Editor's note: This essay is part of an ongoing Deseret News opinion series exploring ideas and issues at the intersection of Faith and Thought. This essay is published in conjunction with an interview conducted by Laura Harris Hales of the LDS Perspectives Podcast, which is available here for download.
Differences of opinion regarding issues of religious liberty have existed as long as the nation. Yet those concepts are still debated in private and public today, from disputes over prayer rooms in public schools to discussions surrounding the nation’s refugee policies. Joseph Smith’s strong commitment to religious liberty continues to influence members of the faith he founded, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While many of Joseph Smith’s teachings on religious tolerance are well-known, the recent publication of the Council of Fifty Minutes floods us with not only many more pronouncements on the subject, but the longest and perhaps most passionate sermon Joseph ever gave on the topic.
In March 1897, the 90-year-old president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Wilford Woodruff, spoke the words of his testimony into a phonograph. With only a few minutes of recording time, the subjects he chose to cover reveal much about the thoughts on his mind just a few short months before his death. It would likely not surprise a modern Mormon that he testified of Joseph Smith’s prophetic nature, his receipt of the sacred temple endowment by Joseph’s hands in Nauvoo, and that he related the experience of Joseph giving the keys of the kingdom to the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.
But President Woodruff’s very first statement was not any of these assertions of knowledge and truth. His first words, scratchy and time-worn, but filled with conviction, declared, “I bear my testimony that the Prophet Joseph Smith said, before a large assemblage in Illinois, that if he were the emperor of the world and had control over the whole human family he would sustain every man, woman and child in the enjoyment of their religion. These are my sentiments today.” That declaration reflected the culmination of Woodruff’s life experiences.
He had watched decades earlier as Mormons had been driven by persecution to flee from New York and Ohio, scarred by violence and murder in Missouri, and then extirpated once again from Nauvoo even after such violence had ended the lives of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. In the succeeding decades, the U.S. federal government had repeatedly passed laws targeting the Mormons’ religion, especially in attempts to curb their religious belief and practice in plural marriage. Those attempts culminated in the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of men and women, the loss of the right to vote for women in Utah Territory, and the disincorporation of the church itself and the confiscation of its property as the United States attempted to force Mormonism into “proper” American culture and Christianity.
It is no wonder then, after having watched the devastating effects of majoritarian persecution of his religious minority in the United States, that Woodruff’s first words were to testify to and echo what Joseph Smith had earlier declared on religious liberty. As he met with the council and discussed where the church might flee out of the United States and what kind of constitution and government they would establish in their new home, Joseph made clear that one element of their new government would be tolerance of the religious views of others. The council was to erect a civil government in whatever new land they emigrated to and Joseph wanted it recorded that there were non-Mormons that were a part of the council and that process.
He explained that they did not intend to inquire of those men “as to their religious opinions or notions in any shape or form whatever and that we act upon the broad and liberal principle that all men have equal rights, and ought to be respected, and that every man has a privilege in this organization of choosing for himself voluntarily his God, and what he pleases for his religion.”
For Joseph there was a religious truth underlying this practical reasoning: “God cannot save or damn a man only on the principle that every man acts, chooses and worships for himself.” Without agency to worship as he or she pleases, no man or woman could choose to embrace the greater light and therefore obtain exaltation. Joseph’s counsel also turned to remind those present of the disastrous results of state-sponsored, or allowed, persecution based on religious beliefs. He impressed on them “the importance of thrusting from us every spirit of bigotry and intolerance towards a man’s religious sentiments, that spirit which has drenched the earth with blood — When a man feels the least temptation to such intolerance he ought to spurn it from him.”
But this was not just a call for introspection and changing one’s own heart as it related to those of other faiths, Joseph declared it was the “the inalienable right of man to think as he pleases [and] worship as he pleases.” This right was “the first law of everything that is sacred” and was not just to be acknowledged; it was to be defended. He wanted every man in the council to be able to say at the ends of their lives “that the principles of intolerance and bigotry never had a place in this kingdom, nor in my breast, and that he is even then ready to die rather than yield to such things.”
Many of Joseph Smith’s earlier statements and actions reflected these feelings as well. The Nauvoo City Council had passed an ordinance in 1841 declaring, “Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Latter-day Saints, Quakers, Episcopals, Universalists, Unitarians, Mohammedans [Muslims], and all other religious sects and denominations whatever, shall have free toleration, and equal privileges in this city.” A substantial fine and a prison term of six months could be the punishment for “any person be guilty of ridiculing, abusing, or otherwise depreciating another, in consequence of his religion, or of disturbing, or interrupting, any religious meeting.”
The English socialist and religious skeptic John Finch seemed stunned when he visited Nauvoo that Joseph Smith “was in the practice of inviting strangers, who visited Nauvoo, of every shade of politics or religion, to lecture to his people.” Joseph told Finch that “he allowed liberty of conscience to all, and was not afraid of any party drawing his people away from him.” The surprised Finch reported Joseph was “liberal and charitable in speaking of other sects [and] said the great principle of Christianity was love.”
In his preaching to the Council of Fifty, Joseph further reflected this belief. Friendship with our fellow men and women was not to be conditioned on their acceptance or rejection of our religious beliefs. Joseph declared, “If I can know that man is susceptible of good feelings and integrity and will stand by his friends, he is my friend. When I have used every means in my power to exalt a man’s mind, and have taught him righteous principles to no effect [and] he is still inclined in his darkness, yet the same principles of liberty and charity would ever be manifested by me as though he had embraced it.”
For Joseph, friendship and love was not to be a function of sectarian conformity but the necessary element of Christianity, and indeed humanity. With an air of reticence, perhaps foreshadowing his own rapidly approaching demise, Joseph added, “The only thing I am afraid of is that I will not live long enough to enjoy the society of these my friends as long as I want to.”
Joseph did not simply argue that individuals should stand up for religious freedom and protect the rights of religious peoples to worship “Almighty God according to the dictates of [their] own conscience,” he urged his followers to lobby to change the government to enshrine such ideals. He proclaimed, “Let us from henceforth drive from us every species of intolerance in all governments or political transactions a man’s religious opinions should never be called in question. A man should be judged by the law independent of religious prejudice, hence we want in our constitution those laws which would require all its officers to administer justice without any regard to his religious opinions.” In a later meeting he further insisted that “all men were in the designs of God created equal.”
William Clayton recorded that Joseph Smith was so animated while talking about the subject of religious liberty and freedom of worship he was slapping a two-foot ruler as he spoke for emphasis “till finally he broke it in two in the middle.” The Council of Fifty record reveals to modern readers some prescient statements on embracing the religious diversity of communities in our rapidly changing world. Joseph Smith certainly believed he was teaching true revelations from God, but that certitude did not diminish his belief in peaceful religious pluralism.
Mormons were themselves once a hated and persecuted religious minority in America. Indeed, the original constitution of the state I grew up in, Idaho, barred Mormons (as well as “Chinese or persons of Mongolian descent”) from voting in the state. Americans often suspected and accused Mormons of being blasphemous at best and traitorous murderers bent on destroying the government at worst. Their religious rites and practices were maligned and misrepresented. Things that were sacred to them were mocked and ridiculed in public and in private. The terrible actions and crimes committed by individuals in their faith community were attributed to the religion as a whole.
Indeed, many Mormons today have heard people publicly and privately deride their faith, misrepresent its history and use it as a pretext for ill-treatment. It is perhaps a natural human tendency to fear those who think and worship differently. But perhaps Joseph Smith’s long lost teachings on religious freedom can give us all pause. Hopefully, extending the hand of friendship and love to all people, especially the most vulnerable and most derided, can be our overriding principle both personally and politically.
Gerrit Dirkmaat received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Colorado. He is an assistant professor of church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and one of the editors/historians working on the Joseph Smith Papers project. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Brigham Young University.