Hey, guys. Long time, no see! This week should hopefully mark the return of weekly segments of this blog series. My life has been insane this summer, and I apologize for being so absent. My dad was dying of pulmonary fibrosis, and then miraculously, got a new set of lungs a few weeks ago that saved his life. He just came home from the hospital a week ago, and is still very weak. During that same time period, I also had to move, and there were two FAIR conferences, work and family obligations, and boy drama to wade through. Some of you have asked why I’m still single—it’s because I’m a magnet for Crazy. Things do appear to finally be settling back down, though, thankfully.
Speaking of the two FAIR conferences, the digital one on the Book of Mormon was a lot of fun. The talks from that one will be put into a book which should be coming out soon. The videos are being released on the FAIR YouTube channel every other Wednesday, alternating with the talks from the main conference this past August.
We’ve already begun planning next year’s main conference, and it’s shaping up to be a great conference. We’re talking about changing things up a bit with some interesting new ideas, and I will be presenting for the first time. I think I’ll be speaking on ways to navigate a faith crisis, or helping loved ones work through theirs. This will probably include subtopics like responding to anti-LDS material, studying with the Spirit, evaluating sources, and reputable resources you can turn to help you find answers to your questions. It’s a topic I’m passionate about, and unfortunately, it needs to be addressed often. It’s still very much up-in-the-air, though, as I’m still praying about what to say. I hope all of you can either come to the conference in person or catch it online afterward, because there are always some excellent talks at those conferences.
In addition to this series and that presentation next summer, I have an exciting new project in the works for FAIR that I’ll be doing alongside some of my friends, Jennifer Roach and Zachary Wright. We aren’t ready to talk about it openly yet, but if you follow me on Facebook, you probably saw me ranting recently about some of the more frustrating research the project required. We’ll have some trailers out at the beginning of the year, and hope to launch the project in February.
My lovely friend DeLayna is also planning a project that I’m very pleased with. It’s still in the early stages, but I really love and admire her, and can’t wait to see what she comes up with. So, keep your eyes open, because there are a lot of fun, exciting new projects coming to FAIR over the next year!
We also just lost our dear President Ballard. I just wanted to take a brief moment to share my love and gratitude for him. He has been an Apostle and member of the Quorum of the Twelve for as long as I can remember, as he was called just a few weeks before my fifth birthday. It absolutely will not be the same without him. He was a quiet, steady presence in my life, and he will be greatly missed. His last testimony of the Restoration, given last month at General Conference, was beautiful. I look forward to the day when we can all see him and learn from him again.
So, with all of that being said, let’s dive in, shall we?
This week, the Letter For My Wife moves into discussing blood atonement. This is one of my favorite “weird” doctrines, just because it led to so many ridiculous myths about our ancestors. Some of those myths are horrifying and some are hilarious, but all of them are absurd.
Thomas Faulk begins with a quote from Joseph Fielding Smith:
“Joseph Smith taught that there were certain sins so grievous that man may commit, that they will place the transgressors beyond the power of the atonement of Christ. If these offenses are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent. Therefore their only hope is to have their bloodshed to atone, as far as possible, in their behalf. This is scriptural doctrine, and is taught in all the standard works of the Church.” (President Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1954, vol. 1, pp.135-136)
Yes, he did say this. What Faulk doesn’t say is that the passages before and after this paragraph list different scriptures and expound teachings that discuss capital punishment for those who know the commandments of Christ and still commit murder.
While today, we disagree with the phrasing that anyone could be “beyond the power of the atonement of Christ,” we do know from the example of King David that there are sins we can commit that mean we will lose some of the glory we may have qualified for had we not committed them. David was fully forgiven for his sins, but some of the blessings he would have received in his exaltation were conditional. That seems to be what President Smith was talking about here in this section of the book.
This is a common interpretation of blood atonement, and it’s important to understand that during the second half of the 1800s when this kind of rhetoric was common, it was exaggerated and meant to encourage repentance and to keep outsiders hostile to the faith from staying in Utah territory. Brigham Young and other leaders at the time specifically said not to practice it, and always encouraged repentance rather than vigilante justice. It was a rhetorical device. While some individuals may have taken matters into their own hands in a few instances, this was not sanctioned by the Church. The state execution of John D. Lee for his role in the Mountain Meadows Massacre is cited by some as an example of blood atonement, but again, that was capital punishment more than anything else.
The idea behind blood atonement is that, when you murder someone, you can’t make restitution for that because you can’t restore someone’s life to them. So, you would voluntarily allow your own blood to be shed by the government as a way to repent for what you’d done. Obviously, we can’t atone for our own sins, only Christ can do that. But the 1828 Webster’s Dictionary entry for “atone” talks a lot about making amends for something you’ve done and answering for your actions. Those are both necessary parts of the repentance process.
Brigham Young took the doctrine of blood atonement even further. While Joseph might have emphasized the practice of blood atonement against sinful Mormons, Brigham inspired his followers to murder in God’s name both Mormons and non-Mormons alike.
That is a pretty tall claim, and Faulk doesn’t do much to back it up. During the Utah War, there were certainly killings in defense and out of necessity, as in all wars. There were executions of spies and informants, and there were harsh judgments made that might not have been made during a period of peace. But that’s a far cry from saying that a prophet of God was calling for premeditated murder in God’s name.
The Saints who came West and settled Utah and other surrounding areas were not living in a Rage Against the Machine song. There was not widespread “killing in the name of” going on, and Brigham Young was certainly not calling for it over the pulpit.
He was employing a rhetorical device common during periods of religious “Great Awakenings” called hellfire or fire-and-brimstone preaching. The basic idea was using exaggerated and terrible imagery to scare someone straight. It was popular during both the First and Second Great Awakenings, but much less so now. It’s strange to our ears today, but it was very common in the 1800s.
Most of the following quotes are taken from the Journal of Discourses, so the usual caveats about the accuracy and reliability of the JoD apply to them all.
- Brigham Young
- “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; and under the 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…. There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.1, pp.108-109)
You can read this quote in context here, but these all say basically the same thing so I’m going to address them all at once at the end of the batch.
- “All mankind love themselves, and let these principles be known by an individual, and he would be glad to have his blood shed. That would be loving themselves, even unto an eternal exaltation. Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain, in order to atone for their sins.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol. 4, pp.219-20)
Again, you can read this full talk here.
- “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.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.4, p.53)
To read this one in context, you can find the talk here.
- “This is loving your neighbor as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; and if he wants salvation and it is necessary to spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it.” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.4, p.220)
And this one, which is from the same talk as the second quote, can be found here.
Now, despite the exaggerated nature of the rhetoric, he was not saying that we should murder other members of the Church whom we know are sinning. In fact, just a few paragraphs before this comment, Brigham said:
“And I will say that the time will come, and is now nigh at hand, when those who profess our faith, if they are guilty of what some of this people are guilty of, will find the axe laid at the root of the tree, and they will be hewn down. What has been must be again, for the Lord is coming to restore all things. The time has been in Israel under the law of God, the celestial law, or that which pertains to the celestial law, for it is one of the laws of that kingdom where our Father dwells, that if a man was found guilty of adultery, he must have his blood shed, and that is near at hand. But now I say, in the name of the Lord, that if this people will sin no more, but faithfully live their religion, their sins will be forgiven them without taking life.”
He was saying that we should remain true to our covenants and utilize the Atonement in our lives. Moreover, we should not just be concerned with ourselves and our families, but should love our brothers and sisters in the Gospel enough to help them repent of their sins, too. We should work together to keep all manner of sin out of our societies.
There are some sins we can commit that, if left unrepented for, can have serious eternal consequences, not just for ourselves but for others. Sometimes, those sins require a temporary removal from the membership of the Church of Christ. This is both for our own protection (our covenants are canceled so that if we backslide, we won’t be held responsible to the same degree that we would otherwise) and for the protection of the rest of the Saints (so that we don’t pull others away with us).
It’s a meme in our society today that a true friend is one who would help you bury the body after you commit a terrible sin. In reality, a true friend is one who would help you repent and make amends to the best of your ability.
Obviously, that doesn’t mean we should murder each other to speed along the repentance process, but that was the analogy that Brigham Young used to make this point. We shouldn’t tolerate and approve of sin, but help each other eradicate it from our lives. We should support and encourage each other to become the best versions of ourselves that we can be, to stretch and grow and to become as sanctified as it’s possible for a fallible mortal being to become. A real friend would help you become that person, not help you run from it.
Along with Porter Rockwell, William Hickman was bodyguard to Joseph Smith then Brigham Young. In his autobiography, Hickman confessed that he was often tasked by Brigham to take the lives of men.
“I found him, used him up, scalped him, and took his scalp to Brigham Young … He took it and thanked me very much. This was my first act of violence under the rule of Brigham Young.” (William Hickman, The Autobiography of William Hickman, Brigham’s Destroying Angel: The Life Confessions and Startling Disclosures, Salt Lake City, 1872, p.47)
After feeling remorse later in his life, Hickman confessed his crimes to R. N. Baskin, mayor of Salt Lake City and member of the Utah Supreme Court. Justice Baskins states,
“The Danites were an organization in the Mormon church. Its existence was stated by Bill Hickman in his confession made to me. He stated that the members were bound by their covenants to execute the orders of the priesthood, and that when a direct order or intimation was given to ‘use up’ anyone, it was always executed by one or more of the members. Hickman confessed to me that he personally knew of thirteen persons having been murdered, some of them by him … that at one time he murdered a man by the name of Buck at the personal request of Brigham Young.” (R.N. Baskin Reminiscences of Early Utah, 1914, p150)
William “Wild Bill” Hickman was a pretty controversial figure in Utah history. He served under Brigham Young during the Utah War, but later led a gang of horse thieves and murderers, was denounced by Brigham, wrote a tell-all book exaggerating his exploits and naming Brigham as the mastermind behind all of them, and was excommunicated over it all.
Taking his words at face value when he was known to exaggerate his crimes and Brigham’s involvement in them is poor scholarship. Obviously, not all sources who are critical of the Church are wrong in everything they say. There are certainly some things in his book that are true, just like there are some things that are true in William Chase’s book and in Ann Eliza Webb Young’s book. But just like in both of those other books, there are also a lot of things in Hickman’s book that are untrue. You can’t just accept everything he says uncritically if you want to find out the truth.
According to a biography on Hickman by Hope Hilton, there was some correspondence between Hickman and Young after the excommunication. Hickman was looking to secure a railroad contract, while Brigham wanted a confession and an apology, and offered rebaptism if Hickman would meet those terms. Hickman claimed ignorance of any wrongdoing at the time, though according to his descendants, he did later admit to lying over Young’s involvement. He was eventually rebaptized by proxy in the mid-1930s, some 50 years after his death, on the strength of that apparent confession.
While it’s impossible to know exactly how much of his story is exaggerated, we know for a fact that some portions of his autobiography are exaggerated. If the Church leadership had evidence to believe that he had confessed to lying about Brigham and eventually rebaptized him because of that confession, why should we believe those earlier accusations instead? That doesn’t make any sense.
- Heber C. Kimball
- “If men turn traitors to God and His servants, their blood will surely be shed, or else they will be damned, and that too according to their covenants.” (Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, vol.4, p.375)
I’m going to do the same thing with Heber C. Kimball’s quotes and give you the links to read them in context, then discuss them all at the end. This quote from comes this talk.
- “Judas was like salt that had lost its saving principles—good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot of men…. It is so with you, ye Elders of Israel, when you forfeit your covenants…. I know the day is right at hand when men will forfeit their Priesthood and turn against us and against the covenants they have made, and they will be destroyed as Judas was.” (Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, vol.6, pp.125-26)
This quote can be read in context here.
- “These are my views, and the Lord knows that I believe in the principles of sanctification; and when I am guilty of seducing any man’s wife, or any woman in God’s world, I say, sever my head from my body.” (Heber C. Kimball, Journal of Discourses, vol.7, p.20)
With these three, the first two quotes are talking about something completely different than the last one is. Faulk lumps them all together here as they’re talking about the same thing for some reason. The first two are about how the enemies of the Church of Christ will one day have to face the consequences of their actions. Unless they repent they will be destroyed, whether physically or symbolically, according to the Lord’s promises. That’s obviously not something we want to happen to anyone, but unfortunately, some people earn that reward.
The final quote was Heber saying that he would rather die than fail to live up to his covenants. The entire talk about was standing strong and apart from the rest of the world, and living up to our responsibilities as children of God. We have been called to a righteous calling, and it takes sacrifice and dedication. But if we fall short and succumb to the temptations of the world, and we fail to repent whenever that happens, we disappoint our Father and we potentially lose some of our blessings. When we take the Lord’s great sacrifice in vain, there are eternal consequences for that. Heber would rather lose his life than his integrity. That’s something to admire, not something to attack.
- Jebediah M. Grant
- “I say, there are men and women that I would advise to go to the Presidency immediately, and ask him to appoint a committee to attend to their care; and then let a place be selected, and let that committee shed their blood. We have amongst us that are full of all manner of abominations, those who need to have their blood shed, for water will not do, their sins are too deep a dye … I believe that there are a great many; and if they are covenant breakers we need a place designated, where we can shed their blood … Brethren and sisters, we want you to repent and forsake your sins. And you who have committed sins that cannot be forgiven through baptism, let your blood be shed, and let the smoke ascend, that the incense thereof may come up before God as an atonement for your sins, and that the sinners in Zion may be afraid.” (Apostle Jebediah M. Grant, 2nd counselor to Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, vol.4, pp.49-51)
This quote can be read in context here, in a talk fittingly titled “Rebuking Iniquity.” This talk goes directly after those hypocrites who engage in all manner of things that are against the commandments, including attacking the Church, but who come to meetings on Sundays and claim to be faithful, recommend-holding members of the ward. We all know people like that. They even have a name on Reddit: PIMO, or “physically in, mentally out.” The Savior had some pretty harsh words for hypocrites during His earthly ministry, too.
President Grant was saying that we needed to stay vigilant against those wolves in sheep’s clothing, to keep them from preying on the vulnerable among us. Was his phrasing sharper than what you’re likely to hear today? Yes. Was his ultimate message any different from talks we hear today? No. We all know what’s eventually going to happen to those who spend their time trying to lead the Saints away from God, especially those who do so in secret.
- Joseph Fielding Smith
“Joseph Smith taught that there were certain sins so grievous that man may commit, that they will place the transgressors beyond the power of the atonement of Christ. If these offenses are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent. Therefore their only hope is to have their blood shed to atone, as far as possible, in their behalf. This is scriptural doctrine, and is taught in all the standard works of the Church.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, 1954, vol.1, pp.135-136)
This is the same quote from Joseph Fielding Smith he quoted before, so we’ve already covered this.
This is horrifying!
Why? Obviously, it’s not rhetoric we employ today. There’s a reason why Church leaders today are a lot more cautious in their phrasing, and it’s because people like Thomas Faulk deliberately misconstrue their meaning. But there’s nothing horrifying about understanding that people taught lessons differently 150 years ago than they do today.
Lives have been taken under the direction of the Church and in the name of the Lord.
Name one. You’ll notice that Faulk didn’t do that, and that’s because he can’t. While there was certainly violence and vigilante justice in the American West, and Utah was no exception to that, if there was any credible evidence at all to suggest that Brigham Young ordered the death of anyone, Faulk would have presented it here and hammered that point home repeatedly. He’d have gloated over it for pages, and yet, he hasn’t come up with a single name. The only name given by anyone at all is “Buck,” aka Horace Bucklin, a man Hickman killed as part of the Aiken massacre, and Hickman’s account can’t be fully trusted or corroborated. Faulk doesn’t even mention “Buck” by name or claim that Brigham Young directly ordered his murder or anyone else’s. Ask yourselves why that is.
Does merely claiming divine authority give someone a free pass to murder?
Obviously not, but contrary to common refrains of the day, words are not violence. Nothing Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Joseph Fielding Smith, or any of the other past or present Church leaders said was equivalent to murder. If critics could provide any actual proof of our Church leaders murdering anyone, don’t you think they would have done so by now?
If so, many terrorist organizations around the world that commit horrific acts in the name of God should also get a free pass. Should we feel that the Prophet Brigham Young and the early saints are justified for their actions?
And what terrorist activity did Brigham Young engage in? Give specifics that are backed up by actual proof. We’ll wait.
Imagine if Thomas S. Monson were to preach this at general conference and task local authorities to follow through with this council.
Where’s the evidence that any of the other prophets ever asked local authorities to have anyone in their stakes murdered for their sins? Brigham repeatedly taught that blood atonement wasn’t something to be acted upon in this life.
It is obvious why the Church would not want this part of the history to become common knowledge. Does this practice sound like it was truly the will of a loving Heavenly Father?
How is blood atonement not common knowledge? It’s repeated in the Journal of Discourses, it’s published in a Gospel Topics Essay on the Church’s website, Saints volume 2—also on the Church’s website—discusses it, the Brethren have discussed it in interviews, there have been multiple statements made by the Church denouncing it as a practice, etc. It hasn’t exactly been hidden.
As for the second question, many people today seem to forget that while God is loving and merciful, He is also just. The demands of justice are equal to the demands of mercy. He perfectly balances both sides of the equation. Remember, the same Savior who selflessly sacrificed Himself to grant salvation to all of mankind also came to bring a sword instead of peace. And the Savior does the will of the Father. Our Heavenly Father is a loving God, but He is also a just God. If we’re unrepentant for our sins, we will lose out on many of the blessings He has offered us.
It is a prophet’s duty and calling to warn of us that. Different prophets have different styles of teaching, because we each learn in different ways. Different styles appeal to different people. If you don’t like Brigham’s brash, hyperbolic technique, there are a lot of other prophets to choose from. They’re all teaching the same message: that the only way to return to our Father’s kingdom in full glory, reaching our highest potential, is through the Atonement of Jesus Christ.
Sarah Allen is relatively new in her affiliation with FAIR. By profession, she works in mortgage compliance and is a freelance copyeditor. An avid reader, she loves studying the Gospel and the history of the restored Church. After watching some of her friends lose their testimonies, she became interested in helping others through their faith crises. That’s when she began sharing what she’d learned through her studies. She’s grateful to those at FAIR who have given her the opportunity to share her testimony with a wider audience.