I Have a Question


Questions of general gospel interest answered for guidance, not as official statements of Church policy.

What is the difference between the American Revolution of 1776 and the rebellions in our own time? Does the fact that our nation was founded in revolution justify later Americans rebelling when they believe their rights have been invaded?

Richard L. Bushman, professor of history, Boston University We know that the American Revolution was justified by the Lord because the prophet Nephi saw that period of history and said, “the wrath of God was upon all those that were gathered together against them to battle.” The colonists “were delivered by the power of God out of the hands of all other nations.” (1 Ne. 13:18, 19.) Does that mean we are justified today in rebelling when we believe our rights are set upon by government?

The problem is not new. The English nation in the eighteenth century was tortured by the same question. In 1688 in what was called the Glorious Revolution, they had deposed their king, James II, and installed a new monarch, William III, who reigned with his wife, Mary. This joint monarch was chosen by the representatives of the people assembled in Parliament. Did that mean Englishmen could repudiate the successors to William and Mary whenever they chose?

The Americans, of course, believed they had a right to revolt and acted on that right in 1776; but they were wise enough to understand that they must build a stable government, and that the rights of the people would not be secure if the government was perpetually shaken by rebellion. (Thomas Jefferson’s famous comment about a little revolution being good for the body politic was not his mature judgment and certainly not the policy he advocated himself when he became convinced in the 1790s that the government of the United States was on the wrong course.)

The question of when revolt is justified was dealt with in our most revolutionary document, the Declaration of Independence, authored by Thomas Jefferson. The first part of the document is the portion we are most familiar with. It declares that governments are constituted for the purpose of protecting human rights and when they fail in that purpose they are to be overthrown and reconstituted. That was the ideological basis of our revolution.

However, Jefferson did not stop there. He went on to deal with the question of how you determine when revolution is justified since obviously you cannot resort to such drastic measures whenever you feel mistreated. As he said, “Prudence indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes. …” Men wisely suffer some evils rather than “right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

When should a people go to the extremity of revolt? “When a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty to throw off such governments. …” The key word was design. Mere incompetence was not enough. Mistakes had to be tolerated. It was only when the will of the sovereign aimed specifically at destroying all the rights of a people and reducing them to slavery that revolution was justified. “The history of the present King of Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States.” The abuses listed in the declaration were aimed at proving the point. The American revolutionaries themselves would not endorse a revolution arising from ineptitude in government or even suffering among the people. A much deeper and pervasive corruption was necessary—a malevolent and enduring design to destroy the freedom of the people.

After the Revolution, of course, there was no king and that changed the conditions under which revolt was justified. There were some Americans, such as the farmers of western Massachusetts in the 1780s, who because of economic distress rose up to close the courts and prevent debt collection. Samuel Adams, the most radical of the Boston leaders in the Revolutionary movement, adamantly opposed these rebels. The reason he gave was that revolution was unnecessary in a republic because all officials were elected by the people. The people in western Massachusetts were rebelling against themselves, or, what was more likely, a faction of special interests was attempting to advance its own cause under the guise of a revolution of the people.

Samuel Adam’s observations are worth heeding. There are two questions we must ask when someone makes a case for revolution: does he represent a minority point of view disguised as the will of the people; and does he represent the desires of the whole better than the lawfully elected representatives of the people gathered in our legislative bodies?

As Latter-day Saints, we must also remember our commitment to the principles of the Constitution and justice. We would never wish to back a movement, even if a majority of the people favored it, that went contrary to the basic principles of our nation and our religion. A recent student of revolutions has observed that very few revolutions have benefited the people in the long run. The American Revolution is possibly the only one that clearly qualifies. We must, therefore, honor our revolutionary forefathers for their achievement without allowing ourselves to be persuaded that revolution is a suitable means for achieving contemporary political purposes.

What is a citizen’s duty if a democratic government is oppressive or supplies only a limited amount of freedom?

Dallin H. Oaks, president of Brigham Young University As long as the government is a representative one, so that aggrieved persons can work to enlarge their freedoms and relieve their oppressions by legal and peaceful means, a Latter-day Saint citizen’s duty is that of “being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” (A of F 1:12].) There are exceptions to this duty, discussed below, but they are extremely limited.

All governments formed and administered by imperfect men will be oppressive and limit our freedoms in some measure, since they will inevitably mirror the imperfections of those who rule and those who are ruled. For this reason, we promote the cause of freedom and good government when we fulfill our religious duty to work for good laws, seek diligently for honest and wise rulers, and preach repentance to all citizens.

Even when victimized by what they must surely have seen as very severe government oppressions and abridgments of freedom, the Mormon people and their leaders have remained loyal to their government and its laws. The compliant position outlined in the twelfth Article of Faith, quoted above, was written during the Nauvoo period after almost a decade of persecutions that government officials either conducted, condoned, or refused to redress. Just after the Saints were forcibly driven out of Jackson County, Missouri, with great hardship and loss of property, the Lord revealed his “will that they should continue to importune for redress, and redemption, by the hands of those who are placed as rulers and are in authority over you. …” (D&C 101:76.) The Declaration of Belief later adopted by the Church affirmed “that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror. …” (D&C 134:6.)

These principles and precedents, and others too numerous to cite in this limited space, are persuasive evidence that even an oppressive government that limits freedom is preferable to a state of lawlessness and anarchy in which the only ruling principle is force and every individual citizen has a thousand oppressors. Abraham Lincoln was espousing this preference when he said, “There is no grievance that is a fit object of redress by mob law.” (Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, p. 635, 14th ed.)

There are exceptions. The command of loyalty to laws and rulers does not compel a citizen to participate in or submit to a government edict that runs counter to the common consensus of humanity, such as genocide or other cold-blooded murder. Nor should it require a person to violate the fundamental tenets of religious faith. For example, if the current laws permitting abortion (which are highly objectionable) were expanded to requiring abortion in certain instances, an unwilling mother and father who regarded this practice as “one of the most revolting and sinful practices in this day” (First Presidency statement of January 1973) would be justified in refusing to observe the law. Another exception is specified in our Declaration of Belief, which proclaims that “human law has [no] right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion. …” (D&C 134:4.) An additional exception is hinted in the Doctrine and Covenants sections that proclaim the duty of government to protect our rights of conscience, property, life, and religious belief and practice, and which may condition our duty of loyalty to a government that fails to fulfill those obligations. (D&C 98:5–6; D&C 134:2, 5, 7.)

Thus, there are exceptions, but they should not be applied to any but the most extreme challenges to faith and liberty lest the exceptions be trivialized or used to weaken our support for the principle of ordered liberty. When we see the oppressions our forefathers endured (such as imprisonment and deprivation of civil rights for acts then required by their religion) without repudiating their basic commitment to observance of law, and when we reflect on the considerable opportunities our democratic government offers for the lawful redress of grievances (such as the legal challenge BYU is now making to agency regulations that exceed the constitution and laws), we should be extremely reluctant to deviate from our basic position of loyalty to rulers and observance of law.

What should be the place of national feelings among Church members?

Elder Charles Didier of the First Quorum of the Seventy The best answer for any question is always to be found in the scriptures. Elder Bruce R. McConkie of the Council of the Twelve said recently: “I think that people who study the scriptures get a dimension to their life that nobody else gets and that can’t be gained in any way except by studying the scriptures. There’s an increase in faith and a desire to do what’s right and a feeling of inspiration and understanding that comes to people who study the gospel—meaning particularly the standard works—and who ponder the principles, that can’t come in any other way.” (Church News, Jan. 24, 1976, p. 4.)

It is natural for people to have national feelings as they live under the influence of the language, the culture, the history, and the customs and habits of a nation. It is also a fact that as people are converted to the gospel, their national feelings are gradually supplemented by what we are taught in the scriptures and particularly in this verse from the Psalms:

“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance.

“The Lord looketh from heaven; he beholdeth all the sons of men.

“From the place of his habitation he looketh upon all the inhabitants of the earth.

“He fashioneth their hearts alike; he considereth all their works.” (Ps. 33:12–15.)

When we speak of nationalism, or culture, there is in reality only one nation or one culture: the nation of God and the gospel culture, a vast amalgam of all the positive aspects of our cultures, histories, customs, and languages. The building of the kingdom of God is such an amalgam, and is the only place where these different values may and can coexist.

As an example of what the gospel of Jesus Christ can do, we had the moving experience of seeing members from nations that fought against each other some thirty years ago gathered in area conferences in Munich, in Korea, and in other places. All of them were united under the same banner of the gospel.

In conclusion, I would say: keep your national heritage in your heart, be proud of it, cultivate these values in your families as long as they are building the kingdom of our Father in heaven. As soon as it comes out of these boundaries, it is used more to create differences among people than to bring them together. We are one nation; we have one eternal Father; we are brothers and sisters—different, but with the same eternal goal of helping to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.

The final word is given by our Lord as a commandment, not only as an objective: “I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” (D&C 38:27.)

As a citizen of a country other than the United States, where do my patriotic feelings fit into the gospel?

Kan Watanabe, area manager of the Translation Services Department of the Church in Japan and Regional Representative of the Council of the Twelve I cannot answer this question for each individual, but will describe the situation as I see it in Japan. For a long time the government was run by the military class in Japan with no participation by the average man. After rapid industrialization began in the 1870s, governing power still tended to be held by an oligarchy. The militarism of the 1920s, ’30s, and early ’40s elevated the ideas of patriotism and national feeling to a quasi-religion: State Shinto. After the Pacific War (World War II) there was no opportunity to express love for Japan in the usual ways. State Shinto and militarism were done away with so that now there is a prejudice against people who show the strong national or political feelings that were so common before, and people are reluctant to express their feelings toward our country.

Because of the historical background and the current political atmosphere, not too many members of the Church are participating in politics. Most members vote at the polls, as they are encouraged to do by priesthood leaders. Latter-day Saints in Japan show their feelings of patriotism in a quiet way.

In comparing the United States and Japan, some express the idea that in the U.S. people made their country with their own hands—the “frontier spirit.” Our tradition says that the land of Japan was a gift from the gods and, while this is not accepted by all Japanese today, the idea has permeated the culture for many centuries.

One member expresses his feelings this way: “I love my country. I am proud to be Japanese.”

Another member says, “It is important that Church members understand the true patriotism: we Japanese were purposely born in Japan so we can do something for the other people who were born in this country. We were chosen to be born here. Our commission is to teach the Japanese people, who are very choice, about the gospel.”

That kind of patriotism applies to all members of the Church, everywhere. Those are feelings that stem from the gospel and touch upon our responsibility as children of God.

What is the role of compromise in government? Is it a good principle, or does it inevitably involve lowering one’s standards?

Wallace F. Bennett, United States Senator from Utah (retired) Before we can answer this question, we need to learn the true meaning of the word “compromise,” which is “a mutual promise.” It properly describes an agreement reached through mutual concessions, or an acceptable adjustment between conflicting ideas or desires. It may also require the presence of a third or disinterested party as arbiter.

There are those who maintain that any compromise is evil or shameful because it may involve some surrender of “principle” or freedom. Unfortunately, my years in the Senate have taught me that those who talk of “principle” in this context really mean “interest”—their self-interest. Nor is compromise a true diminution of one’s freedom or free agency, because the scriptures are full of admonitions to use our freedom in the service of others and not for our selfish ends. Christ said, “Agree with thine adversary quickly.” (Matt. 5:25.)

Because conflicts and disagreements are natural experiences in the lives of everyone, the search for a solution through “a mutual promise” is natural and praiseworthy. Nowhere is this more true and real than in the divinely ordained institutions of marriage and the family. And when conflicts arise that do not cure themselves, the power and responsibility to act as arbiter rests upon the parents, and chiefly upon the father, who holds the priesthood. Hopefully, compromise within the family circle will be motivated and moderated by love. When one or more family members in the name of their “free agency” will not compromise, but seek to go their own way, this is pure selfishness. It could, and often does, break up the family as a viable unit of the kingdom of God.

The same thing is true as we move out beyond the family into the community and the nation. Here, however, the potential conflicts are greater in number and complexity, and usually instead of dealing with individuals, many groups are involved. At the same time, the healing power of family love has disappeared and self-interest has risen to fill the void. All this makes the need for an outside arbiter more imperative, and the obvious entity to secure this role is government, which has power to enforce its decisions. The fact that God intended this or at least approves of it is set forth clearly in the twelfth Article of Faith.

In our American form of government, the responsibility to find solutions to the problems of our citizens rests chiefly upon the Congress. As a member of the Senate for twenty-four years, I learned that nearly every issue that comes to Congress for solution represents a conflict of interest between groups or forces within our society or our economy, or between other elements of the government itself—conflicts which those involved have been either unable or unwilling to resolve themselves. When they come to Congress, these problems are made complicated because of the Congress’s own set of internal conflicts, created because each member must represent not only his state or district, but also the nation as a whole, and his own personal philosophy of government and moral standards. Nor are the bills considered ever limited to single, simple right-versus-wrong issues to which you can give a simple yes-or-no answer. In fact, in nearly every case when a Congressman tries to serve his constituents by standing firmly on an “all-or-nothing” basis, he gets nothing.

So compromise is an important element in lawmaking, the search for a combination of ideas that will not only provide the highest level of satisfaction for each and all of the groups whose interests are in conflict, but also, of necessity, attract the support of the needed majority to get the bill passed. But this is not all. There is still another dimension to the problem of which most people are unaware. This might be called “involuntary compromise.” Most bills are made up of many separate and often unrelated sections. This is particularly true of tax and appropriation bills, the parts of which sometimes run into hundreds. Inevitably every Congressman and Senator must support some and oppose others, but when the vote for final passage comes, he has to vote either yes or no on the whole package.

Having explained why I believe that legislation is impossible without compromise, I can now explain why this is not essentially evil. Must a legislator sacrifice his moral standards when he votes for a compromise? Never, unless he makes his personal decision for dishonorable reasons such as personal gain or paid-for political support. The most effective legislator is one who always keeps himself free to use his best judgment in doing all he can to see that every bill on which he works contains the best possible and fairest possible balance between the interests of the various entities that will be affected by it.

Is compromise good or evil? As with many processes, the answer to that will depend upon the reasons for a compromise—and the mode of its use.

Does the concept of an inspired Constitution mean that additional changes cannot or should not be made?

Noel B. Reynolds, Chairman, Department of Philosophy, Brigham Young University No. Our belief that the welfare program and other Church programs are inspired has never been a reason to freeze them at some point in time. Rather, we are delighted to see these inspired programs revised year after year to meet the changing needs of an expanding world Church.

Similarly the founders of the American Republic did not see the Constitution as a final document. They clearly recognized it as a step of unprecedented magnitude but they expected it to be revised and refined over the years. They deliberately provided for orderly changes by including in the document itself an amendment procedure. This amendment procedure was used first to establish freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and other essential liberties. It has since been used to prohibit slavery, provide full citizenship to all Americans, protect individuals from invasions of their liberty by agencies of state governments, and extend voting rights to females.

President Brigham Young once declared that both the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution “were inspired from on high to do that work.” But he then went on to ask, “Was that which was given to them perfect not admitting of any addition whatever?” His answer was a clear negative. He said the founders “laid the foundation, and it was for after generations to rear the superstructure upon it. It is a progressive—a gradual work.” (Discourses of Brigham Young, 1925 edition, p. 550.)

President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., a great constitutional scholar in his own right, expressed this same view when he said, “It is not my belief nor is it the doctrine of my Church that the Constitution is a fully grown document. On the contrary, we believe it must grow and develop to meet the changing needs of an advancing world.” (Vital Speeches of the Day, 1938, 4:177.)

But changes in constitutional principles would not be good. Just as the inspired welfare program of the Church is based on certain principles which never change, so the Constitution is based on certain principles of free government that should not be altered. The basic principles upon which the Constitution was founded provide that every man shall be treated equally before the law. These principles also allow every man to be responsible for his own actions inasmuch as his decisions are independent of the arbitrary control of any other man. The Latter-day Saints have been warned repeatedly of changes in our constitutional system that would compromise these great principles of liberty. The leaders of the Church have generally regarded the growth of state welfare in the twentieth century as a dangerous experiment with our constitutional form of government. Only the people can protect the principles of their Constitution as they consider which governmental proposals to support and which to reject. If the American people lose their love and understanding for the principles of righteousness and freedom, the written Constitution will never have the power to preserve itself from destruction by greedy men.

What do we know about the purported statement of Joseph Smith that the Constitution would hang by a thread and that the elders would save it?

D. Michael Stewart, Brigham Young University, Department of History The documents show that Joseph Smith did prophesy a number of times that the United States and the Constitution would be imperiled and that the elders would have a hand in saving them. The first known record of the prophecy dates to July 19, 1840, in Nauvoo, when the prophet spoke about the redemption of Zion. Using Doctrine & Covenants 101 as a text, he said, “Even this nation will be on the verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground and when the Constitution is on the brink of ruin this people will be the staff upon which the nation shall lean and they shall bear the Constitution away from the very verge of destruction.” (Joseph Smith Papers, LDS Church Historical Archives, Box 1, March 10, 1844.)

There are also other documents in Church History files that show that five different early Saints recorded some remarks by the Prophet Joseph Smith on this same prophecy, perhaps voiced by the Prophet a number of times in a number of ways after 1840. Parley P. Pratt wrote in 1841 that the prophet said, “The government is fallen and needs redeeming. It is guilty of Blood and cannot stand as it now is but will come so near desolation as to hang as it were by a single hair!!!!! Then the servants goes [sic] to the nations of the earth, and gathers the strength of the Lord’s house! A mighty army!!!!!! And this is the redemption of Zion when the saints shall have redeemed that government and reinstated it in all its purity and glory!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” (George A. Smith Papers, Church Archives, Box 7, Folder 5, January 21, 1841.)

James Burgess related that the Prophet, while addressing the Nauvoo Legion several miles east of Nauvoo in May 1843, said that “the time would come when the constitution and government would hang by a brittle thread and would be ready to fall into other hands but this people the latter-day saints will step forth and save it.” (James Burgess Journal, 1818–1904, Church Archives, vol. 1—found among loose sermons.)

Orson Hyde recalled that the Prophet predicted that “the time would come that the Constitution and the country would be in danger of an overthrow and said he, if the constitution be saved at all, it will be by the Elders of this Church. I believe this is about the language as nearly as I can recollect it.” (JD, 6:150.)

In a Pioneer Day celebration in Ogden in 1871, Eliza R. Snow said, “I heard the prophet say, ‘The time will come when the government of these United States will be so nearly overthrown through its corruption, that the Constitution will hang as it were by a single hair, and the Latter-day Saints—the Elders of Israel—will step forward to its rescue and save it.” (Journal History, MSF 143 #28, July 24, 1871.)

Jedediah M. Grant, during the dark days of threatened invasion of Utah by a federal army, referred to the Prophet’s utterance as he addressed a Mormon Battalion gathering in Salt Lake City, February 6, 1855.

“What did the Prophet Joseph say? When the Constitution shall be tottering we shall be the people to save it from the hand of the foe.” (Deseret News Weekly, January 19, 1870.)

On various occasions, Joseph Smith referred to the Constitution, the country, and destiny of the nation; and there is clear evidence that he anticipated future peril. Furthermore, he pronounced the prophecy at various times and places. Perhaps he himself interchanged the simile “on the brink of ruin,” “hang by a brittle thread,” “hang by a single hair,” etc., to describe the anticipated crisis. It is also clear that the redeemers or rescuers of the Constitution were to be either the Saints generally or priesthood officers specifically.

Since no particular time was given for fulfilling this prophecy, members of the Church have often wondered about its timing. The prophecy clearly indicates a single, identifiable episode yet to come. However, it is helpful for us to constantly be on guard against threats to the central elements of the Constitution. It is not wise to sit by and think that the protection of the Constitution is the problem of someone else at some other time.

In support of this view of “constant vigilance,” it is most instructive to note that Church leaders have seen the Constitution imperiled a number of times. Brigham Young, reflecting on the prophecy of 1868, expressed: “It would not be many years before these words come to pass.” (JD, 12:204.) President John Taylor in 1884 declared: “It may be nearer … than some of us think.” (JD, 25:350.) President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., warned in 1942: “Whether it [the Constitution] shall live or die is now in the balance.” (Conference Report, October 1942, p. 58.)

Students of history and the Constitution know that the Constitution has been imperiled a number of times in its history and has been saved a number of times both by vigorous political action and by vocal public opinion.

Thus, rather than simply wait for the one time when the Constitution shall hang by a thread, Latter-day Saints must continually be vigilant. Our commission to save the Constitution is, like salvation, a continuing task, and Church leaders have pointed out the tools available: analysis of constitutional principles, personal study of the history of our nation, reading the Constitution to children at home and in schools, teaching them self-sacrifice—the principle that makes freedom possible—teaching them their obligations as mature citizens, recognizing and resisting ideologies that threaten constitutional principles, and developing loyalty to principle rather than to men or parties.

Politicians and statesmen must grapple with tough questions, painstakingly familiarize themselves with vital issues, and be decisive; but finally, an antidote to abusive government, to corruption, and to constitutional peril lies in private character. Humble people in prayerful homes will contribute immeasurably to a lasting constitutional government. And it should be apparent that consistent efforts in these areas will prepare us both to continually protect the Constitution and to prepare us for possibly a yet future rendezvous with our Constitution’s destiny.