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Firing Squad Sparks Talk of Mormon ‘Blood Atonement’

SALT LAKE CITY (RNS) After convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner announced his intention to be executed by firing squad, national and international reporters suggested it was a throwback to the wild, wild West.
Some Utahns, though, had a different explanation for why such an anachronistic execution technique remained an option in the 21st century: “blood atonement.”
The term refers to an arcane Mormon belief that a murderer must shed his own blood — literally — to be forgiven by God. Since Mormon pioneers first arrived in 1847, most formal executions (until recent decades) have been by firing squad, which is a lot bloodier than hanging or lethal injection.
When state Rep. Sheryl Allen began proposing eliminating the firing-squad option in the late 1990s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints itself did not object. Yet talk of blood atonement percolated “in quiet, backroom discussions,” she recalled.
“A couple of people in prominent positions said to me, `We’ve got to have blood atonement.”‘
By 2004, Allen says, all mention of the Mormon concept “just went away” and the measure passed. The LDS Church disavows any connection to blood atonement, says spokesman Scott Trotter.
“We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people,” Trotter said.
The firing-squad option soon may be history, yet the mythic appeal of a bloody death as payment for sin persists in some Mormon quarters.
Gardner, who had the option of choosing a firing squad for his scheduled June 18 execution because his original sentencing preceded the law change, told the Deseret News in 1996 he would sue for the right to die that way.
“I guess it’s my Mormon heritage,” he told the paper.
If the LDS Church doesn’t preach blood atonement and the firing squad is virtually finished, why, then, does the notion linger in public and private conversations across the state? The answer may lie in history, symbolism and salvation.
Growing up in Salt Lake City, legal scholar Martin R. Gardner heard older Mormons attribute their support of capital punishment to the idea of blood atonement. As a Mormon missionary in England in the late 1960s, he had a pamphlet, penned by the future Mormon prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, which described and defended the teaching.
“It was always around in the popular consciousness,” Gardner said from the University of Nebraska Law School, where he teaches criminal law.
In a 1979 article in “Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought,” Gardner traced the teaching to Brigham Young, who believed even Christ’s atoning sacrifice for humanity could not cover some sins, including murder, apostasy and egregious sexual misbehavior.
“There are transgressors,” Young said in an 1856 sermon, “who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them.”
Those sentiments were replayed often by Young and other LDS leaders during the 1850s, “a period of intense Mormon revivalism bordering on fanaticism,” Gardner wrote in “Dialogue.”
Young and others were key players in creating Utah’s first capital-punishment law in 1851, which offered killers the choice of being shot, hanged or beheaded (another blood-shedding option).
In 1888, the Utah Territorial Legislature eliminated beheading but adopted similar language that remained state law until 1980, when lethal injection replaced hanging. The firing squad remained.
In 1994, attorneys for condemned child-killer James Edward Wood in Pocatello, Idaho, argued that his defense was undermined by a visit from local Mormon leaders who spoke of the need to shed his own blood. Wood, a Mormon, was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to abducting, murdering and then later sexually molesting and dismembering an 11-year-old girl.
In response, top LDS leaders filed a court document denying the doctrine as it has been popularized. The church’s affidavit included a copy of a 1978 letter from LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie to University of Utah law student Thomas McAfee, outlining the church’s position.
The LDS church supported capital punishment, the apostle wrote, but denied that blood atonement had anything to do with it. “I have never in over 60 years of regular church attendance heard a single sermon on the subject or even a discussion in any church class,” wrote McConkie, who died in 1985.
The symbolism of blood atonement mirrors the Christian story of Jesus’ death on the cross as a ransom for all humanity.
The 19th-century Mormon pioneers added an emphasis on self-sacrifice for sin as a way to appease an angry God, said Levi Peterson, a Mormon novelist and retired English professor at Weber State University. It may have particularly appealed to the settlers, who were coping with a bloody and death-filled era.
Mormon doctrine was “full of promised blessings for the obedient, blessings which were not forthcoming as the Saints were driven from pillar to post,” said Peterson, who now lives in Issaquah, Wash. “An obverse logic took over: The Saints were obviously remiss in their duties; they deserved to suffer; the quickest way back to divine favor was to inflict more suffering on themselves.”
The idea of self-punishing was central to the “guilt I inherited or felt in the people around me,” said Peterson.
“We believed in a severe God who didn’t forgive easily. You had to pay with some kind of pain.”
(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune)
c. 2010 Salt Lake Tribune
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • pagansister

    The murderer is just as dead, no matter the method used. If the guy wants to be shot, why not?

  • nnmns

    Different religions, different beliefs. I guess for his execution he could be given the choice. I presume, and hope, it rarely has a bad effect on the shooters.

  • JDD

    Actually, not only does the “Mormon Church” not endorse “Blood Atonement,” it doesn’t even have an official position re. capital punishment:

  • rat396

    The idea that a murderer must have his or her blood split is not a Mormon invention. It dates back to the Old Testament in the law of Moses. I’m not sure what the Mormons really believe on this one…

  • blooit

    Yet talk of blood atonement percolated “in quiet, backroom discussions,” she recalled.
    Anytime your primary sources are “quiet, backroom discussions” you have a problem.
    Read more:

  • Colin

    Non-story is right. Disclaiming that no one believes this, the church being accused hasn’t ever taught it, and this reporter has only heard from someone who heard from someone that some people that “it’s in the public consciousness”; the reporter still insists on writing the story. In other words she wrote the article for the Salt Lake Tribune–they wouldn’t print it, so she’s selling it via syndication to whomever wants it.

  • stad
  • Bill Kilpatrick

    How is it that an execution in Utah – one of many states where capital punishment is practiced – somehow conjures up decrepit ideas about “blood atonement?” Isn’t this just sensationalism? Can’t journalism aspire to a higher professionalism than this?
    To be sure, there was a time when “blood atonement” was discussed as a justification for capital punishment. Mormons believe in repentance, and that repentance means more than getting teary-eyed when you get caught. Repentance, as Mormons understand it, involves making amends. If you break it, you buy it. A person must at least make the effort to restore, or pay for, the damage done.
    This gave rise to a popular idea – back in the days before the Civil War – that state executions are part of the repentance process. Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.” That’s not a Mormon scripture. It’s a Jewish one. Early Mormons who came out to a land very far from “civilization” and the protection of established law, set up civil laws that were inspired by the Bible and the Judeo-Christian tradition. As repentance is about taking responsibility for one’s actions, and making up for one’s wrongs, it was easy to justify capital punishment as an application of the repentance process. The murderer was giving up his life as payment for the life he took.
    There are, of course, problems with this view. There’s something simplistic about requiring a quid pro quo for every offense. It couldn’t possibly work. There are many instances in life where there’s no way to fix what was broken by bad behavior. How does an abusive parent undo the abuse? Does he or she have to be abused? How does an unfaithful spouse make up for infidelity? Should the other spouse go ahead and have an affair so the first guilty party can feel the sting and suffer an “atonement?”
    Blood atonement, as a justification for capital punishment, was a half-baked idea. Like all fads, it had its moment and faded over time. It has since been condemned by Mormon leaders as a heresy. If anything, blood atonement provided faithful Mormons with an excuse to let go of loss and forgive. That excuse was that, having atoned for their crimes, those subjected to capital punishment should not remain the objects of hatred. Whatever their crimes, they gave at the chair, the gurney or the firing squad.
    While there may be a literalism to Utah’s retention of firing squads as an option the condemned may choose, the idea that blood must literally be shed is inconsistent and passe. While there are Mormons who take Genesis literally, there are also Mormons who think doing so is pretty rustic. To single out a Utah execution as somehow barbaric, when so many other states are killing inmates – by whatever means – is just another example of the double-standard applied to Mormons.

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