Cover image: Liberty Jail Spring, by Al Rounds.
Joseph Smith and a few of his brethren spent most of their imprisonment during the winter of 1838–39 in the bottom level of county jail in Liberty, Missouri, known as the dungeon. Spending more than four months in the cramped jail proved a daunting experience. Four-foot-thick stone walls, a six-foot ceiling, and constant harassment by guards caused Joseph and his companions to describe the structure as “hell surrounded with demons.” In the dungeon, “temperatures dropped, light dimmed, odors reeked, and time seemed to slow.” Only “dirty straw couches” prevented the prisoners from sleeping on the stone floor, but even those wore out after a while.
The meager food they were given sickened the prisoners. Joseph and his companions described their daily meals as “very coarse and so filthy that we could not eat it until we were driven to it by hunger.” When the prisoners finally ate their servings, the food caused them to vomit “almost to death.” Some of the detainees suspected the guards of poisoning their food and water or even feeding them human flesh. As he and his companions awaited trial for charges of treason against the state of Missouri, Joseph was constantly receiving news about the suffering of the Saints. The peace and high hopes of Far West had lasted only a few months, and now the Saints were homeless once again, searching yet again for a place to start over—this time with their Prophet in prison. (See Revelations in Context)
Sections 121-123 are extracts taken from a letter written by the Prophet from Liberty Jail over a five-day period, from March 20-25, 1839. In order to understand the context of these extracts, we need to study Joseph Smith’s letter as a whole. Some of the things he wrote in the letter are reactions to the letter he received from Emma. (Her letter can be accessed on the Come Follow Me lesson for this week.) If we can understand his feelings, we can better understand the power of section 121. This was a time of great trial. We tend to read these first few verses with more softness than I think he uttered them.
The paragraphs before Doctrine and Covenants 121 begins give the context for Joseph’s anguished cry.
We have no need to say to you that we are held in bonds without cause, neither is it needful for you say to us, we are driven from our homes and smitten without cause. We mutually understand that if the inhabitants of the state of Missouri had let the Saints alone, and had has been as desirable of peace as they were, there would have been nothing but peace and quietude in the state unto this day; we would not have been in this hell . . . where we are compared to hear nothing but blasphemous oaths, and witnessed the scene of blasphemy, and drunkenness and hypocrisy, and debaucheries of every description.
And again, the cries of orphans and widows would not have ascended up to God against them. Nor would innocent blood have stained the soil of Missouri. But oh! the unrelenting hand! The inhumanity and murderous disposition of this people! It shocks all nature; it beggars and defies all description; it is a tale of woe; a lamentable tale; yea a sorrowful tale; too much to tell; too much for contemplation; too much for human beings; it cannot be found among the heathen; in it cannot be found among the nations where the kings and tyrant are enthroned; it cannot be found among the savages of the wilderness; yea, and I think it cannot be found among the wild and ferocious beast of the forest, that a man would be mangled for sport! Women be robbed of all that they have—their last morsel for subsistence, and then be violated to gratify the hellish desires of the mob, and finally left to perish with their helpless offspring clinging around their necks.
But this is not all. After a man is dead, he must be dug up from his grave and mangled to pieces, for no other purpose than to gratify their spleen against the religion of God. . . These things are awful to be late, but they are verily true. It must need to be that offenses calm, but while onto them by whom they come.
This is the context for Joseph’s “O God, where art thou?” This is not, “Where are you?” This is somebody crying in the depths of his heart who has had it. He is suffering, and has been patient in suffering. He sees the righteous suffer, and the wicked getting away with it. And, of course, that’s the big question, the same question asked by Job—“Why do righteous people suffer?” That’s why the Lord quotes Job to Joseph, because it’s that same thing that Joseph is questioning. “Where are you? How long do we have to go through this?” In the third verse, Joseph asks the Lord how long it will be “before thy heart be softened.” There is a touch of accusation in it. And if you’ve ever suffered deeply and innocently, perhaps you understand the rage that comes sometimes. The rage that comes after patience. To me, this reference by the Lord about Job is clear evidence that Job was a real person. It would be cruel for God to compare Joseph’s real suffering with that of a fictional character, as many believe about Job.
In verse 4, Joseph acknowledges God’s almighty power and wonders why he does not use it. He acknowledges God’s control of the devil, and asks, “Lord, so why don’t you control the devil now?” It’s almost an accusation, but a very understandable accusation. The Saints think the Lord has forgotten them. Why won’t he show mercy on them? Not only that, but they don’t understand why he won’t avenge their enemies. In the next two verses, 5 and 6, Joseph implores God to “remember thy suffering saints.” This is the prayer of a person who has passed beyond anger and rage and has reached the end of his rope.
Something happens between verses 6 and 7. I put lines in my scriptures between those two verses—between the prayer and the answer. The thing that happens between these two verses in section 121 teaches us a great lesson—both on how to deal with suffering ourselves, and how to help others when they are going through it.
Joseph writes, “We received some letters… one from Emma, one from Don C. Smith, and one from Bishop Partridge.” I like that order—wife, brother, bishop. He said, they all had a “kind and consoling spirit.” Joseph writes “how sweet the voice of a friend is,” and that “one token of friendship from any source whatever awakens and calls into action every sympathetic feeling; it brings up in an instant everything that is past; it seizes the present with the avidity of lightning; it grasps after the future with the fierceness of a tiger; it moves the mind backward and forward from one thing to another, until finally all enmity, malice and hatred, and past differences, misunderstandings and mismanagements are slain at the feet of hope; and when the heart is sufficiently contrite, then the voice of inspiration steals along and whispers, My son, peace be unto thy soul…”
What has happened between the prayer and the answer? Joseph has cooled down. What has caused him to cool down? The tokens of friendship and love from his wife, his brother, and the bishop. We can learn a great lesson from that. I wish we had this part of the letter in this section. It makes it so much more powerful. The letter is addressed to Edward Partridge specifically, but it was for every member. So, what can we learn from this? If we see somebody suffering, or in despair, what’s the best thing we can do for him? We don’t have to solve their problems. Sometimes the best thing we can do is give them those tokens of friendship that can calm them down, so that the Lord can counsel them. Because it’s the Lord that counsels, but it’s Emma and his brother who calm him down so that he can receive the counsel. Malice is replaced with hope. From this point on, everything is positive.
Another lesson we can learn from this is that when we are raging inside, and we all probably have times when we rage inside, we cry out, we beat on heaven’s door, and wonder why it won’t answer. We need to realize that we have to calm down, and have a contrite spirit, and have some hope, and let the hatred and the malice, and the differences, and the mismanagements of the past go away, and then the Lord can speak to us.
What techniques does the Lord use to give counsel and comfort to Joseph? The first thing he does is calls him, “My son.” He tells him this isn’t going to last forever—it is going to be for a “small moment.”
I think one of the greatest statements of hope that was ever uttered to man was made by the Savior on the cross when he said, “It is finished.” That can mean two things. First, there is never any commandment that the Father can ever give to you and to me that we ever have an excuse not to finish. It means, “I have finished the commandment you’ve given me.” But it also means something else—it means all the suffering is finished. After he says, “It is finished,” he says, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” And if the Savior’s suffering had an end, then all of our sufferings will have an end. It doesn’t matter what it is—guilt, marriage, parent-child— the deep pains, the cutting ones, someday you and I are going to be able to say, “It is finished.” There is great hope in that, because when you hurt, you don’t think it will ever end.
In verse 8, God gives Joseph some tough counsel. He says, “if thou endure it well, God will exalt thee on high.” We have seen God give this counsel in the past whenever people hurt, but it is difficult to hear. God is essentially telling them to face their trials, endure them. He lets them know that the only way out is through. If you get to the end of your rope, hang on. However you want to say it, you just have to live through it. We always want the Lord to take it away, and the Lord isn’t going to take it away. We cannot understand why, but the Lord is wise. His ways are not our ways.
In Alma 31:30, Alma is weighed down with the sins he sees on his mission to the Zoramites. He utters the same words as Joseph does, “O, Lord, how long . . .” Notice what he prays for. “Give me strength to bear it.” That is indeed a mature prayer. Most people pray for their burdens to be taken away. Notice what he adds in verse 31—“Give me strength so I can suffer with patience.” He realizes that he will have to suffer, but he accepts it, and prays for patience to endure the suffering. In verse 33, he prays for strength for his fellow laborers to be able to bear their afflictions. Ultimately, in verse 38, the Lord compensates for all their suffering, and gives them strength to “suffer no manner of afflictions, save their afflictions would be swallowed up in the joy of Christ.”
Sometimes the Lord uses tools to propel us forward that we interpret as afflictions. The barges of the Jaredites were driven forward toward the land of promise by the winds and the waves that were sent by God. But God did prepare them against the storm by providing light in a miraculous manner. We humans say, “Lord, why don’t you just blow gently. Then we won’t need light, because we can just sit out on the deck and play shuffleboard.”
This brings to mind another time when the wind and the waves were threatening to destroy a boat as the apostles and the Savior were on the Sea of Galilee. What did the Savior do? He calmed the storm and said, “Peace be still.” Why doesn’t he always do that?
In your own life, when you are enduring crashing waves all around you, What kind of prayer do you utter? Do I give the Alma prayer? No, I give the Diana Webb prayer. I say, “Calm the storm for me.” If you read carefully, you see that not only does he calm the storm, but he takes them to their destination. That’s what I want him to do for me. But usually he says, “I have a better idea.” I’ll prepare you against the storms, instead of calming them.” And that’s what he is saying to Joseph Smith here. We are supposed to learn a lesson from these scripture stories. The Lord hopes that we internalize this idea—if the Lord does not still the storm for us, what do we know that he has already done for us? He has prepared us. There is within us the strength to withstand the storm. So, don’t pray that God will calm the storm. Pray like Alma, that we can . . . suffer with . . .patience.
This is the same message he has given to Joseph Smith in verse 8 of section 121. It’s not enough to endure it, you must endure it well. What word is synonymous with “well”? Patiently. Verse 32 of section 121 speaks of the end purpose of man as “entering the eternal presence” of God. This is because we are born with a divine heritage.
The first kind of knowledge we get by going through tribulation is the opportunity of being taught by the Holy Ghost. Why? Because we are now in the right frame of mind to be able to receive revelation. There is also a BREAK between verses 32 and 33. Before the “How long shall rolling waters remain impure,” the letter reads,
But I beg leave to say unto you, brethren, that ignorance, superstition, and bigotry placing itself where it ought not, is oftentimes in the way of the prosperity of the Church; like the torrent of rain from the mountains, that floods the most pure and crystal stream with mire, and dirt, and filthiness, and obscures everything that was clear before, and all rushes along in one general deluge; but time weathers tide; and notwithstanding we are mired in the flood for the time being , the next surge peradventure, as time rolls on, may bring us to the fountain as clear as crystal, and as pure as snow; while the filthiness, floodwood and rubbish is left and purged out of the way.
Do you see that same idea of revelation coming down on the head of the saints? Because this is what follows tribulation. Trials can bring cloudiness for a while, but if we’ll hold on, the next roll of the stream will cause the murky water it clear up, and all the debris will disappear. It follows that we get revelation due to humility.
The second kind of knowledge is revelation due to an understanding of the principles of righteousness. This is what comes between 33 and 34.
What is Boggs for his murderous party, but wimbling willows upon the shore to catch the flood-wood? As well might we argue that water is not water, because the mountain torrents send down mire and roil the crystal stream, although afterwards render it more pure than before; or that fire is not fire, because of its questionable nature, by pouring on the flood; as to say that our cause is down because renegades, liars, priests, thieves and murderers, who are all alike tenacious of their crafts and creeds, have poured down, from their spiritual wickedness in high places, and from their strongholds of the devil, a flood of dirt and mire and filthiness and vomit upon our heads. No! God forbid. Hell may pour forth its red like the burning lava of mount Vesuvius, or of Etna, or of the most terrible of the burning mountains; and yet shall “Mormonism” stand. Water, fire, truth and God are all realities. Truth is “Mormonism.” God is the author of it. He is our shield. It is for Him we received our call to a dispensation of His Gospel in the beginning of the fullness of times. It was by him we received the Book of Mormon; and it is by him that we remain unto this day; and by Him we shall remain, if it shall be for our glory; and in His Almighty name we are determined to endure tribulation as good soldiers unto the end.
What lesson do we draw from all this talk of enduring floods and burning lava?Trial will purify you and strengthen you. The next paragraph from the original letter describes just how strong you will become after passing through such trials.
But brethren, we continue to offer further reflections. . . You will learn. . . that walls and irons, doors and creaking hinges, and half-scared-to-death guards and jailers, grinning like some damned spirits, lest an innocent man should make his escape to bring to light the damnable deeds of a murderous mob, are calculated in their very nature to make the soul of an honest man feel stronger than the powers of hell.
What’s the second thing you learn in tribulation and trial? You learn you are stronger than all the powers of hell. Joseph Smith later said, “If I were sunk in the lowest pit in Nova Scotia, I would hang on (endure) and come out on top.” (History of the Church 6:485) He had learned that trials teach you what you are made of. They reveal how much inner strength you really have.
What’s the third thing you learn from trial? Doctrine and Covenants 122:5-7 teaches us that although we may be torn from our children, cast into the pit, or even have “the billowing surge” conspire against us, we learn that nothing can happen to us that God can’t make good. And if that doesn’t increase your faith in God, I don’t know what does. Even if the “very jaws of hell” gape open to receive us, all these things shall give us experience and shall be for our good. Everything—every trial, every experience, by Satan’s machinations, or by the forces of nature, God will make good for us.
This lesson has been taught in many other places in the scriptures. Paul taught that, “All things work together for good to them who love God.” (Romans 8:28) Jacob taught that God will “consecrate” all our afflictions for our gain. (2 Nephi 2:2)
The fourth thing we can learn is that these trials will give us is a greater compassion and understanding of other people. From Orson F. Whitney we read the following:
When we want counsel and comfort, we do not go to children, nor to those who know nothing but pleasure and self-gratification. We go to men and women of thought and sympathy, men and women who have suffered themselves and can give us the comfort that we need. Is not this God’s purpose in causing his children to suffer? He wants them to become more like himself. God has suffered far more than man ever did or ever will, and is therefore the great source of sympathy and consolation. . . .There is always a blessing in sorrow and humiliation. They who escape these things are not the fortunate ones. ‘Whom God loveth he chasteneth.’… Flowers shed most of their perfume when they are crushed. Men and women have to suffer just so much in order to bring out the best that is in them (Elder Orson F. Whitney, “A Lesson from the Book of Job,” Improvement Era, Nov. 1918, 7).
To sum up the lessons learned in Liberty Jail, I would like to share some thoughts from Elder Neal A Maxwell:
Spiritual refinement is not only to make the gross more pure but to further refine the already fine. . . One’s life, therefore, cannot be both faith-filled and stress-free. Hence, said Peter, we should not think a “fiery trial” to be “some strange thing.” (1 Pet. 4:12.)
Therefore, how can you and I really expect to glide naively through life, as if to say, “Lord, give me experience, but not grief, not sorrow, not pain, not opposition, not betrayal, and certainly not to be forsaken. Keep from me, Lord, all those experiences which made Thee what Thou art! Then let me come and dwell with Thee and fully share Thy joy!”
(“Lest Ye Be Wearied and Faint in Your Minds,” Ensign, May 1991)
My hope is that we may we learn these lessons from Liberty, both on how to deal with suffering ourselves, and how to help others when they are going through trials. May we realize that when we are raging inside and feel forgotten by heaven, we need to stop and take a breath. We have to calm down, and let go of our malice, and have some hope, and then the Lord can speak to us. We cannot receive his counsel until we have a contrite spirit. Trials make us humble, and only then can we be taught by the Holy Ghost. We can be a calming influence on those who are struggling just by offering tokens of friendship and a kind word. We can do for them what Emma’s letter did for Joseph. We need to realize that these trials won’t last forever, that they are only for “a small moment.” The Lord knows that if we endure trials with patience, we will gain a great strength that can be gained in no other way. We can learn that if the Lord doesn’t take our trials away, he has prepared us with the strength to be able to endure them. All these things will work together for our good. They will give us experience, and greater compassion for others who are going through suffering.
RoseAnn BensonNovember 6, 2021
Diane-I loved the context and lessons you drew out of this!
Laurie PinegarNovember 1, 2021
Great article Diana! Loved this one!