Joseph Smith was an ardent supporter and defender of the Constitution. He said it himself: “I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth.”1Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 326
This is a pretty bold statement. But when we understand that the Constitution was inspired by Heaven, it makes sense that the Prophet of the Restoration would be its greatest advocate.
The Lord specifically told Joseph that the Constitution was established so “[t]hat 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.”2D&C 101:78
The Saints’ History of Persecution
Having suffered intense persecution with the Saints, Joseph was at a loss of what to do when a petition for a redress of grievances was continually denied by officers of the government. Indeed, the mobs who harrassed the Saints, stole their property, raped women, and murdered the innocent in cold blood, continually received protection and even sanction from the state governments of Missouri and Illinois.
The infamous extermination order from Governor Boggs of Missouri to General John B. Clark read:
The ‘Mormons’ must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary, for the public good. Their outrages are beyond description. If you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so to any extent you may think necessary.History of the Church 3:175
As the mobs and state militia gathered to destroy the Saints, Joseph admonished his brethren to stand for their rights saying, “The enemy is at our doors. Let us stand by one another even unto death, for we have broken no laws but have kept them.”3Brother Joseph vol. 2 p. 651
Unfortunately, Joseph and other leaders were betrayed by someone they thought to be their friend, George Hinckle, into the hands of General Lucas in charge of the state militia who had made 4 demands4History of the Church 3:188:
- Church leaders would surrender.
- Property would be seized as the cost of war.
- Saints would leave the state.
- All firearms would be surrendered.
These vile acts of government were sanctioned under the pretext of a ‘crisis’ or war, which needed immediate action. The end result was the loss of life, liberty, and property for the Saints. Having been driven from their homes in Missouri, the Saints believed that they would be able to find refuge in the land of Illinois.
The Failure of Government
Sadly, this was not true. For a time, the Saints had some respite from the mobs and persecutions. Governor Ford made promises of protection for the Saints but proved to be a coward who would capitulate to the mob, ultimately leading to the death of the prophet.
Before his martyrdom, however, Joseph made attempts for a redress of grievances from Congress5History of the Church 4:24-38 and from the President of the United States, Martin Van Buren.6History of the Church 4:40 Joseph reported the President’s response as thus:
He looked upon us with a kind of half frown, and said, ‘What can I do? I can do nothing for you. If I do anything I shall come in contact with the whole state of Missouri.History of the Church 4:40
Joseph’s Problem with the Constitution
It became increasingly clear to the Saints that the government officials would not protect them in their rights–the main duty of government. It is for this reason that Joseph had a problem with the United States Constitution. As he stated:
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.Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 326-27, emphasis added.
Joseph felt that the Constitution’s one flaw was that did not provide any method of recourse if the government refused to protect the people in their rights. Joseph’s solution was that “[t]he 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...”7Ibid, emphasis added.
In spite of the strong language that may cut against the grain of our modern sensibilities, the Prophet understood that rights come from God, and that the violation of such ultimately incurs the wrath of Heaven.8D&C 101:85-91
A Lesson for Modern Saints
An important lesson we can learn from the early history of the Church is the failure of government to protect the rights of the Saints and the unceasing efforts of the Saints to preserve their rights. Continually, the Saints petitioned their state legislatures, governors, and ultimately, they went to the Congress and President of the United States for recompense for the atrocities committed against them, many times in the name of government.
When we understand this from our own history, the question becomes: how much do we care about the rights our God has given us, which are protected by the Constitution of the United States? Do we cherish them and work to keep them safe from falling into the hands of tyrants? When they are trampled upon, do we petition the government for a redress as the Founders and the early Saints did? Or are we so busy and misinformed that we’re willing to part with some of our rights in the name of “security?”
As Latter-day Freemen, we will not stand idly by and let our rights fall into the hands of those who will not protect them. We will raise the alarm as long and as loud as is needful in order to awaken the members of the Church to a sense of our awful situation in hopes of protecting the rights with which God has granted us. Who will do the same?