Religious Liberty and Latter-day Saints

New Publication

R. Devan Jensen

R. Devan Jensen is the executive editor at the BYU Religious Studies Center.

Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which defined “freedom of thought, conscience and religion” as the right of humans to “change” and to “manifest” their belief “in teaching, practice, worship and observance,” whether “alone or in community with others,” both “in public or private.”[1] This landmark of human rights drew on earlier precedents, such as the First Amendment to the US Constitution, which barred the government from establishing a national religion or “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. Defining the meaning and scope of these promises requires ongoing negotiation at local, national, and global levels.

Like other religious minorities, Latter-day Saints have sometimes struggled to secure such freedoms. Committed believers sometimes wonder why they should support the freedoms of those they differ with. They may also wonder about the value of interfaith connections. For context, consider this story. A man set fire to three chapels of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in St. George, Utah. These fires were set early in the morning on August 31, 2021. The arsonist fled in a silver minivan, and police caught him after the van crashed and caught fire. Hours later, Sharon Eubank, director of Latter-day Saint Charities, the humanitarian organization of the Church, began receiving emails of condolence from her friends in the Middle East. They expressed sorrow for the damage to the churches. She didn’t know how they had received news about southern Utah, but she realized they had also experienced intolerance and wanted to express solidarity when tragedy struck and religious freedom was harmed. She concludes, “When religious freedom works really well, we are building relationships that will help shape society years from now.”[2] So Church members can help protect religious freedom by forming friendships with members of other faiths and working with governmental agencies to preserve it.

Religious Liberty and Latter-day Saints: Historical and Global Perspectives, is published by the BYU Religious Studies Center and Deseret Book. This volume features fifteen essays selected from the 2022 Church History Symposium focused on historical and global views of religious liberty and the Latter-day Saints. It offers perspectives on how Latter-day Saints’ understanding of religious freedom has been forged through the crucible of their experience.

In 1842 Joseph Smith published a sketch of “Church History” that included two core ideals: “We claim the privilege of worshipping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience” and “We believe . . . in obeying, honoring and sustaining the law.”[3] These statements occasionally stand in tension with one another as Church members seek to ensure free exercise of religion while upholding the law. The history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints amply illustrates the challenge its members have faced to freely exercise their deeply held religious convictions when those convictions were condemned by law.

Elder Gerrit W. Gong notes in his keynote address that religious liberty is vitally important in both the United States and throughout the world. Some people mistakenly view religious liberty as “current, American, and political.”[4] However, he suggests that “the depth and scope of Latter-day Saint concern for religious liberty are wider, deeper, and more long-standing”[5] than many suppose because a commitment to religious liberty is rooted in the Church’s understanding of God’s plan of happiness for his children everywhere.

Exploring this premise, a distinguished panel addressed how Latter-day Saints can be anxiously engaged in supporting religious freedom at home and abroad. The panelists included Sharon Eubank; Michael O. Leavitt, former governor of Utah and cabinet member in the George W. Bush administration; Elizabeth A. Clark, an associate director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies at BYU and an expert on religious freedom in Eastern Europe and comparative law and religion; and W. Cole Durham Jr., an emeritus professor of law at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at BYU and the founding director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies. The moderator was Gary B. Doxey, an associate director of the International Center for Law and Religion Studies, who also teaches in the History Department at BYU.

Editors John C. Thomas and Robert T. Smith grouped remaining essays into two sections: “Challenges in the American Arena” and “Challenges on the World Stage.” These essays delve into the religious experiences of Latter-day Saints that demonstrate the need for religious freedom among all people. Latter-day Saints experienced religious intolerance, discrimination, and persecution from neighbors and public officials in Jackson County, Missouri, culminating in their forced expulsion from the county in late 1833. Later, thousands of Saints were driven from the state of Missouri. These experiences and later tensions in Illinois prompted Joseph Smith to run for US president, in part to defend religious liberty for all citizens. After his murder in 1844, the Saints moved beyond US borders in search of religious freedom, but the country soon expanded to include them. New tensions arose about the law and religious freedom, most notably in connection with plural marriage. Authors explore Church members’ responses to conflicts then and now, including their efforts to resolve important questions in the courts.

Global developments have deeply affected religious liberty. Wars and the Cold War restricted Church activities in missions and congregations, as did debates about religious, racial, and political hierarchies in various nations, ranging from the United States to South Africa and from the South Pacific to Europe.

As a result of Church doctrine and lived experiences, Church leaders and members have emerged as powerful advocates of religious freedom both at home and abroad. It is hoped that the essays in this book will provide perspective and encouragement to continue the quest for religious freedom among all people.


[1] United Nations, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18.

[2] Sharon Eubank, “‘Anxiously Engaged in a Good Cause’: Panel Discussion of Religious Freedom at Home and Abroad,” in Religious Liberty and Latter-day Saints: Historical Perspectives, ed. John C. Thomas and Robert T. Smith (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center; Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2023), 35.

[3] “History, 1838–1856, volume C-1 [2 November 1838–31 July 1842],” The Joseph Smith Papers.

[4] Gerrit W. Gong, “Religious Liberty in Historical and Global Perspective,” in Thomas and Smith, Religious Liberty and Latter-day Saints, 1.

[5] Gong, “Religious Liberty,” 17.