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.