We would not kill a man, of course,
unless we killed him to save him.
Having satisfied myself as to the character and origin of
the Temple ceremonies, I knew I could no longer be a Mormon. Nevertheless, I felt quite
uneasy at actually leaving the Church and, especially telling them why I was leaving.
First Sunday after the Temple Visit
The Sunday morning after our trip to the Temple the
Bishop's First Counselor, as militant a Mormon as you will find, called me to the stand to
testify of my experience. I'm sure he wanted to see if they were going to have any trouble
with me and put me on the spot to find out. If I told these people what I actually thought
("I have now found out that this institution is actually evil . . . ."), would
my life be in danger? The idea was too fantastic to credit, but, taking no chances, I
talked around the subject ("It's hard to talk about something you're not supposed to
talk about . . . ha, ha, ha . . . ."), giving no hint of my true feelings. Who knew
what these people were capable of? I didn't feel like finding out.
Several weeks later I told the Bishop that I was moving out
of the area and that I would no longer be around. I said my good-byes, gave my farewell
speech ("Thank you for all the love you've shown me"), and departed from the
Church. As far as anyone knew, I was still a good Mormon. But in my heart Brother
Wishnatsky was dead.
Keep Silent or Speak Out?
What business is it of mine, I reasoned, to expose the
strange religious customs of these people? I've walked away, and that's that. What a
relief! My life is my own again. On the other hand, I asked, was it fair for the Mormons
to recruit people into a religion and then suddenly bind them with blood covenants? The
bait was salvation, but the hook was death and the fear of death.
Didn't I have a moral obligation to say something about
these tactics? Thirty thousand full-time missionaries are in the streets pulling in
200,000 converts a year. Yet no one has an idea of what the score really is until he gets
into the Endowment Room - and then it's too late. The Federal Trade Commission regulates
commerce to protect the consumer against commercial predators. The Food and Drug
Administration regulates the drug industry and food production. The Securities and
Exchange Commission regulates the brokerage houses and the Federal Aviation Administration
the airlines. The Interstate Commerce Commission regulates interstate commerce; the
Federal Communications Commission the airwaves and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission
nuclear power - all to protect the public against those who would utilize economic power
unfairly. On top of these administrative protections lie the product liability laws
interpreted by the courts, all to shield us against those who would take our money and
give us nothing in return.
What about those who would take our souls and give only
terror in return? Shouldn't there be a truth-in-packaging law for them, too? Even
suspected criminals are read their rights. What about the guileless soul, who perhaps has
suffered a loss of hope, and is vulnerable to the salvation sellers? Doesn't he deserve a
little pamphlet of disclosure from the missionaries along with the propaganda and the
carefully-rehearsed speeches? Doesn't he have any recourse to get his tithing back when he
discovers, with no forewarning, that he is in a death cult?
Perhaps, however, I thought, religion is not a fit subject
for government regulation. In that case I felt personally obligated to publish the truth
myself. On the one hand, I felt that Mormonism was no more to be taken seriously than a
religious spoof on Saturday Night Live. It seemed to me a farce concocted by a
salvation-minded P.T. Barnum. On the other hand, these people seemed very serious, and
there were five million of them. They say the Mafia only kills its own and those who have
made deals with them. Well, I was one of them, fully inducted and endowed. And it is hard
to imagine that a Mafioso is bound under oaths any more strict than I had taken. I could
shuffle backwards, grinning and bowing, and just fade away, my lips sealed tightly. Surely
there were many who ended up this way. But if I published the truth about the pool of
blood at the end of the Mormon rainbow, would I actually be endangering my own life,
fantastic as that thought seemed?
Should I think twice before telling anyone that I could no
longer be a Mormon - and explaining exactly why? I drove back to Princeton, dug into the
records of nineteenth-century American history and discovered that the answer was
Numerous firsthand accounts of the early days of Mormonism
amply documented the truth that "holy murder" had indeed been practiced by the
Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. These executions, carried out by a private
police force known as the "High Police," took various forms in keeping with the
temple oaths. Slitting the throat is the one most commonly mentioned. Presumably once this
one has been inflicted, the others are no longer necessary. These ceremonial killings were
described euphemistically as "saving" the victim, as in "Where is so and
so? We haven't seen him lately." "Oh, didn't you hear? He got 'saved' the other
night." "Fed him to the catfish" had its place as did the phrases
"used him up," "slipped his breath," "put him out of the
way," and "sent him over the rim." After the migration to Utah, the term
"salt him down in the lake" came into vogue.
Just as the French have a great variety of terms for
describing foods that are lacking in English, the early Mormons had many words for murder,
reflecting their peculiar involvement with this craft. Invoking vengeance on the disloyal
was known as "praying for our enemies." Killing them secretly was known as
"not letting the right hand know what the left hand is doing."
Joseph Smith taught his followers that to kill those who
violated their covenants was praiseworthy in the eyes of God. The first endowment
ceremony, he explained, took place on the Mount of Transfiguration, where Christ
instructed Peter, James and John in the secret handshakes and then bound them with oaths
of blood should they ever forsake their loyalty to Him. This doctrine appears frequently
in Church writings, and is cited in the work Doctrines of Salvation written by Joseph
Fielding Smith, Prophet of the Church in the years 1970-72. After coming down from the
Mount of Transfiguration, the Apostles bound the other members of the twelve to loyalty on
penalty of death as well. When Judas betrayed Christ, they killed him in fulfillment of
their endowment oaths. An eyewitness reports that Joseph Smith "talked of dissenters
and cited us to the case of Judas, saying that Peter told him in a conversation a few days
ago that he himself hung Judas for betraying Christ . . . ." The Reed Peck Manuscript
The "Salt" Sermon
Anyone who has attended a Sunday morning service in a
neighborhood Mormon chapel will recall the presiding officer, the bishop or one of his
counselors, announcing the names of members who were being "called" to new
positions or "released" from old ones. In each case it is requested that the
congregation "signify by the usual sign" their assent to the changes. The sign
given is the raising of the right hand. For those who have been through the Temple, the
right hand is raised "to the square," for this is the position in which it is
held when making covenants of blood in the Temple. In the early days of Mormonism, such a
ceremony often indicated that the death squad was about to march. In 1838, for instance,
when the Mormons were contending for the country around Independence, Missouri, Sidney
Rigdon - Joseph Smith's second-in-command - held a meeting. "Mr. Rigdon then
commenced making covenants with uplifted hands," wrote one eyewitness. "The
first was that if any man attempted to move out of the country," anyone noticing this
action "should kill him and haul him aside into the brush." In what became known
as the "Salt Sermon," Rigdon declared that "the church was the salt, that
dissenters were the salt that had lost its savor, and that they were literally to be
trodden under the feet of the church until their bowels should be gushed out. He referred
to the case of Judas, informing the people that he did not fall headlong and his bowels
gush out without assistance, but that the apostles threw him, and with their feet trampled
them out! He also said that Ananias and Sapphira, his wife, did not fall down dead as
translated but that Peter and John slew them, and the young men, or deacons, carried them
out and buried them." William Harris, Mormonism Portrayed (1841).
The idea that Christ taught His apostles to kill His
enemies continued in the Church after Joseph Smith's death in 1844. In a Sunday sermon
given in Salt Lake City in the late 1850's, Heber C. Kimball, grandfather of the current
Mormon prophet, explained again that the apostles killed Judas in keeping with their
endowment oaths. "It is said in the Bible," related Kimball, "that Judas'
bowels gushed out, but they actually kicked him until his bowels came out." He
declared his determination to enforce in Utah the same penalties that Peter and John had
inflicted in Jerusalem. "I know the day is right at hand," he said, "when
men will forfeit their priesthood and turn against us and against the covenants they have
made, and they will be destroyed as Judas was." Journal of Discourses 6:125-126.
Kill Thy Enemies
The traditional Christian doctrine of "love thy
enemies" in Mormon hands after passing through the blood rituals became "kill
thy enemies." In Missouri in the 1830's, wrote Benjamin F. Johnson, a friend of
Joseph Smith, "we were taught to 'pray for our enemies' that God would damn them and
give us power to kill them." The first Mormon temple service ever in Kirtland, Ohio
in 1836 turned into a spectacular cursing session. "They spent the day in fasting and
prayer," records William Harris. "The fast was broken by eating light wheat
bread, and drinking as much wine as they saw proper, . . . Smith . . . telling them that
the wine was consecrated and would not make them drunk." Mormon elder George A.
Smith, also present at the dedication, relates: "After the people had fasted all day,
they sent out and got wine and bread . . . . They ate and drank and prophesied until some
of the High Council of Missouri stepped into the stand, and, as righteous Noah did when he
awoke from his wine, commenced to curse their enemies." Journal of Discourses
2:216. Heber C. Kimball continued the cursing tradition out in Utah. "Will the
president that sits in the chair of state be tipped from his seat?" he asked a Sunday
congregation. "Yes, he will die an untimely death, and God Almighty will curse him .
. . . I curse them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ . . . ." Journal of
That the death orders came right from the top and that the
practice originated with Joseph Smith is well documented. "I have heard the Prophet
say," recorded Thomas B. Marsh, "that he would yet tread down his enemies and
walk over their dead bodies." (Affidavit, Richmond, Mo., October 24, 1838) One of the
original Mormons, John Whitmer, in his memoir of the Church records the following
incident: "Smith called a council of the leaders together in which he stated that any
person who said a word against the heads of the church should be driven over these
prairies as a chased deer by a pack of hounds." John D. Lee, a member of Joseph
Smith's bodyguard, reports:.
I knew of many men being killed in Nauvoo by the Danites
(the assassination squad). It was then the rule that all the enemies of Joseph Smith
should be killed, and I know of many a man who was quietly put out of the way by the
orders of Joseph and his Apostles while the Church was there.
It has always been a well understood doctrine of the church
that it was right and praiseworthy to kill every person who spoke evil of the Prophet.
John D. Lee, Mormonism Unveiled, 1891.
Brigham Young brought the same assassination theology to
Utah that Joseph Smith had refined in Illinois. John D. Lee relates:
When the Danites - or Destroying Angels - were placed on a
man's track, that man died - certain, unless some providential act saved him. . . . And I
say as a fact that there was no escape for anyone that the leaders of the Church in
southern Utah selected as a victim.
The Chief Justice of the Utah Supreme Court in the days of
Brigham Young's rulership reports in his memoirs: "That the Danites were bound by
their covenants to execute the criminal orders of the high priesthood against apostates
and alleged enemies of the church is beyond question." R.N. Baskin, Reminiscences of
Early Utah, 1914. In a court hearing held in 1889, Martin Wardell, superintendent of
carpentry work for the Church for six years, was asked: "Was there anything in the
oath or obligation which you took about apostasy from the Church?" Mr. Wardell
replied: "Yes, you should have your throat cut and your bowels ripped out."
Asked if he ever saw the penalty administered, Mr. Wardell testified:
Yes, sir, in the latter part of 1862, about twenty miles
this side of Green River, upon a man by the name of Green. . . . three men comes up and
they call upon this man Green; he was in his wagon and didn't come out. He was a little
afeard. . . . they pulled the man out of the wagon by the coat and he stood on his feet,
and he hadn't stood more than about three minutes, - until a man took him by the hair of
the head, and the other cut his throat; and when he laid down they opened his clothes and
took a belt off from him with $5000. When we commenced to make trouble about it, John W.
Young [a son of the prophet] told us if we didn't shut our mouths they would serve us out
the same and leave us for the wolves to eat.
The leader of the squad that slit Green's throat, one W. H.
Dame, explained to Wardell that Green "had apostatized from the Church once, and he
had apostatized again and gone to hell now."
The Chief of the Council of the Twelve, Orson Hyde, lead
apostle of the Church, delivered an address one Sunday morning in the Salt Lake tabernacle
intimating that Christ Himself employed hit squads.
I will suppose a case: that there is a large flock of sheep
on the prairie, and here are shepherds also, who watch over them with care. It is
generally the case that shepherds are provided with most excellent dogs that understand
their business. . . . Suppose the shepherd should discover a wolf approaching the flock,
what would he do? Why, we should suppose that if the wolf was in proper distance, that he
would kill him at once. In short, he would shoot him down - kill him on the spot. If the
wolf was not within shot, we would naturally suppose he would set the dogs on him - and
you are aware, I have no doubt, that these shepherd dogs have very pointed teeth and are
very active. It is sometimes the case the shepherd, perhaps, has not with him the
necessary arms to destroy the wolf, but in such a case, he would set the faithful dogs on
it, and by that means accomplish its destruction.
Now, was Jesus Christ the good Shepherd? Yes; what the
faithful shepherd is to the sheep, so is the Savior to his followers. He has gone, and
left on the earth other shepherds who stand in the place of Jesus Christ to take care of
the flock. If you say the priesthood or authorities of the Church are the shepherds, and
the church is the flock, you can make your own application of this figure. It is not at
all necessary for me to do it.
Journal of Discourses 1:71-72.
The portrait of Christ carrying a rifle and the apostles
ranged about Him sharpening their pointed teeth reminds one of the "whittling"
squads Joseph Smith employed in Nauvoo. When someone came to town he did not like, the
"whittlers" would silently surround him, take out their bowie knives, and begin
carving pieces of wood. Without saying a word, they escorted the unwelcome visitor to the
edge of town, trailing chips and shavings behind them.
Temple Oaths in Action
Brigham Young, as the Prophet of God, stood in the place of
Christ. "President Young," testified James McGuffie, who received his endowment
in 1856, "was God on earth; he got the word of God and gave it to the people."
As Heber C. Kimball explained: "Joseph Smith was God to the inhabitants of the earth
when he was amongst us, and Brigham is God now." When the Prophet had a particularly
obnoxious command to give, he would preface it with "Thus saith the Lord,"
acting as mouthpiece for God and eliciting blind and fanatical obedience from his
oath-bound minions. "These vile tools of the Church leaders," wrote John D. Lee,
who had been one himself, "were keeping their oaths of obedience to the Priesthood,
and were as willing to shed blood at the command of the Prophet or any of his apostles, as
ever Inquisitor was to apply the rack to an offending heretic in the dungeons of the
Inquisition." (p.274) Bill Hickman, the leader of one of the assassination teams,
relates that "my boys . . . were of that kind that would kill father or son at the
bidding of Brigham Young. This may seem strange, but there are plenty such in this
country, that believe they would be doing God's service to obey, if Brigham told them to
kill their own son, or the son to kill the father." Brigham's Destroying Angel
In April of 1854, Jesse T. Hartley, a Salt Lake attorney,
was proposed for missionary work in a church conference. Brigham Young, however, had other
ideas about him. "This man Hartley," he announced, "is guilty of apostasy.
He has been writing to his friends in Oregon against the church, and has attempted to
publish us to the world, and should be sent to hell across lots." Hartley,
apparently, had discovered a few things about the Mormons that disturbed him and had
decided to get the word out. At least this is what Brigham Young believed. A month later
Orson Hyde, William Hickman and a company of men were camped at a place called Fort Supply
when Hartley came through. "Orson Hyde, being the head of The Twelve," Hickman
writes in his memoirs, "obedience was required to his commands in the absence of
Brigham Young . . . ."
I saw Orson Hyde looking very sour at him, and after he had
been in camp an hour or two, Hyde told me that he had orders from Brigham Young, if he
came to Fort Supply to have him used up. "Now," said he, "I want you and
George Boyd to do it."
Hickman and Hartley took a ride out of the camp to look for
a team of horses. "Now is your time," Hyde whispered to Hickman as they left.
"Don't let him come back." While crossing a deep stream, Hickman shot Hartley
and his body disappeared in the water. Hickman returned to camp. "Orson Hyde told me
that was well done: that he and some of the others had gone on the side of the mountain,
and seen the whole performance." Mrs. Marietta V. Smith in her book, Fifteen Years
among the Mormons, reports: "Not many days after Wiley Norton told us, with a feeling
of exultation, that they had made sure of another enemy of the Church. That the bones of
Jesse Hartley were in the Canons . . ." Judge Baskin, speaking with Hartley's
brother-in-law, asked if it was true that the Mormons killed Hartley. "It was
generally known," said the brother-in-law, "that Hickman had committed the
crime." Asked why he did not institute proceedings, the man answered, "Don't
press me for an answer to that question."
Orrin Porter Rockwell, another hit squad leader, received
this cautious, yet adulatory profile, in The Improvement Era of 1941, the
official Church magazine.
The Mormon people of Utah today are reluctant to form any
definite conclusions about Rockwell. He had such admirable qualities that his neighboring
ranchers, Mormon or gentile, regarded him highly. Yet in stark contrast to this was his
willingness to kill outlaws and criminals when he thought they deserved it. He seemed to
have no feeling for an outlaw; upon provocation he would shoot one. This method of dealing
with outlaws, though an unwritten law of the early West, was so relentlessly enforced by
Rockwell that it causes some of his co-religionists to frown upon him today.
Joseph Smith, for whom Rockwell originally worked, felt no
such qualms. "He is an innocent and a noble boy," wrote Smith. "He was an
innocent and a noble child and my soul loves him. . . . Let the blessings of salvation and
honor be his portion." History of the Church V:6.
The most egregious case of Mormon murder was the Mountain
Meadows massacre of 1857. The slaughter of a wagon team of 120 pioneers concluded with the
holy circle that is customary when a group of Mormons administer a blessing .
They closed in the circle, so that each man placed his left
hand on the shoulder of the man nearest him and raised his right hand to the square. Each
of them promised before god, angels, and their companions in this circle, that they would
never under any conditions speak of this action to anyone else or to each other, and that
if any did so, he would suffer his life to be taken.
A U.S. Army officer, surveying the scene of this massacre,
erected a cross upon which he carved the words: "Vengeance is mine," saith the
Lord, "and I will repay." When Brigham Young visited the site and saw the cross,
he studied the inscription and then, raising his right arm to the square, said:
"Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and I have taken a little of it."
As word of the fate of covenant-breakers and apostates
began to spread in Salt Lake City, excitement arose, many Mormons feeling that, despite
the Temple oaths, things were going too far. Brigham Young and his counselors, Heber C.
Kimball and Jedediah M. Grant, sternly opposed such weak, unreligious sentiments. We have
advanced beyond the point, Grant stated, where it is sufficient merely to pray to God to
kill the enemies of the Church. "I want to know," he asked a Sunday congregation
on March 12, 1854, "if you wish the Lord to come down and do all your dirty
work?" What weaklings you are, he said. "When a man prays for a thing," he
continued, "he ought to be willing to perform it himself. . . . Putting to death the
covenant-breakers would exhibit the law of God, no matter by whom it was done - that is my
opinion." Proclaimed Heber C. Kimball: "When it is necessary that blood should
be shed, we should be as ready to do that as to eat an apple." Journal of
Discourses 6:35. "To die," declared George Q. Cannon, one of the three most
powerful Mormon leaders of the last decades of the nineteenth century, "is an easy
thing: it is a light matter compared with apostasy." Declared Jedediah M. Grant,
whose son became prophet of the Church in the 1920's and 1930's: "I not only wish but
pray in the name of Israel's God, that the time was come in which to unsheath the sword,
like Moroni of old, and to cleanse the inside of the platter." "I say,"
declared Brigham Young on March 27, 1853, "rather than that apostates should flourish
here, I will unsheath my bowie knife and conquer or die."
Murder as Love: "Blood Atonement"
To allay the "whining," as Grant called it, of
"the very meek, just and pious ones," the First Presidency of the Church, the
supreme triumvirate of Mormonism, began to argue that enforcing the penalty on oath
breakers was actually an act of mercy, not vengeance. A man who fell away from the Church
after making covenants of faithfulness before God, was bound for hell. The blood of Jesus
no longer cleansed him from sin. His soul could still be saved, however, declared Brigham
Young, introducing a latter-day innovation in the age-old doctrine of human sacrifice, if
he submitted to a ritual death at the hands of the Church. The Church had finally come
full circle: murder was now an act of love. Brother Brigham pleaded with the assembled
Will you love your brothers or sisters when they have
committed a sin that cannot be atoned for without the shedding of their blood? Will you
love that man or woman well enough to shed their blood? . . . that is loving our neighbors
as ourselves; if he needs help, help him; if he needs salvation, and it is necessary to
spill his blood on the earth in order that he may be saved, spill it. That is the way to
Journal of Discourses 4:219-220 (September 21,
Asking for a show of hands, Jedediah M. Grant stated:
"I would ask how many covenant breakers there are in this city. I believe that there
are a great many; and if they are covenant breakers we need a place designated where we
can shed their blood." Journal of Discourses 4:49-50 (October 1, 1856).
These killings that disturb you, explained God's Prophet, Brigham Young, are actually the
actions of men animated by the spirit of God and filled with his love and mercy.
We would not kill a man, of course, unless we killed him to
save him. Do you think it would be any sin to kill me if I were to break my covenants?
Would you kill me if I break the covenants of God, and you had the spirit of God? Yes; and
the more spirit of God I had, the more I should strive to save your souls by spilling your
blood when you had committed sins that could not be remitted by baptism.
The Church has never abandoned this doctrine. In a pamphlet
on "Blood Atonement" written in 1884, Elder Charles W. Penrose, later a member
of the First Presidency, reiterated that "there are sins which men commit for which
they cannot receive any benefit through the shedding of Christ's blood. Is that a true
doctrine? It is true, if the bible is true. That is bible doctrine." Can such persons
still be saved if the Church kills them? Are Brigham Young's sermons on blood atonement
still applicable? "Do we need the same language now?" asked Elder Penrose.
"I hope not; but if there was any need of it, it would be just as applicable now as
More than History?
The best evidence for the continuation of the practice of
"sealing" members into the Church with blood covenants and then killing them for
violating these covenants is the existence of the Temples themselves in the world of the
1980's. Had I not been terrorized in the Endowment Room, I would not have been impelled to
investigate this bloody history. Had the Church repented of its bloody origins, it would
no longer administer oaths of blood on the borders of the Washington beltway. If the
Church had repudiated its murderous history, it would not be undertaking an unprecedented
temple-building program around the world, aiming at having forty-one temples in full-time
operation by the mid-1980's.
The Church that Joseph Smith established and that Brigham
Young built into a small empire is the same church that exists today, only larger and
wealthier. Of the millions of people who have passed through the Mormon Church in the last
seventy years, how many have published a word about the blood covenants that has reached
the general reading public? Surely there are a few as disturbed as I. Why such prevailing
The words of John Hyde, Jr., a disillusioned Mormon of the
1850's, are as true today as they were 125 years ago: "When the Mormons talk so much
of death as a penalty, it is not the idle threat of imaginary killing, but the strong word
of merciless men. They never threaten what they will not perform, and fear of risking the
penalty withholds many from apostasy." Mormonism (1857).