Reflections on Mormon Violence on Whites and How We Recount It – part 1


I was surprised to learn the degree of violence in the early Mormon Utah, both against the large native population and against other settlers and emigrants.  This essay explores the violence against whites.  Common in all White American western colonization was the violent conquest over the Indians.  The Mormons are no exception.  However, the Mormons are unique in white on white violence.  Although lawlessness and violence were more common in all early western settlements and Utah had more “peace and order” than non-Mormon settlements[1], Utah was unique to motivate such violence by religious rhetoric and in committing a large scale white on white massacre.

The period 1856-8 is known as the Mormon Reformation.  Brigham Young and other church leaders were worried that the saints had grown apathetic towards their religious commitment.  In an effort to improve this, Young and other leaders went on a fiery preaching circuit, recommitting members using unbridled enthusiastic, violent, hell and damnation rhetoric.  The members expressed their recommitment by being re-baptized, entering into polygamous unions to live the higher law, and increasing meeting attendance.

This is also the period of the Utah War.  U.S. President James Buchanan sent thousands of U.S. troops under the leadership of General Johnston establish operations in Utah and replace Young with a new governor.

I have a number of questions about this period.  What is Brigham Young’s role in the violence?  What is the role of the violent rhetoric in leading to the realized violence?  What responsibility should be laid towards the leaders for their choice in rhetoric?  How might we apply these lessons today?  How should we react to violent rhetoric designed to incite fear in the hearts of listeners?

We have a danger of analyzing things in the binary.  Either someone is responsible or they are not.  Most members involved in the reformation and the Utah war reacted peacefully.  Are the exceptions just the reactions of rogue individuals, or do leaders hold some accountability for how even the most extreme listeners interpret their words?

Furthermore, this essay seeks to understand how we modern Mormons are also responsible.  “History is not the past,” James Baldwin said. “It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” As heirs of a culture and identity, we are responsible for how that culture continues.  Our culture is indebted to its history.  How we recount and remember our history dictates how the culture endures.  Only by telling the story frankly and without excuse can we, as a people, fully offer our apology and take responsibility for our part.  Juanita Brooks stated, “For truth suppressed is its own kind of a lie.”  May we not be complicit in it, either.  This essay explores, briefly, our telling of the story, and points to where some work is left.

On the Blood Atonement

One of the most alarming things heard from the pulpit, during this period, is Brigham Young’s blood atonement doctrine.  Having pondered and discussed the doctrine for over a decade in private, Brigham decided to repeatedly publicly preach it.[2]

by pioner prophet John Turner, author of the 2012 biography of Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet described it, “Atonement for sin required a blood penalty, one paid with temple sacrifices in ancient Israel and then satisfied in traditional Christian theology by Christ’s sacrifice.  Young, however, warned that the death of Jesus would not absolve all sins. “There are transgressors, 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.”[3]

“Young asked, “Will you love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood?  That is what Jesus Christ meant.”  In a chilling perversion of the golden rule, Young suggested that killing people before they had the opportunity to forsake their salvation “is loving our neighbor as ourselves.”[4]

Turner concludes, “Even if Young primarily considered the doctrine a prod to repentance, several brutal acts of violence indicated the dangerous nature of his rhetoric.”


A recent church essay discusses violence in the early Utah period.  They state,

“Aside from the Mountain Meadows Massacre, a few Latter-day Saints committed other violent acts against a small number of dissenters and outsiders. Some Latter-day Saints perpetrated acts of extralegal violence, especially in the 1850s, when fear and tensions were prevalent in Utah Territory. The heated rhetoric of Church leaders directed toward dissenters may have led these Mormons to believe that such actions were justified. … It is likely that in at least one instance, a few Latter-day Saints acted on this rhetoric.”

The essay does not point to which instance.  Based on the events discussed in Turner’s book, my best guess is that it was the murder of Thomas Lewis.


bishop warren snow
Bishop Warren G. Snow

On October 29, 1856 Manti bishop Warren Snow ordered the castration of Thomas Lewis.  A few weeks earlier, Lewis had been excommunicated because he had nearly killed someone with a shovel.  More recently, he had threatened to kill his brother in law and had been sentenced to five years in prison.  While being transported to the prison in Salt Lake City, he was taken out of the wagon, a blanket was put around his head, and his testicles removed.  The perpetrators then laid him out and left him two nights before he was found.  Elizabeth Jones, Thomas’s mother wrote Young asking if the incident was “right and righteous.”  Young responded by expressing sympathy and a theological justification, “I would prefer that any child of mine should lose his life in atonement for his sins than lose eternal salvation.”  On another occasion Young defended Bishop Snow, “I will tell you that when a man is trying to do right and does something that is not exactly in order I feel to sustain him”  Snow kept his bishopric.[5]


In this incident, Brigham Young did not order the murder, but after the fact justified it using the doctrine of blood atonement.  He felt it only a folly on the count of Bishop Snow, and not worth any ecclesiastical action.  When the federal Justice Cradlebaugh attempted to prosecute Snow, he fled arrest.

Parrish Murders

In January 1857, Brigham Young ordered the quiet execution or false imprisonment of John Ambrose and Thomas Betts, two horse thieves, recently released from the penitentiary on their way to California.  In writing local bishops, “We do not expect there would be any prosecutions for false imprisonment, or tale bearers left for witnesses.  Be on the lookout now and have a few trusty men ready in case of need to pursue, retake, and punish.”  Young had heard reports that the thieves would spread rumors about Mormon injustices after they reached California.

The orders were not taken out perfectly.  A group of men attacked a camp on the banks of the Santa Clara River.  Their intended target were Ambrose and Betts.  Instead, they injured four innocent men.

Additionally, Bishop Aaron Johnson of Springville thinking the directive applied generally to all apostates, used it to order an assassination.  William Parrish, reacted to the Mormon Reformation rhetoric by deciding to flee the territory.  Bishop Johnson identified Parish as a potential horse thief.  Bishop Johnson recruited spies to learn of Parrish’s plans.  The operation went awry.  Assassins killed William Parrish and his son William, but they also fatally shot Gardiner (“Duff”) Potter, one of the spies, in the process.

Four years later Young visited Springville.  He claimed that William Parrish was a horse thief sent by California gang to establish a Utah base of operations.  He told the congregation in Springville not to “whine” about Parrish’s death and joked about having “God Almighty … arrested from drowning the Egyptians in the Red sea.”  Young continued, “There has been a great deal done, quite a number killed, and I believe, many more ought to have been.”

Turner agrees with Young’s claim that there is no evidence to indicate Young had ordered the murder.  But, certainly Young agreed that more vigilantism ought to occur and even indicated that the murder was condoned by God.

The following two events were murders related to the Utah War.  Brigham Young had instituted a martial law banning migration into or out of the territory.

The Aiken Party

Six visitors from California entered the territory without a “permit” required by the martial law.  The Utahns determined they were spies sent by the Army.  Turner writes, “Young gave two of the men permission to winter in the territory.  The four others headed south toward California escorted by Porter Rockwell and several other men, who murdered them one hundred miles south of Salt Lake.  It seems probable that Young sanctioned their deaths.”

Richard Yates

For the past few years, he was a trader who worked in the South Pass and the Salt Lake Valley.  Yates sold gunpowder to the U.S. Army, and was therefore arrested.  A few days later, on October 18, Daniel Wells alerted Young that he sent “Yates on the road to the City, a prisoner in charge of William Hickman.”  Hickman wrote that he encountered Young’s son, Joseph Angell Young during this trip.  “He said that his father wanted that man Yates killed.”  That night, Daniel Jones, Hosea Stout, Hickman and two others brutally murdered Yates.  This tale was rejected by Wells, Young, and Jones.  After sorting through the contemporary evidence, Turner thinks Hickman’s account plausible.  Young instructed Wells “that no mountaineer be let to go at large whose operations are against us, or who are in favor of the enemy.”  Furthermore, “Bishop Callister has an undoubted right to cut off those whom he can’t fellowship.”  Thomas Callister was a Nauvoo Legion colonel at Fort Bridger.  “In this context, cut off implies murder.”

In October of 1872 Brigham Young and others were indicted for the murder of Yates.  In response, Young left Salt Lake, leaving at midnight.  He hid in Erastus Snow’s St. George mansion, instructing the local church leaders to plead ignorance if questioned by strangers about Young’s presence.  Once assured that his safety would be maintained, Young returned on December 26th, again at midnight.  He resided at his home under a loose house arrest.  Eventually, the judge’s court was nullified due to a technicality in another trial.  All indictments were forfeited. The Yates murder was never prosecuted.

How We Recount It

bh roberts comprehensive history
B.H. Roberts Comprehensive History of the Church in 6 vol (1930)

Although, I am no expert on any of this, as you can tell by only quoting John Turner’s biography, there are few Mormon friendly accounts of these events.  B. H. Robert’s Comprehensive History of the Church (1930) only gives a nod, in a footnote of volume IV, of the Parrish murders, the killing of the Aiken party, and “all other homicides committed in 1857, and in all antecedent years.”  He mentions them to comment that they were “done on the responsibility of the guilty individuals … The law of God has not lodged the right of capital punishment with the church.  Even if the church holds a trial … it becomes the duty of the church to turn over those guilty of the offenses worthy of death to the law of the land and its ministers.”

It is interesting to juxtapose Roberts’ statements and the essay’s declaration: “Much of the violence perpetrated by Latter-day Saints fell within the then-existing American tradition of extralegal vigilantism. … Such acts were at times fueled by religious rhetoric.”  Today, we now own the causality of the rhetoric and the level of responsibility that the church, as an institution, held towards these events.

Turner notes that the only other biography of Young that had by american mosesaccess to church archives and thus the opportunity to paint an accurate picture was Leonard Arrington’s 1985 biography of Brigham Young: American Moses.  However, it makes no mention of any of these events.[6]  As noted, the recent church essay does not discuss any of these specific events, and only utters “blood atonement” and the subsequent unnamed violent act in a footnote.  Clearly, there is more work to be done.


It is clear that Brigham rarely directed any specific murder.  Yet, he never directly condemned the murders, either.  Resorting to violent rhetoric is a violation of D&C 121 where authority in the priesthood is only to be used by persuasion and long suffering with gentleness and meekness.  Although it allows an early sharp reproof, it ought to be done under the cords of friendship and love, not distant and impersonal stump preaching.  The essay declares, although “nineteenth-century Americans were accustomed to violent language, both religious and otherwise,” today, “the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints condemns violent words and actions and affirms its commitment to furthering peace throughout the world.”



[1] See footnote 44 in the recent church essay.

[2] This doctrine didn’t end with Brigham Young, but appeared as late as Joseph Fielding Smith’s 1954 Doctrines of Salvation edited by his nephew Bruce R. McConkie. link.

[3] 21 September 1856, Journal of Discourses, 4:53

[4] 8 Feb 1857, Journal of Discourses, 4:219-220

[5] There one or two other records of castrations.  One, in John D. Lee’s Confessions, claims Bishop Snow castrated a man for not surrendering his betrothed to Snow (pg. 285).  In Extensions of Power, historian Michael D. Quinn cites a claim made in the journal of a soldier stationed in Utah about “two youths … castrated by Mormons.” One was courting a young woman a bishop desired.  To dispose the man, the bishop claimed the youth “had committed bestiality.”

[6] Or at least the index does not mention any of the names involved.  (I’ve only read bits of the book).


One thought on “Reflections on Mormon Violence on Whites and How We Recount It – part 1

  1. Framing repentance to require the sinner’s own blood misconstrues the atonement of Jesus Christ and our responsibility in the repentance process. It suggests the atonement forgot to cover an aspect of justice. Apparently the Savior’s death was not infinite and eternal because there is some part of justice left unmet that requires my blood. Such a scenario echos the questions posed to Joseph Smith while imprisoned in liberty jail “The Son of Man hath descended below [all things]. Art thou greater than he?” Don’t we have to be greater than the savior for the sacrifice our life to be sufficient enough to meet the demands of justice? However, 1 Corinthians 15: 22 suggests otherwise “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” My interpretation of being made alive in Christ is that his suffering in the garden, death and resurrection paid the demands of justice in full. Because He willingly paid with his life I do not have to pay with mine. The savior’s willingness seems to be a key element of His sacrifice. However, from my understanding of the Blood Atonement,and the examples you have cited here, it does not require the sinner to freely give of their life. Equating a reluctant sacrifice with a willing, perfect sacrifice is a false analogy lacking power unto salvation.

    Furthermore the Blood atonement misconstrues the doctrine of repentance. The Savior taught, “For behold, I, God, have suffered these things for all, that they might not suffer if they would repent” (D&C 19:16). He invites us to repent as it enables us to avoid His endless suffering “how sore you know not, how exquisite you know not, yea, how hard to bear you know not” (D&C 19:15). And neither do we need to know, as suffering the full demands of justice is avoided through repentance. My interpretation of repentance here is to engage in the process of becoming Christ like through spiritual formation. It is not meeting the demands of justice by some act of my own, rather it is becoming more willing to receive the divine gift of mercy. I do not see how someone taking my life makes me more willing to receive the ever merciful saving grace.

    Framing repentance to require the sinner’s own blood misconstrues obedience, or should I say disobedience. It suggests obedience is primarily based on works and leaves little room for obeying by faith. The distinction of obeying by doing and obeying through faith is rather critical. Strict obedience of actions leaves little to no room for mistakes. It makes heaven a meritocracy and promotes believers to exercise their faith in themselves with thoughts of “only if I worked hard enough, or did more of this , or did that more perfectly then I would measure up to heaven. It suggests that if we act good enough, we can then pay off our debt to justice with no need for our savior’s sacrifice. In other words the Savior’s suffering was unnecessary. However, in A God who Weeps LDS scholars point out the fallacy to this line of logic:

    “All talk about punishment and rewards, about justice and merit and deserts, can be wrongheaded and misleading. We are not in some contest to rack up points. We will not someday wait with bated breath to see what prizes or pain is meted out by a great dispenser of trophies. We cannot so trivialize life that we make of it a coliseum where we wage moral combat like spiritual gladiators, for a presiding Authority on high to save or damn according to our performance. Where would be the purpose in all that? He might take the measure of our souls at any moment and deal with us accordingly, saving Himself, not to mention us, a great deal of trouble.
    How much more meaningful is a life designed for spiritual formation, rather than spiritual evaluation. All tests evaluate, and life is no exception. But the most meaningful and productive tests are those that assess with an eye to improvement, that measures in order to remedy, and that improve and prepare us for the next stage in an upward process of advancement. For these reasons, all talk of heaven that operates in terms of earnings rather than becoming is misguided. Such ideas misconstrue the nature of God, His grace, and the salvation He offers.”

    In other words, the blood atonement misconstrues the nature of God and the plan of salvation by framing the gospel in terms of spiritual evaluation and leaves little room for spiritual formation. This false teaching does not measure to remedy nor does it prepares us for the next stage in our eternal progression because it has little tolerance for mistakes and falling short. Rather it promotes fear that I might loose my life if I sin enough. (Or worse, what happens if I die of natural causes and cannot spill my own blood to pay for my sins?) Thus, we are obeying out of fear and not love of God. This fear often takes the form of guilt and shame. However, the Book of Mormon frames obedience more accurately according to the plan of salvation. It presents obedience as a process of becoming rather than an end to be achieved: “And the days of the children of men were prolonged, according to the will of God, that they might repent while in the flesh; wherefore, their state became a state of probation, and their time was lengthened” (2 Nephi 2:21). Our time on earth is lengthened so we can make mistakes, repent, and become more god like. We have been given time to fully experience the learning and becoming process that is so fraught with errors. Why would we want to cut this valuable learning experience short? Such an extreme measure does not seem to be repentance as I understand it. Such a notion misconstrues both the nature of God and our relationship to him through obedience. It is based on a misunderstanding of the scriptures and the gospel of Jesus Christ.

    With regards to the blood atonement, Brigham Young was well intended but not inspired. The notion of taking one’s life as repentance is a dangerous, anti-Christ doctrine that encourages us to set ourselves up as the savior by regarding His sacrifice as insufficient. Rather than directing us to our Lord’s saving grace, it directs us inward looking to ourselves for salvation, as if I had power to save. It misconstrues the nature of God and the plan of salvation by promoting an unhealthy form of repentance and obedience. This false doctrine has no place in my gospel framework and any notion of it should be quickly disregarded before it causes any more harm, or drives anyone else out of the LDS faith.

    Unfortunately, this teaching managed to linger far longer than is spiritually healthy. Ideas conveyed with prophetic authority are not easily dismissed. Even though the blood atonement can be traced back to Brigham young, I remember my mother teaching me it as a young boy (we are talking the 1990’s not the 1890’s). The effects of this false doctrine are catastrophic when paired with teachings about chastity/morality as these contemporary examples illustrate:


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