Some background on D&C 134 and Religious Freedoms

Today’s press conference regarding religious liberty and LGBT rights made frequent reference to Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants, which describes the policies and duties of the Latter-day Saints towards government. It is worth remembering some of the history and quirks of this Section. First quirk: it’s not a revelation.

From 1833 through 1835, a number of public comments by Church members and editorials by W.W. Phelps left open the question of the Saints’ view towards slavery (see http://www.blacklds.org/fpoc), as well as to the allegiance of the Saints to the United States government. As you can imagine, this didn’t help warm the neighbors in Kirtland to the Mormons. In August 1835, a Committee was held to present the Doctrine and Covenants to the Saints for their general approval. At that time, this statement was presented by Oliver Cowdery (and written almost certainly by him) and held for the approval of the body. Joseph Smith was not present, nor was Frederick G. Williams.

Joseph Fielding Smith has written about this event (if anyone has the original source, pls let me know k thx):

At a conference of the Church held in Kirtland, Ohio, August 17, 1835, the Doctrine and Covenants was presented to the assembled conference for their acceptance or rejection. After the brethren there assembled had carefully and studiously considered the matter, the revelations which had been previously selected by the Prophet Joseph Smith were accepted as the word of the Lord by the unanimous vote of the conference, and were ordered printed. On the occasion of this conference, Joseph Smith the Prophet and his second counselor, Frederick G. Williams, were not present. They were on a brief mission to the saints in Michigan, and because of this were not familiar with all the proceedings of this conference. After the conference had accepted the revelations, an article on marriage, which had been written by Oliver Cowdery, was read by Elder William W. Phelps, and was ordered printed in the book with the revelations.
When this action had been taken, Oliver Cowdery arose and read another article, also written by himself, on “Governments and Laws in General.” This article the conference also ordered printed in the book of Doctrine and Covenants. Unfortunately, a great many people, because these articles appeared in the Doctrine and Covenants, readily concluded that they had come through the Prophet Joseph Smith, and hence were to be received on a par with the other parts of the book of revelations. Because of this misinformation articles have been published from time to time declaring that these words on Government and Laws have come to us with the force of revelation having been from the mouth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. This article and the one on “Marriage” were not considered as revelations by the conference, but were published as an expression of belief of the members of the Church at that time.

The article on Governments and Laws has appeared in each edition of the Doctrine and Covenants since 1835, and has been accepted, as the preamble of the article states, as a declaration of belief of the Latter-day Saints.

Joseph later endorsed the views of this statement, as found in the Messenger and Advocate.

It is interesting to see this Section invoked today in the context of religious liberty and individual freedoms, and to compare this to its original context. Today’s conference was an encouraging step away from increasingly polarized conversations around religion and homosexuality. I think we Saints have reason to be optimistic for the future.

Comments

  1. Last Lemming says:

    JFS seems to be trying to demote Section 134 to the status of section headings and the footnotes to OD1. But Cowdery’s article on marriage was eventually deleted, while this one stayed. So as far as I am concerned, it is as canonical as any other section of the D&C and totally fair game for GA’s to be citing in public.

    And I agree that there is reason for optimism.

  2. Oh, it’s totally canonical (by common consent!). Fair game as well. But it’s not a revelation, and maybe that matters somehow.

  3. I agree that though it is certain that Oliver Cowdery authored D&C 134, we know that Joseph Smith personally “ratified” it only a couple of years later and that the Church, as a whole, voted for its canonization as part of the Doctrine and Covenants.

    The Section never internally claims to be a direct revelation, a “thus saith the Lord” statement. But it doesn’t need to in order to be entirely authoritative in its canonical status.

    Church leaders, including those who cited it today, didn’t cite it as a direct revelation but rather as a binding section of the Doctrine and Covenants that truly represents our beliefs, as inspired by God. I see no reason that Oliver Cowdery would not have been in a position to receive the inspiration needed to draft this as an accurate statement of what God would want members of his Church to believe (each verse of the Section starts off with a “We believe” statement).

    So, I’m a little puzzled myself about what, if any, insight this context about the creation of Section 134 (i.e. the “quirk” mentioned that it isn’t technically revelation, at least not in the “thus saith the Lord” type of revelation that is overwhelmingly represented as much of the rest of the content of the Doctrine and Covenants) could provide as we contemplate the substance of D&C 134.

  4. John, the insight comes from the committee context and the unusual presentation and ratification. It is somewhat special because of those elements. If those don’t matter to you, that’s cool, but they matter to me; not because we have reason to doubt the section, but because it represents a human voice more than most of the D&C.

  5. Maybe I’m a stick-in-the-mud, but I’m not particularly interested in human voices.

  6. Brent Metcalfe says:

    Here’s the source document for the meeting in which Oliver Cowdery read the text (see especially p. 106)…

    http://josephsmithpapers.org/paperSummary/?target=X87AB947D-0878-4317-8F6B-ED20A1E6615E#!/paperSummary/minute-book-1&p=102

  7. Thanks Brent!

  8. So, pretend I’m 12 and have little to no knowledge or understanding of church history. Is anything currently ever presented (in our church) to a body of people ‘to be accepted or rejected’? I see no evidence of ‘by common consent’ in action today unless I don’t understand the term (quite possible) and/or we don’t count the agency to raise our hand to oppose a church member’s sustaining to a calling. When did this change?

  9. That was interesting and enlightening Steve E. Thank you.

  10. This is great insight Steve. Learned something new today!

  11. Aaron Brown says:

    Sorry, but along with John F, I’ve having something of a “so what?” reaction here. Please give an example of when the revelation/not revelation distinction might matter…

    Aaron B

  12. Aaron, it’s not up to me to fix your hard heart.