The 12th Article of Faith: Not to be used as an Excuse for Murder


February 2, 2009 by Ron Madson

It is my opinion that based on the totality of our doctrine, historical application, and just common moral sense that the 12th Article of Faith was never intended to require unqualified/unconditional obedience to our government or the laws of man. I believe that it is, at the minimum, ignorant if not spiritually criminal to assume that the 12th Article of Faith justifies obeying one’s government when it demands us to support wars that cause the murder of innocent lives.

The 12th Article of Faith is a general statement that we “sustain” the “law.” It is rare that sustaining the law of the land cannot be reconciled with our free and religious conscience. The 12th Article of faith can and should apply to our everyday civil duties–regulations, contracts, speed limit, criminal laws, and even taxation with representation. It is wise and virtuous to be civil and obedient to perhaps all civil laws.

However, there are times when one’s government and it’s laws demands of us to destroy the inalienable rights of life and liberties of others. When that occurs I believe we have the right, and even spiritual duty, to civilly disobey our government for the following reasons:

First, there are two basic school of legal thought as to what constitutes “law”—There is the “positive law’ model and the “natural law” model. Positive law asserts that there is no law except that which is mandated by the those who hold authority and can enforce it. Whether moral or not moral– it just is. By contrast Natural law recognizes that there are God given inalienable rights that all men are endowed with that stand independent and superior to any laws of men. Therefore, when “natural law” is irreconcilable with actual law, we are justified in civil disobedience to our government. These rights were articulated by Jefferson, Madison, et. al. in framing the founding documents of our nation.

Second, DC: 134: 1-7 and DC 98: 4-8 clearly and unmistakably adopt a natural law approach. The Lord only requires us to sustain laws that allows its citizens freedom of conscience and founded on constitutional principles. In His words, no government or laws can expect to be sustained or “exist in peace” if it denies us of our inalienable rights of freedom of conscience.

Third, both our nation and church history demonstrate that our inspired leaders have consistently applied a natural law approach when a conflict arises between the law of their government and natural law. The founding fathers of this nation rebelled against their government and the founding leaders of our faith deliberately chose to disobey the laws of their government when the Lord commanded them to practice polygamy.

Fourth, the reality is that inspired and courageous men throughout recorded history such as Thomas More (“Man of All Seasons”), Gandhi and our own Helmuth Hubener have disobeyed their government and it’s laws as a matter of conscience. Like the Revolutionaries in 1776 or our church elders during the polygamy era, these individuals like thousands of others throughout history have used their own conscience to independently determine whether it was God’s will to support their government.

Fifth, we are each endowed with the spiritual capacity to receive personal revelation to know when and for what reasons we must civilly disobey our government.

There are two approaches that enlist the 12th Article of Faith as the bases upon which to support one’s nation in it’s wars:

The “Positive Law” approach—“Our government commands and we obey.”

This approach involves believing that we must unconditionally obey our government no matter what it requires. This approach assumes that our obedience absolves us from any moral culpability for the acts that are done in concert with one’s government. This approach can result in acts, wars and endeavors that are sometimes noble and virtuous, but other times requires us to incinerate Jews in an oven, communicate messages by dropping bombs that kill tens of thousands innocent civilians, and initiate wars of aggression. This approach requires little or no thinking, no independent use of our moral compass, and for sure no personal revelation lest it confuse our thinking I consider our failure to civilly disobey any government when it authorizes the killing of innocent life as an act of criminal negligence, laziness, and arguably deafness to the spirit of Christ.

Selective “Natural Law” approach—“Only if my life or rights are being denied.”

A second choice is to selectively decide to disobey our government only when rights or privileges personal to us are being infringed upon: taxation without representation; not being able to marry more than one women; or when we feel any curtailment of our personal civil liberties. The problem with this approach is that it can be transparently self-centered if one believes that disobedience is only required when it involves one’s own property, life and freedoms. In other words, I will fight like a wildcat to preserve my material possessions and freedoms and life, but heck, if it is in my personal best interests and does not infringe on my well being, then I have no compunction about my government employing me, my money and resources in killing tens of thousands of innocent victims of another nation—their rights to life being marginally, if at all relevant to me personally. This is situational ethics at it’s worst. Inalienable rights have no national boundaries and have been given to all the children of God. It is pathetically selfish to not be as vigilant about preserving the rights to life and freedoms of all mankind. To take their lives, destroy their homes without just cause is as reprehensible as if it was being done to us personally. Again we should be willing to civilly disobey when the acts of our government is seeking to unjustly destroy the life of anyone.

When do we have a moral obligation to civilly disobey our government? Nephi told us that when the Son of God comes to the world He will show us all “things that we should do.” What did He do in relations to the “powers that be”? He was denied many civil liberties by the nation that occupied his country. He and his people were taxed without representation. They were subjected to the taking of their lives, liberties and properties. And yet when He was invited by others to take up arms and rebel against the powers that be what did he do? He refused to take up arms and commanded His disciples to put up their swords. He made no protest to any forms of taxation and even suggested returning all the money to those who created the currency. He taught “going the extra mile” and to live in harmony and peace even with enemies. So what did he refuse to do? He refused to harm anyone in anyway. No authority on earth could compel Him to do evil either individually or in concert with others no matter how just the cause. He refused to harm the sinner and even His enemies. He could not be compelled to speak falsehoods and He spoke truth to power. So when this same God tells us to live civilly and sustain law unless it involves the taking of life and freedom of conscience, what does His example mean to me?

I believe that I can sustain and adapt to reductions of my own personal material possessions and also limitations of many personal civil liberties, and even onerous taxation as long as I can live peacefully and practice virtue within the limitations placed upon me. But I refuse to obey any order, law or government that tells me that I must engage in killing, harming or destroying another person’s freedoms and rights to life. To require me to do so is to rob me of what little virtue that I might have. It is far more criminal and morally reprehensible to force me to become an instrument of unjust killing and destroying someone’s freedoms, then to have others take, for example, some additional percentage of my income or put some limitations on my personal freedoms. So in an inversion of His example, we protest an ounce of taking or restrictions upon ourselves and threaten to disobey while we hide behind the 12th Article of Faith as we drop tons of bombs on others— destroying their lives, properties and freedoms.

I believe that our God wants us to employ our minds, hearts and inspiration to challenge any law or government that compels us to destroy the life and inalienable rights of all mankind and not hide behind it to do what we should never do individually—namely, government sanctioned murder in the form of unjust wars of aggression that involve the taking of innocent life no matter our personal cost/benefit calculations or moral equations. To do so under the pretext of following the 12th Article of Faith is, in my opinion, a pathetic, lazy and ignorant excuse for murder.
Ron Madson

15 thoughts on “The 12th Article of Faith: Not to be used as an Excuse for Murder

  1. Forest Simmons says:


    this is very inspiring. The Mormon Worker and recent events ave me thinking along these same lines. This morning before reading your blog I wrote this:

    Can Mormons participate in civil disobedience in good conscience?

    Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did.

    How about Moses? Doesn’t his stubborn opposition to the Egyptian government of his time add weight to a positive answer to our question?

    How about Peter? For example, Acts 5:27-29 “And when they had brought them, they set them before the council: and the high priest asked them,
    Saying, Did not we straitly command you that ye should not teach in this name? and, behold, ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine, and intend to bring this man’s blood upon us.Then Peter and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to obey God rather than men.

    How about Abinadi, and then Alma, defying King Noah’s command to cease their subversive, unpatriotic, activities?

    Esther showed the same kind of courage when she risked death by pitting her righteous will against the cunning of the king’s right hand man.

    Then there is Ammon who specified an important qualification to his subjection to an earthly king when he told Lamoni, “…whatsoever thou desirest which is right, that will I do.”

    Nephi went beyond civil disobedience when he became an outlaw by very reluctantly slaying an official that got in the way of the Lord’s purposes.

    Brigham Young sent men to harass Johnston’s army as it approached the Salt Lake valley. That army represented the U.S. government, of which Utah was a territory.

    Before the Manifesto of 1890, the brethren continued to practice polygamy against orders of the federal government.

    None of these men were looking for occasion to break the law, but when they were forced to choose between their conscience and civil authority, they made the right choice.

    Further examples that come to mind are the early Christian martyrs that chose torture and death in the Roman circus rather than deny their faith.

    A more modern martyr for the truth was Helmuth Hübener, a seventeen year-old German Latter-day Saint that was executed on 27 October 1942 for speaking out against the Nazi government.

    But before that he was excommunicated from the church by local leaders that apparently thought the twelfth article of faith trumped conscience.

    After the war, church leaders in the USA had him reinstated posthumously.

    The wiki article at

    tells all of this and much more, all of it worth pondering well.

    It mentions that BYU professor Thomas Rogers wrote a play titled “Hübener.”

    I took Russian 101 from Rogers at the time he finished writing this play. He talked to us about the strong reaction of the expatriate German community in the Salt Lake valley. They felt that it wrongly impugned their dutiful patriotic support of the Nazi regime during WWII.

    I can understand how they felt, because deceived by the Kennedy/Johnson era propaganda, I served two consecutive tours (August 1967 to September 1969) as a soldier in Vietnam believing that I was serving the cause of freedom and right. There was no internet back then. All we knew was the Armed Forces Radio and the “Stars and Stripes” newspaper propaganda about why we were there, and why “Charlie” was constantly attacking us with rockets and mortars.

    But I like to think that if I had found out the truth back then, I would have protested the war and refused to serve in an illegal war when drafted.

    Unfortunately, young Hübener was the exception rather than the rule. Most young men are too naïve to know better. If the economic draft gets them, for example, by the time they learn the truth, it is not easy to get out, The military doesn’t “take kindly” to conscientious objectors nowadays.

    I teach mathematics. The basic operations of arithmetic have an hierarchy of priority called “the order of operations.” This priority convention makes it possible to correctly evaluate numerical expressions that are built up from several different operations mixed together.

    I believe that the rules we learn from church and scripture also have an implicit hierarchy of importance. Nephi had a hard time over-riding the rule, “Thou shalt not kill,” precisely because it is one of the highest priority rules. Only a direct command from the holy spirit with lots of persuasive reasoning could convince him to do so.

    Each person has a conscience. We need to keep it sharp and sensitive so that on the occasion of a dilemma between two important rules, we will be able to judge aright, knowing that we will be judged according to the judgment that we exercise.

    I’m afraid that’s exactly the kind of test we were itching for when we shouted for joy at the opportunity of a mortal probation.

  2. Ron Madson says:

    Thank you for your comment. You cited a number of examples that I had not considered. I also appreciated the “hierarchy of importance” principle. Very true and insightful. All of your comments to the Mormon Worker have been informative and I feel as if we have a kindred mind and spirit on many of this issues. I was totally clueless in the 60s. I was not drafted because the Viet Nam war ended just after my mission. If drafted I would have served being relatively ignorant. However, knowing what I know now I would have protested and civilly disobeyed. The tragedy for me is that we have devolved to the point as a people that we reflexively sustain any act of our government without applying our conscience. We have an unhealthy non scrutinizing respect for authority.

  3. ditchu says:

    Where do you get that an act of war is murder? By the nature of warfare, one is not murdering an another if the other person is trying to kill them. Not all killing is murder, else how would you classify the use of deadly force in the defense of oneself (Self defense)?


  4. Ron Madson says:


    I agree that all acts of war are NOT murder. Self defense is justified even if it is not the highest law. My point in the post was that we should use our god given conscience and moral compass to discern for ourselves as to whether a particular war or act is justified and not leave it to one’s government alone. For example, my father was in Patton’s infantry in WWII. I believe he was justified and not committing murder to engage in war. However, I do believe it was murder for some troops even after the war was over (Germany as a whole surrendered) to take a young, capture German soldier and kill him. I guess my point is that we should never abdicate our conscience to the state and if my government wants to engage in a war of aggression OR an unjust war then the killing that ensues —especially destroying civilians is act of collective murder. The size of the group one is a part of does not sanctify the act. If killing my neighbor is unjust in a particular case, then a neighborhood committee or even a whole town’s vote does not cleanse my hands of the deed.
    I do not dispute that self defense and war in general is murder but that we should not turn over our conscience to the state wholesale–and I assume that we would agree on that narrow point.

  5. ditchu says:

    Narrow or broad that point is conseeded.
    Thank you for defining your opinion as too many believe any act of aggression is Classified as murder (justified or otherwise), which is not the case.


  6. Forest Simmons says:


    I appreciate very much what you guys are doing by publishing the Mormon Worker, and maintaining this blog. I first linked to The Mormon Worker website the day it was website of the day at

    When I read the “about” statement, I thought it was too good to be true, but the articles did not disappoint. I went home rejoicing.

  7. Grégoire says:

    Hey Ron, Forest,,

    Thanks so much to everyone for such a fascinating conversation. This has been a fantastic read.

    That army represented the U.S. government, of which Utah was a territory.

    It would be very interesting to explore this in more detail.

    There’s a town called Fillmore, in Millard County, Utah, named after Millard Fillmore. People in St. George know it as the mythical half-way point on the journey to SLC. Anyway, it seems that president did quite a bit to make peace with Deseret; but I suspect it might just have been expedient at that point (the U.S. was in a long-running conflict with Mexico).

    Whether the U.S. had any legitimate claim on Deseret is a matter of debate. In practice, the people fled the United States, where they were being impoverished and murdered. They built a new society on their own backs, with no help from anybody. Johnston’s army might be seen as an example of foreign interventionism and imperialism in this context.

    This is another article, of course, but it’s just one interesting flower which sprouted from the seeds your conversation dropped.

    Take Care,


  8. theradicalmormon says:

    As for acts of war being considered murder or not, I offer to you Brigham Young’s quote on the topic: “Our traditions have been such that we are not apt to look upon war between two nations as murder… Does it justify the slaying of men, women and children that otherwise would have remained at home in peace, because a great army is doing the work? No: the guilty will be damned for it.”

  9. jason b says:

    I am still curious about statements made by church leaders that seem to prioritize loyalty to the state over truth and right. There is a folk-belief that Mormons will not be held accountable for their actions if they are simply obeying the chain of command. I’m going to find the reference but i think it was a conference talk where an apostle was talking about faithful Mormons on both sides of WWII.. It was a chilling omission of responsibility.

  10. Grégoire says:

    Dear Jason,

    There is a folk-belief that Mormons will not be held accountable for their actions if they are simply obeying the chain of command. I’m going to find the reference…

    Here’s the one that springs to mind for me:

    “I remember years ago when I was a bishop I had President Heber J. Grant talk to our ward. After the meeting I drove him home … Standing by me, he put his arm over my shoulder and said: ‘My boy, you always keep your eye on the President of the Church and if he ever tells you to do anything, and it is wrong, and you do it, the Lord will bless you for it.’ Then with a twinkle in his eye, he said, ‘But you don’t need to worry. The Lord will never let his mouthpiece lead the people astray.’ ” (Marion G Romney, Conference Report, October 1960, p. 78.)

    Ezra Taft Benson expounded upon this in 1980, as he was himself awaiting to ascend to the leadership of the church. You can read his thoughts here.

    More recently, Boyd K Packer gave an interview to Frontline (American public television program which featured a documentary entitled “The Mormons”) in which he said the same thing. His points, as I remember them, were that prophets are to be obeyed, not questioned, and that 1. the believer will be blessed for obeying, even if by obeying he commits acts that might be questionable, and 2. that people will be cursed for any criticism of the prophet, even if the criticism is true.

    I don’t want to criticize the religious aspect of Mormonism here in detail, but as someone who has to live in the “mission field” I can tell you I cringe with total and utter embarrassment whenever I hear a leader of the church talk like this publicly. Most of the people who know my background are pretty gracious, but I wonder what they might think of me in private with such statements hitting the press.

  11. Ron Madson says:


    you are absolutely correct that we have adopted the belief of essential inerrancy coupled with sin “indulgence.” You refer to it as a “folk belief.” I wish it were only a “folk belief.” Rather it is systemic. WHen I get a moment I will send some quotes by Joseph Smith and others stating that we should NEVER turn our agency or minds over to any leader/mortal. In the meantime, I am pasting a small segment of one chapter in the book my son and I are trying to finish up. It is predictable how institutions over time create inerrancy and then indulgence just as the Holy Catholic church in time felt it necessary to create.


    When individuals chose, despite changing church doctrine, to remain conscientious objectors to state sponsored wars and crusades, the concomitant doctrine of inerrancy and infallibility was also becoming increasingly entrenched. The inerrancy and infallibility of the Pope allowed among others things a central authority that could decide for all Christians whether a war was justifiable without requiring them to give any thought to choosing for themselves. Moreover, to take any path other then a Pope endorsed policy was subject to recriminations and even condemnation. With this official and then increasing acceptance of inerrancy came the final coup de grace—“Indulgences for Fighting the Heathen, 878” issued by inerrant Pope John VIII:

    “Those who have recently died in war fighting in the defense of the church of God and for the preservation of the Christian religion and of the state, or those who may in the future fall in the same cause, may obtain indulgence of their sins. We confidently reply that those who out of love of the Christian religion, shall die in battle fighting bravely against pagans or unbelievers, shall receive eternal life.”

    The Christian soldier now was not only forgiven his sins, but he was promised paradise for his state service in slaying unbelievers. In 1095 Pope Urban II at the Council of Claremont inspired the first Crusade to free the Holy Lands from pagans:

    “All who die in battle against the pagan, shall have immediate remission of sins. This I grant through the power of God with which I am invested.”

  12. Grégoire says:

    i hope you’ll put me down as an advance customer of your book, brother ron. sounds fascinating, and reminiscent of hoffer’s _true_believer_ (one of my personal favorites).

  13. Lee says:

    How do you read Doctrine and Covenants 124:49-55, which seems to indicate that believers are not to be held to account if they are prevented from doing what is right by the authorities?

    • Joseph says:


      Ummm…How do you come to that interpretation? The scripture says if individuals “go with all their might and with all they have to perform that work,” but are HINDERED (not blindly following), then the Lord accepts their efforts. This is an example of doing all you can and relying on the Lord to help after that, or relying on the Lord for forgiveness after that. I don’t see anything here about committing acts against one’s own conscious just because a particular “authority” says so. If the Spirit whispers to you to interpret this scripture the way you are using it for a particular situation you are facing in YOUR OWN life, I have no argument with that. But the broad application you are trying to give this scripture in your response just doesn’t work.

  14. Joseph says:

    *conscious should be conscience

    Lots of typos lately. Guess I should take that as a hint to step out for a while.

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