting and went to distributing his grain among the needy.'

The Saints were moving west into the wilderness. There was no government or legal authority within easy reach. If the Saints caught a thief, what should they do with him? There were no jails to which they could deliver him. Take him along and guard him, wasting manpower and taking a hostile element who did not wish to travel with them? Turn him loose only to steal again?

Some might have been tempted to steal out of want; Brigham was likely keenly aware that a functioning society could not be built without mutual trust and reliance. He was willing to meet want or deprivation; he was not willing to have the Saints begin stealing. Theft was especially serious because much of what they were carrying could not be replaced. Wagons or equipment might be damaged, food might be wasted. These actions were more than mere thefts in the twenty-first century—they could very literally be the difference between life and death for other innocents.