Right, Wrong and Absolute Truth

What is the meaning of this:

That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be and often is, right under another. God said thou shalt not kill,—at another time he said, thou shalt utterly destroy. This is the principle on which the government of heaven is conducted—by revelation adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed. Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.

The earliest appearance of the statement comes in the Sangamo Journal of 19 August 1842, as part of an article by disaffected Mormon, John C. Bennett. Bennett claimed that this statement (and the letter it was a part of) was written by Joseph Smith. How seriously should we take such a document? And what do you think of this statement?


  1. Whether it is true or not, I have long believed that ‘truth’ or morality, or whatever you want to call it, is relative. There aren’t too many ‘rules’ mortals live by that aren’t broken legitimately at some point in history.

  2. I have long believed that one reason you must know the rules inside and out, spirit and letter, is so you can also know when the appropriate time is for an exception.

  3. This statement is consistent with moral realism as long as the proposition that God never requires anything of us that is objectively wrong is also the case. The final clause “we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.” suggests just that, namely that God issues his commands for a reason that we will ultimately find acceptable.

    Where if moral realism was false, God would be under no such constraint – whether he had a reason for any of his actions or whether anyone else would ultimately believe them to be justified would be completely immaterial. It would be a might makes right world from first to last and there would be no right or wrong about it.

  4. I’ll let those with an expert knowledge of the history comment on the provenance of the quote.

    I think that what is taught is what I would refer to as a dangerous doctrine: a doctrine that is technically correct (i.e. God would never command us do anything that would keep us from him) but that is very easily misapplied (i.e. we as humans very easily misunderstand what God is commanding and thus we think that God is speaking when he isn’t and so we end up burning witches, or enslaving Africans, or all sorts of other horrible things that we attempt to excuse with an appeal to God’s commands.)

    I see trouble in using God’s will as the ultimate determinate of a moral life. We are imperfect beings living in an imperfect world and it is important to account for the fact that we will make mistakes. One of the questions we should be asking ourselves as we try to determine our actions are is “What kind of mistakes do I want to make?” (as opposed to “How can I make no mistakes?”) I would much prefer to be just (or merciful, or compassionate, etc.) at the risk of being disobedient, than obedient at the risk of not being just, or compassionate.

    If we hear a commandment and believe it is unjust, but that our understanding of the commandments trump our understanding of Justice, then we run the risk of perpetuating injustice in the name of God. On the other hand if we hear a commandment and believe it is unjust, but that our understanding of Justice trumps our understanding of the commandments we run the risk of disobedience. Personally I’d rather ask forgiveness for disobedience in the pursuit of Justice, that for injustice in the pursuit of obedience.

  5. Adam K. K. Figueira says:

    And why will we find God’s reasons acceptable? Is it because we will come to see how they align with gentler, more usual principles that we have an easy time accepting, or that govern the majority of our actions? Does it matter to God that we find his doings acceptable? Or is it because we, in time, will grow in our understanding of these principles and, having become more like God, will better understand his actions?

    If God did require us to do something objectively wrong, how would we know it? When you consider the doctrine that God is incapable of doing wrong else he ceases to be God, it becomes apparent that one of two conditions exist: either right and wrong are objectively definable as what the being we worship does and does not do, or we are worshipping a being who may not actually be God.

    In the latter case, would we sense inherently a “divine” command that was not objectively right? Are our consciences a check against possible wrongdoing by God himself? The idea seems absurd.

    Lehi’s sermon in 2 Nephi 2 implies that because we continue to exist, the case is the former. Thankfully.

    If there is objective right and wrong that exists independent of our God, then we must take him at his word that he is bound to adhere to it, for it is also his law. But to believe that he is forced to do so – that he lacks power to choose otherwise – is to destroy the principle of agency at the highest level, rendering the Plan of Salvation self-defeating, as we would be saved from captivity only to lose our freedom immediately upon achieving godhood.

    Instead, I think it is a matter of character. It is impossible for a being to weild power at the level of a God without also possessing flawless judgement and a disposition to execute it perfectly, according to objective rightness, every time. Otherwise, the very principle upon which Godhood is attained (agency) would be nullified and, as Lehi said, “all things must have vanished away.”

    If such a being is the only one capable of exercising ultimate power, then we can with confidence place our faith in God, never fearing that every choice he makes – and they are choices – will be for the best possible good.

  6. proud daughter of eve says:

    I’d take anything John C. Bennett says with a block of salt. This is the guy who went behind Joseph’s back with a bunch of “spiritual wifery” nonsense (and yes, I am aware of Joseph’s polygamy), graft and host of other ill-dealings* then turned around and tried to destroy Joseph and the church when he was found out and removed from his place of high trust.

  7. Last I heard, despite Jessee’s inclusion in his compilation, the JSPP will not include this as a JS document.

    It does have a whiff of Divine Command Ethics, which I generally find untenable. The bit about hopeful perspective long after the event doesn’t jibe with this, but in practice, it isn’t something that we would like to associate with any institution, I think. The reality of Nauvoo polygamy, however, isn’t what I would consider a fruitful testbed for ethics.

  8. Nauvoo polygamy = fruitful testbed for ethics. Love it!

  9. Sorry. I was laughing so hard I mistyped. Meant to say ≠.

  10. I’m with you, Stapley, in finding Divine Command Ethics generally untenable. And yet some of the most abhorrent applications of it–those which are most untenable–are contained in our own scriptures.

    Isn’t the point of continuing revelation that it allows our faith and understanding to be “adapted to the circumstances in which the children of the kingdom are placed”? Otherwise we could have a nice, tidy categorical imperative that applies in all situations forever and ever.

    Actually, if the quote above is accurately attributed, JS supplied us with a categorical imperative: “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is.”

  11. This was touched on a while back when Ronan did the Bad Religion series. As for the source of the quote, who can say?I’m with Stapley on DCE. Whimsical gods are hard to keep track of and seem to make as many mistakes as the worst of us. Well, I guess they wouldn’t really be mistakes…

  12. Right!

  13. Personally, I don’t see how obeying a legitimate command of God could ever be the wrong thing to do. What with obedience being the first law of heaven and all that.

    I do agree that without help we are liable to interpret God’s commands incorrectly, but I have to ask what kind of being God would be if he sent us here with no way of ascertaining his will, and no means of correcting us when we get it wrong. Fortunately, he provided both.

    In other words, if human imperfection invalidates the word of God as a reliable ethical center, then there is no such thing as a reliable ethical center.

  14. I really appreciate this philosophy. Absolute truth must be adaptable (and applicable) to any given circumstance.
    Doesn’t the song go, “there are precious few at ease, with moral ambiguities?”

  15. Really, Josh? What song?

  16. Hmm. Yes 15, I can see your point; you could look at that two ways. I wasn’t thinking it from the point of view, God has to change his ways to conform to our wants/desires/situations.
    I meant: Of the many absolute-truth-laws out there, some laws/rules are going to be given more weight than others depending on the circumstance.

    Thus, relativity, balance. There may be irrevocable laws, but that does not mean that there are other irrevocable laws too.

  17. Oh, I totally agree. The song comment wasn’t smart-alecky by the way.

    I believe there is a a situational hierarchy of eternal principles, and God’s perfection of judgment consists of his ability to order them correctly without fail.

  18. Actually, if the quote above is accurately attributed, JS supplied us with a categorical imperative: “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is.”

    That is not the same thing as saying: “Anything that is possible for God to ask of us, no matter what it is, becomes right by sole virtue of him asking us”.

    That would be a categorical imperative, and in the hands of a temporal God, a functional nihilism to boot. Where, as attributed, the statement merely attributes moral perfection to all of God’s commandments, which is not the same thing.

  19. @17, if I was feeling smart–aleky myself, I would have pointed you here: lmgtfy. But we’re on the same page.
    Thank you for your comments.

  20. Given that this can be traced to the John C. Bennett in the Sangamo Journal, what does the subsequent reception history of the quote look like? Has this been incorporated into our general perception as a teaching of the Prophet Joseph Smith despite the initial source? Have subsequent general authorities taken it on board and used it as part of their apologetics or doctrinal teachings?

  21. As noted by J. (#7), the quote is about ethics, not truth. It’s hard to deny there is a situational or contextual component to practical ethical decisions, but it can’t be purely situational or the sort of general rules we use to guide conduct (such as God’s commandments) would not be effective — if every situation is an exception, then rules are of little value. And LDS certainly do not believe that commandments are of little value.

  22. I was under the impression we had the original letter to Nancy Rigdon, but if it’s not being included in the JSP, I’m guessing we actually don’t. Can anyone confirm that?

  23. I believe there are some core truths that just do not change: God lives, Jesus is the Christ, the priesthood is eternal. I believe that all laws are predicated upon those core doctrines, and so can be changed as necessary to accomplish the goals of God. “Thou shalt not kill” is not a truth, but a commandment. “God is love” is a truth, and one that we would do well to consider in our own lives. Polygamy is also not a truth, but a commandment to either do or not do. Truth is not based upon behavior, otherwise the Pharisees would have been embraced by Christ. Truth is not relative. How we approach issues that revolve around truths can be relative. So, while the Jews had tons of commandments, Jesus gave only two: love God and love mankind. Neither of these broaches the concepts of killing, plural marriage, nor any other commandment. A general standard may be established, but the truly spiritual person is left to the guidance of the Holy Ghost (as per Nephi and Laban).

  24. Bob Millet used to quote this in Institute classes all the time. All the time. I knew right where it was in Teachings, and there are few things that I remember like that.

    He used to stress over and over that it wasn’t about “situational ethics,” but rather the power of personal revelation.

    The murder example given was an extreme example to make the point and helps explain some scripture stores, but we see this general principle play out in our lives all the time in other issues. Take a job that requires Sunday work? Paid employment for mom? Vegetarian? There are so many issues on which people make decisions and can cite scripture to back it up both ways, but when it comes down to it, they only get revelation for themselves. This is powerful, because it keeps us from judging one another.

    In my family, we had two young women who fell in love after getting their mission call. One chose to stay home and get married in the temple. The other served honorably on a mission that turned out to be a two-year commitment due to lead time for getting a visa and an extension to stay and help with a temple open house. But her guy waited, and they were married two months after her return. And her service ended up being instrumental in their lives, with them getting jobs that required moving to the country where she had served and being called to work at the MTC, etc.

    So was it right to accept the marriage proposal and stay home, or to accept the mission call and serve? They each came up with an answer that was right for them.

  25. Mark D., I see the distinction, but I wonder if that’s not what Joseph had in mind when/if he said the quote.

  26. John f., B. H. Roberts inserted this into the History of the Church vol. 5:134-136. It appears in the manuscript history of the church in an addendum in Robert Campbell’s handwriting. The staff of the historian’s office extracted it from HC to Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Another excerpt from the same source is pretty famous:

    Happiness is the object and design of our existence; and will be the end thereof, if we pursue the path that leads to it; and this path is virtue, uprightness, faithfulness, holiness, and keeping all the commandments of God. But we cannot keep all the commandments without first knowing them, and we cannot expect to know all, or more than we now know unless we comply with or keep those we have already received.

  27. I think “right” only seems relative to us because we don’t understand truth.

  28. Is the original source of this really John C. Bennett or has this been separately substantiated elsewhere?

  29. John, original is Sangamo Journal, hence we could say Bennett I suppose. I think it’s based on JS, but I don’t believe it can be trusted at face value, and I don’t think there is a reason to fight for it beyond its being embedded in LDS discourse (e.g., the Millet thing above). As far as JSPP, it doesn’t really fit their profile either as it stands.

  30. Is there any movement in the reception history, even for instance recently, to discredit it based on the original source?

  31. It better not be debunked as a JS document, and it would be rude if they did, ‘cuz I use it to explore JS’s thought in a forthcoming article…

    Historically, I can see how the statement fits into JS’s theology. Personally, I don’t see how the statement fits into my theology, for the reasons mentioned by Stapley (and others) above.

  32. As Mark said (3), the statement is fully compatible with moral realism. Indeed some might say it’s just a statement of act-utilitarianism. Further the emphasis seems less on what makes something right than it is on the epistemological principle that we should trust God.

    I agree that this has risk associated with it – people can always justify anything by “God said.” However in practice humans are just good at justifying acts that are really about their own gain. So I don’t see this as a huge risk. Further I’m not at all convinced risk is bad.

    I think our emphasis on personal revelation entails a lot of risk since you can always be mislead. However that risk (which I think everyone is familiar with as a practical matter in the small stuff) is important for our spiritual development. Now I do wish there was more emphasis placed on the risk elements in Church. But let’s be honest, those who try to live by the spirit are already familiar with it – especially leaders – whereas the ones who don’t live by the spirit need first to be encouraged to do so.

  33. Except for the probable JSPP “rejection” it has flown under document radar unless you count the polemical literature. It’s more or less used without question in Compton, Hill, etc. and of course devotional stuff. I know Davis Bitton thought it basically ok. But as a JS doc, it deserves to be on the fringe I think.

  34. It seems to me that the first part of the statement “Whatever God commands is right” is fully consistent with Christ’s saying “I am the Law” and “I am the Truth.” And the resurrected Christ tells the Nephites that he has suffered the will of the Father in all things. In this sense, then, I take the person and will of God to be absolute, not a metaphysical or ethical law that is somehow beyond God. (And even if one takes there to be a law beyond God, he is our source of law.)

    So I see no real problem with the idea that what God (who is righteous, loving, perfect, etc.) commands is right. To not believe that would be to believe that God could/would command something that is wrong. That there are potential problems when it comes to individual cases and ethics doesn’t mean you throw the whole thing out. I think Clark’s right on that point.

  35. Steve Evans says:

    The sticking point isn’t the quote itself, it’s the ascertaining of God’s will that is not so obvious.

  36. My thoughts on the statement:
    “That which is wrong under one circumstance, may be… right under another.”
    If I stand facing this way, something is on my right, but if I change where I stand, suddenly that same thing is on my left. Is it right? Is it wrong? Is it right? Is it left?

    “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire.”
    I replace the word “right” with “good”. All good things come from God and all things that come from God are good. Is cancer a bad thing? Is suffering? Persecution? Loss? Pain? Or shall all these things give thee experience, and be for thy good?

    Only thought about its legitimacy I get is that it sounds familiar, though I’ve never seen this exact thing before. Did he say something kind of like this somewhere else, or is it just hashed down mormon-lore where no one knows who they are quoting? Meh.

  37. “Did he say something kind of like this somewhere else?” This from Section 132 is similar in principle: “God commanded Abraham, and Sarah gave Hagar to Abraham to wife. And why did she do it? Because this was the law; and from Hagar sprang many people. This, therefore, was fulfilling, among other things, the promises. 35 Was Abraham, therefore, under condemnation? Verily I say unto you, Nay; for I, the Lord, commanded it. 36 Abraham was commanded to offer his son Isaac; nevertheless, it was written: Thou shalt not kill. Abraham, however, did not refuse, and it was accounted unto him for righteousness.”

    Steve’s right that the difficulty is ascertaining God’s will, but I don’t know that this is any more or less difficult if you have just a written law to go by (layers and layers of commentary on the Torah, for instance) or if you have the written word and current revelation.

  38. Steve Evans says:

    Keith, pick your poison. Neither really works uniformly well.

  39. What is JSPP?

  40. JSPP=Joseph Smith Papers Project

  41. “…Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see the reason thereof till long after the events transpire…”

    I don’t think anyone would argue with this principle, regardless of the ultimate source. God asked Nephi to kill a man, asked Abraham to allow his wife to marry the Pharaoh of Egypt while still married to Abraham, etc. I think most of us would do just about anything if we knew that God specifically asked us personally to do it.

    The problem is that there is almost always a human mediator, so the problem becomes one of our faith in that mediator as opposed to our faith in God. For simple things that don’t really matter, it is easy to follow a human leader. But there would be a huge difference in my mind if God told me to kill someone for a higher cause vs if my stake president told me it was God’s will that I kill someone. I would be reticent either way, but if I unequivocally knew it was God Himself telling me, I would likely do it in the first situation, whereas I would probably call the police in the second situation.

    Additionally, we have the fact that our Church leaders are mortal men, just like you and me. They have their own opinions about things. They disagree with each other. And sometimes they are wrong. Again, with something little, it probably doesn’t matter if it’s God’s will or a leader’s opinion so we follow their counsel regardless. The true test becomes when we think something a leader says is the opposite of what God would want us personally to do in a given situation. Who do we follow then? A leader who explains what he feels is God’s will, or what we personally feel is God’s will for us? It is a hard question.

  42. wreddyornot says:

    The quote is at best heresay. Even if JS said it, so what? I don’t have to just accept it or the premises it sets forth, whether it was JS then or is TSM saying it now in GC.

    But given the premises others have set forth, there’s no exigency God can’t meet. He’s constantly characterized as our loving Father, and I believe that. Given that, I see no harm in my saying to Him that I need to understand why He wants me to do something I find wrong or repugnant or to believe something I find repellent. I know I can speak directly to Him — I’ve often done it — and He can answer me, if He wants to. If He doesn’t answer and make me understand . . . well then, that’s not the way a loving Father acts in my experience if He seriously wants a child to do or to believe something they believe is wrong.

  43. Re: my 29. The insertion of the letter in the addendum of ms history volume 5 is interesting. Willard Richards’s source list for the period doesn’t seem to mention the letter. In the Joseph Smith collection (ms 155 box 2 fd 5 item 1) there’s a copy of the letter, but I question whether it’s a copy of an original. There’s a note on the reverse of the final page that dates the letter to “about Jan. 1842.” The handwriting is not from the usual suspects. The writing seems familiar but I can’t place it at the moment. That’s about all I know.

  44. WVS, when you say “the letter”, it sounds like you are referring to some other source than an essay written by John C. Bennett in the Sangamo Journal. That is what I was getting at with my question about sources. Is there some other source for this besides the Sangamo Journal? I see you are referring to a letter included as an addendum to the ms history volume 5 and a copy of “the letter” in the Joseph Smith collection.

    How does this letter relate to the Sangamo Journal. Does it function as outside substantiation of the material in Bennett’s article?

  45. The Sangamo Journal article by Bennett contains a “letter” which Bennett claims was dictated by JS to Willard Richards. This letter is the source of the quote in the OP. Here’s a link to a transcription. Scroll down 3/4 of the way to “6th Letter From Gen. Bennett.” It looks like the CHL material is copied from this source, but I could be wrong. It does not appear in JS letter books. Richards papers don’t mention it as far as I can tell.

    So there are (at least) 2 ms sources for the quote: ms history volume 5 addendum p. 3 (ca 1855) and a loose ms in the JS collection (unknown date) which is a copy of another source, possibly the Sangamo J. article by Bennett.

  46. There is no original manuscript source for this letter. Although there is a handwritten copy in the CHL collection, it is dated to most likely 1869-1871 by both the handwriting and the paper it is written on. In his draft notes of the history, Williard Richards cited the published Rigdon denial of Joseph Smith authorship. Only later in the Utah period, after Richards, the alleged scribe, was deceased did George A. Smith include the letter into the history, using Sangamo Journal or John C. Bennett’s various publications as the source for the text. Although both Mormons and non-Mormons alike want to believe this is undoubtedly a Joseph Smith document, academically, the provenance of it is highly questionable. Given the Sangamo Journal’s animosity toward the Nauvoo Mormons at the time, there would have been little if any vetting of Bennett’s claim that it was an authentic letter. They certainly would not have known just by looking at it if it was in Williard Richards handwriting as Bennett claims. However, Rigdon’s denial suggests that in fact some letter did exist, though he is at the same time claiming that Smith was not the author of it. It is very convoluted at best and the document should be treated as all documents with questioned provenance should be: with care and hesitancy rather than absolutes and definitives.

  47. Thanks Gerrit.

  48. One of the commenters above said that this statement: “It does have a whiff of Divine Command Ethics” which he didn’t like. I can understand why he might not like that, but I don’t think that this is the same old “God creates arbitrary morality simply by commanding it”. The quote clearly indicates that God has reasons for what he commands, just reasons that we may not understand.

    As I read the statement, Joseph seems to be implying that God has an objective function which He is trying to maximize (happiness for conscious creatures), and things aren’t moral JUST because God commands them, they are moral because they lead to our happiness, which is the object and design of our existence, and will be the end thereof. Then, together with the claims that 1. God KNOWS how to select actions that lead to this end better than we can, and 2. God has our best interests at heart, we reach the conclusion that whatever God commands is right, not just because God commanded it, but because it will lead to the end… as evidenced by this part of the statement: “Whatever God requires is right, no matter what it is, although we may not see THE REASON thereof till long after the events transpire.”

    That last part indicates that God has a REASON for what He commands, just one that we may not NOW understand.

  49. Are you SURE?

  50. Actually Chris I’m interested on your take here since you are a Kantian. This is one of those passages where I think the common Utilitiarian presumption among Mormons arise. As you know I’m not an Utilitarian although I’m pretty sympathetic to it. (I think a vague consequentialist response to ethical demands is a reasonably good strategy)

    Anyway I bring this up since these passages are among those pointing towards utilitarianism against kantianism.

  51. Clark, if you insist. :)

    I am not sure if I want to go too much into this. FIrst, Mormons are generally not Utilitarian in that the primary calculation is not happiness or human-well-being, but the will of God. This seems to be the type of thing that the original Utilitarians were working against. We may be consequentialists, but very much not Utilitarians. Hell, anyone who can justify human-suffering in the name of “agency” is the ultimate anti-Utilitarian.

    I am more interested in this quote’s historical context. Why would Joseph Smith say such a thing (if he did). I suspect that it was meant as a defense of the more aggressive and militaristic stance taken by the Prophet and many of the Saints near the end of his life. Many of the early leaders on the Church broke with Joseph over this shift. He was trying to explain his shift away from earlier peaceful rhetoric.

    We might also ask why Bennett was sharing the supposed quote…

    Anyways, back to Clark’s inquiry, I see quotes like this as a need for an ethical approach to religious pursuits. It helps us guide through the treacherous waters of odd quotes and crappy proof-texting.

  52. In discussion about the authenticity of this quote, a historian friend of mine pointed out that while we don’t have an original source document, both Sidney and Nancy Rigdon essentially acknowledged its authenticity in their response to it (while framing their responses in a roundabout way so as to cast doubt on the authorship of Joseph without explicitly denying it). I think the letter is substantively genuine.

  53. But aren’t you confusing the epistemological issue with the meta-ethics issue? (For the record once again I don’t think Mormons theologically should be Utilitarians, but that’s a different matter) It is true that for the original Utilitarians what was important wash’t just being ethical but being able to figure out ethics. I was more curious as to whether in terms of an ultimate meta-ethics (i.e. why God choses what he does) you saw quotes like this as problematic

    The issue of freedom vs. happiness is interesting although I think a Utilitarian could just point to the time frame to resolve that. Of course the issue of time has long been my big problem with Utilitarianism.

  54. If God is for it in any situation, it is right in that situation. If he is against it in any situation, it is wrong in that situation. The great secret is to know what God thinks in any situation. That is hard for some and much harder for others. Sometimes it cannot be discerned by anyone in which case one is free to use his best judgement and hope his judgement is good. Of course, every man’s judgement is good in his own eyes.

  55. Since God is not everywhere, he gave us reason.

  56. I think that’s right Chris. Although given our theology of the veil it would appear to me that what counts is our response to the demand to be ethical rather than necessarily being able to reason out the correct answer.

  57. Clark, that was more a snark at #54. How we come to ethical principles and the capacity to be moral is pretty complex. I actually do not fully accept Kant’s moral psychology (I do not think that many living Kantian do)

    I am not so much into the meta-ethics. What I will say is that the quote points to an inconsistent, even relativistic God. While I would guess that he could care less about our facial hair….I would hope that he was consistent in his view of how his children should treat each other.

  58. Thomas Parkin says:

    #54 Spot on.

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