Mormonism and violence
||The neutrality of this article is disputed. (April 2012)|
Mormonism and Mormon adherents have been subjected to, as well as themselves used, significant violence throughout much of the religion's history. In the early history of the United States, violence was used as a form of control. Many people of different faiths used violence to harass and persecute different religious beliefs. The members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, especially in its early history, were both the victims of violence as well as the perpetrators in much the same way as other major religions. Mormons were persecuted violently and pushed from Ohio to Missouri to Illinois and then west to the Utah Territory. There were incidents of massacre, home burning, pillaging, and the murder of their founder, Joseph Smith. However, there were also notable incidents of Latter Day Saints who perpetrated violence, as in the case of the Mountain Meadows massacre.
- 1 History of religious violence against Mormons
- 2 Justified violence in Mormon scripture
- 3 Mormon views on capital punishment
- 4 Penalties
- 5 Alleged instances of theological violence
- 6 Violence related to LGBT people
- 7 List of Mormon wars and massacres
- 8 See also
- 9 Notes
- 10 References
- 11 Further reading
History of religious violence against Mormons
Early Mormon history is marked by many instances of violence, which has helped shape the church's views on violence. The first significant instance occurred in Missouri. Mormons tended to vote as a bloc there often unseating local political leadership. Differences culminated in hostilities and the eventual issuing of an executive order (often called the Extermination Order) by Missouri governor Lilburn Boggs declaring "the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State." Three days later, a militia unit attacked a Mormon settlement at Haun's Mill, resulting in the death of 18 Mormons and no militiamen. The Extermination Order was not formally rescinded until 1976.
In Nauvoo, Illinois, conflict was often based on the tendency of Mormons to "dominate community, economic, and political life wherever they landed." The city of Nauvoo had become the largest in Illinois, the city council was predominantly Mormon, and the Nauvoo Legion (the Mormon militia) continued to grow. Other issues of contention included polygamy, freedom of speech, anti-slavery views during Smith’s presidential campaign, and the deification of man. After the destruction of the press of the Nauvoo Expositor, Joseph Smith was arrested and incarcerated in Carthage Jail where he was killed by a mob on June 27, 1844. The conflict in Illinois became so severe that most of the residents of Nauvoo fled across the Mississippi River in February 1846.
Even after Mormons established a community hundreds of miles away in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, anti-Mormon activists in the Utah Territory convinced President Buchanan that the Mormons in the territory were rebelling against the United States under the direction of Brigham Young. In response, in 1857 Buchanan sent one-third of United States's standing army to Utah in what is known as the Utah War. During the Utah War, the Mountain Meadows massacre occurred.
Justified violence in Mormon scripture
Justified killing or attempted killing
Mormonism teaches that violence and even killing can be justified in certain situations, so long as the action is commanded by God. The Book of Mormon contains an example where Nephi, the narrator of that part of the book, came upon a drunken and passed-out Laban (1 Ne. 4:7–8) lying on the streets of Jerusalem. Laban had previously stolen Nephi's family property and had refused to give Nephi an important set of brass plates which contained the written word of God or law of Moses he needed for his family to remain obedient to the law. Nephi was concerned that his family would perish in unbelief (1Ne. 4:15) in the wilderness, as they were evacuating Jerusalem at Gods command, without the ability to study and read those commandments and covenants that God had given his people Hebrew nation. Nephi realized that those laws were written on the brass plates (1 Ne. 4:16).
Nephi states that after realizing that the fallen drunk man was Laban himself he feels "constrained by the Spirit that I should kill Laban". Nephi seems to struggle with the commandment, as he had never "shed the blood of man" and "shrunk and would that I might not slay him". But the Spirit repeats his commandment to Nephi two more times. Nephi is obedient for "it is better that one man should perish than that a nation should dwindle and perish in unbelief".
In 1843, Smith dictated a revelation justifying Abraham's attempted human sacrifice of his son Isaac. According to the revelation, "Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness." (D&C 132:36).
- The Book of Mormon implies that war is justified in order to defend families and property from outside invasion, as well as freedom, particularly freedom of religion. (Alma 46)
- War justified to overthrow an unjust government, or to prevent one from being established (Alma 46, Alma 51 Revolutionary War).
- In one Book of Mormon story, a group of people, when attacked, chose to honor an oath of non-violence rather than to defend themselves. A thousand of them were killed before the attackers showed remorse and ended the attack. (Alma 24)
- In another case, a group of people trying to overthrow their own government and refusing to defend their country from outside attack were attacked by forces loyal to the government. (Alma 51)
Justified defense of property
- In the Book of Mormon, Ammon severs the arms of several Lamanites who were attempting to steal livestock.
Mormon views on capital punishment
Capital punishment in Mormon scripture
Religious justification for capital punishment is not unique to Mormonism (Gardner 1979, p. 10). Like the Bible, the Book of Mormon has passages that speak favorably about capital punishment. The book described a theocratic government with a law that "if a man murdered he should die" (Alma 42:19; see also 2 Nephi 9:35; Alma 27:6–9). Nevertheless, the Book of Mormon does not always require capital punishment and never indicates that it was a requirement to atone for sins. The Book of Mormon provides an example where God (and the government) forgave "many murders" after repentance, "through the merits of [God's] Son" (Alma 24:10). The book also states that murderers could avoid an "awful hell" if they "repent and withdraw [their] murderous purposes" (Alma 54:7).
Mormonism teaches that in some situations, the blood of a slain righteous person "cries out" for retribution, an idea that finds several examples in Mormon scripture. In the Bible, for example, the blood of Abel ascended to the ears of God after he was killed by Cain (Genesis 4:10). In the Book of Mormon, the "blood of a righteous man" (Gideon) was said to "come upon" the theocratic leader Alma "for vengeance" against the murderer (Nehor) (Alma 1:13). Mormon scripture also refers to the "cry" of the blood of the saints ascending from the ground up to the ears of God as a testimony against those who killed them (2 Ne. 26: 3; D&C 88:6).
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Latter Day Saint movement, was a strong proponent of capital punishment, and favored execution methods that involved the shedding of blood as retribution for crimes of bloodshed. In 1843, he or his scribe commented that the common execution method in Christian nations was hanging, "instead of blood for blood according to the law of heaven." In a March 4, 1843 debate with church leader George A. Smith, who argued against capital punishment, Smith said that if he ever had the opportunity to enact a death penalty law, he "was opposed to hanging" the convict; rather, he would "shoot him, or cut off his head, spill his blood on the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God" (Roberts 1909, p. 296). In the church's April 6, 1843 general conference, Smith said he would "wring a thief's neck off if I can find him. if I cannot bring him to justice any other way." Sidney Rigdon, Smith's counselor in the First Presidency, also supported capital punishment involving the spilling of blood, stating, "There are men standing in your midst that you cant do anything with them but cut their throat & bury them". On the other hand, Smith was willing to tolerate the presence of men "as corrupt as the devil himself" in Nauvoo, Illinois, who "had been guilty of murder and robbery", in the chance that they might "come to the waters of baptism through repentance, and redeem a part of their allotted time" (Roberts 1932).
Brigham Young, Smith's successor in the LDS Church, initially held views on capital punishment similar to those of Smith. On January 27, 1845, he spoke approvingly of Smith's toleration of "corrupt men" in Nauvoo who were guilty of murder and robbery, on the chance that they might repent and be baptized (Roberts 1932). On the other hand, on February 25, 1846, after the Saints had left Nauvoo, Young threatened adherents who had stolen wagon cover strings and rail timber with having their throats cut "when they get out of the settlements where his orders could be executed"(Roberts 1932, p. 597). Later that year, Young gave orders that "when a man is found to be a thief,...cut his throat & thro' [sic] him in the River". Young also stated that decapitation of repeated sinners "is the law of God & it shall be executed". There are no documented instances, however, of such a sentence being carried out on the Mormon Trail.
In the Salt Lake Valley, Young acted as the executive authority while the Council of Fifty acted as a legislature. One of his main concerns in the early Mormon settlement was theft, and he swore that "a thief [sic] should not live in the Valley, for he would cut off their heads or be the means of haveing [sic] it done as the Lord lived." A Mormon listening to one of Young's sermons in 1849 recorded that he said "if any one was catched [sic] stealing to shoot them dead on the spot and they should not be hurt for it."
In Utah Territory, there existed a law from 1851 to 1888 allowing persons convicted of murder to be executed by decapitation; during this time, no person was executed using this method (Gardner 1979, p. 13).
"Blood atonement" is the controversial concept that there are certain sins to which the atonement of Jesus does not apply, and that before a Mormon who has committed these sins can achieve the highest degree of salvation, he or she must personally atone for the sin by "hav[ing] their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins" (Young 1856a, p. 53). Blood atonement was to be voluntary by the sinner, or was contemplated as being mandatory in a theoretical theocracy planned for the Utah Territory, but was to be carried out with love and compassion for the sinner, not out of vengeance (Young 1857, p. 220). The concept was first taught in the mid-1850s by the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) during the Mormon Reformation, when Brigham Young governed the Utah Territory as a near-theocracy. Even though there was discussion about implementing the doctrine, there is no direct evidence that it was ever practiced by the Mormon leadership in their capacity as leaders of both church and state (Campbell 1988, ch. 11). There is inconclusive evidence, however, suggesting that the doctrine was enforced independently a few times by Mormon individuals (Stenhouse 1873, pp. 467–71). Scholars have also argued that the doctrine contributed to a culture of violence that, combined with paranoia from the church's long history of being persecuted, incited several extra-judicial killings by Mormons, including the Mountain Meadows massacre (Quinn 1997).
LDS Church leaders taught the concept of blood atonement well into the 20th century within the context of government-sanctioned capital punishment, and it was responsible for laws in the state of Utah allowing for execution by firing squad (Salt Lake Tribune, 11 May 1994, p. D1). Although the LDS Church repudiated the teaching in 1978, it still has adherents within the LDS Church and within Mormon fundamentalism, a schismatic branch of the Latter Day Saint movement that seeks to follow early Mormon teachings to the letter. Despite repudiation by the LDS Church, the concept also survives in Mormon culture, particularly in regards to capital crimes. In 1994, when the defense in the trial of James Edward Wood alleged that a local church leader had "talked to [Wood] about shedding his own blood," the LDS Church's First Presidency submitted a document to the court that denied the church's acceptance and practice of such a doctrine, and included the 1978 repudiation.
Historically, Mormon ritual provided an example in which capital punishment is contemplated, though not necessarily required, for violation of historical blood oaths in the Endowment ritual. The blood oaths in the ceremony related to protecting the ritual's secrecy. Participants made an oath that rather than ever revealing the secret gestures of the ceremony, they would rather have: "my throat ... be cut from ear to ear, and my tongue torn out by its roots"; "our breasts ... be torn open, our hearts and vitals torn out and given to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field"; "your body ... be cut asunder and all your bowels gush out" showing an entire refusal to accept the promises made in the washing and anointing ordinances (Buerger 2002, p. 141). These were changed to a reference to "different ways in which life may be taken" (Buerger 2002, p. 141). The entire "penalty" portion of the ceremony was removed by the LDS Church in 1990, and during its lifetime there is no documented instance in which a person has been killed for violating the oaths of secrecy.
Law of vengeance
After the death of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young added an oath of vengeance to the Nauvoo endowment ritual. Participants in the ritual made an oath to pray that God would "avenge the blood of the prophets on this nation" (Buerger 2002, p. 134). "The prophets" were Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and "this nation" was the United States (Buerger 2002, p. 134). (This oath was removed from the ceremony during the 1920s(Buerger 2002, pp. 139–40).) In 1877, Young noted what he viewed as a similarity between Smith's death and the blood atonement doctrine, in that "whether we believe in blood atonement or not", Smith and other prophets "sealed their testimony with their blood".
Being "destroyed in the flesh" for violation of celestial marriage covenants
The most immediate precursor to the blood atonement doctrine stems from a controversial section of Mormon scripture dictated by Smith in 1843 commanding the practice of plural marriage (D&C 132). This revelation stated that once a man and a woman enter the "New and Everlasting Covenant" (a celestial marriage), and it is "sealed unto them by the Holy Spirit of promise" (which Smith later taught was accomplished through the second anointing ritual), that they are guaranteed to become gods in the afterlife no matter what sins or blasphemies they commit, so long as they "commit no murder whereby to shed innocent blood", and they do not commit the unpardonable sin of "blasphemy against the Holy Ghost". If a sealed person shed innocent blood, they would suffer the fate of David, who was redeemed, but fell short of his exaltation, and did not become a god (D&C 132:39). If a sealed person committed the unpardonable sin, they would become a son of Perdition. According to early Mormon teachings, the unpardonable sin consisted of entering the New and Everlasting Covenant, and then falling away to become an "apostate".
However, if a sealed and anointed person broke their covenants to any extent short of murder or the unpardonable sin, they would still gain their exaltation and become gods and goddesses in the afterlife, but would be "destroyed in the flesh, and shall be delivered unto the buffetings of Satan unto the day of redemption" (D&C 132:26). The revelation did not, however, specify the mechanism by which such people would be "destroyed in the flesh", and did not it indicate whether that "redemption" would be the result of the sinner's own blood or the atonement of Jesus.
Alleged instances of theological violence
Mountain Meadows massacre
The widely publicized Mountain Meadows massacre of September 11, 1857 during the Utah War was a mass killing of Arkansan emigrants by a Mormon militia led by prominent Mormon leader John D. Lee, who was later executed for his role in the killings. After escalating rumors that some of the emigrants had participated in early Mormon persecution, the militia conducted a siege, and when the emigrants surrendered, the militia killed men, women, and children in cold blood, adopted some of the surviving children, and attempted a cover-up.
Though widely connected with the blood atonement doctrine by the United States press and general public, there is no direct evidence that the massacre was related to "saving" the emigrants by the shedding of their blood (as they had not entered into Mormon covenants); rather, most commentators view it as an act of intended retribution. Young was accused with either directing the massacre, or with complicity after the fact. When Brigham Young was interviewed on the matter and asked if he believed in blood atonement, he replied, "I do, and I believe that Lee has not half atoned for his great crime." He said "we believe that execution should be done by the shedding of blood instead of by hanging," but only "according to the laws of the land" (Young 1877, p. 242).
Thomas Coleman murder
An example used by some[who?] to illustrate the alleged practice blood atonement is the 1866 murder of the former-slave, Thomas Coleman (or Colburn), who was a member of the LDS Church. As Mormon historian D. Michael Quinn has documented, Coleman was apparently secretly courting a white Mormon woman. At one of their clandestine meetings behind the old Arsenal (on what is now Capitol Hill in Salt Lake City) on December 11, Coleman was discovered by friends of the woman. The group of vigilantes hit Coleman with a large rock. Using Coleman's own bowie knife, his attackers slit his throat so deeply from ear to ear that he was nearly decapitated, as well as slicing open his right breast, in what some believe was a mimicry of penalties illustrated in the temple ritual. Not all of Coleman's wounds correlated with the temple ritual, however, since he was also castrated. A pre-penciled placard was then pinned to his corpse stating, "NOTICE TO ALL NIGGERS – TAKE WARNING – LEAVE WHITE WOMEN ALONE." Even though it was the middle of winter, a grave was dug and Coleman's body was buried. The body was disposed of in less than three hours after its discovery. Less than twelve hours after that, Judge Elias Smith, first cousin of Joseph Smith, appointed George Stringham (a Mormon ruffian and vigilante with ties to Porter Rockwell, Jason Luce, and William Hickman) as the foreman of the Coroner's Jury; they briefly met and summarily dismissed the case as a crime that was committed either by a person or by persons unknown to the jury, abruptly ending all official inquiry into the bizarre murder.
In its early days, the LDS Church was not a staunch critic of same-sex relationships. The state of Utah did not have a sodomy law until it was imposed on the state by the U.S. federal government. Nonetheless, church leaders have encouraged young male Latter-day Saints to defend themselves, physically if necessary, against sexual assault from other men. In October 1976, LDS Church apostle Boyd K. Packer gave a sermon entitled "To Young Men Only". The sermon was later published as a pamphlet and was widely circulated to LDS young men. Openly gay historian D. Michael Quinn criticized Packer's comments, saying they constituted an endorsement of gay bashing, and that the church itself endorses such behavior by continuing to publish Packer's speech.
List of Mormon wars and massacres
- Act in Relation to Service
- Christianity and violence
- Criticism of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
- Gladdenites (Attempted move to Utah)
- Judaism and violence
- Latter Day Saint martyrs
- Mormon Battalion
- Pace memorandum
- Utah in the American Civil War
- Wars mentioned in the Book of Mormon
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A long and doleful history of violence attended the founding, establishment, and fostering of [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints] ... Nonetheless, little purpose would be served in identifying the [church] as neofascist.
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In the past decade, potential jurors in every Utah capital homicide were asked whether they believed in the Mormon concept of 'blood atonement.'The article also notes that Arthur Gary Bishop, a convicted serial killer, was told by a top church leader that "blood atonement ended with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ."
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- Young, Brigham (February 8, 1857), "To Know God is Eternal Life—God the Father of Our Spirits and Bodies—Things Created Spiritually First—Atonement by the Shedding of Blood", in Watt, G.D., Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young, President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, His Two Counsellors, and the Twelve Apostles 4, Liverpool: S.W. Richards (published 1857), pp. 215–21.
- Young, Brigham (March 8, 1863), "The Persecutions of the Saints—Their Loyalty to the Constitution—The Mormon Battalion—The Laws of God Relative to the African Race", in Watt, G.D.; Long, J.V., Journal of Discourses Delivered by President Brigham Young, His Two Counsellors, and the Twelve Apostles, and Others 10, Liverpool: Daniel H. Wells (published 1865), pp. 104–111.
- Young, Brigham (April 7, 1867), "The Word of Wisdom—Degeneracy—Wickedness in the United States—How to Prolong Life", in Watt, G.D.; Sloan, E.L.; Evans, D.W., Journal of Discourses by Brigham Young, His Two Counsellors, and the Twelve Apostles 12, Liverpool: Albert Carrington (published 1869), pp. 117–123, ISBN 0-548-11500-1.
- Young, Brigham (April 30, 1877), "Interview with Brigham Young", Deseret News (May 23, 1877) 26 (16): 242–43.
- "Peace and Violence among 19th-Century Latter-day Saints", Gospel Topics, LDS.org, LDS Church
- Stack, Peggy Fletcher (May 13, 2014), "lds.org essay explores violent acts by and against Mormons", Salt Lake Tribune