Question: Were adultery and immorality crimes that were "worthy of death" among 19th century Mormons?

Table of Contents

Question: Were adultery and immorality crimes that were "worthy of death" among 19th century Mormons?

This assumption is based upon a well-known "javelin" quote from Brigham Young

Among the various references used to "prove" that adultery is "punishable by death," the critics employ a well known quote from Brigham Young. Here is the quote as the Tanners present it:

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....

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 ... (Journal of Discourses, vol. 3, p.247).

As is always the case with the Tanners' work, it is always a good idea to fill in the parts that they omit in order to find out what Brigham was actually talking about. Here is the same quote with the parts mined by the Tanners highlighted.

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 a 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.

It is clear that the point of Brigham's story is not to claim that adultery was "punishable by death"

There are a few things that are important to note.

  1. Brigham is talking about the breaking of covenants. The adultery example was used to illustrate a point.
  2. Brigham was talking about having compassion for those people.
  3. Brigham's reference to the use of a javelin was taken directly from Numbers 25:6-9.

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)

It is clear that the point of Brigham's story is not to claim that adultery was "punishable by death." Brigham was relating a modern, literal interpretation of the Old Testament account of Phineas.[1]

Notes

  1. ↑ Mike Parker, Did Brigham Young Say that He Would Kill an Adulterous Wife with a Javelin?, FAIR Web Site