Lesson 3 – Political Ideas Advocated by the Prophet Joseph Smith
Elder G. Homer Durham
For Tuesday, January 25, 1949
Objective: To better appreciate the political doctrines advanced by the Prophet Joseph Smith.
As well as being a prophet, Joseph Smith was an American. As such, he underwent the political experiences of the Latter-day Saints and the Americans of his day. But towards these experiences he applied a growing conception and appreciation for political and religious freedom and related problems.
From the revealed word he taught the doctrine and ideal of the kingdom of God. Section 65 of the book of Doctrine and Covenants, dated at Hiram, Ohio, October 1831, identifies the infant Church he established as the kingdom of God on earth. Moreover, “the keys of the kingdom: – divine authority – had been re-conferred on men – himself and others.
Few people understand or realize the immediate significance of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s inspired declarations, viewed in terms of political theory. The Latter-day Saints were exceedingly practical and proceeded with the business of “kingdom-building” on the American frontier, with city planning, economic and social experimentation, and proselyting activities which received local, national, and international attention. By January 4, 1833, Joseph had written an American newspaperman, N.E. Seaton, that the secular States of the world were facing destruction, and that in order to escape, “all people, high and low, rich and poor, male and female,” should repent and be baptized.
The snowball growth of the gospel, like Daniel’s “stone which is cut out of the mountain without hands” (D. & C. 65:2) with its social system and Church government, attracted wide attention and received complex reactions, even persecutions. The Book of Mormon, with its ideal of true Christian society (IV Nephi), aroused antagonism as well as support. This situation led to a rich political experience in Joseph Smith’s own lifetime, as he endeavored to find the sphere of freedom within the practical political world, wherein the little “kingdom” could grow unmolested.
Joseph Smith on the United States Constitution
Joseph Smith was ultimately forced by experience to the position where he elaborated and justified the use of force in order to maintain liberty. But more fundamentally, the Prophet’s political theory presupposed conditions that would make resort to force unnecessary.
As early as August 6, 1833, pronouncement was made (D. & C. 98:4-10) that the principle of freedom was God-given and “belongs to all mankind,” and that constitutional law should support that principle. A few months later, December 16, 1833, a revelation was received (Section 1010:76-80) in which the Constitution of the United States was set forth as the fulfillment of divine purpose “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 …” Thus was opened the way for reconciling the conflict between kingdom-building and the American nation, one of those nations supposedly headed for destruction unless the people received the gospel. In short, in Latter-day Saint belief, American government has a peculiar and special nature under a Constitution which is inspired because it fundamentally recognizes basic “free agency” or human liberty, a limitation which God established. When the Prophet offered his dedicatory prayer at the Kirtland Temple, March 27, 1836, mercy was invoked “upon all the nations of the earth” and petition made that “the Constitution of our land … be established forever” (D. & C. 109:54). Later, on March 25, 1839, a letter was penned in which the Prophet declared that the Constitution was “a glorious standard … founded in the wisdom of God” because it embraced the principle (federalism combined with civil liberty) which “guarantees to all parties, sects, and denominations, and classes of religion, equal, coherent, and indefeasible rights” (D.H.C. III, page 304).
In other words, the Constitution of the United States sets up a political system within which the kingdom of God, itself mild in nature, subject to self-restraint and toleration, could grow and flourish. The broad political doctrine, applicable to both the American and other States is this: a good State must necessarily be limited to the extent that it guarantee liberty to and non-interference with religious groups and any other human association based on the liberty of individual conscience, provided, that the group or association, in turn, recognizes the fundamental limitation of free agency, and which is imposed on the American State by virtue of its Constitution. As the eleventh Article of Faith puts it, as contained in Joseph Smith’s letter, March 1, 1842, to John Wentworth:
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty ‘God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may (D.H.C. IV, page 541).
A State granting liberty of religion keeps open the avenue to morality in the people; thus may the voice of the people demand that which is “good.” And if they do not, the remedy in Latter-day Saint political thought lies in the Church, whose responsibility it is, as Alma said, “bearing down in pure testimony against them,” and in love and faith, awakening the individual and social conscience to worthy citizenship.
The Nature of American Government
A “constitutional federal republic” is perhaps the best descriptive phrase for the American governmental system. “Constitutional” means that the Constitution provides the fundamental limits of power, while describing and distributing the powers granted to executive, legislative, and judicial branches. “Federal” means that the governmental power found in America is divided between Nation and states. No state nor the Nation has complete authority over any individual or thing – except in wartime, when total powers have been exercised by the National government. “Republic” means power is exercised, and controlled, primarily by representatives chosen from among the people. Thus we have our constitutional federal republic, in which public power is distributed, divided, and subdivided, in the interests of the people’s liberties under law, but effective action yet made possible.
The Prophet on Practical Political Problems
On February 7, 1844, in support of his announced candidacy for the American presidency,. Joseph Smith published a lengthy booklet, Views of the Powers and Policy of the Government of the United States (Joseph Smith: Prophet-Statesman, pp. 144-167, D.H.C. VI, pp. 197-209). A number of interesting “views” are set forth, such as:
1. The ever present danger that those elected to high office will look to their own selfish interests rather than those of the public.
2. Military preparedness: “To be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
3. Peace, notwithstanding preparedness, must be the unswerving objective of foreign policy.
4. “Agriculture, manufactures, navigation, commerce, need the fostering care of government,” including a “judicious tariff.”
5. Reorganization of Congress to make a smaller, more workable body.
6. Practical politicians will make free use of “reform” measures to win fame and power instead of accomplishing real improvements.
7. The substitution of remedial, corrective measures for traditional methods of penology. “Let the penitentiaries be turned into seminaries of learning.”
8. Abolition of slavery by compensating the owners.
9. Economy in public affairs.
10. Banking reforms suggestive of the federal reserve system of today.
11. Increased responsibility for the President in protecting civil rights.
12. Peaceful expansion of the American system to embrace Texas (then an independent nation), Mexico, Canada, and “all the world: let us be brethren, let us be one great family, and let there be universal peace.”
(For the Prophet’s platform, see D.H.C. VI, pp. 390-392 or Joseph Smith: Prophet-Statesman, pp. 180-183).
The Mission and Destiny of America
Some suggestion of the Prophet’s conception of the role of America in world affairs may be gathered from the foregoing discussion. His faithful follower, President John Taylor, put it this way a few years later:
It is true that the founders of this nation, as a preliminary step for the introduction of more correct principles and that liberty and the rights of man might be recognized, and that all men might become equal before the law of the land, had that great palladium of liberty, the Constitution of the United States, framed. This was the entering wedge for the introduction of a new era, and in it were introduced principles for the birth and organization of a new world (The Gospel Kingdom, page 309).
On May 12, 1844, speaking of the kingdom of God ideal, the Prophet Joseph Smith stated:
I calculate to be one of the instruments of setting up the kingdom of Daniel by the word of the Lord, and I intend to lay a foundation that will revolutionize the whole world (Joseph Smith: Prophet-Statesman, page 200).
On April 8, 1844, he had told the general conference at Nauvoo:
The whole of America is Zion itself from north to south (Ibid., page 198).
As President Taylor expressed it December 17, 1871:
The first wish we have for the human family is that the principles enunciated in our Constitution may reverberate over the wide earth, and spread from shore to shore until all mankind shall be free.
The obvious meaning of these views, propounded by the Prophet in relation to the mission and destiny of America is that within the framework of constitutional principles, the restored gospel message of Christ the Lord can be spread and God’s kingdom be established throughout the world. Tied with America and its Constitution, the “entering wedge of a new era,” then, is the destiny of the human race. Whom the gospel message fails to attract will still have the benefit of American influence wherever constitutional freedom spreads and prevails. The Constitution of the United States with American government, and the Church and kingdom of God, are thus seen as twin, co-ordinate objects in the political thought of Joseph Smith, each with a mission of liberty and service to mankind.
Questions for Discussion
1. What is the Latter-day Saint idea of the kingdom of God? (the following books contain excellent selections on the subject: Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith; Joseph Smith: Prophet-Statesman; The Discourses of Brigham Young; The gospel Kingdom; The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff; Gospel Doctrine.)
2. Does the principle of freedom belong to all mankind?
3. What is “all mankind”?
4. What reasons exist to support the belief that the United States Constitution is an inspired document?
5. What is the fundamental connection between religious freedom and good government? Why is the principle of religious freedom an essential element of a sound political theory?