On Thursday I picked up a voice mail asking me to teach the lesson for EQ yesterday. The lesson was no. 31 in the manual, on Liberty Jail.
As I thought about it, I realized that the Mormon experience in Missouri represented a big hole in my church education. I didn’t feel as though I had a decent grasp on the whole thing. Sure, I’ve sat through isolated lessons on specific aspects of it (lots of lessons on Zion’s Camp, for example), but we always go back to Kirtland and just cherry pick Missouri stuff to talk about. So I resolved to use this opportunity to review the basics of what happened to the Mormons in Missouri.
(We recently had a great post by John Hamer on the 1838 Mormon-Missouri War, with lots of knowledgeable and passionate commentary, and I felt a little bit embarrassed that I couldn’t really participate because I just didn’t know the material. I did print out his Risk illustration and shared it with my class.)
I finished my review and took lots of notes, and reached a comfort level that I had at last finally wrapped my arms around the basics. And since I had felt this lack keenly, and I’m someone who is intellectually curious, I was pretty sure others in the class had a similiar lack of context. I didn’t want to just jump right into Liberty Jail, I wanted the class to understand the background and why he was in jail. So I went over the basics in class, which I think was very much appreciated.
You know how when you watch the entire run of a TV series quickly on DVD, you see things that you would miss if you watched it only weekly over a seven-year period? Or how if you read the BoM or some other scripture quickly, you’ll notice things you might otherwise miss if you were to read it over the course of a year? Well, reviewing the whole of Mormon-Missouri history from 1831 to 1839 rapidly over just a couple of days resulted in a couple of those kinds of insights for me.
The first thing that made a profound impression on me was the problem a lack of timely communication technology was. It seems as though after every single event of the war, there were reports flowing to either side that invariably overdramatized the event, estimating casualties where there were none or grossly exaggerating such casualties as did exist. And so both sides were reacting to events with irrational fear based on very flawed intelligence.
The other thing I noticed, and which is the actual topic for this post, is that Joseph the Prophet was missing in action in 1838. He wasn’t really leading his people; he had sort of stepped aside and allowed other strong personalities to drive events. (Although I noticed this on my own, Bushman also comments on it in RSR.) We have very little from Joseph during that year, and no revelation. The power struggle with the dissenters was not something he was intimately involved in. During this period, decisions were characterized as being made by “the presidency”–not Joseph as prophet. The big incendiary speeches were being made by Sidney Rigdon (especially the Salt Sermon and the Declaration of Independece from Mobbers on July 4). He stood by and let Sampson Avard create the Danites. He was not in the forefront of the military actions, such as the Daviess County expedition, either.
My point is not to absolve him from the poor decisions that were being made. The buck still stopped with him, and he at least acquiesced in these things, and in some cases ratified them after the fact. But as Bushman explains, his own instincts were more defensive than aggressive. He failed to take control of the situation; he just sort of let things happen and spin out of control. I get the impression that he had lost confidence after the 1837 schism in Kirtland.
After he was arrested and the preliminary trial in Richmond, on December 1st he and five others were moved to Liberty Jail in Clay County. B.H. Roberts fancifully called the jail a prison temple, and I think there may have been something to that. Lowering himself into the dungeon room was his own descensus ad inferos, his own harrowing of hell. He suffered as much as he ever would over the next four months. He was humbled in the literal sense of the word–brought low to the ground.
But something happened as a result of that suffering. It was only in arrest and betrayal and shame and spitting and suffering beyond measure that he got his prophetic mojo back.
On March 20, 1839, he began to dictate one of the most remarkable letters of his prophetic career. It was as if revelation and been building up in his system over the prior year, unreleased, and then all of a sudden he just spewed it forth, wretching the words onto the pages of his scribes. The letter, in two parts, took up a remarkable 29 handwritten pages. It was all a-jumble, with scarcely a transition as it spilled from his tongue, with a pathos as deep as he ever would express. It was a remarkable letter, portions of which Orson Pratt would later bring into the D&C as Sections 121, 122 and 123. But it is a travesty to read those sections without also reading the words in their full, original context of the entire letter.
To me, that letter was a turning point. Joseph had gotten his prophetic groove back. A couple of weeks later they left the jail, and after that they were allowed to escape, and they made their way by backroads under assumed names to Quincy, Illinois, where the body of the Saints had gathered. And Joseph began to actually lead again, and the revelation would flow fast and furious in the new settlement of the Saints on the banks of the Mississippi.