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Military and the Church

Elder Harold B. Lee (front row, standing) and President Hilton A. Robertson of the Japanese Mission, with LDS servicement at the Chapel in the 8069th AU Compound, Korea, 1954. On this trip, Elder Lee investigated the possibility of opening Korea as a separate mission. Photographer: Jerry Maxwell.

by Robert C. Oaks

Although the Church is opposed to war and recognizes that going to war is a very poor alternative in resolving conflicts, tens of thousands of Latter-day Saints have served their countries' armed forces, sometimes even fighting in opposing forces, especially in World War II. The Church considers being loyal citizens to be a duty of its members, irrespective of nationality. Responding to a call for military service is one appropriate manner of fulfilling this duty of citizenship. Latter-day Saints who choose military careers have no restrictions on either their fellowship or their callings in the Church. While any member is free to object to military service because of conscience, Church membership in and of itself is not a justification, and Church leaders have discouraged conscientious objection in every conflict of the twentieth century.

The moral question for Church members is much more one of the spirit than of the uniform. It echoes John the Baptist's counsel to soldiers to avoid violence and extortion, and to be content with their wages (Luke 3:14). The Book of Mormon repeatedly counsels soldiers to abhor the shedding of blood (Alma 44:1-7; 48:14-16, 23; Morm. 4:11-12). However, it also contains principles as to when war may be justified. Concerning the action of the Nephites when they were attacked by the Lamanites, the record states:

Nevertheless, the Nephites were inspired by a better cause, for they were not fighting for monarchy nor power but they were fighting for their homes and their liberties, their wives and their children, and their all, yea, for their rites of worship and their church.

And they were doing that which they felt was the duty which they owed to their God; for the Lord had said unto them, and also unto their fathers, that: Inasmuch as ye are not guilty of the first offense, neither the second, ye shall not suffer yourselves to be slain by the hands of your enemies.

And again, the Lord has said that: Ye shall defend your families even unto bloodshed. Therefore for this cause were the Nephites contending with the Lamanites, to defend themselves, and their families, and their lands, their country, and their rights, and their religion [Alma 43:45-47].

One of the Church's first significant involvements with a national military was the organization and the March of the Mormon Battalion. In 1846, as the Latter-day Saints were beginning their westward migration, they responded to the U.S. Army's request for five hundred volunteers to serve in the conflict with Mexico. The battalion marched from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, through New Mexico and Arizona into Mexico, and then on to California, without combat. Most of its men then journeyed to join their families in Utah. The relative isolation in Utah provided for very little involvement in the Civil War. The Spanish-American War saw two artillery units mobilized from Utah, with the first LDS chaplain and the first LDS servicemen's worship group organized. Involvement in World War I was similarly based in the activity of Utah soldiers but was far more extensive than in any previous military engagement.

In the period before World War II, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., counselor in the First Presidency, vigorously advocated U.S. neutrality, and opposed the maintenance of a standing army with equal vigor when hostilities ceased. However, he was the Church spokesman when it made official declarations encouraging LDS men to respond to their governments' call for military service, despite the fact that these decisions were contrary to his personal viewpoint. In October 1940, he said, "We shall confidently expect that no young man member of the Church will seek to evade his full responsibility" (CR [Oct. 1940]:16). A 1942 First Presidency statement counseled Church members worldwide to be ready to respond to their government's call to military duty and exonerated the members' acts of war: "God…will not hold the innocent instrumentalities of the war, our brethren in arms, responsible for the conflict" (MFP 6:159). This statement has been reiterated during each subsequent period of military action.

The Church has always made significant efforts to help its members in the armed forces live by the same moral standards they would uphold at home. The General Servicemen's Committee was organized in 1941 with Elder Harold B. Lee as chairman. Members of the committee had geographical responsibilities, visited military installations, and appointed more than three thousand servicemen as group leaders and assistants. These priesthood leaders facilitated fellowship and organized opportunities for military people who could not meet with ordinary wards and branches to partake of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The principle of servicemen's group leadership as a special case of Church organization continues in force. LDS chaplains coordinate their activities with stakes and missions and are authorized to organize groups and call group leaders any time small numbers of LDS service people are put in circumstances that might restrict their access to worship.

The activities of the General Servicemen's Committee (in 1969 it became the Military Relations Committee) ebbed and flowed with the intensity of military conflict. This committee began providing publications specifically for service personnel during World War II. It distributed pocket-sized copies of the Book of Mormon, a hymnal, and a doctrinal compendium, Principles of the Gospel, and prepared brochures on military life, sexual morality, missionary opportunities, and the Word of Wisdom. These resources formed the basis of a preservice orientation program instituted during the Vietnam era by the Military Relations Committee. Every stake was provided literature, audiovisual resources, and a curricular outline to help people entering the military prepare for that challenge.

The missionary opportunities in the stresses of military life have proven to be significant, both on a personal and on a national basis. Many military people join the Church, and missionary success in countries such as Japan and Korea has gained momentum from the work of servicemen and women. The membership of the Church commonly prays for service people as a group, much as it does for the missionaries.

Servicemen's conferences are held frequently in Europe and the Far East. An English-speaking servicemen's stake was organized in Europe in 1968, providing members living there the full program of the Church in their native tongue.

(See Basic Beliefs home page; Doctrines of the Gospel home page; Military and the Church home page.)

Bibliography

Boone, Joseph F. "The Roles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Relation to the United States Military, 1900-1975." Ph.D. diss., Brigham Young University, 1975.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 1, Military and the Church

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

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