Joseph Smith’s views on the U.S. Constitution

I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth. In my feelings I am always ready to die for the protection of the weak and oppressed in their just rights. The only fault I find with the Constitution is, it is not broad enough to cover the whole ground.

Although it provides that all men shall enjoy religious freedom, yet it does not provide the manner by which that freedom can be preserved, nor for the punishment of Government officers who refuse to protect the people in their religious rights, or punish those mobs, states, or communities who interfere with the rights of the people on account of their religion. Its sentiments are good, but it provides no means of enforcing them. It has but this one fault. Under its provision, a man or a people who are able to protect themselves can get along well enough; but those who have the misfortune to be weak or unpopular are left to the merciless rage of popular fury.

The Constitution should contain a provision that every officer of the Government who should neglect or refuse to extend the protection guaranteed in the Constitution should be subject to capital punishment; and then the president of the United States would not say, “Your cause is just, but I can do nothing for you.”

( Source: Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith 326-27 )

It is important to understand Joseph Smith’s perspective. The U.S. Constitution promises Americans that they will have freedom to worship as they please, but nevertheless the prophet was persecuted for his religion all of his adult life.

Because of this persecution, Joseph Smith traveled to Washington, DC in November 1839 to appeal directly to President Martin Van Buren and the U.S. Congress. And he was told that for political reasons very little could be done for the early Latter-day Saints. President Van Buren told Joseph Smith that his cause was just but nothing could be done without losing the votes of the state of Missouri, where a lot of the persecution took place.

The prophet was expressing the frustration of a people who had suffered near non-stop persecution for nine years, but I would like to point out that his statement above ignores some political realities that are unfortunate but unavoidable in a fallen, pre-Millennium world.

In a perfect world, all people would express tolerance for other viewpoints and other religions and all government officers would protect minority groups. He was obviously correct that the spirit of the U.S. Constitution intended that people should be free to follow whatever religion they wanted. In a perfect world, the early Latter-day Saints would have been left alone, much like the Amish are mostly left alone today, to worship as they pleased.

But the reality is that a government that does what Joseph Smith is calling for, ie kill people who fail to follow the Constitution, creates a whole set of new problems.

The first problem is obvious: who decides what it means not to follow the Constitution? The Constitutional interpretation since early in the republic has been that the Supreme Court does this. But the Supreme Court moves slowly. And whenever the court has taken some drastic political step like this, later courts have expressed regret. I am thinking of the most controversial decisions like the Dred Scott decision, which said that African American slaves were not given constitutional protections, Plessy vs. Ferguson, which found segregation legal, and the Korematsu decision allowing the internment of Japanese during WWII. All of these politicized decisions were later overturned, and in fact the Supreme Court apologized for the Korematsu decision.

The point is that a Supreme Court that calls for government leaders to be killed who don’t support the Constitution is a Supreme Court that will obviously be politicized in ways that will create chaos.

And imagine if the executive branch, ie, the president and the attorney general, decided to start killing people who didn’t support the Constitution. In today’s environment, with Democrats mostly in control, we would see constant assassinations of Republican leaders, and then when Republicans took power we would see constant assassinations of Democrat leaders.

So, Joseph Smith’s frustrations, while completely understandable, are not applicable in today’s political environment.

So, what caused the change where the Amish are mostly left alone today but the early Latter-day Saints were mobbed and killed and had their land stolen wherever they went?

From a spiritual standpoint, it should be apparent to believing Latter-day Saints that the Lord’s church always suffers severe persecution. It is difficult to imagine a law or a series of laws that would have overcome this issue.

From a temporal standpoint, the federal government was tiny in the 1830s and 1840s. Almost all power was contained in individual state governments. Many people believed that the Bill of Rights only applied to the national government and that individual states were governed by their own state constitutions. In fact, an 1833 Supreme Court decision reaffirmed this view.

It was only after the 14th amendment was ratified in 1868 that people began to believe that the U.S. Constitution should, in effect, trump state governments. But this battle over states’ rights continues today, and many states still to refuse to honor federal laws on issues such as immigration and marijuana, among others.

So, when Joseph Smith appealed to the federal government to protect Latter-day Saints in 1839 he was attempting to overcome a political environment in which national forces were extremely hesitant to get involved in local issues. That has changed, and today the U.S. Justice Department constantly projects power locally.

We can see that this federal projection into local issues has had some positive effects (such as during the civil rights era) but in my opinion a whole host of negative effects. Today, the U.S. Justice Department has become so politicized that its increase in power and authority is causing a lot more oppression than salvation.

The 10th amendment to the Constitution assures that state laws, not federal laws, should take precedence on issues that are not covered by the Constitution itself. (I should note that many scholars disagree with this view, but sorry it is right there in the document). So, for example, if the Constitution does not call for a national pension plan (which it does not), a national pension plan is not constitutional unless an amendment is passed. In my opinion, most of what the federal government has done since at least the 1930s is unconstitutional.

But the Constitution clear protects religious freedom. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This could not be more clear, and it is true that early Latter-day Saints were not afforded the protections they deserved.

So, Joseph Smith was quite right that the Constitution has a flaw in that it was difficult to enforce people actually following the Constitution. This will always be a problem in a large democratic republic like ours. This problem is much worse today than it was in 1839, and it affects all of our lives. The reason that taxes are so high is that the Constitution is not being followed. The reason that people do not feel that justice prevails these days is that the Constitution is not being followed. And, unfortunately, the reason that early latter-day Saints were persecuted and hounded and killed is because the spirit of the U.S. Constitution was not being followed.

What was the solution? Joseph Smith was correct to feel extreme frustration at the injustice of it all. I don’t believe it can be solved without a change in peoples’ attitudes towards following the law, and that probably will not happen until the Millennium.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

12 thoughts on “Joseph Smith’s views on the U.S. Constitution

  1. Geoff, there is a solution but despite it’s simplicity it’s not a quick or easy or even a foolproof solution:

    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/bofm/alma/31?lang=eng&id=p5

    We simply need to bring back Civics and teach people about the Constitution and it’s principles and also urge them to embody and live them. Teach them correct principles and the people will govern themselves. Of course, this is not an easy solution and there will be plenty of people who oppose it but really, this is the only solution.

  2. Wasn’t it John Adams who said something to the effect that the US Constitution was suitable for governing only a moral and religious people? Joseph Smith knew the principle of teaching truth so that people would be able to govern themselves. The lack of knowledge of God and His Plan is so evident in the lives of the citizens of this nation. Without God there is no peace or prosperity.

  3. Like Rozy commented, countries like the United States (and Australia, and other ‘Western’ countries) have moved so far away from what they were upon founding that a constitution like the US’s no longer really represents what the society/nation is. It was written by people who largely believed in God, and natural rights, responsibilities for such rights, and so on. So many things have changed, for the general population in these places, that such a constitution seems more like an annoyance and hindrance to them, probably, than a guide to be followed and built upon. Most people no longer believe the kinds of things that most people then did, especially the elevated and wise ideals in the consititutions.

    People trying to change our (Australian) consitution now are doing it from a worldview that’s very different to those of its founders – where all English-descended people are fundamentally racist, all colonialism (especially British) was evil and greedy and caused extreme harm, and history is all wrong (until the 1950s-60s) and needs to be overturned with urgency. So they look at the Constitution as racist itself, by not allowing Aboriginal people acknowledgement as a separate people, and not including other provisions now thought necessary by those with this worldview. But those who created it were looking at it very differently, and deliberately didn’t put in such provisions, so as not to create division and by doing so to acknowledge both Aboriginal and British/other-descended people as Australian, without creating a racial basis for inclusion/involvement in the nation.

    When you fundamentally have a different worldview that is in contrast or opposition to those upon which our consitutions were founded, those documents no longer really protect the values and ideals of those who created them. I guess it has to change as societies change – it should – but if only the changes were positive ones, not regressive.

  4. Tamara, thank you for your very good comment. Just one small point. You wrote:

    “When you fundamentally have a different worldview that is in contrast or opposition to those upon which our consitutions were founded, those documents no longer really protect the values and ideals of those who created them. I guess it has to change as societies change – it should – but if only the changes were positive ones, not regressive.”

    The American founding fathers talked about this extensively in the 18th century. They knew that worldviews would change. But the U.S. Constitution is supposed to be a framework for protecting life, liberty and property for all time. It is not supposed to be a list of laws or statutes. And there is a process for changing the Constitution, the amendment process, but it is a purposefully a difficult and lengthy process. About 100 years ago people in the U.S. wanted to ban alcohol, and they understood to do this, they would need to pass an amendment to the Constitution. It took many years to do this, but they eventually did it. They discovered that this was a mistake because people were still drinking alcohol and organized crime was stronger than ever, so when they wanted to overturn the ban on alcohol they had to pass *another* amendment.

    The point I am trying to make is that as recently as 100 years ago the vast majority of Americans understood how to make changes to the Constitution. Now, if they don’t like something they just say that the Constitution should be ignored. As you can imagine, this is hugely problematic for our constitutional system and is the primary reason for many of our societal problems today.

  5. “most of what the federal government has done since at least the 1930s is unconstitutional.”

    Agree with this x100.

    The fact that we have amendments concerning quartering troops, alcohol sales, and income taxes suggests that the federal government has no specific power not specifically authorized in the constitution.

    It’s disgusting how the courts and congress have ignored this, and practically grounds for a revolt. Except most people in the nation don’t want that either. Despite the constitution, our nation wants a king who can solve people’s problems with government.

    To borrow from Benjamin Franklin, those who would trade constitutional principles for experiencey, deserve nether.

  6. People love freedom until defending it carries a personal cost. When this test of liberty comes – and all face this test – we learn who are, as Thomas Paine wrote, “summer soldiers” and “sunshine patriots”. More importantly we learn who we are and what we are willing to defend.

    The test of freedom is not proved in rallies and protests. Those are but fleeting moments. Freedom is proved in our personal conduct. It is by our quiet courage to do what is right, even when the world says it is wrong. It is by our demonstrating that some virtues are worth defending, even at great risk to our own situation.

    In recent years we have witnessed many courageous people. Not just those standing against Covid rules that so unfairly harmed good and innocent people. We have parents successfully challenging school leaders and having wicked policies and false teachings overturned. Babylon demands compliance. Don’t be compliant.

    Freedom of conscience – agency – is our greatest personal possession. It is ours to keep and cherish, or to flitter away cheaply. We must have the Faith to put our Trust in God and defend the Freedom. He makes possible.

    Said Joseph Smith :

    “If … I have been willing to die for a ‘Mormon,’ … I am just as ready to die in defending the rights of a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or a good man of any other denomination; for the same principle which would trample upon the rights of the Latter-day Saints would trample upon the rights of … any other denomination who may be unpopular and too weak to defend themselves.”

    “It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul—civil and religious liberty to the whole of the human race” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith [2007], 345)

    Do note the Gospel Library has an entire section on Agency and Liberty well worth reading: https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/religious-freedom/religious-freedom?lang=eng

  7. The rule of law? We don’t need no stinkin’ rule of law.

    Civics? We don’t need no stinkin’ civics.

    Constitution? We don’t need no stinkin’ constitution.

    What do we need? What shall be the reigning philosophy of America and the west?

    “…but every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature; therefore every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime.”

  8. There are save two churches – two governing philosophies. One way is of God and leads to Zion. The other is of Man and leads to Captivity.

    One of the greatest deceptions of Lucifer and those who follow him is to use labels to give cover to evil agendas. So Communism is a defeated economic system and Socialism is different than what we have today for reasons that only the Sophists can explain.

    Yet truth is Korihor was a Communist. As Whitaker Chambers explains in his book “Witness” Communism is the ideology that man can and must replace God. And that is Koriho’rs argument – that everything in society rests on what man does. Communism requires we trust in the Arm of Flesh, and it sure seems this is the position of most modern world governments.

    The American Constitution was inspired by God and if followed it would provide for the opportunity for people to live Free. And it is an Eternal principle of Truth that man be Free – to have Agency and be accountable for the use of that Agency.

    In Section 101 of the Doctrine & Covenants the Lord explains the fundamental objective of righteous government which is that no man is in bondage to another. Verses 77-79 provided below.

    The Book of Mormon describes what is necessary to secure the blessings of Freedom. Captain Moroni and king Benjamin are heroic figures. But we as Latter-day Saints can only consider what they did in abstract. For truly fighting for liberty with hand to hand combat is beyond our 21st century comprehension.

    77 According to the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established, and should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles;

    78 That every man may act in doctrine and principle pertaining to futurity, according to the moral agency which I have given unto him, that every man may be accountable for his own sins in the day of judgment.

    79 Therefore, it is not right that any man should be in bondage one to another

  9. **A Disciple**: I read this as verse 79 being an outcome of the two verses before – one of the truths arising from this, but just one – not stating the fundamental objective of righteous government. If fundamental, it would need to have the correlating principles of responsibility towards others, protecting shared values, and together working towards a productive and stable society. Freedom from bondage isn’t enough to build a society on, and is, in fact, part of the problem Loran highlighted: everyone should be free to do what they want.

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