In Mormonism, 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". Blood atonement was to be voluntary by the sinner, but was contemplated as being mandatory in a theoretical theocracy (see Theodemocracy) planned for the Utah Territory; it was to be carried out with love and compassion for the sinner, not out of vengeance. 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. Though there was discussion about implementing the doctrine, there is no evidence that it was ever practiced by the Mormon leadership in their capacity as leaders of both church and state. There is some evidence, however, suggesting that the doctrine was enforced by some Mormon individuals. Writers 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 the Mountain Meadows massacre.
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. Although Bruce McConkie in 1978 repudiated the teaching that blood atonement needs to be practiced in this dispensation, it still has adherents within the LDS Church and within Mormon fundamentalism, a branch of the Latter Day Saint movement not affiliated with the LDS Church that seeks to follow early Mormon teachings to the letter. 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 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.
The blood atonement doctrine is often confused with other blood-related doctrines in Mormonism, such as the "blood for blood" doctrine of Joseph Smith, Jr., and the "blood oaths" and oath of vengeance that were once part of the LDS Church's Endowment ceremony prior to their removal in the 20th century.
The concept of blood atonement is not specifically discussed in Mormon scripture, which has nothing to say about whether or not the shedding of one's blood may atone for one's sins. However, in common with most of Christianity, Mormon doctrine teaches that the sacrifice of Jesus is an infinite atonement for the sins of humanity, and that no one other than Jesus can shed their blood for the sins of another (Alma 34:11-17). The idea that one may pay for one's own sins through spilt blood and death was an inference based on several elements of Mormon doctrine, including a generally favorable view toward capital punishment, the idea that spilled blood "cries out" for retribution, the "blood for blood" doctrine that says crimes of bloodshed should be punished by the spilling of blood, the concept that repentance requires restitution, and the doctrine that certain people who break the "New and Everlasting Covenant" (Celestial marriage) would be "destroyed in the flesh" and be punished until they received their exaltation at the Last Judgment (an interpretation of D&C 132).
An important precursor to the blood atonement concept is the idea that spilled blood "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). After the death of Joseph Smith, Jr., 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. "The prophets" were Joseph and Hyrum Smith, and "this nation" was the United States. (This oath was removed from the ceremony during the 1920s.) In 1877, Brigham Young noted what he viewed as a similarity between Joseph Smith's death and the blood atonement doctrine, in that "whether we believe in blood atonement or not", Joseph and other prophets "sealed their testimony with their blood".
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. These were changed to a reference to "different ways in which life may be taken. 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.
Joseph Smith, Jr., 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. Years before making this remark, however, Smith was quoted as saying that the hanging of Judas Iscariot was not a suicide, but an execution carried out by Saint Peter. 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." 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 can't do anything with them but cut their throat and 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."
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. 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. Later that year, Young gave orders that "when a man is found to be a thief,...cut his throat & thro' him in the River. Young also stated that decapitation of repeated sinners "is the law of God and 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 theif [sic] should not live in the Valley, for he would cut off their heads or be the means of having 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, there existed a law from 1851 to 1888 allowing persons convicted of murder to be executed by decapitation.
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 it did not indicate whether that "redemption" would be the result of the sinner's own blood or the result of the atonement of Jesus.
In the Salt Lake valley, Young maintained a Council of Fifty composed of religious leaders as a kind of legislature, but this body's power was limited . In 1849, as Young and the Council of Fifty were drafting a plan for a proposed State of Deseret, Young spoke to the Council about what to do with thieves, murderers, and adulterers, and said, "I want their cursed heads to be cut off that they may atone for their crimes". The Council voted the next day that an imprisoned man "had forfeited his head" and to "dispose of him privately" (March 4 entry). Two weeks later, Young recommended decapitation for the man and a fellow prisoner, but the Council decided to let them live. Later in 1851, the General Assembly of the State of Deseret, picked by the Council of Fifty, adopted a capital punishment provision allowing decapitation as a means of execution, which would remain in force until 1888 .
In a speech before the Utah Territory legislature on February 5 1852, Young appeared to be arguing for a law requiring decapitation for whites "condemned by the Law" for miscegenation with black people . He told the legislature that miscegenation was a grave sin that would bring a curse upon a man and his children produced by the union . He said that if a white Mormon "in an unguarded moment should commit such a transgression", decapitation "would do a great deal towards atoning for the sin...it would do them good that they might be saved with their Bre[theren]" . He said, "It is the greatest blessing that could come to some men to shed their blood on the ground, and let it come up before the Lord as an atonement" .
The most vocal proponent of the blood atonement doctrine was Jedediah M. Grant, Young's second counselor in the First Presidency from 1854 to 1856. Grant, a firebrand preacher, rose to the First Presidency after the death of Willard Richards in 1854 and became the main force behind the Mormon Reformation . His teachings in 1854 related to "covenant breakers," people who had broken their covenants made in the Endowment or Celestial marriage. At a meeting in the Salt Lake Tabernacle on March 12, 1854, Grant asked, "What disposition ought the people of God to make of covenant breakers?" In answer to his question, he stated that they should be put to death . However, he lamented on the difficulty in applying this in a secular democracy, stating, "I wish we were in a situation favorable to our doing that which is justifiable before God, without any contaminating influences of Gentile amalgamation, laws, and traditions." Arguing for a purer theocracy, he stated that it is the right of the church "to kill a sinner to save him, when he commits those crimes that can only be atoned for by shedding his blood.... We would not kill a man, of course, unless we killed him to save him."
Parley P. Pratt, a prominent member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was also a proponent of the blood atonement doctrine. On December 31 1855, Pratt pressed the Utah Territory legislature to "[m]ake death the penalty for fornication and adultery." He cited 1 Cor. 5:5, calling on early Christians "[t]o deliver [an adulterer] unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus," as a Biblical justification for the blood atonement doctrine . Pratt stated, "This destruction of the flesh must have had reference to the death of the body; the man having justly forfeited his life in accordance with the law of God."
On March 16 1856, Young acknowledged that it might seem, based on rhetoric from the pulpit, that "every one who did not walk to the line was at once going to be destroyed," but thus far, he said, nobody had been killed . He warned them, however, that the time "is not far distant" when the LDS Church would enforce the law of blood atonement against covenant breakers . One of the temple covenants at the time was, "I will never have anything to do with any of the daughters of Eve, unless they are given to me of the Lord." Though the "strict penalty of the law" dictated death to atone for breaking this covenant, Young said that the church would "not yet" enforce it .
On January 11 1857 Heber C. Kimball, a member of the First Presidency, spoke about the adulterers within the church and warned that "[t]hey are worthy of death, and they will get it. That time is near by, and God has spoken from the heavens, and when certain things are about right, we shall make a public example of those characters, ...and the time is just at our doors." In the meantime, rather than atoning for sins with blood, Kimball taught that it was possible to at least partially atone for sins by means other than blood, and encouraged covenant breakers to "pay all you can, that there may not be much against you when the accounts are settled up."
Echoing Kimball's words, on February 8 1857, Young warned the church that institution of the "celestial law" requiring mandatory blood atonement was "nigh at hand," and that under this law, covenant breakers guilty of adultery would be "hewn down." In the meantime, he said, "if this people will sin no more, but faithfully live their religion, their sins will be forgiven them without taking life."
In addition to talk about blood atonement as a theocratic form of capital punishment whose time was "nigh at hand," church leaders also discussed unofficial blood atonement. According to one interpretation of Brigham Young's sermon on March 16 1856, the sermon encouraged enforcement of the doctrine by individuals in certain situations. He said that if "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." He said, "under such 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." But he warned anyone who intended to "execute judgment" that he or she "has got to have clean hands and a pure heart, ...else they had better let the matter alone." If the adulterous couple were not actually caught in the act, Young recommended to "let them live and suffer in the flesh for their sins." According to Young, when any person violates a covenant with God, "The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it" either in this life or the next .
At a meeting on September 21, 1856 attended by both Young and Grant, Grant stated that there were a great many covenant-breaking members in the church "who have committed sins that cannot be forgiven through baptism." These people, Grant said, "need to have their bloodshed, for water will not do, their sins are too deep a dye." Therefore, Grant advised these people to volunteer to have a committee appointed by the First Presidency to select a place and "shed their blood." Brigham Young spoke in agreement, stating: "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." Indeed, Young claimed that men had actually come to him and offered their blood to atone for their sins . For these sins, which Young did not specify, the shedding of blood is "the only condition for which they can obtain forgiveness," or to appease the wrath that is kindled against them, and that the law might have its course." The atonement of Jesus, Young said, was for "sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit."
On February 8 1857, Brigham Young stated that if a person "overtaken in a gross fault" truly understood that "by having his blood shed he will atone for that sin, and be saved and exalted with the Gods," he would voluntarily ask to have his blood shed so he could gain his exaltation . He framed blood atonement as an act of selfless love, and asked the congregation, "Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood?" As a matter of love, he said, "if [your neighbor] 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."
Lee refused to be killed in the same manner for his conviction, requesting instead that he be executed by firing squad, rejecting the notion that he needed to atone for the Mountain Meadows massacre.
The Mountain Meadows massacre of September 11, 1857 was widely blamed on the church's teachings of blood atonement and other anti-United States rhetoric by LDS Church leaders during the Utah War. The widely-publicized massacre 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 the emigrants 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 of either directing the massacre, or of baring complicity after the fact. However, 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."
During the 1860s and 1870s, there were widespread rumors that Brigham Young had a Danite organization that was enforcing the blood atonement doctrine. Evidence of this, however, never rose above the level of rumor . Responding to this, Brigham Young stated on April 7, 1867:
Is there war in our religion? No; neither war nor bloodshed. Yet our enemies cry out "bloodshed," and "oh, what dreadful men these Mormons are, and those Danites! how they slay and kill!" Such is all nonsense and folly in the extreme. The wicked slay the wicked, and they will lay it on the Saints.
It has been suggested that the ritualistic elements involved in the execution of Coleman’s murder may have been in response to a public sermon made three years earlier by Brigham Young on March 3, 1863. In this sermon, Young states, “I am a human being, and I have the care of human beings. I wish to save life, and have no desire to destroy life. If I had my wish, I should entirely stop the shedding of human blood.” Following this statement, however, Young makes a statement regarding interracial relations in which he continues, "Shall I tell you the law of God in regard to the African race? If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain, the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so." Young continues his sermon by condemning whites for their abuse of slaves with the proclamation, “for their abuse of that race, the whites will be cursed, unless they repent.”
With regard to Coleman's murder, LDS apologetics point out that the practice of "blood atonement" is said to apply to endowed Mormons who apostatized. Coleman was a member in good standing and was not endowed, suggesting that his death may have actually been the result of racism.
Chief among the Mormon apologetic writers defending the doctrine in the late 19th century was Charles W. Penrose, editor of the church-owned Deseret News, who would later become a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency.
According to Penrose, "Murder is a 'sin unto death,' which prayers and repentance and ordinances will not wash away" . Therefore, "the only valid offering that the criminal can make is his own life's blood poured out upon the ground in willing expiation. That is why, Penrose said, the Territory of Utah gave convicted murderers a choice between hanging and shooting (id.)
As Mormon thinkers recognized, application of the blood atonement doctrine to the sin of murder seemingly created some difficulties. The Book of Mormon states that murderers can receive forgiveness by repentance. Nevertheless, a passage in the Doctrine and Covenants says that murder is unpardonable. Attempting to resolve this seeming conflict in a Deseret News article on July 4 1883, Apostle Charles W. Penrose taught that in some cases such as murder done in anger or provocation, murder might be forgiven, but only after the guilty party atones for the murder by the shedding of blood.
MANIFESTO OF THE PRESIDENCY AND APOSTLES "SALT LAKE CITY, Dec. 12th, 1889. To Whom It May Concern: In consequence of gross misrepresentations of the doctrines, aims and practices of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, commonly called the 'Mormon' church, which have been promulgated for years, and have recently been revived for political purposes and to prevent all aliens, otherwise qualified, who are members of the 'Mormon' church from acquiring citizenship, we deem it proper on behalf of said church to publicly deny these calumnies and enter our protest against them. We solemnly make the following declarations, viz.: That this church views the shedding of human blood with the utmost abhorrence. That we regard the killing of a human being, except in conformity with the civil law, as a capital crime, which should be punished by shedding the blood of the criminal after a public trial before a legally constituted court of the land. We denounce as entirely untrue the allegation which has been made, that our church favors or believes in the killing of persons who leave the church or apostatize from its doctrines. We would view a punishment of this character for such an act with the utmost horror; it is abhorrent to us and is in direct opposition to the fundamental principles of our creed. The revelations of God to this church make death the penalty of capital crime, and require that offenders against life and property shall be delivered up and tried by the laws of the land.’’ We declare that no bishop's or other court in this church claims or exercises civil or judicial functions, or the right to supersede, annul or modify a judgment of any civil court. Such courts, while established to regulate Christian conduct, are purely ecclesiastical, and their punitive powers go no further than the suspension or excommunication of members from church fellowship. [Signed]: WILFORD WOODRUFF, GEORGE Q. CANNON, JOSEPH F. SMITH, Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. LORENZO SNOW, FRANKLIN D. RICHARDS, BRIGHAM YOUNG, MOSES THATCHER, FRANCIS M. LYMAN, JOHN HENRY SMITH, GEORGE TEASDALE, HEBER J. GRANT, JOHN W. TAYLOR, M. W. MERRILL, A. H. LUND, ABRAHAM H. CANNON, Members of the Council of the Apostles. JOHN W. YOUNG, DANIEL H. WELLS, Counselors.
“The doctrine of "blood atonement," then, is based upon the scriptural laws considered in the foregoing paragraphs. The only point at which complaint may be justly laid in the teaching of the "Reformation" period is in the unfortunate implication that the Church of the Latter-day Saints, or individuals in that church, may execute this law of retribution. Fortunately, however, 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. As early as 1831 the law of the Lord was given to the church as follows: "And now, behold, I speak unto the church: Thou shalt not kill; and he that kills shall not have forgiveness in this world, nor in the world to come.”
Thus we have the President of the Reorganized Church and son of Joseph Smith admitting, as well as apologizing for the rash statements of his father and other leaders in the old church, and then we have Joseph F. Smith of the Utah church using about the same argument to excuse the language and murderous conduct of the Danites in Utah. All we care to say is reply to both of these descendants of the original prophet and organizer of the Danite Band is, that when the leading members and officers of the church for many years teach and practice, by threats and murders, ascribed to the Danite Band, then we believe the public is justified in denouncing such language and conduct, and affirming it to be the doctrine of the church.
Through the atonement of Christ all mankind may be saved, by obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel...Man may commit certain grievous sins - according to his light and knowledge -that will place him beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ. If then he would be saved he must make sacrifice of his own life to atone - so far as the power lies - for that sin, for the blood of Christ alone under certain circumstances will not avail...But that the Church practices “Blood Atonement” on apostates or any others, which is preached by ministers of the ‘Reorganization’ is a damnable falsehood for which the accusers must answer.
In 1954, church historian Joseph Fielding Smith taught the following about blood atonement:
Man may commit certain grievous sins—according to his light and knowledge—that will place him beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ. If then he would be saved, he must make sacrifice of his Own life to atone—so far as in his power lies—for that sin, for the blood of Christ alone under certain circumstances will not avail.... 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 own blood shed to atone, as far as possible, in their behalf.
In addition, Apostle Bruce R. McConkie agreed with Brigham Young and Joseph Fielding Smith that "under certain circumstances there are some serious sins for which the cleansing of Christ does not operate, and the law of God is that men must then have their own blood shed to atone for their sins.
You note that I and President Joseph Fielding Smith and some of our early church leaders have said and written about this doctrine and you asked if the doctrine of blood atonement is an official doctrine of the Church today. If by blood atonement is meant the atoning sacrifice of Christ, the answer is Yes. If by blood atonement is meant the shedding of the blood of men to atone in some way for their own sins, the answer is No. We do not believe that it is necessary for men in this day to shed their own blood to receive a remission of sins. This is said with a full awareness of what I and others have written and said on this subject in times past.
There simply is no such thing among us as a doctrine of blood atonement that grants a remission of sins or confers any other benefit upon a person because his own blood is shed for sins. Let me say categorically and unequivocally that this doctrine can only operate in a day when there is no separation of Church and State and when the power to take life is vested in the ruling theocracy as was the case in the day of Moses.
Regarding "blood atonement" in a theocracy, the Encyclopedia of Mormonism states:
Several early Church leaders, most notably Brigham Young, taught that in a complete theocracy the Lord could require the voluntary shedding of a murderer's blood-presumably by capital punishment-as part of the process of Atonement for such grievous sin. This was referred to as "blood Atonement." Since such a theocracy has not been operative in modern times, the practical effect of the idea was its use as a rhetorical device to heighten the awareness of Latter-day Saints of the seriousness of murder and other major sins. This view is not a doctrine of the Church and has never been practiced by the Church at any time.
Joseph Fielding Smith stated:
[T]he founders of Utah incorporated in the laws of the Territory provisions for the capital punishment of those who wil[l]fully shed the blood of their fellow men. This law, which is now the law of the State, granted unto the condemned murderer the privilege of choosing for himself whether he die by hanging, or whether he be shot, and thus have his blood shed in harmony with the law of God; and thus atone, so far as it is in his power to atone, for the death of his victim. Almost without exception the condemned party chooses the latter death. This is by authority of the law of the land, not that of the Church.
In addition, in his first edition of the book Mormon Doctrine, McConkie opined that because blood atonement requires the "spilling of blood upon the ground", execution by firing squad was superior to execution by hanging, which would not suffice to create a blood atonement. At the request of then Apostle and later church president Spencer W. Kimball, this statement was deleted from McConkie's second edition of the book. Regarding this, McConkie commented:
As far as I can see there is no difference between a firing squad, an electric chair, a gas chamber, or hanging. Death is death and I would interpret the shedding of man's blood in legal executions as a figurative expression which means the taking of life. There seems to me to be no present significance as to whether an execution is by a firing squad or in some other way. I, of course, deleted my article on "hanging" from the Second Edition of Mormon Doctrine because of the reasoning here mentioned.
This doctrine was seen by some commentators as one of the reasons why Utah was one of the last three U.S. states to continue the practice of execution by firing squad. This was discontinued on March 15, 2004. While the decision for this law was being made, the Church was consulted and stated that they had nothing against the discontinuation of this practice.
In an interesting contradiction, author Sally Denton in her book American Massacre, states that execution by firing squad was not considered a valid method for performing “blood atonement,” claiming instead that “beheading was the preferred method.” Denton recounts the execution of John D. Lee for his role in the Mountain Meadows massacre. When offered a choice of execution by hanging, firing squad or beheading, Denton claims that Lee’s “choice of execution by firing squad sent a clear signal to the faithful that he rejected a spiritual need to atone for any sins.”
One of LeBaron's daughters, Lillian, relates an account of some of these killings in the film The God Makers II. Chynoweth relates the account of the murder of her husband, her brother-in-law and his 8-year-old daughter by her half brothers on 27 June, the 144th anniversary of the death of Joseph Smith Jr.. She states that their names were “on the list to be atoned for” because her father believed that they were “traitors to God’s cause.” Not explicitly named in the film, the list that Chynoweth referred to was called ‘’The Book of the New Covenants’’, and was written by Ervil LeBaron before his death in prison. The document contained a list of individuals that LeBaron believed deserved to die. Upon receipt of the list by several of his sons, they proceeded to administer this punishment. At the end of Chynoweth’s interview, she states that if anything happens to her that the “Mormon” church will be responsible. Immediately following this statement, the film states that shortly after the interview, Lillian was found dead in her home from a gunshot wound. Depressed and aware that she was on the list and that other members of the Church of the Lamb of God were still looking for her, Chynoweth committed suicide. It should be noted that in The God Makers II, Lillian LeBaron Chynoweth refers to the "Mormon Church" as being responsible for the killings. The film does not make clear that the "Mormon Church" referred to by Chynoweth is actually the "Church of the Lamb of God." The film also makes no mention the suicide and instead infers that Chynoweth was killed.
A number of modern authors refer to "blood atonement," usually in association with "Danites." These references often appear in works critical of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and rumors of "Danites" practicing some form of "blood atonement" often play a significant role in these accounts.
In her book Leaving the Saints, Martha Beck postulates the existence of a "Danite" band "disposing" of people who opposed Brigham Young:
Brigham Young formalized and anointed these assassins as the Danites, whose mission included espionage, suppression of information, and quietly, permanently disposing of people who threatened the Mormon prophet or the Latter-day Saint organization. Again, not many Mormons know this detail of Church history, but every now and then, Utah papers record murders with uniquely Mormon flavoring (death by temple-sanctioned methods, for example), and the word that goes out on the Latter-day grapevine is Danite.
Sally Denton, in her book American Massacre, claims that the Danites and "blood atonement" had a prominent role in 19th century Utah society. Denton attributes the creation of the Danites to Joseph Smith as his “secret group of loyalists” and suggests that they became “one of the most legendarily feared bands in frontier America.” According to Denton, this “consecrated, clandestine unit of divinely inspired assassins” introduced “the ritualized form of murder called blood atonement-providing the victim with eternal salvation by slitting his throat.” Denton claims that “blood atonement” was one of the doctrines which Mormons held “most sacred” and that “[t]hose who dared to flee Zion were hunted down and killed.” Denton implies that large numbers of such “atonements” occurred during the Mormon reformation of 1856, although “none of the crimes were ever reported in the Deseret News," and that the “bloody regime...ended with [Jedediah] Grant’s sudden death, on December 1, 1856.”