Two Keystones to Bind Us: The Constitution and the Book of Mormon

Morgan Dennis, “Two Keystones to Bind Us: The Constitution and the Book of Mormon,” Selections from the Religious Education Student Symposium 2008 (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2008), 77–88.

Two Keystone​​​s to Bind Us: The Constitution and the Book of Mormon

Morgan Dennis

Nearly two millennia ago, the Savior prophesied in the New World of the bond between two of the most important events in modern history: the establishment of the United States of America and the publication of the Book of Mormon. He declared to the Nephites that the Gentiles on the American continent would be “set up as a free people by the power of the Father” so that the Nephites’ writings “might come forth” (3 Nephi 21:4). The inspired Constitution of the United States, which completed the American founding, and the miraculous coming forth of the Book of Mormon both witness to the fulfillment of the Lord’s prophecy; furthermore, the histories and missions of these two documents have been intertwined from their inceptions. The Book of Mormon and the Constitution are parallels in the way they have been brought forth by the power of God, and they are connected by the same heavenly principles they proclaim. And for America today, their united message testifies of the imperative need for renewed virtue in the lives of America’s citizens.

Power from ​​on High

In less than forty-five years and within a space of three hundred and fifty miles, two of the most influential publications in history appeared in America through the inspiration of heaven. The drafting of the Constitution of the United States and the translation of the Book of Mormon were paralleled events, and both processes were unmistakably marked by God’s guiding hand. The similarities found in the circumstances and miracles that brought us these monumental works testify of their utmost importance to our modern world.

The actual events surrounding the drafting of the Constitution and the translation of the Book of Mormon show significant similarities. The Constitutional Convention was held in secret in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, during the brutal heat of four summer months in 1787. Twelve of the colonies were represented (Rhode Island delegates never showed up) and were witnesses to the intense deliberations. Similarly, the sacred translating of the Book of Mormon took place in secret and the vast majority of it was accomplished over the short period of three months from April to June of 1829. It took place mostly in the village of Harmony, also located in Pennsylvania, and there were twelve official witnesses to the gold plates from which the book was translated: the Three Witnesses, the Eight Witnesses, and the Prophet Joseph. Most importantly, the Lord himself testified in the Doctrine and Covenants of His own involvement in the coming forth of both documents. Of one He declared, “I have suffered [the Constitution] to be established,” and of the other the Lord witnessed that Joseph received “power from on high . . . to translate the Book of Mormon” (D&C 101:77, 20:8).

Both the Constitution and the Book of Mormon came forth as the culmination of years of trials and triumphs for the two institutions they helped establish. The adoption of the Constitution occurred after a desperate struggle fought by the colonists to break from King George III and was made possible only after countless miracles had saved the new republic in its first eleven years. Indeed, the infant country had been “delivered by the power of God” from the hands of its enemies (1 Nephi 13:18). But as George Washington stated after the Revolutionary War, “The fabric, which took nine years, at the expense of much blood and treasure, to rear, now totters to the foundation, and without support must soon fall.”[1] Similarly, the Book of Mormon came at the conclusion of a decade full of spiritual manifestations and relentless opposition to the Prophet Joseph and his early followers. The Prophet had seen God, been visited by numerous angels, received the priesthood, and yet simultaneously felt “the powers of darkness combine against” him (Joseph Smith—History 1:20). By 1829, nine years after the First Vision, there still was no evidence of permanence or even an official church the Prophet could call the Lord’s.

It was the miracles of the Constitution and the Book of Mormon that would ultimately foster the stable foundation on which the United States of America and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints could be established. The colonies that threatened separation were permanently joined to create a lasting America with the acceptance of the Constitution. It became indeed the “keystone of our nation,”[2] as President Gordon B. Hinckley called it, by which the developing structure of the thirteen colonies was finally able to stand as one united nation. The “keystone of our religion,”[3] as the Prophet Joseph called the Book of Mormon, similarly put in place the last step to solidifying the preparations by which the Church could be officially organized just eleven days after the book went on sale. The sign promised long before by the Savior had at last been given to witness to the world of the gathering of the tribes of Israel now uniting in the Church today. Both miraculous documents cultivated a foundation, a uniting, and a “glorious standard”[4] that would “hiss forth unto the ends of the earth” (2 Nephi 29:2).

It is interesting to consider how the Book of Mormon and the Constitution both became keystones for the establishment of their respective organizations. In essence, both helped answer the fundamental question of authority—from where does a country or a church receive its authority to govern the affairs of the people? The young Joseph’s search for truth in the burned-over district of Palmyra came down to knowing who could speak for God. His question was answered resoundingly through the visions and revelations he received in the 1820s, but it was finally with the Book of Mormon that God’s voice was permanently put in print. The Prophet Joseph declared: “Take away the Book of Mormon and the revelations, and where is our religion? We have none.”[5] Through the Book of Mormon, it was clear that the Church would be grounded in the principle of revelation—God would direct and dictate His own word through prophets. The Church would not be governed by the “commandments of men” as other sects that the Lord condemned (Joseph Smith—History 1:19).

In the same fashion, the Constitution declared that the authority of the United States government would be grounded in the rule of law and not the rule of men. The colonists would no longer be under the whims of a king in a remote land, but they would be subject to laws held supreme over any single person. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks put it, “All the blessings enjoyed under the United States Constitution are dependent upon the rule of law. . . . The rule of law is the basis of liberty.”[6] Of course, the established system has at times been scathed by evil intentions of individual men who have usurped authority, but overall it has created a stable country where the law is still revered as the ultimate authority. And how did the compromises of fifty-five delegates in the space of four months generate a set of laws that would eventually be able to successfully govern a nation of three hundred million people? It was for the very same reason that the Book of Mormon could direct millions of lives worldwide to follow Christ—both were established by the Lawgiver Himself.

Another part of the parallel between the drafting of the Constitution and the translation of the Book of Mormon is seen in the caliber of men God raised up for these missions. Often critics of both documents have challenged the men behind the words to discredit the significance of the message. Every returned missionary can testify to the truth that Joseph’s name has been had for “good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues” (Joseph Smith—History 1:33). Similarly, as President Ezra Taft Benson has noted, there has been in the past century a “penchant for historical criticism” that has caused the “defamation of character of the founding fathers.”[7] And yet, despite these constant attacks, both Joseph Smith and the framers of the Constitution were among the noblest spirits that the Lord had to do His work. President Wilford Woodruff, after meeting many of the Founding Fathers in spirit, testified this way: “I am going to bear my testimony to this assembly . . . that those men who laid the foundation of this American government . . . were the best spirits the God of Heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men.”[8] His predecessor, John Taylor, bore witness of the Prophet Joseph after his death in a similar fashion. “The Book of Mormon . . . cost the best blood of the nineteenth century” (D&C 135:6). James Madison’s testimony of the fifty-five delegates at the Constitutional Convention could describe the Prophet Joseph’s life also. “There never was an assembly of men, charged with a great and arduous trust, who were more pure in their motives, or more exclusively or anxiously devoted to the object committed to them.”[9]

During the Constitutional Convention of 1787, Benjamin Franklin often marveled at an image of a sun teetering on the horizon that was carved on the back of Washington’s chair. Afterwards he explained how he had never been able to tell if it was a sun at dusk or at dawn until the day the delegates finally signed the new document. Franklin said, “I have . . . often in course of this session . . . looked at that behind the President, without being able to tell whether it was rising or setting; but now at length I have the happiness to know that it is a rising and not a setting sun.”[10] The sun rose, and “on April 6, 1789, the Constitution of the United States went into operation as the basic law” of our new country.[11] On that same significant day, forty-one years later, Jesus Christ once again formed His Church on the American continent among a people made free by the Constitution. Both institutions have since risen out of obscurity and shed forth their rays of “just and holy principles” to bless “all flesh” (D&C 101:77). And it is those principles contained within the Book of Mormon and the Constitution that have made their impact so enormous.

Just and Holy Princi​​ples

There are only a few documents in the history of the world on which the Lord has put a stamp of approval. In the New Testament the Lord gave authority for His own teachings by referring to the “law and the prophets” of the Old Testament (Matthew 22:40). In the ancient Americas, the Savior specifically extolled the writings of Isaiah and quoted directly from the words of Malachi and Micah (see 3 Nephi 21:12–13, 23:1, 24:1). Now in our day, through the Prophet Joseph Smith, the Lord declared the Book of Mormon to be true “as your Lord and your God liveth” (D&C 17:6). Also in the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord affirmed that He “established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men” (D&C 101:80). The Lord’s explicit acclaim of these two texts confirms the magnitude of their message, and together they teach some of the same eternal truths.

One of the great principles inherent in the Constitution is the equality of all men, and this truth is taught and sustained clearly in the Book of Mormon. In Article I, Section 9, the Constitution states, “No Bill of Attainder or ex post facto Law shall be passed.” Bills of attainder would allow the government to convict a person or group of a crime without a trial or legal process. This clause thus prohibits arbitrary punishment by the government and, like the Book of Mormon teaches, keeps all men “on equal grounds” (Alma 30:11). Ex post facto laws are those that change the legal consequences of an action after the fact, usually done to convict someone of a crime that was not illegal at the time performed. Again the premise behind this constitutional protection assumes that everyone is equal and has the same rights that must be shielded under the law. In America “there should be an equality among all men,” just as King Mosiah had taught the Nephites in setting up their own new system of government (Mosiah 27:3).

Another facet of the equality of all men found in the Constitution is the way in which it denies extra privileges to more prominent citizens. In Article I, Section 9, the Constitution puts this prohibition on Congress: “no Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States.” Unlike the European countries at that time, the new republic would not give special liberties to anyone because of birth. Captain Moroni in the Book of Mormon taught the same principle during the harrowing Nephite war when those of supposed high birth tried to take control. Mormon recorded, “He put an end to the stubbornness and the pride of those people who professed the blood of nobility; but they were brought down to humble themselves like unto their brethren” (Alma 51:21). Similarly, the Constitution gives no special exemptions to those in power. Article II, Section 4 states, “The President, Vice President, and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” Everyone would have the same treatment under the law, just as everyone, even the priests, in the Nephite Church would have to “labor with their own hands for their support” (Mosiah 18:24). This eternal principle of equality in the Constitution, though perhaps “not broad enough to cover the whole ground,”[12] did help to create the great American dream in the new country, a hope that had already been declared there nearly two millennia before: “Every man should have an equal chance throughout all the land” (Mosiah 29:38).

Along with the equality of all men, the second fundamental principle upon which the Book of Mormon and the Constitution are based is linked to Mormon’s commentary on a Nephite tyrant: “We also see the great wickedness one very wicked man can cause to take place among the children of men” (Alma 46:9). The Founding Fathers realized that though the government had to be strong enough to adequately function and govern the nation, somehow that power had to be restrained and divided up so that no oppressors could usurp it. As they attempted to strengthen the Articles of Confederation while restraining the government’s power, the Framers seemed to recognize the sobering truth taught in the Book of Mormon, “How quick to do iniquity, and how slow to do good, are the children of men” (Helaman 12:4). Consequently, the first three articles in the Constitution created a system of checks and balances between three separate but united branches of government that worked miraculously. In the words of President J. Reuben Clark Jr., “The Framers had no direct guide in this work, no historical government precedent upon which to rely. As I see it, it was here that the divine inspiration came.”[13] The government was organized with enough power to act, but in a way that made it difficult for an Amalickiah or a Noah to gain enough control to create the great destruction that had been seen among the Nephites (Mosiah 29:17). The Book of Mormon had in fact already prophesied this type of inspired system the founders would adopt: “And this land shall be a land of liberty unto the Gentiles, and there shall be no kings upon the land” (2 Nephi 10:11). America would be free from autocratic rule, and its citizens would be free to choose for themselves.

The principle of God-given agency and freedom to choose is the third essential truth embedded in the Constitution and the Book of Mormon. This theme underlies the first ten amendments and can perhaps be encapsulated in Lehi’s inspired teaching that “men are free according to the flesh. . . . And they are free to choose” (2 Nephi 2:27). The Bill of Rights, made a part of the Constitution shortly after the first Congress met, defends the rights of religion, speech, press, and assembly. It equally safeguards citizens’ rights to bear arms, due process of law, and a public trial. In short, according to President Benson, it guarantees “the fundamental freedoms that the American people insist are theirs by the will of God, not by the will of government.”[14] It was for these rights recognized by the Founders that the Nephites continually fought in the Book of Mormon. “The design of the Nephites was to . . . preserve their rights and their privileges, yea, and also their liberty” (Alma 43:9). The Framers and inspired Nephite leaders understood that there were certain “inalienable rights” of agency, as the Declaration of Independence proclaimed, that the government was to protect rather than procure. Men must be “free to act for [themselves]” (2 Nephi 10:23).

The underlying idea behind these three just and holy principles of equality, restraint, and liberty found in the Constitution is the simple notion that for values to be truly shielded and sustained, they must be written down. The Constitution physically changed nothing when it was adopted on September 17, 1787, but its written words transformed a failing confederacy into a thriving union that miraculously and largely protects “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” freedoms stated in the Declaration of Independence. Just as many citizens needed a list of printed, enumerated rights to be a part of the Constitution, the Book of Mormon testifies that a people’s prosperity requires permanent words and laws. Lehi’s family was commanded to obtain the engraved law of Moses found on the brass plates, without which they would have “suffered in ignorance” and “dwindled in unbelief” (Mosiah 1:3, 5). The confused Mulekite society was falling apart when the Nephites discovered them because “they had brought no records with them” (Omni 1:17). The laws of Mosiah, which were established and “acknowledged by the people” at their inception, and also wickedly altered sixty years later, surely must have been written down as well (Alma 1:1, Helaman 4:22). In all of these instances the Book of Mormon teaches the irreplaceable power of the written word to lead a people to stability and peace. In the same fashion, the Constitution’s direct enumeration of rights and restraints has been essential in preserving the happiness and success of the American people over the past two centuries. Indeed, to use the title of Linda R. Monk’s book written in 2003 about the Constitution, both of these defining documents have become “the words we live by.”

A Standard to the ​​Honest

These two inspired texts, perhaps the most influential writings ever to be produced on American ground, are among the most important exports of the United States. Since the Constitution’s inception in 1789, “every nation in the world except six have adopted written constitutions, and the U.S. Constitution was a model for all of them.”[15] Similarly, the Book of Mormon, of which over 100 million copies have been printed,[16] has “[swept] the earth as with a flood” to gather out the elect and prepare the establishment of Zion (Moses 7:62). The two documents have been connected in their coming forth and testify to the same eternal truths of liberty, but for that freedom to be maintained today, the prophetic warnings of the inspired writers must be heeded. Both the Founders and the Nephite prophets testified of the fundamental requirement to preserve liberty on American soil: righteousness. The Founders seemed to understand Lehi’s prophetic warning to America that he had given nearly 2,400 years before the Constitutional Convention: “If iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever” (2 Nephi 1:7). Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and others all spoke on the vital role of virtue in citizens’ lives for the new American republic to succeed. Washington thought the Constitution should be “a standard to which the wise and the honest can repair,”[17] and that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”[18] John Adams similarly preached that “liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence, than the body can live and move without a soul.”[19] Adams defined the limits of the Constitution when he said that it “was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[20] Benjamin Franklin likewise pointed out the relationship between liberty and morality. “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”[21] These and other words given by the Founding Fathers all seem to reach at one of the central admonitions of the Book of Mormon for America: “If the time should come that the voice of this people should choose iniquity . . . they would be ripe for destruction” (Alma 10:19).

Of all the parallels between the Book of Mormon and the Constitution, here is where the two documents are most crucially connected—the Constitution can only be maintained as the prophetic Book of Mormon writings about America’s ultimate need for goodness are heeded. The words of Moroni give perhaps the most succinct warning: “Whatsoever nation shall possess it shall serve God, or they shall be swept off . . . when they are ripened in iniquity. . . . Whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ” (Ether 2:9, 12). Of all the pressing problems facing twenty-first-century America, the question of the morality and virtue of her people underlies them all. Unless American citizens “should possess it unto the Lord,” no other political solution can preserve its constitutional freedoms in the midst of terror (Ether 9:20). In the words of a saying that is attributed to the famous French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”[22]

A Liberty Tha​​t Binds

As Captain Moroni stood in his righteous fury to speak against the band of Zerahemnah, he declared to the cornered army why the Nephites were able to protect their freedoms. He proclaimed the strength of their faith, families, and “that liberty which binds [them] to [their] lands and [their] country” in preserving their lives and independence (Alma 44:5). The great general understood the seeming contradictory notion that for liberty to truly be sustained, it must bind its partakers to the country that upholds those liberties. Perhaps in his words there was a direct attack on the chief captains of the Lamanites, all of whom were Amalekites and Zoramites—former Nephites who had betrayed their people (see Alma 43:6). These defectors had not been bound to their country’s liberty, and now they found themselves on the verge of bondage. Moroni continued to testify to them by commending the “maintenance of the sacred word of God, to which we owe all our happiness” (Alma 44:5). An unshakeable commitment to country and sacred scriptures saved Nephite society on that day in the midst of peril. Likewise, may we forever preserve American liberty by binding ourselves to the two keystones of our lives, the Constitution’s heritage and principles and the sacred truths and warnings of the Book of Mormon. On this could hang all our happiness.

Not​es


[1] Jared Sparks, The Writings of George Washington (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1847), 4:211.

[2] Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1997), 15.

[3] Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, comp. Joseph Fielding Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1976), 194.

[4] Smith, Teachings, 147. Note also the use of the word standard in 2 Nephi 29:2.

[5] Joseph Smith, History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, ed. B. H. Roberts, 2nd ed. rev. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1948), 2:52.

[6] Dallin H. Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” Ensign, February 1992, 73.

[7] Ezra Taft Benson, “God’s Hand In Our Nation’s History,” 1976 Devotional Speeches of the Year (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1977), 305.

[8] Donald Q. Cannon, ed., Latter-day Prophets and the United States Constitution (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 1991), 79.

[9] Gaillard Hunt, ed., The Writings of James Madison (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1901), 411.

[10] Charles Warren, The Making of the Constitution (Littleton, CO: Fred B. Rothman & Co., 1993), 717.

[11] Ezra Taft Benson, This Nation Shall Endure (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1977), 32.

[12] Cannon, Latter-day Prophets, 8.

[13] J. Reuben Clark, Stand Fast by Our Constitution (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), 148.

[14] Cannon, Latter-day Prophets, 170.

[15] Oaks, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” 68.

[16] See Ensign, May 2000, 112.

[17] Thomas J. Norton, The Constitution of the United States: Its Sources and Its Application (Boston: Little, Brown, 1922), xiv.

[18] Robert C. Winthrop, Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions: from 1869 to 1879 (Boston: Little, Brown, 1879), 236.

[19] William O. Nelson, The Charter of Liberty: The Inspired Origin and Prophetic Destiny of the Constitution (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1987), 101.

[20] Charles Francis Adams, The Works of John Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, 1854), 229.

[21] Nelson, The Charter of Liberty, 104.

[22] Ezra Taft Benson, God, Family, Country: Our Three Great Loyalties (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1974), 360.