Introduction to Latter-day Prophets and the United States Constitution, ed. by Donald Q. Cannon (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1991), xi-xiv.
In his opening address at the 157th semiannual general conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, President Ezra Taft Benson spoke about the U.S. Constitution. In the course of his remarks that Saturday morning, October 3, 1987, President Benson asked this important question: “Do we know what the prophets have said about the Constitution and the threats to it?” (“Our Divine Constitution” 7).
I knew that President Benson had talked hundreds of times about the Constitution and that he had a strong interest in that inspired document, having read many of his books and statements. However, nothing he had said before had such an impact on my mind as that brief question asked in general conference. It struck me that I didn’t know all the things the latter-day prophets have said about the U.S. Constitution and that probably very few others did. So I decided to find out what they have said about it.
With my research assistant, Duane Knowles, I began a systematic search of what the prophets and Presidents of the Church in this dispensation have said specifically about the U.S. Constitution. We found that they had said a lot about it, and in several months we had quite a large selection of quotations from the thirteen men who have presided over the Church since it was organized in 1830.
At first, we thought to organize the quotations according to topic so we could see what all the prophets had said on a specific topic. But when we looked at the manuscript following the topical format, we saw that we had split the different prophets up and so scattered their ideas throughout the book that without a photographic memory we could not really see what each individual prophet’s ideas had been or how those ideas had developed in his lifetime.
It was suggested that presenting all the statements made by each prophet about the U. S. Constitution in the chronological order of his making them would not only show the development of his ideas, but also how his ideas and emphases fit into U.S. history. Then we could place the topics we had thought to include in our original organizational scheme in a topical index. This way our readers would have access to the topics the prophets had spoken on, the historical development of each prophet’s ideas, and each prophet’s relationship with the U.S. government and Constitution.
Consequently, this book is divided into thirteen chapters, one for each prophet of this dispensation. Each chapter begins with a photograph of the prophet followed by a brief biographical sketch of his life and a statement about his relationship with the U.S. government. This is then followed by his statements about the U.S. Constitution, listed in chronological order. We have also noted which statements each man made first as an Apostle and then as the prophet. The quotes are also numbered for ease of reference.
We have listed the source for each quotation in a parenthetical reference following the quotation. When we found quotations that appeared in more than one source, we listed most or all of these sources, with the original source listed first. Knowing that many of these original sources would not be readily available to most readers, we have checked the accuracy of each quotation against what we believed to be the most accessible rather than the original source. When we could not locate the original source we listed whatever information we had in the parenthetical reference to give readers the context of the original quotation. All of the sources are listed in full in the bibliography. As we have not used every quotation made by the prophets on the U.S. Constitution, we hope that readers will use this bibliography to pursue their own individual study of the latter-day prophets and the U.S. Constitution.
The topical index incorporates not only the fifteen topics from the first organizational scheme, but many additional topics as well. Some of these topics provide information which has not been readily available. An example of this kind of material is the topic identified as “Hanging by a Thread.” The idea that the Constitution would one day hang by a thread, first put forth by Joseph Smith, is one of the most interesting and controversial subjects related to LDS teachings about the U.S. Constitution. Although frequently quoted, it has been subject to careful scrutiny and even skepticism.
As late as 1948, articles have appeared which state that there was no direct evidence that Joseph Smith had even made such a statement (Nibley 24). In recent years we have been able to verify that Joseph Smith did, indeed, make such a statement. New compilations of original documents from the Joseph Smith period, such as The Words of Joseph Smith and The Papers of Joseph Smith, have made such evidence readily available.
Our study shows that eight modern prophets have made statements about the Constitution’s hanging by a thread, and that all eight of them quoted Joseph Smith as well as adding ideas of their own. However, Joseph Smith and the other twelve prophets of this dispensation have all said that at some time in the future the Constitution would be in jeopardy, and it would be rescued by the Elders of Israel. This book should help us understand this subject more fully.
Although we collected many of each President’s quotations on the Constitution, we have not been able to include all of them here. Instead, we have used a selection process to eliminate peripheral, extraneous, and repetitious quotations.
An example of the selection process is included here, using Brigham Young as an example. The following quotation was not included in the book because it refers to the Constitution only in passing rather than makes a pointed statement about it:
What law have we transgressed? I have tried to find out. We have examined the Constitution of the United States and the laws pertaining to these matters; and if anybody here or elsewhere can point out any law that we have transgressed as American citizens, they know more about it than I have been able to learn; and I should like such a person to put me in possession of the information. (JD 6:2)
The following quotation was included because it does make a specific statement about the Constitution and the views of the President of the Church concerning it:
We are in the midst of these mountains, and we have good and salutary laws to govern us. We have our Constitutional laws and our Territorial laws; we are subject to these laws; and always expect to be, for we love to be. If there is any man among us who has violated any constitutional law, try the law upon him, and let us see whether there is any virtue in it, before we try the strong arm of despotism and tyranny. I stand for Constitutional law, and if any transgress, let them be tried by it, and, if guilty, suffer its penalty. (JD 10:109)
We have also included a number of quotations that do not mention the Constitution specifically, but which refer to the Founding Fathers and other topics closely related to the Constitution. Even though we have used a selection process, a large majority of the quotations from each President of the Church do appear in this book.
It is our hope that the teachings of LDS Church Presidents concerning the Constitution will be helpful and meaningful to all who read them. Perhaps, in a small way, these readers can become sufficiently informed about the Constitution to warrant the approval of the Church Presidents whose ideas they are studying. Hopefully our readers will increase in both knowledge and appreciation of the Constitution of the United States.
Several people have assisted me in making this book a reality. My research assistant, Duane Knowles, did the major research and should be recognized for his excellent work. My secretary, Janiel A. Lind, has spent time examining the quotations, working with the manuscript, and has been most helpful in other ways. The Religious Studies Center Publications Office has been a tremendous help: Charles D. Tate, Jr., Charlotte A. Pollard, Rebecca H. Christensen, and Brian Osmond Call have contributed much to the success of the project. Several of my colleagues have taken time to read the manuscript and to offer suggestions. Reed A. Benson has been especially willing to assist in this work. Finally, President Ezra Taft Benson should be acknowledged for his inspiration and direction.