For Mormons, a Contested Legacy on Capital Punishment

By Patrick Q. Mason | January 19, 2016

Over the past century and a half, numerous authors, from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Jon Krakauer, have been fascinated—and horrified—by the nineteenth-century Mormon teaching of “blood atonement.” Particularly during the Mormon Reformation of 1856-57, in which leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints sought to curtail apparent backsliding and inspire repentance through the use of forceful, often violent, preaching, Brigham Young and others taught that some sins, such as murder, were so grievous that only the voluntary shedding of the sinner’s own blood could satisfy the eternal demands of justice and thus secure the possibility of salvation. Critics of Mormonism, then and now, have made much of this teaching—despite the fact that it was in fact never the consensus view of the church and, contrary to many colorful assertions, did not inspire a theocratic bloodbath in pioneer Utah. (Scholars have disagreed about the role of “blood atonement” in the horrific Mountain Meadows Massacre; I tend toward those who dismiss it as a significant motivating cause.) It seems that the vast majority of Mormons either understood their leaders’ overblown rhetoric about blood atonement to be just that, or they simply rejected it as bad theology.

In fact, beginning in 1889 and as recently as last year, the LDS Church has made repeated and consistent disavowals of the doctrine of blood atonement. In June 2010, the church issued a formal statement acknowledging the erstwhile teaching, only to dismiss it entirely. According to the statement, Mormons “believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”

Despite this clear and consistent rejection of blood atonement theology, over the decades some individual church authorities have privately connected the doctrine to state-sponsored capital punishment, teaching that is preferable for convicted murderers to shed their own blood as a punishment for their sins. Observers have noted how this teaching has evidently influenced some Latter-day Saints in shaping their support for the death penalty. This may be generational, as in this century fewer Mormons show any substantive knowledge of the nineteenth-century teaching, let alone its twentieth-century interpretations. Nevertheless, the issue was raised again earlier this year when the state of Utah bucked the growing national trend toward the abolition of capital punishment by reinstating the firing squad as an acceptable option in the event that lethal injection drugs are unavailable. Utah is now the only state in the Union where a criminal might in fact legally shed his or her blood to atone for their sins.

If the LDS Church has been public with its rejection of blood atonement theology, it has remained officially neutral on the question of capital punishment, leaving it to civil authorities to determine whether and how to punish certain convicted criminals. This failure to disavow capital punishment has been interpreted by many, if not most Mormons, as tacit approval for the practice. For instance, after reviewing a number of historical statements by church leaders, the quasi-official Encyclopedia of Mormonism concludes that “capital punishment is viewed in the doctrines of the Church to be an appropriate penalty for murder.”

The relatively small numbers of Mormons makes it difficult for national polls to track precisely their opinions about the death penalty. However, if Mormon views correspond to those held by their current cultural and political allies—white evangelicals and Republicans—then it would seem that a significant majority still support capital punishment despite declining overall support for it nationwide. Mormons who do advocate capital punishment will typically do so with essentially secular arguments, such as deterring future criminals or preventing convicts from committing further crimes. Insofar as they do express a religious argument in favor of the death penalty, they will be far more likely to appeal to scripture than to Brigham Young’s nineteenth-century sermons. In doing so they are similar to most other supporters of the practice who argue for proportionality—that the punishment should fit the crime, or in biblical language, “an eye for an eye.”

Theologically, it is actually somewhat strange for Mormons to accept this argument. It is true that numerous scriptures, in both the Old Testament and Book of Mormon, clearly support and even command the people of God to inflict the death penalty on murderers and other sinners. Like most Christians, however, Latter-day Saints believe that the retributive Mosaic law was “fulfilled” by the gospel preached by Jesus Christ. Indeed, the Book of Mormon features the resurrected Jesus delivering a sermon in the Americas almost identical to the Sermon on the Mount, teaching that “those things which were of old time, which were under the law [of Moses], in me are all fulfilled. Old things are done away, and all things have become new.” Mormons generally believe that although the moral law delivered to Moses and other pre-Christian prophets remains unchanged—the Ten Commandments being the most notable example—the ritual and legal aspects of Israelite religion are no longer in force in light of Christ’s teachings and atonement.

For the minority of Mormons, including myself, who favor the abolition of the death penalty, this theological argument is compelling, especially when combined with more temporal considerations such as humanitarianism, criminal justice reform, and fiscal responsibility. Yet the fact that many Latter-day Saints continue to cite scriptures antedating Christ’s ministry to justify their support for capital punishment reveals a distinguishing feature of Mormonism, namely the persistence of Hebraisms within its theology, ritual, and worldview. In the Mormon mind, God’s covenant with Israel has always remained in force, though it has now been broadened beyond its early tribal limits to include all those who accept the gospel.

Mormons have not articulated a fully coherent rationale to explain why certain passages of pre-Christian scripture should retain their authority while others can be dismissed out of hand. For instance, I know of no Mormons who believe that the Mosaic law’s prescriptions about menstruating women should be observed today. Most of the time, a kind of pragmatic common sense, in combination with deference to the teachings of the church’s current prophet and apostles, prevails. But when the church leadership is studiously silent on an issue like the death penalty, it means that in practice two Mormons sitting in a Sunday School class—or in the Utah state legislature—can honestly, and sometimes vehemently, disagree about whether particular Old Testament or Book of Mormon verses about capital punishment remain morally, even legally, binding in modern times.

Both scripture and history provide a competing set of authoritative texts as Mormons consider their position on the death penalty. Those justifying their respective views with scripture offer competing interpretations. As to the continuing specter of blood atonement, a disavowal of capital punishment, on whatever grounds, would provide the LDS Church the opportunity to put the unfortunate teaching behind it once and for all. Unless and until it does so, however, there will remain debate among Mormons about whether, in the Book of Mormon’s words, “the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered,” or whether only Christ’s “great and last sacrifice; yea, not a sacrifice of man” provides redemption from even the most heinous of sins.

© 2011 Religion & Politics