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

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

The critics who claim that stealing was a crime worthy of death are misrepresenting the words of Brigham Young. This is the way critics Jerald and Sandra Tanner present the quote. Note the portions of the quote that have been omitted:

If you want to know what to do with a thief that you may find stealing, I say kill him on the spot, and never suffer him to commit another iniquity... if I caught a man stealing on my premises I should be very apt to send him straight home, and that is what I wish every man to do.... this appears hard, and throws a cold chill over our revered traditions ... but I have trained myself to measure things by the line of justice.... If you will cause all those whom you know to be thieves, to be placed in a line before the mouth of one of our largest cannon, well loaded with chain shot, I will prove by my works whether I can mete out justice to such persons, or not. I would consider it just as much my duty to do that, as to baptize a man for the remission of his sins (Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, pp.108-9).

Looking at the first part of that quote, with some of the missing parts restored, and the Tanners' quote mining highlighted:

If you want to know what to do with a thief that you may find stealing, I say kill him on the spot, and never suffer him to commit another iniquity. That is what I expect I shall do, though never, in the days of my life, have I hurt a man with the palm of my hand. I never have hurt any person any other way except with this unruly member, my tongue. Notwithstanding this, if I caught a man stealing on my premises I should be very apt to send him straight home, and that is what I wish every man to do, to put a stop to that abominable practice in the midst of this people.

I know this appears hard, and throws a cold chill over our revered traditions received by early education. I had a great many such feelings to contend with myself, and was as much of a sectarian in my notions as any other man, and as mild, perhaps, in my natural disposition, but I have trained myself to measure things by the line of justice, to estimate them by the rule of equity and truth, and not by the false tradition of the fathers, or the sympathies of the natural mind. If you will cause all those whom you know to be thieves, to be placed in a line before the mouth of one of our largest cannon, well loaded with chain shot, I will prove by my works whether I can mete out justice to such persons, or not. I would consider it just as much my duty to do that, as to baptize a man for the remission of his sins. That is a short discourse on thieves, I acknowledge, but I tell you the truth as it is in my heart.[1]

Notice how Brigham's statement that he has never harmed a man except with his tongue is carefully excised from the quote by the critics

Also notice that there is no mention of blood atonement, apostasy, or a willingness to give one's life to atone for some grievous sin. Brigham is simply expressing his disgust with thievery.

Brigham's remark was made in 1853—the Saints were in the midst of a serious struggle for subsistence in the Salt Lake Valley. Famine was often a real threat in these years. Those who thieved from their neighbors under such conditions put others' well-being and even lives at risk. If livestock were stolen, for example, this reduced a man's ability to plow his fields or do other animal-powered work. Such theft also took food and dairy animals from poverty-stricken settlers. Supplies, machinery, hardware, tools, or other items imported at great effort from the east could not be easily replaced in the Territory, even had the Saints had the money to do so.

The frontier was also known for lawless behavior among some, far from military or police power. Under these conditions, thievery could well result in the suffering and death of victims and others in their communities—hence Brigham's determination to stamp it out.

Notes

  1. ↑ Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses 1:108-109.