Lesson 5 – Main Currents in Latter-day Saint Political Thought as Revealed in Discourse and Literature
Elder G. Homer Durham
For Tuesday, March 22, 1949
Objective: To appreciate the contributions to political thought voiced by some of the early Church leaders.
The doctrines of the Christian religion are the foundation stones of Latter-day Saint political thinking. Translated into the terminology of political philosophy, the following appear to be basic:
1. The State and government are essential.
2. The State must recognize man as a child of God and so respect human liberty.
3. Religious freedom is not only essential to man’s nature as a child of God, but is the means whereby eternal truth can be made available to men in society, who can then provide the basis for a healthy State and good government.
4. The government of God is fundamentally limited in that it will not interfere with human liberty – on pain of ceasing to be Godly, and governments in heir operations should recognize a similar limitation.
5. The Constitution of the United States partakes of divine inspiration because it recognizes the above principle, and thus serves as a model for all governments.
In, through, and around these more or less basic postulates, are many rich expressions in the literature of Latter-day Saint political thought.
Sidney Rigdon (1793-1876)
Prominently identified with the rise of Mormonism was Sidney Rigdon. The “Lectures on Faith,” for many years printed in editions of the Doctrine and Covenants, constitute his principal contribution to Latter-day Saint literature. For notation here, however, attention is called to a discourse of July 4, 1838 at Far West, Missouri, sometimes styled by Joseph Smith as a Mormon ‘declaration of independence.” Copies of the speech were printed in pamphlet form and are today very rare. In 1941 a San Francisco bookseller was holding a copy for sale at $800. The speech was uttered in the midst of the Missouri persecutions. It sets forth the right of resistance when liberty is infringed. the Latter-day Saint answer to the deep problem of political thought is thus suggested: When is violence, if ever, justified? Rigdon’s statement is perhaps the most fiery, radical statement in Latter-day Saint thought and can only be understood in relation to the trials and sufferings of the driven, persecuted saints.
Remember it then, all men. We will never be the aggressors, we will infringe on the rights of no people, but shall stand for our own until death … and the mob that comes on us to disturb us, there shall be between us and them a war of extermination… (Whitney’s History of Utah, I, page 144; see B.H. Roberts, Missouri Persecutions, page 193, for a complete quotation).
Parley Parker Pratt (1807-1857)
Perhaps one of the most romantic figures among the early saints, aside from Joseph Smith, was Parley Parker Pratt, who joined the Church in August 1830. In 1837, in vigorous prose, Pratt produced The Voice of Warning, probably Mormonism’s oldest, most famous tract. Chapter three of this work is devoted to an enlarged explanation of the kingdom of God idea, viewing the restored Church as God’s “organized government on the earth.” The Voice of Warning is easily available and excerpts from chapter three can readily be examined.
Brigham Young (1800-1877)
Brigham Young, that great empire builder whose stature grows with the years, has yet to be recognized, as he someday will be, for his deep philosophic insight. A beginning was made in 1937 when Professors Gabriel, Warfel, and Williams of Yale University included Brigham Young’s views on government int heir anthology, The American Mind (See also Discourses of Brigham Young, chapter 31, “Political Government.”)
Quite outstanding among President Young’s many statements bordering on the subject of political philosophy, is his discourse on “the Kingdom of God,” July 8, 1855. (Journal of Discourses II, 309-317). Here is the stated ideal of the great, tolerant, Christian world society towards which Church and State should strive in their “co-ordinate” capacity, and in which one need not be a Christian so long as he respects the rights of others.
When the Kingdom of God is fully set up and established on the face of the earth … it will protect the people in the enjoyment of all their rights, no matter what they believe, what they profess, or what they worship. if they wish to worship a god of their own workmanship, instead of the true and living God, all right, if they will mind their own business and let other people alone … that Kingdom grows out of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it is not the Church, for a man may be a legislator in that body which will issue laws … and still not belong to the Church of Jesus Christ at all.
John Taylor (1808-1887)
The third president of the Church produced a work concerning which Hubert Howe Bancroft wrote:
As a dissertation on a general and abstract subject, it probably has not its equal in point of ability within the whole range of Mormon literature (History of Utah, page 433).
This was The Government of God (Liverpool: 1851). President Taylor faced some of the most severe political problems of the church. Book Five of The Gospel Kingdom (pp. 297-349), published in 1943, contains the choice selections of his thought in many matters ranging from world problems, to the Latter-day Saint position with regard to the American nation, socialism, and other movements. In 1855, while publishing a weekly newspaper, The Mormon, in New York City, John Taylor wrote, for example, the following:
We believe that our fathers were inspired to write the constitution of the United States, and that it is an instrument, full, lucid, and comprehensive … that it is the great bulwark of American liberty and that the strict and implicit observance of which is the only safeguard of this mighty nation.
We believe that the president, governors, judges, and governmental officers ought to be respected, honored, and sustained in their stations but that they ought to use their positions and power, not for political emolument, or party purposes, but for the administration of justice, and equity, and for the well being and happiness of the people. (The Gospel Kingdom, pp. 309-310).
Wilford Woodruff (1807-1898)
President Wilford Woodruff inherited – and solved – the great political problems thrust on the latter-day Saints during President Taylor’s administration, many of them going back to 1830. In so doing, Latter-day Saint thought is indebted to President Woodruff for one of the most clarifying concepts we have concerning Church-State relationships and the problem of the “kingdom of God” therein. In answer to a public question, “What is the Mormon idea of its rule as the Kingdom of God?” President Woodruff replied, in harmony with the Latter-day Saint “co-ordinate” theory of fundamental limits – for human liberty’s sake – on both Church and State:
It is this: we hold that this Church was set up and organized by command of the almighty; that it has the right to formulate and maintain rules of church discipline applying to its own members; that the extent of its punitive power is the excommunication of the transgressor; that it has no power to punish anyone by deprivation of life, liberty or property or personal injury in any form; that governments should not regulate the church, nor the church seek to control the state; that all men should be politically free and equal to vote as they please and to sustain what politics they please, so that they do not infringe on the rights of others (The Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, 1946, page 193. An important “Official Declaration” of December 12, 1889, pp. 193-195, preceded the above statement).
The presidents of the Church who have followed: Lorenzo Snow, Joseph F. Smith, Heber J. Grant, and George Albert Smith, have continued, with others, to expound and develop the Latter-day Saint contribution to the more adequate political theory that scholars, statesmen, and modern men seek. problems of war, peace, labor relations, industrial strife, and social organization have all been discussed and gospel solutions therefor suggested by modern Church leaders.
Questions for Discussion
1. In America and England, the Society of Friends (or Quakers) have attracted world-wide attention because they refuse to bear arms. American and English law, accordingly, has recognized their rights as ‘conscientious objectors” to war. When, if ever, is the use of force justified? On what basis can Sidney Rigdon’s address of July 4, 1838, be understood? The participation of thousands of boys and some girls belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the armed services?
2. Chapter 9, in President Heber J. grant’s book of compiled discourses, Gospel Standards, is entitled, “Government and Public Affairs.” Class leaders might examine this chapter as well as chapter 21, “Political Government” in the Discourses of Brigham Young for source material.
3. Discuss Brigham Young’s statement that a man may be a legislator in the kingdom of God “and still not belong to the Church of Jesus Christ at all.”
4. How does the above statement relate to the quotation given from President Wilford Woodruff in this lesson?