War and Peace

Author: Wood, Robert S.

LDS ideas about war and peace are complex. They synthesize a number of basic values. First are the ideals of finding peace in Christ (John 14:27), turning the other cheek and loving one's enemies (Matt. 5:39, 44), repeatedly forgiving one's enemies (D&C 64:10;98:23-27, 39-43), and renouncing war and proclaiming peace (D&C 98:16). Next are the goals of establishing a perfect community of righteous, harmonious people (see Zion) and of welcoming the millennial reign of Jesus for a thousand years of peace. Third is a fundamental aversion to any use of force or violence that denies personal agency (D&C 121:41-44). Next is the recognition that war was the tactic Satan used in the premortal existence (see War in Heaven) and that he continues to reign with violence on this earth (Moses 6:15). Then there is acknowledgment that it is appropriate and sometimes required to take up arms in defense of one's family, religion, and freedom (Alma 43:45-47;46:12). Next are the ethical and legal distinctions between deliberate murder and the killing of opposing soldiers in the line of combat duty. There is an obligation of all citizens to honor and obey the constitutional law of their land (see Civic Duties), together with the belief that all political leaders are accountable to God for their governmental administrations (D&C 134:1). And finally, there is the role of the United States of America as a nation of divine destiny with a mission to lead the way in establishing international peace and individual freedom on earth. Under the extreme pressures and agonies that may arise from differing circumstances, an individual must have personal faith, hope, charity, and revelation to implement all these principles in righteousness.

Countries may define their interests differently and hence make reliance on force more or less salient, with various political and ethical consequences. For example, a group may adopt a radical pacifist position, but its survival then depends on the attitudes of others. Thus, in the Book of Mormon, the survival of the converted Lamanites who vowed never to shed blood was vouchsafed by the Nephites and by their own sons, who were not bound by their oath of pacifism (Alma 27:24;56:5-9).

War also has some legal status in international law: "War is a fact recognized, and with regard to many points regulated, but not established by International Law" (L. Oppenheim, International Law, London, 1952, p. 202). In the exercise of their sovereignty, states may limit the initiation or conduct of war, but the present political system of self-help grants the right to make war as one's safety, vital interests, or sense of justice may dictate. Over time peaceful conditions may emerge, but as long as separate independent entities exist, the likelihood of resort to armed conflict remains, and in any sovereign state wherein LDS citizens reside they are pledged to "being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, etc., obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law" (A of F 12).

TEACHINGS OF THE BOOK OF MORMON AND THE DOCTRINE AND COVENANTS. The LDS response to the political realities of war is largely conditioned by the concept of the justification of defensive war provided in the Book of Mormon and in modern revelation. The main statements come from accounts of Moroni 1 (a Nephite commander, c. 72-56 B.C.), from the prophet Mormon (final commander of the Nephite armies, c. A.D. 326-385), and from guidance given to the Church in 1833, when persecutions were mounting in Missouri (see D&C 98).

Captain Moroni raised a banner on which he laid out the principal Nephite war aims: the defense of "our God, our religion, and freedom, and our peace, our wives, and our children" (Alma 46:12). Legitimate warfare is described here in defensive terms. Moroni established a forward defense perimeter, constructed protective fortifications for some cities, and deployed his main armies as mobile striking forces to retake captured towns. His purpose was "that they might live unto the Lord their God" (Alma 48:10), giving no support for war as an instrument to expand territorial or political control (Morm. 4:4-5). He taught the Nephites to defend themselves but "never to give an offense, yea, and never to raise the sword except it were against an enemy, except it were to preserve their lives. And this was their faith, that by so doing God would prosper them in the land" (Alma 48:14-15). They sought the guidance of prophets before going to battle (Alma 16:5;43:23; 3 Ne. 3:19-20). Moroni "glor[ied]" in this position-"not in the shedding of blood but in doing good, in preserving his people, yea, in keeping the commandments of God" (Alma 48:16). Even in the conduct of war itself, indiscriminate slaughter, plunder, and reprisal were prohibited (see CWHN 8:328-79).

Four centuries later, when the Nephite forces "began to boast in their own strength, and began to swear before the heavens that they would avenge themselves of the blood of their brethren who had been slain by their enemies" (Morm. 3:9), Mormon, their leader, withdrew from command. Vengeance belonged only to the Lord (Morm. 3:15). When Mormon's sense of duty caused him again to lead the armies, he knew that the Nephite turn to aggression and bloodthirsty reprisal betrayed a deeper corruption that ultimately spelled their doom. As his people drifted into barbaric acts of torture, rape, and enslavement, Mormon lamented the depravity of his people: "They are without order and without mercy" (Moro. 9:18); and they were destroyed (see Book of Mormon, History of Warfare in).

Even if the sword is taken up in self-defense, it is a fearful choice. It should be undertaken only if God commands (D&C 98:33) and after "a standard of peace" has been offered three times (98:34-38). Great rewards are promised to those who warn their enemies in the name of the Lord, who patiently bear three attacks against themselves or their families, and who repeatedly forgive their enemies (98:23-27, 39-43). If an enemy "trespass against thee the fourth time,…thine enemy is in thine hands, and if thou rewardest him according to his works thou art justified"; but if forgiveness is again extended, "I, the Lord, will avenge thee of thine enemy an hundred-fold" (98:31, 44-45). Accordingly, in the Missouri persecutions (see Missouri Conflict) and in Nauvoo at the time of the 1844 martyrdom of joseph and Hyrum Smith, the posture of the Church was strictly defensive; likewise, the 1857 military threat of the Utah expedition was defused without the occurrence of bloodshed.

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES. In several respects, the LDS response to the subsequent historical realities of war has paralleled the experience of Christianity in general. As long as the early Christians had no responsibility for government, they were obliged only "to obey magistrates, to be ready to every good work" (Titus 3:1), to render unto Caesar "the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Matt. 22:21). Paul saw the real battle as being one with evil spiritual forces (Eph. 6:12). Once it became clear in early Christianity that the second coming of Jesus was not at hand and that the Roman Empire had become Christian, responsibility for political order became a Christian duty. There then developed a theory of war culminating in the doctrine of "just war" formulated by theologians such as Thomas Aquinas.

Likewise, millennial enthusiasm initially focused Latter-day Saints more on the gathering of Israel than on accommodation to the world. An early and continuing LDS theme was that the hour was drawing near for the end of worldly states. With the collapse of "Babylon" would come intense conflicts and the wrath of God (D&C 63:32-33). Bloody war would arise at home and abroad (D&C 38:29). The civil war prophecy in 1832 foretold increasing turmoil until the "full end of all nations" (D&C 87:6). War in this perspective is the harbinger of the apocalyptic end of the world, and the Church is to raise the voice of warning "for the last time" and gather the faithful together to "stand in holy places, and be not moved, until the day of the Lord come" (D&C 88:74-88;87:8).

Animated by this vision, President Brigham Young counseled the Saints to "flee to Zion…that they may dwell in peace" (MFP 2:107). Little hope was given for the reclamation of the secular society. This tendency toward withdrawal, however, was counterbalanced by the LDS perspective on the divine inspiration undergirding the Constitution of the United States and the fact that the Church was inevitably drawn into national politics (see United States of America; Church and State). Although the attempt to establish Zion attracted the hostility of many politicians, Church leaders took an active role in national affairs, supporting the Mexican War (see Mormon Battalion), immediately responding to a request by President Lincoln to protect the mail and telegraph route east of Fort Bridger during the Civil War (1862), and proving their loyalty in the Spanish-American War (1898). After the manifesto of 1890, the division between the Church and the larger society declined, leading to a reconciliation with the existing political order.

World Wars I and II impelled the Church to speak about the religious duties of citizens of warring states, balancing the condemnation of war with statements about civic duties and the relative justice of the causes and conduct of particular combatants. In 1939, the First Presidency asserted that the commandment "Thou shalt not kill" (Ex. 20:13) applies both to individuals and to political entities and condemned the notion of war as an instrument of state policy (MFP 6:88-93). Later in 1940 and 1942 they warned against the self-righteous justifications of the belligerents, which could cloak genocidal acts of mass destruction (MFP 6:115-17), putting distance between the Church and the state: "The Church itself, as such, has no responsibility for these policies, as to which it has no means of doing more than urging its members fully to render that loyalty to their country and to free institutions which the loftiest patriotism calls for" (MFP 6:156). The combatants are "the innocent instrumentalities of the war," who cannot be held responsible for their lawful participation (MFP 6:159). At the same time, reference to "free institutions" and the observation that "both sides cannot be wholly right; perhaps neither is without wrong" (MFP 6:159) point out that there are other grounds on which to evaluate one's participation in war, just cause and just conduct.

Echoing the concerns of the Book of Mormon for just war, the First Presidency warned people not to convert a legitimate war of self-defense into a bloody search for vengeance or the killing of innocent civilians. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., held that "to be justified in going to war in self-defense, a nation must be foreclosed from all other alternatives" (Firmage and Blakesley, p. 314). President Joseph F. Smith identified wickedness in the whole system of states as the root of world war: "I presume there is not a nation in the world today that is not tainted with this evil more or less. It may be possible perhaps, to trace the cause of the evil, or the greatest part of it, to some particular nation of the earth; but I do not know" (MFP 5:71). At the same time, he also affirmed "that the hand of God is striving with certain of the nations of the earth to preserve and protect human liberty, freedom to worship him according to the dictates of conscience, freedom and the inalienable right of men to organize national governments in the earth" (MFP 5:71). Accordingly, the Church supported the war "to free the world from the domination of monarchical despotism" (MFP 5:71).

Whereas some Church leaders have viewed particular threats, of such scope as to justify war beyond a reaction to direct and immediate threat to American territorial integrity or political independence, others such as J. Reuben Clark in the 1940s continued to plead for a neutral, unarmed United States: "Moral force is far more potent than physical force in international relations. I believe that America should again turn to the promotion of peaceful adjustment of international disputes" (cited in Firmage and Blakesley, p. 298). And in 1976 President Spencer W. Kimball wrote, “..We are a warlike people, easily distracted from our assignment of preparing for the coming of the Lord. When enemies rise up, we commit vast resources to the fabrication of gods of stone and steel—ships, planes, missiles, fortifications—and depend on them for protection and deliverance… We forget that if we are righteous the Lord will either not suffer our enemies to come upon us—and this is the special promise to the inhabitants of the land of the Americas (see 2 Ne. 1:7)—or he will fight our battles for us (Ex. 14:14; D&C 98:37) (Ensign, June 1976)

As a result of wars, civil strife, and state terror, the 20th century proved to be the most destructive epoch in history. The defense and refuge of the stakes of Zion were ever more urgent as the earth seem swept by the storm and wrath which poured out “without mixture” (D&C 115;6). After the terrorist attacks in the name of radical Islam on 11 September 2001 in New York, the nation’s capital, and Pennsylvania, President Gordon B. Hinckley in October 2001 General Conference declared that the “first war of the 21st century” had begun whose duration and material cost, as well as the manner of its execution, could not be calculated. He reiterated that the Latter-day Saints are “people of peace,” but also ones who at times “must stand up for right and decency, for freedom and civilization.” He associated the prospective conflict with Satan, who has “been the great mastermind of the terrible conflicts that have brought so much suffering. Treachery and terrorism began with him and they will continue until the Son of God returns to rule and reign with peace and righteousness among the sons and daughters of God.” He counseled the saints to eschew fear, maintain peace in their hearts and families, and be “an influence for good in this world” (General Conference Report, October 6-7, 2001, 87-91)

In the April 2003 General Conference, President Hinckley explicitly took up the issue of war and peace. He stated the long-held position that “those in the armed services are under obligation to their respective governments to execute the will of the sovereign,” a position as ancient as the New Testament church. At the same time, he reiterated the Lord’s command to “renounce war and proclaim peace.” He, however, argued that “self defense” is justified and may transcend responses to a direct attack: “…there are times and circumstances when nations are justified, in fact have an obligation to fight for family, for liberty, and against tyranny, threat, and oppression” (General Conference Report, April 5-6, 2003, 81-85).

There has never been in the Church an authoritative exposition of the just war doctrine that was developed through the Middle Ages and into the modern period. In brief terms, that tradition evaluated the righteousness of war by reference to the justice of the cause, the legitimacy of the civil authority, and the intent to eschew vengeance, as well as the proportionality and humane limits on the forceful measures used. Moreover, the doctrine weighed the probability of success and of an outcome in which the good exceeds the evil. Although there has been over the years no systematic use of these categories by the Brethrens, many similar concerns have entered into their discourse. This was particularly evident in President Hinckley’s April 2003 conference address. The obligation to seek peace and reconciliation, while defending liberty and civilized norms, were at the heart of his message. At the same time, he recognized that the balancing of good and harm was complex and subject to legitimate disagreements.

In both the October 2001 and April 2003 discourse, as in earlier statements by the First Presidency, in matters of war and peace, the theological foundations and the mandate to emulate the Master were clear, but the application of true principles to concrete circumstances entailed complex moral reasoning of the highest order. Not only just cause and intent but outcome need be considered. The twenty-first, like the preceding, century, would continue to need prophetic guidance and sober reflection by which to evaluate participation in specific conflicts without departing either from the obligation of civic obedience or the generalized condemnation of war. These attitudes accommodate the cross-cultural and millennial aspirations of a worldwide church and the demands placed on citizens in a world of competing secular states whose ultimate demise is inevitable. [See also Military and the Church.]


Allen, James B. "When Our Enemies are Also Saints: Response to Claudia W. Harris's 'Mormons on the Warfront'." BYU Studies 30 (Fall 1990):21-26.

Anderson, Jeffery L. "Brothers across Enemy Lines: A Mission President and a German Soldier Correspond during World War I." BYU Studies 40:3 (2001):127-139.

Freeman, Robert C., Dennis A. Wright, and Richard Neitzel Holzapfel. "Photographs of Church Meetings among the U.S. Military in World War II." BYU Studies 41:1 (2002):147-157.

Harris, Claudia W. "Mormons on the Warfront: The Protestant Mormons and Catholic Mormons of Northern Ireland." BYU Studies 30 (Fall 1990):7-19.

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