Human Sacrifice in the Book of Mormon
John A. Tvedtnes
When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in Mexico, they were shocked to see the natives, especially the rather civilized Aztecs of Texcoco (Mexico City) offering human beings in sacrifice to their gods. Those chosen for this ritual were most often captured enemy warriors, but the sacrifices extended to women and children. We now know that other Mesoamericans, such as the Maya, had been offering human sacrifice for centuries before the Aztecs arrived in the region in the 13th century AD.
The sacrifice of human beings was known from the Mediterranean basin whence came Book of Mormon peoples, the Jaredites, the Mulekites, and the descendants of Lehi (Nephites and Lamanites). Perhaps the most well-known story is that of Agamemnon, leader of the Greek army, who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia before sailing against Troy ca. 1200 BC. Egyptian human sacrifice is attested in Abraham 1:7-15.[i]
The Bible, too, has incidents of human sacrifice (e.g., Psalm 106:37-38). In times of apostasy, some Israelites offered their children to the pagan god Moloch just outside the walls of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 7:31-32; 32:35; 2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Ezekiel 16:20; 20:31). Hiel of Beth-El evidently sacrificed his two sons when he rebuilt Jericho, laying the foundation in his son Abiram and the gates in his son Segub, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Joshua, who had destroyed the city centuries earlier (1 Kings 16:34; Joshua 6:26). The Israelite judge Jephthah uttered a rash vow that led to the sacrifice of his only daughter (Judges 11:30-40), and the prophet Samuel evidently sacrificed Agag, king of the Amalekites “before the Lord” (1 Samuel 15:33). Losing a battle with the Israelites, the Moabite king Mesha offered his eldest son for a burnt offering (2 Kings 3:2-27).
In the time of Mormon, the Lamanites attacked the city Teancum “and did take many prisoners both women and children, and did offer them up as sacrifices unto their idol gods. And . . . the Nephites being angry because the Lamanites had sacrificed their women and their children, that they did go against the Lamanites with exceedingly great anger” (Mormon 4:14-15). Shortly thereafter, the Lamanites took the city Desolation and the Nephite “women and their children were again sacrificed unto idols” (Mormon 4:21). Mormon also reported that
“the Lamanites have many prisoners, which they took from the tower of Sherrizah; and there were men, women, and children. And the husbands and fathers of those women and children they have slain; and they feed the women upon the flesh of their husbands, and the children upon the flesh of their fathers; and no water, save a little, do they give unto them. And notwithstanding this great abomination of the Lamanites, it doth not exceed that of our people in Moriantum. For behold, many of the daughters of the Lamanites have they taken prisoners; and after depriving them of that which was most dear and precious above all things, which is chastity and virtue—And after they had done this thing, they did murder them in a most cruel manner, torturing their bodies even unto death; and after they have done this, they devour their flesh like unto wild beasts, because of the hardness of their hearts; and they do it for a token of bravery” (Moroni 9:7-10).[ii]
The Lamanite practice of carrying off women and children during wartime is noted in Alma 58:30-31; 60:17 and Helaman 11:33. But one passage suggests that “the Lamanites had also retained many prisoners, all of whom are chief captains, for none other have they spared alive. And we suppose that they are now at this time in the land of Nephi; it is so if they are not slain” (Alma 56:12) suggesting captive leaders were sacrificed. There is a similar hint about the Nephites under King Limhi, who captured the wounded Lamanite king and brought him before Limhi, desiring to kill him (Mosiah 20:12-13).
[i] For other ancient accounts of attempts to sacrifice Abraham, see John A.Tvedtnes, Brian M. Hauglid, and John Tee.eds., Traditions About the Early Life of Abraham (Provo: FARMS, 2001).
[ii] Among cannibalistic peoples, it is genereally believed that eating the flesh of another endows one with that person’s characteristics. The same is true of consumption of animal flesh (e.g., eating tiger meat makes one strong and brave). Similarly, for Christians, symbolically (or, for Catholics, literally) eating the flesh and blood of Christ makes one more Christlike (cf, John 6:48-.57).