Joseph and his brother Hyrum were not idle observers of the political landscape. They both held offices of public trust. The Prophet Joseph Smith offered the world inspired principles in relation to effective leadership in government, politics, and the public square. The beliefs he espoused can help secure freedom and liberty for all people. With all the perplexing problems and political partisanship facing the nation, perhaps this would be a good time to take a look at what the Prophet Joseph Smith had to say.
Near the end of Joseph Smith’s life, the Lord commanded him to “make a solemn proclamation . . . to all the kings of the world, to the four corners thereof, . . . and to all nations of the earth” (D&C 124:2-3; revealed January 19, 1841). However, the Prophet was martyred at Carthage in 1844 before this proclamation could be made.
The year following the Prophet’s death, the Quorum of the Twelve fulfilled the commandment by producing a sixteen-page proclamation addressed to rulers and people of all nations. The document contained the startling announcement that God had spoken from the heavens and had restored the gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth. It issued several warnings about future events and invited all who were interested to assist in building up the kingdom of God on the earth in preparation for the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Further, the Council of the Twelve prophetically declared, “As this work progresses in its onward course, and becomes more and more an object of political and religious interest, . . . no king, ruler, or subject, no community or individual, will stand neutral. All will . . . be influenced by one spirit or the other; and will take sides either for or against the kingdom of God.”(1)
Why would The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints become an object of increasing political interest? Astounding as that declaration may seem, the revelations given to the Prophet Joseph Smith regarding government will yet play a significant role in future political affairs throughout the world. Political leaders in all lands can and will yet benefit from Joseph Smith’s teachings about leadership in the public square. The insights and revelations Joseph received regarding leadership in government are as interesting as they are important and timely.
Divinely Inspired Tutorials
Although he was deprived of educational opportunities in his youth, Joseph Smith was tutored in the principles of politics in a most unusual manner. From seventeen years of age, and for the following six years, Joseph was instructed by the angel Moroni on at least twenty-two separate occasions.(2) Moroni taught Joseph about the ancient inhabitants of the Americas, their politics, and social structure. Of this remarkable experience, Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, commented:
“From this time forth Joseph continued to receive instructions from time to time, and every evening we gathered our children together and gave our time up to the discussion of those things which he instructed to us. I think that we presented the most peculiar aspect of any family that ever lived upon the earth, all seated in a circle, father, mother, sons, and daughters, listening in breathless anxiety to the religious teachings of a boy eighteen years of age. . . . In the course of our evening conversations, Joseph gave us some of the most [interesting] recitals which could be imagined. He would describe the ancient inhabitants of this continent, their dress, their manner of traveling, the animals which they rode, the cities that they built, and the structure of their buildings with every particular, their mode of warfare, and their religious worship as specifically as though he had spent his life with them.”(3)
Thus Joseph Smith learned by communications from heaven, from time to time, of past cultures, leaders, and governments. Two years later, while translating the Book of Mormon, Joseph learned in greater detail about ancient political philosophies and gained inspired insights into government affairs and organization. Book of Mormon authors recorded warnings about how and why kings inevitably turn into tyrants and dictators (see 2 Nephi 5:18; Mosiah 23:7-9; 29:13, 16-24, 35-36; Alma 46:9), and that the Lord would not suffer kings to reign on the American continent (see 2 Nephi 10:11).
They also described how it had been divinely decreed that God would raise a mighty nation on the American continent in the latter days which would eventually bless all humankind (1 Nephi 22:7-9). The most significant prophecy about this mighty nation is that it would be free-meaning it was to be a land of liberty and freedom (see 3 Nephi 21:4).
The conditions upon which this freedom rested were also described in precise detail. The ancients also warned that that great nation would be established on a “covenant continent.” To remain free on that land, its inhabitants would be required to obey the God of the land.
The Book of Mormon describes two previous nations “swept clean” from the land for failure to keep this covenant. To avoid their fate, they wrote, we must learn from their mistakes and honor the God of the land: For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God. And it is not until the fulness of iniquity among the children of the land, that they are swept off. And this cometh unto you, O ye Gentiles, that ye may know the decrees of God-that ye may repent, and not continue in your iniquities until the fulness come, that ye may not bring down the fulness of the wrath of God upon you as the inhabitants of the land have hitherto done. Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ, who hath been manifested by the things which we have written. (Ether 2:10-12; see also Ether 8:20-26; Mormon 5:9-6:22;
Joseph Smith continued receiving other divinely inspired tutorials about government and politics throughout his life, and he learned from them. Judge Daniel H. Wells, at the time a non-LDS justice of the peace in Nauvoo, observed Joseph in the courtroom; he later reminisced, “I have known legal men all my life. Joseph Smith was the best lawyer that I have ever known in all my life.”(4)
Joseph’s wisdom about leadership came partly from practical experience. He sought for and served in public offices throughout his life. He served as mayor of the city of Nauvoo, stood at the head of the Nauvoo Legion, and aspired to the office of the president of the United States in 1844. However, the experience he gained from serving in these public positions was further augmented by the revelations he received.
Insights about Democracy from the Book of Mormon
While translating the Book of Mormon in 1828-29, Joseph learned about the principles upon which democracy was established in ancient America. Specifically, he learned that a thriving democracy that promotes the public welfare is built on certain cardinal virtues:
- Political rulers and ordinary citizens should view each other as equals before the Lord (see Mosiah 27:3; 29:38).
- Wise individuals should be appointed to judge people according to the laws of the land “which are correct”- and according to the laws of God, which are “always just” (Mosiah 29:11-12, 25).
- Judges should be chosen by the voice of the people in open elections (see vv. 25, 39, 41).
- Decisions should be made by majority rule because the majority will generally choose that which is right (see v. 26).
- All citizens should recognize that if the time comes that the majority chooses iniquity, destruction and the judgments of God will visit the land (see v. 27).
- Checks and balances are important. Lower judges’ decisions should be subject to review by higher judges (see v. 28), and higher judges’ decisions should be reviewed by a small number of lower judges who are appointed by the people (see v. 29).
- Each person has a responsibility to participate and bear a part, and each person has a right to vote (see vv. 34, 39).
- Each person must have an equal opportunity for liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but each is responsible for his own sins, crimes, and mistakes (see vv. 32, 38).
- All men are created equal and have the privilege of thinking for themselves. Actions may be judged according to law, but personal beliefs-matters of conscience and convictions of the soul-should not be regulated or taken away by government (see Alma 30:7, 9-11).(5)
Additional Principles of Good Government
From the time the Book of Mormon was published in 1830 until his martyrdom in 1844, Joseph continued to receive revelations from the Savior. Many of them are now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants and contain valuable insight about politics, such as these:
- When properly constituted, government is both necessary and good (see D&C 98:4-10; 134:1).
- The establishment of laws to govern in society is necessary and is based upon an eternal principle. Even God has a kingdom in heaven organized and ordered by law.(6)
- Members of the Church are under special obligations to seek out and then uphold those leaders who are “wise,” “good,” and “honest” (D&C 98:10). “It was customary in some of the early state legislatures to have powerful spokesmen of the day come before the representatives of the people at one of their early sessions and remind them of the importance of the lawmaking process. An eloquent example of this kind of dissertation is found in a speech by patriot Samuel Langdon before the Massachusetts legislature in 1788. He declared: ‘On the people, therefore, of these United States, it depends whether wise men, or fools, good or bad men, shall govern . . . Therefore, I will now lift up my voice and cry aloud to the people . . . .From year to year be careful in the choice of your representatives and the higher powers [offices] of government. Fix your eyes upon men of good understanding and known honesty; men of knowledge, improved by experience; men who fear God and hate covetousness; who love truth and righteousness, and sincerely wish for the public welfare . . . Let not men openly irreligious and immoral become your legislators . . . If the legislative body are corrupt, you will soon have bad men for counselors, corrupt judges, unqualified justices, and officers in every department who will dishonor their stations . . . Never give countenance to turbulent men, who wish to distinguish themselves and rise to power by forming combinations and exciting insurrections against government.” (as cited from The Making of America by W. Cleon Skousen, p. 10)
- . Regardless of what happens in the world, we are to remember that ultimately, God is in control of the affairs of this earth, and he holds men accountable in the final day of judgment for what they do while they hold public offices of trust (see D&C 121:10-15; 58:19-23). “We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society” (D&C 134:1).
- All citizens share in the responsibility to promote all that is good in their respective communities. “It is our duty to concentrate all our influence to make popular that which is sound and good, and unpopular that which is unsound.”(7)
- Power in government can corrupt individuals if no checks and balances are in place. “We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion” (D&C 121:39).
Justifications for War
From 1833 to 1838, Latter-day Saints were mercilessly persecuted and driven from the states of Ohio and Missouri. While contemplating what actions to take, the Saints wondered when war with oppressors is justified. How much self-defense would God condone? Are there principles worth defending, even at the cost of one’s life? Does God make allowance for the shedding of blood in times of unjust persecution?
In response to these questions, the Lord revealed his “law of war”-or the circumstances under which he would condone armed conflict. The Lord instructed his people to “renounce war and proclaim peace” (D&C 98:16, see also vv. 34-36). But the Prophet Joseph also learned that there are specific times and circumstances when the Lord would justify war and that these rules of engagement had also been revealed to those living in previous dispensations (see D&C 98:22-32). As revealed in the Book of Mormon, there are certain causes worth defending (see Alma 43:29-30, 45), and that attitudes and proper motives are critical during times of crisis (see Alma 48:21-23).
During World War II, just after Pearl Harbor when the United States was compelled to take up arms, President David O. McKay summed up those rules of engagement: “There are . . . two conditions which may justify a truly Christian man to enter-mind you, I say enter, not begin-a war; (1) An attempt to prevent a nation from dominating another or depriving it of its free agency, and (2) Loyalty to country. Possibly there is a third; viz., Defense of a weak nation that is being unjustly crushed by a strong, ruthless one. Paramount among these reasons, of course, is the defense of man’s freedom. An attempt to rob man of his free agency caused dissension even in heaven. . . . To deprive an intelligent human being of his free agency is to commit the crime of the ages. . . .So fundamental in man’s eternal progress is his inherent right to choose, that the Lord would defend it even at the price of war. Without freedom of thought, freedom of choice, freedom of action within lawful bounds, man cannot progress. The Lord recognized this, and also the fact that it would take man thousands of years to make the earth habitable for self-governing individuals. Throughout the ages advanced souls have yearned for a society in which liberty and justice prevail. Men have sought for it, fought for it, have died for it. Ancient freemen prized it, slaves longed for it, the Magna Charta demanded it, the Constitution of the United States declared it.
A second obligation that impels us to become participants in this world war is loyalty to government. The greatest responsibility of the state is to guard the lives, and to protect the property and rights of its citizens; and if the state is obligated to protect its citizens from lawlessness within its boundaries, it is equally obligated to protect them from lawless encroachments from without-whether the attacking criminals be individuals or nations.
The Book of Mormon similarly provides many insights into war and its proper conduct. As one of the signs of the future coming of Jesus Christ is an increase in “wars and rumors of wars” across the earth, the so-called war chapters in the Book of Mormon help us prepare for the conflicts of our day (see Alma 43:1-3, where Mormon declares that the focus of this part of the Book of Mormon will be on the wars, and see chapters 43-62). Following are a few of those insights:
- Societies must recognize that great wickedness can be caused by a single, very wicked leader (see Alma 46:9; 47:30; 50:35).
- The Lord’s people oppose bloodshed but are willing to go that far, if necessary, to defend themselves. Nephite soldiers stopped shedding the blood of their enemies the moment those enemies stopped fighting (see Alma 48:11-12, 14; 55:19).
- War and confrontation are rarely the best ways to solve a problem (see Alma 48:14-15; 60:11-16, 21-22; 61:12-13).
- Motives in times of war are critically important. The Nephites entered into war only reluctantly (see Alma 43:8-10, 29-30, 45-48; 44:5; 46:12; 54:13, 16, 24).
- War is incompatible with Christ’s teachings yet in a just cause is acceptable and warranted. Liberty, freedom, families, and lands are worth defending (see Alma 43:29-30, 45-47; 44:5; 48:14; 53:20-21).
- Men of God were chosen to lead in times of armed conflict (see Alma 48:11-13, 16-19).
- Armaments are not as critical to success as righteousness and unity (see Alma 44:3-4; 48:15; 50:21-22; 51:16; see also Helaman 4:11-16, and Spencer W. Kimball, “The False Gods We Worship,” Ensign, June 1976).
- The righteous prayers of those at home help preserve a nation in time of conflict (see Alma 62:40).
- Even during perilous times, people can experience happiness and prosperity because of their faith, commitment, and spirituality (see Alma 50:23).
- Just as Joseph Smith accurately predicted the causes and circumstances of the Civil War, he was also informed by revelation that the nations will face even greater future wars and entanglements (see D&C 45:26, 69; 87:1-8; 88:79; 130:12-13; see also 1 Nephi 14:15-16). A heightened awareness of these principles will be critical for future political leaders.
Notes for Part 1
1 See James R. Clark, comp., Messages of the First Presidency of the Church of JesusChrist of Latter-day Saints, 5 vols. (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965), 1:257; emphasis added.
2 See H. Donl Peterson, “Moroni’s Known Appearances to Joseph Smith, 1823- 1829,” cited in Joseph Smith: The Prophet, the Man, ed. Susan Easton Black and Charles D. Tate Jr. (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, 1993), 182-88.
3 Lucy Mack Smith, The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1996), 111-12.
4 From a talk given by Jesse N. Smith, a cousin of Joseph Smith, to the Church history class of Professor John Henry Evans in the LDS College, Salt Lake City, April 11, 1905, as recorded in Journal of Jesse Nathaniel Smith: The Life Story of a Mormon Pioneer, 1835-1906 (Jesse N. Smith Family Association, 1953), 455-56.
5 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 49.
6 Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 55.
7 Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1957), 5:286. 8. D avid O. McKay, Pathways to Happiness (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1957), 365-66.