Monday, July 27, 2009

What is the Mormon view of capital punishment?

Twice in the last week the death penalty has come up in conversation, and it got me thinking about it. The first was actually in a job interview: I recently applied to a government position that required occasional work on habeus actions, including some capital cases. The interviewer said the office had used conscience waivers in the past, but they were difficult to coordinate. I honestly hadn't given the death penalty much thought prior to that moment. In fact, I have been pretty agnostic on the subject. I don't really oppose it, but the death penalty isn't something I cheer about.

The topic came up again over the weekend as various news media outlets around the Southeast began to report on the jury selection process in a high-profile kidnapping-rape-murder trial of a Knoxville couple. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for all four defendants. Prosecutors are seeking the death penalty for all four defendants, and the cases are generating a enough controversy in Knoxville that the jury had to be picked from another city

My own ambivalence as to the death penalty doesn't mean other Mormons don't have strong feelings on the matter. Many Mormons feel that that capital punishment is inconsistent with Christian doctrines of forgiveness and mercy. Others oppose it because they feel that we should not judge in matters of life and death.

On the other hand, there are apparently some Mormons who believe in a theory of "blood atonement," where forgiveness of some sins can only be obtained by execution. There is some disagreement about what "blood atonement" means, but that's the gist of it. Clint wrote a post last February about a murder trial in Ogden, Utah, in which the defense attorney sought to exclude all Mormons from the jury who might believe in a "blood atonement." I've never known anyone who espoused this theory, but it apparently comes from a few statements made by Brigham Young and other Mormon leaders in the 19th Century. The theory definitely hasn't been taught in Mormon congregations in my lifetime, but it may have had some support as recently as fifty years ago. Take, for example, this excerpt from Joseph Fielding Smith's Doctrines of Salvation:

"Man may commit certain grievous sins... that will place him beyond the reach of the atoning blood of Christ.... If these offenses are committed, then the blood of Christ will not cleanse them from their sins even though they repent. Therefore their only hope is to have their own blood shed to atone..." (Doctrines of Salvation, Vol. 1, pp. 133-138)

I should note that this statement doesn't necessarily advocate capital punishment. It could just as well be interpreted as saying that forgiveness will have to wait until after an individual's death. Such an interpretation might not even be contrary to current Mormon teachings. But at least some people take it to mean that the death penalty should be administered in certain cases. Bruce R. McConkie also references the "blood atonement" theory by name in his oft-quoted Mormon Doctrine.

I notice that both Doctrines of Salvation and Mormon Doctrine aren't official publications of the Mormon Church, and both are known to include teachings that are disavowed by Mormon leaders. But both works are still used with some regularity by some Mormons, so perhaps it isn't surprising that some people would still believe in the blood atonement theory.

After my interview I thought about my opinion on capital punishment, and out of curiosity, I looked up the LDS Church's official statement on the subject. The official position is almost as ambivalent as my own:

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.

That official statement seems to expressly disavow any dogma that advocates the death penalty for certain offenders. I can't find any good information as to whether the "blood atonement" theory was ever an official doctrine of the LDS Church, but it seems safe to say that it isn't now. I also think it's safe to say that this belief is a rarity within Mormonism. If it was ever more prevalent among American Mormons, that has changed as Mormonism has evolved into a world religion. The majority of the membership of the Mormon Church lives outside the United States, and most countries do not even allow capital punishment.


  1. Thank you for taking a fair look at this and not getting wacky on one side or the other.

  2. Blood Atonement, as it was taught to me, is simply that one who has shed innocent blood (ie a murderer) has forfeited their own life. On that basis I support capital punishment.
    That being said, there is a grave responsibility to get it right, and I, for one, would rather see 10 guilty go free than 1 innocent punished unjustly. As the Willingham case has shown, courts do make mistakes, even in capital cases, and therefore I must oppose capital punishment.
    Clear enough?

  3. Thats funny you say that. I have a friend I stayed up extremely late debating this issue. He feels the opposite. He feels that the innocent should die so that we get it "mostly" right. Scary.

  4. This is not about who lives and who dies. It's about justice for the victim and their families who still mourn and will for a lifetime. Personally speaking of myself. I agree with A's friend. It is far better that the innocent die for they are innocent and God will bless them, Then, tall the guilty go unpunished and continue the line of thinking that they have when they committed their tragic crimes against the innocent that were murdered, raped and or violently attacked. The sickness and perversion of our society to preserve the wicked and forego the justice of the innocent is Cruel, to say the least. You talk about mercy, you talk about fairness and consider the wicked to have rights. They gave up their rights when they took away the life, rights, freedoms and liberties away from those that were murdered and violated. Immediate death to all that should do such horrible things to their fellow man.