Liberty Jail becomes 'enlightened dome'

LIBERTY, Mo. — On Dec. 1, 1838 — 160 years ago — Joseph Smith and five other Church leaders were confined in the dank dungeon of Liberty Jail. That event as well as the meaning of Christmas were observed Nov. 27 at the Church's Liberty Jail Visitors Center with an annual exterior lighting display and a new interior display. The interior display features more than 80 Nativity scenes loaned by Church members from seven stakes. It is the first time the interior of the center has been decorated for Christmas.

"The message of Liberty Jail is a simple one," said Elder Gayle D. Heckel, visitors center director, to the assembled audience of more than 350. "Joseph endured many hardships here. His faith was tested and found sufficient. He pleaded with the Lord in fervent prayer, and the Lord answered his prayer. And that's a model for each of us to follow."

Speakers at the outdoor lighting ceremony were Liberty Mayor Steven P. Hawkins and Bishop Detlef Lehnardt of the Liberty 2nd Ward. Also in attendance were Bruce Ross, president of the Liberty Chamber of Commerce; Pres. V. Daniel Rogers of the Missouri Independence Mission, who gave the opening prayer, and his wife; and Jay Nielsen of the Liberty 1st Ward bishopric, who gave the benediction. A choir from the Liberty 1st Ward provided music.

The mayor, though not a member of the Church, demonstrated a heartfelt affinity for what the historic site represents.

"This particular corner was a site of great adversity for the founders of your church," he acknowledged. "However, the re-enactment of the events in Liberty Jail of 160 years ago, which takes place here every day, points out to us that out of adversity can come great things, noble things in fact.

"Each of us . . . knows that we will be confronted with difficulty. Challenge to things that we want to do or to the ways we think or to the things that we believe will raise its head. Sometimes it will be an uninformed challenge, sometimes it will even be mean spirited. Sometimes that challenge will sprout from a small seed of truth, though it will be nourished by a large manure pile of rumor. . . . But we know that we do not bear it alone, and we know that that challenge can be overcome," said Mayor Hawkins.

"The building we illuminate this evening," he continued, "is an immediate example. The site upon which it arises was not a pretty one, but it was and it continues to be a place of inspiration. The walls may have been thick, the quarters dark, dank, dirty and cramped. But 160 years later, though one doesn't forget the adversity that occurred here, that adversity has been overcome and is enclosed within an enlightened dome.

"Tonight that dome experiences its traditional annual Christmas lighting, and within, there is a new tradition born, a display of Nativity scenes, many of which are, in their own ways, artful enclosures commemorating another dark grotto in which a momentous event occurred almost 2,000 years ago.

"As we admire the impressive physical beauty of this structure, and we remember the dark past which it encloses, as we gaze upon the special seasonal contents and remember the humble surroundings they symbolize, let us be inspired to believe that some of the things we stand for today against opposition may in some small way be celebrated as enlightened domes someday in the future," said the mayor.

Bishop Lehnardt emphasized that the citizens of Liberty were not responsible for the prophet's incarceration but had indeed nursed the persecuted members of the Church when they came across the Missouri River from Jackson County, where their possessions had been destroyed and many murdered. "We thank you, people of Liberty, and your ancestors, for treating our brothers and sisters, some of whom were our ancestors, as kindly as you did."

The bishop recounted two experiences involving the Prophet Joseph Smith which, he said, show his humility and that he had the light of Christ.

In one, the prophet's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, was at home a few days before Joseph's arrest at Far West, Mo., in 1838. Eight soldiers came into her home searching for him with the intent of killing him and the Mormons. "Lucy knew that he was in the adjoining room writing a letter. When he finished writing, he came into the room where his mother was, and she said, 'Let me introduce you to my son, Joseph Smith.' Joseph greeted them and shook their hands. Then he explained to them about the Church and its teachings. After a while, he turned to his mother and said, 'I will be leaving now. Emma is expecting me.' "

Two of the soldiers immediately jumped up and insisted on protecting him from the mob outside. The ones who remained in the home spoke to one another of how they felt Joseph Smith was innocent. They soon left.

The second experience the bishop related was about Emma Smith. She visited her husband in Liberty Jail at least twice. Returning from the second visit, she found her house ransacked, and many possessions stolen. Destitute in the cold of winter, she left with four small children with the rest of the Saints for Illinois. Her letter to Joseph about the journey prompted his poignant prayer and its answer, now recorded in Section 121 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the light of Christ permeated this Liberty Jail 160 years ago, and it can be found today in the teachings of the gospel of Jesus Christ restored in its fullness through the Prophet Joseph Smith," Bishop Lehnardt declared.

In an interview, Elder Heckel explained that it was felt, since this was the 160th anniversary of the prophet's confinement, something special should be done. His wife, Pat, came up with the idea of the Nativities. The purpose, he said, is three-fold: to draw attention to the birth of Christ; to show how many countries and cultures around the world celebrate the birth of the Savior through their art; and to give everyone in the community a special reason to come through the visitors center several times during the season and feel the spirit of Christmas with their family and friends.

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