The Law of the Land and the Twelfth Article of Faith
“We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law” (Articles of Faith, 12)
Some Latter-day Saints take the 12th Article of Faith at face value without understanding the additional context provided in other scriptures and from statements of church leaders.
It’s not uncommon to hear this from a Latter-day Saint: “We are obeying _____ ordinance because it is the law and saints are required to sustain and uphold the law.”
It is important to consider a more complete context of LDS doctrine & teachings regarding obedience to law, lest we act in ignorance.
“And now, verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them. And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land; And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil.
“I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed; and the law also maketh you free. Nevertheless, when the wicked rule the people mourn. Wherefore, honest men and wise men should be sought for diligently, and good men and wise men ye should observe to uphold; otherwise whatsoever is less than these cometh of evil. And I give unto you a commandment, that ye shall forsake all evil and cleave unto all good, that ye shall live by every word which proceedeth forth out of the mouth of God.” (D&C 98:4-11)
We are only required to obey that law which is constitutional and supports freedom. However, if we choose to disobey the dictates of evil men, we may also risk having to face the unjust punishment of man; nevertheless we would be justified before God in our actions.
“…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 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 have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.
“Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another. And for this purpose 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 shedding of blood.” (D&C 101: 76-80)
Again we have more revelation from the Lord, to Joseph Smith, stating that though the wicked may rule it is our responsibility to stand up for our rights and for just and holy principles.
Consider these excerpts from Doctrine & Covenants section 134, which is a declaration of belief regarding governments and laws in general:
“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…
“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 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…”
Additionally, Joseph Smith made other statements regarding our duty to the law:
“The different states, and even Congress itself, have passed many laws diametrically contrary to the Constitution of the United States…
“Shall we be such fools as to be governed by its laws, which are unconstitutional? No! … The Constitution acknowledges that the people have all power not reserved to itself. … This is the doctrine of the Constitution, so help me God. The Constitution is not law to us, but it makes provision for us whereby we can make laws. Where it provides that no one shall be hindered from worshiping God according to his own conscience, is a law. No legislature can enact a law to prohibit it. The Constitution provides to regulate bodies of men and not individuals.” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 278)
It is quite clear that while we do believe in “obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law”, there is a requirement that those laws be just and do not infringe on the rights of the people. As Thomas Aquinas stated, “an unjust law is not really a law at all.”
The United States of America would not exist if the Founding Fathers believed, as many do today, in obeying the edicts of corrupt government officials.
Thomas Jefferson believed that “disobedience to tyrants is obedience to God” and he made it his personal seal. Virginia, home to a Bible believing society, with such men as George Washington and James Madison, had it as its official seal in 1776. Benjamin Franklin suggested it as the official motto of the United States.
In the Declaration of Independence we find this important directive:
“Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends (defending the rights of the people), it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government.”
For a better understanding of why these concepts are important, consider the proper role of government:
“…the proper function of government is limited only to those spheres of activity within which the individual citizen has the right to act. By deriving its just powers from the governed, government becomes primarily a mechanism for defense against bodily harm, theft and involuntary servitude. It cannot claim the power to redistribute the wealth or force reluctant citizens to perform acts of charity against their will. Government is created by man. No man possesses such power to delegate. The creature cannot exceed the creator.
“In general terms, therefore, the proper role of government includes such defensive activities, as maintaining national military and local police forces for protection against loss of life, loss of property, and loss of liberty at the hands of either foreign despots or domestic criminals.” (Ezra Taft Benson, The Proper Role of Government)
John Taylor explained our obligation to the laws of man, and of God, as he spoke of celestial and terrestrial laws:
“There are again celestial laws as before referred to, and terrestrial laws, and the question arises, what is the meaning of a celestial law; and what again is the meaning of a terrestrial law; a celestial law pertains to the law of heaven; and is a principle by which the intelligences in the celestial world are governed. The Gospel in its fulness places those who obey it, under its influences, while at the same time it does not relieve them from other obligations of a terrestrial nature.
“It is said in the Doctrine and Covenants, that he that keepeth the laws of God, hath no need to break the laws of the land. It is further explained in section 98, what is meant in relation to this. That all laws which are constitutional must be obeyed, as follows: ‘And now, verily I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them. And that the law of the land which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me. Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of the church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land; And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this cometh of evil.’
“That is taking this nation as an example, all laws that are proper and correct, and all obligations entered into which are not violative of the constitution should be kept inviolate. But if they are violative of the constitution, then the compact between the rulers and the ruled is broken and the obligation ceases to be binding. Just as a person agreeing to purchase anything and to pay a certain amount for it, if he receives the article bargained for, and does not pay its price, he violates his contract; but if he does not receive the article he is not required to pay for it. Again we ask, what is this celestial law? The celestial law above referred to is absolute submission and obedience to the law of God. It is exemplified in the words of Jesus, who, when He came to introduce the Gospel said, ‘I came not to do my will but the will of the Father that sent me;’ and His mission was to do the will of the Father who sent him, or to fulfill a celestial law.”
(John Taylor, Remarks before the High Council of Salt Lake Stake of Zion, Feb 20, 1884. Journal of Discourse 26:350)
Ezra Taft Benson, in a talk titled “The Twelfth Article of Faith“, further expounded upon these concepts:
“In it is a declaration requiring obedience, loyalty to, and respect for duly constituted laws and the officials administering those laws. In justifying such loyal compliance, however, the Lord also promulgated certain safeguards and conditions which must be observed if freedom and liberty are to be preserved and enjoyed. These are emphasized primarily in the 98th and 134th sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. How I wish these fundamental concepts were emblazoned on the hearts of all our people!”
“We must be eternally vigilant as Latter-day Saints and inspire in the lives of our children a love for eternal principles and a desire to seek out honorable men—the best possible—to stand at the head of our political governments, local, state, and federal. Only in this way can we safeguard the liberties which have been vouchsafed to us as our inalienable rights. Unless we do so, we may very easily lose them because of our indifference, because of our failure to exercise our franchise, because we permit men who are unworthy to rise to positions of political power.”
(Ezra Taft Benson, The Twelfth Article of Faith. From God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties, 279. 1974.)
All this being said, we live in a wicked world full of tyrants, corrupt politicians, and oppressive laws. In all that we do we must consider the risks and use the Holy Spirit as our guide.
“Our lives have already become jeopardized by revealing the wicked and bloodthirsty purposes of our enemies; and for the future we must cease to do so. All we have said about them is truth, but it is not always wise to relate all the truth. Even Jesus, the Son of God, had to refrain from doing so, and had to restrain His feelings many times for the safety of Himself and His followers, and had to conceal the righteous purposes of His heart in relation to many things pertaining to His Father’s kingdom. When still a boy He had all the intelligence necessary to enable Him to rule and govern the kingdom of the Jews, and could reason with the wisest and most profound doctors of law and divinity, and make their theories and practice to appear like folly compared with the wisdom He possessed; but He was a boy only, and lacked physical strength even to defend His own person; and was subject to cold, to hunger and to death. So it is with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; we have the revelation of Jesus, and the knowledge within us is sufficient to organize a righteous government upon the earth, and to give universal peace to all mankind, if they would receive it, but we lack the physical strength, as did our Savior when a child, to defend our principles, and we have a necessity to be afflicted, persecuted and smitten, and to bear it patiently until Jacob is of age, then he will take care of himself.”
(Joseph Smith, Not Always Wise to Expose Evil. TPJS Section Six 1843-44, p.392 — June 27, 1844.)
While there are some threats to liberty that we must bear patiently, we do have a responsibility to do something. Ezra Taft Benson spoke about our immediate responsibility, regarding freedom, stating:
“We have been warned again and again and again. The Lord’s spokesman has consistently raised his voice of warning about the loss of our freedom. Now he that has ears, let him hear, and ye who praise the Lord, learn to also follow His spokesman.
“‘No greater immediate responsibility rests upon the members of the church, upon all citizens of this republic and of neighboring republics than to protect the freedom vouchsafe by the Constitution of the United States.’
“In this mighty struggle each of you has a part. Be on the right side. Stand up and be counted.”
(Ezra Taft Benson. Our Immediate Responsibility. BYU University. October 25, 1966.)