Declaration of Independence

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

What Is the Relationship Between Religion and Government?

            My Come, Follow Me studies for this week took me to Doctrine and Covenants 133-134. These sections contain several principles that are good to study at this time. Two of those principles are preparing for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ and information about governments. This post will consider the principle “Governments were instituted of God for the benefits of man” (Doctrine and Covenants 134:1). First, I will give some background.

            The revelation that is recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 133 was received through the Prophet Joseph Smith at Hiram, Ohio, on November 3, 1831, following a two-day conference. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was barely nineteen months old, and the conference focused on the publication of the Book of Commandments. This book was never published due to the destruction of the printing press and many of the papers during a mob attack in Jackson County, Missouri.

            The revelation came to answer questions “the Elders desired to know relative to preaching the Gospel to the inhabitants of the earth, and concerning the gathering [of Israel]” (Doctrine and Covenants 133, section heading). In the revelation, the Lord commanded members of the Church of Jesus Christ to “go ye out of Babylon” and to “go ye forth unto the land of Zion” (Doctrine and Covenants 133:7, 9) to prepare for His Second Coming. The revelation also included events that would take place at the time of His Second Coming and during His millennial reign. The Lord also taught that His restored gospel would prepare the earth for His Second Coming. This section is known as the “appendix” to the Doctrine and Covenants.

            Doctrine and Covenants 134 is not a revelation but a document prepared by humans. Church members met in a special meeting on August 17, 1835, in Kirtland, Ohio, with the purpose of approving the upcoming publication of the Doctrine and Covenants. Oliver Cowdery was presiding at the meeting in the absence of the Prophet Joseph Smith who was visiting Church members in Michigan Territory. During the meeting, Church members voted to include in the Doctrine and Covenants “a declaration of belief regarding governments and laws” (Doctrine and Covenants 134, section heading).

            First, I will give some background to the situation. After the Saints were illegally driven from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri, in late 1833, Church leaders asked state and federal government officials for help in protecting the Saints’ civil rights and reclaiming their lost property. Church leaders made repeated appeals for help, but all of them failed.

            In July 1833 very few printed copies of the Book of Commandments survived the mob violence in Independence, Missouri. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ still wanted copies of the revelations received by the Prophet Joseph Smith, so a meeting was convened as explained above to approve the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants prior to its publication.

            During the meeting, Oliver Cowdery read aloud an additional document titled “Of Governments and Laws in General.” Members in attendance unanimously approved the document’s inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants, and it became Doctrine and Covenants 134 in the 1835 edition.

            This document was not a revelation given to the Prophet Joseph Smith, but it supports a statement made by the Prophet when he wrote thirteen statements known as the Articles of Faith. The twelfth article states: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”

Oliver Cowdery may have prepared the document with help from William W. Phelps. The paper clarifies the beliefs of Church members regarding their relationship to government and the law. (See The Joseph Smith Papers, Documents, Volume 4: April 1834-September 1835, ed. Matthew C. Godfrey and others [2016], 479-82). Here is the document now recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 134.

We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society.

We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.

We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign.

We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but 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.

We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.

We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker.

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.

We believe that the commission of crime should be punished according to the nature of the offense; that murder, treason, robbery, theft, and the breach of the general peace, in all respects, should be punished according to their criminality and their tendency to evil among men, by the laws of that government in which the offense is committed; and for the public peace and tranquility all men should step forward and use their ability in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment.

We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.

10 We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.

11 We believe that men should appeal to the civil law for redress of all wrongs and grievances, where personal abuse is inflicted or the right of property or character infringed, where such laws exist as will protect the same; but we believe that all men are justified in defending themselves, their friends, and property, and the government, from the unlawful assaults and encroachments of all persons in times of exigency, where immediate appeal cannot be made to the laws, and relief afforded.

12 We believe it just to preach the gospel to the nations of the earth, and warn the righteous to save themselves from the corruption of the world; but we do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men; such interference we believe to be unlawful and unjust, and dangerous to the peace of every government allowing human beings to be held in servitude. [Emphasis added.]

            State and federal governments failed to protect the freedom and religion of the Saints, but members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are staunch supporters of the Constitution of the United States, believing that it was divinely inspired. According to Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, there are basic principles of religious freedom that we should all promote and support:

There are four cornerstones of religious freedom that we as Latter-day Saints must rely upon and protect.

The first is freedom to believe. No one should be criticized, persecuted, or attacked by individuals, or governments either, for what he or she believes about God. It is very personal and very important….

The second cornerstone of religious liberty is the freedom to share our faith and our beliefs with others…. As parents, full-time missionaries, and member missionaries, we rely on religious freedom in order to teach the Lord’s doctrine in our families and throughout the world.

The third cornerstone of religious liberty is the freedom to form a religious organization, a church, to worship peacefully with others…. International human rights documents and many national constitutions support this principle.

The fourth cornerstone of religious liberty is the freedom to live our faith – free exercise of faith not just in the home and chapel but also in public places (“Preserving Agency, Protecting Religious Freedom,” Ensign, May 2015, 112).

            Members of the Church of Jesus Christ believe that every mortal who has ever lived upon the earth or will ever live upon the earth fought for agency in the pre-mortal world. Latter-day Saints continue to fight for agency – freedom and liberty – in this world. “Governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man,” and they are responsible to protect the God-given rights of all humanity.

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