Despite Incarceration, Liberty Jail Experience “Freed” Joseph Smith

  • 24 February 2014

Liberty Jail has been called the “prison-temple” because of the inspired writings and teachings that came from Joseph Smith during the four and half months he was imprisoned there.

“Joseph learned to appreciate the depths to which Jesus had descended in order that He might lift us up. … And in that moment, the door to Joseph’s prison was thrown open! Oh, he would remain incarcerated in the Liberty Jail for an additional time, but he had found true ‘liberty’ in that jail.” —Elder Lance B. Wickman, emeritus General Authority

Liberty Jail was either inaptly or appropriately named, depending on how you look at the experience Joseph Smith and his associates had there during their incarceration.

“If ever there was an oxymoron, ‘Liberty Jail’ has got to be it,” said Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the Church and an emeritus General Authority, who spoke recently about the Prophet Joseph Smith’s experiences while he was imprisoned in Liberty Jail.

“Cold, filthy, cramped, dark, destitute of even the rudest implements of civilization, its guards vile and uncouth—in all outward respects that harsh cell was cruel and forbidding; its name—Liberty—about as inapt as any imaginable,” Elder Wickman said in a speech titled “Love, Law, and Liberty” given February 14 at the J. Reuben Clark Law Society Annual Meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, after receiving the Alexander W. Doniphan Community Service Award.

“But when considered in light of what shone forth from the depths of its privations, ‘Liberty’ could not be a more appropriate name,” Elder Wickman said, explaining that Joseph Smith “emerged four and one-half months later as a more mature, more seasoned, more Christlike prophet of the Lord.”

Liberty Jail has been called the “prison-temple,” he said, because of the inspired writings and teachings that came from Joseph during that time. Despite the hardships Joseph was enduring, he “resisted a very human temptation to hate and revile. Instead he reached upward to heaven and outward to his beloved Saints in love and generosity.”

Elder Wickman illustrated his points by reading from Joseph Smith’s writings. “Nothing,” Joseph wrote to the Saints at the time, “can separate us from the love of God and fellowship one with another.” He further taught that having the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ “should make us kinder … toward those not of our faith (including those who persecute us) than they are towards one another.”

Joseph “never lost faith in the sacredness, power, and legitimacy of the law,” He said. In his writings, Joseph praised the Constitution of the United States and the rights it guarantees. Its divine principles are relevant today, Elder Wickman said, because of “those who strive to separate what is ‘constitutional’ from what is ‘religious.’” 

On February 14 at the J. Reuben Clark Law Society Annual Meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, Elder Lance B. Wickman, general counsel for the Church and an emeritus General Authority, speaks about the experiences of the Prophet Joseph Smith while he was imprisoned in Liberty Jail. Photo by Lori Garcia.

Through revelation, Joseph also received basic principles regarding the government of the Church—“qualities of heart and mind that must characterize those who are called to minister in the Church and kingdom of Jesus Christ,” Elder Wickman said, referring to Doctrine and Covenants 121.

The most important realization Joseph had amid the misery of Liberty Jail was the reality of the Atonement, Elder Wickman said. “Joseph learned to appreciate the depths to which Jesus had descended in order that He might lift us up, not only to eternal life, but even in the very moment of our deepest anguish here in this life. And in that moment, the door to Joseph’s prison was thrown open! Oh, he would remain incarcerated in the Liberty Jail for an additional time, but he had found true ‘liberty’ in that jail.”

Likewise, Elder Wickman said, the Savior holds the key to whatever prison we may find ourselves in: “confined by disappointment, ill health, loss of a loved one, failure, betrayal, financial reversal, wayward children, or any of the myriad other tragedies.”

Elder Wickman is presented with the Alexander W. Doniphan Community Service Award February 14 at the J. Reuben Clark Law Society Annual Meeting in Kansas City, Missouri. Photo by Lori Garcia.

Joseph did emerge from Liberty Jail to happily reunite with his beloved Emma and children, leaving “a legacy of love and law,” Elder Wickman said.

Elder Wickman, who is the first member of the Church to receive the Alexander W. Doniphan Community Service Award, said he was even more honored “to have my name mentioned in the same sentence with [Doniphan’s].”

“Will” Doniphan was the brigadier general of the Clay County Missouri Militia in 1838 who refused to execute Joseph Smith and other Church leaders. He is revered in Missouri with counties, schools, and highways named after him for his role in education, jurisprudence, statesmanship, patriotism in defense of country, and success in business.