The phrase unrighteous dominion, familiar to Church members, occurs in just one place in the scriptures: Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants, taken from a prayer and prophecies written by Joseph Smith in March 1839 while he and several brethren were imprisoned on false charges in the jail at Liberty, Mo.
It is worth noting that on this occasion, the Prophet and his people had been subjected to unrighteous dominion in the form of outrageous mobocracy, state-approved human rights violations, and treachery from false brethren.
Hence, Joseph had good reason to write: "We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion" (Doctrine and Covenants 121:39).
Notice the phrasing used here. It is not some men or even most men, but almost all men (and, it might be added, some women) who are disposed to the exercise of unrighteous dominion over others. That the Prophet would write this in the context of the Savior's words that "many are called but few are chosen" (see verses 34 and 40; see also Matthew 22:14) indicates that the tendency toward unrighteous dominion is a nearly universal fault that extends even to some who might occupy positions of responsibility in the Church. It would appear that this is a characteristic of the natural man that must be overcome if one is to achieve sanctification (see Mosiah 3:19).
Examining Doctrine and Covenants 121:34-46, one senses the implication that unrighteous dominion has any of at least three characteristics:
It fails to honor the God-given moral agency of men and women.
Its objective is worldly acclaim and gratification of pride and vain ambition instead of divine approbation.
It emphasizes tasks and agendas at the expense of human relationships and the welfare of souls.
Sometimes we can get a better understanding of what something is by considering what it is not. We call this contrast. To this end, Section 121 is helpful. Instead of dwelling at length on a definition of unrighteous dominion, verses 41 through 46 explain for us what might be called the priesthood pattern of leadership and which might be regarded as the opposite of unrighteous dominion.
We read that power and influence under the priesthood cannot or should not occur unless it is by means of "persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
"By kindness and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile" (verses 41-42).
Clearly, the priesthood pattern does not countenance harshness, verbal or physical abuse, or any degree of unkindness.
Verse 43 provides that reproof should be administered "betimes," an archaic English word meaning promptly, and "with sharpness." Lest one suppose that "sharpness" in this context means anger, be it remembered that one synonym for sharpness is clarity. When one sharpens the focus of a photographic image, one makes it clearer. When reproof is given "with sharpness," it is done in such a manner that it cannot easily be misunderstood.
Under the priesthood pattern of leadership, then, any reproof given is the kind that corrects, teaches and lifts, not injures or destroys. To help ensure this is the case, it involves "showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy."
Moreover, those who lead according to the priesthood pattern are to do so by "pure knowledge" (see verse 42). This would entail diligent study, careful consideration, the wise application of experience and understanding and, above all, personal revelation sought through prayer. It would certainly preclude prejudice or bigotry, prideful intransigence, hasty and thoughtless reaction and unrighteous judgment of motives or intent.
The promise is clear to those who eschew the natural-man tendency to unrighteous dominion and who substitute therefor the priesthood pattern of leadership: "The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness and truth" (Doctrine and Covenants 121:46).