The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been dubbed “quintessentially American,” but in the beginning it struck many people as anything but that. Direct revelations to a prophet—in which Christ reserved to himself ultimate executive, legislative, and judicial power—seemed undemocratic to the Saints’ neighbors.1 Moreover, controversial statements made in a Church newspaper by editor William Phelps demanded that the Church clarify its position relative to slavery.2
A general assembly of priesthood leaders convened in Kirtland, Ohio, on August 17, 1835, to listen to Oliver Cowdery and Sidney Rigdon present the Doctrine and Covenants for their approval. Oliver introduced the book and its contents to the assembled councils, after which the priesthood leaders unanimously testified of their satisfaction with the work. Then Oliver Cowdery read section 134, “Of Governments and Laws in General,” which may have been primarily, if not exclusively, the product of his mind and pen. The assembly “accepted and adopted” it, too, for inclusion, and thus section 134, though not a revelation, became canonized as part of the Doctrine and Covenants.3
Section 134 mixes republican principles of constitutional government and individual liberties, emphatically including the right of religious conscience, with the Church’s concern for its ecclesiastical rights. Nothing in it was new or objectionable to Joseph. It informs a misled and sometimes hostile public that the Church is in harmony with mainstream American values at the time of its publication. It distances the Church from parties or causes other than sharing the gospel.
Joseph was in Michigan when the general assembly made these decisions. He did not author section 134, but he endorsed it in April 1836.4 The principles in section 134 continue to guide the Church’s actions regarding political questions and controversies. The principles in verses 4–6 are more tersely expressed in Articles of Faith 11 and 12. While the Church took a pragmatic position relative to slavery in section 134, the Lord declared the doctrine of individual agency as the reason for his repudiation of slavery in section 101:77–79.
1. Steven C. Harper, ‘”Dictated by Christ’: Joseph Smith and the Politics of Revelation,” Journal of the Early Republic 26 (Summer 2006): 275–304.
2. See “Free People of Color,” and his statement published later in the same issue, wherein he noted approvingly that much was being done “towards abolishing slavery,” The Evening and the Morning Star 2, no. 14 [July 1833]: 109, 111. The Church’s political Northern Times newspaper printed on October 9, 1835, that the Church was “opposed to abolition, and whatever is calculated to disturb the peace and harmony of our Constitution and Country” (see “Abolition,” Northern Times 1:28 [9 October 1835]). Joseph’s views on race and blacks changed during his lifetime. In 1836 Joseph Smith criticized the abolition movement and defended slavery as biblical (Latter Day Saints Messenger and Advocate 2:7 [April 1836]: 289–91. Also see Warren Parrish, “For the Messenger and Advocate,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 7 (April 1836): 295–96, and “The Abolitionists,” Latter Day Saints’ Messenger and Advocate 2, no. 7 (April 1836): 299–301.
3. Historical Introduction, “Appendix 4: Declaration on Government and Law, circa August 1835 [D&C 134],” 252, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 8, 2020.
4. Messenger and Advocate, 2:239–41.
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
Doctrine and Covenants 134 is a declaration that, along with the rest of the content of the Doctrine and Covenants, was first presented to a general assembly of the Church on August 17, 1835. In the meeting Oliver Cowdery and William W. Phelps presented two additional documents for inclusion in the Doctrine and Covenants: first, a statement on marriage, and second, the declaration “containing certain principles or items upon laws in general and church government [D&C 134].”1 Joseph Smith and Frederick G. Williams were not present at the meeting, but they were noted in the meeting’s minutes as part of the committee overseeing the creation of the Doctrine and Covenants.2
We do not know who the author of the declaration is or how involved Joseph Smith was in its creation. Most scholars believe that the declaration was primarily written by Oliver Cowdery since much of the declaration’s language mirrors articles produced when he served as the editor of the Church newspapers The Evening and the Morning Star and the Northern Times.3 While we do not know how involved Joseph Smith was in the creation of Doctrine and Covenants 134, Joseph did endorse the declaration on two different occasions. In 1836, Joseph wrote to the elders of the Church and counseled them “to search the book of Covenants, in which you will see the belief of the church concerning masters and servants.”4 Several years later, Joseph included the declaration in its entirety in a letter to the editor of the Chester County Register and Examiner. Joseph signed his name at the end of the letter and changed all of the “we believe” statements to “I believe.”5
A vital part of the context surrounding Doctrine and Covenants 134 was the continuing difficulties of the Church in Missouri. The Saints in Missouri were forcibly evicted from their homes in Jackson County, Missouri in the Fall of 1833. When Doctrine and Covenants 134 was written the Saints in Missouri were refugees in nearby Clay County, but still held hopes to return to their lands in Jackson County. Daniel Dunklin, the governor of Missouri, expressed sympathy toward the plight of the Saints. At the time slavery was legal in Missouri, and some of the persecutions against the Saints came in part because the Church newspaper The Evening and Morning Star published several articles which were interpreted as supporting the abolition of slavery and encouraging the migration of free blacks to the state. Doctrine and Covenants 134 does not denounce abolition, but it does announce a policy of non-interference on the question. This part of the declaration may have been written to help soothe the fears of Missouri leaders who feared the Saints planned to interfere with slave holders (see Doctrine and Covenants 134:12).6
The declaration was first included in the 1835 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants and has been included in every subsequent edition.7
1. Minutes, 17 August 1835, p. 106, JSP.
2. Minutes, 17 August 1835, p. 98, JSP.
3. See “Historical Introduction,” Appendix 4: Declaration on Government and Law, circa August 1835 [D&C 134], JSP.
4. Letter to Oliver Cowdery, circa 9 April 1836, p. 291, JSP.
5. Letter to Editor, 22 January 1840, pp. 1–4, JSP.
6. See “Historical Introduction,” Appendix 4: Declaration on Government and Law, circa August 1835 [D&C 134], JSP.
7. Robert J. Woodford, The Historical Development of the Doctrine and Covenants, 1974, 3:1785.