Section 121 puts a counterintuitive twist on the age-old problem of suffering and power. If God is benevolent and powerful, why do people suffer?
The problem becomes acute for those who assume that God should exercise his benevolence and power by preventing all suffering. That is apparently incongruous with his plan, in which Jesus Christ, the most innocent and loving being, suffered more than anyone and everyone else. Joseph internalized these lessons in a tiny, squalid, freezing cell near the Missouri River. It happened like this.
The Missouri governor issued an order for the militia to expel Latter-day Saints, who were abused, raped, and compelled to give up their property as citizen soldiers shot their livestock and pillaged their homes. General Lucas arrested Joseph. Emma and her children clung to Joseph as a guard cursed at six-year-old Joseph III and threatened to kill him if he didn’t back off.1 Joseph was carted off to Richmond, Missouri, where he wrote to Emma, as positively as he could, that he was shackled to his brethren “in chains as well as in the cords of everlasting love.”2
On December 1, 1838, Joseph Smith and five of his brethren were committed to jail in Liberty, Missouri, having been charged with treason against the state in a preliminary hearing. A committee of the Missouri legislature later concluded that the one-sided hearing was “not of the character which should be desired for the basis of a fair and candid investigation.”3 Joseph’s brother Hyrum called it a “pretended court” after the judge said “there was no law for us, nor for the ‘Mormons’ in the state of Missouri.”4
Four winter months and five days later, Joseph and his brethren still languished in jail at Liberty, Missouri, a cramped dungeon without beds or a bathroom, awaiting trial on a capital charge without hope for due process. Meanwhile, the Saints had been driven midwinter by a mob under the guise of official orders from the governor, aided and abetted by a host of apostates.
Indeed, many of Joseph’s most trusted and stalwart friends had forsaken him. Most of the Book of Mormon witnesses, still certain of their testimony, turned against him. Some of the apostles were antagonistic, including Thomas Marsh and Orson Hyde, who had said it was treasonous for Joseph to prophecy the coming kingdom of God (see section 65). William Phelps turned his powerful pen against Joseph. Former apostle William McLellin, who had no doubts that Joseph was a prophet (see section 66), plundered the Saints and expressed his desire to beat Joseph.5
Some of the Saints lost all faith “that God has been our leader.” They had hoped for deliverance, but none came.6 Even Sidney Rigdon, counselor in the First Presidency and fellow sufferer in jail, resented God for not using his power to spare the Saints from suffering. “If ever there was a moment to give up the cause, this was it,” Richard Bushman wrote.
Joseph puzzled over the Saints’ suffering and God’s power. Why had they been defeated? He never questioned his own revelations, never doubted the validity of the commandments. He did not wonder if he had been mistaken in sending the Saints to Missouri or requiring them to gather. He questioned God’s disappearance. Where was he when the Saints needed him?7
Joseph put these questions to the Lord in a March 1839 letter to the Saints. Sections 121, 122, and 123 all come from this one profound letter.8 Section 121:1–6 follows Joseph’s description of the jail as “hell surrounded with demons.” Even more concerning to him were the widows and orphans of the men murdered at Haun’s Mill and “the unrelenting hand” of oppression. It is about the duration of these injustices that Joseph inquired “how long … yea, O Lord, how long?” (D&C 121:1–3).
Joseph reviewed the actions of apostates, judges, lawyers, the governor, “and the one sided rascally proceedings of the Legislature” before saying how letters from Emma, his brother, and Bishop Partridge had warmed his heart. “And when the hart is sufficiently contrite,” his letter says, “then the voice of inspiration steals along and whispers,” followed by the answer to his prayer in verses 7–25.
The Lord’s answer to “how long” was “a small moment,” accompanied by a curse on Joseph’s enemies and the identification of their real motive—personal sinfulness (D&C 121:17). The Lord severs them “from the ordinances of mine house” and promises just punishments for their sins (v. 20). Verses 26–33 are the promised blessings of a covenant, the terms and conditions of which precede the promises but were not included in the canonized part of Joseph’s letter:
Let honesty and sobriety, and cander and solemnity, and virtue, and pureness, and meekness, and simplicity, Crown our heads in every place, and in fine becum as little Children without malice guile or Hypocrisy: and now Bretheren after your tribulations if you do these things, and exercise fervent prayer, and faith in the sight of God, then God will grant the exalting blessings promised in verses 26–33.
Verses 34–46 make the most sense in the context of consecration. The portion of the letter preceding those verses cautions against “any among you who aspire after their own aggrandizement and seek their own oppulance while their brethren are groning in poverty and are under sore trials.” Then Joseph explains why many are called but few are chosen: “Because their hearts are set so much upon the things of this world and aspire to the honors of men that they do not learn this one lesson,” that a person who hides their sins, gratifies pride, has vain ambition, or exploits the weak and poor cannot have priesthood.
Sadly, most mortals choose not to submit to the Savior’s power to change the nature and disposition. Most mortals oppress their neighbors as soon as they can. This is forbidden by the gospel generally and by section 121 specifically. It prescribes the antidote of God-like qualities: persuasion, long-suffering, gentleness, meekness, pure love, and knowledge. Reproof should come at precisely the right time, which is “when moved upon by the Holy Ghost,” and removing the problem should be done with sharpness, like a surgeon’s scalpel, leaving as little scar tissue and collateral damage as possible and “showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved” (D&C 121:43).
That is God’s way of governing—righteous dominion. Verses 45–46 sum how it works. Those who choose charity over covetousness and virtue over self-interest inherit “an everlasting dominion” (D&C 121:46). Those who choose to share and not coerce when they have a little power are the only ones God trusts with more power. The maxim is wrong: absolute power does not corrupt absolutely. Rather, a little power, when misused, leads to the loss of priesthood, while faithfulness to priesthood accumulates more power—gently, like dew from heaven (v. 45).
What an ironic place was the jail at Liberty. Joseph was powerless—except profoundly not. He was the only person on earth at the time in full possession of the priesthood keys restored by ministering angels. The powerful people who oppressed him—former friends and arch foes—were about to become powerless. Perhaps because it was a place of suffering, Liberty (a microcosm of mortality) was an ideal environment in which to internalize the truth that mortals who overcome their nature and choose to wield power in the service of others as God does, with sacrifice and suffering, won’t have to compel anyone or anything, and yet their kingdom will grow forever.
1. “Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 1, 21 December 1842–10 March 1843,” p. 15, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 5, 2020.
3. Correspondence, Orders &c. in Relation to the Disturbances with the Mormons; and the Evidence (Fayette, Missouri: Missouri General Assembly, 1841), 2.
4. Hyrum Smith, Affidavit before Nauvoo Municipal Court, July 1, 1843, in Joseph Smith, et al., History of the Church, 7 volumes, edited by B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1980), 3:402–23; also in Clark V. Johnson, editor, Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833–1838 Missouri Conflict (Provo: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1992), 619–39, quote drawn from pages 632–35. Gordon A. Madsen, “Joseph Smith and the Missouri Court of Inquiry: Austin A. King’s Quest for Hostages,” BYU Studies 43:4 (2004): 93–136.
5. Smith, et al., History of the Church, 3:215.
6. John Corrill, A Brief History of the Church of Christ of Latter Day Saints (St. Louis: Printed for the Author, 1839), 48.
7. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 380.
8. “Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 5, 2020. The entire letter was published in Dean C. Jessee and John W. Welch, editors, “Revelations in Context: Joseph Smith’s Letter from Liberty Jail, March 20, 1839,” BYU Studies 39:3 (2000): 125–45.
From Doctrine and Covenants Minute
In 1838 tensions between the Saints and their neighbors in northern Missouri escalated into a terrible sequence of violent events. Hostilities commenced on August 6, 1838, when a group of Latter-day Saint men attempted to vote at Gallatin, Missouri, and were barred from the polls. A bloody fight broke out, though fortunately no one was killed. From August through September, vigilantes raided Latter-day Saint settlements with increasing frequency and severity. Some Latter-day Saints organized their own vigilante forces, informally known as “Danites.”1 On October 1–10 three hundred mob members surrounded the Latter-day Saint community of DeWitt, effectively holding them siege. When Lilburn L. Boggs, the governor of Missouri, was asked to intervene, he replied that “the quarrel was between the Mormons and the mob” and that they “must fight it out.”2
Expecting to find little resistance, mob forces began making plans to expel Latter-day Saints from all of northern Missouri. In response to these plans, Latter-day Saints moved to halt additional incursions into their territory, switching from passive to active resistance. On October 18, three Latter-day Saint companies from Adam-ondi-Ahman launched offensives at Millport, Gallatin, and the area known as Grindstone Fork.3 The situation continued to escalate after the battle of Crooked River, in which Apostle David. W. Patten was killed, along with two others in a Latter-day Saint rescue party, while one of the opposing force was also killed.
When Governor Boggs received word of the battle at Crooked River, he responded by issuing the infamous “extermination order” on October 27. The order read in part, “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace—their outrages are beyond all description.”4 On October 30 a contingent of Missouri militia attacked a group of Latter-day Saints staying at Hawn’s Mill, killing seventeen Latter-day Saints and leaving several others wounded.5 Meanwhile, following the orders of the governor, Missouri militia began massing outside of Church headquarters at Far West.
Less than three days after the extermination order was given, around 2,500 state troops assembled south of Far West, preparing for an all-out assault on the Saints in the city. When word reached the city of the massacre at Hawn’s Mill, Church leaders sought to find a way to end the conflict without further bloodshed. George Hinkle, the commander of the Far West militia, was chosen to negotiate with the state militia outside the city. Hinkle arrived back in the city and asked for Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, and other Church leaders to accompany him to the enemy camp for further negotiations. When Joseph and the others arrived in the militia camp, Hinkle betrayed them and offered them up as prisoners to the militia.6
The commanding general on the scene, Samuel D. Lucas, held a hasty court-martial and sentenced the captured Church leaders to be executed the following morning in the town square of Far West. Alexander Doniphan, the militia commander who was ordered to carry out the executions, refused the order. Instead, Doniphan sent a letter to General Lucas, stating, “It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty tomorrow morning, at 8 o’clock; and if you execute these men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God.”7 Intimidated by Doniphan’s bold stand, Lucas ordered his soldiers to take Joseph and his companions to a jail in Independence, Missouri. For the next few weeks, they were shuffled between jails in Independence and Richmond before finally arriving at Liberty, Missouri on December 1. Five Latter-day Saint prisoners—Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, Caleb Baldwin, Alexander McRae, and Lyman Wight—were incarcerated in the jail there from December 1, 1838, to April 6, 1839. Sidney Rigdon was also kept in Liberty Jail, though he was released in February 1839 because of concerns over his health. The men in Liberty Jail were kept as judicial hostages, held to ensure that the Latter-day Saints left the state.8
Doctrine and Covenants 121, 122, and 123 are all excerpts from a letter written in two parts by Joseph and his companions in the jail. The letter was addressed “to the church of Latter-day saints at Quincy Illinois and scattered abroad and to Bishop [Edward] Partridge in particular.”9 The first part is eighteen pages long and was sent on March 20, 1839, near the end of the prisoners’ time in Liberty Jail. Joseph sent the letter to his wife Emma because he wanted her, along with his mother and father, “to have the first reading of it.”10 Emma then shared the epistle with the Church. The second part of the letter, sent just a few days later, is ten pages long. In both parts Joseph Smith wrote to the Saints directly, but the writings also include revelatory language in which the Lord spoke to Joseph, offering counsel and solace. In many ways the letter mirrors the epistles written by Paul in the New Testament.11 For the 1876 edition of the Doctrine and Covenants, Orson Pratt, acting under the direction of Brigham Young, chose multiple excerpts from the letter to be placed in three sections of the Doctrine and Covenants. We have no knowledge about how or why Elder Pratt chose the selections that he chose. These epistles, written in the extremity of the Prophet’s suffering in Liberty Jail, contain some of the most sublime language of any revelation given to Joseph Smith.
1. See “Danites,” https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/history/topics/danites?lang=eng&ab=v00, accessed September 1, 2021.
2. Alexander L. Baugh, “War of Extermination: The 1838 Conflict in Northern Missouri,” in The Mormon Wars, ed. Glenn Rawson and Dennis Lyman, 2014, 57.
3. Baugh, “War of Extermination,” 57.
4. Daniel E. Witte, “Missouri Extermination Order,” accessed June 8, 2021, http://www.quaqua.org/extermination.htm. The extermination order was officially rescinded by Missouri Governor Christopher Bond in 1976.
5. Historians have generally concluded that the militia that attacked Hawn’s Mill did not know about the extermination order and were planning the assault even before the order was issued. See Baugh, “War of Extermination,” 64.
6. Baugh, “War of Extermination,” 67.
7. Gregory Maynard, “Alexander William Doniphan: Man of Justice,” BYU Studies, vol. 13, no. 4 (1973), 1.
8. Baugh, “War of Extermination,” 69–70.
9. Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839, p. 1, JSP.
11. Dean C. Jessee and John W. Welch, “Revelations in Context: Joseph Smith’s Letter from Liberty Jail, March 20, 1839,” BYU Studies, vol. 39, no. 3 (2000).