Liberty Jail – the very name is a paradox!
There are other ironies associated with this vile dungeon where Joseph Smith and five others were unjustly confined for 4 1/2 months beginning Dec. 1, 1838.In another paradox, Elder B. H. Roberts, called it a "prison-temple." (See Comprehensive History of the Church 1:521.) For it was here, in this squalid pit, that some of the most sublime revelations in holy writ were given through the Prophet, recorded today as Sections 121-123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
And that brings to mind a third paradox, the wording in one of the revelations: "Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen." (D&C 121:34.)
The passage goes on to give vital instruction about the requirements for priesthood leadership and service. It points out that many who are "called" of God fail to be "chosen" because their hearts are set so much upon the things of the world. It describes the nature and disposition of almost all men to abuse what authority they have by exercising unrighteous dominion. It then outlines the vital qualities and characteristics for exercising priesthood power or influence: persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness and meekness, love unfeigned, kindness, pure knowledge – and a willingness to give timely reproof when prompted by the Holy Ghost, followed by an increase of love toward the chastened one. (See D&C 121: 34-43.)
Long since fallen into ruin, the jail today has been reconstructed in cut-away form as an exhibit and enclosed by an attractive building. Dedicated in 1963 by Elder Joseph Fielding Smith, then of the Quorum of the Twelve, the Liberty Jail Visitors Center currently is under the charge of director Gayle D. Heckel, a former Utah Salt Lake City mission president, who, with his wife, Pat, has been serving there since February.
"It was called a prison-temple, because it was more temple than prison as long as the Prophet was here," Elder Heckel explained.
"And you feel that; you feel the spirit of it as you tour the visitors center, as you hear the narrations and the testimony given by these young sister missionaries who serve as guides."
The Heckels and their staff of two senior missionary couples and four companionships of sister missionaries have been enjoying a visitation boom, the residual effect of last year's tourism dividend stemming from the Church's 1997 Pioneer Sesquicentennial. Just under 50,000 people toured the center last year, and the visitation rate is holding steady this year. (In fact, the off-season month of April saw an increase of 500 visitors over the same month last year.)
But Elder Heckel finds greater reason for gratitude in this fact: "More people who come through here are now expressing a desire to have someone from the Church tell them about the gospel." From January to the end of June, almost twice as many referrals have been received at the center as in the same period last year.
"It's obvious the Lord is touching the hearts of His children," Elder Heckel said. "He is directing His elect to this place; they are hearing His voice now and are responding. No mortal can claim credit for that."
Even so, it has not come without effort. When Elder Heckel arrived at the center, he brought with him a new, Church-approved script for tours in the center.
"And it's really not a script so much as a special missionary discussion designed for the spiritual message of this place," he explained. "It emphasizes the spiritual aspect, mingled with a bit of history."
In a typical tour, Sister Amy Leithead, a missionary from Lovell, Wyo., begins at a portrait of the Savior, plays a recorded narration of some of His teachings from the scriptures and bears witness of Him. At the end of the tour, she explains, she will ask visitors to fill out a guest card giving their own names or the names of friends or family whom the Lord has prepared to hear the gospel.
"I would invite you to be open to feelings of the Spirit," she says, "because I know that through it, your non-member friends or family are going to start to prepare to hear the gospel, and it will be made known to you."
Then, before a life-size statue of the Prophet, she testifies of his divine role in the restoration of the gospel.
"The restored Liberty Jail stands today as a monument to Joseph's faith in Christ," she says. Because of his unjust imprisonment, "he began to understand the qualities required of a leader in God's kingdom. This was a refining process for Joseph Smith, and he learned very powerful lessons."
Constructed in 1833, initially as a place to confine runaway slaves, the jail was the first in Missouri's Clay County. Because of that, the site is featured prominently in the 1998 Official Missouri Travel Guide. It is near the courthouse square in Liberty and not far from the location where famous outlaw Jesse James committed the first daylight bank robbery in the United States.
But for Church members, Liberty Jail holds a much deeper significance, Sister Leithead explains in the tour.
Joseph Smith was confined there with five others: Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin and Alexander McRae.
"It was the only jail in the area," Elder Heckel noted. "One of the charges was a false charge of treason. That required a federal judge, and as I understand it, there was no federal judge scheduled to come through here until the next spring. So that's the reason they were in jail without bail, false and unsubstantiated though the charge was."
Putting the event into historical perspective, Sister Leithead notes in the tour that majority rule was the main theme in the Jacksonian democracy of the 1830s frontier, "which equated with the idea that minorities did not have rights. There are several examples other than the Latter-day Saints [of victimized minorities]. One would be the Indian tribes . . . . Another group is the slaves . . . . It gives you an idea of the mindset that prevailed at this time."
Under intense persecution, the Latter-day Saints were driven from Missouri in 1839, but not before Joseph was confined at Liberty Jail, she says.
"It was a time of great hardship, but it held many blessings," she adds. "As Joseph despaired for the lives of the Saints and his loved ones, he sought the Lord in prayer. In reply to his prayers he received a series of revelations. They are truly some of the most profound and beautiful of his inspired writings. From them, we learn about the comforting promises given by the Lord to those who live righteously, endure adversity and maintain their faith."
In the rotunda of the visitors center is the actual reconstructed portion of the jail, which measured only 14 by 14 1/2 feet, with walls 4 feet thick. Separating the outer and inner walls was a 12-inch space filled with loose rock to inhibit attempts to bore a hole and escape.
It is clear to visitors that two small windows on the north and south, each secured by five iron bars, would not have allowed much sunlight. A trap door from the upper level led to the dungeon below, with its stone floor strewn with straw.
In the jail reconstruction, mannequins represent the six prisoners, with the one representing Joseph seated, ostensibly writing a revelation.
A recorded narration, with high-fidelity, stereophonic sound effects, gives an account from Lyman Littlefield, an eyewitness: "They [the prisoners] were all in one large, heavy wagon with a high box . . . . The inhabitants of Liberty and many from the surrounding country were out to witness the entrance of the prisoners into the place, and many . . . expressed their disappointment . . . that the strangers should so . . . resemble all other men . . . . The prisoners left the wagon and immediately ascended the south steps to the platform . . . . One by one . . . the prisoners entered . . . . Joseph was the last . . . . He turned partly around . . . and . . . lifting his hat . . . said in a distinct voice, `Good afternoon, gentlemen.' The next moment he passed out of sight."
The incident, Elder Heckel said, shows the dignity and decency of the prophet, as it was an uncommon show of courtesy in that day to tip one's hat to males.
The narration continues, noting that the months in the jail were miserable and cold. The men spent most of their time crouched in the dungeon, because the ceiling was too low for them to stand erect. "They rested on dirty piles of straw spread on the jagged rock floor. The food was coarse and filthy. They were allowed few visitors."
But, the narration points out, Liberty Jail was a place of refining for Joseph and his companions. "Today, members of the Church . . . remember the Liberty Jail not as a place of suffering but as a sacred spot where faith was tested and found sufficient, a place where the voice of God was heard again as He spoke to a living prophet, a place where revelation was given for all mankind."
Added Elder Heckel: "Every time I come into this rotunda, I feel I should take off my shoes because I know I'm on holy ground."
In April 1839, a change of venue was ordered for Joseph Smith and the other prisoners. The sheriff, directed by superiors, allowed them to escape, and they soon joined their friends and family in Illinois. The founding of Nauvoo occurred shortly thereafter.
After 23 years of use, the jail was abandoned in 1856. It fell into disrepair and ruin by the turn of the century. Later, a house was built on its foundation, and that preserved the stone-floored dungeon. The Church acquired the property, and long-time members recall meetings held in the house. Eventually the house was removed, and the jail reconstruction was fashioned from original stones, based on photographs commissioned and measurements and notes made in 1888 by Church historian Andrew Jenson.
It was more than fitting that Elder Joseph Fielding Smith dedicate the visitors center in 1963. His father, Joseph F. Smith, was given a name and a blessing in the jail by his own father, Hyrum, and uncle, the Prophet Joseph. Joseph F. Smith's mother, Mary Fielding Smith, had brought him at the age of 3 months to the jail on one of the rare occasions when the prisoners were allowed visitors.
A place of paradoxes is Liberty jail. Perhaps the most striking is the contrast in its character between 1839 and today. Once, it was a place where the leaders of the Church were subjected to extreme indignity and trying adversity, a place where the Lord assured the Prophet, "Thine afflictions shall be but a small moment; And then if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high." (D&C 121:7-8.) Today it is a place of holiness, where thousands receive the message of the restored gospel and experience the peace that comes from obedience and faithfulness.