Jeffrey Thayne

The dictionary defines theocracy as “a system of government by priests claiming a divine commission.”1 That is, a theocracy is a government that claims to have authority from God. However, our modern experience with governments led exclusively by a particular religion or which claim special divine authority has largely been negative. For example, the Taliban have been considered a theocratic government, and for this reason people often associate the term theocracy with the words tyranny and oppression. Brigham Young commented,

What does the world understand theocracy to be? A poor, rotten government of man, that would say, without the shadow of provocation or just cause, “Cut that man’s head off; put that one in the rack; arrest another, and retain them in unlawful and unjust dress while you plunder his property and pollute his wife and daughters; massacre here and there.” The Lord almighty does nothing of that kind, neither does any man who is controlled by his Spirit.2

The Gospel Doctrine lesson manual defines theocracy as a government “guided by God through revelation to a prophet.”3 This definition of theocracy is a little narrower than the one given above: a theocracy must actually be guided by God to be a true theocracy. It can’t just claim divine authority, it must have divine authority. Brigham Young, for example, said: “What do I understand by a theocratic government? One in which all laws are enacted and executed in righteousness, and whose officers possess that power which proceedeth from the Almighty.”4 Certainly, no tyrannical government meets this definition. Thus, as I believe that the Taliban and other modern “theocratic” governments have been tyrannical and oppressive, for that same reason I do not believe they are truly theocracies, in the sense that I will now use the term. When I use the term theocracy from this point forward, I mean only those governments with leaders who are righteous and have a clear divine commission.

Because no government presently on earth is led by divinely authorized leaders, any legitimate government on the earth must necessarily be an interim government of very limited powers; we must recognize that under these circumstances, creating utopia and solving all the world’s problems are endeavors to be undertaken by the people governed, not the government. This is because no man can authorize another to use force on his behalf to implement his particular ideal for the human race. For example, no government can rightly use force to take wealth from some and give it to others for a perceived social benefit without divine authorization (as is done in socialist or communist governments).

Ironically, even though a government personally authorized by God may rightfully do these things, no such government ever would. For example, though God has the rightful power to use force to redistribute wealth (since it all belongs to Him), He typically does not operate that way; He gains the respect and honor of His children and invites them, without compulsion, to follow His instructions. For this reason, God typically has not established a theocracy on the earth until His children were prepared and willing to be governed by it. That is, righteousness is often prerequisite to divine government.

There have been times on the earth when God has established a proper and legitimate government, with divinely authorized leaders. Bruce R. McConkie taught that the first government received authority to govern straight from God Himself:

When the Lord placed Adam, the first man of all men, and Eve, the mother of all living, upon the earth, he gave them dominion over all things, including their seed after them. He vested in them what we call civil power, by which they governed themselves and their children. …

There was no separation of church and state; all governmental powers, whether civil or religious, centered in one Supreme Head. They came from God and were administered among men by his legal administrators who were sent and duly commissioned by him. This type of government is a theocracy; it is the government of God. Under it there is no need for a civil power on the one hand and a religious arm on the other. All the affairs of government are intertwined into one with direction coming from God himself, by revelation, to those whom he commissions to represent him on earth.5

Thus, McConkie taught that the first government was a theocracy. The source of its governing authority is clear: divine commission from the Almighty. Joseph Fielding Smith explains:

The Father conferred upon Adam the Priesthood, and established with him and his posterity a perfect form of government. This government was a theocracy. Men holding the Priesthood ruled under direct revelation and commandment. Jesus Christ, who created the earth, was the rightful ruler. … He it was, who gave the law to Adam and to all the prophets, and while a government was established among mortals on the earth, yet it was their bounden duty to accept the rule and guidance of Jesus Christ. … Man was in all respects accountable to God, for, as we quote from the Psalmist David … : ‘The Earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein.’ It is his for he made it, and while rebellion has come and men have set up governments of their own, rejecting the divine guidance of the rightful King, yet he has never relinquished his claim and surrendered his place to the authority of mortals upon the earth.6

A familiar example of a true theocratic government is found in the Old Testament: God led and governed the Israelites through divine revelation to Moses, the prophet. To an outsider, it looked as though Moses led the people; but to Moses and the Israelites, God was their leader and Moses was just His authorized spokesman. In this case, the source of governing authority is perfectly clear—God directly authorized Moses to judge, lead, and command the people in all affairs both secular and spiritual. Moses subsequently authorized other judges to judge in his stead, distributing the workload among a greater number of people. Each of these judges were subservient to and authorized by Moses or his prophetic successors. Other theocratic governments found in the scriptures are the people of Enoch and also the Nephites under Kings Benjamin and Mosiah. Eugene England explains,

For an all-too-short period of time—until the end of the reign of his son, Mosiah II—there is a great “golden age,” a time when the ancient ideal is realized of uniting power and righteousness in a single leader to form a theocracy, that perfect but difficult and extremely rare form of government we have seen under Enoch, Abraham, Moses, and in modern times for a while under Brigham Young.7

Most Latter-day Saints will agree that this form of government—a theocracy with clearly authorized spokesmen of God governing the people—is the ideal form of government. King Mosiah, in the Book of Mormon, said, “Now it is better that a man should be judged of God than of man, for the judgments of God are always just, but the judgments of man are not always just.” (Mosiah 29:12) Thus, when skilled men in direct communication with God lead and govern the people, the results are a near perfect government. As King Mosiah said to his people,

If it were possible that you could have just men to be your kings, who would establish the laws of God, and judge this people according to his commandments, … I say unto you, if this could always be the case then it would be expedient that ye should always have kings to rule over you. (Mosiah 29:13)

(Although King Mosiah and King Benjamin referred to themselves as kings, I believe that their government was more theocratic than monarchical.) Speaking of the government in the time of Enoch, McConkie taught,

When Enoch preached among the wicked, made converts, and built his City of Holiness, that original Zion operated so perfectly upon theocratic principles that the Lord of heaven himself came and dwelt with his people. So perfect was the system and so righteous were the people that they received instruction from the Lord in person as well as from his duly constituted servants on earth. What better system of government could there be? Providentially it is one that will differ only in size and complexity from the government that shall prevail over all the earth when the Lord reigns during the Millennial era.5

Thus, not only have there been divinely authorized governments in the past, we can expect to see one again in the future. Any legitimate government will recognize that it is only an interim government; J.R.R. Tolkien represented this in his Lord of the Rings trilogy: stewards kept the throne at Minas Tirith, looking forward to the day when the true heir to the throne, Aragorn, would return and take his rightful place as King of Gondor. However, the corrupt steward named Denethor did not wish to relinquish his position to the rightful heir, and eventually lost his life. Presently, the world’s governments claim God-like authority over their people, using force to establish what some believe is a better state of society; they do not recognize that their rightful powers are inherently limited until the day when the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the Savior Jesus Christ, will return and “reign personally upon the earth” (AoF 10); at that day, only leaders recognized by Him will have any claim of authority on the people.


1., “theocracy.”
2. Quoted in Hyrum Andrus, Doctrinal Themes in the Doctrine and Covenants, p. 70.
3. Book of Mormon Gospel Doctrine Teacher’s Manual, “Lesson 21: ‘Alma … Did Judge Righteous Judgments,'” (1999), p. 94.
4. Brigham Young and John A. Widstoe, Discourse of Brigham Young, p. 354.
5. Bruce R. McConkie, New Witnesses for the Articles of Faith, p. 653–55.
6. Joseph Fielding Smith, The Progress of Man (Salt Lake City: Genealogical Society of Utah, 1936), p. 67.
7. Eugene England, “Benjamin, the Great King,” Ensign, Dec 1976, p. 26.