Joseph Smith’s Religious Liberty, and Ours

One of the key themes that permeates the recently-released Council of Fifty minutes is the issue of religious liberty. (Note how the LDS Newsroom frames the discussion here, for instance.) In some ways this may sound odd, given that the council revolved around theocratic principles that appear ill-fit for modern conceptions of political order. In other ways it seems convenient, as religious liberty has become the dominant rallying cry for the LDS hierarchy who have frequently and loudly denounced what they believe to be an “attack” on the principle. (They recently unveiled a new website on the topic; I’m sure we’ll hear plenty about it at General Conference this next week.) And to a degree, the connection between the Council of Fifty’s minutes to questions of religious liberty are justified, as that is how Joseph Smith and the other council members discussed it themselves. (See my write-up here.) But the concept of “religious liberty” has never possessed a staid definition, as it has often evolved according to different contexts and concerns. Understanding how Smith and his successors conceived the topic is a crucial–and often confusing–step, but it may give meaning to how we have defined it within the LDS tradition ever since.

The earliest British settlers believed they were establishing religious freedom, but they understood the concept quite differently than those who came later. The Puritans were indeed seeking the liberty to practice their faith unmolested, but that liberty did not imply the opportunity for everyone to do likewise. For them, as well as for many others who followed, religious freedom was the freedom from error, or the freedom to practice the true religion. John Winthrop, the same guy who first attached the biblical “City upon a hill” metaphor to the American continent, argued that “natural liberty,” in which everyone had the freedom to do as they want, was not as valued as “moral liberty,” where residents merely had the freedom to do the right thing. Over the next century their vision of religious and social homogeneity collapsed under the pressure of diversity and schism, but elements of the Puritan anxiety remained. During the founding period there was an energetic fight between those who wanted the state to merely provide religious toleration, where diversity of thought was allowed but special forms of Christianity were privileged, and a new, and more radical, form of religious liberty that separated the federal government from religious institutions. The Constitution enshrined the latter approach, though it took a few decades for all the states to do likewise. (Massachusetts retained a form of religious establishment until 1833, for instance, and the majoritarian Protestant culture ensured a de-facto establishment for long after.)

Which brings us to Smith and his radical council. On the one hand, the creation of the council itself was predicated on the idea, at least in the minds of Mormon leaders, that the Church wasn’t being granted the right of religious liberty. This new government, Smith believed, could finally “tell the people what the true principles of liberty was,” because even “Washington did not do it.” Willard Richards declared that he was “for establishing a kingdom upon the principles of liberty and universal freedom. He wants to have the privilege of wearing his beard till it grows as long as his arm if he wants to,” so long as it “does not stick into another man[‘]s face.” (Tell that to BYU’s honor code!) At one point there was a heated discussion concerning whether there was a difference between this “Kingdom of God,” which governed temporal matters, and “the Church of God,” which focused on ecclesiastical and spiritual issues. In other words, was there a separation between church and state? Even amongst the participants, there was a lot of disagreement. Some thought the Church was a stepping stone to the Kingdom, and others thought the opposite. Some saw no difference whatsoever. Joseph Smith, for his part, believed there was a separation: “There is a distinction between the Church of God and kingdom of God,” he explained. “The laws of the kingdom are not designed to effect our salvation hereafter. It is an entire, distinct and separate government.” To demonstrate this, Smith even appointed three non-Mormons to the council. His rhetoric often emphasized the importance of the freedom of conscience. There are a number of statements in these minutes that can be plucked out, de-contextualized, and re-packaged for modern purposes.

Yet Smith’s rhetoric of a clean separation belied a fundamental reality: both the Kingdom and the Church were to be directed by the same person, not to mention governed through the same prophetic source. Smith’s definition of democratic order was quite different than his contemporaries, as demonstrated by his coining a new phrase, “theodemocracy.” To exemplify this shifting notion of sovereignty, he even redefined the traditional American phrase, “Vox populi, Vox Dei”: rather than meaning “the voice of the the people is the voice of God,” a hallmark of the democratic principle regarding the supremacy of the common citizen, Smith proclaimed a better definition was “the voice of the people assenting to the voice of God,” which tethered the common citizen’s rights to their willingness to follow divine will. People only have true liberty in order to enact God’s commands, as outlined through His prophet. Like Winthrop, Smith believed that religious liberty meant the liberty to live true religious principles, as governed by a strict priesthood hierarchy, even if he maintained a semblance of republican rhetoric concerning church and state. After Smith’s death, and due to contextual turmoil, (understandable) cultural distrust, and a need to centralize authority, Brigham Young gave up even that pretense. “[I] will defy any man to draw the line between the spiritual and temporal affairs in the kingdom of God,” he told the council. As one of his first acts as the new “prophet, priest, and king” of the organization, he released the three non-members from the quorum.

The legacies of this council were lasting, especially during the Territorial Utah period. Yet these were radical actions that were rooted in a particular set of conditions. As the circumstances surrounding the Church changed, so too did our conceptions of religious liberty. And there had to be adaptation on both sides. Kathleen Flake’s excellent book on Reed Smoot demonstrated that one of our compromises to become a member of the American body was to adapt modern notions of a “church.” And conversely, the government was finally willing to extend rights and privileges to a group they previously believed was a threat America’s democratic order due to heretical beliefs and actions. As Flake so aptly put it, Mormonism was more willing to act like a church, and the government less like one. Both the Church and the State, you see, had to reexamine notions of religious liberty and decided that true freedom required the bracketing of religious ideals that should not be inherent in a neutral political body. That is, the American government and the Mormon Church were able to come to agreement because they both became more secular.

Now, I know that “secularism” has become a bad word in LDS circles. (I’ll save my rant on that for another day.) But what I want to emphasize here is that one of the things that has allowed us to exercise our “religious liberties” has been the embrace of a new understanding of that very phrase, at least on the part of the state. We may be tempted to infuse “religious freedom” with the cultural baggage of our Puritan and Mormon ancestry, which, as I wrote about the Kim Davis saga, includes an unspoken assumption that it is meant to guarantee the perpetuation of true religious belief and practice. But I think that would be a mistake. It seems to me a more helpful response to these new circumstances is not to replicate the models of religious liberty dictated by Joseph Smith at a moment when our rights were genuinely under siege, but rather to adapt to the new political boundaries that have, in reality, actually secured those freedoms for us. It is one thing to call for the freedom to believe and practice what we believe to be God’s true faith, and another to allow the same liberties to those in other traditions who aim to do likewise.

Perhaps the best way to live up to our legacy and heritage is to trumpet the ideals of religious liberty embodied in Smith’s 1844 rhetoric while also accepting the needs, circumstances, and parameters of today’s pluralistic society.


  1. Great post. I’ve been wanting to explore the different understandings of “freedom” that the early church likely had in mind, but your document-grounded approach has made such an effort totally superfluous.

  2. The news release says of the council of of 50: “Three men who were not members of the Church were also included. Joseph Smith said he did this to make the point that in political matters, a man’s religion should not come into play,” The Brethren remind us of that point every November. That, along with teachings like the 11th Article of Faith leads one to believe that Joseph had an expansive, tolerant view of separation of church and state. You point out that although Joseph started his presidential bid because ostensibly no candidate could be found that would uphold protection and freedoms for the saints, it was a pretense for true separation of church and state, since he was to the leader of both. I agree with what you said, that this was very understandable, given what the saints had been going through. He may have longed for the theodemocracy he had seen in the Nephite culture of the BOM. I agree that most LDS take “secularism” as a dirty word, but at the same time, it’s what most of us could only wish for at the current date in the muslim countries of the world. This is an extreme comparison, but If we compare our democracy and separation of church and state to the sharia law of the taliban or isis, our separation of church and state is a huge strength to this country. I think our religious freedom needs to be viewed in that context.
    Thanks for the well thought out post.

  3. “Three men who were not members of the Church were also included. Joseph Smith said he did this to make the point that in political matters, a man’s religion should not come into play,” – cool that both religious and non-religous were included in the Council of the 50… too bad no women made the cut.

  4. I appreciate the post. We should have a lot (A LOT) more conversation about what we mean by “religious freedom” as a community. The Puritan version is not good for us. I’m about to toot my one note again, but before we lend our strength to a non-secular approach to religious liberty, we should consider what’s going on in Russia at this very moment. Much of the (actual and not imagined!) persecution that religious groups (including Mormons) are facing in Russia today trace their idea that the (Russian Orthodox) church is a pillar of the government.

    The “religious feelings” of (Russian Orthodox) believers are now protected by law, but having a Baptist bible study promotes terrorism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are an enemy to the state because they don’t want to serve in the military, and the Mormons are a cult that should be shut down by inventing crimes they didn’t commit, and…

    The Russian Orthodox Church is enjoying a level of Puritan-style religious freedom they have not known since before the Bolsheviks seized power. It is terrifying to behold. We should also perk up our ears when we hear dog whistles in our own country from candidates who discuss “uniting” Americans under “one nation, one God.” That, too, is religious freedom of a sort. For balance, we should also consider the craziness of burquini bans in overly “secular” France. That’s also a based on the old canard that denying religious practice to a minority is somehow going to defend everyone’s freedom. Even the Court of Justice of the European Union saw through that one.

    In religious freedom, it’s important to strike a proper, secular balance. Not too hot. Not too cold. Juuuust right.

    More of these posts, please.

  5. In what way is religious freedom under threat?
    Where does Heavenly Father say marriage is only between a man and a woman (we didn’t add that till the 90s.) Sis Oscarson says it in first session of conference.

    Is this an addition to the ever darkening world idea that somehow life was better in the 1950s and 60, when patriachy was less fettered?
    What do we think we won’t be able to do that is such fun now?

    Has someone realised we are a small minority, and have been throwing our weight around, and others who are less small may be thinking of pushing back?

  6. In my ward’s testimony meeting, it was proffered that the most serious religious persecution against the church at the moment is that BYU has lost its last 3 games by a total of 7 points. Clearly the devil is behind this.

  7. Thanks, all.

  8. On a serious note, the church has recently posted a lot of detail about its concern with religious freedom at the website linked in the OP. Look at the FAQ section in particular ( Not that I agree with many of the concerns, but at least I have a clearer understanding now. These are tough issues, as evidenced by the fact that some of the concerns raised on the church’s website are actions that church has itself supported (e.g., the Utah bill supported by the church prevents most housing rental companies from discriminating against LGBT people, even if the discrimination flows from a sincere religious belief).

    FWIW, I get the sense that the church’s primary concern is not how society is trending (though that is real), but how the membership itself is trending. In my part of the vineyard, most members have tired of the LGBT debates and are ready to move on to something (anything!) else. As that happens, the sense is that the rising generation will take society’s view on the issue (they largely already are) and that within a decade there could be real difficulties within the church body. What happens when the youth are willing to serve missions but not willing to teach lessons condemning LGBT families? Do we take out those lessons? Or do we cut off many (most?) youth from the mission experience? And what do we do when bishops and RS have the same problems with church teachings?

  9. Dave – I think I agree about the primary concern of the leadership. The effort to convince the youth of the importance of falling in line with current teachings is huge in my area.

  10. Dave K – “What happens when the youth are willing to serve missions but not willing to teach lessons condemning LGBT families? Do we take out those lessons?”

    When did these lessons get added, and to where?

  11. Frank – The Preach My Gospel manual requires baptismal candidates to be taught and accept the law of chastity, which “prohibits any sexual relations outside of a legal marriage between a man and a woman. They are not to participate in abortions or homosexual or lesbian relations.” Investigators must also be taught and accept the church’s sole authority for performing eternal marriages, which categorically exclude SS marriages and families. While members and missionaries can disagree with their neighbors about SS marriage without being disagreeable (indeed we should), there is no getting around the doctrinal condemnation of SS relationships, including the marriages and families structured around those SS relationships.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    Investigators must also be taught and accept the church’s sole authority for performing eternal marriages,

    oh noes!!!!!!!1111oneitty111!!!!!

    Sorry, couldn’t help it. Good luck advocating for a change of this doctrine.

    Also, advocacy of a certain position != “condemnation” of another position.

  13. tubes, this will be my last post on these side-issues as I don’t want to derail the OP. I’m not advocating for a change of doctrine. I’m pointing out the tension that many members are feeling, in particular young adults serving as missionaries. And, yes, the church does condemn SS relationships by claiming sole authority for ordinances and excluding SS couples from the ordinances. We can be try to be nice about it, but our doctrinal claims to exclusive authority to define marriage are much more than mere “advocacy of a certain position.”

  14. I’m curious about how Republican Mormons believe Donald Trump will help preserve their religious liberties. The man is an atheist. Well, maybe not. He does believe in one god—himself.

  15. it's a series of tubes says:

    We can be try to be nice about it, but our doctrinal claims to exclusive authority to define marriage are much more than mere “advocacy of a certain position.”

    Dave, in an effort not to derail the OP either, I will make only this post in response to the above: You make a crucial (but I assume, not deliberate) misstatement. We don’t claim the exclusive authority to define marriage. We claim the exclusive authority to perform sealings. Certainly we, along with numerous other organizations both religious and secular, advocate a specific definition of “marriage”. From the institution of the temple ordinances, this exclusivity regarding our claim to sealing ordinances has existed. Perhaps the tension that members and missionaries feel regarding any particular issue has waxed and waned, but the captioned issue is binary. Either we have the authority in question, or we don’t.

    The summer of good feelings the church has enjoyed since the early 80s is coming to a close. It has been comparatively easy to be a Mormon during this time. But the issues in question are going to force people to pick a side.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    Dave K, while I’m sympathetic to that view I’d note that what the church advocates seems subtly yet importantly different. The whole point of the political actions of the church prior to the recent SCOTUS decision wasn’t just about authority regarding marriage but how everyone views marriage. There for a while the church opposed civil unions which weren’t about marriage for the same reasons they opposed SSM. As the political inevitabilities became clear (although they should have been clear back in the 90 IMO) this shifted somewhat.

    It seems to me though even today the church doesn’t merely oppose SS marriages or relationships but all sexual expressions. This in turn is why so many see a big problem with BYU’s honor code. (Thus the various oppositions to BYU entering Big 12 membership in sports due to the honor code outlawing all public displays of affection – something not done for heterosexuals) There are ways of attempting to explain all this. (A popular one is to borrow Aquinas and say the teleology of an act matters — but Aquinas’ logic isn’t exactly persuasive to most contemporary people)

    Regarding the point about missionaries. Unless they’ve changed it recently I believe baptismal interviews done by DL and ZL that discover past homosexual activity requires the person be interviewed by the Mission President before being approved for baptism. So it’s intrinsically been treated as different from fornication. It’s worth asking how missionaries who oppose the church’s views here react to these realities of the church’s requirements.

  17. Clark Goble says:

    To the OP. It seems that Joseph held a view of the country and pluralism quite different from that held today. He was very much about having individual communities hold their own views. That is pluralism was not about pluralism in any community in terms of the constitution. (Our standard view today) Rather it was simply about having a wide diversity of communities each with their own laws.

    Of course it’s worth contextualizing Jospeh’s ideas here to the era of Jacksonian reforms that start around 1828 up through the mid 1850s. By the time of the civil war of course that view of America is pretty much dead although it persists as a romantic ideal by the south to this very day. Jacksonianism of course has a complex relationship to this ideal of independent states let along independent communities. (The later seems even more controversial given the times but many were sympathetic to at least state rights) The Nullification Crisis of 1832 seems to have been in Joseph’s mind. (Many critics see his prophesy of the Civil War in D&C 87 as really about the Nullification Crisis)

    While my sense is Jospeh wanted something akin to State Rights at the city level (and certainly ran Nauvoo in a manner suggesting that) he simultaneously clearly held that the federal government ought protect individual liberties against the state. (Think of the Missouri Redress appeals of Joseph for instance) That implies a view against Nullification. Yet at the same time he thinks it completely fine, given the views of the time, to tear down William Law’s printing press as a public nuisance. Something we’d consider fundamentally unconstitutional today.

    Certainly D&C 134 (not revelation and written by Oliver Cowdery but reflecting many of the views in the Mormon community) There at least in word we get something we’d call libertarian today. “…men are amenable to [God] and to him only, for the exercise of [religion], unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others;” (134:4)

    This is somewhat different from whether civil and religious law could or should overlap. That is at least many Mormons in the 1830’s thought the issue was one of negative rights from the government.

  18. really enjoyed this post, Ben. Thank you.

  19. Will this respecting of different points of view (the new newsroom info) also include members who don’t have a problem with marriage equality? I see marriage equality as a civil rights issue, but then I don’t see chastity being defined differently for gay and straight either.
    My Stake and Ward leadership has just taken a lurch to the right, so it will be their interpretation that matters, and when I showed the new “respecting the other point of view list” on the newsroom to one of them, he said the important bit was maintaining the truth.

  20. True Blue asks, “In what way is religious freedom under threat?”

    For starters:

    5.3 billion in the world people face harsh religious freedom restrictions
    76% of the world’s population lives in countries with high levels of social and governmental restrictions on religion
    75 countries limit efforts by religious groups to persuade others to join their faith
    In 178 countries government registration requirements result in major problems for or outright discrimination against certain faiths


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