Doctrine and Covenants 121–123 contains selections of an epistle, or letter, from the Prophet Joseph Smith to the Church, dated March 20, 1839. Joseph Smith dictated the letter while he and a few companions were imprisoned in Liberty Jail. In the letter, the Prophet included some of his prayers, asking the Lord to bless him and his companions and all the Saints who were suffering because of the actions of their enemies. He also included answers he had received to those prayers.
Suggestions for Teaching
Joseph Smith prays for the suffering Saints
Invite students to imagine that a friend or loved one is going through a difficult experience. She confides to you that she does not understand why she is experiencing such affliction and that she feels as though God has abandoned her.
What would you tell your friend? What would you do if you were the one experiencing these afflictions?
Explain that the Lord counseled and comforted Joseph Smith during an extremely difficult experience. Encourage students to look for ways the Lord’s words of counsel and comfort in Doctrine and Covenants 121–123 can help them through their own trials.
Explain that on October 31, 1838, George Hinkle, a member of the Church and a colonel in Missouri’s state militia, betrayed Joseph Smith. Hinkle told Joseph Smith that members of the Missouri militia, who had attacked the Saints in Far West, Missouri, wanted to meet for an interview to settle disagreements peacefully. When Joseph and other Church leaders arrived for the interview, the militia took them forcefully as prisoners of war. For the next month, Joseph Smith and his associates were abused and insulted, as their enemies imprisoned them in Independence, Missouri, and Richmond, Missouri. While still awaiting trial, which was based on false accusations and which was done without due process, Joseph Smith and other Church leaders were moved to a jail in Liberty, Missouri, on December 1.
During the next four months, the Prophet, his brother Hyrum, Alexander McRae, Lyman Wight, and Caleb Baldwin were held in the lower dungeon of Liberty Jail during a bitterly cold winter. Sidney Rigdon was also with them for a time, but a judge authorized his release in late January 1839. Fearing threats from enemies, Brother Rigdon did not leave the jail until early February.
To help students gain a sense of the harsh conditions the Prophet and his friends faced while in Liberty Jail, you may want to use tape or some other means to mark a square on the floor that is 14 feet by 14 feet (4.3 meters by 4.3 meters). Explain that these were the approximate dimensions of the floor of the jail. The ceiling was between 6 and 6.5 feet high (between 1.8 and 2 meters).
You may also want to suggest that students look at the picture of Liberty Jail in their scriptures (see Church History Photographs, Photo 12, “Liberty Jail”). Invite students to imagine what it would be like to be imprisoned in such a small place with 4 or 5 other men for 4 winter months. Two small barred windows offered very little light, and from outside these windows, people mocked and insulted the prisoners. The prisoners slept on dirty straw on the floor. Their meager furnishings included a bucket for human waste. For some time, Joseph did not have a blanket, which was the only protection the prisoners ever had from the cold. The food was occasionally poisoned, and at other times it was so disgusting that they could only eat it out of desperate hunger. They were rarely allowed visitors and were deeply pained at hearing of the suffering of the Saints who were driven from Missouri in the middle of the winter.
What feelings and thoughts might you have had if you had been in Joseph’s place?
Explain that Doctrine and Covenants 121–123 contains selections of a letter from the Prophet to the Saints, written near the end of his imprisonment in Liberty Jail. The letter included some of Joseph’s prayerful pleas to the Lord.
Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud from Doctrine and Covenants 121:1–6. Ask the class to look for questions and pleas the Prophet expressed to the Lord. (To help students understand verses 1 and 4, you may want to explain that a pavilion is a building or another structure that provides covering.)
What questions and pleas did you find? What else impressed you about these verses?
The Lord comforts Joseph Smith
Explain that some of the Lord’s answers to Joseph Smith’s prayers are found in Doctrine and Covenants 121:7–25 and 122:1–9. Invite a student to read Doctrine and Covenants 121:7–10 aloud. Ask the class to follow along, looking for principles that would have helped Joseph Smith and his companions during their time in Liberty Jail. Invite students to write doctrines and principles they learn from these verses in their class notebooks or scripture study journals.
After sufficient time, ask students to share the doctrines and principles they have identified. Write their responses on the board. The following principles are three they might identify:
When we call upon the Lord during times of adversity and affliction, we can receive His peace.
If we endure trials well in mortality, God will bless us now and in the eternities.
In times of trial, we can find comfort in the support of true friends.
Divide students into pairs, and invite them to discuss the following questions. Ask one question at a time, allowing sufficient time for discussion.
What is the difference between enduring a trial and enduring a trial well?
Whom do you know who is an example of enduring a trial well?
Encourage a few students to share with the entire class what they discussed with their partners.
The Lord said that Joseph Smith’s adversity and afflictions would be “but a small moment” (D&C 121:7). What do you think this means? How can this perspective help us endure our trials well?
Give students the opportunity to share experiences they have had when they have received the Savior’s peace during times of difficulty.
Write the following question on the board: Who shall seek counsel and blessings through the Prophet Joseph Smith?
In what ways do we continue to receive counsel from Joseph Smith? In what ways do we receive authority and blessings because of him?
What promises did the Lord extend to Joseph Smith?
Invite three students to take turns reading aloud from Doctrine and Covenants 122:5–7. Ask the class to follow along and look for a principle the Lord taught Joseph Smith about the difficulties he and the others were experiencing.
According to verse 7, what positive results can come from adversity and afflictions? (As students answer this question, write the following principle on the board: Afflictions can give us experience and be for our good.)
Invite a student to read the following statement by Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Ask the class to listen for how afflictions can be for our good.
“You may feel singled out when adversity enters your life. You shake your head and wonder, ‘Why me?’
“But the dial on the wheel of sorrow eventually points to each of us. At one time or another, everyone must experience sorrow. No one is exempt. …
“Learning to endure times of disappointment, suffering, and sorrow is part of our on-the-job training. These experiences, while often difficult to bear at the time, are precisely the kinds of experiences that stretch our understanding, build our character, and increase our compassion for others” (“Come What May, and Love It,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2008, 27).
What did Elder Wirthlin say our difficult experiences can do for us?
Invite students to write in their class notebooks or scripture study journals about how a trial has given them experience and has been for their good. After sufficient time, you might ask a few students to share what they have written.
Invite a student to come to the board and be a scribe. Ask him or her to draw a horizontal line about one-third of the way from the bottom of the board. Then ask students to list challenging situations people experience. Ask the scribe to write their answers above the line.
After students have had sufficient time to make a list, ask them if they have ever heard someone say, “Nobody understands what I am going through.” Invite them to read Doctrine and Covenants 122:8 silently, looking for what the Lord might say in response to this comment. As they report their answers, ask the scribe to write Jesus Christ under the line on the board.
What do you think it means that the Savior “descended below them all”? (Before students answer, you may want to invite them to read 2 Nephi 9:20–21, Alma 7:11, and Doctrine and Covenants 88:5–6. Students may use different words, but they should identify the following doctrine: The Savior suffered the pains and afflictions of all people.)
How do you think this truth might have been helpful to Joseph Smith and his companions in Liberty Jail?
To help students understand this doctrine, invite a student to read aloud the following statement by Elder Wirthlin:
“Because Jesus Christ suffered greatly, He understands our suffering. He understands our grief. We experience hard things so that we too may have increased compassion and understanding for others.
“Remember the sublime words of the Savior to the Prophet Joseph Smith when he suffered with his companions in the smothering darkness of Liberty Jail. …
“… Joseph took comfort from these words, and so can we” (“Come What May, and Love It,” 27).
In what ways have your experiences with “hard things” increased your compassion and understanding for others?
Invite students to read Doctrine and Covenants 122:9 silently and ponder how this verse relates to the life and ministry of the Prophet Joseph Smith.
How do you feel Doctrine and Covenants 122:9 relates to you? How can this verse strengthen you during difficult experiences?
Explain that soon after this letter was written, the Lord opened a way for Joseph and his companions to reunite with the Saints in Illinois. Testify that God was with His servant Joseph Smith throughout Joseph’s life. Help students understand that if we remain faithful during trials, God will also be with us. In closing, share the following testimony, which Joseph Smith bore near the end of his life: “God Almighty is my shield; and what can man do if God is my friend?” (in History of the Church, 5:259).
Commentary and Background Information
Doctrine and Covenants 121–123. Historical background
“The Prophet Joseph Smith and his companions (Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin, Alexander McRae and, for part of the time, Sidney Rigdon) suffered greatly while they were held in the jail awaiting trial on false charges: ‘Many inhumanities were heaped upon them while they were there. Insufficient and improper food was their daily fare; at times only the inspiration of the Lord saved them from the indulgence of poisoned food, which all did not escape. [Alexander McRae said, “We could not eat it until we were driven to it by hunger” (B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of the Church, 1:521).]
“‘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. They were [allowed] very little contact with the outside world, especially during the first month or so of their confinement. And this, at a crucial time when the Latter-day Saints were at the peak of persecution in Missouri, and were desperately in need of their prophet-leader’ [Alvin R. Dyer, The Refiner’s Fire, 2nd ed. , 276].
“Occasionally they were permitted visits at the jail from friends and were allowed to send and receive correspondence. Between 20 March and 25 March 1839, the Prophet Joseph dictated a lengthy communication that was signed by all the prisoners (actually there were two letters, although the Prophet identified the second as a continuation of the first). President Joseph Fielding Smith wrote of this correspondence: ‘This is one of the greatest letters that was ever penned by the hand of man. In fact it was the result of humble inspiration. It is a prayer and a prophecy and an answer by revelation from the Lord. None other but a noble soul filled with the spirit of love of Christ could have written such a letter. Considering [their sufferings], it is no wonder that the Prophet cried out in the anguish of his soul for relief. Yet, in his earnest pleading, there breathed a spirit of tolerance and love for his fellow man.’ (Church History and Modern Revelation, 2 vols. , 2:176.)
“Sections 121–23 were extracted from this communication and included in the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants. The edition of the Doctrine and Covenants that included these three sections was sustained as scripture in the October 1880 conference of the Church” (Doctrine and Covenants Student Manual, 2nd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2001], 295–96).
Doctrine and Covenants 121:1–3. “How long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions?”
Before Joseph Smith was imprisoned in Liberty Jail, he and several other Church leaders, including Parley P. Pratt, were unjustly imprisoned in Richmond, Missouri. While in the jail at Richmond, they heard the prison guards describe, in filthy language, horrid deeds of robbery, rape, and murder that had been committed against Latter-day Saints. Parley P. Pratt recounted that after listening to this for some time, Joseph responded:
“On a sudden [Joseph] arose to his feet, and spoke in a voice of thunder, or as the roaring lion, uttering, as near as I can recollect, the following words:
“‘SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit. In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and bear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT!’”
The guards “begged his pardon, and remained quiet till a change of guards.” Parley later recalled of this experience: “I have seen the ministers of justice … in the Courts of England; I have witnessed a Congress in solemn session to give laws to nations; … but dignity and majesty have I seen but once, as it stood in chains, at midnight, in a dungeon in an obscure village of Missouri” (Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed. Parley P. Pratt Jr. , 211; see also page 210).
Doctrine and Covenants 122:5–7. Purpose in suffering
Referring to Doctrine and Covenants 121–122, Elder Orson F. Whitney of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles taught about one reason we experience adversity:
“It is for our development, our purification, our growth, our education and advancement, that we buffet the fierce waves of sorrow and misfortune; and we shall be all the stronger and better when we have swam the flood and stand upon the farther shore” (“A Lesson from the Book of Job,” Improvement Era, Nov. 1918, 6).