What do history's most notorious despots have in common with many of the flag-waving, patriotic politicians of our day? Both groups rise to power through the exploitation of fear, which has become a societal plague. There have been widespread casualties. We need an antidote. Feardom offers its readers a much-needed immunization.
In June 1933, just a few months after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany, a convention of some seven thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses convened in Berlin. They unanimously adopted “A Declaration of Facts,” a document in which they established their opposition to the rising Nazi regime. Copies were sent to every government official they could identify; more than 2.5 million copies were disseminated.
The response was predictable—the German government criminalized their religious services and missionary work. Roughly half of their twenty thousand German members served terms in prison or a concentration camp. Several thousand died during incarceration due to hunger, exposure, or abuse. Over two hundred were tried in a Nazi court and executed.
As documented in Moroni and the Swastika, written by David Conley Nelson, this scenario stands at odds with how members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints acted towards and were treated by the same government. The book exhaustively documents the alarming degree to which church officials bent over backwards to appease, accommodate, and even proactively ingratiate themselves with Nazi leadership.
What becomes clear from the revealed history of interactions between Church officials and Nazi party leaders is the earnestness of the desire on the part of Mormon leaders to make friends with German rulers to ensure the safety of Church members and the ability of the Church’s missionary work to continue. The price was deemed worth it by leaders who—some reluctantly, and many cheerfully—modified church curriculum to remove any reference to Jews or Israel, including Sunday School lessons, hymns, and other material; included Nazi insignia, such as flags, and Hitler’s portrait, in Church meetings; played Hitler’s speeches during or after Church meetings, compelling congregants to listen; enthusiastically and reflexively repeating the “Heil Hitler” salute; expelling Jews from church services; excommunicating a rebel, Helmuth Hübener; denying legal assistance to Mormon Jews wishing to emigrate to America to escape the Hitler regime prior to the war; publishing op-eds and other material affirming that Nazis and Mormons shared several overlapping interests, and emphasizing that one could be a good Mormon and a good citizen of the Nazi state; and on and on.
Of course, this is alarming—but what I considered especially revealing, if unsurprising, was the revelation regarding how ingrained a misunderstanding of Church doctrine had become, leading to widespread submission to, if not active support of, the Nazi government. I refer specifically to the Twelfth Article of Faith, and section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants—two reference points that receive frequent mention in the book, as they were repeatedly cited by lay German Mormons and high-ranking American church leaders as the basis for appeasing the Nazis and standing idly by while tyranny increasingly entrenched itself.
In the mid 1920s, for example, mission president Hugh J. Cannon told Berlin police of “the church’s belief in subjugation to local police and noted that the well-being of the Imperial Government was the object of their daily prayers.” One of his successors, Oliver Budge, informed the Gestapo in a 1933 letter that church members “are taught, especially, to be able to class themselves with the best citizens of the country, and to support, in the full sense of the word, the ordinances and laws of the town, the state, and the country in which they live… [W]e teach that the present party in power, and the laws governing the country, be supported by the members of the church.”
Lay members understood and internalized the message; one Mormon soldier who fought for the Nazi regime, when interviewed by the book’s author, simply stated that “Latter-day Saints should support the government!” Included with his reply was a copy of a 2004 Sunday School lesson manual featuring a quote from Church president Heber J. Grant stressing compliance with the Twelfth Article of Faith and Section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants. In that lesson, President Grant is quoted as saying, “It is one of the Articles of our Faith to obey and uphold the laws of the land.” Following references to D&C 134, he also stated, “The Saints on either side [of war] have no course open to them but to support that government to which they owe allegiance.”
Unfortunately, I believe that these references—including the many that permeate the book—are incorrect. They rely upon an interpretation of these two scriptural provisions that is certainly commonplace, but is one that requires overlooking the actual textual construction.
First, the context of these references should be offered, even if it is ultimately dismissed by some who resolutely consider them divinely sanctioned scripture. The Articles of Faith were written by Joseph Smith, founding prophet of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, as part of an 1842 letter to the editor of the Chicago Democrat in response to questions regarding the founding and nature of this new religion. Claiming such a media response as tantamount to scripture is somewhat akin to attempting to canonize the transcript of President Gordon B. Hinckley’s interview on 60 minutes with Mike Wallace. Neither, of course, were claimed to be revelation. And as the Church’s own curriculum states, section 134 of the Doctrine and Covenants is not revelation: “It should be noted that in the minutes, and also in the introduction to this article on government, the brethren were careful to state that this declaration was accepted as the belief, or ‘opinion’ of the officers of the Church, and not as a revelation, and therefore does not hold the same place in the doctrines of the Church as do the revelations.”
As such, it might be easy to dismiss adherence to these provisions since they may lack the divine weight that some seek to impregnate into the pages from which we read them. But let’s accept, for conversation sake, the position that the average Mormon takes—that they are in fact binding upon church members.
How, then, are we bound?
The Twelfth Article of Faith reads as follows:
We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.
Most members of the Church focus only on the first part of this provision, asserting that we should subject ourselves to government, period, end of story. That position necessarily ignores the conjoining qualification wherein compliance is conditioned on the actions of those running the government. The correct reading of this Article stipulates that submission is predicated on these rulers obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law. It therefore follows that when those in government are breaking the law, then our submission is not required. (Of course, this also requires understanding what law actually is, as it is not simply whatever mandates a group of government officials thinks up, however benevolent or barbaric.)
It becomes obvious, then, that pointing to this Article as the basis for unqualified allegiance to whatever government is in power is false. Exterminating Jews, for example, is not lawful, even if it is technically legal; God does not expect feckless submission to those who carry out such horrific acts.
But what of D&C 134, similarly referenced as a reason to play nice with those in power? The relevant passage of this “declaration of belief regarding governments and laws” reads:
We believe that all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside, while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments; and that sedition and rebellion are unbecoming every citizen thus protected, and should be punished accordingly; and that all governments have a right to enact such laws as in their own judgments are best calculated to secure the public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience.
As with the Twelfth Article of Faith, many Church members simply internalize only the first few words of this verse, leading them to incorrectly believe that God binds them to “sustain and uphold the [government] in which they reside,” period, end of story. But again, the qualifying conditions that follow make clear that such allegiance is predicated on lawful activity. Such support is required, we further read, while we are “protected in [our] inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such governments.” Sedition and rebellion “are unbecoming every citizen thus protected.”
A fair and plain reading of this scripture results in the same conclusion: a government that violates a person’s rights is not deserving of support—and at a minimum, there is no divine obligation to simply submit to the mandates of those in power.
Unfortunately, the incorrect interpretation of these passages is offered to readers of Moroni and the Swastika—an otherwise outstanding book I heartily recommend reading—whose author at the very introduction tells us that the Twelfth Article of Faith and D&C 134 together comprise an “important religious tenet” and constitute “a charge to cooperate with civil government however onerous it may be.”
Clearly, having the Church sanction rebellion against an oppressive military machine would be unwise; organizational opposition to a ruthless political regime would bring swift and fatal retaliation. However, while institutional defiance is strategically foolhardy, the question of individual resistance should be treated separately—and in that realm we must address whether God actually intends for each of his followers to follow orders from repressive regimes and respectable Republics alike.
Helmuth Hübener’s story provides a case study against which we can analyze this question. While the Church had been strenuously attempting to be considered friendly—or at least non-threatening—toward the Nazi regime, one of its members, a young teenage boy, was authoring scathing rebukes excoriating Adolf Hitler and his minions. These documents were disseminated furtively throughout Hübener’s town of Hamburg, and when caught, his friends were imprisoned for several years, while the 17-year-old ringleader—and faithful Mormon—was beheaded by guillotine. He was subsequently excommunicated by his rabidly pro-Nazi ecclesiastical leader, and his story was suppressed by BYU officials and Church leaders for years, citing sensitivities of upsetting communist leadership in East Germany with whom the Church was trying to build a relationship in order to facilitate church business and missionary work.
Few will dispute the wisdom of strategy, and the importance of picking one’s battles. It does little good to one’s self, family, congregation, or others to put up a quick fight and be executed. It is perhaps for this reason that—unlike the non-revelatory scriptures referenced earlier—God actually has stated, “this is wisdom, make unto yourselves friends with the mammon of unrighteousness, and they will not destroy you.” It follows the old adage of keeping your friends close and your enemies closer; there is logistical benefit in not incurring the wrath of a powerful foe.
But while strategy should be considered, that does not constitute a valid claim to argue that God absolutely forbids anything but servility to the state. To the extent that Helmuth’s story is known, he is praised as a freedom fighter—a brave and principled young man who stood up for his convictions, and who sought to popularize the truth. His excommunication—considered by many to never have been valid in the first place—was later rescinded. Books, plays, movies, and other media extol his heroism. It’s easy to recognize the virtue of his activism.
It’s also easy to cast aspersions on his contemporaries who courted favor with the very enemy Helmuth was fighting. How easy must it have been to follow the masses—to silently and idly accept the increasing levels of restrictions, first because they didn’t affect you, and later because circumstances were too severe to speak out?
The mind, in such circumstances, is desperate for self-soothing arguments that ameloriate one’s conscience. Thus did German Mormons embrace a number of myths regarding the Third Reich’s friendliness towards the faith: that Hitler had read the Book of Mormon; that he based his supposed health code on the Word of Wisdom; that his Winter Relief program—where Germans were told to eat a simple meal on the Second Sunday at donate saved funds to the war effort—was based on the church’s Fast Sunday program; that close parallels existed between the Nazi drive for racial purity and genealogical research, and the Church’s own quest for family history; and at worst, that Hitler himself was on a mission from God. Thus did Hübener’s pro-Nazi branch president tell his flock “about the importance of keeping the laws of the land and supporting and sustaining the Führer who was ordained of God.”
Sadly, sensitivities often trumped conscience, whether individually or institutionally. The Church’s effort to suppress Hübener’s story, detailed in length in this book, was spearheaded by Thomas S. Monson, who had been tasked with overseeing the Church’s efforts regarding East Germany. When approached by an Associated Press reporter inquiring as to why he had stopped BYU from continuing a very popular production of a play on Hübener’s life, and why research and publication of the story had been quashed, then-Elder Monson replied:
Who knows what was right or wrong then? I don’t know what we accomplish by dredging these things up and trying to sort them out.
It’s admittedly easy to play armchair quarterback and see the apparent misguidedness of censoring so important a story out of concerns that may have been unfounded. The motives of Elder Monson were, we must presume, sincere—he, like Church leaders for decades, had a fixed goal as the primary priority: keep missionary work going. These ends justified controversial means, whether ingratiating the Church with the Nazi regime from the highest levels, or controlling the flow of information in the decades that followed the war.
Helmuth’s story speaks to me. I believe he did what was right. And as the familiar primary tune counsels us, we are to “do what is right, let the consequence follow.” Put differently, ends don’t justify the means; does a crucial “end” such as perpetuating Church programs and allowing missionary work to continue allow us to support the problematic means listed above? It’s a pertinent question for the future, and one which deserves serious reflection—not to recommend institutional changes and counsel those in command of the Lord’s Church, but to ponder individual action and the degree to which one is willing or obligated to support an unsupportable government.