Firing squad as ‘blood atonement?’

I guess GetReligion gets results.

Last month, after a Utah death-row inmate chose a firing squad as his form of execution, I complained about the pitiful coverage of the religion angle. In the comments section, reader Chas Clifton brought up an angle that I had not even considered:

I had been under the impression that the firing squad option reflected a Mormon doctrine (or an older interpretation of a doctrine) of “blood atonement.”

Otherwise, the favored “Old West” method of execution was hanging.

Has anyone asked an LDS theologian?

Flash forward a few weeks, and this is the top of a meaty, 1,650-word story by The Salt Lake Tribune’s Godbeat pro Peggy Fletcher Stack:

After convicted killer Ronnie Lee Gardner announced last month his intention to be executed by firing squad, national and international reporters suggested it was a throwback to the wild, wild West.

Some Utahns, though, had a different explanation for why such an anachronistic execution technique remained an option in the 21st century: blood atonement.

The term refers to an arcane LDS belief that a murderer must shed his own blood — literally — to be forgiven by God. Since Mormon pioneers first entered the valley in 1847 until today, most of Utah’s formal executions (until recent decades) have been by firing squad, which is a lot bloodier than hanging or lethal injection.

When Rep. Sheryl Allen, R-Bountiful, began proposing elimination of the firing-squad option in the late 1990s, the LDS Church itself did not object. Yet talk of blood atonement percolated “in quiet, backroom discussions,” she recalls. “A couple of people in prominent positions said to me, ‘We’ve got to have blood atonement.’ ”

By 2004, Allen says, all mention of the Mormon concept “just went away” and the measure passed.

Religion News Service picked up Stack’s story Monday and distributed a wire-length version for national use.

Now, we are much too modest to suggest that the discussion on GetReligion contributed to this excellent piece of journalism. Actually, no, we’re not. But in this case, we really have no way of knowing, so we’ll just throw the notion out there and see if it sticks. Smile.

In all seriousness, this story has it all: politics, history and, yes, religion. It’s chock full of details that help the reader understand the meaning and significance of “blood atonement” in Mormon quarters — in the past and now. Stack even digs up a quote from the death-row inmate himself that raises the possibility of blood atonement as a factor in his decision to choose a firing squad:

Even Gardner, who still could choose the firing squad for his scheduled June 18 execution because his original sentencing preceded the law change, told the Deseret News in 1996 that he would sue for the right to die that way.

“I guess it’s my Mormon heritage,” he told the paper.

I could go on, but I’d rather you just read the story. It’s worth your time. Then come back here and let me know what I missed. Who knows — we might inspire a follow-up.

After all, GetReligion gets results.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    This reminds me of a chant I loved during my naive hippie youth phase: “Power to the people, right on” :-)

  • Bobby

    Jerry, we may require photographic evidence of that phase. :-)

  • Joel

    Nothing more embarrassing than a typo splashed across the whole internet on a video news story. “Sentance?”

  • Bobby

    Hadn’t noticed that, Joel. Thanks for the heads-up. I found the same video without the spelling error and posted it.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Fletcher, as usual, writes an entirely suspect article.

    She has not dealt with what actual theologians have said. The last person to support the theory that spilling blood was publicly required was Joseph Fielding Smith, and he died in 1972 at the age of 95.

    Lowell M. Snow, now a member of the Second Quorum of the Seventy, wrote the article in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism on Blood Atonoment. This publication was published in 1992. Snow specifically states that blood atonement has never been practiced by the Church.

    Most importantly about Brigham Young’s statements about the need for the shedding of blood Snow states “This view is not a doctrine of the Church and has never been practiced by the Church at any time”.

    The notion that blood atonment would require a firing squad is even a bigger jump. It is extremely suspect that Fletcher can not name even one person who opposed the end of the firing squad on religious grounds. The fact that the leaders of the Church in no way support or encorage the notion of blood atonment, and even in the case of Joseph Fielding Smith he only wrote his thoughts on the matter in response to the false charges that the Church actually organizes the killing of apostates, this whole discussion is suspect.

    At heart blood atonment is part of the myth of Mormons murdering apostates that is advanced by certain apostates themselves, who are always spoken for in the Tribune.

    Fletcher always seeks to find a way to rip on the Church in her articles. The notion that everything about Utah is a direct reflection of the fact that it is majority Mormon is very unsophisticated at best.

    Utah has one of the most strigent anti-state support of religion provisions in its state constitution of any state. This more reflects the fact that Utah became a state when congress was forcing Blaine Admendments down the throughts of every new state than it reflects and particular issue related to Utah.

    Another thing that is ignored in this whole matter is that Utah very rarely executes anyone. Even on a per-capita basis Texas executes way more criminals than Utah. I think the form of execution is way over emphasized.

    The very fact that the firing squad is a public form that requires recruiting multiple participants makes it extremely rare.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Case Clifton,
    Since much of the text of the Encyclopedia of Mormonism has been put on-line by Light Planet, specifically the article on Blood Atonment, it would have been very easy to learn that Blood Atonment is not a Mormon Doctrine and never has been.

    True to the Faith a 2004 publication authorized and supervised by the First Presidency that sumerizes Church doctrine makes no mention of blood atonment.

    There are people in Utah who believe in blood atonement as a clear doctrine, especially since this is one of the teachings of the various groups usually described as “polygamists”.

    This actually points out one of the major problems with newpaper religious reporting. Often religious reporting focuses on the outward symptoms instead of the inward disagreements.

    Although polygamy is the most widely seen and percieved break between the “polygamists” and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it is by no means the only break.

    At heart the break is over whether there is a living prophet who recieves guidance from the Lord, or if the earlier prophets set down an unalterable order.

    Other issues include whether leadership in the Church is publicly passed in open channels, or whether there is some authority that is gained and transmitted secretly.

    Even polygamy is not the only outward issue. While Mormons espouse a standard of modesty, wearing shorts and short sleeves are done, where as at least some of the break-away groups go for long sleeves, and covering the legs all the way down. However, there are so many break away groups, many that broke away from other break away groups, that one should avoid too many assumptions.

    Ordination of blacks to the priesthood is another breaking point. Although Joseph Smith did ordain black men to the priesthood without restriction, and some ordinations occured later after a general policy against doing so was adopted, in most cases the Church did not ordain men of known African-descent to the priesthood prior to 1978.

    While at times I wonder if not playing up this division point is a result of anti-Mormon bias, especially since Huffpo descibed the policy as preventing “non-whites” from recieving the priesthood, when in 1975 Adney Y. Komatsu, a Hawaiian of Japanese descent, was called as an Assitant to the Quorum of the 12, making him one of the 30 top leaders worldwide in the Church.

    Even the break-away groups do not hold as extreme a view as Huffpo speaks of. Some such groups in Mexico have had members of at least partial indigenous descent, and a whole group of these people claim to be able to operate totally on their own because they claim the presiding authority was given to an unknown Indian prophet in the Yucatan about 80 years ago, so until he reveals himself or the person he gave the authority to reveals himself, there will be no one to regulate their actions.

    However after the 1978 revelation one of the break-away groups took out ads in the Salt Lake Tribune seeking to gain people who were displeased with the revelation opening the priesthood to all worthy men regardless of race or color.

    A black LDS man I know who joined the Church about that time insists many members left over this issue, however I do not know the numbers. Even of those who became disaffected at that point, I would be surprised if most joined “polygamists” groups.

  • John Pack Lambert

    Since “blood atonement” is at least to some extent connected with “polygamist” groups this has lead me to contemplate the misinterpretation of this whole issue by the media.

    At times the media (especially the Tribune, but also probably the produces of a horrible sitcom that I will not name) want to prove that there are lots of polygamists in Utah.

    Besides the fact that no one has done adequate studies of polygamy in other parts of the US, the studies are inherently flawed for other reasons.

    The number batted around as if it is the gospel truth is 33,000. With Utah having about 2.7 million inhabitants this is slightly under 2% of the population.

    However this is very misleading. If you look at the studies closely you will find they estimate people in Utah, Arizona, west Texas (YFZ Ranch), Colorado, Montana, Idaho and British Columbia. People in some other areas may show up as well.

    Warren Jeffs’ FLDS Church is actually headquartered in Colorado City, Arizona.

    However the bigger issue is who is counted as a polygamist. This is everyone in this area who in some way views polygamy is acceptable. One does not have to have multiple wives, be the wife of a man with multiple wives or have a parent with multiple wives, or even a mother who has remarried into a family with multiple wives to count.

    At least one of the children taken from the YFZ ranch was the child of a monogomous couple. Thus these studies cover ideology not practice. However, even there it is hard to be sure. There are lots of “independents” in the polygamy movement. These are people who at some level assert the acceptability of polygamy but are not at all connected with any polygamous organization. Many of these people do not actually practice polygamy.

    The most interesting counting is of the so-called “Lost Boys”, at least if they have not proactively identified with other philosphies. The lost boys are young men who have been kicked out of the Colordo City/Hilldale Twin Towns. Saying more on this is hard.

    If we were to do a study of polygamy in New York City or Minnesota, we would probably be told we needed to limit our count to people who lived in polygamous households or families. We would have teenaged children who had fled home and were living on the streets excluded from our count, and we probably would be forced to exclude Imams who had knowingly performed polygamists marriages if said Imam only had one wife.

    Thus, even if someone tried to compare polygamy rates across the country, the results would be totally different that comparison would be impossible.

  • mack

    It sounds like to me with all the easy research Bobby could have done not to mention the fact that the artcle it self states that blood atonement is not church doctrine.
    Bobby has as much as an ax to grind as does Peggy Fletcher Stack.

  • Polly

    Firing squad has absolutely nothing to do with the LDS church. I have a difficult time accepting a news article as “factual” and “fair” when it throws in info that isn’t even real. Based solely on that reporting, I would have no reason to believe anything that reporter writes about any religion, any geographical area, because she obviously can’t find a viable “angle” without making stuff up.

  • Becca

    Bobby, thanks for highlighting this article. I read it the other day and thought it was a very thorough treatment of the issue. As a practicing Mormon I have never once heard blood atonement refered to at church or in theological texts as a doctrine of the church. I think Fletcher does a wonderful job outlining the history of the “doctrine” and I appreciate her referencing leading theological sources such as Bruce R. McConkie and Gordon B. Hinckley.

  • Jettboy

    “Now, we are much too modest to suggest that the discussion on GetReligion contributed to this excellent piece of journalism. Actually, no, we’re not. But in this case, we really have no way of knowing, so we’ll just throw the notion out there and see if it sticks. Smile.”

    Bobby, Your ignorance of Mormon culture just keeps on showing with this statement. I know it was in jest, but the joke falls flat because of its absurdity. The controversy of “Blood Atonement” has been around for a very long time. Having this subject come up in connection with what the convict said is like a newspaper shooting fish in a barrel. If you were familiar with the Salt Lake Tribune (and Peggy Fletcher Stack) it would be obvious that no, GetReligion most assuredly did not have an influence. I would suggest going back and reading past posts here at this very blog. This particular writer is mentioned specifically for her stories on Mormonism as she loves the topic.

    Its not that I have anything against you personally. Its just that your credibility to cover Mormonism continues to be a question. The few posts written make a big deal about things that are actually rather common in the religious community you are reviewing.