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God's Laws on Religious Freedom

Apr 09, 2008

Yesterday, federal agents raided the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints after police had received a telephone call from a 16-year-old wife of that order, complaining of sexual abuse and forced polygamous marriage. This happened in Eldorado, Texas.


This incident once again raises the old question about the limits of religious freedom. If a religion believes in polygamy, should their exercise of religious freedom be restricted? If a religion believes that girls should be married as soon as they reach puberty, should they be allowed to exercise their religious freedom, even if the girls are just 12 years old?

How does American law compare with biblical law?

If we were dealing with a case of ritual murder or human sacrifice in the name of religion, the question would be easier to answer. Most Americans would abhor such a thing and quickly deny the free expression of such a religion. It is obvious to most people that we must have limits to the idea of religious freedom. But where should we draw the line? And by what standard do we limit religious freedom?

When America was founded, religious freedom meant that each state could continue to practice its form of religion. Massachusetts was a Congregational State. Pennsylvania was a Quaker State. Maryland was Catholic. Virginia was Episcopal. The Federal government was not to give preference to any state religion or to interfere with their religious practice.

Then in the 1830's a new religion appeared called the Mormon Church. They eventually settled in the Utah territory. When Utah applied for Statehood in 1849 under the name Deseret, they were denied for decades. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica,

"The Mormon settlers applied for statehood in 1849 under the name Deseret, a word from the sacred Book of Mormon meaning “honeybee” and signifying industry. This bid was rejected, as were the efforts of five subsequent constitutional conventions between 1856 and 1887. Before the U.S. Congress and the national administration would assent to statehood for Utah, Mormon leaders were required to discontinue the church's involvement in politics through its People's Party, withdraw from an economic policy in which Mormons dealt primarily with each other, and discontinue the practice of polygamy."

They finally received Statehood under the name of Utah in 1896, after the Church agreed to discontinue its official teaching on polygamy.

In the original version of the Mormon Church's Doctrine and Covenants, published in 1835, polygamy had been condemned. In Section 109:4 it stated categorically,

"Inasmuch as this church of Christ has been reproached with the crime of fornication and polygamy; we declare that we believe that one man should have one wife; and one woman but one husband, except in the case of death, when either is at liberty to marry again."

This section remained in Doctrine and Covenants until 1876, when the Mormon leaders removed it and inserted Section 132, permitting polygamy. This new section contained a "revelation" by Joseph Smith, the Mormon founder, dated July 12, 1843, in which polygamy was allowed. This "revelation" apparently came after Smith's wife, Emma, objected to his affairs with Fannie Alger, Nancy Johnson, and others. The revelation singles out Emma herself as a word from the Lord to her, telling her in no uncertain terms to "receive all those that have been given unto my servant Joseph."

Oliver Cowdery, one of the "three witnesses" of the Book of Mormon, and one of the founders of the religion, was excommunicated on April 12, 1838 after he denounced one of Smith's affairs in a letter calling it a "dirty, nasty, filthy affair of his and Fanny Alger's." And so it is apparent that polygamy was practiced quite early, though done more or less in secret for many years.

Years later, Lorenzo Snow, the fifth president of the Mormon Church, testified in court:

"And a man that violated this law in the Doctrines and Covenants, 1835 edition, until the acceptance of that revelation by the church, violated the law of the church if he practiced plural marriage. Yes, sir, he would have been cut off from the church. I think I should have been if I had.

"Before the giving of that revelation in 1843, if a man married more wives than one who were living at the same time, he would have been cut off from the church. It would have been adultery under the laws of the church and under the laws of the state, too."

Mr. Snow was then asked how the Doctrine and Covenants was changed in 1876 to allow polygamy. His answer was:

"I cannot tell you, for I did not do it, nor I cannot tell why."

Question: "Was it not because this taught or had changed the order of marriage in the church?"

Answer: "Well, it is a fact that the order of marriage was changed, but whether that was the purpose of the substitution or not, I do not know."

Lorenzo Snow also testified that his own sister had become one of Joseph Smith's wives, saying, "I stated that Joseph took my sister for a wife when he had a wife living, and that was prior to the giving of this revelation" (that is, prior to July 12, 1843).

So the fifth president of the Mormon Church testified in court that Joseph Smith was an adulterer according to the laws of the Mormon church. But, of course, few people care about that, and all dissention in the early days of that church was suppressed.

When the Mormon Church officially renounced polygamy in the 1890's to attain Utah Statehood, a group of them broke away and established the "Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints." They believed that the main group in Salt Lake City had abandoned the truth as established by "revelation" through Joseph Smith. This is the polygamous group that was raided yesterday in Texas.

It raises some interesting legal and moral questions, of course. If the Constitution allowed each State to have its own religious freedom, then how is it that Utah was denied the freedom to practice religious polygamy when it was a basic tenet of their religion? Where does one draw the line with religious freedom?

The fact is that the limits of religious freedom are ultimately established by the moral sensibilities of the majority of the people themselves. The people in those days were predominately of a Christian religion, so the prevailing interpretation assumed that there was to be religious freedom forChristians. Human sacrifice was outlawed. And polygamy was outlawed, not because it was outlawed by biblical law, but because most churches taught against it (based upon 1 Tim. 3:2).

This really gets into the question of Old and New Covenant Marriage, which I discussed in my book by that title. An Old Covenant marriage establishes a Hagar-Abram marriage. It is the relationship between a slave woman and a free man who owns her. A New Covenant marriage establishes a Sarah-Abraham marriage. It is between a free woman and a free man.

Should America bar Old Covenant religious freedom?

To be continued.

This is the first part of a series titled "God's Laws on Religious Freedom." To view all parts, click the link below.

God's Laws on Religious Freedom

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Category: God's Law

Dr. Stephen Jones

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