Church Doctrine on Governments and Law

(Joseph Fielding Smith. Progress of Man. 1964)

“Be Subject to the Powers that Be.”

In a revelation given to the Church, August 1, 1831, the Lord said: “Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet.” It has been the doctrine and practice of the covenant people of God in all ages to be subject to the worldly “powers that be,” and to sustain and uphold them in all just and proper government.

When the Jews came to Jesus, tempting him, and trying to trip him in some manner so that they could find an accusation against him, they said: “What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” He answered them, “Shew me the tribute money, And they brought unto him a penny. And he said unto them, Whose is this image and superscription? They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.”

In the dispensation of the Meridian of Time, Peter instructed the saints as follows:

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. (1 Peter 2:13-15)

The same commandment is required of us in the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times, as we see from the above quotation given to the Church in 1831. The Church has accepted as a law unto the Church, binding on all the members, the Articles of Faith. These articles have been included with the Standard Works of the Church, as a standard in doctrine and practice. The Twelfth Article reads as follows:

We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.

This requirement applies to the Saints in every nation upon the earth as they are at this time constituted. The members of the Church in the British Empire are under the strict injunction to be loyal to that government and its laws. The same injunction is strictly required of the members of the Church in Germany, Italy, France, Scandinavia, Japan and wherever they reside upon the face of the earth. Moreover, when members of the Church travel from one nation to another, they must by all means respect the laws and customs of the several nations which they may visit and as long as they sojourn within their dominions. This rule is imperative and will be so as long as governments of men exist and prevail upon the face of the earth.

“According to the Laws of Man.”

In February, 1831, the Lord commanded that his servants, the Elders, go out among the people preaching the Gospel, and as many as were converted through their teachings were to be organized, “according to the laws of man.” This, of course, had reference to the political organization of the people, not their spiritual organization. A few months later, in May, 1831, the Lord again instructed the saints in relation to their inheritances: “And thus all things shall be made sure, according to the laws of the land.” When the saints began to assemble on the land of Zion (Missouri) the Lord counseled them not to think they were at liberty contrary to the established law to take possession of land in that place, simply because he had proclaimed it as the land of their inheritance. On this point the revelation states:

Behold, the land of Zion – I, the Lord, hold it in mine own hands; Nevertheless, I, the Lord, render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. Wherefore, I the Lord will that you should purchase the lands, that you may have advantage of the world, that you may have claim on the world, that they may not be stirred up unto anger. For Satan putteth it into their hearts to anger against you, and to the shedding of blood. Wherefore, the land of Zion shall not be obtained but by purchase or by blood, otherwise there is none inheritance for you. And if by purchase, behold you are blessed; And if by blood, as you are forbidden to shed blood, lo, your enemies are upon you, and ye shall be scourged from city to city, and from synagogue to synagogue, and but few shall stand to receive an inheritance. (D&C 63:25-31)

A Declaration of Belief.

At a conference of the Church held in Kirtland, Ohio, August 17, 1835, the Doctrine and Covenants was presented to the assembled conference for their acceptance or rejection. After the brethren there assembled had carefully and studiously considered the matter, the revelations which had been previously selected by the Prophet Joseph Smith were accepted as the word of the Lord by the unanimous vote of the conference, and were ordered printed. On the occasion of this conference, Joseph Smith the Prophet and his second counselor, Frederick G. Williams, were not present. They were on a brief mission to the saints in Michigan, and because of this were not familiar with all the proceedings of this conference. After the conference had accepted the revelations, an article on marriage, which had been written by Oliver Cowdery, was read by Elder William W. Phelps, and was ordered printed in the book with the revelations.

When this action had been taken, Oliver Cowdery arose and read another article, also written by himself, on “Governments and Laws in General.” This article the conference also ordered printed in the book of Doctrine and Covenants. Unfortunately, a great many people, because these articles appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants, readily concluded that they had come through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and hence were to be received on a par with the other parts of the book of revelations. Because of this misinformation articles have been published from time to time declaring that these words on Government and Laws have come to us with the force of revelation having been from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This article and the one on “Marriage” were not considered as revelations by the conference, but were published as an expression of belief of the members of the Church at that time.

The article on Governments and Laws has appeared in each edition of the Doctrine and Covenants since 1835, and has been accepted, as the preamble of the article states, as a declaration of belief of the Latter-day Saints. It is as follows and is known as Section 134, of the Doctrine and Covenants:

Of Governments and Laws in General

That our belief with regard to earthly governments and laws in general may not be misinterpreted nor misunderstood, we have thought proper to present at the close of this volume our opinion concerning the same.

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 re 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.

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 society, and withdrawn from them their fellowship.

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.

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 to 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.

God Overrules the Destiny of Nations and of Individuals.

It should not be understood that because Oliver Cowdery declared, and the Church has approved, the statement in this article that “We believe that governments are instituted of God for the benefit of man,” that therefore God has been the author of every government upon the earth. He is the author of government, for government prevails throughout the universe, but some of the despotic governments have been far from governments established or instituted by the hand of God. In the beginning, as previously stated, government was instituted for the benefit of man, but man in his rebellious nature turned from that government given by the Almighty to organizations of his own. It is a fact, however, that the Lord does overrule all nations. Kings and potentates may plot and plan and league together, but the Lord sets the bounds of their habitations and their authority and says: “This far, and no farther, shalt thou go.” The history of nations as it is recorded, reveals clearly and positively, the fact that the hand of the Lord has been the ruling hand among all kingdoms. The destiny of nations as well as the destinies of individuals is in his hands. Kings, presidents, despots and dictators will rule until the Lord declares it is enough and then their kingdoms and authorities shall cease upon the earth.

The Higher Powers.

Paul is quoted in the Bible as having said to the Roman Saints: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.” The Lord corrected this translation through the Prophet Joseph Smith so that it reads:

Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power in the church but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God.

Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves punishment.

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same.

He who is subject to the higher powers, which are the powers of God and his authorized servants, will also obey the laws and be subject to the government of man. For thus we are commanded until he comes whose right it is to rule.

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