Question: Was murder a crime that was "worthy of death" among 19th century Mormons?

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Question: Was murder a crime that was "worthy of death" among 19th century Mormons?

The allegation that murder was a crime worthy of death is based upon a quote from Joseph Smith during a Nauvoo City Council meeting

Joseph Smith said,

In debate, George A. Smith said imprisonment was better than hanging. I replied, I was opposed to hanging, even if a man kill another, I will shoot him, or cut off his head, spill his blood on the ground, and let the smoke thereof ascend up to God; and if ever I have the privilege of making a law on that subject, I will have it so.[1]

The quote above shows that Joseph preferred certain other modes of execution to hanging

It is apparent that Joseph Smith had an opinion regarding what should be done with a man who kills another. The quote above shows that Joseph preferred certain other modes of execution to hanging. However, this statement says little regarding the crimes for which this punishment would be applied, other than the statement "even if a man kill another."

The idea that murderers ought to be executed for their crimes is certainly not new or unique to Joseph Smith's time. Even today there is an ongoing and vigorous debate regarding the merits of capital punishment. The question here is whether or not this issue relates to blood atonement. Recall that the concept of "blood atonement" required that an apostate be willing to sacrifice his own life. This does not seem to relate to Joseph Smith's expressed preference regarding forms of execution.

It appears to have been Bruce R. McConkie who connected the form of execution with blood atonement

In his first edition of Mormon Doctrine, which was later recalled, Elder McConkie stated:

As a mode of capital punishment, hanging or execution on a gallows does not comply with the law of blood atonement, for the blood is not shed.[2]

Joseph Fielding Smith wrote:

...the founders of Utah incorporated in the laws of the Territory provisions for the capital punishment of those who wilfully shed the blood of their fellow men. This law, which is now the law of the State, granted unto the condemned murderer the privilege of choosing for himself whether he die by hanging, or whether he be shot and thus have his blood shed in harmony with the law of God; and thus atone, so far as it is in his power to atone, for the death of his victim. Almost without exception the condemned party chooses the latter death.[3]

The Tanners conclude that "[a]s long as the Mormon church teaches the doctrine of blood atonement there is probably little chance of Utah using a gas chamber or electric chair for the condemned murderer." Utah, however, replaced hanging with lethal injection in 1980. This provided two choices to the condemned: firing squad or lethal injection. If the condemned failed to make a choice, lethal injection was to be employed.[4]

Notes

  1. Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 volumes, edited by Brigham H. Roberts, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:296. Volume 5 link
  2. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 1958, p.314.
  3. Joseph Fielding Smith, Doctrines of Salvation, comp. Bruce R. McConkie, 3 vols., (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1954–56), 136.
  4. CAPITAL PUNISHMENT IN UTAH, Utah History Encyclopedia