Hey guys, so, as you probably already know, Brigham Young, the second president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said and believed some controversial stuff. So, of course, we’re going to talk about it.
Alright so before we get into this topic, I can’t make this point strongly enough: How you react to things past prophets have said or done will largely depend on what your expectations of a prophet are. Latter-day Saints believe prophets are messengers of God, but they are not God’s sock-puppets. They are products of their culture. They can have their own beliefs, opinions, personality, and teaching style. They can express their own ideas about God, and be wrong. They can even have personal biases and prejudices that may seem appalling to us today. But we do not consider everything said from the pulpit to be the doctrine of our faith.
For example in Utah, “…during the excitement incident to the coming of [Johnston’s] Army, Brother Brigham preached to the people in a morning meeting a sermon vibrant with defiance to the approaching army and declaring an intention to oppose and drive them back. In the afternoon meeting, he arose and said that Brigham Young had been talking in the morning, but the Lord was going to talk now. He then delivered an address, the tempo of which was the opposite from the morning talk.”
If you have the expectation that everything ever spoken by General Authorities of our Church is the will of God, you are going to be sorely disappointed. B. H. Roberts went so far as to say that “even Mormon leaders have given utterance to ideas that are indefensible.” Brigham Young, by his own admission, had an “unruly tongue,” and he sometimes purposefully made his sermons abrasive so people would pay attention.
And that style of preaching wasn’t unusual in that era: “Nineteenth-century Americans were accustomed to violent language, both religious and otherwise. Throughout the century, revivalists had used violent imagery to encourage the unconverted to repent and to urge backsliders to reform.”
So while people outside the Church from then until now have had a heyday with some of Brigham’s statements, “The Saints…understood that there was little bite to his celebrated bark.”
“…the Mormon membership came to tolerate, expect, and even enjoy the show.” So while some of Brigham’s views were definitely just wrong, it’s important to understand his teaching style and relationship with the Saints. They gave him a lot of slack.
Brigham Young identified greatly with the Old Testament and even came to be known as the American Moses. He led the Saints on an exodus to their “promised land” in the West, where he established a theocracy similar to Moses and the Israelites. Some of his teachings also had an Old Testament flavor. For example, the Law of Moses ascribes a death sentence to a wide variety of sins or crimes. Brigham Young also expressed some intense opinions in that regard.
He and a few other leaders shared their belief that some sins were so bad that Christ’s atonement would not cover them, and in a true theocracy (like that of Moses and the Israelites) the only way to atone for them would be for you to willingly have your blood shed. This was called ‘blood atonement.’
The obvious problem with this idea, first and foremost, is that it limited Christ’s atonement. Now, the scriptures do talk about the “unforgivable sin” or sins that are “unto death,” but the Lord will forgive whom He will forgive. That’s not our call to make.
Out of Brigham Young’s 390 speeches in the journal of discourses, I’ve been able to track down 5 that clearly talk about blood atonement in reference to murder, breaking temple covenants, adultery, and inter-racial marriage. Again, as B. H. Roberts mentioned, some of these statements are simply indefensible, so I’ll make no effort to do so.
Now, was anyone ever actually ‘blood atoned’ by order of Brigham or the Church? Well, it depends on who you ask. There are a handful of noticeably unverifiable campfire stories that you are free to believe, or you can remain skeptical. That said, as of right now there is no actual evidence that anyone at any time was ever ‘blood atoned’ by order of Brigham or the Church.
Of course, for years antagonists of the Church have tried to paint early Utah as a bloodbath where you’d be secretly killed for almost anything, ignoring the minor detail in this teaching, if it had been operable, that the perpetrator must have their blood shed willingly. So I’d say the only noticeable effect this teaching had was that it probably bolstered support in the early Church for legal capital punishment, and it’s been a source of confusion for some people—even leaders—over the years. But that’s about it.
It’s my opinion that the lack of evidence attests to the fact that the Saints understood that Brigham was not telling them to go out and start killing people. B. H. Roberts had a similar opinion: “Fortunately…the suggestions seemingly made in the overzealous words of some of these leading elders were never acted upon. The Church never incorporated them into her polity. Indeed, it would have been a violation of divine instruction given in the New Dispensation had the Church attempted to establish such procedure” (B. H. Roberts).
The Church has denounced this teaching. We believe that the atonement of Jesus Christ is efficacious for anyone and everyone who repents of their sins. It could be that there are some sins that cannot fully be repented of in this life, but God is the judge, and we’re going to let Him figure out how to handle those situations. Check out the links and notes in the description for more info on this topic, and have a great day!
CORRECTION: In the video, I mention that I was able to find 5 references to blood atonement in the Journal of Discourses. Actually, one of those references is from some remarks Brigham gave during a Utah legislative session and is not found in the Journal of Discourses (inter-racial marriage reference).
- 2010 statement from the Church on blood atonement: https://bit.ly/2L6JcFy
- “Blood Atonement” in Encyclopedia of Mormonism: https://bit.ly/35w90nN
- From the Church’s website: https://bit.ly/2W11Ogy
- 19th century Utah violence in the surrounding cultural context: https://bit.ly/2L5DSlH
- On Brigham Young’s preaching style (Ronald Walker): https://bit.ly/2W23nuq
- What about the Parrish-Potter murders? Isn’t there an incriminating letter from Brigham Young? Read this article, with special attention to the footnote on page 73: https://bit.ly/2YnpnQD
- I highly recommend this Quora response from a non-Latter-day Saint anthropologist: https://bit.ly/30nu9jH
- “The Mormon Reformation,” by Gustave O. Larson: https://bit.ly/3fpHkWv
- One commonly used quote from BY about blood atonement: https://bit.ly/2YDQ0lU
- 1889 statement from the Church about blood atonement: https://bit.ly/2WLSyvQ
- A letter from Elder Bruce R. McConkie concerning “blood atonement”: https://bit.ly/3cem9Vq
- An extensive look at the argument critics attempt to make concerning “blood atonement”: https://bit.ly/2SH2Jk3
- How to deal with Brigham Young’s racist remarks and still call him a prophet of God: https://bit.ly/2LbNs6A
- “Trial of Your Faith,” by Neil L. Anderson: https://bit.ly/2SMNWEv
- “How can I know if something I hear is ‘official doctrine’?”: https://bit.ly/3dwxfW1
- “The Doctrine of Christ,” by D. Todd Christofferson: https://bit.ly/3bfiyos