The Kingdom of God or Nothing – Mormon Civil Disobedience
John Taylor, the third president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, gave the sermon The Kingdom of God or Nothing as an Apostle on 1 November 1857, in the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City. Taylor was concerned with the rights of the Saints after having been driven from state to state, but explained congruously the rationale behind a people devoted to the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth. The Saints had lived for approximately a decade in the Salt Lake valley, when yet again the American government for various reasons, many of them politically expedient, instigated a sort of crisis against the Mormon settlers in the 1850s. John Taylor is recorded having said the following in the Journal of Discourses:
“Was the kingdom that the Prophets talked about, that should be set up in the latter times, going to be a Church? Yes. And a State? Yes, it was going to be both Church and State, to rule both temporarily and spiritually. It may be asked, How can we live under the dominion and laws of the United States and be subjects of another kingdom? Because the kingdom of God is higher, and its laws are so much more exalted than those of any other nation, that it is the easiest thing in life for a servant of God to keep any of their laws; and, as I have said before, this we have uniformly done’.
if the law is itself clearly unjust
Henry David Thoreau and many with him believe that in the contrary, that if the Saints were to be subjects of a higher law, that of the Kingdom of Christ, they would most probably at times come at odds with the laws of the nation-state in which they were to live. If the law is itself clearly unjust, and the lawmaking process is not designed to quickly obliterate such unjust laws, then Thoreau says the law deserves no respect and it should be broken. In the case of the United States the Constitution itself enshrined the institution of slavery, and therefore falls under this condemnation. Abolitionists, in Thoreau’s opinion, should completely withdraw their support of the government and stop paying taxes, even if this means courting imprisonment:
“Under a government which imprisons unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.… where the State places those who are not with her, but against her, – the only house in a slave State in which a free man can abide with honor.… Cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence. A minority is powerless while it conforms to the majority; it is not even a minority then; but it is irresistible when it clogs by its whole weight. If the alternative is to keep all just men in prison, or give up war and slavery, the State will not hesitate which to choose. If a thousand men were not to pay their tax bills this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable the State to commit violence and shed innocent blood. This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible”.
the choice between nonviolence and nonexistence
= the Kingdom of God or nothing
Latter-day Saints are conscious that, ‘if you have not chosen the Kingdom of God first, it will in the end make no difference what you have chosen instead.’ In my mind, ‘the Kingdom of God or nothing’ resonates with Martin Luther King’s declaration that ‘we live in a time and age, where we have the choice between nonviolence and nonexistence’. Andrew Bolton, looking at the history of the LDS movement, supposes: ‘What if the Mormons – with all their visionary leadership, their positive Zion-building energy, their organizational and administrative genius, and their opportunity for a frontier haven – had responded from strength with nonviolent love? Would they have failed miserably, losing their lives and their vision? Or would they have transformed the world?’
Were the Saints to defend themselves in 1857? The idea of non-resistance was not foreign to the Saints back then. John Taylor indeed touches upon the subject: ‘Does an army come to make war on us? We acknowledge the hand of God in it. We feel that we are in his hands, and say, “It is the Lord; let him do what seemeth good unto him, and we will seek to do what is right on our part. Have we to go to war? We will acknowledge the hand of God in it. If we are told not to kill our enemies, we will not kill them, but cultivate a spirit of meekness and humility, doing what the Priesthood of God dictates—what the servants of the living God tell us. In peace and prosperity, war and adversity, we will lean on the hand of God, and acknowledge, it, and say, “Hallelujah! the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”
How Can His Kingdom ever be Established?
In a sense, there is a sort of pragmatism that is non-pragmatic in John Taylor’s sermon. The Saints must do what the servants of God would tell them, be it to go to war or not to resist the attacks of the enemy. For what was of most importance for the Saints was the establishment of God’s Kingdom on Earth, and in order to do so, they would have to listen and obey the words of the Prophet – scrupulously:
‘If there cannot be a people anywhere found that will listen to the word of God and receive instructions from him, how can his kingdom ever be established? It is impossible. What is the first thing necessary to the establishment of his kingdom? It is to raise up a Prophet and have him declare the will of God; the next is to have people yield obedience to the word of the Lord through that Prophet. If you cannot have these, you never can establish the kingdom of God upon the earth. What is the kingdom of God? It is God’s government upon the earth and in heaven’.
- God’s Army (april 2000)
The early Saints were fearless in their rhetoric and in their actions, and very conscious of their rights under the law, but perhaps more importantly they had the conviction necessary and the ‘sacred rage’ that one would expect of religious militants. John Taylor affirmed:
“Are you not afraid of being killed?” you may ask me. No. Great conscience! who cares about being killed? They cannot kill you. They may shoot a ball into you, and your body may fall; but you will live. Who cares about dying? We are associated with eternal principles: they are within us as a well springing up to eternal life. We have begun to live for ever’. Did not Jesus also say: And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matt. 10:28)
And if the following words were those of a nonviolent believer, of a latter day satyagrahi, wouldn’t you also think twice before attacking? ’Who would be afraid of a poor, miserable soldier—a man that gets eight dollars a month for killing people, and a miserable butcher at that—one of the poorest curses in creation? Mean as the Americans are, they will not, many of them, hire for soldiers. But the Government must hire foreigners for eight dollars a month to come out here to kill us! Who is afraid of them? Let them come on or stay and wiggle, it is all right. We are the Saints of God; we have the kingdom of God, and the devils in hell and all the wicked men on the earth cannot take it from us. [...] They may fight against us, if they like, or they can back out and leave us; but the kingdom will go on. They may take what course they please: the kingdom is ours, and we are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s’.
Acquiring the Right to Civil Disobedience
When using satyagraha in a large-scale political conflict involving civil disobedience, Gandhi believed that the satyagrahis must undergo training to ensure discipline. He wrote that “only when a people have proved their active loyalty by obeying the many laws of the State that they acquire the right of Civil Disobedience.” This obedience has to be not merely grudging, but extraordinary (see mormongandhi article on being subject to kings, rulers, presidents and magistrates). He therefore made part of the discipline that satyagrahis:
- appreciate the other laws of the State and obey them voluntarily
- tolerate these laws, even when they are inconvenient
- be willing to undergo suffering, loss of property, and to endure the suffering that might be inflicted on family and friends.
Taylor in his sermon surely makes a good case as to whether the Saints qualified for a campaign of civil disobedience as a people, if Gandhi’s rule above were to apply (see also article on Mormons and Civil Disobedience):
‘And now, having been forced from the United States, after having been driven time and time again from our homes by our murderous enemies—having fulfilled all the requirements that God or man could require of us, and kept every law necessary for us to observe,—after all this, and more, I say, shall we suffer those poor, miserable, damned, infernal scoundrels to come here and infringe upon our sacred rights?
["No!" resounded throughout the Tabernacle, making the walls of the building tremble.]
NO! It shall be “The kingdom of God or nothing” with us’.