When the Constitution of the United States of America came from the Constitutional Convention, it said nothing about religious liberty, although it might be implied in the Preamble. So when several of the states refused to ratify the Constitution without a more specific promise of personal rights, including religious freedom, the first Congress proposed a document which, when ratified, became known as the Bill of Rights, consisting of the first 10 amendments.
It was on Dec. 15, 1791, that these amendments became part of the Constitution. The first amendment specifies four particular freedoms, and forbids the federal government from denying these rights to "the people." The wording is as follows:Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
"The free exercise" of religion, as perceived by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, would be impossible without the other freedoms also. The commandments of God contained in the Doctrine and Covenants, and the teachings of the prophets of this dispensation, require more than a mere verbal commitment. Freedom to exercise one's religion requires also freedom of assembly, of speech, and of the press. It is necessary to meet together, organize, teach, perform ordinances, publish literature, do charitable deeds, and conduct Church business. Without all four freedoms, the true Church could not comfortably exist.
It is doubtful that the restoration of the gospel could have taken place on this earth without political guarantee of freedom of religion and all that is implied therein. As President Joseph F. Smith observed:
"This great American nation the Almighty raised up by the power of His omnipotent hand, that it might be possible in the latter days for the kingdom of God to be established in the earth. If the Lord had not prepared the way by laying the foundations of this glorious nation, it would have been impossible (under the stringent laws and bigotry of the monarchical governments of the world) to have laid the foundations for the coming of His great kingdom. (Gospel Doctrine, p. 409.)
The Lord had for centuries prepared the world for the restoration of the gospel, and had established the constitutional government of the United States so that the fullness of the gospel could be planted in free soil and spread throughout the earth. (See 1 Ne. 13:10-40.) Even with the First Amendment, the early members of the Church were mobbed and persecuted, and the Prophet Joseph Smith and Hyrum Smith were martyred. Eventually the saints were obliged to go to the Great Basin, which was then a very inhospitable land.
Obtaining and keeping religious freedom has been a problem throughout the history of mankind. Freedom of religion means not only the liberty to worship "according to the dictates of (one's) own conscience" (Article of Faith, No. 11), but also protection from being forced to perform religious acts which one wishes not to do. Religious freedom has a long history. It began, so far as we are concerned, in the Grand Council before this world was created. When Satan proposed to deny agency to mankind (Moses 4:3-4), the Lord interceded and preserved mankind's freedom.
In the 5th century B.C., Daniel and his three companions in Babylon were oppressed by a political power that demanded they perform acts of worship to a deity and to idols they would not accept. As a consequence of their refusal, the three were thrown into a fiery furnace, and Daniel into a den of lions. All were spared by the intervention of God. (Dan. 3, 6.)
The story of Esther revolves around the denial of religious freedom to the Jews in Babylon. Her heroic action at personal risk of her life, resulted in their freedom. (Esther 4, 5.) Perhaps the most widespread denial of religious freedom was the murder of six million people in the ovens, the gas chambers, and the concentration camps of Europe during World War II for no other reason than that they were Jewish.
Among the ancient Nephites and Lamanites in the Western Hemisphere there was also occasional denial of religious freedom. Amulon persecuted the people of Alma, even forbidding them to pray aloud. So they prayed in their hearts, and the Lord heard them. (Mosiah 24.) In all these cases the believers had not committed any crime, but were unpopular because they had faith in the promises of God.
In Europe during the so-called "Dark Ages," and during the renaissance and reformation, there was minimal freedom of conscience to worship as one pleased.
In Great Britain such magnificent men as John Wycliffe (1320-1384) and William Tyndale (1492-1536) struggled valiantly against religious intolerance and lack of freedom. For such harmless acts as translating and publishing the Bible in the English language Wycliffe was sorely persecuted, but escaped violent death, yet Tyndale was burned at the stake.
These conditions existed not only in Great Britain, but also on the continent. John Hus in Czechoslovakia and Savanarola in Italy both suffered violent deaths for religious reasons. The Council of Constance (1414) which condemned Hus to be burned at the stake, also ordered that John Wycliffe's body (after 30 years in the grave) be exhumed, burned, and his ashes scattered in the river.
Many of the early settlers of America came from Europe seeking religious liberty. Yet even in the colonies there were instances of religious persecution, and some for a time even established state religions.
The American Revolutionary War freed the colonies from European domination, but it required the Constitution of the United States, supplemented by the Bill of Rights, to establish the rule of law, including religious liberty, and protect it from governmental control. The Constitution implemented a limited federal government; the Bill of Rights were designed to specificallly restrict the federal government from encroaching on the liberties of the people. The 14th Amendment (1868) made the Bill of Rights applicable also to state governments.
The Lord has declared that the U.S. Constitution is an inspired document written by men whom He "raised up for the very purpose" of establishing a government of personal freedom. (D&C 101:77-80; cf.98:4-9; D&C 134; 3 Ne. 21:4.) This, of course, means that the first 10 amendments – the Bill of Rights – are equally inspired and politically necessary in order for a people and a government to enjoy religious freedom.