Lincoln on Blood Atonement

Today on my way to work, I passed by the Lincoln Memorial where the great man’s sermon on blood atonement is inscribed in marble. Blood atonement is a doctrine often ascribed to 19th century Mormons. There is a bit of disagreement about what it means. Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball gave some sermons saying that there were some sins for which a person could not get forgiveness except by the shedding of their own blood, and when truly convinced of their guilt the sinners would welcome the shedding of their blood. To what extent this was meant as a literal statement and to what extent it was simply a rhetorical flourish has been disputed. Also, there was a persistent belief among non-Mormons that the Mormons believed that the supposed doctrine gave them a duty to spill the blood of certain sinners as a way of insuring their forgiveness in the hereafter. The idea of redemption through bloodshed, however, was not an idea confined to rhetorical excesses of the Mormon Reformation of the 1850s, the “culture of violence” that D. Michael Quinn claims to have discovered among 19th century Mormons, or the imagination of Arthur Conan Doyle and other novelists with Mormon villains. Consider this passage from Lincoln’s second inaugural address, delivered in early 1865 as the Civil War was winding to a close:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Now obviously, this passage can be read in a number of ways. It could simply be an invocation of the retributive justice of God. America was being visited with a collective punishment for its collective sins. One might argue that the sermons of Brigham and Heber are simply exercises in the same rather bloody-minded retributive rhetoric. Yet, reading between the lines, I think that Lincoln has in mind something more than simply punishment. Rather, he sees the bloodshed of the war as a prelude to redemption, to “a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” In a sense, his second inaugural is a recognition that America’s sin has been so great that rather than resisting the calamities send by an angry God the nation must admit that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” I don’t know to what extent there is some sort of a genetic relationship between the rhetoric of Lincoln and Brigham. Perhaps they both drank from some common spiritual and literary well in Illinois in the 1840s. Perhaps not. The parallel, however, provided something to enliven my commute.

8 comments for “Lincoln on Blood Atonement

  1. This post brought to mind D&C 101:79-80:

    79 Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another.
    80 And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the shedding of blood.

  2. Interesting cite Danithew. While it could be read as simply a reference to the Atonement (Garden & Cross); that seems out of context. This seems to be a claim that the “shedding of blood” was part of the redemption of America per the speaker, Jesus Christ. Hm…

  3. Some of the Jewish scholars mentioned in the Talmud talk about capital punishment being a way for the community to purge itself of sin and/or a way to help the sinner. They believed that putting the sinner to death would prevent them from having to undergo more serious punishments in the life after. Consider in this context Joshua 7 and the story of Achan, who was put to death in order to turn away the Lord’s anger.

  4. ” I don’t know to what extent there is some sort of a genetic relationship between the rhetoric of Lincoln and Brigham. Perhaps they both drank from some common spiritual and literary well in Illinois in the 1840s.”

    Probably the Bible. Here’s St. Paul to the Hebrews, e.g., ( ):

    “And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission [of sins]

    The italicized portion was John Brown’s favorite quotation from the Bible.

  5. Here’s another quote from the mutual source. Genesis 9:6–“Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed.”

    It’s interesting that Lincoln is explicitly talking about blood for blood, not just blood for sins. So do most modern Mormon versions of blood atonement, though its not through very well, since its used to justify the death penalty for murder, not just for murder by shooting or knifing or other forms of bloodshed. Taken literally, this would imply that killings that cause blood to spill are worse than other kind, perhaps because of some notion of the violation of bodily integrity.

  6. I tend to think that Brigham Young et al. probably deserve some blame for “blood atonement” killings in Nauvoo and pioneer Utah regardless of their intent. If you give a bunch of sermons discussing slitting people’s throats as a punishment for sins, and then people who have supposedly sinned turn up with their throats slit, it’s hard to see that as a coincidence. At the very least, Brother Brigham used quite irresponsible rhetoric, I think.

  7. RoastedTomatoes: I tend to think that there is some truth to what you say, although how wide spread such killings were is open to debate — I think that Quinn and Bigler (the two people who have written the most on this) tend to overstate their case. If you look at it, one of the remarkable things is how bloody-minded 19th century American rhetoric often was. Furthermore, people acted on the rhetoric. Here in particular I am thinking of the rhetoric surrounding slavery prior to the Civil War, bleeding Kansas, John Brown, etc. I think that a tendency to think of the 19th century as the good ole days prior to the rise slasher movies and Columbine often causes us to forget how truely violent 19th century society was.

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