The 123rd Section of the Doctrine and Covenants is one of those often overlooked verses of scripture because it seems to contain more historical information than spiritual advice that we can use in our everyday life. However, if we look beyond the obvious context of what is written we find an important principle that we can use in applying to our current situation. But, to better understand this principle we first need to understand the context which prompted the writing of this section.
Joseph Smith wrote these words as a letter to the Saints living in Missouri while he was imprisoned in Liberty jail. When we talk about this period of time we tend to focus on the suffering of Joseph and his prison companions as they languished in deplorable conditions but we tend to over look the suffering that the Saints were going through. Joseph Smith wasn't just their spiritual leader, he was their mayor, the commanding officer of their militia, and the glue that held the Saints together.
When the Saints began moving into Missouri they began buying up land and settled them as farms. Most of these farms were as large as 20-30 acres. That means their houses were not close together but were a considerable distance from one another. As anger towards the "Mormons" grew from other residents of Missouri, mobs began attacking these isolated homes one at a time over a period of weeks and these attacks only intensified while Joseph was in prison.
When word of the horror of these attacks reached Joseph, his heart was deeply sadden and greatly troubled, yet there was nothing he could do for his people. The Lord had already told him that "Thy days are known and thy years shall not be numbered less, therefore fear not what man can do, for God shall be with you forever and ever: (D&C 122 9) yet that didn't mean he wouldn't die soon. In fact, those words could be interpreted as meaning that he would die shortly. Therefore, at that point in time, Joseph wasn't sure how much longer he would remain in jail or if he would even live to return home.
With the heavy worry of how to protect his people from the suffering they were having to endure, Joseph wrote a letter to them explaining what he felt they could do to protect themselves. In this letter Joseph was not issuing a commandment but rather he was making a suggestion for them to consider. His idea was that the Saints should compile a written list setting forth the facts of all the suffering and abuses that have been put upon them by the people of Missouri (verse1).
This list was to include all the property and damages they had sustained, including those to their character and personal injuries, as well as to their property (verse 2). He suggested that perhaps a committee could be formed to facilitate this effort (verse 4) so they could gather all of this written information and present it to the heads of the government (verse 6).
The idea behind this suggestion was that if the governor of Missouri could read for himself all the atrocities that had been committed against an innocent people, that his heart would be turned towards them and do something to stop the violence and take steps to prevent this sort of injustice from occurring again.
But what if the governor's heart wasn't softened? What if the government didn't do anything to protect the Saints? The remainder of verse 6 gives us the principle.
Joseph wrote, "as the last effort which is enjoined on us by our Heavenly Father, before we can fully and completely claim that promise which shall call him forth from his hiding place; and also that the whole nation may be left without excuse before he can send forth the power of his mighty arm."
The Constitution of the United States allows its people the right to peaceably "assemble and to petition the government for a redress of its grievances" (First Amendment). This was the course that Joseph Smith sought to follow in correcting the wrongs that were being perpetrated upon the Saints. If the government did not take steps to correct these wrongs, after being clearly and convincingly brought to their attention through the written testimonies of the saints, then, and only then, were the saints justified in calling "forth the power of [God's] mighty arm."
Joseph went on to explain that this was "an imperative duty we own to God" as well as to "ourselves, our wives, and children." He went on to talk about how his people "have been made to bow down with grief, sorrow, and care under the most damning hand of murder, tyranny, and oppression" (verse 7). He then added that it was "also an imperative duty that we owe to all the rising generation and to all the pure in heart" (verse 11).
What did Joseph mean by this? Why was it an imperative duty for them to collect this information for all the rising generation? Why was it an imperative duty for all those who are pure in heart?
Joseph went on to explain, "For there are many yet on the earth among all sects, parties, and denominations, who are blinded by the subtle craftiness of men, whereby they lie in wait to deceive, and who are only kept from the truth because they know not where to find it" (verse 12).
It should be noted that many of the people in these mobs belonged to Christian churches whose ministers were stirring the people of their congregation up to anger against the "Mormons." Without publishing the truth about the abominations that these mobs were committing in the name of religion, people would continue to be deceived by those preachers who were spreading their believable lies. Joseph felt that people would believe the truth if only they could hear it but to hear it they had to know where to find it.
If the truth wasn't told and published then rising generations of people and those who were pure in heart would only know one side of what happened to the Saints. They would forever believe that the Saints were evil and that the faith they practiced was unchristian. If that were to happen, they would continue to be deceived by those who continued to lie about the truth and it would prevent many honest souls from receiving the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.
Joseph said that for this reason "we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing to light all the hidden things of darkness" (verse 13) and then he added, "These should then be attended to with great earnestness. Let no man count them as small things; for there is much which lieth in futurity, pertaining the saints which depend on these things" (verses 14,15).
To Joseph, the writing and gathering of these accounts of suffering and abuse was not a small, insignificant thing because it affected the future of the saints. If the truth wasn't told and the lies were allowed to go unchallenged, the Church of Jesus Christ would be adversely affected and the progress of the restored gospel would be slowed. If it is the truth that will set men free then the truth must be published for the world to see. If it isn't, then good, honest, decent people will not be able to find it. That is why Joseph said that this effort must "be attended to with great earnestness" and why "we should waste and wear out our lives in bringing" the truth to people.
But that was then. Today the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not being persecuted and many saints serve in both local, state and federal positions of government. Then what relevance does this advice have for us today?
The relevance doesn't lay in the actual circumstances the saints faced but in the principle that Joseph taught of how to deal with those circumstances. We all face some form of injustice in our lives but, in the case of the saints living in Missouri in 1839, the injustice was allowed to continue because the government, whose duty it is to secure and protect the rights of its people, was not doing its duty.
A government doesn't do its duty for two reasons: either it doesn't know that the rights of its citizens are being violated, or it knows and deliberately chooses to do nothing about it. The Constitution allows its people to petition its government and ask for a redress of its grievances (First Amendment). When we, as a people, do this, we are making our government aware of the injustices being committed against us. That eliminates the first reason why governments don't do their duty and leaves only one other reason.
When government officials are made aware that the rights of its citizens are being violated and do nothing about it, then the Constitution allows the people to vote out of office their old representatives and vote in new representatives who will protect their rights. But, if the righteous do all in their power to effect this change and they can't do it, then the government is left with no excuse for their lack of duty and we, the people, have the right to call upon the Lord "to send forth the power of his mighty arm."
But He cannot do that unless the government has been warned. If the righteous do not speak up and let their voice cry out for relief; if they have not sought a redress of their grievances through peaceable assembly, then the nation has not been warned. In that case, it is not right for the righteous to call upon the power of God's might to correct the wrongs being done to them.
When speaking of our day, Moroni wrote, "And it shall come in a day when the blood of saints shall cry unto the Lord, because of secret combinations and the works of darkness" (Mormon 8:27). When the government won't hear the cries of its righteous people, it will because of secret combinations and works of darkness in high places. And it will be the cries of His people that will testify against their government and will bring down the might of the Lord upon the nation.
If tyranny is not opposed when it first begins it will quickly grow so strong that, in short time, it cannot be stopped. To stop tyranny the truth must be told and evil must be exposed. When tyranny rears its head, it must be uncovered and laid bare for all to see. But for that to happen, the wicked deeds of the government must be recorded, gathered together, and published for all to see.
If that is not done then the honest and pure in heart will not know where to find the truth which means that the propaganda lies of a government will be the only "truth" that people will know. When that happens, the people will be deceived and will willing allow themselves to be placed into subjection by their rulers while thinking it will make their life better.
But notice that Joseph's solution to the violence that was being committed against his people was not for the saints to rise up and fight violence with violence. In fact, that is the very opposite of what Joseph Smith taught on how to deal with "tyranny and oppression" whereby we are yoked with an iron yoke and our liberties are handcuffed, chained and shackled (see verse 8).
Our duty is to follow the law of the land and the Constitution is the supreme law of the land. Nowhere does it permit its people to rise up in open rebellion against those in authority. Instead, it permits its people to peaceably assemble to voice their grievances. When we follow the law as contained in the Constitution then we have the right to have God fight our battles for us. When we choose to disobey the law then we become a law unto ourselves and are no longer protected under the law of the land nor are we sanctified by the law of God (see D&C 88:34,35).
To have the blessing of heaven upon up we must speak out and let our voice be heard. If our voice cannot be heard then it cannot cry out unto God for Him to hear. If our voice does not cry out then it cannot be a testimony against the wrongs committed by our government. And if there is no testimony against the government then there can be no judgment against it. When people willingly submit themselves to the unrighteous dictates of their rulers, they are receiving what they desire.
There are many good, decent, and honorable Americans who believe the lies the government tells only because they don't know where to find the truth. If truth is not published, then government lies survive because they go unopposed. The fate of future generations of Americans depend on people today hearing and understanding the truth. The question then becomes, how do we do this? How do we speak out? How do we publish the truth? How do we oppose tyranny while obeying the law of the land?
The answer is: Through all lawful means. We start with our families in teaching them correct principles so that there will be those in the rising generation who will know the truth - the truth of the way things are, were, and should be, both the good and the bad so they can recognize the bad when it happens and appreciate the good when they have it. After that we need to teach the principles of truth to others - our neighbors, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. We need to gather together with like-minded people to strengthen and help one another.
We also need to become involved in our communities: in our schools, civic organizations, town or city government meetings, and other places where we can help influence policies that will maintain the rights of all people and help thwart laws that won't. We can work to support candidates who are honest and honorable and who share our values and we can help people get out to vote for those candidates we feel will serve the best interests of our country.
And even after we elect good people to represent us, we need to remain vigilant and be aware of what they are doing. We need to make sure that the bills they are voting for do not abuse our liberties. And those in government who do not share our values, we need to be active in expressing our opinions and working to defeat legislature that is detrimental to the security of our rights.
But this is not something unique to our day. What happened to the saints in 1839 has happened to other groups of Americans throughout the years and it will continue to happen in the future. Each generation will face the same problem. The circumstances and the groups of people may be different but the basic situation and the motivation for it will be the same.
There will never be a time when Americans can relax their guard and trust their government leaders because there will always be people whose primary concern is in promoting their own special interests and there will always be politicians who will pander to them. Although the events and conditions may be different, the principle to solving the problem is the same. Governments were instituted among men to protect their rights and it is the duty of the citizens to make sure that their government fulfills its responsibility.
As Joseph Smith said, this is no small thing. It is an imperative duty for us to perform and we owe it to God, to ourselves, our wives, our children, and our children's children to fulfill this duty. This is the principle that Joseph Smith set forth when he wrote the words we now find in D&C 123.