Lesson 4 – “The Declaration of Belief Regarding Governments and Laws in General”
Elder G. Homer Durham
For Tuesday, February 22, 1949
Objective: To study section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants as the belief of Latter-day Saints in regard to earthly governments and laws in general.
Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants, “A Declaration of Belief Regarding Governments and Laws in General,” is the work of Oliver Cowdery, “the Second Elder” of the Church in the new dispensation (Progress of Man, page 367). The Latter-day Saint doctrine of divine authority to build a real kingdom of God on earth occasioned persecution and conflict. The memories of the American Revolution of 1776 were still fresh in the American mind and the American revolution had been a revolt in which the idea of divine authority in secular affairs had been repudiated. The views of the English philosopher, John Locke (1632-1704) had become very popular in the United States. In 1690 Locke had published Two Treatises on Civil Government The first treatise was an attack on and an utter repudiation of a work written early by Robert Filmer, entitled Patriarcha, which contended that God ordained true government with Adam, and that priestly power to rule, or divine authority, had descended from Adam on down to the British monarchy. Devastating this argument in the first treatise, Locke’s second treatise contended for popular representative government and the natural rights of man to “life, liberty, and property.” Now came along Joseph Smith with a doctrine misunderstood as being similar to the odious one (in the American mind) of Filmer, with the Prophet and the Latter-day Saint Priesthood substituted (in the American mind) for the British monarch of “divine right.”
Joseph Smith’s reconciliation of divine authority to build “the kingdom” was subsequently developed in terms of the doctrine of the divinely inspired Constitution. At a special general conference on August 17, 1835, following the approval by those assembled of the revelations to be included in the book of Doctrine and Covenants, Oliver Cowdery read an article written by himself on “Governments and Laws in General” … “which was accepted and adopted and ordered to be printed in said book” (D.H.C. II, page 247) now known as section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants. Why? As the printed book still states, in order “that our belief with regard to earthly governments and laws in general may not be misinterpreted nor misunderstood …”
Significance of the Declaration
The Declaration regarding governments and laws is most significant. In the first place, it occupies an official position in the covenants of the Church, moved, seconded, and adopted in open meeting by the people of the Church themselves, upon the initiative of one of its members. Not designated as a direct revelation from God, the Declaration recommended itself to the friends and enemies of the Church as a democratic statement of belief which could not be derided as emanating form outside, extra-mundane sources. But more important, in order “that our belief with regard to earthly governments and laws in general may not be misinterpreted nor misunderstood,” the Declaration may be considered the direct ancestor of the very important 12th Article of Faith, which has made it possible for missionaries to preach “the kingdom” in foreign countries without being subject to the charge that they were subversive in undermining support by their people of foreign governments:
We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
Can a man divide his allegiance between kingdom-building and divine authority in a gospel embracing “all truth,” with citizenship in the American, British, or any other nation? This was the problem. And, from the beginning, it was charged that a Latter-day Saint could not remain a good Latter-day Saint and be a loyal citizen at the same time. The “Declaration of Belief,” adopted by the voice of the people August 17, 1835, is one of the first and best answers to this question and, as such, presents some of the interesting contributions Latter-day Saint experience has made to political thought.
Implicit in the Declaration is the theory that both Church and State were “instituted of God for the benefit of man.” When to this is added the doctrine of the inspired Constitution, a unique theory of Church-State relations (suggested in lesson three) is furnished. In general there are two theories of the proper relation of Church and State, typified by two of the great reformers who had to meet the question head-on, Luther and Calvin. In Luther’s theory, the Church is subordinate to the State. In Calvin’s view, the State should subordinate itself to the Church. American experience, commencing with Roger Williams, has urged the doctrine of separation of Church and State. But when separated, what is their relationship? The Latter-day Saint attitude and experience suggests the answer: their relationship is co-ordinate. Both are responsible, or should be, to God; and both are responsible to the people in building a great world society in which liberty and toleration can prevail. By this means God’s kingdom can be built and, although Latter-day Saint doctrine suggests that eventually everyone will acknowledge Christ, yet everyone will have his liberty – even, said Brigham Young, “to worshiping a red dog.” In case of conflict between Church and State as they pursue their twin, co-ordinate missions, the 98th section of the Doctrine and Covenants indicates (as does the Declaration) that conflicts should be reconciled by reference to that law “which is constitutional, supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges …”
This implication of co-ordinate roles and responsibilities for Church and State may be also stated as a broad social, as well as political, theory, deriving form the fundamental “facts” of (a) God’s existence and (b) man’s existence. Thus, all social institutions bear the same responsibility, in Latter-day Saint doctrine, as Church and State – to make a better world and assist in bringing to pass “the eternal life of man.”
The Declaration, of course, suggests answers to the two fundamental questions of political theory, (1) the nature of the State, and (2) the nature of man. The State is limited by the rights of men:
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 and private devotion … (D. & C. 98:4).
In return for the liberty granted men, and which the good State must respect, men on their part, it is explained:
… 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 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 (D. & C. 98:5).
This is one of the great documents of human, political experience. Full analysis of the entire Declaration will be made, step by step, point by point, in a series of lessons to follow the present survey. It is a great and significant landmark in the literature of Latter-day Saint political thought and should be read again and again. Its concluding verse (12) has significance for the “mission of America,” shared by Church and State, and for world affairs:
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 …
As starved, cold Europeans in destroyed cities survey their task; as civil strife rages in humanity-filled Asia; as all people survey the chasm between Communist totalitarianism and the chance afforded men to earn temporal salvation by means of God-granted liberty, we may fortify our minds with the political doctrines “adopted by unanimous vote at a general assembly of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, held at Kirtland, Ohio, August 17, 1835″ (D. & C., 1921 edition, page 250).
Questions for Discussion
1. In the early days of the Church it was often claimed that Latter-day Saints believed that civil government was unimportant. Church history on every page disproves this misunderstanding. In this connection, what is the especial significance of the Declaration of Belief Regarding Governments and Laws in general? The twelfth Article of Faith? Joseph Smith’s teachings concerning the United States Constitution?
2. What experiences can the class suggest as to whether or not Latter-day Saints make good citizens?
3. what are the two general theories of Church-State relations that have had wide acceptance in the western world?
4. If Church and state are in conflict, is a Latter-day Saint required to choose which he should support, or does modern revelation suggest a happier solution? What is that solution? How does Latter-day Saint political theory point an important method whereby any such conflicts may be avoided?
5. Read verses 1 and 12 of the Declaration, separately, to the class. Discuss each in the light of the foregoing lessons.