Section 134: Relationship Between Church and Secular Government
Based on when it was written, this section is out of chronological order. During the summer of 1835, the Prophet Joseph and Frederick G. Williams left Kirtland on a missionary journey to the state of Michigan. While they were gone, the Assistant President of the Church, Oliver Cowdery, was left in charge in Kirtland. At the time, preparations were being completed for printing a new collection of the revelations in a book to be titled the Doctrine and Covenants. (Remember that the 1833 edition was published under the title A Book of Commandments.) A committee had been appointed the previous September to ready an up to date collection of revelations for publication.
An assembly of the Church was convened in Kirtland on August 17, 1835, for the purpose of canonizing this book of scripture. The saints accepted all the revelations in the collection and also voted to include two other documents written by Oliver Cowdery. One dealt with the Church’s views on the relationship between secular government and religious groups. The other was a statement on marriage. The latter topic seemed important since there were rumors in the air that polygamy was being practiced in the Church. Actually, Joseph had received the revelation on celestial/plural marriage some four years previously in 1831, and he may have begun to practice the principle as early as 1835. Joseph was not even present. He didn’t arrive back in Kirtland until August 23, one week after the assembly.
When the two statements were read to him, Joseph apparently had some misgivings about each of them. The statement on marriage contained the following verse: “Inasmuch as this Church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy: we declare that we believe one man should have one wife, and one woman, but one husband, except in case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again” (D&C  101:4). This statement is obviously contrary to the doctrine of plural marriage, but since the Lord had not yet allowed Joseph to share the doctrine with anyone, except perhaps his most trusted and intimate associates, Joseph decided it was acceptable as written, and allowed it to stand.
Both statements were printed in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and in subsequent editions until 1876 when Orson Pratt removed the statement on marriage and replaced it with our section 132, the revelation on celestial/plural marriage. The statement on government has remained in the Doctrine and Covenants and is currently section 134. It is not revelation but rather a statement of belief. It has, however, been accepted by the Church as canonized scripture.
Not a lot of commentary is required on the text of section 134, as the text is largely self-explanatory. However, it is helpful to divide the text up into the following topics. The verses of this section will be reordered to correspond with their subject material:
Man’s Responsibility to Support Secular Government (verses 1, 3, 5-6, 8)
The support of secular government is basic to our beliefs. The twelfth Article of Faith states: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.”
Government is absolutely necessary, for without it there would be anarchy. The question is not whether there should be government but rather which form of government would best benefit the people. Elder Erastus Snow declared: “Even the monopoly of the one-man power as in Russia, or the monopoly of the aristocracy as in other parts of Europe . . . is far better than no government at all. . . . not that they are always the best forms of government for the people, or that they afford liberty and freedom to mankind, but that any and all forms of government are better than none at all, having a tendency as they do to restrain the passions of human nature and to curb them, and to establish and maintain order to a greater or less[er] degree. One monopoly is better than many; and the oppression of a king is tolerable, but the oppression of a mob, where every man is a law to himself and his own right arm is his power to enforce his own will, is the worst form of government” (JD, 22:1551).
Brigham Young commented upon the concept of man’s responsibility to support secular government: “Sustain the government of the nation wherever you are, and speak well of it, for this is right, and the government has a right to expect it of you so long as the government sustains you in your civil and religious liberty, in those rights which inherently belong to every person born on the earth” (Millennial Star, 17 July 1852: 321).
This statement of Brigham’s, as well as verses 1 and 3 suggest that there is a limit to the allegiance owed secular governments. The men that administer governments are to be held accountable for the righteous (“in equity and justice”) administration of their offices. This implies that if a government is exercising unrighteous dominion over its subjects, those subjects may not be obliged to obey.
D&C 134 The relationship between the Church and secular Government
1 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.
verse 1 “governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man” Is this literally true? Were “governments [really] instituted of God?” God gave to Adam a perfect form of government, but through the ages humankind has modified it to such a point that the influence of God is not acknowledged. Satan has used many governments to meet his ends. Certainly many, if not most, of our world’s current governments are not God-inspired. It is true, however, that God would have us subject ourselves to the laws of an orderly government for our own protection, peace, and happiness. He is the author of the principle of secular law. God will hold each individual, whether ruler or subject, accountable for his support of righteous principles of government.
3 We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign.
6 We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men show respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker.
verse 6 “both [human laws and divine laws] to be answered by man to his Maker” God will hold us accountable not only for violations of his law but also for violation of temporal laws. President Joseph Fielding Smith declared: “No member of the Church can be accepted as in good standing whose way of life is one of rebellion against the established order of decency and obedience to law. We cannot be in rebellion against the law and be in harmony with the Lord, for he has commanded us to ‘be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign (D&C 58:22)” (CR, April 1971, 48).
8 We believe that the commission of crime should be punished according to the nature of the offense; that murder, treason, robbery, theft, and the breach of the general peace, in all respects, should be punished according to their criminality and their tendency to evil among men, by the laws of that government in which the offense is committed; and for the public peace and tranquility all men should step forward and use their ability in bringing offenders against good laws to punishment.
Government’s Responsibility to Secure Man’s Inherent Rights and Individual Freedoms (verses 2, 5, 11)
Governments are to use their power and authority, not to coerce individuals, but to uphold and guarantee their divine, inherent, individual rights. These essential rights are:
- free exercise of conscience
- right and control of property
- protection of life
When protection by the law may be inaccessible for any reason, man has the right to defend himself, his government, his property, or his friends and family from unlawful assaults.
2 We believe 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.
verse 2 President David O. McKay quoted former United States Supreme Court justice George Sutherland as follows: “It is the not the right of property which is protected, but the right to property. Property, per se, has no rights; but the individual— the man—has three great rights, equally sacred from arbitrary interference: the right to his life, the right to his liberty, and the right to his property. The three rights are so bound together as to be essentially one right. To give a man his life, but deny him his liberty, is to take from him all that makes life worth living. To give him liberty, but take from him the property which is the fruit and badge of his liberty, is to still leave him a slave” (From George Sutherland’s speech before the New York State Bar Association, 21 January 1921, as reported in CR, October 1962, 6).
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; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.
11 We believe that men should appeal to the civil law for redress of all wrongs and grievances, where personal abuse is inflicted or the right of property or character infringed, where such laws exist as will protect the same; but we believe that all men are justified in defending themselves, their friends, and property, and the government, from the unlawful assaults and encroachments of all persons in times of exigency, where immediate appeal cannot be made to the laws, and relief afforded.
Government’s Responsibility to Guarantee Religious Freedom (verses 4, 7)
This concept is also basic to our beliefs as stated in Article of Faith number eleven: “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.”
4 We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul.
verse 4 “religion is instituted of God” For an individual to have and maintain the rights of free exercise of conscience, government must not interfere with control over religion. One role of government is to protect the right to freely exercise one’s conscience. Elder David O. McKay declared: “When a man uses this God-given right [the right to govern] to encroach upon the rights of another, he commits a wrong. Liberty becomes license, and the man a transgressor. It is the function of the state to curtail the violator and to protect the violated” (CR, April 1940, 118).
7 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 belief; but we do not believe that they have a right in justice to deprive citizens of this privilege, or proscribe them in their opinions, so long as a regard and reverence are shown to the laws and such religious opinions do not justify sedition nor conspiracy.
verse 7 “proscribe them in their opinions” To proscribe means to outlaw or forbid the use or exercise of.
The Necessity for a Proper Separation Between Church and State (verses 9-10, 12)
These verses declare the proper relationship of law between churches and government. The violation of laws that are God-given and apply to religion, such as violations of moral law, disobedience to church regulations, or the preaching of false doctrine, must be dealt with by a church without government interference. Matters that are civil or criminal in nature must be dealt with by government without the interference of religion. Churches should not have authority over the right to property or life nor be allowed to inflict physical punishment upon the members. Civil complains should be dealt with in civil courts, criminal complaints should be dealt with in criminal courts, and religious complaints should be dealt with in religious councils.
The First Presidency of the Church stated in the Conference Report for April 1907, 14:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds to the doctrine of the separation of church and state; the noninterference of church authority in political matters; and the absolute freedom and independence of the individual in the performance of his political duties. We declare that from principle and policy, we favor: the absolute separation of church and state; no domination of the state by the church; no church interference with the functions of the state; no state interference with the function of the church, or with the free exercise of religion; the absolute freedom of the individual from the domination of ecclesiastical authority in political affairs; the equality of all churches before the law.
However, President Ezra Taft Benson has taught that there may be danger in too much separateness between church and state:
I support the doctrine of separation of church and state as traditionally interpreted to prohibit the establishment of an official national religion. But I am opposed to the doctrine of separation of church and state as currently interpreted to divorce government from any formal recognition of God. The current trend strikes a potentially fatal blow at the concept of the divine origin of our right and unlocks the door for an easy entry of future tyranny. If Americans should ever come to believe that their rights and freedoms are instituted among men by politicians and bureaucrats, then they will no longer carry the proud inheritance of their forefathers, but will grovel before their masters seeking favors and dispensations—a throwback to the feudal system of the Dark Ages (God, Family, Country, 1974, 283-84).
Do we in the Church really believe in an absolute separation of church and state? Ultimately, we do not since it is our doctrine that eventually—during the millennial thousand years—Jesus Christ himself will stand at the head of the government of the world, the so-called Political Kingdom of God.
9 We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied.
verse 9 “We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government” No government should support a particular religion over another, nor should a religion be allowed to unduly influence government to the detriment of other religions.
10 We believe that all religious societies have a right to deal with their members for disorderly conduct, according to the rules and regulations of such societies; provided that such dealings be for fellowship and good standing; but we do not believe that any religious society has authority to try men on the right of property or life, to take from them this world’s goods, or to put them in jeopardy of either life or limb, or to inflict any physical punishment upon them. They can only excommunicate them from their society, and withdraw from them their fellowship.
12 We believe it just to preach the gospel to the nations of the earth, and warn the righteous to save themselves from the corruption of the world; but we do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants, neither preach the gospel to, nor baptize them contrary to the will and wish of their masters, nor to meddle with or influence them in the least to cause them to be dissatisfied with their situations in this life, thereby jeopardizing the lives of men; such interference we believe to be unlawful and unjust, and dangerous to the peace of every government allowing human beings to be held in servitude.
verse 12 “we do not believe it right to interfere with bond-servants” This statement must be understood in the context of the 1830s, when the issues of slavery and states’ rights in the United States were being debated and when slavery was legal in some states. The issue of the legal rights of slaveholders was something that the missionaries faced as they proselyted in the Southern States. At another time, the prophet Joseph counseled the missionaries: “It should be the duty of an Elder, when he enters into a house, to salute the master of that house, and if he gain his consent, then he may preach to all that are in that house; but if he gain not his consent, let him not go unto his slaves, or servants, but let the responsibility be upon the head of the master of that house, and the consequences thereof, and the guilt of that house is no longer upon his skirts” (HC, 2:263).
Brief Historical Setting
Since the spring of 1833, work on the Kirtland Temple had progressed almost continuously—having been interrupted only in the spring and early summer of 1834 in order to raise funds and gather recruits for the Zion’s Camp project. The temple was sufficiently completed so that it could be dedicated on March 27, 1836.
Prior to the dedication of the temple and for some time after, the Lord poured out his power, and the saints were favored with a great many extraordinary spiritual experiences. This remarkable period was ushered in on the night of January 21, 1836, when a group of brethren gathered in the nearly completed temple to receive instructions and participate in the ordinance of “anointings.” During the activities of this evening, Joseph had unfolded to him one of the great visions of the ages [D&C 137 Vision of the Celestial Kingdom].
- Michael J. Preece