O God, where art thou?: D&C 121 and 132

Laura Brignone (PhD, MSW) is a Visiting Scholar at the University of California, Berkeley where she studies technology and domestic violence.  Her recent research examines an emergency room intervention meant to prevent intimate partner homicide.

We’re fast approaching D&C 121 and D&C 132 in the Come Follow Me manual. In honor of domestic violence awareness month in October, let’s spend a few weeks exploring the story these two sections tell about domestic violence and abuse in the church, both then and now. [1] 

Note: this first post describes abuse and may be triggering for those who have experienced it. Future posts in this series will primarily focus on church policy and may be less triggering. 

Doctrine and Covenants 121: Background

The text of D&C 121-123 comes from excerpts of two letters Joseph Smith wrote from Liberty Jail. At the time these letters were written, the early Saints were, perhaps, at their lowest point. They had fled Kirtland. Missouri had legalized theft, assault, rape and even murder against them. Destitute, scattered and endangered, the Saints sought safety from the oncoming winter — and did so deprived of leadership. Joseph Smith and other church leaders were arrested under Missouri’s extermination order and sent to “hell surrounded with demons:” Liberty Jail. This cold, ragged dungeon had little light, no ventilation, food “so filthy that [they] could not eat it until [they] were driven to it by hunger,” and a ceiling too low for standing upright. Leering and jeering from community members made “the place take on some aspects of a zoo;” their guards delivered frequent updates about their loved ones by detailing brutality they had inflicted against them.

D&C 121: Abuse against the early Saints

Abuse is Satan’s plan: a perpetrator of abuse uses power and control over the survivor to manipulate them, coerce them, and/or take away their agency. This pattern always harms the survivor. 

Abuse is usually described in two ways: One is by the relationship between the perpetrator and survivor of abuse: e.g., “domestic violence,” “child abuse,” “elder abuse.” [2] The other is by the type of harm caused to the survivor: e.g., psychological, emotional, spiritual, economic, physical and/or sexual abuse.

At the time D&C 121 was written, both the Saints inside and outside Liberty Jail faced many types of abuse. [3] Physical abuse included direct assaults against LDS communities in Missouri and deliberate starvation of the Liberty Jail prisoners. Sexual abuse included rape and other sexual assaults against LDS communities in Missouri. Psychological abuse occurred when guards taunted the Liberty Jail prisoners with lurid descriptions of these assaults and force-fed them what the prisoners believed was human flesh. Economic abuse looked like extensive theft and targeted inflation against the LDS communities in Missouri. Each of these constituted spiritual abuse, as these actions were intended to disrupt the Saints’ spiritual practices and force them to abandon or betray their beliefs.  

Abuse against modern Saints 

The perpetrators of violence named in D&C 121 were the early Saints’ neighbors and jailers. The perpetrators of violence against modern Saints are usually their current or former boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses; or their parents, children or other loved ones. Based on statistics in the United States:

In a 20-person Relief Society class, two women are currently surviving physical or sexual abuse from their partner or someone in their home; this rate is higher among the elderly and in YSA wards. Four other women have survived physical or sexual abuse in the past. Eight women have survived emotional, economic, and/or spiritual abuse. One is perpetrating abuse against another person.

In a Primary class of 7 children, one is currently surviving abuse or neglect (this rate is higher in nursery and Sunbeams). One is witnessing the physical abuse of a parent.

In a youth program with 15 young men and 15 young women, two or three are currently surviving child abuse and one young woman is surviving relationship abuse as well. For LGBTQ+ youth, these numbers are higher.  [4]

In an Elders Quorum of 20 priesthood holders, at least one is currently surviving abuse. Two are currently perpetrating abuse against someone in their home. 

While exact statistics are not available, based summary data suggest that LDS women experience abuse and abuse-related homicide at rates that are at least equal, and possibly higher, than other women. Some of these cases are high-profile, like Gabby Petito, Colbie Holderness and Jennifer Willoughby, or Laci Peterson, but these are just the beginning.  [5]

Faith as a protective and a risk factor

Religious faith can provide a language of resilience, solace and empowerment for survivors of abuse. In the section of the letter before D&C 121:1, Joseph Smith shows how his faith offers him resilience, strength and empowerment when he writes:

“[O]ur circumstances are calculated to awaken our spirits to a sacred remembrance… that nothing therefore can separate us from the love of God and fellowship with one another.”

At the same time, religious faith can provide language to justify or camouflage abuse. Presumably, some Missourians who persecuted the Saints genuinely believed they were defending their communities from people with corrupted Christian beliefs, and other Missourians played off of these beliefs to justify malicious cruelty against the Saints.

These are just examples. Every abuse survivor whose faith sustains them will employ it differently; every person who uses religious faith to harm another person will do so differently. The close look we’ll take at D&C 121 and 132 over the next six weeks shows some tools that have evolved in LDS practice and scripture to enable both survivors and perpetrators to use LDS faith toward their goals.

D&C 121:1-6

D&C 121 begins by giving religious language to the grief of at least one survivor of abuse. In the first canonized verses of D&C 121, Joseph Smith articulates his own pain, isolation and fear:

Oh God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place? How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries? Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them? 

O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth and seas, and of all things that in them are, and who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol — stretch forth thy hand; let thine eye pierce; let thy pavilion be taken up; let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us. Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs. Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.

A lot of modern readers, when they reach the end of verse 6, reach immediately for the light and hope in God’s voice at the beginning of verse 7. But let’s not rush there too quickly.

Joseph Smith didn’t. There’s a break in the excerpt after verse 6; in the original letter, Joseph Smith continued on for several more paragraphs describing the various legal challenges he and the other prisoners were facing, their thwarted escape attempts, his love for his fellow Saints and his testimony of God. His writing is full of faith and conviction — but no anticipation of deliverance.

Staying with these six verses lets us feel our discomfort with the presence of abuse. Yes, the voice of God, and then the hand of God, eventually appeared to help these early survivors heal from the abuse inflicted on them; they received the grace promised in verse 7. But, in D&C 121:1-6, that hasn’t happened yet. There is no justice for their suffering. Joseph Smith speaks for himself but articulates sentiments both early and modern survivors of abuse may share — survivors for whom the voice of God has not pierced the darkness, and who do not anticipate freedom from the abuse committed against them. 

When we sit with D&C 121:1-6, we will realize many of God’s children still repeat these words in prayer.

* * * * *

If you suspect you or someone you know may be experiencing abuse, the following resources are available to call or chat 24/7. Abuse is never the survivor’s fault:

* * * * *

[1] The first three weeks will focus on D&C 121, and the last three will focus on D&C 132 – both wrapping up just in time for their Come Follow Me lesson.

[2] “Domestic violence” typically refers to this harm being perpetrated against a current or former romantic partner or any adult in a shared living/caregiving relationship. “Intimate partner violence” specifically refers to this harm being perpetrated against a current or former romantic partner, or a person with whom the survivor has a child in common. Child abuse refers to this harm being committed against any person under the age of 18, and sexual assault refers to manipulated or coerced sexual contact with another person, or any sexual contact between an adult and a person under the age of 18.

[3] Because the guards didn’t live in Liberty Jail, the abuse suffered by Joseph Smith and his colleagues at this time would be institutional abuse, not domestic violence. In addition, the violence against the early Saints was persecution — i.e., abuse based on a person’s community affiliation. Because the perpetrator’s use of power and control to harm the survivor are similar among various types of abuse, I’m going to move freely back and forth between them in this introductory post.

[4] Rates of abuse against trans adults are also much, much higher than against cisgender adults. See: https://vawnet.org/sc/serving-trans-and-non-binary-survivors-domestic-and-sexual-violence

[5] A few weeks ago, the Faithful Feminists summarized available data on this in their August 30, 2021 podcast: http://www.thefaithfulfeminists.com/2021/08/theres-dirt-in-zion-doctrine-covenants_30.html.

Comments

  1. Jennifer Roach says:

    It’s been interesting for me to contrast how the Evangelical churches (my background for 50 years before converting) handle abuse…..contrasted with how abuse is handled in our LDS church today. I know it’s not perfect, and there are plenty of stories where things have gone wrong. But just this week the Southern Baptists have to go through things like this….””It took three weeks of scheduled meetings, at least three law firms, dozens of statements, hours of closed-door briefings, and extensive back-and-forth debates across boardooms, social media, and Zoom calls for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee to agree to the terms of a third-party investigation into its response to abuse.” Meanwhile, a LDS friend who disclosed childhood abuse saw justice for her family in a matter of months when the church kicked out her abusive relative in a simple membership council without the family having to yell and scream for years and years.

  2. Stephen Hardy says:

    Thank you for interpreting this part of the D&C for us in the setting of our own time and circumstances. It helps me understand their pain and it helps me understand how to extend support and love to those who suffer abuse.

  3. I think there’s a tendency to ignore the statistics you site of how many individuals within a given setting are being abused or meting out abuse with the idea that “yes, these things happen, but it’s most likely among the people not at church.” Yeah, it IS more comforting to recognize this unfortunately happens, but think that abusers – in particular – aren’t active members. It’s nicer to believe that it’s more likely the less active or non-member family members who are perpetuating abuse or being abused. “No way is it my kid’s primary teacher who’s abusing her son,” or “No way is the bishopric member sexually assaulting his wife.” I think this dismissal of reality is perpetuated by our church culture, particularly by deference to priesthood leaders and the idea of infallibility (including women leadership here). In a ward I was in, a primary teacher expressed specific concern about sexual abuse of two children. The primary president responded with, “I know that’s not happening because I have prayed to God to tell me if any kids in primary are being abused, and He would tell me if it was happening.” The reality is, really great people can do really horrific things. Even people we know and respect from our church community.

  4. “Missouri had legalized theft, assault, rape and even murder against them”. Nope. No, no, no. Read the whole story from both side. Watch the behavior, and read the rhetoric in light of that.

  5. Reinforcing the reality that abuse happens inside our church, and that the abuser is often not only active but in a “big” calling. I live in a “nice, safe” area in Utah. I have a friend whose father was called as bishop twice during the years he was abusing his children badly enough to leave physical scars on their bodies. An Elders Quorum president in my ward was released when he was arrested for sexually abusing a family member. A bishopric counselor in my former ward groomed one of the teenage girls in the ward (a daughter of the other counselor in the bishopric) to be his second wife.

  6. @Jennifer — Thanks for that perspective. I think one of the big things we sometimes leave out of discussions on leadership roulette is that it *is* actually possible to win the leadership lottery, and many people do. The church does, in fact, have resources that can be really strong when they’re used well. Then again, they are not always used well, and some people lose the lottery — or are even directly victimized by it.

    @Allison — That would make me crazy. Like the man who prayed to be saved from a flood, and when a rescue helicopter came he said “nah, I’m good, God’s got me.” Then he drowned, and God was annoyed the guy hadn’t gotten on the rescue helicopter He sent. Except in this case it’s innocent kids who would be harmed. I hope they’re alright.

    @PWS — thanks for the vivid reminder that it *does* happen at all levels. One thing that shocked to me when I realized it a few years ago is that you’d only have to look across three stakes (or one stake over 15 years) to find a bishop that was abusive. And that’s accounting for the factors (e.g., unemployment) that make bishops slightly less likely to perpetrate abuse than the average person.

  7. Jennifer Roach says:

    @Laura – Yes. So much. Another element at play….in most churches individuals volunteer to work with children or youth. Anyone can do so. There may be a background check, but those are 99.99% meaningless if you understand how they work. Gaining access to children is simple and quick. Its different in our LDS church because if a would-be abuser wants to work with kids, they have to wait to be called.

  8. Jennifer–I really wish your experience were typical.

  9. Jennifer Roach says:

    Kristine – fair enough. But compared to other faith communities it’s more common.

  10. Are you saying Gabby Petito was LDS? Haven’t seen any evidence she was a member. Certainly not an active member.

  11. Jennifer Roach says:

    jb – And Lacy Peterson certainly was not.

  12. @Jb and Jennifer — fair enough. I had heard both of those but didn’t actually follow up on them. There are enough others — the domestic violence-related murders of the Stay family in Texas in 2014 and Lori Hacking in Utah in 2004 (both definitely LDS) also come to mind.

    @Stephen — thank you; I hope the whole series is helpful this way.

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