I recently sat down with Polly Aird and Levi Peterson to discuss Polly’s recent book, Mormon Convert, Mormon Defector (reviews here, here, and here). This volume is a biography of Peter McAuslan, who converted to the Mormon church in Scotland, then immigrated to Utah just in time for the challenges of the mid 1850’s, the Mormon reformation, and the Utah War. There is no question that this was a jarring transition.
Levi made some comments about “blood atonement” preaching, which was most emphatic during and generally limited to the Reformation era. Looking for a reason for the doctrine’s existence, Levi hypothesized that bloodlust is an essentially human character and that the 1850s were an incubator for its manifestation. I don’t disagree that humans are a rather violent bunch. However, I think that blood atonement rhetoric arose from an Old Testament providential world-view.
The Latter-day Saints viewed themselves not just as a metaphorical Israel, but that they were actually creating the new State of Israel in the Great Basin. God delivered them from the apostate United States and they settled in a land with their own Dead Sea and River Jordan. There are some interesting anomalies that arise from this cultural recapitulation—various proscriptions against eating pork, for example, or circumcising newborns at the Endowment House at eight days old. Generally, however, the most evident example of this identity is a particular view of providence.
Reading the Hebrew Bible, the narratives are fairly simple. The people of Israel turn away from Yahweh and they are smitten with famine or invasion. The people turn to Yahweh and the state prospers. For the Latter-day Saints, who were the covenant people, what did it mean that Yahweh’s mighty hand was smiting them? They sought a reformation, where people repented and forsook their sins. And I tend to think that blood atonement rhetoric arose from taking the Hebrew Bible seriously. God decreed the punishments for sin; frequently, that punishment was death. Perhaps the bizarre soteriological explanations were simply a hybrid between the old law and new Christology.
Though echos of blood atonement reflected through Mormonism for a few decades, Church leaders immediately abandoned the position and have subsequently disavowed it. That said, I think the terrifying rhetoric of the Reformation, and there is no question that it is disturbing, can best be understood in context of the Israelite self identity. And as much as that might contextualize the historical details, I wonder if it doesn’t further complicate the case for Fundamentalist readings of Bible.