Evidence #238 | September 13, 2021


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The pre-Columbian practice of auto-sacrifice and its related complex of beliefs is reflected in the teachings of Book of Mormon prophets.

Sacrifice of the Son of God in the Book of Mormon

In his sermon to the Zoramites, Amulek taught that atonement from sin is only possible through the sacrifice of the Son of God (Alma 34:8–10). He also taught that “there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another” (Alma 34:11). The Lord commanded Noah, “whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed” (Genesis 9:6), a practice that was also observed under the law of Moses which was practiced by the Nephites (Exodus 21:12; Numbers 35:16–19; Alma 1:18; 30:10; 34:11–12). Under these legal systems, capital punishment required the life of the guilty which involved their bloodshed by others, and not themselves. Thus, Amulek seems to have been saying that only Christ—a perfect and immortal being—could sacrifice his own life and blood in a vicarious way (see Alma 7:11–13; cf. D&C 76:9).

Jesus on the cross. Image via churchofjesuschrist.org. 

In this light, Amulek’s choice of words to Zoramite dissenters is interesting since they presuppose an audience that was familiar with a belief that there was value in self-inflicted bloodshed or that the merit of such a sacrifice could somehow be transferred to another—an idea which, when applied to mortals, Amulek firmly rejected. Although this concept may seem puzzling to modern readers, it makes sense in the context of pre-Columbian beliefs about blood sacrifice.

Auto-sacrifice in Mesoamerica

Ancient Mesoamerican cultures believed that humans were indebted to the gods for their creation and for their lives. As payment for this debt, the gods required sacrifice, specifically blood sacrifice. While human sacrifice often involved the sacrifice of others, it could also take the form of auto-sacrifice, meaning the non-lethal shedding of one’s own blood.

According to Michael Graulich, “the ritual extracting of one’s own blood was one of the most ancient and important cultural acts in ancient Mesoamerica. It is documented at least from 1200 B.C. onwards, first through the discovery of bloodletting instruments in private and public dwellings, later by depictions of bloodletting rituals and finally through texts, especially those concerning the Aztecs.”1 Sharpened instruments were used by men and women to draw blood from the ears, tongue, shins, and elbows.2 Cords were often passed through perforated parts of the body and blood was then collected on paper and burned as an offering.3 Images from surviving Aztec stone monuments suggest that the practice of self-sacrifice was far more prevalent than the practice of human sacrifice.4

Auto-sacrifice was understood as the “payment of a debt”5 and held to be “a token substitute for that greatest of sacrifices, the loss of human health and life.”6 It was based upon “a basic egalitarian concept of reciprocity in which the blood [that was] shed in self-sacrifice was ‘exchanged’ for supernatural aid. The ‘payment’ could be made either beforehand, as a form of petition, or afterwards, as a sign of gratitude; the important thing was that it be made.”7

Pricking the thumb with a cactus needle: detail from mural ‘El Pulque’ by Diego Rivera. Image and caption info via mexicolore.co.uk.

Auto-Sacrifice as Expiation

In several informative studies, Graulich has persuasively argued that a central concern behind the self-sacrifice of blood was the expiation of transgressions.8 He argues that while there were a variety of motivations and benefits hoped for, “the more fundamental meaning and end of Aztec sacrifice was expiation of sins or transgressions in order to deserve a worthy afterlife.”9 In the Florentine Codex, those who had engaged in reprehensible behaviors were advised to engage in self-sacrifice through bloodletting.

And behold, thou art to castigate thyself; thou art to fast for a year. And thou art to draw blood. And because thou hast found pleasure in filth, in vice, thou art twice [daily] to pass twigs through thy ear [lobe], once through thy tongue, especially because of adultery, and because at some time thou hast hurt, thou hast harmed, thy neighbor with thy words. And because at some time thou hast depreciated the things of our Lord, hast failed to provide food, thou wilt provide, wilt offer as thy duty, the paper incense.10

Accumulation of Merit

Another aspect of auto-sacrifice was the belief that one could, through the shedding of one’s own blood, accumulate merit to increase one’s ability to gain divine favor. Graulich notes,

By offering their blood the humans pay their debt and earn merit …. By paying his debt one can either expiate past shortcomings, or acquire merit (tlama’cehua: the verb is often given the sense of humiliating oneself) that calls for a reward. These two consequences are well illustrated in an admonition of a soothsayer who imposes bloodletting to a penitent who confesses his sins, adding: ‘do not only earn merit, but throw away dust and dirt [= sin]’. Merit is also acquired through purity, chastity, vigils and prayer. It is lost through sin generally, and half-heartedness or laziness, arrogance, neglecting to humiliate oneself or interrupting one’s mortifications.11

Other Motivations

Additional motivations for auto-sacrifice could include giving thanks, to demonstrate humility, or to obtain a desired blessing of some kind. Benefits sought could be a happy marriage, children, blessing for the poor and needy, a successful crop, health, success in war, riches, general prosperity, and even the hopes to commune with deity.12 In fact, “there was often an accumulation of effects: one could at the same time humiliate oneself, acquire power, nourish harvests and gods, expiate sins, die symbolically and earn merit for this or the other life.”13 In short, the shedding of one’s own blood in auto-sacrifice was seen as “one of the most current and efficient ways to establish contact with and conciliate or propitiate the gods” in ancient Mesoamerica.14

Olmec Blood-letter Handle, 1000-600BC. Image and caption info via Wikipedia.

Notably, Amulek, while teaching that salvation comes only through the blood of Christ, explained that many of the above benefits are immediately available to those who seek them. He and Alma taught the accessibility of God and His blessings to all through the blessings of the word (Alma 32:41–43), and through humble, individual prayer (Alma 33:3–11), and that God will hear them (Alma 33:6–11), that they can give thanks (Alma 34:38), that they can seek and receive help in afflictions (Alma 33:11), blessings on their fields, their crops, and flocks (Alma 34:20), their houses and their households (Alma 34:21), blessings against enemies who may attack them (Alma 33:4, 10; 34:22–23), prosperity (Alma 34:24–25), and seek the welfare of those around them, including those who are in need (Alma 34:27–29).

Divine Merit in the Teachings of Book of Mormon Prophets

Nephite missionaries taught Lamanite converts, such as king Lamoni’s father, that “since man had fallen he could not merit anything of himself; but the sufferings and death of Christ atone for their sins through faith and repentance, and so forth” (Alma 22:14). King Anti-Nephi Lehi, who with his fellow converts had abandoned earlier incorrect traditions involving bloodshed, spoke of God having taken away the guilt from their hearts “through the merits of his Son” rather than any merit that they had accrued (Alma 24:10). They had been forgiven and washed from blood-stained guilt through “the blood of our great God, which shall be shed for the atonement of our sins” (Alma 24:13).

This seems particularly meaningful when understood as coming out of a culture where the shedding of blood and the shedding of one’s own blood was believed to be a source of personal merit. When Samuel, another converted Lamanite taught of Christ’s redemption, he also emphasized that the repentant find salvation “through his merits” and not their own (Helaman 14:13).[xv] The fact that these references to merit in the context of blood and expiation are found in the context of Lamanite conversions, strongly suggests that these converts came from a culture where the practice of bloodshed was commonly held to be meritorious.

Gethsemane, by Adam Abram. Image via history.churchofjesuschrist.org.

King Benjamin’s teachings may also reflect this background. He taught his people that salvation only comes “through the atoning blood of Christ“ (Mosiah 3:11, 17–18), that man will always be undeserving (Mosiah 2:20–21), indebted to God (Mosiah 2:23–24), have nothing to boast of themselves (Mosiah 2:24–25), but that all he requires is obedience to his commandments (Mosiah 2:22).


Amulek’s reference to a practice of individuals shedding their own blood to atone for sin, as well as the emphasis of Nephite missionaries and their Lamanite converts on the sole efficacy of the blood of Christ and the need to rely upon his merits alone, all make sense in light of the Mesoamerican practice of auto-sacrifice—a practice believed to provide both individual merit and expiation for transgression. It seems unlikely that Joseph Smith or any other early nineteenth century American would have been aware of such a connection.

Book of Mormon Central, “Why Did the Lamanites Sacrifice Women and Children to Idols? (Mormon 4:14 ),” KnoWhy 229 (November 11, 2016).

Brant A. Gardner, Second Witness: Analytical and Contextual Commentary on the Book of Mormon, 6 vols. (Salt Lake City, UT: Greg Kofford Books, 2007), 4:477–478.

John Gee, “The Great and Last Sacrifice,” in “Behold the Lamb of God”: An Easter Celebration, ed. Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, Frank F. Judd, Thomas A. Wayment (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 139–154.

BibleGenesis 9:6Exodus 21:12Numbers 35:16–19Book of Mormon2 Nephi 2:82 Nephi 31:19Mosiah 2:20–21Mosiah 2:22Mosiah 2:23–24Mosiah 2:24–25Mosiah 3:11Mosiah 3:17–18Alma 1:18Alma 22:14Alma 24:10Alma 24:13Alma 30:10Alma 32:41–43Alma 33:11Alma 33:3–11Alma 33:4Alma 33:10Alma 33:6–11Alma 34:8–10Alma 34:11Alma 34:11–12Alma 34:20Alma 34:21Alma 34:22–23Alma 34:24–25Alma 34:27–29Alma 34:38Helaman 14:13Moroni 6:4


Genesis 9:6

Exodus 21:12

Numbers 35:16–19

Book of Mormon

2 Nephi 2:8

2 Nephi 31:19

Mosiah 2:20–21

Mosiah 2:22

Mosiah 2:23–24

Mosiah 2:24–25

Mosiah 3:11

Mosiah 3:17–18

Alma 1:18

Alma 22:14

Alma 24:10

Alma 24:13

Alma 30:10

Alma 32:41–43

Alma 33:11

Alma 33:3–11

Alma 33:4

Alma 33:10

Alma 33:6–11

Alma 34:8–10

Alma 34:11

Alma 34:11–12

Alma 34:20

Alma 34:21

Alma 34:22–23

Alma 34:24–25

Alma 34:27–29

Alma 34:38

Helaman 14:13

Moroni 6:4

  • 1 Michael Graulich, “Autosacrifice in Ancient Mexico,” Estudios de Cultura Nahuatl 36 (2005): 301. See also Cecelia F. Klein, “Autosacrifice and Bloodletting,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, ed. David Carrasco (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1:64; Rosemary A. Joyce, “Olmec Bloodletting: An Iconographic Study,” in Sixth Palenque Round Table, 1986, ed. Merle Greene Robinson and Virginia M. Fields (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 143–150; Mary Miller and Karl Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya (London: Thames & Hudson, 1997), 42.
  • 2 Miller and Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary, 42.
  • 3 Miller and Taube, An Illustrated Dictionary, 42.
  • 4 David Carrasco, “Uttered from the Heart: Guilty Rhetoric Among the Aztecs,” History of Religions 39, no.1 (August 1999): 29.
  • 5 Cecelia F. Klein, “The Ideology of Autosacrifice at the Temple Mayor,” in The Aztec Temple Mayor: A Symposium at Dumbarton Oaks 8th and 9th October 1983, ed. Elizabeth Hill Boone (Washington DC: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 1987), 294; Carrasco, “Uttered from the Heart,” 29.
  • 6 Klein, “The Ideology of Autosacrifice at the Temple Mayor,” 297.
  • 7 Klein, “The Ideology of Autosacrifice at the Temple Mayor,” 294.
  • 8 Graulich, “Autosacrifice in Ancient Mexico,” 301–329; Michael Graulich, “Aztec Human Sacrifice as Expiation,” History of Religions 39, no. 4 (May 2000): 352–371; Michael Graulich, “Creation Myths,” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Mesoamerican Cultures, 1:280–284; Michael Graulich, Myths of Ancient Mexico, trans. Bernard R. Ortiz de Montellano and Thelma Ortiz de Montellano (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1997), 262–263.  
  • 9 Graulich, “Aztec Human Sacrifice as Expiation,” 354–355.
  • 10 Bernardino de Sahagun, General History of the Things of New Spain, 13 parts, ed. and trans. Arthur J. O. Anderson and Charles E. Dibble (Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research and the University of Utah, 1969), 7:33.
  • 11 Graulich, “Autosacrifice in Ancient Mexico,” 313–314.
  • 12 Graulich, “Autosacrifice in Ancient Mexico,” 302, 318–324.
  • 13 Graulich, “Autosacrifice in Ancient Mexico,” 323–324.
  • 14 Graulich, “Autosacrifice in Ancient Mexico,” 323.
  • 15 Lehi, Nephi, and Moroni also teach this principal (2 Nephi 2:8; 31:19; Moroni 6:4).
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