Joseph and his brother Hyrum were not idle observers of the political landscape. They both held offices of public trust. The Prophet Joseph Smith offered the world inspired principles in relation to effective leadership in government, politics, and the public square. The beliefs he espoused can help secure freedom and liberty for all people. With all the perplexing problems and political partisanship facing the nation, perhaps this would be a good time to take a look at what the Prophet Joseph Smith had to say.
To Read Part 1 of this article click here.
The Separation of Church and State
Thomas Jefferson may have proposed the idea of a separation of church and state in a letter to a friend, but it was Joseph Smith who described how the principle could work in a pluralistic society. In 1835, Latter-day Saint Church leaders were preparing a compilation of revelations for printing as the Doctrine and Covenants. Oliver Cowdery presented to the members of the Church a statement containing “certain principles or items upon law in general & church governments.”(9)
The congregation unanimously voted to include this declaration in the Doctrine and Covenants. The Prophet Joseph Smith was on a mission to Michigan when this meeting was held, but he later approved the inclusion of the statement in the Doctrine and Covenants. Now known as section 134,(10) this treatise on the separation of church and state outlines the duties and responsibilities the church and state owe toward one another, and lays out the limits of authority for both in civil society (see D&C 134:1-12). It proclaims that “governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them” (D&C 134:1). It charges members of all faiths to honor, obey, and sustain the laws of the land:
“We believe that the commission of crime should be punished according to the nature of the offense . . . [and that] all men should step forward and use their ability in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment” (D&C 134:8). It further declares that neither the church nor the state should dominate the other, nor should one religion be supported by the government while others are prohibited, and that the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of religion must never be disregarded: “We do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul” (D&C 134:4).
The statement affirms that all law-abiding citizens are to be treated in a fair and equal manner: “We believe that rulers, states, and governments have a right, and are bound to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious belief; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy” (D&C 134:7).
For those dealing with issues related to the separation of church and state, it will prove helpful to make a careful study of Joseph Smith’s “declaration of belief regarding governments and laws in general” (see D&C 134, headnote).
Has there ever been a clearer, more concise definition of the separation of church and state doctrine, than the declaration now known as the 134th Section in the Doctrine and Covenants? Political aficionados will be hard pressed to find one.
The Constitution of the United States
In December 1833, the Savior affirmed in a revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith that he had established the Constitution “by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80). He also told the Saints that they were justified in befriending the constitutional laws of the land (see D&C 98:5-10). And in the 1837 dedicatory prayer of the Kirtland Temple, the Prophet pled, “May those principles, which were so honorably and nobly defended, namely, the Constitution of our land, by our fathers, be established forever” (D&C 109:54).
In another revelation, the Savior further declared that this Constitution was given for the “rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles; that every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I [God] have given him, that every man may be accountable” for his own actions (D&C 101:77-78).
Shortly thereafter, the governor of Missouri issued an extermination order against the Saints in that state. They were mercilessly murdered and driven from the state by mobs during the winter of 1838-39; the Prophet Joseph and others were unjustly imprisoned in the ironically named Liberty Jail. Despite these unlawful and unconstitutional assaults, the Prophet Joseph later affirmed his faith in the Constitution:
“The Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner; it is to all those who are privileged with the sweets of its liberty, like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and weary land. It is like a great tree under whose branches men from every clime can be shielded from the burning rays of the sun. . . . The Constitution of the United States is true.”(11)
The Prophet was inspired to warn, however, that if such abuse of the law were to continue unchecked, it would lead to the loss of much freedom and liberty. The first known statement of Joseph in this regard was made July 19, 1840: “Even this nation will be on the verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground and when the Constitution is on the brink of ruin this people will be the staff upon which the nation shall lean and they shall bear the Constitution away from the very verge of destruction.”(12)
Eliza R. Snow later recalled: “I heard the Prophet Joseph Smith say, if the people rose and mobbed us and the authorities countenanced it, they would have mobs to their hearts’content. I heard him say that the time would come when this nation would so far depart from its original purity, its glory and its love of freedom and protection of civil and religious rights, that the constitution of our country would hang as it were by a thread.”(13)
As early as 1843, Joseph Smith noted that the Constitution was already under siege: “The different states, and even Congress itself, have passed many laws diametrically contrary to the Constitution of the United States.”(14)
Despite the corruption and challenges in our country, modern Presidents of the Church have called the Constitution a “sacred document” and have continued to bear witness of the increasingly important role the divine principles of the Constitution will play for the future of America and for the entire world.
(15) During World War II, at the dedicatory prayer for the Idaho Falls Temple in September 1945, President George Albert Smith prayed:
“As we look about in the world among the various countries, we find philosophies and forms of government the effect of which is to deprive men of their free agency, but by reason of thy timely warning to us, we know that they are not approved of thee.
Since the God of this choice land is Jesus Christ, we know that his philosophy of free agency should prevail here. Thou didst amply demonstrate this great principle to us by raising up wise men for the very purpose of giving us our Constitutional form of government. . . .There are those, our Heavenly Father, both within and without our borders, who would destroy the constitutional form of government which thou hast so magnanimously given us, and would replace it with a form that would curtail, if not altogether deprive, man of his free agency. We pray thee, therefore, that in all these matters thou wilt help us to conform our lives to thy desires, and that thou wilt sustain us in our resolve so to do. We pray thee that thou wilt inspire good and just men everywhere to be willing to sacrifice for, support, and uphold the Constitution and the government set up under it and thereby preserve for man his agency. . . .
“We pray that kings and rulers and the peoples of all nations under heaven may be persuaded of the blessings enjoyed by the people of this land by reason of their freedom under thy guidance and be constrained to adopt similar governmental systems, thus to fulfil the ancient prophecy of Isaiah that, “out of Zion shall go forth the law and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”(16)
Joseph articulated a policy that remains in effect in the Church today-Latter-day Saints have a civic duty to be actively involved in their communities, but the Church remains politically neutral. Said Joseph: “The Lord has not given me a revelation concerning politics. I have not asked Him for one. I am a third party, and stand independent and alone. I desire to see all parties protected in their rights.”(17)
Although Church members are encouraged to be actively engaged in politics and social causes, the Church does not dictate political affiliation, as stated on its Web site:
The Church’s mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, not to elect politicians. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is neutral in matters of party politics. This applies in all of the many nations in which it is established. The Church does not:
. Endorse, promote or oppose political parties, candidates, or platforms.
. Allow its church buildings, membership lists, or other resources to be used for partisan political purposes.
. Attempt to direct its members as to which candidate or party they should give their votes to (This policy applies to whether or not a candidate for office is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints).
. Attempt to direct or dictate to a government leader.
The Church does, however:
. Encourage its members to play a role as responsible citizens in their communities, including becoming informed about issues and voting in elections.
. Expect its members to engage in the political process in an informed and civil manner, respecting the fact that members of the Church come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences and may have differences of opinion in partisan political matters.
. Request candidates for office not to imply that their candidacy or platforms are endorsed by the Church.
. Reserve the right as an institution to address, in a nonpartisan way, issues that it believes have significant community or moral consequences or that directly affect the interests of the Church.(18)
Service in the Public Square
Joseph and his brother Hyrum were not idle observers of the political landscape. They both held offices of public trust. Joseph organized several cities. He designed and planned the city of Zion (at Independence, Missouri, yet to be built), and at Far West and Adam-ondi-Ahman. Over five hundred modern cities throughout the Intermountain West have been patterned after Joseph’s plat for the city of Zion. In 1996 the American Institute of Certified Planners recognized the genius of Joseph Smith’s city design and gave him a posthumous award for his “commitment to the building of well-planned and culturally nurturing cities.”(19)
Joseph planned and founded the city of Nauvoo, the largest city in Illinois at the time. He secured a city charter for Nauvoo from the Illinois legislature (which Abraham Lincoln voted for, as a member of that body), served on the first Nauvoo city council (February 1841), and was appointed as the city’s second mayor (1842). Mary Frost Adams noted Joseph’s compassion for the citizens of Nauvoo:
“While [Joseph was] acting as mayor of the city, a colored man named Anthony was arrested for selling liquor on Sunday, contrary to law. He pleaded that the reason he had done so was that he might raise the money to purchase the freedom of a dear child held as a slave in a Southern State. . . . Joseph said, ‘I am sorry, Anthony, but the law must be observed, and we will have to impose a fine.’ The next day Brother Joseph presented Anthony with a fine horse, directing him to sell it, and use the money obtained for the purchase of the child.”(20)
The Nauvoo City Council on which Joseph and Hyrum served passed an ordinance guaranteeing religious liberty and free assembly: “Be it ordained . . . that the Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans, and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges, in this city.”(21)
When they drafted the Nauvoo city charter, Joseph commented, “I concocted it for the salvation of the church, and on principles so broad that every honest man might dwell secure under its protecting influence, without distinction of sect or party.”(22)
Rudger Clawson observed of Joseph Smith’s leadership: “He had the spirit and courage of a great leader. He was a leader as a military man, as a temporal man, and as a spiritual man. He was broad and liberal in his views; and if he had not been disturbed and interrupted in his plans, Nauvoo would have been one of the most glorious cities ever founded in this country.”(23)
Joseph also served as the lieutenant-general of the Nauvoo Legion, a standing army in Nauvoo second in authority only to the U.S. military. He received this honor by the vote of the people and through a commission by the governor of Illinois.
Earlier, Joseph led Zion’s Camp, a military march from Ohio to Missouri. The organization he implemented during this march was used for the exodus of all the Saints to Utah many years later.
In 1844, Joseph announced his candidacy for the office of president of the United States. As candidate, he frequently spoke about women’s rights, the liberation of slaves, prison reform, the need for a national banking system, and territorial expansion.
Joseph’s brother Hyrum was also very involved in public life. He served two terms on the Nauvoo City Council. He served as vice-mayor of Nauvoo.
He was a candidate for the Illinois state legislature when Joseph was running for president. He was active in the leadership of both the Nauvoo Masonic Lodge and the Nauvoo Legion. And in the last general conference he attended before his tragic murder at Carthage, immediately before the Saints unanimously sustained Joseph as a presidential candidate, Hyrum shared his strong views about politics and offered firm counsel about the importance of participating in elections:
“You are to vote for good men, and if you do not do this it is a sin: to vote for wicked men, it would be a sin.
. . . Men of false principles have preyed upon us like wolves upon helpless lambs. . . . Let every man use his liberties according to the Constitution. . . . We want a President of the U.S., not a party President, but a President of the whole people; for a party President disenfranchises the opposite party. Have a President who will maintain every man in his rights. . . . I despise the principle that divides the nation into party and faction. . . . Damn the system of splitting up the nation into opposite belligerent parties. Whatever are the rights of men guaranteed by the Constitution of these United States, let them have them. Then, if we were all in union, no one dare attempt to put a warlike foot on our soil. I don’t like to see the rights of Americans trampled down.”(24)
Notes for Part 2
9 Kirtland Council Minute Book, 96-106; as cited in Lyndon Cook, Revelations
of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 296.
10 This revelation was originally included in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and
Covenants as section 102.
11 Smith, History of the Church, 3:304.
12 Joseph Smith Papers, Church History Library, Box 1, March 10, 1844; as cited
in D. Michael Stewart, “I Have a Question,” Ensign, June 1976, 64-65.
13 Eliza R. Snow, quoted in Edward W. Tullidge, Women of Mormondom (New
York: Tullidge and Crandall, 1877), 401; see also Harold B. Lee, Decisions for
Successful Living (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1973), 209.
14 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 279.
15 “Many latter-day prophets have equated the Constitution to scripture. For
example, President George Albert Smith said, ‘The Constitution of the
United States of America is just as much from my Heavenly Father as the Ten
Commandments’ (in Conference Report, April 1948, 182). President J. Reuben
Clark Jr. declared, ‘It is my conviction that God inspired the inditing of that
document. Thus the Constitution becomes sacred scripture to me’ (“Gratitude
for Our Heritage,” Harold B. Lee Library, Special Collections, Brigham Young
University, no date, 10-11). And again President Clark said, ‘The Constitution
of the United States is to me and to my people as much a part of our religion
as the Decalogue . . . or the Beatitudes’ (Vital Speeches of the Day 5, no. 6
[January 1, 1939]: 177). President Ezra Taft Benson wrote, ‘I reverence the
Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me its words are
akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed His stamp of approval on
the Constitution of this land’ (Ezra Taft Benson, The Constitution-A Heavenly
Banner [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1986], 31)” (William O. Nelson, The
Charter of Liberty: The Inspired Origin and Prophetic Destiny of the Constitution
[Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987], 9.)
16 George Albert Smith, “Dedicatory Prayer . . . Idaho Falls Temple,” Improvement Era, October 1945, 564.
17 Smith, History of the Church, 5:526.
18 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “Political neutrality,” Newsroom, https://newsroom.lds.org/ldsnewsroom/eng/public-issues/political-neutrality.
19 The plaque hangs in Brigham Young Park in downtown Salt Lake City.
20 Mary Frost Adams, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet,” Young Woman’s Journal,
December 1906, as quoted in Hyrum L. Andrus, Joseph Smith, the Man and the
Seer (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1960), 33.
21 Smith, History of the Church, 4:306.
22 B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-daySaints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1957), 2:54.
23 Rudger Clawson, in Conference Report, April 1906, 31.
24 Smith, History of the Church, 6:323.