Is anarchism compatible with D&C 134?

quantumsaint asked me recently about my take on D&C 134. I told him that I would write about this topic in a separate post (this one.) In the meantime, I gave him a link to the Church Education System (CES) web site that contains the text of the Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual Religion 324 and 325 that spoke of D&C 134. I had originally intended to use only section 134 as my text, but some of the things said in the student manual warrant attention, so I will use both articles for this post.

I consider D&C 134 to be just what it purports to be: “a declaration of beliefs” given by the Church leaders of that time so that their “belief with regard to earthly governments and laws in general” might “not be misinterpreted or misunderstood.” It was simply their “opinion concerning the same.” (See the heading to Doctrine and Covenants section 134.) Each of the 12 verses of the article begin with the words, “We believe…” and that is how I view this document, as their belief. When analyzing the document for truth, I use the revelations found in the Standard Works to judge it. I do not use this document as equal in “measuring authority” as the other parts of the scriptures. It is not a revelation and does not purport to be one.

It is also apparent from the wording of the document, that it was meant to allay suspicion and to calm down the fears of non-members who thought that we were fanatics, obeying our prophet leader no matter what he said, even if those commandments were against the laws of the land.

The CES student manual gives a good historical summary of the document:

Historical Summary

A general assembly of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was held at Kirtland, Ohio, on 17 August 1835 to formally accept the collection of revelations to be published as the first edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. After the priesthood quorums and then the congregation unanimously accepted the revelations, “Elder William W. Phelps arose and read an article prepared by Oliver Cowdery, on marriage. This was on vote ordered to be published also in the volume with the revelations. Then President Oliver Cowdery arose and read an article, ‘Of Governments and Laws in General,’ and this likewise was ordered by vote to be published with the book of revelations. Neither of these articles was a revelation to the Church.” (Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 2:30.)

The article on government was included in that edition of the Doctrine and Covenants as a statement of belief and as a rebuttal to accusations against the Saints. “The reason for the article on ‘Government and Laws in General,’ is explained in the fact that the Latter-day Saints had been accused by their bitter enemies, both in Missouri and in other places, as being opposed to law and order. They had been portrayed as setting up laws in conflict with the laws of the country.” (Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation, 2:30–31.)

This declaration of belief has been included in editions of the Doctrine and Covenants since its proposal in 1835. When it was read and voted on, “the Prophet Joseph Smith and his second counselor, Frederick G. Williams, were in Canada on a missionary journey, and the Prophet did not return to Kirtland until Sunday, August 23rd, one week after the Assembly had been held. Since the Assembly had voted to have [the articles on government and marriage] published in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Prophet accepted the decision and permitted this to be done.

“It should be noted that in the minutes, and also in the introduction to this article on government, the brethren were careful to state that this declaration was accepted as the belief, or ‘opinion’ of the officers of the Church, and not as a revelation, and therefore does not hold the same place in the doctrines of the Church as do the revelations.” (Smith and Sjodahl, Commentary, p. 852.)

Certain statements of this document require modifiers or qualifiers to be true and I believe that the intent was to have the scriptures themselves be the modifiers and qualifiers, hence the use of certain general statements. The specifics of what is meant are found in the scriptures. The same technique was used in the U.S. Constitution, in which certain very general phrases were used, followed by specific phrases which modified and qualified (or explained the meaning of) the general phrases. Whoever wrote it (I will assume it was Oliver Cowdery) crafted every word with the precision of a lawyer writing a legal document. It is very well-written.

We believe that governments were instituted of God for the benefit of man; and that he holds men accountable for their acts in relation to them, both in making laws and administering them, for the good and safety of society. (D&C 134: 1)

First off, the past tense is used (“governments were instituted of God”) not the present tense. The implication, of course, is that there are no current governments that are instituted of God, including the U.S. government. Oliver probably had in mind those instances in the scriptures in which the Lord established the people himself. Since this verse is qualified by the scriptures, it can only refer to those governments which were instituted by God, and not to those which were not. He then switches to the present tense (“he holds men accountable”) when speaking of our relation to current governments. This is, of course, true. Once we reach the age of accountability, he holds us accountable for all our actions. The non-member who casually reads this will think that the Mormons are saying that all governments are good and have the approbation of God. The verse, though, isn’t saying this.

We believe that no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life (D&C 134: 2)

This verse is also completely true. These rights are necessary for peace to exist, at least the peace of those who are so protected in their rights. (It is important to recognize that at the time these words were penned, slavery was legal in America. Although Oliver stated “to each individual,” the definition of the word individual probably did not include slaves. I’ll leave it at that.)

We believe that all governments necessarily require civil officers and magistrates to enforce the laws of the same; and that such as will administer the law in equity and justice should be sought for and upheld by the voice of the people if a republic, or the will of the sovereign. (D&C 134: 3)

Here Oliver starts talking about civil governments (the State,) explaining that the State needs the force of violence to make sure people obey its laws, otherwise people will opt out of paying taxes, etc., and the State will cease to exist. Oliver here isn’t approving of the State, he’s only stating the obvious. He also explains the best type of people to administer State laws: equitable and just people. These are the people who should be sought for and upheld. This is all true. He does not state, though, who should do the seeking and upholding. In other words, he does not state that the LDS should seek to support the State. But, the verse is sufficiently vague to get a non-member thinking that the LDS support the State, support the State’s violence, and are all for elections, etc.

We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul. (D&C 134: 4)

When talking of religion, Oliver uses the present tense (religion is instituted of God.) As with other portions of this document, the scriptures qualify and modify the statements, so that Oliver isn’t saying that all religion is instituted of God, only that there is a religion that is currently instituted of God (the LDS religion.) A non-member casually reading this verse wouldn’t catch the real meaning. The rest of the verse explains that States have no business in regulating religion, unless crimes are committed in the name of religion.

We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience. (D&C 134: 5)

Americans had fairly recently gotten over a Revolutionary War, in which they broke with another government, so the key words here are “while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments” and “thus protected.” The message portrayed is that Mormons would be as patriotic as the original patriots who fought the British, if it came to it, but while government is just, we submit peacefully to it.

So far, these verses are compatible with anarchy. Then comes verse six…

We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men show respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker. (D&C 134: 6)

Way back then, the word anarchy carried a different meaning than it does now. English is not static and shades of meaning come and go with the passage of time. By consulting Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary, we learn what anarchy meant to Oliver:

AN’ARCHY, n. [Gr. rule.] Want of government; a state of society, when there is no law or supreme power, or when the laws are not efficient, and individuals do what they please with impunity; political confusion. (taken from

AN’ARCHIST, n. An anarch; one who excites revolt, or promotes disorder in a state. (taken from

ANARCH’ICAL, a. Without rule of government; in a state of confusion; applied to a state or society. Fielding uses anarchial, a word of less difficult pronunciation. (taken from

AN’ARCH, n. [See Anarchy.] The author of confusion; one who excites revolt. (taken from

The sense of these definitions is that anarchy was a state of confusion due to no laws or due to people disregarding laws. Anarchy was also associated with violence, or exciting to revolt, as Webster put it. (I suppose the American Revolutionaries were probably considered anarchs by the British, as they excited the people to revolt from the king.) Over time, anarchy acquired other shades of meaning, including, essentially, a non-coercive, cooperative society based upon only private laws, including customary laws, whether written or unwritten, as opposed to societies based upon coerced public or State laws.

Although the words anarchy and anarchism have acquired newer shades of meaning, most people still associate it with its initial shade and with a state of disorder and violence, instead of the peaceful, naturally-ordered society that is also called anarchy. General authorities-prophets, apostles, seventies and First Presidencies-still give talks and make statements using the initial shade of meaning of anarchy, to the exclusion of the new uses of the word. So, this must be kept in mind when hearing someone in or out of the church use the term anarchy in a negative way.

I won’t take the time to go through the rest of the document (verses 7-12). Oliver continues to carefully qualify some of his statements, such as saying in verse 8 that “crime should be punished” by the State but without giving the nature of the punishment. He only states that crimes “should be punished according to their criminality and their tendency to evil among men.” Likewise, in verse 11 he explains that redress of wrongs should be appealed to the State “where such laws exist as will protect” men.

My conclusion is that Doctrine and Covenants 134 is entirely compatible with the modern understanding of anarchism and anarchy. Therefore, modern anarchists can accept it. But it is also compatible with statism, so statists can accept it. And, I think, that is the usefulness of the document, in that it can be used to calm people’s fears concerning the beliefs of LDS in respect to government. If Mitt Romney and other LDS who are running for office were smart, they would just point to this document when asked where their religion stood in its view of government.

Now, one last item… Under the section speaking of verse 1, the CES student manual has a paragraph about anarchy that needs to addressed:

Elder Erastus Snow explained: “Anarchy—shall I say, is the worst of all governments? No: Anarchy is the absence of all government; it is the antipodes [opposite] of order; it is the acme of confusion; it is the result of unbridled license, the antipodes of true liberty. The Apostle Paul says truly: ‘For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.’ At first this is a startling statement. Even the monopoly of the one-man-power as in Russia [the Czar], or the monopoly of the aristocracy as in other parts of Europe, or the imbecility and sometimes stupidity of a republic like our own, is far better than no government at all. And for this reason, says the Apostle Paul, ‘The powers are ordained of God,’ not that they are always the best forms of government for the people, or that they afford liberty and freedom to mankind but that any and all forms of government are better than none at all, having a tendency as they do to restrain the passions of human nature and to curb them, and to establish and maintain order to a greater or less degree. One monopoly is better than many; and the oppression of a king is tolerable, but the oppression of a mob, where every man is a law to himself and his own right arm, is his power to enforce his own will, is the worst form of government.” (In Journal of Discourses, 22:151.)

I bet that this paragraph is the reason why CES students who take this course suddenly get the idea that anarchy is evil. Growing up in the church, I often heard the phrase, “Any government is better than no government, at all.” Anarchy, according to this thought, is to be avoided at all costs. The end of the Nephite civilization, when everyone was raping and killing everyone else, would be the picture painted by this type of anarchy.

It is important to understand that the meaning of the word ‘anarchy” used by Elder Snow (and other church leaders, past and present) has none of the modern connotations. The anarchy he describes is equated with disorder and chaos. However, the modern shades of meaning can mean an ordered society, based upon private laws. Anarchy is the natural state, the natural order, in which each person governs himself and learns to peacefully exist with others through cooperation. This is why anarchists often say, contrary to Elder Snow’s remarks, that anarchy is order.

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