Inspiration in Liberty Jail

By Richard and Pamela Price

After the state militia conquered Far West in the fall of 1838, fifty-six of the leaders of the Church were imprisoned at Richmond for about a month. Then Judge Austin King released all of them except ten; he sent six to Liberty to be kept in the Clay County Jail and four others to Boonville to be imprisoned there. Those who were sent to Liberty Jail included Presidents Joseph and Hyrum Smith, President Sidney Rigdon, Apostle Lyman Wight, and Caleb Baldwin and Alexander McRae.

In Liberty Jail the prisoners were kept in the lower cell or basement-dungeon all of the winter of 1838–39 in the most squalid and miserable conditions. They were left chained together on the stone floor, with only straw for a mattress and insufficient blankets to keep warm. They were without adequate heat, and their food was sparse and "coarse." The room had only a small barred window on the north and south sides to allow some ventilation.

There in the dungeon the six men lay during the long winter waiting to be brought to trial—though there was nothing to try them for, except for supposedly causing the war by defending themselves at Gallatin, De Witt, Crooked River, and Far West. They were taken to Liberty on December 1, 1838,

where the closing month of the year was spent in a loathsome jail. On the 8th the wives of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon visited them, remaining with them in the jail all night and departing on the 9th. On the 10th Lyman Wight's wife and four boys were visitors at the jail. They remained over the 11th, on which day the youngest child was blessed, taking their departure on the 12th. . . .

Alexander McRae's wife and two little boys came on the 13th and remained until the 15th. On the 17th they were visited by General Doniphan and N. West. On December 20 the wives of Joseph Smith and Caleb Baldwin, accompanied by Mrs. Reynolds Cahoon, came in and remained until the 22d. . . .

Thus in their gloomy prison house, cheered only by occasional visits from friends and the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they beheld the eventful year 1838 pass away. Its closing hours found them deprived of liberty, their families robbed and destitute, their brethren scattered and driven from their once pleasant, happy homes by a ruthless mob,—and all this for the testimony they bore, that Jesus was the Christ, his gospel true, and his promised blessings sure. (RLDS History of the Church 2:309)

The Designation of Joseph Smith III

In addition to the two visits which Joseph's faithful wife made to the jail in December, she also visited there on January 21. On at least one of these visits she brought six-year-old Joseph Smith III with her. During one of these occasions the Prophet Joseph was inspired to bless and designate Joseph III to be the next prophet of the Church.

Lyman Wight, one of the Twelve, always taught the saints whom he led into Texas, that none but "little Joseph" could lead the church, as the successor of the martyr. He said he knew it, for in 1839, when Hyrum, Joseph, and himself were in prison in Liberty Jail, Missouri, "little Joseph" was brought by his mother and left with his father in the jail while she was attending to business affairs in the town,—and that then and there Joseph, with Hyrum and himself, laid their hands upon the lad's head, and Joseph proceeded to bless him, and prophesied that he would yet lead the Church of the living God; and he blessed him to that end. Such was the testimony of Lyman Wight up to 1858, the year in which he died. (The Successor, an RLDS tract printed at Plano, Illinois)

Apostle Lyman Wight himself wrote concerning Young Joseph's blessing.

Now, Mr. Editor, if you had been present when Joseph called on me shortly after we came out of [the dungeon of the] jail to lay hands with him on the head of a youth, and heard him cry aloud, "You are my successor when I depart," and heard the blessings poured on his head,—I say had you heard all this, and seen the tears streaming from his eyes—you would not have been led by blind fanaticism, or a zeal without knowledge. . . . While in jail there were many things spoken by the mouth of our martyred Prophet and Patriarch, and when I see these things taking place just as they were spoken, it cheers my heart and that of the brethren and sisters in this branch also. (RLDS History of the Church 2:789–790)

Joseph III also testified concerning this first blessing.

In Liberty jail the promise and blessing of a life of usefulness to the cause of truth was pronounced upon our [my ] head by lips tainted by dungeon damps, and by the Spirit confirmed through attesting witnesses. This blessing has by some been called an ordination, from the usual predilection to confound names and terms. (RLDS History of the Church 3:506).

It should be remembered that Young Joseph was not ordained to be the prophet at this time, but he was only blessed and designated to be his father's successor. He was designated by his father three more times in later years in Nauvoo: in the Brick Store, in a church service in the grove east of the Temple, and in the Mansion House just before Joseph went to Carthage to be martyred. These blessings helped fulfill the Scriptures in Doctrine and Covenants, Section 43:1–2, which say that Joseph should choose his successor; and Section 107:18 which states that "In thee, and in thy seed, shall the kindred of the earth be blessed."

Messages of Inspiration from Liberty Jail

The Liberty Jail

The Liberty Jail

From Liberty Jail Joseph wrote letters which guided the saints during the cruel winter of 1839. The prophet also received some inspired insights while there, which have proved very valuable to the saints over the years, although they are not recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. The following excerpts have been taken from these writings.

The Sweetness of Friendship to Prisoners

We received some letters from our friends last evening, one from Emma, one from D. C. Smith [Joseph's brother], and one from Bishop Partridge—all breathing a kind and consoling spirit; we had been a long time without information from our friends, and when we read those letters they were refreshing to our souls, as the gentle air and refreshing breeze. But our feelings of joy were mingled with feelings of pain and sorrow on account of the sufferings of the poor and much injured saints, and we need not say unto you that the flood gates of our hearts were open, and our eyes were a fountain of tears. Those who have not been inclosed in the walls of a prison, without cause or provocation, can have but little idea, how sweet the voice of a friend, or one token of friendship is. (Times and Seasons 1:101)

Trials Strengthen the Faith of the Saints

God has said, He would have a tried people, and that He would purify them as gold is purified. Now, we think He has chosen His own crucible to try us, and if we should be so happy as to endure and keep the faith, it will be a sign to this generation. (Times and Seasons 1:102)

Beware of an Aspiring Spirit

We would respectfully advise the brethren, to be aware of an aspiring spirit, which has frequently urged men forward to make foul speeches and beget an undue influence in the minds of the saints, and bring much sorrow and distress in the Church. We would likewise say be aware of pride, for truly hath the wise man said "pride goeth before destruction and an haughty spirit before a fall. . . ."

And if we would bring souls to salvation it requires that our minds should rise to the highest heavens, search into and contemplate the lowest abyss, expand wide as eternity and hold communion with Deity. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God than the vain imaginations of the human heart:how vain and trifling have been our spirits in our conferences and council meetings, as well as in our public and private conversations. (Times and Seasons 1: 102)

Charity and Repentance

We would beseech you to bear with the infirmities of the weak, and at the same time exhort one another to a reformation, both teachers and taught, male and female, so that honesty, sobriety, candor, solemnity, plainness, meekness and virtue may characterize us from henceforth; and that we be like little children without malice, guile, or hypocrisy. And now brethren after your tribulations, if you do these things, and exercise fervent prayer in the sight of God always, He shall give unto you knowledge, by His Holy Spirit, yea He shall pour out the Holy Ghost in such copious effusion as have not been since the creation until now. . . .

Ignorance, bigotry, and superstition are frequently in the way of the prosperity of this Church and are like the torrent of rain rushing down from the mountains, which floods the clear stream with mire and dirt. But when the storm is over and the rain has ceased, the mire and dirt are washed away and the stream again is pure and clear as the fountain. So shall the Church appear when ignorance, superstition, and bigotry are washed away.

What power can stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the mighty Missouri River in its course, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the hearts of the Latter Day Saints. . . .

As well might we argue that water is not water, because the mountain torrent sends down mire and riles the crystal stream; or that fire is not fire because it can be quenchable, as to say that our Cause is down because renegades, liars, priests, and murderers, who are alike tenacious of their crafts and creeds, have poured down upon us a flood of dirt and mire from their strongholds! No, they may rage with all the powers of hell, and pour forth their wrath, indignation, and cruelty like the burning lava of mount Vesuvius—yet shall "Mormonism" stand! Truth is "Mormonism"; and God is its author. By Him we received our birth; by Him we were called to a dispensation of His gospel in the beginning of the fulness of times. It was by Him we received the Book of Mormon. By Him we remain unto this day and shall continue to remain if it be to His glory.

We are determined to endure tribulation as good soldiers, unto the end. When you read this, you will learn that prison walls, iron doors, screeching hinges, guards, and jailors have not destroyed our confidence. But we say, and that from experience, that they are calculated in their very nature to make the soul of an honest man feel stronger than the powers of hell. (Times and Seasons 1:103)

The Source of Priesthood Power

If there are any among you who aspire after their own aggrandizement and opulence, while their brethren are groaning in poverty and laboring under sore trials and temptations, they cannot be benefited by the intercessions of the Holy Spirit. We aught at all times to be very careful that such high mindedness never have place in our hearts, but condescend to men of low estate, and with all long suffering bear the infirmities of the weak.

There are many called but few are chosen! And why are they not chosen? Because their hearts are set upon the things of the world and are aspiring to the honors of men. They do not learn the lesson that the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven; and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled, only upon the principles of righteousness. That they may be conferred upon us, it is true, but when we undertake to cover our sins, to gratify our pride or vain ambition—or to exercise dominion or compulsion over the souls of the children of men in any degree of unrighteousness, behold the Heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved. Then amen to the priesthood or to the authority of that man! Behold ere he is aware, he is left to kick against the prick—to persecute the saints and to fight against God.

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, to begin to exercise unrighteous dominion. Hence many are called but few are chosen. No power or influence can, or aught to be, maintained by virtue of the priesthood—only by persuasion, by long suffering, by gentleness, by meekness and by love unfeigned; without hypocrisy, and without guile: reproving with sharpness when moved upon by the Holy Ghost, and afterwards showing forth an increase of love towards him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy, so that he may know, that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.

Let the soul be full of charity towards all men, and virtue guard thy thoughts unceasingly. Then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God, and the doctrines of the priesthood shall distill upon thy soul as the dews from heaven. Thy sceptre shall be an unchanging sceptre of righteousness; the Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion; thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion; the ends of the earth shall enquire after thy name. Fools shall have thee in derision; hell shall rage against thee—while the pure in heart, the wise, the noble, and the virtuous shall seek counsel, authority, and blessing, constantly from under thy hand. Thy people shall never be turned against thee by the testimony of traitors; although their influence shall cast thee into trouble and into prisons, thou shall be had in honor (and but for a small moment), and thy voice shall be more terrible in the midst of thy enemies than the fierce lion, because of thy righteousness; and thy God shall stand by thee forever and ever. (Times and Seasons 1:131–132)

No Secret Oaths

Pure friendship always becomes weakened the very moment you undertake to make it stronger by penal oaths and secrecy. Your humble servants intend from henceforth to disapprobate every thing that is not in accordance with the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ and which is not of a bold, frank, and upright nature. They will not hold their peace as in times past, when they see iniquity beginning to rear its head, for fear of traitors, or the consequences that shall follow, from reproving those who creep in unawares that they may get something to destroy the flock. We believe, that from the experience of the saints in times past, they will henceforth be always ready to obey the truth, without having men's persons in admiration because of advantage. (Times and Seasons 1:133)

Respect the Religion of Others

We ought to be aware of those prejudices (which are so congenial to human nature) against our neighbors, friends, and brethren of the world, who choose to differ with us in opinion and in matters of faith. Our religion is between us and our God; their religion is between them and their God. There certainly is a tie to those of the same faith which is peculiar to itself, but it is without prejudice, gives full scope to the mind,and enables us to conduct ourselves with liberality towards those who are not of our faith. This principle, in our opinion, approximates the nearest to the mind of God and is God-like. (Times and Seasons 1:133)

Respect for Country and God

We say that God is true, that the Constitution of the United States is true, that the Bible is true, the Book of Mormon is true, that Christ is true, that the ministering of angels is true; and we know we have a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens, whose builder and maker is God—a consolation which our oppressors cannot feel, when fortune or fate may lay its hand on them as it has on us. We ask: What is man? Remember, brethren, that time and chance happeneth to all men. (Times and Seasons 1:134)

Zion Shall Yet Live

Brethren, from henceforth let truth and righteousness prevail and abound in you; and in all things be temperate—abstain from drunkenness, profane language, and from every thing which is unrighteous and unholy, and from the very appearance of evil. . . . Zion shall yet live: although she seemeth to be dead. We say unto you brethren: be not afraid of your adversaries; contend earnestly against mobs and the unlawful works of dissenters and of darkness; and the very God of peace shall be with you and make a way for your escape from your adversaries. We commend you to God and the Word of His grace which is able to make you wise unto salvation. Amen—Joseph Smith Jr. (Times and Seasons 1:86)

This article appears as Chapter 27 in The Restoration Story. The Restoration Story may be purchased from the bookstore or online.