Religious freedom is both a lesson of Mormons’ history and a principle of their faith.
This is part 4 in a series of articles on religious freedom. For the series introduction, see “Religious Freedom Series, Part 1: An Introduction to Religious Freedom.” See also part 2 and part 3.
Mormon history and religious freedom
As one of the most essential of all human liberties, religious freedom is valuable to all people. Yet it has special meaning for those groups that have at one time or another found themselves unpopular or vulnerable because of their religious convictions. This is true even in the relatively free and tolerant United States, where religious tolerance and freedom has always been the ideal but not always the practice. From early American Baptists and Quakers to Catholics, Muslims and Jews, minority religious groups in America have felt the sting of persecution for their faith and for their efforts to live by it.
As a minority faith in America, Mormons too have at times experienced intolerance, including some of the most infamous religious persecution in American history. When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was founded by Joseph Smith in the early 19th century, its members often found themselves facing suspicion and hostility. As the Church grew and attracted additional converts, conflict with other groups followed, much of it a consequence of Mormons’ unique religious practices and beliefs.
Conflict in the period often escalated to intimidation, and sometimes to violence. Mobs and militias forced Mormons out of their settlements repeatedly, burning their homes and destroying their crops. One especially deadly conflict came in 1838, after the governor of Missouri ordered that all Mormons should be either driven out of the state or “exterminated.” A violent mob attacked a rural township and scattered its Mormon settlers, massacring 17 Mormon men and boys. In the wake of this and other incidents, the Latter-day Saints appealed for aid and protection from both state and national governments. Empathetic friends of the Church tried to help, but Mormons found little redress.
These days of violence and Mormon frontier settlements are far behind us now – The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has since become a global and widely respected faith. But history’s lessons still linger. In light of these and other experiences in their history, Mormons remember that religious freedom is not to be taken for granted.
Teachings on religious freedom
Meanwhile, early Church leaders like Joseph Smith taught the importance of the religious liberty they sought. Church leaders taught that religious liberty was not just for Mormons; it was for everyone. Joseph Smith was an especially generous proponent of these principles. For example, in the early Mormon settlement of Nauvoo, Illinois, Smith said:
If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing before Heaven to die for a “Mormon,” I am bold to declare before Heaven that I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbytarian [sic], a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of the Roman Catholics, or of any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.
Later Smith introduced a city ordinance that would protect the freedoms of people of all faiths – including non-Christians – in Nauvoo. These groups would have “free toleration, and equal privileges in this city.” Joseph Smith recognized that ensuring religious freedom meant guaranteeing it for all. The importance of freedom of conscience and religion was also enumerated in 1842 as one of the Church’s thirteen Articles of Faith: “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.”
Church leaders after Joseph Smith continued to teach about religious freedom. James E. Talmage, a longtime apostle of the Church, wrote in 1899 that “the Latter-day Saints proclaim their unqualified allegiance to the principles of religious liberty and toleration. Freedom to worship Almighty God as the conscience may dictate, they affirm to be one of the inherent and inalienable rights of humanity.” J. Reuben Clark, a member of the Church’s First Presidency, taught in 1935 that a guarantee of religious freedom is vital in public life, because “underneath and behind all that lies in our lives, all that we do in our lives, is our religion, our worship, our belief and faith in God.”
The apostle Bruce R. McConkie wrote in 1985 that religious freedom is “in one manner of speaking, the most basic of all doctrines” of the gospel. This is true for Latter-day Saints because, as he explained, the principle of agency – the innate freedom to choose and to practice one’s religious beliefs and moral convictions – underlies all of Mormons’ other vital teachings and doctrines. Human dignity and agency rest on freedom of conscience.
Today’s Church leaders also continue to reiterate and emphasize these principles, explaining what religious freedom is and why it matters. Elder Dallin H. Oaks has spoken often about the need to preserve religious freedom in an age increasingly disrespectful of religion. In a major address at Chapman University in February 2011, he championed the principle of religious liberty and outlined the worrisome trends that threaten it today. Elder Quentin L. Cook has also encouraged Latter-day Saints to “be advocates for religious freedom and morality.” These modern Church leaders echo teachings about religious freedom that have been part of Mormons’ faith from the beginning.
Advocates for religious freedom
Mormons cherish religious freedom by virtue of both their history and their faith. But while they have special reasons to cherish religious freedom, they do not make special claims on it; like Joseph Smith, Mormons want to see these freedoms preserved and protected for all. At a time when challenges to religious freedom are increasing, it is the responsibility of all people of faith and conscience to understand and to advance this fundamental human freedom for themselves and their neighbors. Mormons find they have ample reason to keep this charge.
History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5:498-99; 4:306.
James E. Talmage, The Articles of Faith (1899), 406; J. Reuben Clark, in Conference Report, Apr. 1935, 94.