Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon religion and its first prophet, taught that certain sins were so so serious as to put the sinner "beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ." For these fallen sinners, their "only hope" lay in having "their own blood shed to atone." Smith made clear that the shedding of "innocent blood" (including killing anyone less than eight years old, the age of accountability in Mormon teaching) was an unpardonable sin which, along with failing to keep their covenants or betraying their testimonies, could lead to eternal damnation. In Smith's theology, the doctrine applied only to Mormons, but it was widely viewed as providing justification for shedding the blood of apostates.
Brigham Young took the doctrine of blood atonement further than Smith. According to historian Juanita Brooks, "Young advocated and preached it without compromise." Young, in an 1857 fire-and-brimstone sermon, demanded to know whether his his flock would have the courage to do what was necessary should a fellow Mormon commit an unforgiveable sin: "Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed his blood?" Some sinners, Young preached, who are "now angels to the devil" could have been saved if only some among their Mormon brethren would have "spilled their blood on the ground as a smoking incense to the almighty."
While Church leaders might have emphasized the practice of blood atonement against fallen Mormons, it contributed to the culture of extreme violence that marred the history of early Utah. The sermons of Brigham Young undoubtedly inspired his followers to commit murder, however unfair might have been the popular press's willingness to blame every violent act in the territory to blood atonement.
The modern Mormon church has abandoned the doctrine of blood atonement, along with its promotion of theocracy, polygamy, communalism, "holy murder," and other teachings that made in so controversial in its early years, and that accounted for much of the hostility the Church received from those outside of its membership. As historian Will Bagley, author of Blood of the Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows stated in the introduction to his carefully researched book, "[T]he 'old time religion' [of the period surrounding the massacre] has little relation to today's LDS church, which for a century has been firmly committed to becoming no more controversial than Methodism."
Excerpts from the Sermons of Brigham Young:
September 21, 1856 sermon
"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, whereas, if such is not the case, they will stick to them and remain upon them in the spirit world.
"I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them....
"And further more, I know that there are transgressors, 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, and that the law might have its course. I will say further; I have had men come to me and offer their lives to atone for their sins.
"It is true that the blood of the Son of God was shed for sins through the fall and those committed by men, yet men can commit sins which it can never remit.... There are sins that can be atoned for by an offering upon an altar, as in ancient days; and there are sins that the blood of a lamb, or a calf, or of turtle dove, cannot remit, but they must be atoned for by the blood of the man."
(Sermon by Brigham Young published in the Mormon Church's Deseret News, 1856)
February 8, 1857 sermon
"Now take a person in this congregation who has knowledge with regard to being saved... and suppose that he is overtaken in a gross fault, that he has committed a sin that he knows will deprive him of that exaltation which he desires, and that he cannot attain to it without the shedding of his blood, and also knows that by having his blood shed he will atone for that sin and be saved and exalted with the Gods, is there a man or woman in this house but what would say, 'shed my blood that I may be saved and exalted with the Gods?'
"All mankind love themselves, and let these principles be known by an individual, and he would be glad to have his blood shed. That would be loving themselves, even unto an eternal exaltation. Will you love your brothers and sisters likewise, when they have committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? That is what Jesus Christ meant....
"I could refer you to plenty of instances where men have been righteously slain, in order to atone for their sins. I have seen scores and hundreds of people for whom there would have been a chance... if their lives had been taken and their blood spilled on the ground as a smoking incense to the Almighty, but who are now angels to the Devil... I have known a great many men who have left this Church for whom there is no chance whatever for exaltation, but if their blood had been spilled, it would have been better for them....
"This is loving our neighbor as ourselves; if he 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....if you have sinned a sin requiring the shedding of blood, except the sin unto death, would not be satisfied nor rest until your blood should be spilled, that you might gain that salvation you desire. That is the way to love mankind."
(Sermon by President Brigham Young, delivered in the Mormon Tabernacle, printed in the Deseret News, February 18, 1857)
John D. Lee on Blood Atonement (from his confession)
In his confession, Lee offered a chilling account of one instance of blood atonement in early Utah:
"Rasmos Anderson was a Danish man who came to Utah... He had married a widow lady somewhat older than himself... At one of the meetings during the reformation Anderson and his step-daughter confessed that they had committed adultery... they were rebaptized and received into full membership. They were then placed under covenant that if they again committed adultery, Anderson should suffer death. Soon after this a charge was laid against Anderson before the Council, accusing him of adultery with his step-daughter. This Council was composed of Klingensmith and his two counselors; it was the Bishop's Council. Without giving Anderson any chance to defend himself or make a statement, the Council voted that Anderson must die for violating his covenants. Klingensmith went to Anderson and notified him that the orders were that he must die by having his throat cut, so that the running of his blood would atone for his sins. Anderson, being a firm believer in the doctrines and teachings of the Mormon Church, made no objections... His wife was ordered to prepare a suit of clean clothing, in which to have her husband buried... she being directed to tell those who should inquire after her husband that he had gone to California.
"Klingensmith, James Haslem, Daniel McFarland and John M. Higbee dug a grave in the field near Cedar City, and that night, about 12 o'clock, went to Anderson's house and ordered him to make ready to obey Council. Anderson got up... and without a word of remonstrance accompanied those that he believed were carrying out the will of the "Almighty God." They went to the place where the grave was prepared; Anderson knelt upon the side of the grave and prayed. Klingensmith and his company then cut Anderson's throat from ear to ear and held him so that his blood ran into the grave..
"As soon as he was dead they dressed him in his clean clothes, threw him into the grave and buried him. They then carried his bloody clothing back to his family, and gave them to his wife to wash... She obeyed their orders.... Anderson was killed just before the Mountain Meadows massacre. The killing of Anderson was then considered a religious duty and a just act. It was justified by all the people, for they were bound by the same covenants, and the least word of objection to thus treating the man who had broken his covenant would have brought the same fate upon the person who was so foolish as to raise his voce against any act committed by order of the Church authorities."