Did Brigham Young Say He Would Kill an Adulterous Wife with a Javelin?

Mike Parker

Did Brigham Young Say that He Would Kill an Adulterous Wife with a Javelin?

It is a common practice for anti-Mormon critics to search through the sermons of early leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and pull out quotes that are shocking or disturbing to the more genteel sensibilities of Latter-day Saints. This is typically done without giving context for the quoted material.

One frequently used quote comes from Brigham Young:

Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; and under such circumstances, I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands.1

Removed from its context, this quote can be quite shocking to the modern reader, as it seems to condone violence in response to sin and the impossibility of repentance and forgiveness through Christ’s atonement.

This article will look at the background and context of Brigham’s statement. I have also included the entire relevant portion of his sermon at the end of this article so the reader can examine it for himself.2

Background

On 16 March 1856 President Brigham Young delivered an address in the Salt Lake Tabernacle, part of which concerned men and women being judged by God according to the knowledge they had obtained in mortality. He explained that the Latter-day Saints must “know and understand the peculiarities of our present organization, and how liable mankind are to submit to its weaknesses, and to the influences of the powers that rule over them.”3

This address came near the start of a period known as the Mormon Reformation, a movement initiated by Church leaders in 1856-57 to rekindle faith and testimony in what was perceived as a community sliding into spiritual apathy. This period is marked by fiery sermons by Brigham Young, Jedediah M. Grant, and other general Church authorities, who tried to encourage the Saints to recommit themselves to obedience to God and to their baptismal and temple covenants.4 Sometimes their sermonic rhetoric slipped into warnings of spiritual peril for those who committed serious sins. It was during this time that the doctrine of blood atonement was taught more forcefully than in any other period.

Martin Gardner explained:

Mormon doctrine teaches that Christ’s atonement unconditionally saves the entire human family from physical death, the separation of the body and spirit which results from Adam’s transgression. Christ’s atonement also saves man from spiritual death, alienation from God resulting from one’s actual sins, on the condition that the individual repent of his sins and obey God’s commandments. However, the doctrine of blood atonement posits that man can commit some sins so heinous that Christ’s sacrifice is unavailing, but the offender himself may partially atone for his sin by sacrificing his life in a way which literally sheds his blood. The spilling of blood is required because blood is viewed as possessing symbolic religious significance.5

Blood atonement was, in effect, a theological extension of capital punishment, requiring the offender to give his life because of the seriousness of his sins. The origin of this teaching is found in numerous scriptures, including Genesis 9:6 (“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.”).

In preaching the doctrine of blood atonement, Brigham did not claim that such a practice would be put into practice among the Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City in the 1850s. To the contrary, he explained in the same 16 March 1856 sermon:

When this people have lived long enough upon the earth, to have the principles of life and salvation disseminated among them, and to have their children taught in those principles, so that they fully know the principles of eternal salvation, then let us or our children turn away from the commandments of God, as some do now, and I could tell you what will be done with them.

Brother Wooley6 has said, the time is not far distant, but it will never come until the inhabitants of the earth, and especially those who have been gathered together, have a sufficient time to be educated in the celestial law, so that each person may understand for himself. Then if they transgress against the light and knowledge they possess, some will be stoned to death, and “judgment will be laid to the line, and righteousness to the plummet.”7 But people will never be taken and sacrificed for their ignorance, when they have had no opportunity to know and understand the truth. Such a proceeding would be contrary to the economy of heaven. But after we receive and understand things as they are, if we then disobey, we may look for the chastening hand of the Almighty.8

Note here that Brigham clearly indicates that the time when “blood atonement” would be practiced was far in the future, when the Latter-day Saints would be educated in (and therefore living under the requirements of) the celestial law.9

Until this time, he enjoined the Saints to be compassionate and forgiving of each others’ faults, knowing that they were as yet imperfect:

If we could learn ourselves, we should see thousands and thousands of weaknesses in the people. They turn to the right and to the left, to this and that which is wrong; yet if we did know and see things as they are, we should understand that thousands of those acts are performed in ignorance.

* * *

What are we going to do with this class of persons? I will tell you what I am going to do with them, so far as I am concerned. I am going to give them my faith, confidence, prayers, and full fellowship. And when they get through with this probation, if they have done, all the time, according to the best they knew, God will not hold them responsible for what they did not know, and they will be received, through the merits of the Son, into the kingdom of our Father.10

In response to the false allegations of the eastern press that Mormon apostates were routinely being “blood atoned,” Brigham declared:

From what is at times said here [in Salt Lake City], it might be inferred that every one who did not walk to the line was at once going to be destroyed, but who has been hurt? Who is about to be killed? Who is about to be taken out of the way?11

Despite the best efforts of anti-Mormon critics, no evidence has been uncovered of even a single instance of an apostate being “blood atoned” at the command of Church general authorities. There are a handful of instances when overzealous local leaders exercised punishment by death against offenders, but each of these aberrations12 are clear instances of counsel misunderstood and misapplied.

Brigham’s Justification for Blood Atonement in the Event of Adultery

During Brigham’s 16 March 1856 address, he took up the subject of those Latter-day Saints who made temple covenants of chastity and then broke them. He said:

I mention this to inform the people, that they may understand what they should do with regard to the law of God, and the transgression thereof. The law is very strict; and in this congregation there are men and women who, with uplifted hands to heaven, before the Father, the Son, and all the holy angels, made solemn covenants that they never would do thus and so. For example, one obligation is, “I will never have anything to do with any of the daughters of Eve, unless they are given to me of the Lord.”13 Men will call God to witness that they never will transgress this law, and promise to live a virtuous life, so far as intercourse with females is concerned; but what can you see? A year will not pass away before some few of them are guilty of creeping into widows’ houses, and into bed with the wives of their brethren, debauching one woman here, and another there. Do we enforce upon them the strict penalty of the law? Not yet. I hope their conduct arises from their ignorance, but let me transgress my covenant, and the case would be different. I want to live as long as I can, on the earth, but I would not like to live to violate my covenants; I would rather go behind the vail before doing so.

A few of the men and women who go into the house of the Lord, and receive their endowments, and in the most sacred manner make covenants before the Almighty, go and violate those covenants. Do I have compassion on them? Yes, I do have mercy on them, for there is something in their organization which they do not understand; and there are but few in this congregation who do understand it.14

Note here that Brigham specifically addressed those who were not sinning in ignorance, but against specific covenants of chastity made in the temple. He also explained that “the strict penalty of the law” was not enforced at that time; rather, mercy was extended to transgressors because “but few” understood the seriousness of their actions.

He continued:

You say, “That man15 ought to die for transgressing the law of God.” Let me suppose a case. Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; and under such circumstances. I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands. But you who trifle with your covenants, be careful lest in judging you will be judged.

Every man and women has got to have clean hands and pure heart, to execute judgment, else they had better let the matter alone.

Again, suppose the parties are not caught in their iniquity, and it passes along unnoticed, shall I have compassion on them? Yes, I will have compassion on them, for transgressions of the nature already named, or for those of any other description. If the Lord so order it that they are not caught in the act of their iniquity, it is pretty good proof that He is willing for them to live; and I say let them live and suffer in the flesh for their sins, for they will have it to do.16

With regard to the first part of the previous quotation, Brigham is actually taking this direction directly from scripture. In Numbers 25 we read that Israel, while traveling in the wilderness, camped for a while in Shittim. During this time the people of Israel began to commit sexual immorality and idolatry with the neighboring Moabites. Moses commanded the leaders of Israel who were engaged in this practice to be executed. At this very moment:

And, behold, one of the children of Israel came and brought unto his brethren a Midianitish woman in the sight of Moses, and in the sight of all the congregation of the children of Israel, who were weeping before the door of the tabernacle of the congregation. And when Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, saw it, he rose up from among the congregation, and took a javelin in his hand; and he went after the man of Israel into the tent, and thrust both of them through, the man of Israel, and the woman through her belly. So the plague was stayed from the children of Israel. And those that died in the plague were twenty and four thousand. (Numbers 25:6-9.)

Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron the high priest, acted quickly and decisively to save Israel from group responsibility for the gross sin of idolatrous sexuality. Rather than condemn Phinehas for this (to our modern eyes, brutal) act, the Lord bestowed upon him a great blessing:

And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Phinehas, the son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron the priest, hath turned my wrath away from the children of Israel, while he was zealous for my sake among them, that I consumed not the children of Israel in my jealousy.17 Wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace:18 And he shall have it, and his seed after him, even the covenant of an everlasting priesthood; because he was zealous for his God, and made an atonement for the children of Israel. (Numbers 25:10-13.)

Brigham Young read the Old Testament account of Phineas and took a modern, literal interpretation of it, applying a principle of ancient Israel to his own modern Israel. He indicated that a man “with clean hands” who had not “trifled with his covenants” could exercise capital punishment on the spot upon someone who had committed the gross sin of adultery, which is only next to murder in seriousness.19

In the rest the preceding quote, Brigham set a high standard for someone who would take it upon himself to carry out such punishment: “But you who trifle with your covenants, be careful lest in judging you will be judged. Every man and women has got to have clean hands and pure heart, to execute judgment, else they had better let the matter alone.” And he indicated that such a punishment would not be acceptable for those who were not caught in the act.

Twenty-four thousand Israelites died as a result of their immorality; the Lord praised Phinehas for acting quickly and saving the remaining Israelites from destruction. Sectarian anti-Mormon critics are quick to excuse Moses and his followers for killing 24,000 people, while condemning Brigham Young–“the American Moses”–who only endorsed such behavior.

Conclusion

While Brigham’s example seems to us extreme, we need to keep in mind the spirit of his time. He was speaking forcefully to a group of spiritually apathetic Saints to remind them of the seriousness of the covenants they had made. He took an Old Testament scenario–one in which an Israelite had killed another sexually immoral Israelite–and applied it to his own time and people.

Before our critics go after Brigham Young for his views on blood atonement, they need to deal with comparable passages in their own Bible.

Appendix

Journal of Discourses 3:245-47

[p. 245] I will now speak upon another subject; one which I have touched upon many times, but which, to this day, is but little understood. I allude to the organization of the spirit and the body, the distinction between the two, and their operations. This subject is not well understood, and generally not much reflected upon, but is one which the Saints have got to learn, if they ever learn the real organization of man. Then they will know and understand the peculiarities of our present organization, and how liable mankind are to submit to its weaknesses, and to the influences of the powers that rule over them.

Were you in possession of this knowledge, you would be more compassionate. As severely as I sometimes talk to you, my soul is full of compassion. It has ever been my study to understand myself, for by so doing I can understand my neighbors.

If this people would apply their minds to wisdom, with regard to themselves, they would be more compassionate than they are now.

From what is at times said here, it might be inferred that every one who did not walk to the line was at once going to be destroyed, but who has [p. 246] been hurt? Who is about to be killed? Who is about to be taken out of the way? When this people have lived long enough upon the earth, to have the principles of life and salvation disseminated among them, and to have their children taught in those principles, so that they fully know the principles of eternal salvation, then let us or our children turn away from the commandments of God, as some do now, and I could tell you what will be done with them.

Brother Wooley has said, the time is not far distant, but it will never come until the inhabitants of the earth, and especially those who have been gathered together, have a sufficient time to be educated in the celestial law, so that each person may understand for himself. Then if they transgress against the light and knowledge they possess, some will be stoned to death, and “judgment will be laid to the line, and righteousness to the plummet.” But people will never be taken and sacrificed for their ignorance, when they have had no opportunity to know and understand the truth. Such a proceeding would be contrary to the economy of heaven. But after we receive and understand things as they are, if we then disobey, we may look for the chastening hand of the Almighty.

If we could learn ourselves, we should see thousands and thousands of weaknesses in the people. They turn to the right and to the left, to this and that which is wrong; yet if we did know and see things as they are, we should understand that thousands of those acts are performed in ignorance.

I presume there are people hearing me talk, who would give the riches of the Indies, if they had them in their possession, to be able to obtain the mind and will of God concerning themselves. They would give all they possess on the earth, or expect to possess, were they in possession of keys by which they could know the path to walk in. What are we going to do with this class of persons? I will tell you what I am going to do with them, so far as I am concerned. I am going to give them my faith, confidence, prayers, and full fellowship. And when they get through with this probation, if they have done, all the time, according to the best they knew, God will not hold them responsible for what they did not know, and they will be received, through the merits of the Son, into the kingdom of our Father.

I mention this to inform the people, that they may understand what they should do with regard to the law of God, and the transgression thereof. The law is very strict; and in this congregation there are men and women who, with uplifted hands to heaven, before the Father, the Son, and all the holy angels, made solemn covenants that they never would do thus and so. For example, one obligation is, “I will never have anything to do with any of the daughters of Eve, unless they are given to me of the Lord.” Men will call God to witness that they never will transgress this law, and promise to live a virtuous life, so far as intercourse with females is concerned; but what can you see? A year will not pass away before some few of them are guilty of creeping into widows’ houses, and into bed with the wives of their brethren, debauching one woman here, and another there. Do we enforce upon them the strict penalty of the law? Not yet. I hope their conduct arises from their ignorance, but let me transgress my covenant, and the case would be different. I want to live as long as I can, on the earth, but I would not like to live to violate my covenants; I would rather go behind the vail before doing so.

[p. 247] A few of the men and women who go into the house of the Lord, and receive their endowments, and in the most sacred manner make covenants before the Almighty, go and violate those covenants. Do I have compassion on them? Yes, I do have mercy on them, for there is something in their organization which they do not understand; and there are but few in this congregation who do understand it.

You say, “That man ought to die for transgressing the law of God.” Let me suppose a case. Suppose you found your brother in bed with your wife, and put a javelin through both of them, you would be justified, and they would atone for their sins, and be received into the kingdom of God. I would at once do so in such a case; and under such circumstances, I have no wife whom I love so well that I would not put a javelin through her heart, and I would do it with clean hands. But you who trifle with your covenants, be careful lest in judging you will be judged.

Every man and women has got to have clean hands and pure heart, to execute judgment, else they had better let the matter alone.

Again, suppose the parties are not caught in their iniquity, and it passes along unnoticed, shall I have compassion on them? Yes, I will have compassion on them, for transgressions of the nature already named, or for those of any other description. If the Lord so order it that they are not caught in the act of their iniquity, it is pretty good proof that He is willing for them to live; and I say let them live and suffer in the flesh for their sins, for they will have it to do.

There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it; and the judgments of the Almighty will come, sooner or later, and every man and woman will have to atone for breaking their covenants. To what degree? Will they have to go to hell? They are in hell enough now. I do not wish them in a greater hell, when their consciences condemn them all the time. Let compassion reign in our bosoms. Try to comprehend how weak we are, how we are organized, how the spirit and the flesh are continually at war.

Notes

1 Brigham Young, “Instructions to the Bishops, Etc.,” Journal of Discourses, reported by G.D. Watt 16 March 1856, Vol. 3 (London: Latter-Day Saint’s Book Depot, 1856), 247. The entire sermon is on pages 243-249.

2 The complete sermon can be found online at http://journals.mormonfundamentalism.org/Vol_03/refJDvol3-36.html (accessed 7 October 2004).

3 Brigham Young, “Instructions to the Bishops, Etc.,” Journal of Discourses, 3:245.

4 The Mormon Reformation began after the death of Willard Richards and the subsequent selection of Jedediah M. Grant as second counselor in the First Presidency in April 1854. Grant seemed to be the impetus of the reformation, and Brigham Young seemed to accept it on something of an experimental basis to see if the Saints could be “scared” or “threatened” into keeping the commandments. Many of the harsher sermons of Brigham Young and other leaders on such things as blood atonement appear during the two year period of the reformation, 1856-1857. Brigham determined that this method wasn’t working, and he then discontinued this method of preaching. In 1861 he said “People are not to be driven, and you can put into a gnat’s eye all the souls of the children of men that are driven into heaven by preaching hell-fire.” (JD 9:124). (See Paul H. Peterson, “Brigham Young and the Mormon Reformation,” in The Lion of the Lord, edited by Susan Easton Black and Larry C. Porter, [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1995], 258.)

5 Martin R. Gardner, “Mormonism and Capital Punishment: A Doctrinal Perspective, Past and Present.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 12/1 (Spring 1979), 10.

6 Brigham is referring to Edwin D. Woolley, who was, at the time, bishop of the Thirteenth Ward in Salt Lake City. He frequently spoke in the Salt Lake Tabernacle. He had likely spoken previous to Brigham in the same setting, but his sermon was not recorded and published in the Journal of Discourses, so it is difficult to determine exactly what statements Brigham was responding to. (My thanks to Elden Watson for helping me with this identification.)

7 A quotation from Isaiah 28:17.

8 Brigham Young, “Instructions to the Bishops, Etc.,” Journal of Discourses, 3:246, emphasis added.

9 It is quite apparent that this day still has yet to arrive.

10 Brigham Young, “Instructions to the Bishops, Etc.,” Journal of Discourses, 3:246, emphasis added.

11 Ibid., 245-246.

12 Individual, localized instances of ecclesiastically imposed capital punishment can be reasonably assumed to be aberrations in the absence of more formal evidence indicating a pattern of such punishment dictated from the Church hierarchy, or a pervasive pattern that would indicate widespread implementation of such punishment. Despite the efforts of amateur and professional historians, such a pattern has never been uncovered or demonstrated.

13 “Have anything to do” is a nineteenth-century euphemism for illicit sexual relations. The wording of this covenant has been updated in the modern temple endowment ceremony to eliminate any confusion by today’s Latter-day Saints.

14 Brigham Young, “Instructions to the Bishops, Etc.,” Journal of Discourses, 3:246-247.

15 Referring to one who had made temple covenants of chastity. See the previous paragraph for context.

16 Ibid., 247.

17 The Hebrew word here indicates zeal, the force of the Lord’s determination to enforce right and wrong in the covenant community.

18 Also translated “my pledge of friendship” (NAB). This indicates leadership among the Aaronic priests. Compare Malachi 2:4-5.

19 See Alma 39:3-5.

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