12th Article of Faith: Sustaining the Law
By Ron Madsen
“I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of Heaven commanded me to do what I did.” Wilford Woodruff 
In 1842 the editor of the Chicago Democrat newspaper, John Wentworth, wrote Joseph Smith and requested that Joseph provide the paper with information concerning the Mormons. In response to this request, Joseph wrote what is now called the “Wentworth Letter.” The letter published in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons on March 1, 1842 contained a brief history of the church, and thirteen doctrinal statements later referred to as the “Articles of Faith.” The Articles of Faith have become the universally accepted “Cliff Notes” of the Mormon faith—memorized by all primary children, printed on missionary tracts, and universally accepted as the essential creed governing our church.
The 12th Article of Faith states a general rule as to our relationship to earthly governments: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” This is further reinforced in a revelation given eleven years earlier:
“ Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land. Wherefore, be subjectto the powers that be… (Doctrine & Covenants 58: 21, 22).”
This scripture coupled with the 12th Article of Faith has been interpreted as a commandment that requires unconditional obedience to all laws of the land in which a Latter-Day Saints owes his citizenship. Fortunately, it is rare that the laws of men cannot be reconciled, or at least adapted, so as to prevent a direct conflict with the laws of God. But history has shown us that at critical times such is not the case, especially when a nation has chosen to compel its’ citizens to obey mandates directly in violation of the laws of God and acts contrary to one’s Christian conscience. So, we must ask:
Are there any doctrinal qualifications placed upon this general rule to sustain the laws of our nation?
What historical precedence can we examine to see how holy men have handled conflicts between the laws of God and the laws of man?
What are our practical choices when faced with conflicts between the laws of God and the laws of man?
Doctrinal Qualifications as to Obedience to Law of Land
a. “Natural Law” versus “Positive Law”
The “law” can be segregated into essentially two types—“natural law” and “positive law.” Positive law is the actual law of any given government. Positive law simply recognizes that the law is whatever any nation or society states the law to be and has the force essential to make it binding on it’s citizens. These are the myriad of rules that govern our everyday behavior. In other words, the positive law approach simply states that the “law” is whatever we as humans say the law is—no more and no less.
By contrast, “natural law” is a belief that the existence of law is set by nature and God, and, therefore, human beings have certain natural or inalienable rights that exist independent of their government. Natural law on occasion stands in opposition to a particular positive law, and thus can function as a standard in which to criticize, challenge or, in extreme cases, civilly disobey a law. It should not be surprising that the framers of our nation were drawing on natural laws as their point of reference when they proclaimed that certain truths and rights were “self-evident” and, therefore, a sound moral basis for disobeying the laws of their government. Allegiance to a higher law justifies any individual or people in disobeying any positive law that seeks to deny those inalienable rights.
b. Doctrinal Guidance as to our relationship to Laws and Government:
How does the Lord define the “law”? Does He want His people to use a positivist approach where all laws and decisions made by rulers comprise the “law” and must without qualification be sustained by their very existence? Or does the Lord invite us to employ the founding fathers’ approach where the only unconditional laws are those that are based in natural/eternal laws?
On August 17, 1835 when the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was proposed the Elders of the Church issued a proclamation with the following preamble which now prefaces Section 134 of the Doctrine & Covenants:
“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.”
Each verse of Doctrine and Covenants section 134 begins with “we believe” which signals that we are receiving, similar to the Articles of Faith, our creed in regard to our relationships to laws and governments. The first verse states that we believe “governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man.”
In verse 2 we learn that “no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life.” In other words, the corollary of this statement is that if a government does not secure to each individual the freedom of his conscience, then it can not expect to be sustained. To underscore this point verse 4 puts human law in its proper place: “…but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men…” Then what “laws” are we bound to “sustain”? The answer is clearly given in verse 5: “We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments…”
These verses define the essence of natural law. In short, every law is conditional and qualified in that we are only “bound to sustain” a law or government “while” protected in our inalienable rights— which include our “free exercise of conscience” according to the dictates of our faith. The burden then shifts to the lawmaker of any governmen
t to only enact laws or issue orders that allow us the “the free exercise of our religious beliefs” and that they in fact have no “right in justice” to do otherwise. The Lord further outlines His immutable law as to how a nation and people should respond to enemies in Section 98 of the Doctrine and Covenants. As if anticipating that the laws of men would come in conflict, He prefaces his law with: “I say unto you concerning the laws of the land, it is my will that my people should observe to do all things whatsoever I command them.” Then as to the laws of the land, He tells us which laws are “justifiable” before him—“that law which is constitutional” and “supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges,”(DC 98: 4-8) and that whatever is more or less cometh of evil. Each of these statements are consistently charged with a negative corollary which can be interpreted to mean that if a law is not constitutional and does not protect freedom of conscience, then that law is NOT justified. To do otherwise, would be to deny the very freedom which is God given to all mankind.
a. Polygamy: The First major Latter-Day Conflict:
How did the “Elders of the Church” who were inspired and wrote the “Declaration of Belief Regarding Governments and Law” (Section 134), and Section 98 of the Doctrine & Covenants apply those principles when they faced a major conflict between what they considered a law of God and the laws of the land—namely, polygamy? It is incontrovertible that these prophets firmly believed that it was God’s will to practice polygamy. They also believed that pursuant to the language of Doctrine & Covenants Section 134 that their belief and practice of polygamy was a matter of religious conscience and freedom of religion. Equally incontestable is the fact that polygamy was from its inception in direct violation of the laws of the land in which they were citizens.
How did these early prophets and apostles handle this irreconcilable conflict? Polygamy was taught privately until the Nauvoo period when between 1841 to 1844 it was widely practiced among key church leaders. However, it was not until 1852 that polygamy was openly preached from the pulpit while the saints were residing in Utah Territory. Ten years after this declaration, the United States Government passed the Morrill Anti-bigamy Act that prohibited all plural marriages in any territory of the United States. How did the Prophet at the time respond? Echoing Thoreau’s “Duty of Civil Disobedience” premise, Brigham Young laid down his foundational beliefs in regard to what laws we must sustain, or rather laws that we are not required to sustain:
“It is a pretty bold stand for this people to take, to say that they will not be controlled by the corrupt administrators of our general government. We will be controlled by them, if they will be controlled by the constitution and the laws (Journal Discourse Vol. 5, pg. 231).”
The statement above qualifies sustaining and being obedient to laws based on the determination of whether the law or order in question from one’s government is just, wholesome, constitutional, and not corrupt. Brigham Young’s successor, John Taylor, was even clearer as to whether obedience to the laws of the land should override one’s religious conscience:
“I would like to obey and place myself in subjection to every law of man. What then? Am I to disobey the law of God? Has any man a right to control my conscience, or your conscience? No man has a right to do it (JD Volume 26, page 152).”
From 1887 until 1890 the church entered a period of defiance, arrests, confiscations, and hiding. This colorful time reached it’s climax when in 1890 the United States Supreme Court upheld the Edmunds-Tucker Act which allowed the seizing of nearly all the assets of the Church. Within five months the 1890 Manifesto was issued, ending the practice of polygamy and bringing into compliance church doctrine and policy with the laws of the land. The Manifesto issued by the President Wilford Woodruff would at first appear to be not only a pragmatic decision, but also a significant step away from the belief that the laws of God and the free exercise of one’s conscience take precedence over the laws of men. However, the words of the Prophet Wilford Woodruff confirm the opposite:
“But I want to say this: I should have let all the temples go out of our hands; I should have gone to prison myself, and let every other man go there, had not the God of Heaven commanded me to do what I did [namely, end polygamy] (MS 53: 796 (1891)).”
Once again the Prophet of the Church made it clear that in the final analysis, it was God’s will and commandments received through revelation and not the actual laws of the land that was the determinative factor.
b. Scriptural examples of Civil Disobedience:
While in captivity in ancient Babylon the Israelites were subject to corrupt government. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego rose in prominence because of their wisdom, knowledge and virtue. Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, sent out a royal decree that at the sound of the cornet and flute that “ye shall fall down and worship the golden image and whoso falleth not down and worshippeth shall the same be cast in to the fiery furnace’ (Daniel 3: 5,6). These men of God having high government position all refused to bow down before the golden image for such was contrary to their religious beliefs. They civilly disobeyed and were willing to accept the full consequences of their acts even unto death “if it be God’s will.” Following that example, King Darius, Nebuchadnezzar’s successor, issued a law that all who petitioned or prayed unto any God or man, save the King, would be thrown into the lion’s den. Daniel, a believing Israelite and the King’s trusted advisor, could not in good conscience obey such a law. He civilly disobeyed by immediately going to his God in open and public prayer.
This tradition of the Israelites placing their beliefs above that of the “powers that be” when the law required them to violate their religious beliefs was repeatedly demonstrated from the Exodus out of Egypt to the Maccabeean Wars. Then when the Son of God came, He taught that one should render unto Cesar what which was rightfully his but then render unto God that which was His, and when a conflict arose the choice was made apparent by His disciples. Filled with the spirit of God, the Apostle Peter preached publicly and when arrested, beaten and then ordered by local authorities to no longer preach. Peter asked this rhetorical question: “Whether it be right in the sight of god to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.” Upon his release, he immediately disobeyed and returned to preaching. When rearrested and questioned why he disobeyed, he answered his own question: “We ought to obey God rather than man (Acts 5:29).”
The Book of Mormon reinforces the deference to natural law from Nephi’s extreme example of civil disobedience in slaying a government official and taking the plates, to Abinadi and Alma’s subversive activities, to Ammon’s revealing and qualified comment when he pledged his allegiance to King Lamoni: “…whatsoever thou desireth which is right, that will I do (Alma 18:17 ).”
It is rare that sustaining the law of the land cannot be reconciled with our free and religious conscience. The 12th Article of faith can and should apply to our everyday civil duties–regulations, contracts, speed limit, criminal laws, taxation with representation. It is wise and virtuous to be civil and obedient to many civil laws. The prophet Joseph Smith observed:
“All regularly organized and well established governments have certain laws by which more or less, the innocent are protected and the guilty are punished. That fact admitted, that certain laws are good, equitable and just, ought to be binding upon the individual who admits, this, and lead him to observe in the strictest manner an obedience to these laws (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, page 49).”
Most free nations generally recognize and protect their citizen’s rights to worship according to their conscience. The United States allows, for example, conscientious objectors to military service when their faith requires of them that they not take another human life. Our faith also recognizes that privilege as set forth in another Article 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, and what they may (11th Article of Faith).”
Common sense and Christian virtue informs us that there is no need to disobey laws such as those that protect “peace and tranquility” and common purposes (see DC 134:8). Then what defines matters which are of such significance that we would consider qualifying our obedience through civil disobedience? I would suggest two areas that merit such consideration: First, matters involving religious beliefs and secondly, matters involving issues of life and death which constitute the foundation of all personal and inalienable rights.
a. Religious beliefs and worship
It should be evident to any thinking Latter-day Saint that if any government or authority were to command us to worship a false god, and not pray, or do anything that would deny our faith, that we could not sustain such laws in good conscience and should civilly disobey. The Lord tells us in Doctrine and Covenants 134: 7 where the line is to be drawn:
“We believe that rulers, states, and governments have a right, and are bound to enact laws for the protection of all citizens in the free exercise of their religious beliefs; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege.”
At a minimum, it appears that obedience to the laws of one’s land is conditional or subject to one’s religious beliefs and freedom of conscience.
b. The inalienable right to “Life”
Is there no greater inalienable right by virtue of creation then one’s right to live their life and the liberty to express what virtue and goodness they can in their life? The destroying of life is such a crime against nature that the taking of life by another is repeatedly prohibited: “Thou shalt not kill.” Under what conditions can such an express commandment be excused? Mormon being charged with compiling the Book of Mormon, considered the whole sweeping saga of his people and concluded with this admonition:
“Know ye not that ye must lay down your weapons of war, and delight no more in the shedding of blood, and take them not again, save it be that God shall command you (Mormon 7:4).”
God created life and only God can command us to take life—no one else. Mormon does not say “save it be that” your government or ruler commands you, but rather “save it be that God shall command you.” Mormon, like Jefferson and Madison, staked out a boundary in declaring where natural law triumphs over the laws of man.
What rational and moral individual would deliberately take the life of an innocent child? Does the sanction of one’s government make moral what one could not do privately? Can a decree of government clean one’s hands of murder?
On one end of the spectrum there are those of deep faith that exalt what they consider a higher law of God when they refuse to take any human life no matter the innocence or depravity of the victim, and no matter the calculation as to what harm can be prevented by killing those that present a threat. In our nation we refer to them as the Amish and Mennonite communities. Then on the other far end of the spectrum are the self proclaimed patriots that say they will obey their government or nation “right or wrong” and their minds quickly attach to some isolated general rule or scripture to resolve the issue—no more thinking or debate. They are the “We are commanded and we obey crowd”— and the 12th Article of Faith becomes a handy, isolated, general rule to cut short any further thinking or seeking of personal revelation. Those who turn their conscience and will over to their government are sometimes engaged in a noble and just cause, but sometimes they are goose-stepping forthe Third Reich—but that is not for them to decide or worry about because they have decided obey unconditionally. But for those that believe life is an inalienable right, then obeying government orders to take a life cannot be sustained if the order violates one’s God given conscience.
The general principle of obedience laid out in the 12th Article of Faith is conditional as evidenced by clearly stated scriptural qualifications; historical application by those who received those revelations, and just common moral sense. Believing men of faith and conscience have civilly disobeyed their governments from the beginning of recorded history based on their belief that at times a higher law demanded civil disobedience.
We must each decide what value, virtue, or religious belief we place on a higher level of commitment than obedience to one’s government and it’s laws. Personally, like hundreds of thousands of Latter-day Saints living in other nations, I could adapt, if necessary, to social democracy, burdensome taxes, and even uncomfortable curtailments of my civil liberties. I would probably protest and seek to make changes, but I would see no compelling reason for outright civil disobedience as long as I could practice my faith and freedom of conscience.
However, if the government makes a law that orders me to join with them in killing innocent life or destroying the souls of other men or even destroying their homes and property, then I would refuse to do so. At that point I would civilly disobey. Why? Because now my government is not robbing me of my transient material things or limiting some of my freedoms, but rather it is robbing me of what little virtue I might have by requiring me to destroy some other innocent soul’s life and well being.
Nephi told us that when the Son of God comes to the world He will show us all “things that we should do.” What did Jesus do in relation to the “powers that be?” Where did he draw the line? He was denied many civil liberties by the nation that occupied his country. He and his people were taxed without representation. They were subjected to the taking of their lives, liberties and properties. And yet when He was invited by others to take up arms and rebel against the powers that be what did he do? He refused and commanded His disciples to put away their swords. He made no protest to any forms of taxation and even suggested returning all the money to those who created the currency. He taught “going the extra mile” and to live in harmony and peace even with enemies. So what did he refuse to do? He refused to harm anyone in anyway. No authority on earth could compel Him to do evil either individually or in concert with others no matter how just the cause. He refused to harm the sinner and even His enemies. So when this same God tells us to live civilly and sustain law unless it involves the taking of life and freedom of conscience, what does His example mean to me?
Having the light of Christ and the right to personal revelation, we have an irrevocable, covenantal obligation to study, ponder, pray and receive answers. We should never abdicate that responsibility to others. The promptings of the spirit will tell us all things we must do. When we receive personal revelation we will know of ourselves what path we must take. Responding to that spirit will in time and eternity lead us to the tree of life. If we do not seek the spirit of revelation or we receive promptings and ignore them then we are to that degree denying the spirit of God in our life. And when we ignore our God given conscience or let it atrophy, something deep within us begins to die. The words of Henry Thoreau aptly describe this reality:
“Is there not a sort of bloodshed when the conscience is wounded? Through this wound a man’s real manhood and immortality flow out, and he bleeds an everlasting death.” (Duty of Civil Disobedience, pg. 43).
It is for each of us to decide whether we will interpret the 12th Article of Faith as being an unqualified mandate or whether we can be men and women for all seasons and love and sustain our government and the natural law upon which it was founded by civilly disobeying when it no longer protects us, our neighbor or even our enemies in our God given inalienable right to life and freedom of conscience.
The Wentworth Letter, March 1, 1842; DHC 4: 535-541
Cache Stake Conference, Logan, Utah, Nov. 1, 1891
Adopted by unanimous vote at a General Assembly of the Church held at Kirtland,, Ohio, August 17, 1835. HC 2: 247-249
Revised Laws of Illinois, 1833, pp. 198-199
Orson Pratt, August 29, 1852, Tabernacle, Great Salt Lake City
Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act which forbade practice of polygamy in U.S. Territories. July 8, 1862
US Code Title 48 & 1461
Journal Discourses 7: 137, Brigham Young: “Our traditions have been such that we are not apt to look upon war between two nations as murder… Does it justify the slaying of men, women and children that otherwise would have remained at home in peace, because a great army is doing the work? No: the guilty will be damned for it.”