Human Sacrifice among the Remnant Seed of the House of Israel
Copyright © 2010 by Ted Dee Stoddard
Board of Advisers Member
Book of Mormon Archaeological Forum
From the Book of Mormon, we know that Lehi’s descendants, who referred to themselves as a remnant of the house of Israel, were familiar with the law of Moses and that at least the Nephites lived the law of Moses, including animal sacrifices (see Mosiah 2:3; Alma 34:13–15; 3 Nephi 9:19–20). Under the law of Moses, conventions associated with animal sacrifices involved slaughtering the animal, pouring out or sprinkling the blood of the animal, burning the sacrifice, and, with some offerings, participating in a sacrificial meal.1
We also know that animal sacrifices were discontinued in the New World after Jesus’s visit there. Jesus told the people, “Ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away” (3 Nephi 9:19).
For two or three centuries after His visit, the remnant seed in the New World evidently followed that command of Jesus. However, not long after the Maya Classic Period was fully underway, the remnant-seed Lamanites were apparently participating in blood sacrifices involving the shedding of human blood. Mormon tells us that about 366 AD, the Lamanites drove the Nephites out of the city of Teancum “and did take many prisoners both women and children, and did offer them up as sacrifices unto their idol gods” (Mormon 4:14). In 375 AD, “the Nephites were driven and slaughtered with an exceedingly great slaughter; their women and their children were again sacrificed unto idols” (Mormon 4:21).
From the Book of Mormon, all we can do at this point is yearn for more information about human sacrifice near the end of the Nephite nation. However, Mormon merely goes on to say that the remnant seed “shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites” (Mormon 5:15).
Criteria for Identifying the Location of New World Book of Mormon Events
As we examine geographical areas of the New World in search of the territory where Book of Mormon events such as human sacrifices took place, we have at our disposal many criteria to aid us in our search. For example, wherever the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place, we should find evidence of a high-level written language, two high civilizations that date to Book of Mormon times, archaeological evidences that coincide with Book of Mormon dates and events, and historical evidence that dovetails with customs and traditions of Book of Mormon peoples.2
Other less-significant criteria could also be explored, such as a dominant river that flows to the north, a narrow strip of wilderness that runs from a sea on the east to a sea on the west, a massive wilderness area to the east that contains extensive defensive earthworks around most cities, or a narrow neck of land that runs north and south, contains a narrow pass, and separates a “land northward” from a “land southward.”3
We could even use blood sacrifice of humans as a minor criterion in our search for the location of the New World events of the Book of Mormon. That is, if we assume that the human sacrifices mentioned casually by Mormon continued after the close of the Book of Mormon, why should we not expect to find evidence of their continuation in any area proposed as the location of the New World events of the Book of Mormon?
When we look at the territory of the Heartland Model for Book of Mormon geography (from the Great Lakes on the north to the Gulf of Mexico on the south), we find no evidence of blood sacrifices of humans among the inhabitants during and following the time period of the Book of Mormon.4
However, when we look at the territory of Mesoamerica for evidence of blood sacrifices of humans, we are almost overpowered by the results. What follows is merely a “teaser” as a reflection of the pervasiveness of the evidence about blood sacrifices of humans in Mesoamerica.
Bernal Diaz, a solider in the army of Cortez during the conquest of Mexico, wrote several books about the conquest. Often in gory detail, he describes the Spaniards’ aversion to the Aztecs’ practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism. In one account, he says the following:
They strike open the wretched Indian’s chest with flint knives and hastily tear out the palpitating heart which, with the blood, they present to the idols in whose name they have performed the sacrifice. Then they cut off the arms, thighs, and head, eating the arms and thighs at their ceremonial banquets. The head they hang up on a beam, and the body of the sacrificed man is not eaten but given to the beasts of prey.5
[We saw] some smoking braziers of their incense . . . in which they were burning the hearts of three Indians whom they had sacrificed that day; and all the walls of that shrine were so splashed and caked with blood that they and the floor too were black. Indeed, the whole place stank abominably. . . . The walls of this shrine [Tezcatlipoca] also were so caked with blood and the floor so bathed in it that the stench was worse than that of any slaughter-house in Spain. They had offered that idol five hearts from the day’s sacrifices.6
In writing about the extent of human blood sacrifices when the Spaniards arrived, William Prescott says the following:
Human sacrifices have been practised by many nations, not excepting the most polished nations of antiquity, but never by any, on a scale to be compared with those in Anahuac [New Spain; Mexico]. The amount of victims immolated on its accursed altars would stagger the faith of the least scrupulous believer. Scarcely any author pretends to estimate the yearly sacrifices throughout the empire at less than twenty thousand, and some carry the number as high as fifty!7
What can we conclude about the pervasive presence of human blood sacrifices in some territories of the Americas? Though tenuous as they might be in the minds of some scholars, the following conclusions may be worth considering:
1. Quite likely, blood sacrifice as an aspect of the law of Moses was introduced to the Americas by Lehi and his descendants. Associated with the “great apostasy” of Book of Mormon peoples in the third and fourth centuries AD, one or more of the cultures of Mesoamerica reintroduced blood sacrifice by imposing it on humans who were captured during warfare activities.
2. The practice of human blood sacrifice probably continued in Mesoamerica from that point by the remnant seed of the house of Israel and reached a climax with the Aztec civilization that was destroyed by the Spaniards during the conquest of Mexico. Indeed, the descriptions of the customs and practices of the Aztecs by historians who write about the conquest of Mexico support Mormon’s prophecy that the remnant seed “shall become a dark, a filthy, and a loathsome people, beyond the description of that which ever hath been amongst us, yea, even that which hath been among the Lamanites” (Mormon 5:15).
3. Interestingly, historians’ descriptions of human blood sacrifice in Mesoamerica bear a close resemblance to essential elements of blood sacrifices under the law of Moses involving slaughtering the animal, pouring out or sprinkling the blood of the animal, burning the sacrifice, and participating in a sacrificial meal.
4. Based on the pervasive presence of human blood sacrifices in several areas of Mesoamerica, as opposed to the lack of or paucity of such sacrifices in the territory of the Heartland Model in the Eastern United States, we can conclude that Mesoamerica—not the Eastern United States—is the more tenable location where the New World events of the Book of Mormon took place.
5. Though minor in nature compared with other more significant criteria that support the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon, human sacrifice reflects interesting historical evidence in support of Joseph Smith’s contention that he translated the Book of Mormon by the gift and power of God.
1. See Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Sacrifices.”
2. See Joseph Lovell Allen and Blake Joseph Allen, Exploring the Lands of the Book of Mormon, 2nd ed. (Orem, UT: Book of Mormon Tours and Research Institute, 2008) for a full discussion of these criteria.
3. See www.bmaf.org, “Evidences that the Book of Mormon Took Place in Mesoamerica: Criteria for Book of Mormon Lands and People,” for another approach to criteria that could be used in identifying the location of New World events of the Book of Mormon.
4. Fred Gowans, Professor Emeritus of Western History at Brigham Young University, says he has never heard about any reputable accounts dealing with blood sacrifice of humans among Native Americans of the Eastern United States (personal telephone conversation, June 17, 2010). Some Web sites mention human sacrifice as a minor aspect of some cultures in the United States—but not for rituals associated with blood. See, for example, Emmett Berg, “The Lost City of Cahokia: Ancient Tribes of the Mississippi Brought to Life,” http://www.neh.gov/news/humanities/2004-09/cahokia.html (accessed June 18, 2010); T. C. Kuhn, “Watering the Corn: The Problem of Human Sacrifice among the Woodland Peoples,” http://peopleofthestone.com/watering-corn-problem-human-sacrifice-among-..., posted February 13, 2010 (accessed June 18, 2010); A. Martin Byers, The Ohio Hopewell Episode: Paradigm Lost, Paradigm Gained (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2004), http://books.google.com/books?id=OtkcFG52_k0C&pg=PA183&lpg=PA183&dq=%22h... (accessed June 18, 2010).
5. Bernal Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, trans. J. M. Cohen (New York: Penguin Books, 1963), 229.
6. Diaz, The Conquest of New Spain, 236.
7. William H. Prescott, History of the Conquest of Mexico, originally published in 1843 (New York: Random House, 2001 Modern Library Paperback Edition), 64.