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International Diplomacy and the Church


by Robert S. Wood

Illustrations by Alex Nabaum

IN THE PREFATORY SECTION of the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord declared, “And the voice of warning shall be unto all people, by the mouths of my disciples, whom I have chosen in these last days” (D&C 1:4). The foundation of the Church’s international diplomacy is the great commission Christ gave to His faithful apostles as the resurrected Lord:

Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.
[MATTHEW 28:19–20]

This commission was renewed with the restoration of the priesthood and the Church and is preeminently in the hands and under the direction of the living apostles. In the Doctrine and Covenants, the Lord specified the responsibility of the apostles:

The twelve traveling councilors are called to be the Twelve Apostles, or special witnesses of the name of Christ in all the world—thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.

The Twelve are a Traveling Presiding High Council, to officiate in the name of the Lord, under the direction of the Presidency of the Church, agreeable to the institution of heaven; to build up the church, and regulate all the affairs of the same in all nations, first unto the Gentiles and secondly unto the Jews.

The Twelve being sent out, holding the keys, to open the door by the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. [D&C 107:23, 33, 35]

In this responsibility they are to call upon and to be assisted by the Seventy.

Although the restored Church was initially small and was concentrated within the United States, from the beginning the apostles were sent outside the center of the Church and beyond the borders of the United States. The apostolic commission to proclaim the gospel and early community building laid the foundation for the diplomatic role of the Church in the twenty-first century.

“Independent Above All Other Creatures”
AS I APPROACH THIS SUBJECT, I think of the general subject of diplomacy itself. Diplomacy, in the popular sense, simply refers to words and behavior calculated to soothe feelings and improve social intercourse. In the technical sense, it refers to the representation of sovereign powers, including the gathering of information, the communication of attitudes and policies, and the process of winning assent to particular policy objectives. However, for much of history diplomats engaged in a range of chicanery, from interception of diplomatic dispatches to bribery to stealing and to even more nefarious acts.

I hasten to add that these reflections on the darker side of diplomacy have nothing to do with the Church’s diplomatic role. But I would argue that the Church does occupy, in an important sense, a global position of “sovereign independence” and that the theory and practice of diplomacy, as traditionally defined, does apply to its mission and roles.

In a revelation counseling the Saints to organize and establish a storehouse and to make wise use of their properties, the Lord declared that all things be done “that the church may stand independent above all other creatures beneath the celestial world” (D&C 78:14). From the earliest days of the Church, there has been a concern for establishing not only the spiritual, but also the temporal foundations of this independence.


This concern was concretely manifested in community building in Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and, later, the Great Basin. The integration of the Church into the broader American society and the extension of its fellowship to the world as a whole have largely superseded these early attempts at constructing independent communities. Nonetheless, the Church still maintains its claim to an agency separate and independent of any earthly authority and shapes its policies to defend its independence of action.

Similarly, while the restored Church is not organized into a separate, territorially based political jurisdiction, it remains concerned for its integrity, its governance, its doctrine, and its mission to proclaim the gospel. Moreover, while the Church seeks to use its influence to favor legislative and administrative norms in harmony with its teachings on Christian behavior, it is also active in supporting broad norms favorable to freedom of religious conscience and practice.

The Church, as the visible kingdom of God on the earth, does embody concerns for its independence and institutional integrity that make the application of the term diplomacy apt not only in a popular but in a technical sense as well. Joseph Smith and the early Brethren saw the Church as not simply a denomination but as a Zion society that would ultimately form the basis of a millennial government (see Hyrum L. Andrus, Joseph Smith and World Government, Salt Lake City: Hawkes Publications, 1972). If the nineteenth-century projects of independent community building and an active discourse concerning a millennial political community have passed, the unique status of the Church as an independent entity under the sovereignty of heaven remains.

The mastery of diplomacy in its grandest sense is essential to its mission, and the counsel of Christ to His early apostles remains true: “Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves” (Matthew 10:16). In latter days, in another context, the Lord added an assurance and a promise to this mandate: “Therefore, be ye as wise as serpents and yet without sin; and I will order all things for your good, as fast as ye are able to receive them” (D&C 111:11).

Let me lay out some general thoughts on the conduct of diplomacy useful to those charged with the wisdom of serpents and the gentleness of doves.

The Kingdom of God and
All the Kingdoms of the Earth
ALTHOUGH THE UNIVERSAL implications of the Restoration—and hence the relation of the Church to foreign governments—were early recognized, for over a century the most pressing issue was to establish a solid and durable relationship with the United States and its subordinate jurisdictions. In a real sense, the twelfth Article of Faith and the 134th section of the Doctrine and Covenants represent the ground principles upon which this relationship was to be built.

The twelfth Article of Faith states the Latter-day Saint general attitude toward the relationship of the Church and its members, on the one hand, and the state, on the other: “We believe in being subject to kings, presidents, rulers, and magistrates, in obeying, honoring, and sustaining the law.” In a fundamental way, this restates the New Testament understanding that the state is in fact legitimate and is owed general deference, recognizing, as Jesus did, that there are both divine obligations and temporal political obligations incumbent upon us. If we must render unto God His due, we are obliged to render unto Caesar his (see Matthew 22:21).

The Apostle Paul counseled in his first epistle to Timothy that we should pray “for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1 Timothy 2:1–2). To Titus, Paul wrote that he should counsel the Saints “to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1). In this vein, the Apostle Peter also admonished the Saints:

Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme;

Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of -evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well.

For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men:

As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. [1 Peter 2:13–16]

And so it is in latter days.

Mindful of the renewal of this apostolic mandate to preach the gospel, declare repentance, and baptize, the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints issued in April 1845 a proclamation, drafted by Wilford Woodruff, “to all the Kings of the World; the President of the United States of America; the Governors of the several States; and to the Rulers and People of all Nations” (Messages of the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 1833–1964, Volume 1, compiled by James R. Clark, Salt Lake City, Utah: Bookcraft Inc., 1965, 252). In that remarkable though not widely distributed statement, the latter-day apostles, looking forward to the millennial day and emphasizing the mission of the restored Church, extended an invitation to the political authorities of the world:

Come, then, to the help of the Lord; and let us have your aid and protection—and your willing and hearty cooperation, in this, the greatest of all revolutions. . . .

Open your church, doors, and hearts for the truth. Hear the Apostles and elders of the church of the Saints, when they come into your cities and your neighborhoods. [256]

It invited them to exemplify the spirit of Cyrus to “aid and bless the people of God” or the spirit of Ruth, who joined with the people of Israel (257). The proclamation saw a great division between those rulers and peoples who “take a lively interest with the Saints of the Most High, and the covenant people of the Lord” and those others who “become their inveterate enemy, and oppose them by every means in [their] power” (257). To those nations that remove obstacles to the latter-day work, specifically the United States, the proclamation promises a prosperous and enlarged dominion constituting “one great, powerful and peaceful empire of Liberty and Union” (262).

As you can imagine, of central concern in the proclamation was the plight of the Latter-day Saints within the United States. It called upon political authority to

protect the Saints; give them their rights; extend the broad banner of the Constitution and laws over their homes, cities, firesides, wives, and children; that they may CEASE to be BUTCHERED, MARTYRED, ROBBED, PLUNDERED, AND DRIVEN, and may peacefully proceed in the work assigned them by their God. [261; emphasis in original]

The proclamation hence petitioned the political authority both to allow the peaceful propagation of the gospel and to redress the ills visited upon the Saints. In its scope it was a powerful statement of the reality of the Restoration and the duty of the Church to boldly carry forth the apostolic mandate. However, like the ancient Church, it resisted any call for rebellion in order to sustain just claims and resist unjust deprivations.

In the Doctrine and Covenants the Lord counseled broad obedience to political authority, even in the face of outrageous persecution. Although laws are given by the Lord to govern the Church, within the broader political community He stated:

Let no man break the laws of the land, for he that keepeth the laws of God hath no need to break the laws of the land.

Wherefore, be subject to the powers that be, until he reigns whose right it is to reign, and subdues all enemies under his feet. [D&C 58:21–22]

The Lord explicitly justified the constitutional order of the land and counseled the Saints to seek redress under its banner and through its democratic processes while acknowledging that “when the wicked rule the people mourn” (D&C 98:9; see also verses 4–10).

It is of note as well that the Lord also saw the American constitutional order as providing, in a broad sense, a universal standard: “And as pertaining to law of man, whatsoever is more or less than this, cometh of evil” (D&C 98:7). This statement suggests the broad set of principles on the proper relation between the Church and the political authority enunciated in the 1835 “declaration of belief regarding governments and laws in general” (D&C 134 section heading).


As the histories of the early Christian church and the restored Church demonstrate, there is inevitably a tension between the apostolic mandate and the integrity of the Church, on the one hand, and the profession of fealty to the political authority, on the other. In the epistle of Peter cited above, a juxtaposition of two exhortations suggest that tension: “Fear God. Honour the king” (1 Peter 2:17).

While recognizing that “all men are bound to sustain and uphold the respective governments in which they reside,” the 1835 declaration added the clause “while protected in their inherent and inalienable rights by the laws of such
governments.” It continued:

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 securethe public interest; at the same time, however, holding sacred the freedom of conscience. [D&C 134:5]

It also asserted that “no government can exist in peace, except such laws are framed and held inviolate as will secure to each individual the free exercise of conscience, the right and control of property, and the protection of life” (D&C 134:2).

The Church further believes that there should not be such a commingling of civil and religious authority as to foster or proscribe free religious practice. Moreover, each religious society should be left free to determine its membership and to preach the gospel without assuming civil power or disrupting the established order of the civil society (see D&C 134:10–12). It should be obvious that to weave a path through these requirements and desiderata will require a high level of skill and, at times, subtlety on the part of the representatives of the Church.

The sentiments expressed in section 134 echo principles enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, the American constitutional tradition, and James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785). This tradition in turn reflects John Locke’s Second Treatise of Civil Government (1690) and A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). However, the authors of these political treatises were keenly concerned about maintaining the stability of the civil order. If this circumspection is evident directly in the arena of political commentary and action, even greater circumspection has always prevailed in the Church of Christ as it pursues its universal mission.

Within this context, in 1942 the First Presidency restated the basic relationship between the Church and the state. In so doing and in counseling obedience of Church members to political authority, the First Presidency reasserted the independent mission of the Church and subtly put its members on the side of free institutions:

The Church has no civil political functions. As the church may not assume the functions of the state, so the state may not assume the functions of the church. The church is responsible for and must carry on the work of the Lord. . . .

The state is responsible for the civil control of its citizens or subjects, for their political welfare, and for the carrying forward of political policies, domestic and foreign, of the body politic. For these policies, their success or failure, the state is alone responsible, and it must carry its burdens. . . . But 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. [Heber J. Grant, J. Reuben Clark Jr., and David O. McKay, “Message of the First Presidency,” Conference Report, April 1942, 92–93; emphasis added]

In this clause the First Presidency, while counseling obedience, also put itself and Church members on the side of free institutions as outlined in the 134th section—demonstrating once again the narrow and sophisticated path the Church must weave in its relationship with the powers of the earth.

More contemporaneously, President Gordon B. Hinckley in the April 2003 general conference essentially reiterated the principles of this 1942 First Presidency statement and added that self-defense is justified and may transcend simply responding 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” (“War and Peace,” Ensign, May 2003, 80).

Durable Relations and Settled Principles
ALL THAT I HAVE said is preliminary to the broad principles that undergird the Church’s attempt to create solid and durable relations with the nations of the earth and that are the foundations of its diplomatic role. In 1999 Elders Dallin H. Oaks and Lance B. Wickman contributed a chapter to a book entitled Sharing the Book: Religious Perspectives on the Rights and Wrongs of Proselytism (see “The Mission Work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” in John Witte Jr. and Richard C. Martin, eds. [Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999], 247–75). It is a comprehensive and, I would judge, definitive statement on the Church’s missionary role.

It is often stated that the Church’s relationship with government will be transparent and supportive of obedience to law and respect for the rights of all people. The intent is to promote harmony and understanding and not to undermine the trust essential to civil society and public peace. In terms of fulfilling the great commission to preach the gospel and to establish Zion, it is said that we “enter by the front door,” that is, with the assent of the political authority. This will protect the integrity both of the Church and the state. Elder Oaks and Elder Wickman stated seven desiderata undergirding the Church’s request to enter or to continue within a political jurisdiction:

1. The right to worship.
2. The right to meet together.
3. The right to self-governance.
4. The right to communicate with Church members.
5. The right to legal entity status and action.
6. The right to declare beliefs publicly.
7. The right to travel freely.

It is clear that while these principles define the framework within which the Church approaches political authorities, the actual activities of the Church may be more restricted than these criteria prescribe. Nonetheless, they define general parameters much beyond which the Church cannot and will not operate. For those regimes that will not allow either the assembly of our members or proselytism, the Church may carry out more restricted roles, such as offering humanitarian assistance or providing -cultural contacts.

The Mission of the Churchand the Perplexities of Nations
LET ME CONCLUDE with some observations on the contemporary international role of the Church. As the Church has become established throughout the world, the complexity of its relations with civic authority has been magnified, as has its sophistication of approach. Moreover, as many commentators have noted, throughout much of the world, including in North America and Europe, a hostile political and legal environment for the free exercise of religion is developing. Some of this stems from heightened secularism. Some of it stems from religious fanaticism itself and what Alma would recognize as priestcraft. This has called forth multifaceted and long-term approaches, joining in greater coordination the resources of Church headquarters and those laboring in the field.

In one form or another and under the direction of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve, at Church headquarters there have developed various instrumentalities to facilitate communication and coordination on international matters and to identify issues or opportunities in the global arena that should be brought to the attention of the senior Brethren. This involves all the key departments.

Within the United States and Canada, the Presidency of the Seventy, as an agent of the apostles, exercises oversight of those matters that bear not only upon the internal operations of the Church but upon its external role as well. In other areas of the world, Area Presidencies, composed of General Authorities and Area Seventies, exercise that oversight, again under the direction of the apostles and the seven presidents.

The spectrum of diplomatic activities is both vast and diverse, and some Area Presidencies are extraordinarily busy. The issues can range from establishing relationships with key decision makers and opinion leaders to regularizing the Church’s legal status to visa problems to humanitarian assistance to the basic principles underpinning Church activities. Given a world always in flux and often in turmoil, these roles are becoming ever more demanding.

In addition to specific church-government relations, the Church now has continuous representation at the UN in New York and Geneva and with the EU in Brussels.
In addition, there are active hosting -operations in Salt Lake City, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. The number of occasions for senior Church officers to interact with foreign dignitaries both in this country and abroad has expanded enormously, and many important events are designed to include government officials and ambassadors.

Flagship institutions such as Brigham Young University are consciously employed both as venues and sponsors of important meetings with a range of citizens and officials of countries around the world. Notable in this regard is the annual International Religious Liberty Symposium held at the time of the October general conference of the Church. The symposium addresses a range of questions affecting religious liberty around the globe, including the Church’s mission and role pertaining to this vital foundation for church-state relations.

Many crucial church-state issues have reached a successful conclusion through the forging of relations and understanding in these multiple forums, as well as through personal contact by individual Church members. For instance, the registration of the Church in Slovakia was the result of fifteen years of Church diplomacy. As in many other things, the activities of the Church throughout the world depend both on the continuous forging and strengthening of personal ties and on the development of formal understandings that transcend these contacts.


Elder Neal A. Maxwell once observed that we do not move up and down in the Church but we move around—pointing to a key component of Church diplomacy. This is a lay Church. The bulk of Church leadership comes from people who are engaged in a vast range of occupations and professions both in the public and the private sectors, as well as homemakers. In every country the Church is not divided into clerics and laity. A very small percentage of Church leaders, and therefore representatives, are engaged in full-time Church service. Often the governments with whom the Church deals include members of the Church who may also be bishops, stake presidents, or Relief Society presidents or hold other Church callings. The quorums of the Seventy represent a powerful contemporary example. Those who have been called to serve as Seventy throughout the world are often prominent members of their nations and communities.

The Church hierarchy is therefore something that is never entirely external or separate from the nations, kindreds, tongues, and peoples into which the world is divided. In an extended sense, the local members represent the Church not only to their immediate neighbors but to their country and its political authority. This gives an even more powerful meaning to the exhortation to be an example of the believers. Continuous and positive participation by local members in civic and political activities provides both a context and a potential key to the success of more formal diplomatic activities.

Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once commented that she often told foreign ministers and other officials that they should welcome Mormon missionaries into their country, as they would thereby become lifelong friends of their people and country—in effect, becoming informal representatives of the countries in which they had served. She later wrote that they also happen to represent to the countries in which they serve some of the best traits of this country, the United States:

By the early 1900s, tens of thousands of American missionaries were established in foreign countries. They came from virtually every Christian denomination, with heavy representation from a movement that began in the United States, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, referred to commonly as the Mormons. The missionaries carried with them both the good news of the gospel and the democratizing influence of American values and culture. Missionaries were among the nation’s first experts on foreign customs and the first to learn foreign languages. [Madeleine Albright, with Bill Woodward, The Mighty and the Almighty: Reflections on America, God, and World Affairs (New York: Harper Perennial, 2007), 26]

While missionaries are not sent forth to represent the countries from which they come, Secretary Albright’s point is well taken and applies not only to missionaries but also to Latter-day Saint citizens throughout the world. Their activities profoundly shape the more formal and explicit diplomatic activities of the Church.

Conclusion: Arm and Shield
TODAY, AS IN TIMES past, the diplomatic role of the Church stems from its position as the earthly embodiment of the kingdom of God mandated to preach the gospel and bring forth and establish Zion. Its success depends not simply on the skill and sophistication of its leaders and people but is ultimately vouchsafed by the Lord, from whom the divine commission came. As He declared:

Wherefore, I call upon the weak things of the world, those who are unlearned and despised, to thresh the nations by the power of my Spirit;

And their arm shall be my arm, and I will be their shield and their buckler; and I will gird up their loins, and they shall fight manfully for me; and their enemies shall be under their feet; and I will let fall the sword in their behalf, and by the fire of mine indignation will I preserve them. [D&C 35:13–14]

To recall the words of the Prophet Joseph Smith in another context, “shall we not go on in so great a cause?” (D&C 128:22).

This is an excerpt from a presentation by Robert S. Wood on 8 April 2013 at the LDS International Society’s annual conference held at Brigham Young University. Wood is an emeritus General Authority, having served in the Second Quorum of the Seventy for ten and a half years. His most recent assignment was as president of the Boston Massachusetts Temple. He has held faculty positions at Harvard; Bentley College; the universities of Virginia, Tilburg, and Groningen; and others. His academic career is most associated with the U.S. Naval War College, where he served many years in both teaching and administrative capacities. Wood has been a bishop, stake president, regional representative, and Area Authority. He received a BA in history from Stanford and an MA and a PhD in political science from Harvard.