Death and justice
On the issue of capital punishment Nephite law was very clear: “If a man murdered he should die” (Alma 42:19; See also 2 Nephi 9:35; Alma 27:6-9). The first example of execution in the book of Mormon is Nehor who was condemned to die for the murder of Gideon. At the execution the chief Judge Alma stated, “were we to spare thee[, Nehor,] his blood would come upon us for vengeance” (Alma 1:13). In another case the leader of an army of robbers and thieves by the name of Zemnarihah had been captured. “They…hanged him until he was dead.” Exulting in the execution of this man “[they] did cry with a loud voice, saying: May the Lord preserve his people in righteousness and in holiness of heart, that they may cause to be felled to the earth all who shall seek to slay them because of power and secret combinations, even as this man hath been felled to the earth” (3 Nephi 4:28-30).
One interesting concept is that “[the] blood [of the innocent] would come upon us for vengeance” if the execution was not carried out. Thus the life of the murderer must be taken or vengeance would come upon those had protected him. This concept of vengeance is in part related to the spilling of blood, that the blood of the victim “crieth” against the murderer. This can be found in the account of the murder of Abel. When Cain was confronted about his brother’s murder God said to him “What hast thou done? the voice of thy brother’s blood crieth unto me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). Along this same line Nephi said of those who killed the saints that “the cry of the blood of the saints shall ascend up to God from the ground against them” (2 Nephi 26:3). The cry of the martyrs is repeated again in the vision of John: “And they cried with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (Revelation 6:10). And repeated again by Nephi: “And the blood of the saints shall cry from the ground against them” (2 Nephi 28:10). When a Mafia like organization was found to be culpable for several murders Alma wrote to his son “the blood of those whom they murdered did cry unto the Lord their God for vengeance upon those who were their murderers” (Alma 37:30). And Mormon wrote of a secret combination in his own day, “[they did] cause that widows should mourn before the Lord, and also orphans to mourn before the Lord, and also the blood of their fathers and their husbands to cry unto the Lord from the ground, for vengeance upon [their] heads?” (Mormon 8:40-41). Notice that the pattern is a cry for “vengeance upon those who were their murderers,” not specifically one of blood for blood.
God has said, “Vengeance is mine, and I will repay” (Mormon 3:15). Though Nephite law makes the statement that murderers should die, carrying out such a law may be viewed in different ways. In the case of Gideons murder it can be viewed in two ways. The first is that support for capital punishment was seen as a religious duty, as not enforcing it would bring judgment upon the arbiters of the case; thus to protect themselves from guilt the killer must be executed. In the second view, refusal to carry out the demands of the law is viewed as protecting the murderer; and on that count the judges are guilty and the cry of the victim is also against them. The first explanation is not doctrinal as it implies a transferal of guilt to the judges (Alma 34:11). The second explanation is probably the correct one. The execution itself is not vengeance but rather enforcement of the law. And after his execution the killer will stand before the judgment seat of God and vengeance administered by Him. In this light it would be a doctrinal misstep to view capital punishment as divine vengeance. Though it is possible to make good arguments in favor of capital punishment, it would be wrong to think of such punishment as the justice of God. President Kimball wrote “The proper earthly penalty for the crime [of murder] is clearly set out in the scriptures and applied to all ages of the wold. This penalty is the prerogative and responsibility of governmental authority.” He then quotes several scriptures that prescribe death for the crime of murder.
[To give a little perspective on the word “vengeance” a 1990 Oxford Dictionary defines it as “paying back of an injury that one has suffered; revenge.” However Webster’s 1828 dictionary has a definition that is contemporaneous with the meaning of the word in the Book of Mormon. It means “the infliction of pain on another, in return for an injury or offense. Such infliction, when it proceeds from malice or more resentment, and is not necessary for the purposes of justice, is revenge, and a most heinous crime. When such infliction proceeds from a mere love of justice, and the necessity of punishing offenders for the support of the laws, it is vengeance, and is warrantable and just. In this case, vengeance is a just retribution, recompense or punishment.”]
In the two cases mentioned above (of Nehor and Zemnarihah) the murderer knew of the evil of his crime. However, in cases where people had been raised in a culture of robbing and plundering their crimes could be forgiven without a death penalty. This was the case of the people of Anti-Nephi-Lehi. Their king made a public acknowledgment of their crimes saying, “I also thank my God…that he hath forgiven us of those our many sins and murders which we have committed” (Alma 24:10). As part of their repentance they took an oath to never again take human life, “that rather than shed the blood of their brethren they would give up their own lives” (Alma 24:18). They viewed this extreme pacifism as part of their repentance. (Knowing that murderers can receive forgiveness further undermines the “a killer must be executed to prevent guilt from coming upon me” argument.)
In Old Testament law murder was seen not only as a crime against the victim but also as a crime against God. “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man” (Genesis 9:6). Thus murder of a human is more egregious than the killing of an animal and (some believe) requires blood for blood. But even the sin of leading others to apostasy holds a strong judgment from God: “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (ESV, Matt. 18:6).
Redemption of the murderer
Though there are several Old and New Testament scriptures that support capital punishment I have yet to find one that suggests the administration of the death penalty is necessary for the redemption of the murderer. But such a position is not wholly unsupportable. In cases of murder there is a sense that the murderer owes a debt for his crime. For many people payment of this debt includes execution. And if the debt is not paid that an injustice has occurred; and if it is paid then in some way justice has been satisfied; and if justice is satisfied in the killing of the murderer it could be presumed that he is better off in the next life for having paid his debt. However, one can imagine that such a payment is effectual only if it is voluntary.
Though such a belief seems to have a natural sense of correctness to it, it is not easy to support with scripture. In the case of the execution of Nehor, “he was caused, or rather did acknowledge, between the heavens and the earth, that what he had taught to the people was contrary to the word of God; and there he suffered an ignominious death” (Alma 1:15, italics mine). This confession was probably due to a sense that if he acknowledged his crime before the people he might receive mercy in the next life. Amulek taught that “there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another. Now, if a man murdereth, behold will our law, which is just, take the life of his brother? I say unto you, Nay. But the law requireth the life of him who hath murdered” (Alma 34:11-12). Though he doesn’t explicitly say that the blood of the murderer will atone for the crime, he hints at it. And I suppose these two examples are the closest thing there is in scripture to supporting such a doctrine.
Thus it can be posited that capital punishment, though not divine vengeance, may assist the killer to provide some kind of restitution for his crime; and should properly be understood as a blood restitution.
[Christianity as a whole believes in the blood atonement of Jesus Christ: That His blood had to be shed for our sins. However, in this post I do not refer to the shedding of Christ’s blood.]
In the early church, and even into the last century, the idea of blood restitution was common in Mormonism. It is properly called blood atonement and is as follows. For certain capital crimes the death penalty is appropriate and if a murderer willingly submits to execution such an act will provide restitution (completely or partially) for his crime. Further, the execution should be done in such a way as to literally shed his blood.
Church historian B.H. Roberts explained it this way. “We believe that those who…imbue their hands in the blood of their fellow men, that their lives are necessary to the complete atonement.” He further adds that “their execution should be such that it admits of the shedding of their blood.” This belief in blood atonement influenced capital punishment laws in the territory of Utah, which was the only territory where a capital criminal could choose execution by hanging, firing squad, or beheading. The last two provided for the shedding of blood thus permitting murderers to carry out a blood atonement for their crime--it should be pointed out that there were no state sanctioned beheadings in Utah and the beheading option was dropped in 1888. This ideal of blood atonement was also expressed by Elder Bruce R. McConkie. He stated, “As a mode of capital punishment, hanging or execution on a gallows does not comply with the law of blood atonement, for the blood is not shed.” (Elder McConkie was asked to remove this statement from his book Mormon Doctrine, as it is not established doctrine. It is not found in current editions.) This belief in the importance of shedding the blood of capital criminals goes back to Joseph Smith. On 1 February 1843 it is recorded “In debate, George A. Smith said imprisonment was better than hanging. I [(Joseph Smith)] replied, I was opposed to hanging, even if a man kill another, I will shoot him, or cut off his head, spill his blood on the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God; and if ever I have the privilege of making a law on that subject, I will have it so.”
There are several places where the idea of beheading could have come from. It appears that expressions of beheading and throat cutting held a peculiar place in early Mormonism. There are several cases of beheading and decapitation in scripture: such as Nephi and Laban, David and Goliath, John the Baptist, and Shiz (Gen. 40:19; Judges 5:26; 1 Samuel 17:51; 1 Samuel 31:9; 2 Samuel 4:8; 20:21-22; 2 Kings 10:6-8; Matthew 14:8-12; 1 Nephi 4:18; Ether 15:30).
The blood atonement idea seems to be an aberration in Mormon history. There is very little scriptural backing for the idea that capital punishment aides atonement for capital crimes. But it should also be pointed out that the majority of General Authorities did not preach the doctrine of blood atonement, though it was probably widely held.
Some critics of the church have attempted to extended the idea of blood atonement to mean that the church ordered retribution killings for people who had committed fornication, murder, theft, apostasy, and the like. When church leaders say that the church did not practice blood atonement what they mean is that the church never ordered extralegal killings. A church statement made in 1889 reads, “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.” Though the church doesn’t order extralegal capital punishment the idea of blood atonement as I have illustrated above was at one time common within Mormonism.
Roughing it in the wild west
There are example of “retribution acts” that took place within the Mormon community during the mid 19th century, most of which are during the 1850’s. Most are the actions of individuals or local leadership. But even these should be placed in the backdrop of life in the western United Stated in the 19th century.
In the western United States during the 1800’s vigilantes and vigilance committees were viewed sympathetically by a lot of people. Though the federal government provided each territory with a supreme court, three district courts, and three judges (appointed by the President). The size of the territories and the fact that federal control of them was not well established meant the courts were both weak and autonomous. One writer noted in the California Law Review that “Lack of supervision from above was combined with local citizens’ hostility towards federal judges, whom they considered to be carpetbaggers receiving relatively undesirable appointments for political services rendered in the East. Their continuous quarrels with unpopular judges led to forced resignations or ‘sagebrushing’— …The administration of justice was neither swift nor of the highest quality. District courts could not handle their business because of the remote locations of sessions, the vast area which each court served, the difficulties of travel, the lack of funds, and poor communication. Undoubtedly because of the working conditions mentioned above, many judges were unfit and even corrupt.” This lack of orderly law enforcement led some local citizens to take the law into their own hands by forming vigilance committees. From this violent culture came phrases such as “boot hill” (referring to people who had died with their boots on), “frontier justice”, “lynch law”, “hemp party” and “prairie necktie party” (both refer to hanging). (In the early history of the church, before the westward migration, the Latter-day Saints were often the victims of this kind of vigilante violence.)
Often the only action taken against thieves and murderers was from locals. For example in Arizona in the 1870’s the murderers of a pawnbroker and his wife were caught and sentenced to be hanged by a local committee. The committee spokesman said to them, “you have been proved guilty of this crime, and you must all prepare to die tomorrow. You need not hope to escape through legal trickery or court delay; there will be no further trial. The people of Tucson have found you guilty, and the citizens themselves will hang you.” In another part of the country the editor of a local newspaper wrote on the front page headline “A Horse Thief Lynched:— and Another in Tow!” And in Texas an anonymous writer wrote a “Warning to Thieves in Hill County” which reads, “We give you choice between two things: you can take which you please. Many of your companions in thieving have gone to another country. The ropes and six-shooter balls are also prepared for you by the same one. If you wish to preserve your lives, leave this country in thirty days. Get clear away. If either one of you are found in this country after the fifteenth of April, you will meet with the same fate that (here giving the names of two reputed outlaws), and other have met with.” It was signed “Yours respectfully, Death to Thieves.” Though action by vigilance committees was probably rare, examples of it are easy to find.
We can get a sense of what this environment was like from Mark Twain’s Roughing It, a popularized account of his travels through the western United States. In it he tells of a man by the name of Slade. Who, according to Twain, “was a man whose heart and hands and soul were steeped in the blood of offenders against his dignity; a man who awfully avenged all injuries, affront, insults or slights, of whatever kind…a man whose hate tortured him day and night till vengeance appeased it…A high and efficient servant of the Overland [stagecoach], an outlaw among outlaws and yet their relentless scourge, Slade was at once the most bloody, the most dangerous and the most valuable citizen that inhabited the savage fastnesses of the mountains.” (Italics mine.) According to Twain’s account Slade was guilty of several murders. And because of his “fearless resolution” he obtained a job as overland division-agent at Julesburg. Twain writes, “Slade’s coaches went through, every time! True, in order to bring about this wholesome change, Slade had to kill several men…but the world was the richer for their loss.” Slade was then transferred to the Rocky Ridge division in the Rocky Mountains where “murders were done in open day,…[and] for other people to meddle would have been looked upon as indelicate. After a murder, all that Rocky Mountain etiquette required of a spectator was, that he should help the gentlemen bury his game”(Roughing it, Part 1) Twain’s account of Slade is one of fearful respect. He ends his account of Slade by relating the man’s capture and hanging by a vigilance committee in Montana (Roughing It, Part 2).
Such violent men were sometimes employed by companies, as in Slade’s case, to get the stage coaches through or deal with cattle thieves and other outlaws. Sometimes they were hired as lawmen and sometimes they were outlaws themselves. Brigham Young appointed several lawmen that could fit Slade’s profile, men such as Porter Rockwell, Bill Hickman, and Lot Smith. (Hickman was excommunicated from the church in 1868 and had confessed to several murders which he claims were ordered by President Young.) In the backdrop of the Utah War, when the United States sent a large military force to subdue the Mormon population, on 17 January 1858, four months before the army marched through Salt Lake City, Brigham Young said,
If the Gentile wish to see a few tricks, we have “Mormons” that can perform them. We have the meanest devils on the earth in our midst, and we intend to keep them, for we have use for them; and if the Devil does not look sharp, we will cheat him out of them at the last, for they will reform and go to heaven with us.
We have already showed the invading army a few tricks; and I told Captain Van Vliet that if they persisted in making war upon us, I should share in their supplies. (JD 6:176)
Bill Hickman, Porter Rockwell, and Lot Smith were some of those“mean devils” who raided the armies supply trains.
Examples of violent acts
In Utah during the 1850’s there were a number of unsolved murders and several examples of local leaders taking the initiative to enforce what they deemed as appropriate punishment. [All of the following examples can be found in The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power by Michael Quinn pp. 241-261.] There is a case where an LDS bishop ordered the execution of a Mormon who had sex with his step-daughter (253); a case where a man was condemned to die for having sex with an animal (President Young prevented the execution and let the young man off with a sever reprimand, 253); a case where a man was castrated for adultery with another man’s wife (253); a case where a mother and son were executed for having sex (253-254); a case where a black man who had murdered a Mormon police officer was lynched by a Salt Lake City mod (259); a case where a black man who was involved a white woman was killed (256); and two cases where a husband had killed his wife’s paramour (246, 250). There are several more examples of this kind of violence. Twice in 1858 a female decapitated head was found (255). One of the women was identified as a Mormon who left her congregation to live in the army camp. There is also an example of a local patriarch giving a blessing saying “thou shalt be called to act…in the redemption of Zion and the avenging of the blood of the prophets…” Another patriarch gave a blessing to a different man which read “Thou shalt yet be numbered with the sons of Zion in avenging the blood of Brother Joseph…” (248-249). Both of the men who received these blessings were involved in the Mountain Meadows Massacre. There are also several examples of statements from Church leaders about avenging the blood of the Prophet Joseph.
Within the LDS faith sexual sins are considered “[the] most abominable above all sins save it be the shedding of innocent blood or denying the Holy Ghost?” (Alma 39:5). The Doctrine and Covenants teaches that “he that has committed adultery and repents with all his heart, and forsaketh it, and doeth it no more, thou shalt forgive; But if he doeth it again, he shall not be forgiven, but shall be cast out” (D&C 42:25-26). And on at least two occasions Brigham Young advocated making adultery a capital crime and/or preached against adultery as if it were a capital crime (JD 4:219; 3:247). Similar sermons can be found from a few other General Authorities of the period. In the early church there was a very harsh view of sexual crimes generally, but especially against adultery.
Though to modern ears preaching against adultery by equating it to a capital crime sounds harsh, we should remember that crimes such as burglary, treason, kidnapping, arson, theft, counterfeiting, piracy, and rape were at some times and in some places in the U.S. capital offenses. As of January 1953 the following crimes could be punishable by death. In 36 jurisdictions kidnapping was a capital crime; in 20 states kidnapping for ransom; in 11 states kidnapping where the person is not released unharmed; in 19 states rape; in 25 states treason; in 7 states robbery; in Alabama, Missouri, Nevada, and Wyoming train robbery; in Virginia bank robbery carried the death penalty; train-wrecking, without any resultant death, was a capital offense in Arizona, California, and Wyoming; burglary could be punishable by death in Alabama, Delaware, Kentucky, and North Carolina; and arson in Maryland, Georgia, Nevada, and Virginia. In Alabama impersonating a husband and having sex with his wife with the wife believing that the impostor is her husband was a capital crime. In Arkansas forcing a woman to marry against her will was a capital crime. In Oklahoma “For rape (carrying a death penalty) to have been committed on a female between the ages of 16 to 18, who gave her consent, she must have been previously ‘been known to have been chaste’.”[19; italics and parenthesis original] From 1930 to 1950 there were 2,645 executions in the United States for murder; 355 for rape; 17 for armed robbery; 12 for kidnapping; 10 for burglary; 6 for espionage; and 3 for aggravated assault.
The fact that in the mid 1800’s some of the above crimes were committed in Utah and were punished by locals who took the law into their own hands is best understood in the backdrop if 19th century vigilantism and attitudes about what constituted a capital crime.
Though there were some harsh sermons that preached against adultery the examples of “blood atonement” killings that some people have put forward are, by enlarge, more appropriately labeled as crimes of passion for the seduction of a wife or daughter, or as vigilante action.
Though the territory of Utah was well organized and well governed--Mark Twain’s impression of Salt Lake City was that it was “a grand general air of neatness, repair, thrift and comfort, around and about and over the whole”--there was a great deal of (understandably) anger towards the Gentiles who had driven them from their homes in Missouri, Ohio, and Illinois, for the murder of their prophet, for Governor Boggs’ extermination order, and for the United States Government sending an army to Utah to subdue the population. Attitudes of retribution for the death of the prophet and against Gentiles generally, along with a strong attitude against sexual crimes, and a peculiar idea of blood atonement created an atmosphere that, when coupled with a wild west vigilantism, resulted in a number of violent acts by Mormons against Mormons and non-Mormons.
On the subject of capital punishment I have mixed feelings. I do believe that some crimes which involve murder merit punishment by death. At the same time the Mosaic law stated “one witness shall not testify against any person to cause him to die” (Numbers 35:30). Two witnesses were required and I wonder how often the two-eye-witness rule (or a modern equivalent) is applied. And I question the justice of cases where a single reputable eye witness (or a modern equivalent) is considered sufficient for execution.
Currently “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints regards the question of whether and in what circumstances the state should impose capital punishment as a matter to be decided solely by the prescribed processes of civil law. We neither promote nor oppose capital punishment.”
 Spencer W. Kimball, The Miracle of Forgiveness, p. 130.
 The Tractate Sanhedrin translated by Herbert Danby  under The Four Capital Punishments says of confession before being stoned,
When ten cubits from the stoning-place they say to him, “Confess: for it is the custom of all about to be put to death to make confession; and every one who confesses has a share in the world to come; for so we find it in the case of Achan. Joshua said to him: MY SON, ASCRIBE GLORY TO THE LORD, THE GOD OF ISRAEL, AND MAKE CONFESSION UNTO HIM; AND TELL ME NOW WHAT THOU HAST DONE; HIDE IT NOT FROM ME. AND ACHAN ANSWERED JOSHUA, AND SAID, OF A TRUTH I HAVE SINNED AGAINST THE LORD, THE GOD OF ISRAEL, AND THUS AND THUS HAVE I DONE. Whence do we know that his confession expiated his crime? It is written: AND JOSHUA SAID, WHY HAST THOU TROUBLED US? THE LORD SHALL TROUBLE THEE THIS DAY; [Josh. 7:19-26]--this day thou art to be troubled, but thou art not to be troubled in the time to come.”
If he does not know how to make confession, he is told to say, “May my death be an expiation of all my sins.” According to R. Jehuda, if he know himself to be condemned wrongfully, he says, “Let my death be an expiation of all my sins save this.” But it was replied, “If so, every one would say so to clear himself.” [here]
 B.H. Roberts, Defense of the Faith and the Saints, Vol. 2, p. 454.
 Ibid. See also Criminal Laws Of The State Of Deseret, passed, January 16, 1851, section 10; these laws are listed in a single volume of the Utah Historical Quarterly, Vol. 8, No. 2-3-4, 1940.
 Martin R. Gardner (Spring 1979), Mormonism and Capital Punishment: A Doctrinal Perspective, Past and Present, Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 7, No. 1, p. 13
 “Hanging,” Mormon Doctrine, (1st edition, 1958).
 History of the Church, Vol. 5, p. 296.
 John Taylor said in 1858 “If a man dare to rise as a man of God, cut off his head and trample him under foot!” (JD 7:121); in 1853 Brigham Young related a dream where he cut the throats of two criminals who were trying to molest his family, one was “from ear to ear” (JD 1:83); Orson Hyde said in 1853 “It would have a tendency to place a terror on those who leave these parts, that may prove their salvation when they see the heads of thieves taken off, or shot down before the public” (JD 1:73); Heber C. Kimball said in 1857 “You probably recollect what Jesus said to his disciples when Peter took up the sword and cut off the fellow’s ear: he designed to cut off his head, but missed it” (JD 6:104); in 1846 Brigham Young said “I should be perfectly willing to see thieves have their throats cut” (History of the Church 7:597), Young said this under the emotion of seeing occurrences of theft among the destitute saints, “He then called upon the captains of companies to report those who were most destitute and he would divide among them the corn and oats he had brought for horse feed; there is no need of stealing, if one suffers we will all suffer.” These expressions are probably related to the nature of the endowment before it changed in 1990.
 Taken from “Blood Atonement”, Wikipedia,
 Carleton W. Kenyon (May 1968), Legal Lore of the Wild West: A Bibliographical Essay, California Law Review, Vol. 56, No. 3, pp. 681-700.
 Ibid., p. 695.
 C. C. Rister (March 1933), Outlaws and Vigilantes of the Southern Plains, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. 19, No. 4, pp. 553-554.
 Harold Schindler, Orrin Porter Rockwell, Man of God Son of Thunder, p. 253.
 George Q Cannon said on 15 August 1869 “We close the door on one side, and say that whoredoms, seductions and adulteries must not be committed amongst us, and we say to those who are determined to carry on such things we will kill you” (JD 14:58); Brigham Young said on 8 February 1857 “if a man was found guilty of adultery, he must have his blood shed” (JD 4:219) and on 8 March 1863 “If the white man who belongs to the chosen seed mixes his blood with the seed of Cain [black people], the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot” (JD 10:109); Joseph F. Smith said in 1902 that “God has guarded [the] institution [of marriage] by the most severe penalties, and has declared that whosoever is untrue to the marriage relation, whosoever is guilty of adultery, shall be put to death. This is scriptural law, though it is not practiced today, because modern civilization does not recognize the laws of God in relation to the moral status of mankind” (Improvement Era, July, 1902, pp. 713-17; taken from Joseph F Smith (1939), Gospel Doctrine, p. 272).
 Leonard D. Savitz (Sep. - Oct. 1955), Capital Crimes as Defined in American Statutory Law, The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 355-363.
 Ibid., see footnote 10.
 Ibid., see footnote 11.
 Ibid., see footnote 13.
 Frank E. Hartung (Nov. 1952), Trends in the Use of Capital Punishment, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 284, Murder and the Penalty of Death, pp. 8-19. (See Table 1.)