Wild West? Gardner’s date with firing squad revives talk of a Mormon ‘teaching’ that refuses to die.
By Peggy Fletcher Stack
The Salt Lake Tribune
Updated: 05/21/2010 04:41:01 PM MDT
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.
The LDS Church disavows any connection to blood atonement, says spokesman Scott Trotter. “[It] is not a doctrine of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe in and teach the infinite and all-encompassing atonement of Jesus Christ, which makes forgiveness of sin and salvation possible for all people.”
The firing-squad option soon may be history, thanks to the Allen-led ban, but the mythic appeal of a bloody death as payment for sin persists in some Mormon quarters.
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.
Blood atonement has played a role in books about the 1977 execution of Gary Gilmore, in Jon Krakauer’s look at Mormonism and violence, in discussions of the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre, even in this year’s finale of HBO’s “Big Love.”
Just two years ago, defense attorneys for accused murderer Floyd Maestas, who is not LDS, asked prospective jurors if they were familiar with blood atonement and, if so, what it meant to them. The issue never came up at trial, and Maestas was convicted and sentenced to die by lethal injection.
If the LDS Church doesn’t preach blood atonement and the firing squad is virtually finished, why, then, does the notion linger in public and private conversations across the state and on the screen?
The answer may lie in history, symbolism and salvation.
Out of the past » As a young Mormon in Salt Lake City, legal scholar Martin R. Gardner heard adults attribute their support of capital punishment to this idea of blood atonement. As an LDS missionary in England in the late 1960s, he had a pamphlet, penned by the future Mormon prophet Joseph Fielding Smith, that described and defended the teaching.
“It was always around in the popular consciousness,” Gardner says in a phone interview from the University of Nebraska Law School, where he teaches criminal law.
In a 1979 article in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Gardner traced the teaching to Brigham Young, who believed even Christ’s atoning sacrifice for humanity could not cover some sins, including murder, apostasy and egregious sexual misbehavior.
“There are transgressors,” Young said in an 1856 sermon, “who, if they knew themselves, and the only condition upon which they can obtain forgiveness, would beg of their brethren to shed their blood, that the smoke thereof might ascend to God as an offering to appease the wrath that is kindled against them.”
Those sentiments were replayed often by the Mormon prophet and his two counselors in the governing First Presidency, Jedediah M. Grant and Heber C. Kimball, during the 1850s, “a period of intense Mormon revivalism bordering on fanaticism,” Gardner wrote in Dialogue .
The three also were key players in creating Utah’s first capital-punishment law in 1851, which offered killers the choice of being shot, hanged or beheaded (another blood-shedding option).
Perhaps the most famous execution was that of LDS Bishop John D. Lee, shot by firing squad in 1877 for his involvement in the 1857 slaughter of 120 men, women and children known as the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Lee, who clearly believed in blood atonement, according to historian Ronald W. Walker, sat on his coffin and said to the sharp shooters, “Center my heart, boys. Don’t mangle my body.”
In 1888, the Utah Territorial Legislature eliminated beheading but adopted similar language that remained state law until 1980, when lethal injection replaced hanging.
The firing squad remained.
Modern times » In one of Utah’s most notorious murder cases, Mormon Mark Hofmann forged dozens of LDS documents and, fearing discovery, killed two people with homemade pipe bombs in 1985.
Before Hofmann confessed, his father suggested that if guilty, his son would have to pay with his blood. Hofmann escaped the death penalty by pleading guilty to lesser charges and remains in prison.
Several years later, convicted child-killer Arthur Gary Bishop, who had been an Eagle Scout and Mormon missionary, worried about the state of his soul and whether salvation required his blood be spilled. Bishop consulted Gordon B. Hinckley, then a counselor in the LDS First Presidency and later the church president, who assured him that the method of execution made no difference to his place in the hereafter.
Hinckley said that blood atonement ended with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, according to sociologist L. Kay Gillespie, who described the exchange in The Unforgiven , a history of Utah’s executions.
Still, Bishop said in a letter written before his June 10 death by lethal injection that his refusal to fight his execution was a “necessary requirement because of my past heinous crimes.”
In 1994, attorneys for condemned child-killer James Edward Wood in Pocatello, Idaho, argued that his defense was undermined by a visit from local LDS leaders who talked to him about shedding his own blood. Wood, a Mormon, was sentenced to death after pleading guilty to abducting, murdering and then later sexually molesting and dismembering 11-year-old Jaralee Underwood.
In response to the defense’s allegations, the LDS First Presidency filed a document in an Idaho court denying the doctrine as it has been popularized. The church’s affidavit included a copy of a 1978 letter from LDS apostle Bruce R. McConkie to University of Utah law student Thomas McAfee, outlining the church’s position.
The Utah-based church supported capital punishment, the apostle wrote, but denied that blood atonement had anything to do with it.
Early church leaders’ statements about blood atonement “pertain to a theoretical principle that has been neither revealed to nor practiced by us,” wrote McConkie, who died in 1985. “I have never in over 60 years of regular church attendance heard a single sermon on the subject or even a discussion in any church class.”
Today, the LDS Church is neutral on the death penalty.
In the Mormon psyche » The symbolism of blood atonement mirrors the Christian story of Jesus’ death on the cross as a ransom for all humanity.
The 19th-century Mormon pioneers added an emphasis on self-sacrifice for sin as a way to appease an angry God, says Levi Peterson, a Mormon novelist and retired Weber State University professor of English. It may have particularly appealed to the settlers, who were coping with a bloody and death-filled era.
Mormon doctrine was “full of promised blessings for the obedient, blessings which were not forthcoming as the Saints were driven from pillar to post,” says Peterson, who now lives in Issaquah, Wash. “An obverse logic took over: The Saints were obviously remiss in their duties; they deserved to suffer; the quickest way back to divine favor was to inflict more suffering on themselves.”
Their approach, he says, would be similar to that of Roman Catholics during the Middle Ages in the aftermath of the plague, which decimated Europe. Religious orders in which members would flog themselves as penance “arose to deal with the psychological effect of the terrible scourge.”
The idea of self-punishing was central to the “guilt I inherited or felt in the people around me,” says Peterson, who was reared in a small Mormon community in northern Arizona. “We believed in a severe God who didn’t forgive easily. You had to pay with some kind of pain.”
Blood atonement also figured in Peterson’s novel The Backslider , when one character’s throat is cut to atone for his homosexual behavior and the protagonist considers killing himself for his continued sexual sins.
In 2010, these ideas may seem foreign to most members of the nearly 14 million-member LDS Church as it has moved far from its rural Utah roots, says Gardner, the Nebraska law professor and a member of his LDS stake’s high council. “I just don’t think people are aware of [blood atonement] anymore.”