Joseph Smith And The Free Mind©
(Updated 26 November 2014)
A week ago I added the article “The Free Mind” to this blog. It contained a couple of quotations from Thomas Jefferson on the subject. Today I want to match that with similar statements by the Prophet Joseph Smith, which bracket his ministry, and which to me are evidence of his inspiration from Heaven and that he was on Heaven’s errand.
In January of 1834, the First Presidency wrote an epistle to their “brethren abroad”–those scattered from their homes in Missouri.(1) The document concerned the “vast importance and responsibility” of their callings as workers in the Lord’s vineyard. Some were misled, they wrote, to believe that in their own time righteousness was increasing and that the “dark ages of superstition and blindness have passed,” a time when only a few knew of Christ and “when ecclesiastic power had an almost universal control over Christendom, and the consciences of men were bound by the strong chains of priestly power....” In other words the dark ages were over. The brethren, however, took issue with this and invited the Church to reflect on whether the principles of the "modern systems" (governmental and religious), their motives and purposes were “the order of heaven or not.” In this context the First Presidency utter one of the earliest statements regarding matters of religious freedom and conscience in the Church. It has, in effect, been the manifesto of the Church on the subject since then. They wrote:
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 any one from exercising that free independence of mind which heaven has so graciously bestowed upon the human family as one of its choicest gifts.... (2)The declaration that they were not disposed to deprive anyone from exercising this choicest of gifts is not to be taken lightly either by Church members or by opponents of the Church. Joseph Smith rejoiced exceedingly in the freedom of conscience. As we shall see, he held it dear all his life. On one occasion he spoke of how good it felt not to be “trammelled” by the creeds and traditions which bound so many in the Christian world.(3) It is ludicrous, therefore, to think that he would seek to bind or coerce the mind of any man regarding his religious beliefs. This “free agency” has been one of the hallmark tenets of Mormonism from the very beginning. But as I say, it is not to be taken lightly because with that freedom comes accountability for one's exercise of that agency intellectually, spiritually, and in daily living. If it is one of heaven’s choicest gifts, it also carries with it one of heaven’s heaviest responsibilities.
Joseph expressed similar sentiments almost two years later during the midst of a very important event in his life. In mid-December of 1835, he had a serious argument and physical altercation with his younger brother William. William was conducting a school to teach debate and one evening Joseph attended with, he said, much support and high expectations in his heart. During the course of the debate Joseph felt that William unnecessarily gave offense to fellow apostle William E. McLellin, so he spoke up. This enraged William; an argument and a scuffle ensued. During that argument William forbade Joseph to speak in his house. Days later William wrote a letter of confession and asking forgiveness of the Prophet. Joseph accepted his confession and granted forgiveness, but said his duty was to correct error and unrighteousness and he would continue to do so. He concluded with this remarkable and powerful statement:
And if at any time you should consider me to be an imposter [sic], for heaven’s sake leave me in the hands of God, and not think to take vengeance on me yourself. Tyranny, usurpation, and to take men’s rights, ever has been and ever shall be banished from my heart.(4)Joseph was committed to his duty, even among his family. If fulfilling it should lead William to conclude he was an impostor, Joseph could live with that possibility, but he also ask William to abide by a higher principle that he (Joseph) cherished and lived by. That was, that he allow Joseph his "rights" and not take vengeance like a tyrant, something his opponents were not always willing to allow him. The rights and freedoms which, by principle, he granted to others he wished for himself; but it was not to be as we would learn on a sultry June day in Carthage, Illinois.
The inquiry is frequently made of me, “Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?” In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.
We believe in the Great Eloheim who sites enthroned in yonder heavens. So do the Presbyterians. If a skillful mechanic, in taking a welding heat, uses borax, alum, etc., and succeeds in welding together iron or steel more perfectly than any other mechanic, is he not deserving of praise? And if by the principles of truth I succeed in uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love, shall I not have attained a good object?
If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will left them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by the force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way. Do you believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation which He revealed? So do I. Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst....(5)
1. See the note of B.H. Roberts, in HC 2:4.
2. “The Elders of the Church in Kirtland, to Their Brethren Abroad,” Evening and Morning Star 2, no. 17 (February 1834): 135. See also, HC 2:6-7; TPJS, 49, emphasis added.
3. HC 5:340.
4. HC 2:343, emphasis added.