Given the scriptures we have, the question of the proper use of force, including war, should be of critical importance to the Latter-day Saints. There is debate among the Saints as to whether we are a warlike people, or a people of peace. The Lord is the Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). But he is also a man of war (Exodus 15:3). Likewise, I think we should be princes of peace also, but willing to go to war when necessary.
My reading of the Book of Mormon leads me to the conclusion that where there are unalienable rights granted to a people by the Lord, there are also concomitant unalienable duties. The Nephite rebels dispatched by Moroni had an unalienable duty to defend their country. Their failure to do so was a crime and was dealt with as such. I expect that the idea of “unalienable duties” may not sit well with some, so I have taken excerpts from my book “Walking in Darkness at Noonday” and posted them below so that anyone interested can determine if my reasoning is sound. I think the Book of Mormon case is airtight: where there are unalienable rights granted to a people by God, there is also the unalienable and God-given duty to defend those rights. That being so, if the American nation has been given great talents by the Lord consisting of a government divinely designed to protect the unalienable rights of man, as well as great wealth, and great power, what shall we do with those talents? Bury them in the ground until the Lord returns as some seem to advocate? Or do we have an unalienable duty to put them to good use defending the defenseless around the world, succoring the weak, lifting up the hands which hang down, and strengthening the feeble knees?
We may think of the unalienable rights of man, generally speaking, as the right to life, the right to liberty, and the right to lawfully obtain and retain property. These three fundamental human rights are like a three-legged stool. If any one of the three legs is kicked out from under a man, the other two must also fall. Can a man sustain his life without food and shelter? Does a man have liberty if his property can be taken from him by his neighbor? And where is liberty or property without life?
Not all men respect the God-given rights of others and, being predators of one stripe or another, they devise a thousand schemes for plunder. Reason dictates, then, that each
of us has a God-given right – and, I will argue later, even a duty – to defend our individual rights from the predations of others.
Since the rights of men are generally taken by force, reason dictates that we may defend our rights with force if necessary. But we need not rely on reason only to form this
conclusion. The Nephites were taught by their prophets that it was their God-given right to defend themselves:
“And they were doing that which they felt was the duty
which they owed to their God; for the Lord had said unto them, and also unto their fathers, that: Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies.
And again, the Lord has said that: Ye shall defend your
families even unto bloodshed. Therefore for this cause were the
Nephites contending with the Lamanites, to defend themselves, and their families, and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion” (Alma 43:46-47).
The Nephites were defending their unalienable rights.
Reason also dictates that law abiding individuals have the right to organize and combine their defenses, for greater safety, in what we call government. Hence, the Founders
Declaration “That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…” (Declaration of Independence).
The Just Powers of Government
The individual citizen possesses a natural right to resort to force against another only in the defense of his unalienable rights. If an individual initiates an assault on the life, the liberty, or the property of his neighbor, he is “guilty of the first offense” (Alma 43:46-47), will have committed a crime, and will be subject to the penalty of the law.
We know that a legitimate government derives its “just Powers from the Consent of the Governed” (Declaration of Independence).
Therefore, the power that government possesses – which is the power to use force – can only be that power which the individual citizens have the moral, God-given right to lend
to it, and no more. If the individual does not have the right to take the life, the liberty, or the property of his neighbor, then it is unreasonable to conclude that he can vest his government with such powers. This is the very essence of what the Framers meant when they termed the government they designed as limited. It follows then that the only legitimate use of force by the government is in the defense of the unalienable rights of its
Thomas Jefferson put it this way:
“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts
only as they are injurious to others” (Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-1785).
To Frederic Bastiat, the terms “law” and “government” were interchangeable. In his 1850 publication The Law, he echoed Jefferson’s characterization of properly defined
government this way:
“What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the
individual right to lawful defense.
Each of us has a natural right – from God – to defend his
person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic
requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is
completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two.
If every person has the right to defend, even by force – his
person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right – its reason for existing, its lawfulness – is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force – for the same reason – cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty or property of individuals or groups.
Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to
our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does not it logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?
If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this:
The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over all” (Fredric Bastiat, The Law, pg. 6-7).
Could it be any more clear, then, why the government which was framed by the Founders in the Constitution was termed a limited government? Said Thomas Jefferson: “…it would be a dangerous delusion were a confidence in the men of our choice to silence our fears for the safety of our rights: that confidence is everywhere the parent of despotism — free government is founded in jealousy, and not in confidence; it is jealousy and not confidence which prescribes limited constitutions, to bind down those whom we are obliged to trust with power: that our Constitution has accordingly fixed the limits to which, and no further, our confidence may go; … In questions of powers, then, let no more be heard of confidence in man, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitution” (Thomas Jefferson, Kentucky Resolutions number 8, 1798).
More or Less than This Cometh of Evil
If it is true, then, that the Constitution as devised by those “wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80) was intended by those wise men to be limited in the use of its powers to defending and securing the unalienable rights of its citizens – which is precisely what they stated in the Declaration of Independence – then perhaps we Latter-day Saints should be concerned with this statement from the Lord:
“And that law of the land which is constitutional, supporting
that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges,
belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.
Therefore, I, the Lord, justify you, and your brethren of my
church, in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land;
And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less
than this, cometh of evil” (D&C 98:5-7).
Can there be any other interpretation of the Lord’s warning here than this: the Constitution vests our government with power and authority to protect and preserve the agency of its citizens, no more, no less. And any law of men which sanctions the use of force by the government beyond “supporting that principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges,” or, in other words, beyond the defense of the inalienable rights of its citizens,
“cometh of evil”?
I think this is precisely the law of the Lord.
Government is Force
Latter-day Saints are well familiar with Joseph Smith’s oft quoted statement, when asked how it was that he governed the Saints so effectively: “I teach them correct principles, and they govern themselves” (Joseph Smith, quoted in the Millennial Star 13, November 15, 1851: 339).
It is essential that Latter-day Saints understand “correct principles” as they pertain to government. Why? Because, as George Washington stated:
“Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful master” (George Washington, quoted in Lifetime Speaker’s Encyclopedia, Jacob M. Braude, Vol. 1, pg. 326).
There is some element of force, either explicit or implicit, in everything government does. Force is the antithesis of free agency. The improper use of force is ungodly. The Latter-day
Saint should consider that the improper use of government is therefore ungodly. Remember the warning of the Lord:
“We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and
disposition of almost all men…to exercise unrighteous dominion.
…but when we undertake to exercise control or dominion or
compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man” (D&C 121:39,37).
The words from that statement of the Lord which leap from the page and demand to be emphasized are “in any degree of unrighteousness.” The implications here are that a) there is such a thing as the righteous application of “control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men,” and b) for those who would possess the powers of heaven, there can be no error in its application. Also implied, however, is that few understand righteous principles as they pertain to the use of force. Consequently, when the souls of men are forced unrighteously by those who have been temporarily granted authority to exercise the priesthood during their mortal probation, “… behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the
priesthood or the authority of that man” (D&C 121:37).
It is clear that we must be precise in our understanding of, in our use of, or – and this may be most critical of all – in our support for the use of force against others. If we vary from
the correct principle “in any degree of unrighteousness,” then we violate the law of the Lord, offend the Spirit of God and, at some point – perhaps at the time of our judgment – will be found unworthy to continue to exercise the priesthood of God.
Few Are Chosen
There are two sections of the Doctrine and Covenants which contain the warning “many are called but few are chosen.”
Doctrine and Covenants 121:34-42:
“Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why
are they not chosen?
Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this
world, and aspire to the honors of men, that they do not learn this one lesson—That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we
undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain
ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against
the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and
disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by
virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge
the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile…” (D&C 121:34-42).
The dominant theme of these verses is the use of power. Will the Lord give all of the powers of heaven to a man who does not understand completely the proper use of power? I think the answer is self evident.
“Wherefore, ye must needs be chastened and stand rebuked
before my face;
For ye have sinned against me a very grievous sin, in that ye
have not considered the great commandment in all things, that I have given unto you concerning the building of mine house…
But behold, verily I say unto you, that there are many who
have been ordained among you, whom I have called but few of them are chosen.
They who are not chosen have sinned a very grievous sin, in
that they are walking in darkness at noon-day.
And for this cause I gave unto you a commandment that you
should call your solemn assembly, that your fastings and your
mourning might come up into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth…
Yea, verily I say unto you, I gave unto you a commandment
that you should build a house, in the which house I design to endow those whom I have chosen with power from on high…
If you keep not my commandments, the love of the Father
shall not continue with you, therefore you shall walk in darkness.
Now here is wisdom, and the mind of the Lord—let the house
be built, not after the manner of the world, for I give not unto you that ye shall live after the manner of the world” (D&C 95:2-13).
The Lord warns that there are “many who have been ordained among you, whom I have called but few of them are chosen.” It is because we have committed a “very grievous sin” that we will not be chosen to be endowed “with power from on high.” We have had the revelations of God laid before us. We have been given prophets, seers and revelators. We have been given the gift of the Holy Ghost. And yet, most of us – all but a few – are,
in the words of the Lord, “walking in darkness at noon-day.”
Is not the “the great commandment in all things” revealed by the Lord in the following New Testament dialogue?:
“Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with
all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment.
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour
On these two commandments hang all the law and the
prophets” (Matthew 22:36-40).
The Lord warns that we “have not considered the great commandment in all things, that I have given unto you concerning the building of mine house…” Might we conclude from Sections 95 and 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants that the proper use of the powers of God require that we love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds, and that we love our neighbor as ourselves? And further, that we not “live after the manner of the world.” Especially as pertains to the agency of our neighbor. How can we say we love our neighbor out of one side of our mouth if we consent to the violation of his agency out of the other?
God is love, and, though he is omnipotent, he does not violate the agency of his children. If we would possess the powers of heaven, then we must not violate the agency of God’s children either. This, I believe, is the key to that “very grievous sin” and the area in which we must not be found “walking in darkness at noon-day.”
Does it not follow logically, then, that we Latter-day Saints must understand correct principles with regard to the use of force – and particularly as it is exercised by the
governments we sustain?
It is certainly not an original thought to say that with rights come responsibilities. Most would agree that this is a true principle. But if men possess unalienable rights endowed
upon them by their Creator, then does it not follow that they also have unalienable duties endowed upon them by their Creator in connection with those rights?
And if we have a right to defend our unalienable rights “even unto bloodshed” (Alma 43:47), do we have a duty to defend our unalienable rights “even unto bloodshed”?
I believe that the Book of Mormon teaches us that the answer is “yes.”
We have four accounts in the Book of Mormon where those whose actions put the liberty of their countrymen in jeopardy were put to death:
Account 1. Amalickiah was an ambitious man of “cunning device” and “flattering words.” He and his followers sought “to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation
of liberty which God had granted them…” (Alma 46:10). We are told that Amalickiah desired to be a king, and, because Helaman and his brethren opposed them, they, the Amalickiahites, were determined to slay them (Alma 46:2). We cannot determine
from the account we have if they made any overt attempt to do so.
Upon recognizing that they were in the minority, Amalickiah and his followers fled.
But fleeing was not to be an option for them. Moroni acted to a) stop them so that they could not join forces with the Lamanites (Alma 46:29-33), and b) put Amalickiah to death.
Assuming that Moroni was a righteous leader – and Mormon assures us that he was (Alma 48:17-18) – and looking at these actions from a “free agency” point of view, I have to assume that these actions could not have been an unjust violation of the agency of these people. Had Moroni’s actions been wicked, the scripture would surely have said so.
Amalickiah and his followers are not, up to this point in the Book of Mormon narrative, accused of overtly breaking any law. And yet, Mormon denied them the freedom to leave the Nephites. On what basis, then, were these obvious impositions of force examples of “righteous dominion,” as opposed to “unrighteous dominion”?
Account 2. Morianton, a trouble maker and woman beater, feared his efforts to take a portion of the land of Lehi from its rightful inhabitants would bring the wrath of Moroni
upon him. He and those who followed him elected to flee into the north country. Once again, Moroni “sent an army…to head the people of Morianton, to stop their flight into the land northward” (Alma 50:33). Bloodshed ensued, including the slaying of Morianton (Alma 50:35). The survivors were forcibly repatriated to the Nephite nation where they were required to enter into a covenant to keep the peace.
Where was the “free agency” of the followers of Morianton? On what basis was this imposition of force, including the ultimate use of force resulting in death, “righteous dominion,” not “unrighteous dominion”?
Account 3. The “king-men,” having evidently learned nothing from the saga of Amalickiah, “desired that a few particular points of the law should be altered” so that they might
“overthrow the free government and.. .establish a king over the land” (Alma 51:5). Pahoran and those who were known as “freemen” were an obstacle to their designs. The matter was put to a vote, the majority of the people sided with the freemen, and the king-men “were obliged to maintain the cause of freedom” (Alma 51:7).
Knowing that Amalickiah and the Lamanites, having amassed a “wonderfully great army,” were coming to attack their nation, the king-men “were glad in their hearts; and they refused to take up arms, for they were so wroth with the chief judge, and also with the people of liberty, that they would not take up arms to defend their country” (Alma 51:13).
Moroni, “because of the stubbornness of those people whom he had labored with so much diligence to preserve; yea, he was exceedingly wroth; his soul was filled with anger against
them” (Alma 51:14).
This is an example of righteous indignation.
Moroni organized a petition, representing himself and “the voice of the people, unto the governor of the land, desiring that he should read it, and give him (Moroni) power to compel those dissenters to defend their country or to put them to death” (Alma 51:15).
Permission was granted “according to the voice of the people,” Moroni marched against the king-men, four thousand of them were slain, and “those of their leaders who were not slain
in battle were taken and cast into prison, for there was not time for their trials at this period” (Alma 51:19).
Trials? Trials for what? It seems that this attempted “overthrow” of the free government was through democratic rather than violent means. They desired changes in the law to
allow for a king and the question was submitted to the voice of the people. Up to that point, it seems, they had not violated the law. But subsequently, after they refused to take up arms in the defense of their country, the leaders of these dissenters merited trials. In doing this, they must have broken some law. Was it that “they did lift their weapons of war to fight against the men of Moroni”? (Alma 51:18) I don’t think so. They did, in fact, seek to
defend themselves from the forces of Moroni. But Moroni was the aggressor here, not the king-men. It seems that the law they broke pertained to their unalienable duty to defend their country, to “lift their weapons of war to fight against” the enemies of their country.
The survivors of this internal war who were not leaders, but who we may assume also “did lift their weapons of war to fight against the men of Moroni,” were given two options: a) “be
smitten down to the earth by the sword” (Alma 51:20), or b) “[yield] to the standard of liberty…[be] compelled to hoist the title of liberty upon their towers…and to take up arms in defence of their country” (Alma 51:20).
Where was the “free agency” of the king-men? On what basis were they executed for failure to take up arms in defense of their country? On what basis were they compelled to defend their country? Was this “righteous” or “unrighteous dominion”?
Account 4. Though in approximately 67 B.C. Moroni “put an end to those king-men, that there were not any known by the appellation of king-men” (Alma 51:21), it seems that about five years later the anti-liberty movement was revived and its adherents became “exceedingly numerous” (Alma 61:3). Under the leadership of Pachus they overthrew the authority of Pahoran, drove the freemen from their land in Zarahemla, established Pachus as king of Zarahemla, entered into an unholy alliance with the king of the Lamanites and sought to subvert the war effort of Moroni against the Lamanites.
Despite this obvious treason, Pahoran wrote to Moroni that he was “somewhat worried… whether it should be just to go against our brethren” (Alma 61:19). Though Pahoran was a good and faithful man, it seems he was not as clear on the matter of the proper use of force as was Moroni and was relieved to learn from Moroni that “except they repent the Lord hath commanded you that ye should go against them” (Alma 61:20).
After defeating Pachus and restoring Pahoran to the judgment seat, “the men of Pachus received their trial, according to the law, and also those king-men who had been taken and cast into prison; and they were executed according to the law; yea, those men of Pachus and those king-men, whosoever would not take up arms in the defence of their country, but would fight against it, were put to death” (Alma 62:9).
There is no question that men who will take up arms to fight against their own country are guilty of treason and worthy of death. But suppose there were men “whosoever would not take up arms in the defence of their country” but would not go so far as to take up arms against it? The next verse in the account of Mormon seems to set the standard:
“And thus it became expedient that this law should be strictly
observed for the safety of their country; yea, and whosoever was found denying their freedom was speedily executed according to the law” (Alma 62:10).
Whosoever was found denying their freedom, without regard to whether they would take up arms against their own country, was speedily executed according to the law.
The character, the integrity and the godliness of Moroni cannot be questioned. But for the record, let us note Mormon’s characterization of Moroni:
“And Moroni was a strong and a mighty man; he was a man
of a perfect understanding; yea, a man that did not delight in
bloodshed; a man whose soul did joy in the liberty and the freedom of his country, and his brethren from bondage and slavery;
Yea, a man whose heart did swell with thanksgiving to his
God, for the many privileges and blessings which he bestowed upon his people; a man who did labor exceedingly for the welfare and safety of his people.
Yea, and he was a man who was firm in the faith of Christ,
and he had sworn with an oath to defend his people, his rights, and his country, and his religion, even to the loss of his blood…
Yea, verily, verily I say unto you, if all men had been, and
were, and ever would be, like unto Moroni, behold, the very powers of hell would have been shaken forever; yea, the devil would never have power over the hearts of the children of men.
Behold, he was a man like unto Ammon, the son of Mosiah,
yea, and even the other sons of Mosiah, yea, and also Alma and his sons, for they were all men of God” (Alma 48:11-13,17-18).
We cannot impute wickedness in Moroni in any of the actions he took in his dealings with Amalickiah, Morianton, the king-men or the leaders of the Nephite government. We must
conclude that Moroni’s actions in using force to compel fidelity to the Nephite nation were Book of Mormon examples of righteous dominion.
However, implicit in all of the foregoing is a certain reliance upon connecting the dots and a certain amount of inference to arrive at a principle of unalienable duties. But the Book of Mormon closes the case for this principle with its account of Moroni’s letter to Pahoran.
When Moroni realized that the government was not supporting the war effort, he wrote an epistle to Pahoran wherein he warned him that if he did not “repent of that which ye have done, and begin to be up and doing” (Alma 60:24) in support of the Nephite armies, that he would leave a portion of his army to contend with the Lamanites, leave a special blessing from God upon them “that none other power can operate against them” (Alma 60:25), and with the remainder he would come to the head of the government to “[cleanse] our inward
vessel” (Alma 60:24). Moroni warns Pahoran that he fears only God, “and it is according to his commandments that I do take my sword to defend the cause of my country” (Alma 60:28) and that by his failure to “be up and doing” in the support of the troops, “Ye
know that ye do transgress the laws of God, and ye do know that ye do trample them under your feet” (Alma 60:33).
Here we have, in Moroni’s own words, the basis for all of his actions against those Nephites who imperiled the unalienable rights of their nation in any way: Moroni knew that in doing so, those Nephites transgressed the laws of God and trampled His commandments under their feet. Where is the law given that a free people must defend their freedom? We do not have a detailed account of all the laws given to the Nephites by King Mosiah when he counseled the people to relinquish their monarchical form of government and embrace
a free government, but I think it is likely that Moroni learned this commandment from the teachings of King Mosiah.
What other conclusion can we arrive at but that with “unalienable rights,” which come from God, come “unalienable duties,” which also come from God? And if unalienable rights may be defended with force with the approbation of God, “even unto bloodshed” (Alma 61:10), so, it would seem, may unalienable duties be enforced according to the commandments of God, “even unto bloodshed.”
And as to the laws of men, any use of force or compulsion upon the souls of men other than protecting and defending unalienable rights and enforcing their concomitant unalienable duties is a violation of the agency of man.
Here, I believe, is an example of what President Ezra Taft Benson was referring to when he spoke of the Book of Mormon as being “…so molded… that we might see the error and
know how to combat false…political…and philosophical concepts of our time” (Ezra Taft Benson, “The Book of Mormon Is the Word of God,” Regional Representatives Seminar, Salt Lake City, Utah, 4 April 1986).