A"prison-temple" is what Elder B. H. Roberts, one of the First Seven Presidents of Seventy from 1888-1933, called Liberty Jail, where the Prophet Joseph Smith and five others were confined for more than four months during the winter of 1838-1839. (See A Comprehensive History of the Church 1:38.)
The expression is apt. It was within the foul jail, described by Elder Neal A. Maxwell of the Council of the Twelve in his book "But for a Small Moment" as more a dungeon than a cell, that the prophet received and issued through revelation and prophecy several beautifully expressed truths.This month marks 150 years since the prophet penned the revelations and instructions - now recorded as Sections 121-123 of the Doctrine and Covenants - while languishing in his cell.
In the months preceding the prophet's incarceration, hostile Missourians - so-called "old settlers" - and apostate Mormons gave false charges and misrepresentations to the state's chief executive to the effect that Mormons were murdering and plundering Missouri citizens. The reaction of Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs culminated in his issuing the infamous "Order of Extermination" on Oct. 27, 1838.
Coming soon after that order - that the Mormons "must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state if necessary for the public peace" - was the massacre by state militiamen of the Mormon settlement at Haun's Mill.
On Oct. 31, 1838, the Prophet, Sidney Rigdon, Lyman Wight, Parley P. Pratt and George W. Robinson were delivered as hostages to the state militia through the treachery of Col. George M. Hinkle, an officer of the Mormon militia at Far West, Mo. The next morning, Hyrum Smith and Amasa Lyman were also delivered as prisoners.
To resolve the conflict between the Missourians and the Church members, Hinkle had taken matters into his own hands. He contacted Gen. Samuel D. Lucas and agreed to the following terms: that the Mormons would give up their leaders to be tried and punished; that they would make an appropriation of their property to pay for alleged debts and damage; that they would leave the state; and that they would give up their arms of every description.
Hinkle deceived Joseph Smith and the others, leading them to believe Lucas desired an interview with them. As they approached Lucas' troops, they were captured. Under the terms of Hinkle's capitulation, the Far West militia was disbanded and the defenseless saints were assaulted and deprived of their property.
Militia leaders held a court-martial in which the Church leaders were sentenced to be executed. The refusal of Gen. Alexander W. Doniphan to carry out what he called "cold-blooded murder," alarmed Lucas, who rescinded the execution order.
Thereafter, other Mormon leaders were arrested and all were taken to Independence, Mo. During the journey, the Prophet promised that their lives would be spared.
They were arraigned on charges of treason, murder, arson, burglary, robbery, larceny and perjury. Given little opportunity to defend themselves, they were held to appear before the courts in the respective counties where the crimes were allegedly committed. Confined with Joseph Smith in the rock-hewn jail at Liberty on Dec. 1, 1838, were Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin, Alexander McRae and, for part of the time, Sidney Rigdon.
There they remained until April 6, 1839, when they were transported to Daviess County for trial. Because of probable prejudice among the grand jury there, they sought and obtained a change of venue to Boone County, Mo. En route, they escaped from the sheriff and guards who had gotten drunk.
While in jail, Joseph Smith and his fellow prisoners were subjected to coarse and filthy food, inadequate provisions, and vile derision from guards and curiosity seekers.
Elder Alvin R. Dyer wrote in his book Refiner's Fire that the jail had no sleeping quarters, "and thus they were forced to seek rest and recuperation on beds of straw placed on hardened plank and stone floors."
Yet, as Elder Maxwell observed: "During his incarceration . . . the Prophet Joseph Smith received some of the most rich and remarkable revelations ever given to any prophet. The double walls, four feet thick, kept Joseph and his companions in, but they could not keep the Spirit and revelation out. Though Joseph's physical vision suffered from incessant gloom, the `choice seer' had that vision which mattered most."
Sections 121-123 were extracted from an epistle written in two parts by the Prophet to the Church, between March 20 and 25, 1839, and signed by all the jailed brethren.
Among the topics of the revelations are the attributes required of those who hold the priesthood and the principles upon which priesthood power is exercised (D&C 121:34-46); the certainty of revelation from God to govern His kingdom on earth (D&C 26:33); civil duties and the sacredness of the U.S. Constitution (see A Comprehensive History of the Church 1:525), and the purpose of tribulation and suffering in the growth and maturation of God's people. (D&C 122.)
The prophet's deep feelings are reflected in the letter, illustrated by this extract: "Therefore, dearly beloved brethren, we are the more ready and willing to lay claim to your fellowship and love. For our circumstances are calculated to awaken our spirits to a sacred remembrance of everything, and we think that yours are also, and that nothing, therefore, can separate us from the love of God and fellowship one with another; and that every species of wickedness and cruelty practiced upon us will only tend to bind our hearts together and seal them together in love."
The reference in D&C 121:26 to "the unspeakable gift of the Holy Ghost" is amplified when taken in the context in which it was written in the letter: "The things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity - thou must commune with God. How much more dignified and noble are the thoughts of God, than the vain imaginations of the human heart! None but fools will trifle with the souls of men."
Concerning the purpose of suffering, the words of the Lord to the Prophet while he was imprisoned have become classic: "Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good." (D&C 122:7.)
The period in Liberty Jail seemed to have a marked effect on the Prophet. Elder Maxwell wrote: "After the Missouri incarceration Joseph appeared to be more assertive and directive and declarative than before, to be even more of a shepherd and a spokesman."
"Yes," Elder Maxwell further commented, "Liberty Jail was an awful dungeon, but it was also a truly tutoring temple."