Joseph Smith was no stranger to issues of religious freedom, whether it was facing personal opposition to his early visions and teachings or witnessing intense and widespread persecution of Latter-day Saints. By 1843, a year before his death, the issue was so central to his religious and political thinking that he wrote all the candidates for U.S. president and asked if they would protect Latter-day Saints’ rights. When the responses were unsatisfactory, he mounted a presidential campaign of his own, centered on religious and civil freedoms.
Some of Joseph Smith’s most significant statements and writings concerning religious freedom are presented here. To aid researchers and others interested in using them, the passages are presented according to the project’s clear text style. Hyperlinks on the citations take readers to the original documents from which the quotations are taken.
We deem it a just principle, and it is one the force of which we believe ought to be duly considered by every individual, that all men are created equal, and that all have the privilege of thinking for themselves upon all matters relative to conscience. Consequently, then, we are not disposed, had we the power, to deprive anyone from exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.
(Joseph Smith et al., “The Elders of the Church in Kirtland, to Their Brethren Abroad,” The Evening and the Morning Star, Feb. 1834, 135)
We ought always to be aware of those prejudices which sometimes so strongly present themselves and are so congenial to human nature against our neighbors, friends, and brethren of the world who choose to differ with us in opinion and in matters of faith. Our religion is between us and our God. Their religion is between them and their God. There is a tie from God that should be exercised toward those of our faith who walk uprightly. . . . It is without prejudice, but gives scope to the mind, which enables us to conduct ourselves with greater liberality toward all others that are not of our faith than what they exercise toward one another. These principles approximate nearer to the mind of God because they are like God or godlike.
There is a principle also, which we are bound to be exercised with, that is in common with all men, such as governments and laws and regulations in the civil concerns of life. This principle guarantees to all parties, sects, and denominations and classes of religion equal, coherent, and indefeasible rights. They are things that pertain to this life; therefore, all are alike interested. They make our responsibilities one toward another in matters of corruptible things, while the former principles do not destroy the latter but bind us stronger and make our responsibilities not only one to another but unto God also. Hence we say that the Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard. It is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner. It is to all those who are privileged with the sweats of its liberty like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and a weary land. It is like a great tree under whose branches men from every clime can be shielded from the burning rays of an inclement sun.
We, brethren, are deprived of the protection of this glorious principle by the cruelty of the cruel, by those who only look for the time being for pasturage, like the beasts of the field, only to fill themselves and forget that the Mormons, as well as the Presbyterians and those of every class and description, have equal rights to partake of the fruit of the great tree of our national liberty.
(Joseph Smith et al., Liberty, MO, to Edward Partridge and the Church, Quincy, IL, [ca. 22 Mar. 1839], Revelations Collection, Church History Library)
Mormonism is truth, and every man who embraced it felt himself at liberty to embrace every truth. Consequently the shackles of superstition, bigotry, ignorance, and priestcraft fall at once from his neck, and his eyes are opened to see the truth, and truth greatly prevails over priestcraft; hence the priests are alarmed, and they raise a hue and cry: “Down with these men! heresy! heresy! fanaticism! false prophet! false teachers! away with these men! crucify them! crucify them!” And now, sir, this is the sole cause of the persecution against the Mormon people. And now if they had been Mahomedans [Muslims], Hottentots [Khoikhoi of southwestern Africa], or Pagans, or in fine, sir, if their religion was as false as hell, what right would men have to drive them from their homes, and their country, or to exterminate them so long as their religion did not interfere with the civil rights of men, according to the laws of our country? None at all. . . .
Be assured, sir, that I have the most liberal sentiments and feelings of charity towards all sects, parties, and denominations, and the rights and liberties of conscience I hold most sacred and dear, and despise no man for differing with me in matters of opinion.
(Joseph Smith, Liberty, MO, to Isaac Galland, [Commerce, IL], 22 Mar. 1839, in Times and Seasons, Feb. 1840, 1:53, 55–56)
I believe that a religion is instituted of God and that men are amenable to him and to him only for the exercise of it unless their religious opinion prompts them to infringe upon the rights and liberty of others. But I 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. The civil magistrate should restrain crime but never control conscience, should punish guilt but never suppress the freedom of the soul.
(Joseph Smith, Brandywine, PA, to the Editor of the Chester County Register and Examiner, 22 Jan. 1840, private possession)
We wish it likewise to be distinctly understood that we claim no privilege but what we feel cheerfully disposed to share with our fellow citizens of every denomination, and every sentiment of religion, and therefore say that, so far from being restricted to our own faith, let all those who desire to locate themselves in this place, or vicinity, come, and we will hail them as citizens and friends and shall feel it not only a duty, but a privilege, to reciprocate the kindness we have received from the benevolent and kind-hearted citizens of the state of Illinois.
(Joseph Smith et al., “A Proclamation to the Saints Scattered Abroad,” Times and Seasons, 15 Jan. 1841, 2:277)
We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our conscience, and allow all men the same privilege; let them worship how, where, or what they may.
(Joseph Smith, “Church History,” Times and Seasons, 1 Mar. 1842, 3:710)
Governor [Joseph] Duncan knows that the law knows no difference between Mormon citizens and other citizens, and that there is no law in the United States or in this state to prevent people from worshipping the Almighty God according to the dictates of their conscience; that under the broad flag of American liberty, the Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Universalists, Friends, or Latter-day Saints are all one. Their religion is unknown. They are all citizens of this great republic, and are governed by the same law, and they all possess equal privileges without distinction. . . .
[In Nauvoo] we have laws for the suppression of vice; for taking up vagrants or disorderly persons; for defamation of character, etc.; and if in our city a Methodist, Presbyterian, Baptist, Latter-day Saint, or Governor Duncan was found transgressing these laws, they would be judged by the laws, and not by their religion.
(Joseph Smith, Editorial, Times and Seasons, 1 June 1842, 3:807)
When we see virtuous qualities in men, we should always acknowledge them, let their understanding be what it may in relation to creeds and doctrine. For all men are, or ought to be, free, possessing unalienable rights and the high and noble qualifications of the laws of nature and of self-preservation; to think and act, and say as they please, while they maintain a due respect to the rights and privileges of all other creatures, infringing upon none. This doctrine I do most heartily subscribe to and practice.
(Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, IL, to James Arlington Bennet, Arlington House, Flatbush, NY, 8 Sept. 1842, JS Collection, Church History Library)
While we will be the last to oppress, we will be the last to be driven from our post. Peace. Be still. Bury the hatchet and the sword. The sound of war is dreadful in my ear. . . .
Mahometans [Muslims], Presbyterians, etc., if ye will not embrace our religion, embrace our hospitalities.
(Joseph Smith, Journal, 29 Jan. 1843, JS Collection, Church History Library)
I never thought it was right 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. Methodists have creeds which a man must believe or be kicked out of their church. I want the liberty of believing as I please. It feels so good not to be trammeled. It doesn’t prove that a man is not a good man because he errs in doctrine.
(Joseph Smith, Discourse, 8 Apr. 1843, JS Collection, Church History Library)
If we would secure and cultivate the love of others, we must love others, even our enemies, as well as friends. “Why is it this babbler gains so many followers and retains them?” Because I possess the principle of love. All I can offer the world is a good heart and a good hand. Mormons can testify whether I am willing to lay down my life for a Mormon.
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 for a Presbyterian, a Baptist, or any other denomination. It is a love of liberty which inspires my soul. Civil and religious liberty were diffused into my soul by my grandfathers, while they dandled me on their knees. . . .
If I esteem mankind to be in error shall I bear them down? No! I will lift them up—and in his own way if I cannot persuade him my way is better. I will ask no man to believe as I do.
(Joseph Smith, Journal, 9 July 1843, JS Collection, Church History Library)
It is one of the first principles of my life, and one that I have cultivated from my childhood, having been taught it of my father, to allow everyone the liberty of conscience. I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the United States there is on the earth.
(Joseph Smith, Journal, 15 Oct. 1843, JS Collection, Church History Library)
Political views and party distinctions never should disturb the harmony of society. . . .
“A soft answer turns away wrath,” says the wise man, and it will be greatly to the credit of the Latter-day Saints to show the love of God by now kindly treating those who may have, in an unconscious moment, done them wrong. For truly said Jesus, “Pray for thine enemies.” Humanity towards all; reason and refinement, to enforce virtue, and good for evil, are so eminently designed to cure more disorders of society than an appeal to arms or even argument untempered with friendship. . . .
Our motto, then, is peace with all. If we have joy in the love of God, let us try to give a reason of that joy, which all the world cannot gainsay or resist.
(“Pacific Innuendo,” Times and Seasons, 15 Feb. 1844, 4:442, 443)
We will honor the advice of [Illinois] Governor Ford, cultivate peace and friendship with all, mind our own business, and come off with flying colors, respected because in respecting others, we respect ourselves.
(Joseph Smith, Nauvoo, IL, 10 Feb. 1844, Letter to the Editor, Nauvoo Neighbor, 21 Feb. 1844, )
Meddle not with any man for his religion; every government ought to permit every man to enjoy his religion.
(Joseph Smith, Discourse, 7 Apr. 1844, in Wilford Woodruff, Journal, 1 Mar.–19 Dec. 1844, 7 Apr. 1844, p. , Church History Library)
He then went on to say that for the benefit of mankind and succeeding generations, he wished it to be recorded that there are men admitted members of this honorable council who are not members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, neither profess any creed or religious sentiment whatever, to show that in the organization of this kingdom men are not consulted as to their religious opinions or notions in any shape or form whatever, and that we act upon the broad and liberal principle that all men have equal rights and ought to be respected, and that every man has a privilege in this organization of choosing for himself voluntarily his God, and what he pleases for his religion, inasmuch as there is no danger but that every man will embrace the greatest light.
God cannot save or damn a man only on the principle that every man acts, chooses, and worships for himself; hence the importance of thrusting from us every spirit of bigotry and intolerance towards a man’s religious sentiments, that spirit which has drenched the earth with blood. When a man feels the least temptation to such intolerance he ought to spurn it from him.
It becomes our duty on account of this intolerance and corruption—the inalienable right of man being to think as he pleases, worship as he pleases, etc., being the first law of everything that is sacred—to guard every ground all the days of our lives. I will appeal to every man in this council, beginning at the youngest, that when he arrives to the years of hoary age he will have to say that the principles of intolerance and bigotry never had a place in this kingdom, nor in my breast, and that he is even then ready to die rather than yield to such things. Nothing can reclaim the human mind from its ignorance, bigotry, superstition, etc., but those grand and sublime principles of equal rights and universal freedom to all men. We must not despise a man on account of infirmity. We ought to love a man more for his infirmity. Nothing is more congenial to my feelings and principles than the principles of universal freedom and has been from the beginning. . . .
Let us from henceforth drive from us every species of intolerance. When a man is free from it he is capable of being a critic. When I have used every means in my power to exalt a man’s mind, and have taught him righteous principles to no effect, he is still inclined to his darkness, yet the same principles of liberty and charity would ever be manifested by me as though he embraced it. Hence in all governments or political transactions a man’s religious opinions should never be called in question. A man should be judged by the law independent of religious prejudice; hence we want in our constitution those laws which would require all its officers to administer justice without any regard to his religious opinions, or thrust him from his office.
There are only two or three things lacking in the Constitution of the United States. If they had said all men born equal, and not only that but they shall have their rights, they shall be free, or the armies of the government should be compelled to enforce those principles of liberty.
(Council of Fifty, “Record,” 11 Apr. 1844, vol. 1, pp. –, Church History Library)
There is a distinction between the church of God and kingdom of God. The laws of the kingdom are not designed to effect our salvation hereafter. It is an entire, distinct, and separate government. The church is a spiritual matter and a spiritual kingdom; but the kingdom which Daniel saw was not a spiritual kingdom, but was designed to be got up for the safety and salvation of the Saints by protecting them in their religious rights and worship. Anything that would tolerate man in the worship of his God under his own vine and fig tree would be tolerated of God.
(Council of Fifty, “Record,” 18 Apr. 1844, vol. 1, pp. –, Church History Library)