Lesson 1 – “The Declaration of Belief Regarding Governments and Laws in General” (D. & C. Section 134)
G. Homer Durham
For Tuesday, October 25, 1949
Objective: To study and appreciate the preamble of the Declaration of Belief.
Political Attitude of Church Toward Society
Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is well known as “A Declaration of Belief Regarding Governments and Laws in General.” The section carries the date, August 17, 1835, and was “adopted by unanimous vote at a general assembly … held at Kirtland, Ohio.” It may be said to have three great purposes:
1. It declares the attitude of the Church towards the rest of society, in so far as society functions as a politically organized community. In other words, the Declaration provides the basis for what might be called “the foreign policy” of the Church, that is, the relation of the Church to the various governmental systems of the world.” 2. It provides the basis upon which individual members of the Church may adjust their lives to the demands of citizenship, satisfy the requirements of effective citizenship, and at the same time maintain religious freedom.
3. It sets forth certain great political principles as the standard of conduct for the members of the Church, for the Church as an organization, and as the basis for understanding and evaluating the conduct of the governments of the world.
As a result, the Declaration may be said to contain the principles which Latter-day Saints should strive to uphold and maintain so far as governments and laws “in general” are concerned.
Practical Values of the Declaration
The Declaration has great practical value to the Church, to the State, and to the individual. When is a government a good government? When is a governmental policy worthy of criticism? Which candidates for office should be supported? What should our attitude be towards the public officials, local, regional, national, and international, who serve us? When should they receive support? When, if ever, should we deny them support? Is disobedience to law or a public official ever justified?
The Declaration affords a practical basis for determining the answers to these questions which arise daily in our lives. Shall we support the United Nations and its officers? Shall we support our local officials in a policy to provide a new sewer, bridge, highway, or dam? Shall we choose this man or that one to represent us in our national assemblies? Mankind stands in need of criteria, guiding principles, standards of judgment.
Section 134 contains standards of judgment which are time-tested and which have received the support of the most enlightened men, women, and societies known to civilization. How little most of us appreciate this section! How grateful we should be that our people and our Church have adopted such principles. If we needed to dig a garden, and we were provided with shovel, plow, and tractor, most of us would know how to do it with the tools provided. The modern world needs to “dig a garden,” a garden of good politics and good government, to replace the wasted lands of war and corruption. The Declaration of Belief provides the tools for this task. The principles available are basic and fundamental to world peace and prosperity at home. Let us see, briefly, what they are.
Some Principles of Successful Political Life
Here are some of the great principles of successful political life asserted in the document of August 17, 1835:
1. Governments exist for the benefit of man.
2. As well as being responsible to the people, governments, through their officials, are responsible to God for their actions, and God holds men responsible whether or not they, in turn, are willing to accept their share of the contract.
3. The “good and safety” of society are the principles which should guide, alike, lawmakers and the administrators of the law.
4. Freedom of conscience for all men.
5. The right and control of individual property.
6. The protection of human life and its preservation.
7. Freedom of organization, including religious organizations.
8. Separation of Church and State as a principle essential to religious liberty, freedom of organization, and good society.
9. Active citizenship to sustain and uphold all governments that protect “inherent and inalienable rights.”
10. Honor, respect, even deference, for public officials.
11. Sedition, rebellion, and ordinary crime should be properly punishable according to law, and law recognizing basic private rights.
12. The right of self-defense is justifiably used when civil government breaks down; but it is the task of all citizens to maintain sound civil government and to prevent the breakdown of orderly processes.
13. The right to proselyte and advance one’s opinions or those of his group is essential and must be maintained. However, the right should not be insisted upon to the point that its use becomes obnoxious to others, or to the extent that human life and liberty are jeopardized.
These are among the great principles to be studied in the social science lessons this year. The discovery and use by man of these principles have marked the progress of civilization. For example, when Solon, the great Athenian reformer, about 594 B.C., expanded the rights of private property in Athens, freedom of conscience, “the good and safety of society,” the development of democratic government became possible.
History of the Declaration
What is the history of this remarkable document? How does a declaration regarding politics and government find its way into the official doctrines and covenants of the Latter-day Saints? Elder Joseph Fielding Smith has written on the subject as follows:
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” [no longer printed, being supplanted by a revelation on the subject of eternal 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 (Progress of Man, pp. 367-368]. See also Documentary History of the Church, II, pp. 243-251.
The preamble to the Declaration, also adopted by the general assembly of August 17, 1835, makes this important statement:
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.
The phrase, “this volume,” refers of course to the Doctrine and Covenants. The words, “our opinion,” should also be carefully observed in the light of the statement quoted from Elder Joseph Fielding Smith. In many respects, the Declaration has a unique value in that it is the “opinion” of the Latter-day Saints, accepted from the pen of Oliver Cowdery. Although Oliver Cowdery was the Second Elder of the Church and stood next to Joseph Smith, yet the Declaration is given for what it really is, a declaration of belief. It does not purport to be a revelation form God. As such it had unique value to the infant Church of 1835, whose enemies would be inclined to scoff at a “revelation,” but might take seriously the declarations and resolutions taken in a conference of record. Moreover, it is of great interest to find, in a Church designed to offer the restored gospel to all peoples, popular expression side by side with revealed word. The 134th section demonstrates the reality of the law of common consent in the Church. We should never forget that the law of common consent has been revealed as a principle of Church government with the principle of divine authority.
In many respects, the book of Doctrine and Covenants would be incomplete without such a “covenant” and expression as section 134. But lest there be any doubt as to its importance, President Heber J. Grant said in 1938, commenting on the principles outlined in section 134:
These principles are fundamental to our belief, fundamental to our protection. And in the providences of the Lord, the safeguards which have been incorporated into the basic structure of this nation are the guarantee of all men who dwell here against the abuses and tyrannies and usurpations of times past (Gospel Standards, page 134).
The principles embodied in the Declaration are based on abiding religious realities. They are expressive of an absolute standard of truth, without which, men resort to force. The study and application of these principles today will further prepare the way for the fulfillment of mankind’s aspiration for peace on earth.
Questions for Discussion and Lesson Helps
Special project: Assign a member of the class to prepare a ten-minute report on the material found in volume II, chapter XVIII (pp. 243-251) of the Documentary History of the Church. The Documentary History of the Church, published in seven volumes, is available in many homes, especially volumes I and II which have been used as Melchizedek Priesthood manuals (1947-49). This material (pp. 243-251 of volume II) contains the historical background, with minutes and documents, of the general assembly of the Church, August 17, 1835, which adopted the “Declaration of Belief.”
1. If a new, rapidly growing church moved into your community, its members purchasing lands, buying businesses, nominating and electing members of your school board, city council, and so forth, would you, as their neighbor, appreciate a declaration of their belief regarding “governments and laws in general”
2. What would be the practical value, to this new church, of issuing such a statement?
3. What would be the practical value to you as an old, established inhabitant of the community, of such a statement?
4. Having answered questions 1-2-3, what are some of the practical values to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints of the “Declaration of Belief”? To the people of Utah? California? To the people of Ohio in 1835? To the governments of France, Switzerland, or Canada today?
5. What are some of the practical values the Declaration has for you as an individual today?
6. What are some of the principles of successful political, i.e., community, life set forth in the Declaration? Do you agree that they are principles upon which a sound community life can be based? Obviously, the list embodied in the Declaration was not intended to be all-inclusive, even in 1835. Can the class think of any additional principles that could be added to the list? Could any items on the list printed in the lesson be omitted?
Additional Projects: Assign individual members of the class to look up and report the content and meaning of the following terms: citizenship: inherent rights; sedition; rebellion; proselyte; Church and State. Have another member report on Doctrine and Covenants 20:65; 26:2; 18:13.