The following statement was made by the LDS Church last Wednesday in conjunction with the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner by firing squad in Utah. I see this as a misunderstanding or a misrepresentation of what was taught in the past regarding the doctrine.
Mormon Church Statement on Blood Atonement
In the mid-19th century, when rhetorical, emotional oratory was common, some church members and leaders used strong language that included notions of people making restitution for their sins by giving up their own lives. However, so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. 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.
Some church members and leaders used strong language
This statement glosses over the fact that it was the prophet and second president of the Church Brigham Young who initiated and publicly taught this doctrine numerous times, followed by later prophets and General Authorities in official discourse:
“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, Journal of Discourses, Vol. 4, pages 53-54); also published in the Mormon Church’s Deseret News, 1856, page 235)
so-called “blood atonement,” by which individuals would be required to shed their own blood to pay for their sins, is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Officially, the doctrine of Blood Atonement was to be practiced voluntarily. However, Michael Quinn has shown evidence that this practice was carried out among church members and leaders and sanctioned by Brigham Young in the early days of Utah. (The Mormon Hierarchy: Extensions of Power, Vol. 2, pp. 241-261)
An appeal to Latter-day scriptures on the application of blood atonement to the sin of murder results in confusion. Alma 24 :10 states that murderers can receive forgiveness by repentance, while D&C 42:18 teaches that murder is unpardonable. Attempting to doctrinally 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. (Charles W. Penrose (July 4, 1883), “An Unpardonable Offense,” Deseret News 32 (24): 376.) President Joseph Fielding Smith agreed, while making it clear that this should be completely voluntary on the part of the sinner:
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. (Joseph Fielding Smith (1954), Bruce R. McConkie, ed., Doctrines of Salvation, 1, Salt Lake City, Utah:Bookcraft.)
According to both Penrose and Joseph Fielding Smith, the doctrine of blood atonement was the reason the founders of Utah incorporated in the laws of the Territory provisions for capital punishment, giving murderers a choice to be shot by firing squad as a “willing expiation” for their sin.
Blood atonement was understood to be a doctrine of the Church, and influenced policy-making and practice among nineteenth-century Mormons. I believe that the majority of modern members will welcome a change in this policy. But to present this change as anything but a departure from that which was taught by early Church leaders as doctrine is disingenuous.
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.
Finally we come to the connection this post has to this week’s Sunday School lesson. It is a common misperception that the Church teaches “the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ.” But in reality, our manuals and even our LDS edition of the scriptures teach that there are sins for which complete repentance through Christ’s atonement is not possible. The murder of Uriah by King David is one of these. Though David spent the rest of his life and hundreds of Biblical passages repenting of this sin, D&C 132:39 states:
The Bible Dictionary explains:
[David] was guilty of grave crimes; but unlike Saul, he was capable of true contrition and was therefore able to find forgiveness, except in the murder of Uriah. As a consequence David is still unforgiven, but he received a promise that the Lord would not leave his soul in hell. He will be resurrected at the end of the Millennium. Because of his transgressions, he has fallen from his exaltation.
Even the Sunday School manual concurs, backing up the position with a quote by Marion G. Romney:
Note that adultery is a serious sin, but David forfeited his exaltation because the Lord held him accountable for the murder of Uriah.
President Marion G. Romney said: “David, … though highly favored of the Lord (he was, in fact, referred to as a man after God’s own heart), yielded to temptation. His unchastity led to murder, and as a consequence, he lost his families and his exaltation” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1979, 60; or Ensign, May 1979, 42).
The LDS stance that King David was unable to be completely forgiven despite his obvious and sincere repentance has greatly bothered me. Most other Christian churches teach that the atonement was active in David’s case, wholly cleansing him from all of his sins. But the Mormon church does not. That the fallen condition of David is so pervasively taught in LDS scripture, General Authority addresses, and curriculum materials lends credence to the doctrine of blood atonement as taught in the past. In such cases, the Savior’s sacrifice is insufficient to cleanse transgressors from certain sins such as murder. I witnessed one of the ramifications in Church policy when an investigator friend of mine in college was denied baptism into the Church because she had previously had an abortion.
I am curious to know the opinion of our readers on this subject. First, do you feel the recent official statement above reflects an honest articulation of the teachings of the Church on Blood Atonement? Next, do you think that David lost his exaltation, and if so, does this place limits on the effects of Christ’s Atonement?