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.