No matter where we fall on the political spectrum, most of us are heartsick about the future in America. We’ve seen a summer of violence in the streets and now tumult at the capitol, with scenes that have unnerved us and left distrust and worry as their legacy. It is easy to see those who disagree with us as the danger. Their lethal policies, supported by lies, are an existential threat to all that matters to us. So, we are angry—in fact, it is a righteous anger—that we know not what to do with as we see people shredding our country and social trust dissolving.
Too many of us think that those who disagree with us are not just friends with different opinions, but enemies. Enemies are someone easy to demonize, objectify and hate.
What do we do with all this uneasiness and growing division, especially when we think our own cause is just?
Into this hot stew of misery comes this calming, new statement from the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve https://latterdaysaintmag.com/church-leaders-condemn-violence-and-lawless-behavior-during-times-of-unrest/saying, “With great concern we observe the political and cultural divisions in the United States and the world. We condemn violence and lawless behavior…We urge all people to remember the precious and fragile nature of freedom and peace…We urge our members to honor democratic institutions and processes, and to obey, honor and sustain the law.”
President Dallin H. Oaks echoed the same sentiment in last October’s conference, “This does not mean that we agree with all that is done with the force of law. It means that we obey the current law and use peaceful means to change it. It also means that we peacefully accept the results of elections. We will not participate in the violence threatened by those disappointed with the outcome.”
In the heat of the violent persecutions of the Latter-day Saints in Missouri in 1833, Joseph Smith received some vital counsel from the Lord about what to do about political grievances that remains unchanged. Here’s the context.
A Secret Constitution
When the Latter-day Saints moved to Jackson County, Missouri in 1831, their vision was to build Zion, a place of peace, prosperity and one heart. Unfortunately, clashes with the old settlers were almost inevitable. This was the rough, lawless, western frontier of America, and the people did not want these newcomers from the more ordered East. Missourians hated the Indians and the Latter-day Saints saw them as a chosen people. In a place where slave-holding was still a political issue, Latter-day Saints were against slavery. The old Missourians hated the Latter-day Saints business competition and their strange, new religion.
Because this was a place far away from the law and order that largely prevailed in the rest of the country, the old Missourians saw an advantage.
During the summer of 1833, hundreds of Missourians circulated a “secret constitution” denouncing the “Mormons”. In July, about five hundred Missourians gathered at the Independence courthouse to draft a document outlining their demands and to issue a bitter ultimatum that no Latter-day Saints would be allowed to move to or settle in Jackson County and that those who were already there must pledge to leave in a reasonable time. The document also called for the immediate cessation of the Church newspaper. The leaders of the Church, upon receiving the demands, asked for three months to consider the proposition and consult with Church leaders in Ohio. This request was denied, and they pleaded for ten days. This was also denied, and the Saints were given fifteen minutes to look over and agree to the resolution.
After this, the Missourians fell upon the Latter-day Saints with chaos and violence. Leaders were tarred and feathered. The printing press was destroyed. Property was looted, homes destroyed, and false rumors were circulated saying that a war of extermination must be waged against the saints in the name of self-preservation.
B.H. Roberts said, “The third day after [the secret constitution was presented], the mob, to the number of some five hundred, again came dashing into Independence bearing a red flag, and armed with rifles, pistols, dirks, whips and clubs. They rode in every direction in search of the leading elders, making the day hideous with their inhuman yells and wicked oaths. They declared it to be their intention to whip those whom they captured with from fifty to five hundred lashes each…and demolish their dwellings.
“Said they: ‘We will rid Jackson County of the “Mormons,” peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must. If they will not go without, we will whip and kill the men; we will destroy their children, and ravish their women!’”
The Lord’s Instructions to Joseph
By November, families had to abandon their homes, leaving a trail of blood across the winter stubble in icy fields, and, then surprisingly, it was in December that the Lord gave Joseph this revelation. It didn’t recommend revenge or violence or marching on the capitol or burning down cities to these poor, assaulted new members of the Church. God did not tell them to take the law into their own hands.
The Lord gave them a much longer, more difficult road to plead their case. The Lord said he had instituted the Constitution for the very purpose of maintaining the rights and protection of those who would need it. In Doctrine and Covenants 101: 76-89, God is emphatic about the route the suffering Saints must take:
“Those who have been scattered by their enemies, it is my will that they should continue to importune for redress, and redemption, by the hands of those who are placed as rulers and are in authority over you—According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the brights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles…
“And for this purpose [the protection of rights] have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose, and redeemed the land by the bshedding of blood.”
At this point, the Lord compared Zion, which included these suffering Saints and perhaps other Saints in the future, to the parable of the woman and the unjust judge found in Luke 18:1-6. Though this was a judge “which feared not God, neither regarded man”, she troubled the judge–she importuned and wearied him until the judge weighed the case in her favor.
The Lord said to these now homeless Latter-day Saints in the middle of winter:
“Let them importune at the feet of the judge;
“And if he heed them not, let them importune at the feet of the governor;
“And if the governor heed them not, let them importune at the feet of the president;
“And if the president heed them not, then will the Lord arise and come forth out of his hiding place, and in his fury vex the nation.”
A petition setting forth their suffering, and denying the allegations of the mob, was presented by Orson Hyde and W. W. Phelps to then Governor Daniel Dunklin. He responded that since the Latter-day Saints had been threatened and beaten and turned out of their homes, they should try the efficacy of the law by making an affidavit to that effect before the circuit judge, or the justices of the peace in their respective districts.
B. H. Roberts wrote, “I do not doubt the sincerity of Governor Dunklin in giving this counsel to the saints, and under ordinary circumstances to seek redress at the hands of the civil authorities would be the proper thing to do. But in this case the officers of the law had been the head and front of this high-handed and infamous proceeding.”
The leaders of those forming that “secret constitution” read like a who’s who in government in the Independence, Missouri area. Included were a judge of the county court, a county clerk, a deputy clerk, two justices of the peace, a constable and most notorious of all, the lieutenant governor of the state Lilburn W. Boggs.
With these officials being the authors of the chaos and violence, redress was impossible.
Violence in Far West
After a series of temporary homes, the Latter-day Saints finally settled in a sparse, no-man’s land in northern Missouri and called their settlement Far West. In 1838, hatred boiled over again toward the Latter-day Saints, and now a state militia of more than 3,000 marched on Far West with utter destruction on their mind. Church leaders, including Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith were sent to Liberty Jail, and now Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued an extermination order.
Parley P. Pratt complained of the order: “It said nothing of criminals; it made no allusion to punishing crime and protecting innocence; it was sufficient to be called a ‘Mormon.’ A peaceable family just emigrating, or passing through the country; a missionary going or coming on his peaceable errand of mercy; an aged soldier of the American revolution on his death bed . . . a widow with her babes; the tender wife, or helpless orphan; all were included in this order of wholesale extermination or banishment.”
Lucy Mack Smith said, “My son-in-law Mr. McLeary went out with some others to meet the mob and ascertain what their business was. They gave the messengers to understand that they would soon commence an indiscriminate butchery of men, women, and children, that their orders were to convert Far West into a human slaughter pen and never quit it while there was a lisping babe or a decrepit old woman breathing within its bounds.”
She described the scene that winter in front of her house. “The people were all driven in from the country, and there was more than an acre of land in front of our house completely covered with beds, lying in the open sun, where men, women, and children were compelled to sleep in all weather. These were the last who had got into the city, and the houses were so full that there was no room for them. It was enough to make the heart ache to see children in the open sun and wind, sick with colds and very hungry, crying around their mothers for food and their parents destitute of the means of making them comfortable, while their houses, which lay a short distance from the city, were pillaged of everything, their fields thrown open for the horses belonging to the mob to lay waste and destroy, and their fat cattle shot down and turning to carrion before their eyes, while a strong guard, which was set over us for the purpose, prevented us from making use of a particle of the stock that was killed on every side of us.”
Joseph Smith Visits Martin Van Buren
Still with things this bad, the Lord’s counsel in Doctrine and Covenants 101 is not rescinded or altered. The Latter-day Saints are to make their case within the law all the way to the President and they will approach Congress as well.
Thus, on November 28, 1839 Joseph Smith met with President Martin Van Buren. In those days, the U.S. President would meet with constituents, so this was not a private meeting but was held in a busy parlor on the second floor of the White House with many other people present. In however many minutes he had, Joseph made his case to President Van Buren, who famously answered, according to W.W. Phelps, “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.” He might have said this, instead, according to Spencer McBride, “In other words, there is a re-election next year, and I am not so sure I can win this election. The Whigs are breathing down our necks. Missouri is one of the few states that I know for certain is for me, and I don’t want to tick them off.”
By the way, President Van Buren lost his next election any way.
A petition was also taken to Congress, but things were delayed until the Judiciary Committee met in February and took it up. By that time Joseph Smith had left to help the Latter-day Saints huddled on the shores of the Mississippi.
The Judiciary Committee, rejected the petition and issued this counsel. “The petitioners, may, if it seems proper, apply to the justice and the magnanimity of the state of Missouri for redress, an appeal which the committee feels justified in believing will never be made in vain by the injured or oppressed.” This was certainly adding insult to injury. Congress was directing them to appeal to Missouri, the very state that had an extermination order making it legal to kill a Mormon.
When Joseph Smith ran for the Presidency in 1844, just before his death, it was in large part to bring the plight of the Latter-day Saints and the way the Constitution had failed them to a larger audience.
Redress and justice for the Latter-day Saints was left in the hands of the Lord.
Now, one might say that these series of petitions to the government (and many more not mentioned) was an exercise in futility. But in a land where God says He suffered this Constitution to be established, where principles of freedom have been articulated and mechanisms are in place for a plurality of ideas to be spoken and considered, we honor that process of change, concern and complaint.
Many would suggest that the only way to get your voice heard or your point across is to do what it takes to get attention, even if that is a violent demonstration. It is true, as has been demonstrated above, that people in office and positions of power may be corrupt, may become ideologues who will seek to smash opposing views. It may be true that the entire power structure is against you, as it was for the Saints in Independence when it was the very officers of the law who were the perpetrators.
What are we invited to do in those crushing circumstances? Be the importunate widow. We need to learn how to make our case. We need to assemble our evidence about our concerns, not just from the echo chamber of social media, but seek the deepest understanding. We need to listen to others—even those who oppose us. When we see things that are important threatened, we need to be persuasive, work really hard, be civically minded. We need to participate in our communities. We need to be a force for good.
In the trying days of Missouri, God did not rescind his instructions about how to register concern. It is clear through the voice of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, that same counsel is just as important today.