How Joseph Got His Groove Back

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.


  1. Lowering himself into the dungeon room was his own descensus ad inferos, his own harrowing of hell.

    Love it, Kevin.

  2. Mark Brown says:

    Prophetic mojo. Prophetic mojo.

    Yes, there is much here to love, and a great insight, too.

  3. Awesome, Kev. Really excellent work.

  4. This context is fantastic. Thanks!

  5. Thanks for this, Kevin; I could have used this when I taught the lesson. ;)

    The biggest thing I took from this experience is how JS still relied on his closes friends. That the letter itself was a result of receiving correspondence from his wife and others, and that the “My son, peace be unto thy soul…” portion came after him glorying in friendship really struck me.

  6. Will a voice mail message be enough to drag you to Southeastern PA to teach some church history lessons? If so, please share your phone number post haste.

    Fascinating observations.

  7. Great post! I loved the idea that JS suffered a crisis of Mojo in his life. It makes me feel after him even more because that is an experience that I think we all have. We all have those times when suddenly all our confidence slips away and we wonder where it went and how we can get it back. To see him sink low and then rise up again with renewed strength lifted my own spirits a bit. I’m often struck how much the ‘real’ man moves and motivates me more than the ubermensh I grew up with, the cartoon Joseph who flawlessly moved forward never doubting his course or direction. This is a prophet (as you describe here) that resonates with my soul. Well, done. I love this and it should be more widely known. Exploring the crisis of confidence in Joseph Smith brings him closer to me than anything I’ve read in a while.

  8. john willis says:

    When the lesson was taught in my Elder’s Quorum I noted how great prophetic leaders can be motivated to produce some of their greatest work while in Jail. Examples would be St. Paul , Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In particular an interesting comparsion is MLK’s” Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and the letter of Joseph Smith that led sections 121, 122 and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
    I suspect that Cleon Skousen and Ezra Taft Benson would roll over in their graves if they heard that comparison but I really believe it is a valid one.

  9. Gerald Jones says:

    I wrote my master’s thesis on this very subject. My thesis is that Joseph was in mourning in 1838. He had been directed to build Zion so Christ could come. When they were expelled, Joseph realized that either he had misinterpreted his own revelations, or he was wrong. Section 121 is his lament to God – his “Where are you?” moment. The response is a gentle chastisement that notes “I’ve always been here.”

  10. Reed Russell says:

    From the letter:

    What is Boggs or 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 it is of a quenchable 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 … upon our heads.

    “No! God forbid. Hell may pour forth its rage 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.’

    Why is this not in Section 121???!!! (just wish it was)

  11. Fantastic, Kevin. I have already had the pleasure of sitting in on an Aaron Brown SS lesson- I hope someday to sit in on one of yours. I’m sure this was remarkable, taught.

  12. Enjoyed this post. Thanks Kevin.

  13. Wow I wish you had taught our class. I am going to print this and put it in my manual for future reference.

  14. I wish I had this when I taught this lesson, too. Thanks, Kevin. Awesome as always.

  15. Interesting stuff…

  16. This was great Kevin, thanks for this post.

  17. daveonline says:

    My dad often referred to this period in Joseph’s life (of Liberty Jail) as the point in time when Joseph “Became a Christian”. I see this as the experience of “the refiners fire” where the connection and perspective between our suffering and that of our Savior’s atonement comes into focus in a profound way. It strikes me as similar to Nephi’s Lament; Saul’s transition from obedience in execution and passionate following of a true cause (where he spends a few years in the desert); and certainly your allusion to Dante’s journey where he descends due to failure before the illumination of God and Dante’s spiritual humility can be obtained.
    While these all may imply one time events are at the core of the “Christian” insight, I think they also represent the continued exploring and learning of how our efforts, will, and growth fit into those of God and those we care about.
    Thank you for sharing your insights on this.

  18. Just one question, Kevin. In your preparation, what if anything besides John’s post did you use as source materials?

  19. Kevin Barney says:

    I used a pretty decent wikipedia article to get the chronology down and then filled in the nuances with Bushman’s RSR.

    I still haven’t read LeSeuer et al., but in just a couple of days I at least got the basic lay of the land down.

  20. Great post, Kevin.

    I think of the Liberty Jail as the time when Joseph finally “broke” – where he experienced his own dark night of the soul – when everything came crashing down internally and he finally was humbled to the point where he was ready to receive and reveal the powerful stuff that followed. It really is an amazing thing to read.

  21. Just a note: The record is not entirely silent in 1938. Until July we can find in sections 113-120, examples of explanations, instructions to individuals, the Twelve and the Church–including tithing.
    Thank you for a very insightful post and the following comments. I especially appreciated these:
    that Joseph was in mourning in 1838…. But something happened as a result of that suffering….
    We all have those times when suddenly all our confidence slips away and we wonder where it went and how we can get it back. … the continued exploring and learning of how our efforts, will, and growth fit into those of God and those we care about….