Freedom of Religion and Belief in The Book of Mormon

I recently wrote an introduction to freedom of religious and belief in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In so doing I drew on the 11th Article of Faith, the writings of Church leaders and some associated scriptures. Since writing that document, which I think articulated the position of the Church well, I have come to recognise that there was a glaring omission in my writing. I had failed to include the principles of freedom of religion and belief as they are found within The Book of Mormon. The aim of this document is to address this omission and explore how The Book of Mormon supports and informs the Church’s teachings on this important area. The two clearest scriptures that outline the current position can be found in Articles of Faith 11 and The Doctrine and Covenants 134:4:

We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may.

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.

In exploring the different aspects of the narrative of The Book of Mormon it will be observed that freedom of religion and belief lies at the heart of the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ. That it is, not just a theoretical and passive right but a necessary and active part of a just society.

Mosiah 29

Mosiah 29 is an interesting chapter in The Book of Mormon as it highlights King Mosiah establishing a new form of government among the Nephites. He, and the people, are rejecting a monarch and establishing a system of judges who are elected by the voice of the people. At first glance, a person may wonder what this has to do with the freedom of religion and belief. The ‘democratic’ system of government that is being established is to guard against the excesses of an unrighteous King (Indeed, King Noah is only in the recent past). Such a King:

…enacteth laws, and sendeth them forth among his people, yea, laws after the manner of his own wickedness; and whosoever doth not obey his laws he causeth to be destroyed; and whosoever doth rebel against him he will send his armies against them to war, and if he can he will destroy them; and thus an unrighteous king doth pervert the ways of all righteousness (Mosiah 29:23).

Society and the maintenance of order should not be at the whim of one person. Placing too much power in the hands of one person will most often lead to corruption and cronyism; where we perhaps see exceptions being made to the enaction of laws against certain people or groups. Maybe because I come from a country where there is a constitutional monarchy, I am very aware that it is not just monarchs that game the system, individuals and groups can ensure that the system works to their advantage. In a contemporary example, this can be seen in a system that establishes one race or one gender as the dominant force, where women are paid a fraction of what men are paid for the same role. Or maybe where a  race does not have the same protection under the law. These are the results of when some people, or one person, wants to establish or reinforce a system of privilege not based on justice. That it is this type of system that is being condemned is confirmed when King Mosiah highlights what kind of society should exist:

And now I desire that this inequality should be no more in this land, especially among this my people; but I desire that this land be a land of liberty, and every man may enjoy his rights and privileges alike…(Mosiah 29:32).

In this one verse we are able to read of the type of society to which we should aim; I wish I could say the type of society in which we live, but I think wherever we live we can see examples where this ideal is not lived up to, and the exclusion of the marginalised can be seen. As Latter-day Saint Christians we should not be content with this state of affairs; we look to the life of the Saviour who served, loved and worked directly with those on the margins of society. The call to discipleship is a call to reshape society into this vision articulated by King Mosiah. We should not be content or settled until the rights that are articulated are actually afforded to all. Sometimes I think things are fine if my rights are protected, but that is not enough. I am mindful of Joseph Smith who articulated the following:

The Saints can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for my brethren. If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon, I am bold to declare before heaven that 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 the other denomination <​Roman Catholics​> or 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, love of liberty was diffused into my Soul by my grandfathers, while they dandled me on their knees; and shall I want friends? No (“History, 1838–1856, volume E-1 [1 July 1843–30 April 1844],” p. 1666, The Joseph Smith Papers, emphasis added).

The whole human race is inter-related and that which restrict the rights of others could be used to restrict mine or anyone else’s. While this paper is about the freedom of religion and belief, this same need to stand in defence of the rights of all people extends to all aspects of the human experience.

Returning to the idealised picture of society that King Mosiah outlined, there are three key elements:

  • Inequality should be no more in this land.
  • This land should be a land of liberty.
  • Every person should be able to enjoy their rights and privileges.

For me, this describes a society where no one is on the margins, that all are included and respected. This may seem to be an ideal, but as we look at the three elements I don’t think there is any part of them that we can disagree with. It reminds me of poem by Edwin Markham, that was shared by President Gordon B. Hinckley:

He drew a circle that shut me out- 

Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout. 

But love and I had the wit to win: 

We drew a circle and took him In!

Whoever we are, we should be seeking to enlarge our circles of inclusion and love, rather than seeking to exclude. As Latter-day Saints we have perhaps had many experiences where we have been placed on the outside. Some have been violent such as the Missouri Extermination Order, others will be less physical but might include an individual being excluded from friendships, groups and organisations. This does not mean that we should respond in kind, rather we live the Saviour’s teaching: “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also” (3 Nephi 12:39 see also Matthew 5:39). We respond with patience, love and kindness. We always maintain uppermost in our minds the ideal society where all people have their rights respected. This perhaps shown most deliberately for me in the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Sometimes we read this parable as applying to members of the Church and those outside of the Church, we are the one who clothe the naked. The context of the parable is clear, however, that in not recognising the Saviour in the kindness they withheld, many of the people found on the left hand of the Saviour are those that professed belief in him.

I adapted the story of the Sheep and the Goats for a school assembly for younger children that highlights how we may experience things. An interesting experience for me is who I have pictured in my imagination as I read this story.

A story is told of a great King who ruled over a great kingdom. A kingdom so great that people came and surrounded the city walls to try and become a member of the kingdom.

The king saw this and decided that he would see how committed people were to becoming part of his kingdom. He let them stay outside of the city and would send them provisions of food and drink.

The people were very thankful for all that they got from the King, and often talked about how wonderful it would be if they could get inside the city walls.

After a number of weeks the people noticed that there were some new people who had arrived. These people were poor, hungry and had nowhere to stay. They would go around to all of the tents of people who had been there for a while and ask if they had any food and drink that they could spare.

Newcomer 1: ‘Please, I am hungry and have not eaten for days. Do you have any food to spare?’

Person 1: ‘No! I only have enough for my family. Please leave me alone.’

Newcomer 2: ‘Please, I am thirsty and my child needs a drink. Do you have a drink I could share?’

Person 2: ‘No. I’m sorry. I have juice but I don’t have any to spare.’

Newcomer 1: ‘Please, I am hungry and have not eaten for days. Do you have any food to spare?’

Person 3: ‘Of course. We don’t have much, but what we have you are welcome to share.’

Newcomer 2: ‘Please, I am thirsty and my child needs a drink. Do you have a drink I could share?’

Person 4: ‘Yes, certainly. We have some that you are welcome to.’

There was suddenly the sound of loud trumpets sounding a fanfare. The people all looked around, there on top of the city walls was the King. He loudly selected some people (including person 1 and 2) and gestured for them to move onto his left hand side.

He then selected others (including people 3 and 4) and asked them to stand to his right.

The King declared: ‘Those of you on my right you are welcomed into my Kingdom, please come in through the gates. Those of you on my left, you are not welcome. Please leave my kingdom, there will be no more provisions for you.’

Both groups were confused. They shouted, ‘Why sire? Why are some of us welcome but others not.’

Gesturing to those on the left the King said: ‘I was hungry and you did not feed me, I was thirsty and you did not give me anything to drink.’

Persons 1 and 2: ‘But we never saw you hungry or thirsty, if we had, we would have fed you.’

Pointing to the newcomers the King said: ‘Inasmuch as you did not it to one of these, my people, you didn’t done it to me.’ Looking now at those on his right the King said, ‘But you, just as you did it to one of these, you did it to me. Thank you and come into my kingdom.’

This is the message of the harvest for Christians. They are provided with food, drink and everything they need by God. If they do not help other people it is like they are ignoring God.

The story of the King shows to all of us that we have a responsibility to share, and if we do we will be happier.

When we think only of ourselves and our rights and comforts, we are not living as disciples of the Saviour. We have received the Saviour’s love, we should be willing to share that with all. Which will lead to the expression of the three elements of Mosiah’s just society.

Alma 2

The story of Amlici and his seeking for power is told in Alma 2. Using the systems set up in Mosiah 29, Amlici sought to establish himself as king over the land by the voice of the people. Alma and many in society were worried by Amlici’s desires. Amlici is described as:

…being a very cunning man, yea, a wise man as to the wisdom of the world, he being after the order of the man that slew Gideon by the sword… (Alma 2:1)

The last part of the passage refers to Nehor, who, in Alma 1, sought to impose his beliefs by force and in doing so killed Gideon. Knowing Amlici to be this type of man, the people were concerned about the possibility of him becoming King and imposing his will, and in so doing “would deprive them of their rights and privileges of the church; for it was his intent to destroy the church of God” (Alma 2:4). The intentions of Amlici and his followers would mean that the just society envisioned by Mosiah would be impossible. The rights of a large section of society would be curtailed.

As we look at our societies today are there voices like Amlici who would seek to curtail the rights of others, and one would imagine give preferential treatment to others? One of the issues surrounding human rights is the fact that we allow all kinds of beliefs that are anathema to our own to be expressed. One story about Joseph Smith is told by Hugh Nibley, in his essay “Criticizing the Brethren”:

…refers to the famous Brother Brown incident where an old man was brought to trial for teaching erratic doctrine and Joseph protected him: “I never thought it was right,” Joseph said, “to call up a man and try him because he erred in doctrine, it looks too much like methodism and not like Latter day Saintism.” Nibley’s gloss on the story was that “Joseph Smith said that Brother Brown’s teachings were absolutely ridiculous. He could not keep from laughing at his ideas. But Brother Brown had a right to them.”(Bushman, Richard Lyman (2010) “Hugh Nibley and Joseph Smith,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies: Vol. 19 : No. 1 , Article 3. p. 11)

Although we should not, perhaps, respond to people’s deeply held beliefs with laughter we should prtect their rights to express them. This freedom of religion and belief. in light of D&C 134 above, is restricted insomuch as “their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others”. This can be seen Amlici’s desires if he were to be elected by the voice of the people. 

Amlici was able to ‘stand’ to be elected ruler of his people, although his teachings were rejected by man he was still able to articulate them. He was only subject to restriction as he sought to go against the will of the people and establish himself as king and be in a position to enact his policies. This led to war and many deaths on both sides. It is interesting to me that Amlici was willing to work within the structures established by Mosiah as long as they worked in his favour, the moment that they were of no use to him he was willing to override them for his own gain. A question for me is that am I willing to utilise the freedoms available to me in my country until they are of no use to me, or until they are used to benefit others? Returning to Mosiah’s just society these rights are not just something for the short term or the convenient circumstances but for all people and all time. We can’t just agree with freedom of religion and belief when it serves our purposes, we have to work for it and defend it at all times.

The restriction of Amlici’s views came when he sought to hurt others or take away others rights. There are examples within society where religious freedom is able to be restricted because of the harm caused to others. Examples in the UK include the criminalisation of Female Genital Mutilation which is barbaric and a symbol of patriarchal subjugation and the relegation of women’s sexual identification as purely related to reproduction. Other examples might also include the electrotherapy used to ‘treat’ gay men; the enaction of such ‘treatments’ would harm others and would quite rightly be protected. There are laws in other countries that, in my opinion, go too far in restricting the rights and freedom of religion; for example, the hijab ban in France restricts the free expression of religion and belief with regards to practices that are not harmful. This is an area of freedom of religion and belief that needs careful and thoughtful navigation as we seek to protect the rights and safety of all within society.

Alma 30

Alma chapter 30 tells the story of an anti-Christ named Korihor. For me, this is perhaps the greatest example of freedom of religion and belief in The Book of Mormon. Building on the themes explored in Alma 2 we read of Korihor preaching that which was antithetical to the beliefs of those of the majority of the community.

But it came to pass in the latter end of the seventeenth year, there came a man into the land of Zarahemla, and he was Anti-Christ, for he began to preach unto the people against the prophecies which had been spoken by the prophets, concerning the coming of Christ. Now there was no law against a man’s belief; for it was strictly contrary to the commands of God that there should be a law which should bring men on to unequal grounds (Alma 30:6-7).

Linking back to Mosiah’s just society, we can see that any law that would privilege one religion or belief, or would discriminate on the basis of religion would bring people on ‘unequal grounds,’ there would be no equality before the law a fundamental principal of any just society. This is further developed in the following verses:

Now if a man desired to serve God, it was his privilege; or rather, if he believed in God it was his privilege to serve him; but if he did not believe in him there was no law to punish him. But if he murdered he was punished unto death; and if he robbed he was also punished; and if he stole he was also punished; and if he committed adultery he was also punished; yea, for all this wickedness they were punished. For there was a law that men should be judged according to their crimes. Nevertheless, there was no law against a man’s belief; therefore, a man was punished only for the crimes which he had done; therefore all men were on equal grounds (Alma 30:9-11)

It would appear that Nephite society has a similar understanding of freedom of religion and belief to that which we have today. A person cannot be tried for their beliefs, it is only when their practices/actions break the law that a person can be held accountable in front of the law. There is a seeming contradiction in the narrative as in response to his preaching of his beliefs in the land of Gideon, Korihor is “taken and bound and carried before the high priest, and also the chief judge over the land” (Alma 30:21). It does not appear that Korihor has committed a crime that would necessitate his ‘arrest’ and if I’m reading it right there seem to be two possible explanations for this:

  • The overzealousness of the people and the officials. Although he was brought before the chief judge, it seems to be the ecclesiastical authorities that seem to be questioning him. This would suggest that on being brought before the chief judge, they realised that there was no crime, but they took the opportunity to question him as he was stirring people up. There is obviously a huge interplay between ‘church’ and ‘state’ and so it is hard to differentiate, and Mormon’s editorialising suggests that he feels that their actions in taking him into custody was correct as he describes that people of Ammon “were more wise than many of the Nephites; for they took him, and bound him, and carried him before Ammon, who was a high priest over that people” (Alma 30:20).
  • The other explanation surrounds verses 17 and 18:

every man prospered according to his genius, and that every man conquered according to his strength; and whatsoever a man did was no crime. And thus he did preach unto them, leading away the hearts of many, causing them to lift up their heads in their wickedness, yea, leading away many women, and also men, to commit whoredoms—telling them that when a man was dead, that was the end thereof.

Korihor, it appears, was inciting people to ‘commit whoredoms’ which seems to be a catchall phrase that might link with the teaching that whatsoever is done is no crime. Unfortunately the record is silent on the links between the two.

I think there can be a lot that is learned from either interpretation- if it is the second, then Korihor’s arrest is perfectly justifiable. He has incited people to commit crime and therefore can be held responsible in front of the law. We have examples in our society of people who have taught and preached horrendous things that have been seen to incite others to act in ways contrary to the law. Indeed, this kind of rhetoric led to the second impeachment of Donald Trump; whatever the rights or wrongs of the impeachment it highlights that we have a responsibility for the things that we say and the impact that they have on others. It also shows how difficult it is to prove causal links between the speech of one person and the actions of others. In the UK there are limitations to the speech that we use, in particular while recognising the right to freedom of expression Section 4 of the Public Order Act 1986 makes it an offence for a person to use “threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour that causes, or is likely to cause, another person harassment, alarm or distress”. Over the past 25 years this law has been revised to include speech that might incite“racial and religious hatred”, “hatred on the grounds of sexual orientation” and any language that “encourages terrorism”.

If it is the first reason then it shows the importance of having freedom of religion enshrined, not just in law but, in practice. Those who are charged with our governance and the maintenance of society should not overstep their authority and ensure that these freedoms are protected regardless of their personal views as to the acceptability of different views as long as they do not harm others.

As we read further, I am minded to think that it is the incitement of others which lies at the heart of his arrest. 

Now when the high priest and the chief judge saw the hardness of his heart, yea, when they saw that he would revile even against God, they would not make any reply to his words; but they caused that he should be bound; and they delivered him up into the hands of the officers, and sent him to the land of Zarahemla, that he might be brought before Alma, and the chief judge who was governor over all the land (Alma 30:29).

The lower ‘authorities’ sent him to the ultimate societal authority- Alma as the chief judge. During his interaction with Alma, Korihor is court in his lies and that he has only pretended to hold the beliefs that he taught. His ‘punishment’ is to receive the sign that he requests from God through Alma, and he is struck dumb. Interestingly for me this seems to be the extent of his punishment, except for the fact that he is ‘cast out’ (Alma 30:56). Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but this does not seem like a punishment under the law, but a result of him requesting a sign and being ‘punished’ by God. There is no prison term, which we know is a possibility in Nephite society. The suggestion may be that he is punished for breaking God’s law, which overrides the need for any punishment in the eyes of the law. This does not give us carte blanche to allow justify us in using God’s judgement, that right is held only by God himself.

Alma 44 and 46

In the midst of the battle between Captain Moroni and Zerahemnah, Moroni outlines the motives behind his participation:

And now, Zerahemnah, I command you, in the name of that all-powerful God, who has strengthened our arms that we have gained power over you, by our faith, by our religion, and by our rites of worship, and by our church, and by the sacred support which we owe to our wives and our children, by that liberty which binds us to our lands and our country; yea, and also by the maintenance of the sacred word of God, to which we owe all our happiness; and by all that is most dear unto us (Alma 44:5).

Here, liberty is seen to be one of the pillars of Nephite society that binds people to the land, and also one of the reasons for the happiness of the community. Again, if we link this with Mosiah’s vision of a just society we can see that the three pillars are integral to a society that is worth protecting. The freedom of religion and belief is not mentioned specifically, but would seem to be inferred in the linking of religious practices and liberty. In a further example, Captain Moroni highlights the importance of fighting for liberty:

Amalickiah, because he was a man of cunning device and a man of many flattering words, that he led away the hearts of many people to do wickedly; yea, and to seek to destroy the church of God, and to destroy the foundation of liberty which God had granted unto them… (Alma 46:10)

It would seem that the people who are portrayed as ‘bad’ in The Book of Mormon are often those who seek to destroy the liberty. That this includes religious liberty is evident later in the same chapter:

Behold, whosoever will maintain this title upon the land, let them come forth in the strength of the Lord, and enter into a covenant that they will maintain their rights, and their religion, that the Lord God may bless them (Alma 46:20).

Interestingly, throughout this paper I have argued that the rights enumerated in The Book of Mormon includes freedom of religion and belief. It could be argued that I am overreaching in these passages as rights and religion are listed separately. Moroni does mean the two separately- the religion he refers to is as a follower of Jesus Christ, and he is calling upon people to maintain their belief in Christ. However, as has been shown previously the outlining of rights and liberty throughout The Book of Mormon has always included equality before the law and the freedom of religion and belief. This is enshrined in all the societies we have explored.

This wasn’t mere posturing for Captain Moroni, following the establishment of peace:

… he caused the title of liberty to be hoisted upon every tower which was in all the land, which was possessed by the Nephites; and thus Moroni planted the standard of liberty among the Nephites (Alma 46:36).

A physical reminder of liberty as a central aspect of society is placed throughout the land. There are examples of this today; many Americans see their flag as a similar symbol. Being from the UK it is not something I have necessarily identified in my own flag. I love my country but as I get older I recognise that my flag (English or the Union flag) can be seen to be divisive for some, and a symbol of pride for others. I am much more concerned that the laws of my country and the actions of its people are seen to be the symbols and embodiment of liberty, equality and freedom. Too often, the symbol becomes more important that the actions and principles it represents. I am conscious as I write this that this is a very Anglocentric view, and that many people from different countries imbue their national symbols with far more meaning and action than I do mine. The use of such symbols in Nephite society was crucial to the establishment of a peaceful and just society, it’s just that in my society my national flag has, at times, been hijacked by far right groups that would trample the rights which the flag should symbolise.

Conclusion

I have chosen different aspects of The Book of Mormon that highlight the importance of freedom of religion and belief within those societies, and also within our own. The Book of Mormon can be seen to be a foundational text in understanding the freedom of religion and belief. I know of no more concrete example of this freedom in sacred texts, than the law of the land outlined in Alma 30. This can be seen to be a direct result of Mosiah’s vision of a just society where all are treated equally before the law, there is no discrimination as all can enjoy their rights and privileges, and it is a land of liberty. This society runs throughout the narrative and also stands as a warning voice to the modern day.

Just as it does today, liberty stood at the heart of society. However, there were many voices, people and groups who in seeking their own self-interest sought to limit these freedoms, and to exclude those whom they looked down upon or disagreed with. One example I haven’t used is the Zoramites who cast the poor out of their synagogues and rejoiced in being chosen by God (see Alma 31-32). We read in The Doctrine and Covenants that “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” (D&C 121:39). This is a salutary message we receive from The Book of Mormon. We must guard against pride that would place us above others, this feeling of superiority invariably leads to feelings of superiority, and from there actions that would benefit us while reducing the rights and situations of others. As well as providing this warning throughout its pages, The Book of Mormon also provides its antidote:

For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind? (Mosiah 4:19).

We recognise our place in the power dynamic of human existence. We are always dependent on our Heavenly Father for all that we have; this should provide us with sufficient humility to recognise our responsibility to exercise charity in all of our dealings with others. It is easy to recognise and argue for the rights of all people when we are in a situation where those rights would support and strengthen us; when we are in a position of power the need to protect those rights for all may dissipate somewhat. Further along in the same passage King Benjamin addresses the powerless:

And again, I say unto the poor, ye who have not and yet have sufficient, that ye remain from day to day; I mean all you who deny the beggar, because ye have not; I would that ye say in your hearts that: I give not because I have not, but if I had I would give (Mosiah 4:24).

If we have no power to influence the rights extended to all people, using this scripture as a basis it becomes imperative that we think ‘I would if I could’. The true test comes when we can, and whether we do.

As members of the Church we might feel in a privileged position, which may be true, but it does not mean that we are in a superior position. Joseph Smith was once suggested that damnation awaited many members of the Church “unless they repent and work righteousness” (“Questions and Answers, 8 May 1838,” p. 42, The Joseph Smith Papers). This righteousness must include friendship, kindness and the working for the rights of all people. Freedom of religion and belief benefits members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, but it must not be the only reason why these freedoms are supported. The Book of Mormon makes clear that a just society can only be achieved with equality and freedom for all. For that reason, Latter-day Saints are called to be in the world and to strengthen the societies in which they live.