Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Killing for God

Blood Atonement

A time-honored method of making people obey is by threatening them with physical violence. The concept is simple: If you disobey, you will feel pain. Fear of spanking keeps children in line. Fear of torture makes prisoners talk. Fear of hell keeps Christians on the straight and narrow.

Brigham Young, portrait
Brigham Young, portrait

Fear of death kept many Mormons compliant under the leadership of Brigham Young, the Church's second prophet. Young believed that if someone strayed from his flock, the only way that person could gain entry to Heaven was if he or she was killed by a righteous assassin.

He called this concept "blood atonement," and he explained it to his followers in a sermon he gave on September 21, 1856:

"There are sins that men commit for which they cannot receive forgiveness in this world, or in that which is to come, and if they had their eyes open to see their true condition, they would be perfectly willing to have their blood spilt upon the ground, that the smoke thereof might ascend to heaven as an offering for their sins; and the smoking incense would atone for their sins...

"I know, when you hear my brethren telling about cutting people off from the earth, that you consider it is strong doctrine; but it is to save them, not to destroy them..."

In a nutshell, the Church killed you for major disobedience, e.g. raping a child, murder, especially murdering a child, etc., but it was for your own good. If you were murdered by your brethren, you were assured entrance into Heaven.

In the 1850s, historians say, Young frequently resorted to blood atonement to eliminate both his spiritual and business rivals. The Church renounced the bloody doctrine in the late 1800s, but a hundred years later, Ervil decided to reinstate it.

Rulon Allred
Rulon Allred

The first person Ervil wanted to kill was Rulon Allred, a rival polygamist from Utah, who refused to tithe to Ervil and had derided the Firstborners in public. In one of his typically long and tedious screeds, Ervil decreed that Allred was guilty of character assassination, an offense "punishable by the death sentence under the Civil Law given by God in the days of Moses," according to Bradlee and Van Atta.

Curiously, Rulon and Ervil had once been pals; in the 1950s, Rulon evaded an arrest warrant in Utah for cohabitation by hiding out at the Colonia LeBaron in Mexico. But that didn't stop Ervil from killing him some 20 years later.

Joel watched his brother scare Firstborners with his gruesome threats and continue to hawk his Mormon utopia to investors. Eventually, he got fed up. When Ervil told him in the summer of 1972 that God said he and Joel should run the church as equals, Joel put his foot down. Not only would he not share the Firstborn leadership with Ervil, he was removing Ervil from a position of leadership altogether. From that point on, Ervil would be sitting in the pews, not standing behind the pulpit.

Ervil was stunned by the news and wept openly before the congregation when the announcement was made. He walked away alone from the temple that night and began plotting against Joel.

Like Cain, he would strike his brother down.

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