“The Constitution Hangs by a Brittle Thread”: “Befriending the Constitution” in our Homes (Part 3)


This article was originally published in Meridian Magazine.


This is the final part of a three-part series regarding Joseph Smith’s prophecy that the Constitution would one day hang by a brittle thread and would be “rescued” by the faithful. (Read part one HERE and part two HERE). As President Ezra Taft Benson declared in his edifying address, “The Constitution – a Heavenly Banner,”


“The Constitution will be saved as prophesied by Joseph Smith. But it will not be saved in Washington. It will be saved by the citizens of this nation who love and cherish freedom.”

He added,


“It will be saved by enlightened members of this Church—men and women who will subscribe to and abide by the principles of the Constitution.”

The saving of the Constitution should begin with the teaching of the importance of its principles in our homes. Doctrine and Covenants 98:6 declares, “I, the Lord, justify you . . . in befriending that law which is the constitutional law of the land.” According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word “justify” means “to judge, regard, or treat as righteous and worthy of salvation.” We will be judged for our willingness to “befriend . . . the constitutional law of the land.” We will also be blessed for doing so, as is always the case when we obey a commandment.


In his General Conference address, Friendship: A Gospel Principle,” Elder Marlin K. Jensen declared, “Our Savior, shortly before His Crucifixion, said to His disciples: ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. Ye are my friends.’” He added, “At no time will we be more Christlike than when we are a friend. . . I know that when we offer ourselves in friendship, we make a most significant contribution to God’s work and to the happiness and progress of His children.” Jane Austen, in Northanger Abby, also captured the level of commitment required by true friendship when she reflected, “There is nothing I would not do for those who are really my friends. I have no notion of loving people by halves, it is not my nature.”


Understanding “friendship,” as a significant principle of action modeled on the way in which Christ treated us as His friends, provides a sense of the resolve and effort required if we are truly to “befriend” and thereby increase understanding of the Constitution in our homes. Like many faithful parents in our generation, my wife and I unintentionally contributed to the Constitution hanging by a “brittle thread,” when we failed to teach our children to understand the importance of its principles. It is not too late, however. The Brethren, prophets for our day, have increasingly taken up the call to teach that the Constitution is “a heavenly banner” that is “divine” and “belongs to all mankind,” and we can still heed that clarion call.


We have been given more tools to use in the effort to increase constitutional literacy in the public square and our homes than at any other time in history, which evidences that the Lord is furthering this great befriending and saving of the Constitution. Those tools and the technology to deliver them include the scriptures, the teachings of the prophets, and the words given us “by the hands of wise men whom [the Lord] raised up to this very purpose,” the Framers of the Constitution.


The scriptures and the words of the prophets tell us why constitutional literacy is important to “all” of His children. We learn in Doctrine and Covenants 101:77 that, “the laws and constitution of the people, which I have suffered to be established . . . should be maintained for the rights and protection of all flesh, according to just and holy principles.” In Doctrine and Covenants 98:5, we are taught, “that law of the land which is constitutional supporting the principle of freedom in maintaining rights and privileges, belongs to all mankind, and is justifiable before me.” Verse 8 adds, “I, the Lord God, make you free, therefore ye are free indeed and the [constitutional] law also makes you free.”


We fought in the pre-existence for free agency or rights. Those rights, in turn, are secured in our day through the constitutional rule of law. We should “befriend” that law, but we are unable to “befriend” that which we do not know and nourish.


In Doctrine and Covenants 134: 5-6, which was revealed to Oliver Cowdery, affirmed by the Prophet Joseph, and canonized as scripture by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, clarifies the importance of law as a means of protecting liberty: “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. We believe that every man should be honored in his station, rulers and magistrates as such, being placed for the protection of the innocent and the punishment of the guilty; and that to the laws all men owe respect and deference, as without them peace and harmony would be supplanted by anarchy and terror; human laws being instituted for the express purpose of regulating our interests as individuals and nations, between man and man; and divine laws given of heaven, prescribing rules on spiritual concerns, for faith and worship, both to be answered by man to his Maker.”


As we learn in Section 134 and the words of the framers of the Constitution, equal liberty is an interdependent principle. If we want our constitutional rights to be recognized, we must stand ready to befriend the rights of others. If the government can limit our neighbor’s rights, it can also take our rights. A respect for the rights of others is the basis of the constitutional rule of law. As Dolley and James Madison also proved, in a time as perilous and partisan as our own, respect for the rights and dignity of others is the foundation of civility.


When dedicating the Howard W. Hunter Library at the J. Reuben Clark Law School at Brigham Young University, President Gordon B. Hinckley asked why the 134th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants was not prominently displayed at the law school, as a reminder of the importance of the constitutional rule of law and of the need to study the scriptures related to that law. Interestingly, he also noted that verse 12 is “not for our day.”

Section 134 is the most substantive of all scripture regarding the Constitution and the rights it protects and, like other constitutionally related scriptures in the Doctrine and Covenants, merits close study in our homes. Section 134:5 provides excellent fodder for a family discussion that could easily fill an engaging family home evening. Even young children can be taught the importance of rights first in the home and later in society at large.


When I finished writing my first book regarding the Constitution, Public Prayer and the Constitution: A Case Study in Constitutional Interpretation, which discussed the intentions of the framers in drafting the First Amendment, I wanted to know whether, despite its weaknesses, it was acceptable to the Lord before publishing it. I went to the Washington D.C. Temple seeking assurance. I was surprised at the answer I received – “go home and study the 134th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants.” When I outlined Section 134, I was deeply touched to learn that it fit perfectly with the thought of James Madison, the author of the First Amendment. That experience ultimately led to my writing James Madison: The Father of Religious Liberty.


There is far too much in the scriptures regarding the constitutional rule of law to summarize in an article of this nature or during a single time of instruction in our homes. Friendship requires more than a cursory moment of reflection. Each verse in the Doctrine and Covenants should be studied. If it is, it will motivate every member of a family to think deeply about the importance, in the eyes of the Lord, of the constitutional rule of law generally and the right of conscience specifically.


The reading of the scriptures regarding the importance of the constitutional rule of law should be complemented by reading the words of the prophets which can easily be accessed online. Joseph Smith taught much regarding this topic. While the Prophet Joseph’s teaching merit close study, the words of living prophets are also highly relevant to our day and should be taught in our homes.  On September 16, 1986, President Ezra Taft Benson addressed the topic, “The Constitution – A Heavenly Banner,” which provides a great means of beginning constitutional instruction in our homes.


He taught, “To understand the significance of the Constitution, we must first understand some basic, eternal principles [which] have their beginning in the premortal councils of heaven” and stated that those principles include agency, the proper role of government, that human rights are gifts of God, and that people are sovereign. President Benson also discussed the coming forth of the Constitution by “the hands of wise men” raised up by God for that very purpose. He also examined major structural provisions in the Constitution designed to protect rights, including enumerated (or limited) governmental powers, the Separation of Powers (checks and balances and the three branches of government), federalism and other limitations carefully designed to withstand the propensity of the majority in power to limit the rights of the minority.


President Benson also reflected,


“We are fast approaching that moment prophesied by Joseph Smith when he said, ‘Even this Nation will be on the very verge of crumbling to pieces and tumbling to the ground and when the constitution is on the brink of ruin this people will be the Staff up[on] which the Nation shall lean and they shall bear the constitution away from the very verge of destruction’” (emphasis in original).

He then emphasized four ways in which we should prepare for those coming days: 1. “We must be righteous and moral”; 2. “We must learn the principles of the Constitution and then abide by its precepts”; 3. “We must be involved in civic affairs”; and 4. “We must make our influence felt by our vote, our letters, and our advice.”


Sadly, as a people, most of us have not heeded that prophetic counsel as well as we should have. Constitutional understanding, even among members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has dropped precipitously since 1986. Many of the Brethren, therefore, are renewing the call for constitutional understanding, led understandably by President Dallin H. Oaks, who gained esteem as a lawyer, law professor and jurist before assuming the heavy mantle and high and holy calling of an Apostle. In February of 1992, then Elder Oaks gave an address entitled, “The Divinely Inspired Constitution,” in which he carefully explained what it means to declare that the Constitution is “divinely inspired.” He summarized that he sees “divine inspiration in . . . four great fundamentals of the U.S. Constitution”: “the separation of powers in the three branches of government, the Bill of Rights, the division of powers between the states and federal government; and the application of popular sovereignty.”


President Oaks has continued to emphasize the importance of the constitutional rule of law throughout his ministry. On September 17, 2010, he addressed the Utah Constitution Day Celebration regarding, “Fundamentals of our Constitution,” in which he once again discussed the four fundamentals noted in his 1992 talk. He added two fundamentals: “Judicial Independence” and “Citizen Responsibilities.”


Citizen responsibilities included an admonition to:

1. “Understand the Constitution”

2. “Support the Law”

3. “Practice Civic Virtue”

4. “Maintain Civility in Political Discourse”

5. “Promote Patriotism.”


He quoted Adlai Stevenson in defining “patriotism”: “What do we mean by patriotism in the context of our times? . . . A patriotism that puts country ahead of self; a patriotism which is not short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime.”


During the past few years, President Oaks and other members of the Quorum of Twelve have emphasized the importance of the free exercise of religion and religious speech. On February 4, 2011, Elder Oaks gave a moving address regarding the importance of preserving religious liberty at Chapman University School of Law. In a nation in which only 15% of adults know that the First Amendment protects religious liberty and even fewer, including members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, know why religious liberty is so important in our day, the message of the Brethren should be taken very seriously. We need to know that the Constitution protects the right of conscience and why that right is so vitally important in our day.


I have merely touched on some of the major scriptures and addresses given by Church leaders regarding the constitutional rule of law and what it is designed to protect.  More can and should be easily accessed online. We should be studying the Constitution in our homes, beginning with the scriptures and the words of our leaders.


Technology has increased ready access to those scriptures and talks. Thanks to modern technology we have a third source of non-partisan constitutional information that can be easily used in our homes: The Quill Project, a joint effort between Dr. Nicholas Cole and his team at Pembroke College (Oxford) and the Center for Constitutional Studies at Utah Valley University, which is readily accessible at www.quillproject.net. What makes the Quill Project so exciting as a dependable source of constitutional information is that it relies on the actual words, in context, of the “wise men” who were raised up by God to bring forth the Constitution and secure the constitutional rule of law. We should focus on the words of those wise men and not solely on secondary sources that often distort the words of the Framers to achieve some short-term partisan end.


Families can use Quill as a “lab” to enhance their study of the Constitution. Quill currently includes the deliberations and words of the framers in the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the Bill of Rights and the Utah State Constitutional Convention of 1895. It will soon include the 13th-15th Amendments, which freed the slaves and further secured civil rights, and the 19th Amendment, which secured women’s suffrage as a federally recognized right.


Thanks to a major grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Wyoming, Idaho and Washington conventions will also be added, and Arizona State University is working on the Arizona state constitutional convention. Students at the Center for Constitutional studies are currently working on the Illinois state constitutional convention. Deliberations in state constitutional conventions are important, as part of the vision of the Framers of the U.S. Constitution, because state constitutions may provide for more but not less liberty than that which is provided under current interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. The Utah Constitution, for example, provides for a higher level of protection for religious liberty and women’s rights than the U.S. Constitution.


These resources on Quill are filled with substance, but they are also a wonderful resource for learning how wise leaders at the state and federal levels framed constitutions through a deliberative process fueled by general respect for the views of others and a high level of civil discourse. That procedural lesson fits nicely with President Oaks’ calls for civic virtue and civil discourse. Thus, examining Quill materials teaches the importance not just of substance but also of process in constitution making.


Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints should find learning through Quill, with its many resources, to be analogous to using Family Search. Indeed, in this world of many grand coincidences, we recently were searching for the records of the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention and found that they are largely held by Family Search and Ancestry.com.


Quill should be used as a lab to complement learning from the scriptures and the words of the prophets. For example, family members may want to pick an individual founder, such as Benjamin Franklin, to learn what he said in the course of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. My favorite way of using Quill as a lab is to examine specific topics or answer questions. For example, to help determine the meaning of “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” and impeachment, I recently searched the single word “impeachment,” studying the 61 times it was discussed in the Convention. I also learned that the term “High Crimes and Misdemeanors” was referred to 4 times, and I examined that discussion as well. That study took only a few hours and proved to be enlightening. It became the foundation of a series of articles I recently wrote for the Deseret News regarding the impeachment process.


We have been directed by prophets to “understand the Constitution.” The Prophet Joseph taught, “the Constitution of the United States is a glorious standard; it is founded in the wisdom of God. It is a heavenly banner; it is to all those who are privileged with the sweets of liberty, like the cooling shades and refreshing waters of a great rock in a thirsty and weary land.” As is always the case, that refreshing understanding should begin in the home and should not be left entirely to schools and other public entities. Not surprisingly, the Lord has given us the resources we need. The only remaining issue will be whether we will heed the words of the prophets to refreshing our families by increasing constitutional understanding in our homes and thereafter use that understanding to make the world a better place, a place of liberty and safety for our children and our children’s children.

© 2020 by Rodney K. Smith