Is War Ever Justified

Daniel H. Ludlow

Although the Gadianton Robbers had threatened to come to battle against the Nephites “on the morrow month,” when the Nephites asked their military leader Gidgiddoni to attack the robbers first, Gidgiddoni said: “The Lord forbid; for if we should go up against them the Lord would deliver us into their hands.” (3 Nephi 3:21.) This counsel of the Lord not to wage offensive war has apparently been given to people of all dispensations, as is indicated in this statement in the Doctrine and Covenants:

Behold, this is the law I gave unto my servant Nephi, and thy fathers, Joseph, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham, and all mine ancient prophets and apostles.

And again, this is the law that I gave unto mine ancients, that they should not go out unto battle against any nation, kindred, tongue, or people, save I, the Lord, commanded them.

And if any nation, tongue, or people should proclaim war against them, they should first lift a standard of peace unto that people, nation, or tongue;

And if that people did not accept the offering of peace, neither the second nor the third time, they should bring these testimonies before the Lord; Then I, the Lord, would give unto them a commandment, and justify them in going out to battle against that nation, tongue, or people.

And I, the Lord, would fight their battles, and their children’s battles, and their children‘s children’s, until they had avenged themselves on all their enemies, to the third and fourth generation.

Behold, this is an ensample unto all people, saith the Lord your God, for justification before me. (D&C 98:32-38.)

This principle is also the teaching of the Church at this time, as is indicated in the following statement by President George Q. Cannon:

We must proclaim peace; do all in our power to appease the wrath of our enemies; make any sacrifice that honorable people can to avert war, with all its horrors, entailing as it does dreadful consequences so numerous that they cannot be mentioned. It is our duty, I say, as a nation. The influence of the Latter-day Saints should be used in this direction. We should seek to quell these feelings of anxiety to fight and to shed blood. Our influence should go forth like oil poured upon the troubled waters, quieting the waves of discontent and wrath that are aroused by this fearful spirit… .

Not only ought we to extend the offering of peace the first time to a nation that proclaims war against us, but again the second time; and if that should be rejected, again the third time; and if it be rejected the third time, then:

“They should bring these testimonies before the Lord.”

Go to the Lord and say, “Here are our testimonies. We have offered peace the first time; we have offered it twice; we have offered it three times; but our offerings are rejected, and this nation is determined to have war with us. Now we bring these testimonies before thee, Lord.” …

I do not look for our nation to do this. It is scarcely to be expected, in the nature of things, that they would do it. But it is the true principle, and we as a people should use our influence for this purpose. Our prayers should ascend to God; our petitions should ascend to the government of our nation to do everything that honorable people can to avert war. We have no fear of the effect of the combinations against us… . But the promise of God is that if we will do right as a nation, if we will serve Him, they shall not have power over us, or be able to bring us into bondage; and in the end we shall prevail. This is a glorious promise which is made to the inhabitants of the land… .

To us as Latter-day Saints these principles are of the utmost importance. I do not want to see our young men get filled with the spirit of war and be eager for the conflict. God forbid that such a spirit should prevail in our land, or that we should contribute in any manner to the propagation of a spirit of that kind! But one may say, “Is it not our duty to defend our country and our flag? Is it not our duty to maintain the institutions which the Lord has given to us?” Certainly it is. And it is no part of cowardice to take the plan that the Lord has pointed out. No man need be afraid that the Lord or any just man will look upon him as a coward. (Conference Report, April 1898, pp. 86-87.)

The principle behind this counsel apparently is related to the principle of repentance, as is indicated in this statement by President Joseph Fielding Smith:

The law of forgiveness and retribution … applies to individuals and to families, as well as to the Church at large. We are under commandment to forgive our enemies and suffer their abuses and smiting the first time and second time, also the third time. This is to be done in patience, and in humility and prayer, hoping that the enemy might repent. If the enemy come upon us for the fourth time we are justified in meting out retribution, but even then there is to come a reward if we patiently endure, and the Lord will reward us abundantly. For all these abuses we will be rewarded if we endure them in patience. Perchance the enemy may repent, and that we should most sincerely desire. This may to the most ordinary human being be a hard law to follow; but nevertheless it is the word of the Lord. One of the best illustrations of this spirit of enduring wrong rather than retaliating is found in the story of the people of Ammon in the Book of Mormon. Because they refused to take up arms to defend themselves, but would rather lay down their lives than shed blood even in their own defense, they brought many of their enemies to repentance and to the kingdom of God. [Alma 24:17-25; 27:3.] This is the doctrine of Jesus Christ as taught in the Sermon on the Mount. [Matt. 5:21-22, 43-44.] If all peoples would accept this doctrine there could be no war, and all difficulties could be adjusted in righteousness. This doctrine was taught, so the Lord declared, to his people anciently. There are many things in the Old Testament in relation to the wars and battles of the Israelites in the meagre record which has come down to us, which are made to appear to us that these people were cruel and vengeful, but the Lord says they went out to battle when they were guided by prophets and the spirit of revelation when the Lord commanded them. (Joseph Fielding Smith, Church History and Modern Revelation [Salt Lake City: The Council of the Twelve Apostles, 1953], 1:434-35.)

A Companion To Your Study of The Book of Mormon