Mormonism and violence
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.
The effect of this violence has affected the history of the Latter Day Saint movement and its doctrines.
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 The Extermination Order was not formally rescinded until 1976.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.
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.
Mormon views on capital punishment
Capital punishment in Mormon scripture
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' 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 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 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".
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 and excommunicated for his role in the killings. After escalating rumors that some of the emigrants had participated in early Mormon persecution, the militia attacked the emigrants, forced them to surrender, and killed most of them in cold blood, although a few children did survive. The Mormons forcibly adopted these children, and the massacre was blamed on largely uninvolved Indians.
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. Brigham Young was accused with either directing the massacre, or with complicity after the fact. When 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).
American troops who visited the site later constructed a cairn at the site, topped with a sign saying "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord." When Young visited the site sometime afterward, according to a Mormon present, he remarked "Vengeance is mine, and I have taken a little"; his party proceeded to destroy the cairn and memorial.
Violence related to LGBT people
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.
The gospel of Jesus Christ teaches us to love and treat all people with kindness and civility—even when we disagree. We affirm that those who avail themselves of laws or court rulings authorizing same‐sex marriage should not be treated disrespectfully. Indeed, the Church has advocated for rights of same‐sex couples in matters of hospitalization and medical care, fair housing and employment, and probate, so long as these do not infringe on the integrity of the traditional family or the constitutional rights of churches.
List of Mormon wars and massacres
Violence in the Mormon scriptures
There are many wars mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Battles often occur between peoples called the Nephites and Lamanites, but other groups attacked or drawn into battle included "secret combinations" (i.e., organized criminals), factions among the Jaredites, and the Army of Helaman.
The Book of Mormon concludes with a war between the Nephites and Lamanites. The final prophet of the Book of Mormon, a Nephite named Moroni, laments that his people have participated in sexual violence, torture, and cannibalism:
And notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people in Moriantum. For behold, many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue—And after they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery.
Several decapitations and dismemberments are also described in the Book of Mormon. In chapter 4 of the First Book of Nephi, the prophet Nephi obeys the Holy Spirit and cuts off the head of Laban, the owner of an ancient record that would be valuable to Nephi's descendents. In Ether chapter 15, Coriantumr, a warrior and the final survivor of the Jaredites, decapitates Shiz, a Jaredite foe. In Alma chapter 17, Ammon (a Nephite missionary) defends a king's livestock by cutting off the arms of several thieves.
In chapter 9 of the Third Book of Nephi, Jesus announces to ancient Americans that he has destroyed more than a dozen cities and their inhabitants because of the inhabitants' sins. He announces that he destroyed some cities by causing them "to be burned with fire because of their sins and their wickedness," while others were "sunk in the depths of the sea" or "covered with earth". The text reports that some of the victims mourned, "O that we had repented before this great and terrible day, and had not killed and stoned the prophets, and cast them out; then would our mothers and our fair daughters, and our children have been spared".
The Book of Mormon is not unique in describing divinely directed or sanctioned violence. Additional examples appear in the Old Testament, which Mormons also consider to be sacred scripture.
- Act in Relation to Service
- Act for the relief of Indian Slaves and Prisoners
- 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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