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RS/MP Lesson 31: “‘God Shall Be with You Forever and Ever’: The Prophet in Liberty Jail” (Joseph Smith Manual)

Posted by joespencer on April 5, 2009

Most of this lesson is drawn from the supernal Liberty Jail letter Joseph Smith in his suffering wrote to the Saints in their suffering. Parts of it have been carried over from the original letter to sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants, and other snippets and paragraphs of it have come to be among Joseph’s most famous statements. It can be found in its entirety in History of the Church 3:289-305, or, unedited, in Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, pp. 389-407. I highly recommend that it be read in its entirety—especially by those who will teach it in Relief Society or Melchizedek Priesthood.

The lesson begins, as usual, with a bit of historical information about the situation. It is well worth reading, but I think it more or less speaks for itself: things were rotten in Liberty Jail. I’ll spend my time here, instead, on the content of the letter as excerpted in the lesson.

No affliction can separate us from the love of God and fellowship with one another.

I actually have relatively little to say on the first section of the “Teachings” portion of the lesson.

The first and most obvious thing to be said about this section is its heavy Pauline influence: Joseph is clearly drawing on the epistolary style of the Apostle Paul. This is, I think, of more than passing interest. On the one hand, it is one of so many examples of Joseph’s scripturalizing of the modern era—Joseph lived the Bible as much as he read it. On the other hand, the Pauline language and style lend the letter an authoritative, or even canonical, spirit from the very beginning. Both of these two things are vital, I think, because they allow this letter, from the very first paragraph, to recast the situation in which the Saints find themselves and therefore to reinvigorate them in remarkable ways: the Saints are given to see themselves as a modern echo of the fledgling Christian communities that faced persecution in the first century, and they are not allowed to pity themselves or to bemoan their losses. With the assumption of Paul’s style, Joseph carries the Saints beyond mere victimization to a profoundly and powerfully imaginative—even revolutionary—position of faith.

That said, I think the contents of this first section more or less explain themselves.

Adversity lasts only a small moment; if we endure well, we will be exalted in the presence of God.

The second section of the lesson is drawn from the part of the letter that has become D&C 121:1-8. It is quite rich, though its most interesting implications in the context of the lesson will not be drawn until the next section in “Teachings.” These paragraphs record Joseph’s pleading prayer to God, as well as God’s initial words of response to Joseph. They deserve much attention.

The first three paragraphs of the section (the last three paragraphs on page 362), which make up Joseph’s prayer as it is truncated in the lesson, are easily divided into two parts: the first two paragraphs are made up of Joseph’s questions; the third paragraph is made up of Joseph’s petitions. The questions ask, in essence, for information, for understanding; the petitions, offered up in the form of imperative commands, request actions, responses.

Joseph’s Questions

Two kinds of question can be found in these two paragraphs. The first asks questions of space (or place); the second (beginning “Yea, O Lord”) asks questions of time (or duration). On the one hand, “Where?”; on the other hand, “How long?”

The “Where?” questions actually pass rather quickly: “O God! where art Thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth Thy hiding place?” The very question “Where?” is interesting enough, but what about the pavilion business? Is the idea that God is covered up, and so that Joseph wants to find the cover so as to remove it? Or is it that God sits on an undiscoverable throne, over which there is the anciently traditional pavilion? Whatever it is, Joseph wants to assign to God a “where.”

Interestingly, however, it is not until the “How long?” questions appear that there is any talk of God’s having a body, of God’s corporeality. Beginning with the “How long” in the second line of the first paragraph, Joseph’s questions mention God’s “hand,” “eye,” “ear,” “heart,” and “bowels.” Of course, it would be wrong to take these paragraphs (or the corresponding verses in D&C 121) as proof texts establishing the corporeality of God. But it is important nonetheless to note the role these corporeal references play in the text: Joseph’s plea for God’s physical involvement comes when God is most invisible, most distant, most without a “where.” One could say that Joseph’s desire that God’s corporeality be revealed is when it seems He might not even exist.

But, as pointed out, Joseph only speaks of God’s body when asking “How long?” How long will God’s hand, eye, ear, heart, and bowels remain inactive, unresponsive? One could suggest, perhaps, that the “How long?” modifies the “Where?”: the “where” of God matters far less than the question of the duration of His lack of revelatory response during the difficulties faced by the Saints. Joseph’s questions thus presuppose the reality of God, but wonder at His essential abandonment of the Saints.

As subsequent paragraphs will make clear, however, Joseph’s prayer is inhabited by a profound misunderstanding of God—one he will not see until he has received further revelation. The miscomprehension, however, continues into the third paragraph of this section.

Joseph’s Petitions

With the third paragraph, Joseph’s questions turn into imperative commands. Interestingly, they make reference (and in the same order) to each of the five parts of the body that were found in the “How long?” questions of the previous two paragraphs: “Stretch forth Thy hand, let Thine eye pierce . . . ; let Thine ear be inclined; let Thine heart be softened, and Thy bowels moved with compassion towards us.” Splitting this list into two parts is a double reference back to the “Where?” questions as well: “let Thy pavilion be taken up; let Thy hiding place no longer be covered.”

Where the questions sought understanding, asking for information, Joseph’s petitions call for action, for active response. The move from the questions to the petitions mark a kind of increasing impatience, as well as betray an assumption that the answers to the initial questions don’t much matter, in the end. Almost as if he is done wondering whether there are answers to his questions, Joseph takes up the somewhat audacious task of telling God what He should do, and when He should do it.

Actually, Joseph’s language is not quite that strong. At the end of the paragraph, he is essentially trying to make a deal, to establish something like a covenant. As he says: “remember Thy suffering Saints, O our God! and Thy servants will rejoice in Thy name forever.” With this language, Joseph finds a place in a long tradition of prophets who—in some kind of faith—wager complaints against God. The deal Joseph asks for is a kind of exchange: God must “remember” the Saints in their suffering, and the Saints will abase themselves as “servants” and then “rejoice in [God’s] name.”

The language here is psalmic, liturgical. Joseph would seem to be attempting to bind God to the Saints through a kind of reenactment of the parable of the prodigal son. Though they have been called the sons and daughters of Christ, because they seem to be so far off from their Father, Joseph would here make servants of them. Joseph’s intention is to make it possible, through this covenant, to receive relief; but in order to do it, he must bind the people to God in a kind of passe liturgical covenant, one that is emphatically a step down from what the Saints had received in the Kirtland endowment.

And so the answer that comes in the first paragraph on page 363 will reject this call for a covenant, precisely as the father rejects the attempt on the part of the prodigal son to make himself a servant.

God’s Response

The first two words of God’s response say a great deal: “My son.” Not mere servants, but sons and daughters, the Saints need not attempt to forfeit what they have received from God in order to win a lower, but perhaps more response-provoking, relationship with Him. God wants the Saints to remain His sons and daughters, though that might imply a time of serious “adversity and . . . afflictions.”

Interesting, God’s response goes on to provide both a “where” and a “how long” for Joseph: the difficulties shall be “but a small moment,” which, once endured, will allow God to “exalt [the Saints] on high.” The answer to the “How long?” is rather straightforward, but the answer to the “Where?” is more complex. Joseph had been asking the whereabouts of God. But God answers by providing Joseph with an understanding of the “where” that the Saints will themselves assume: they are to be exalted “on high.” That is, they will come to know where God is when they come to be with Him. All that is required is a moment’s passage through adversity.

This response is, in the end, remarkably short. But the effect it has on Joseph’s approach to the situation is still more remarkable. This isn’t visible until the next section of the “Teachings,” however.

God’s power is greater than any evil, and the truths of the gospel will ultimately triumph.

This section of the lesson cannot be read apart from the one preceding it. What primarily concerns me here is Joseph’s complete change of approach to the situation of persecution. In the previous section, Joseph’s questions and petitions have betrayed a belief that God is forcing the Saints out of their privileged relation to Him, and so Joseph had concluded the prayer by pleading for a covenant of servitude, essentially offering to abandon the filial relationship. God had, of course, rejected this offer by explaining that He had His own purposes in the whole persecutory situation. Joseph begins now in this subsequent section to lay out those other purposes. And they are fascinating.

As in the previous parts of the letter, Joseph here explains that “ignorance, superstition and bigotry plac[es] itself where it ought not, [and so] is oftentimes in the way of the prosperity of this Church.” (p. 363) But now the nature of this stumbling block is altered. Whereas this situation had before been reason to rail against the external enemies of the Church, Joseph now begins to see such opposition as a good, rather than bad, thing. And he assigns ignorance, superstition, and bigotry less to the external enemies of the Church than to the internal dissidents. A bit of explanation is in order.

The “ignorance, superstition and bigotry” Joseph identifies is what he describes as the “mire, and dirt, and filthiness” that muddies “the most pure and crystal stream” because of “the torrent of rain from the mountains.” The imagery here is striking. The flood of rain mixes the impure with the pure, darkening the “crystal stream” that begins in the mountains. This, I take it, is a description of the Latter-day Saint movement, a net which gathers of all kinds: the Church sweeps up seekers of truth, but it also sweeps up the ignorant, the superstitious, and the bigoted, thus making of itself an impure but flowing stream. The result is that the guileful who associate themselves with the Church make “obscure everything that was clear before,” making it difficult for the pure in heart to make sense of what the gospel really is. And “all rushes along in one general deluge.”

The problem here ceases to be the external enemy, becoming instead the internal ignorance, superstition, and bigotry. The Church’s greatest enemy is itself.

But Joseph puts his faith in time: “but time weathers tide; and notwithstanding we are rolled in the mire of the flood for the time being, the next surge peradventure, as time rolls on, may bring to us the fountain as clear as crystal, and as pure as snow; while the filthiness, floodwood and rubbish is left and purged out by the way.” (p. 363, emphasis added) The Church, as Joseph now sees things, gathers the pure and the impure together, but it only takes a bit of time for these to be separated out, for “the filthiness, floodwood and rubbish” to be “purged out by the way.” Mud settles, floodwood settles on a bank, but the water—pure in itself—flows on. Hence Joseph’s question: “How long can rolling water remain impure?”

The importance of this language must not be missed: “How long?” By returning to the “How long?” of his prayer, but now with a radically different conception of things, Joseph marks the massive change in thinking that has resulted from the Lord’s response. The “How long?” of Joseph’s prayer was a “How long?” of desperation, asking to know what time had still to pass before relief might be received. Such a “How long?” is only asked when one assumes that the time will be long, far too long. The “How long?” that now finds a place in Joseph’s language is strikingly different. It opens a rhetorical question that assumes, not that the time will be long, but that the time will be short: “How long can rolling water remain impure?” Before the “How long?” marked the doubt that God would ever do something; now the “How long?” marks the imminent solution to the difficulties. Joseph has come quite seriously to believe that only “a small moment” will pass before the Saints are exalted.

In the end, the easiest way to make sense of the distinction between the two approaches to the persecutory situation is to look at this question of time. For the uncomprehending approach of Joseph’s prayer, time is always a time of suffering, the time that must be endured before the Transcendent comes out to end time by offering relief. For the faithful approach of Joseph’s subsequent understanding, time “rolls on,” keeps moving. In fact, time is, in this second approach, punctuated by revelations: “As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven, upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.” The rolling of the river here becomes the incessant giving of revelations to the Saints. Time is no longer “the time that remains” before redemption; time is now an infinity of learning, of sorting out truth.

Victimization is displaced or distracted by the dawn of truth.

And this means that external enemies are actually helps for the Church: “What is Boggs or his murderous party, but wimbling willows upon the shore to catch the flood-wood?” (p. 363) Whereas Boggs was before an enemy of the darkest dye, now he is nothing but a tree along the side of the river that purges out the ignorant, the superstitious, the bigoted. The enemies of the Church are the ones who do the Church the favor of drawing out the wicked. Persecution purges the Church.

Joseph ends the last paragraph on page 363 with the phrase “upon our heads,” thus drawing a parallel between the work of the Church’s enemies and the work of God, who pours out “knowledge from heaven, upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.” This confirms all of the above in a powerful way, while clarifying it a great deal. For Joseph, now, it seems that God’s work has two essential aspects: (1) He pours out truth and knowledge, but because truth attracts even the wicked, (2) He allows for serious persecution to cleanse the Church. Truth and persecution work together to create a people given wholly to God.

Hence, in the last three paragraphs of the section (the first three paragraphs on page 364), Joseph can say that because “Truth is ‘Mormonism,'” we must “learn . . . that walls and irons, doors and creaking hinges, and half-scared-to-death guards and jailers . . . are calculated in their very nature to make the soul of an honest man feel stronger than the powers of hell.” What a teaching!

Truth is what we are after. And if we are, then the very nature of time changes for us. Rather than pining away after a time beyond time, waiting for the Transcendent to come and give us all of our greatest desires, we are given the time to seek and to sort out immanent truth, to give ourselves to the uncompromisable and universal.

And this kind of time begins with a specific event, according to Joseph: “We received the Book of Mormon.” (p. 364)

The Savior understands all our suffering and He will be with us forever and ever.

The next section contains the entirety of section 122 of the Doctrine and Covenants.

The first thing that must be said about section 122 is that its separation from section 121 is somewhat misleading—and in a way that is reproduced in the manual. In the original letter Joseph wrote from Liberty Jail, there is no break between D&C 121:34-46 and D&C 122. This is important because we tend to read D&C 121:34-46 as being universally addressed (that is, to all the Saints), while we tend to read D&C 122 as being addressed to Joseph Smith alone. The break in the sections allows this to happen without our asking any questions, really.

However, a reading of the original letter shows that it is probably best to see the two as in profound continuity. This gives us two likely alternatives in reading D&C 121:34-122:9. Either (1) we can assume that D&C 121:34-46 is actually addressed only to Joseph, or (2) we can assume that D&C 122 is universally addressed. (One could of course try to show that the section break is the only way to make sense of the whole affair as well.) Of these options, I want to opt for (2): I think it is best to read section 122 as being in profound continuity with the universalist address of the last part of section 121.

Let me offer at least two indications. First, the paragraph that begins on page 364, continues through the whole of 365, and ends on page 366 is marked by two rhetorical strategies that subvert the only apparent particularism of the content of the passage. A bit of explanation is in order.

The first of these two rhetorical strategies is the constant use of “if” in situations that had already been the case: “if thine enemies fall upon thee; if they tear thee from the society of thy father and mother and brethren and sisters; and if with a drawn sword thine enemies tear thee from the bosom of thy wife, and of thine offspring, . . . and if then [they] shall be thrust from thee by the sword, and thou be dragged to prison, . . . and if thou shouldst be cast into the pit, or into the hands of murderers, and the sentence of death passed upon thee,” etc. All of these things had already happened to Joseph, such that the “if” language functions as a kind of displacement: Joseph’s actual experience is here being cited as an example of the hypothetical experience of the addressee of the text.

The second rhetorical strategy is a doubled broadening or universalizing of the language employed. While the “ifs” begin with very specific experiences from Joseph’s experience, they are soon broadened to more poetic possibilities that cannot be attributed to Joseph’s experience in any literal way: “if thou be cast into the deep; if the billowing surge conspire against thee; if fierce winds become thine enemy; if the heavens gather blackness, and all the elements combine to hedge up the way,” etc. This elemental language outstrips Joseph’s historically verifiable experience and so marks a universalizing movement in the logic of the situation. This taken to a third level with the last bit: “and above all, if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee . . . .” Here the language continues to move away from the verifiably historical, and yet it is in some sense less poetic or mythological than the second level. Again, the universalizing tendency of the imagery is obvious.

Whatever else can be said about these two rhetorical strategies, they certainly disassociate the Lord’s words here from the position of a direct address to Joseph Smith alone. There is a universalizing spirit about the whole affair.

The second indication of this universalization can be found in the last paragraph of the section, found on page 366. After the disturbing question “art thou greater than he?” the addressee is told: “Therefore, hold on thy way, and the Priesthood shall remain with thee, for their bounds are set, they cannot pass.” (emphasis added) It must not be missed that this mention of the priesthood (indeed, of the Priesthood) marks a profound continuity between what is said here and what is said in the last part of D&C 121. And if anything in the last part of section 121 makes clear that it is not Joseph alone who is indicated, it is the talk of priesthood.

These indications are, I think, sufficient to suggest that this whole section of the teachings cannot be dissociated from D&C 121:34-46. This means that “the ends of the earth shall inquire after [the] name” of those who do not thwart the priesthood, but instead obtain the principles of righteousness; that “fools shall have [them] in derision, and hell shall rage against [them]” who garnish their thoughts with virtue; that “the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under [the] hand” of those who reprove betimes with sharpness but show forth afterward an increase in love, such that one’s faithfulness is shown to be stronger than the cords of death.

More frightening perhaps, it is precisely the one who is given the priesthood, who understands that priesthood, and who wields it in the manner prescribed in D&C 121—it is precisely that person who will face the kinds of things Joseph faced, the kinds of things the Son of Man faced.

But, what can man do, for God shall be with such forever and ever?

The still, small voice whispers consolation to our souls in the depths of sorrow and distress.

This last section, it should be noted, does not come from the letter that supplies earlier parts of the lesson. This comes from Joseph’s journal after the Liberty Jail experience. It is a final testimony—self-expressive, it seems to me—that Joseph was assured all through his experience that he would again be free.

And thank God he both had that assurance and saw it fulfilled: the Nauvoo era, filled with Joseph’s richest teachings, followed.

10 Responses to “RS/MP Lesson 31: “‘God Shall Be with You Forever and Ever’: The Prophet in Liberty Jail” (Joseph Smith Manual)”

  1. […] RS/MP Lesson 31: “‘God Shall Be with You Forever and Ever’: The Prophet in Liberty Jail” (Jo… […]

  2. Lorrie said

    I often read your posts before preparing my RS lesson and humbly I admit much of your discussion is beyond my grasp but I wanted to mention here a connection I made. As I read your parallels to Paul and knowing I would be teaching this lesson on Easter,I thought of drawing some parallels from Joseph’s suffering and feelings of abandonment to the Savior’s as he went through the atonement and crucifixion. Elder Holland’s conference talk a few days ago (and others) is an excellent guide for this exercise. Also making a comparison of Lord’s response to Joseph Smith and the seeming (or unrecorded) lack of verbal response to Christ’s petition is another thread to consider. I also appreciated your mentioning of Joseph’s focus on the Lord’s 5 body parts because it’s interesting to consider that he of all people had seen God the Father and Christ and knew how real their bodies were. He had absolute faith in an active response probably due to his personal experience. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and thoughts.

  3. joespencer said

    Thanks, Lorrie. I agree that Elder Holland’s talk is a good focal point for this lesson. Timely, no? :)

  4. BrianJ said

    Excellent work, as always.

    As subsequent paragraphs will make clear, however, Joseph’s prayer is inhabited by a profound misunderstanding of God—one he will not see until he has received further revelation.

    This is an ongoing challenge in understanding Joseph’s doctrine: knowing how much he knew and understood when he said a particular thing.

  5. joespencer said

    Brian,

    Indeed! Luckily, here one can watch Joseph’s learning process within the course of a single letter. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have dared to say such a thing!

  6. Jason said

    Your analysis is wonderful and will be greatly useful for my lesson. With all respect, however, I disagree on one point. I personally see this not as a “profound misunderstanding” of God on Joseph’s part, but as an opening to revelation. I think that, much like Christ, Joseph felt forsaken. His cry for help seems similar to Luke 22:42, “if thou be willing, remove this cup from me”. Both desperately wanted there to be another way. God’s response was of great revelation which, as always, brought greater understanding. That, however, does not to say that Joseph misunderstood God previously. Joseph was comforted by the Spirit and taught the purpose of his suffering. The example used that Christ had “descended blow them all” was letting Joseph know that Christ understood his suffering, reflecting empathy on the part of the Godhead. Again, no disrespect intended, I am no doctrinal guru. I just felt that for me, this explanation worked better. Thanks again.

  7. joespencer said

    Jason,

    Actually, I think, in the end, that we’re saying much the same thing. Every “profound misunderstanding” on our part, when coupled with prayerful approach and a sincere desire for truth, results in revelation. I don’t mean to suggest that “profound misunderstanding” implies anything negative about the prophet: there would never be any revelation to receive if we weren’t all, for the most part, profoundly misunderstanding things as they are.

    In short: I agree and very much like what you’re saying. :)

  8. Robert C. said

    Thanks, Joe—great insights on these passages.

    I think Jason’s comment raises a good question about the difference between lack of understanding versus misunderstanding: is there a substantive difference? The danger, I think, is that if we fear to misunderstand, then we are probably not on our way toward understanding. Our Sunday school lesson this week was on D&C 46 where the word seek in that section recurs frequently in interesting ways (“seek the kingdom” in the first several verses, and then “seek the best gifts” in the later verses). Inasmuch as seeking something entails first not finding it, then it seems that seeking and “mis”-seeking are synonymous in a certain sense. And in this kind of a sense, I think the difference becomes distracted by how the initial seeking (seeking to understand, Joseph’s case) is redeemed—that is, once Joseph is enlightened, whether he was misunderstanding or simply lacking in understanding previously does not matter. What matters is that he understands now! And I think this is a good model for a “repentant” mode of life more generally, perhaps captured best in Paul’s “forgetting those things which are behind” in Philippians 3:13….

  9. BrianJ said

    Robert: excellent points (that, if I “understand” you correctly)

  10. joespencer said

    Indeed.

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