Abide #16: Doctrine and Covenants 121-123
Everything changed for Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints in a few short months in 1838. 5000 Saints gathered in the burgeoning city of Far West, Missouri to celebrate the 4th of July. Confident and secure in their main settlement, Sidney Rigdon declared that if a mob came again, it would be a “war of extermination.” His words proved prophetic–the Missourians would remember that language. Governor Lilburn Boggs signed Executive Order number 44 the 27th of October declaring that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies and must be exterminated or driven from the state.” After the Hawn’s Mill Massacre and the siege at Far West, 66 Latter-day Saint men were arrested. Joseph Smith, Hyrum Smith, and Sidney Rigdon, as well as Caleb Baldwin, Lyman Wight and Alexander McRae were eventually jailed in the Clay County Jail at Liberty, Missouri for “crimes of high treason”–an offense that did not provide the possibility of bail. BH Roberts would later call the jail a “prison temple,” yet it was a squalid, dirty, and dark place. They spent four months there as the Saints were scattered across Missouri hoping to find safety in the city of Quincy, Illinois.
Joseph wrote his first general missive to the saints in the middle of December. After a long winter in the jail with “screeking iron gates,” Joseph wrote again to the Saints as the spring began to thaw, not knowing they would soon escape. The Doctrine and Covenants sections we know today as sections 121, 122, and 123 are all portions of a larger letter written to the Saints on March 22nd. Not being able to stand up straight in the jail, in the letter Joseph also described how, “Our souls have been bowed down and we have suffered much distress … and truly we have had to wade through an ocean of trouble.”
Joseph directed the letter “to the church of Latterday saints at Quincy Illinois and scattered abroad and to Bishop Edward Partridge in particular,” however he sent the missive to his wife Emma because he wanted her “to have the first reading of it.”
The 17-page letter was quickly circulated amongst the Saints. As members would often do with revelations, some created their own handwritten copies. Mary Fielding Smith described the letter as “food to the hungry.”
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“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)