Bonus: Matthew Godfrey: The Liberty Jails That Refine Us
Having spent the last decade of his life working on the Joseph Smith Papers, Matthew Godfrey knows a thing or two about the Prophet’s life. And as next week the Come, Follow Me chapters cover the stirring revelations Joseph received in Liberty Jail, we sat down to learn all we could from Matthew about them. For example, did you know that Joseph wrote nine letters total from Liberty Jail and just two them make up sections 121–123? On this special bonus episode, Matthew shares why he believes Liberty Jail changed Joseph as a person and as a prophet.
When you get into Joseph’s life, you see that he’s really not all that dissimilar from you or from me.
Joseph Smith Papers: https://www.josephsmithpapers.org
The Know Brother Joseph book
Morgan Jones 0:00
Elder Jeffrey R. Holland once said, "I guess we're not supposed to have favorite scriptures, and I have enough of them that you won't be able to pin me down to one or two. But certainly any list of my favorite scriptures would have to include those written from the darkness of Liberty Jail. So what we instantly learn is that God was not only teaching Joseph Smith in that prison circumstance, but He was teaching all of us for generations yet to come what a scriptural gift and what a high price was paid for it, but how empty would our lives as Latter-day Saints be if we did not have sections 121, 122 and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants.
"They are contained in total on a mere six pages of text, but those six pages will touch your heart with their beauty and their power, and they will remind you that God often moves in a mysterious way His wonders to perform. In any case, He certainly turned adversity into blessing and giving us those sacred writings and reflections. So pure, noble and Christian in both tone and content, yet produced in such an impure and noble and unchristian setting," end quote. Today we talk with someone who also shares a great love for the sections we will study next week for "Come, Follow Me."
Matthew Godfrey is a general editor and the managing historian of the Joseph Smith Papers. He is also a member of the Church History department editorial board. Matthew holds a PhD in American and Public history from Washington State University. He served as the lead historian on three volumes of the documents series of the Joseph Smith Papers and contributed to three other volumes. He has authored or co-edited several books, including Know Brother Joseph: New Perspectives on Joseph Smith's life and character, and has published articles in a variety of academic journals and scholarly anthologies. His research, interest and expertise include environmental history, business and financial history and the history of Zion's camp.
This is All In, an LDS Living podcast where we ask the question, what does it really mean to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ? I'm Morgan Jones, and I am honored to have Matthew Godfrey with me today. Matthew, welcome.
Matthew Godfrey 2:24
Thanks, Morgan. I'm so happy to be here. I think I've told you before, I'm a big fan of the podcast. I think you bring a lot of light into people's lives. So thank you for having me on this, I appreciate it.
Morgan Jones 2:34
That is very kind. Thank you. Thank you for all the work that you've done. And I actually want to start there, tell me a little bit about Joseph Smith Papers. This is a project that has been going on for years and has consumed a good part of your life at this point, so tell me how did you get involved with it? And how has that experience been for you?
Matthew Godfrey 2:55
Yeah, so this project really has been going on for a long time. It actually has its roots back in the 1960s. Dean Jessee, who is an employee with the Church history department, worked in publishing Joseph Smith's papers. He wanted to kind of get some of the documents out there, Joseph Smith's letters, his journals, those types of things.
So he began working on doing this, and he was able to publish a few volumes, but by the 1990s–so Dean had spent most of his career working on this, it was decided that maybe we needed to do a little bit more with Joseph Smith's papers.
And it's interesting, because there's a whole field in American history called documentary editing, which really is as fascinating as that sounds, so with documentary editing, you have various papers projects of the founding fathers, like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin. And so it was decided that maybe we needed to spend the resources to devote the same attention to Joseph Smith as to these founding fathers.
And some of those projects have been going on for years, the papers of Thomas Jefferson started in the 1940s and it's still going on today, so just a whole lot out there. And so, with Ron Esplin, Richard Bushman, Ron Barney, Richard Turley, from the Church, those were all kind of key people in getting the Joseph Smith papers going to where we decided we would publish a comprehensive edition of all of his documents.
And a lot of times people wonder, "Well, what is a Joseph Smith document? What does that even mean?" And so just kind of simply it means anything that he created himself, or anything that he caused to be created–because Joseph didn't really like to write himself, so he employed a lot of clerks and scribes to do this writing for him.
Morgan Jones 4:39
Matthew Godfrey 4:40
And so sometimes he would direct his clerk to keep his journal for him. And so Willard Richards would go around and follow Joseph around and then he'd write in Joseph's journal that night, and so we consider that to be a Joseph Smith document because it's done under Joseph Smith's authorization and under his direction.
Or it's anything that Joseph Smith owned. So if somebody wrote him a letter, then we would also consider that to be a Joseph Smith document. And so we want to publish a comprehensive edition of all of these. The project came up to the Church history department in about 2005.
It was at BYU for a few years, and then it was transferred up to the Church history department where most of Joseph Smith's papers are. Not all of them, there's some that are held by the Community of Christ, which is the former reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But most of the papers are housed in the Church history library. So it came up in about 2005, and I came onto the project in 2010 after we had published, I think, our first two volumes. And I've been a lead historian on three of our documents volumes, I've contributed to others, I became a general editor of the project in 2015, which means I get to review everything that we publish. And we're nearing the end of the project, which is kind of hard to believe. But our last volume will be published in 2023, spring.
And then we have a website as well, that contains all of the Joseph Smith documents on that. So that's kind of how the project has evolved over time and kind of my role in it. And it's just been a real blessing to work on this project I've thoroughly enjoyed it.
Morgan Jones 6:18
So here's the big question, what are you going to do with your life when this is done?
Matthew Godfrey 6:23
I'm just going to go to Hawaii sit on the beach, you know, surf the internet. Those types of things.
Morgan Jones 6:28
[Laughter] Amazing. Yeah, of course. Sounds just like what you would do.
Matthew Godfrey 6:33
The good thing is we already have a bunch of projects in the Church history department that we're going to be working on after the Joseph Smith papers is finished. So there's plenty of work to do.
Morgan Jones 6:43
So tell me a little bit about what your relationship with Joseph Smith was like when this project started, and how it is changed and evolved over time?
Matthew Godfrey 6:55
Yeah, so it's interesting to me, my parents are both historians. My dad has a PhD in history. My mom has a master's degree in history. And my dad worked for the Church education system for most of his career and did a lot with Joseph Smith. He published a lot on Joseph Smith.
And so I felt like Joseph Smith was always kind of a part of our home. But me as a teenager, you know, sometimes I would go with my parents to the Mormon history association meetings, but I was more interested in music and sports and other things than history at that time.
So I never really saw myself kind of going along this track. So I think, for me, before the Joseph Smith Papers, I was probably like, you know, most Church members. I, you know, knew of Joseph Smith and knew of his life, I had prayed about whether he was a prophet, and, you know, had testimony from the Holy Ghost that he was a prophet, so I had that belief, but working on the Joseph Smith Papers has really kind of deepened my testimony of Joseph Smith.
And it's interesting, because I have people a lot of times who ask me, you know, "How has working on this project affected your testimony? "And when they ask that, sometimes they're asking that as though I'm going to say, "Well, it's had a negative impact on my testimony," because I think people think there's a lot of weird things in our, you know, early history, and that if you look at that too much, then suddenly your testimony is going to be shot.
But working on this project has had the exact opposite effect for me. I really believe that working on it has helped me to see Joseph Smith as a real person. And what I mean by that is that sometimes we can think of Joseph Smith or you know, any prophet is kind of above us, that there is someone who is so spiritually developed, that it's hard to relate to them.
You know, Joseph Smith was receiving these wonderful visitations from God, the Father, and Jesus Christ. And sometimes I have a hard time, you know, feeling God's love for me, or feeling like God's answering my prayers, so how can I relate to that?
But when you get into Joseph's life, you see, he's really not that dissimilar from you or from me. He was someone who had to struggle with living the human experience, just like all of us do. He struggled with the deaths of family members, four out of the first five children that he and Emma had died either at childbirth or before they were one year old, which is just kind of a remarkable thing to think about that burden that Joseph and Emma had to bear with that.
He too had moments where God was silent, and where he had to just trust in the Lord and kind of move forward the best that he could before more light and direction was given to him. And so being able to see that, being able to see that he was a human being, that he had imperfections, and that God was still able to do a great work through him has just helped me to be able to think that you know, as spiritually inferior to him as I am, maybe if I'm trying to do my best God can do a great work through me as well. And so it's just really helped me develop a more personal relationship with him.
Morgan Jones 10:06
I think that's profound. I promise that we're going to get into Joseph Smith, but I have another question for you. You mentioned that your parents were historians, how did you end up–if you weren't super interested in it–how did you end up working in history? The family business?
Matthew Godfrey 10:24
That's right. That's right. So it's not as great of a story as you might think it would be. I was originally an English major in college. I've always loved reading and stories and books.
Morgan Jones 10:37
I also started out as an English major.
Matthew Godfrey 10:39
That's great. Yeah. So I was an English major and a history minor,
Morgan Jones 10:44
Matthew Godfrey 10:45
And as I got into more of the upper division, English classes, I found that I really didn't like literary theory. I had a hard time when professors would say, "This is what this author meant." And I would think, "How do you know, that's what the author meant?" you know? And anyway, we don't have to get into criticisms of literary theory. But because of that–
Morgan Jones 11:04
We could! We could spend the whole podcast on that, but we won't.
Matthew Godfrey 11:07
Yeah, your listeners are probably grateful that we won't do that, so.
Morgan Jones 11:10
It's for the best.
Matthew Godfrey 11:11
Yeah. So I, I started to kind of look a little bit more at history. And I found that if I switched my major from English to History, I'd graduate about a year and a half sooner, and so that kind of sealed the deal for me. And so I decided I'd change.
But really, you know, it's kind of been not that different, because one of the things that really attracts me to history are, you know, narratives and stories and stories about people and what they have experienced and how they've overcome, you know, trials and difficulties in their lives. And so that's kind of really what attracts me about history. But yeah, that's that's how I got into it. It's not really a very interesting story.
Morgan Jones 11:52
No, it is interesting. So my question then is, do you feel like you attach meaning to the things that you're reading in history?
Matthew Godfrey 12:03
Yes, I think so. I think certainly, you know, there's a lot to learn from history. One of the things that I really like about working on the Joseph Smith Papers, and this kind of extends back–because I had a whole different career before I came on the Joseph Smith Papers, I was a historical consultant for about nine years before I came to the project.
Morgan Jones 12:24
Matthew Godfrey 12:25
And I did a lot of litigation support work for the federal government when they were getting sued over historical issues–this is all gonna connect, I promise.
Morgan Jones 12:34
I'm with you.
Matthew Godfrey 12:35
But one of the things when you're writing an expert witness report for the federal government, a lot of times attorneys would go over that report with me, and they would be very exact about the language that we used in that report.
If I said, somebody insisted on something, they'd say, "How do you know they insisted this?" Like, "What do you–where's the source that says they insisted? Or did they just say it?" And with the Joseph Smith Papers, we're kind of taking a similar approach where we are trying hard not to offer our own commentary and kind of our own interpretations of these documents–although we have to do some of the up because we're trying to put them in a historical context. But we really tried to just kind of offer up the documents and let scholars and readers and those who experience them kind of make their own judgments about what they're saying. So I found working on the Joseph Smith papers to be not that dissimilar from kind of doing these expert witness reports in that way.
Morgan Jones 13:36
That's super interesting. So I am going to tell listeners that I have been looking forward to this conversation for months because you and I talked about doing this months ago. And I said to Matt, I said, "What–if we were to talk about anything from the Doctrine and Covenants, what would be the most interesting to talk about?" And he said Liberty Jail. So here we are, it's finally almost time to study that in "Come, Follow Me." Tell me a little bit–kind of set the stage for us–what were the events that led up to Joseph and others being taken into Liberty Jail?
Matthew Godfrey 14:15
Yeah, there's there's a long history to this, that actually, you know, you could start even back into 1831, which is the year when the Lord first revealed that the city of Zion would be built in Jackson County, Missouri. So the Saints began working on that. And I find it really interesting, a revelation that the Lord gave, it was the one that was given right after he said where the city of Zion would be. This is section 58 in our current Doctrine and Covenants.
He said in there, that the Saints really couldn't see at this point, His designs for Zion. And then He said, "and after much tribulation will come the blessing." And I think in 1831, August of 1831, when the Lord says this, I don't think the Saints really understood just how much tribulation there was going to be in Missouri and in trying to build the city of Zion.
So they spent a couple of years trying to build the city in Jackson County, by the summer of 1833 there's about 1200 members of the Church living in Jackson County. And the Saints really believed at this time that they were going to build the city, they would build a temple in the city and Jesus Christ would return to the earth. They thought that the Second Coming was imminent.
In fact, I think William W. Phelps, the Church's printer at the time, even said that he thought it would happen within nine years. So they really thought this was gonna happen. But then violence breaks out in the summer of 1833. There's difficulties with those in Jackson County who aren't members of the Church, the Church leaders have to promise that they will vacate Jackson County by the end of the year, but after this happens, after they make this promise, they decide, you know, we've purchased these lands legally, we have every right to live in this county as much as anybody else.
And so they began to look into kind of legal means to maintain their lands and to stay in Jackson County. And when the settlers heard about that, they became upset again. And in the fall of 1833, after a week of violence in Jackson County, the saints are kicked out of the county, most of them go across the Missouri River into Clay County, Missouri.
And so it seems right then, you know, this dream of the city of Zion being built is kind of at an end because they're no longer in Jackson County. But Joseph tells the Saints to, you know, those that are there in Missouri to stay in Clay County, more and more saints begin to move to Clay County, and it's relatively peaceful there for a period of time.
But in 1836, again, because of difficulties with those who aren't members of the Church, a group of Clay County citizens come to Church leaders, and they say, look, we know what happened in Jackson County, we we don't want to have that violence breakout again. But then they essentially say, "Unless you leave peacefully, it's going to break out again."
Morgan Jones 17:11
We don't want to have violence, but we're ready.
Matthew Godfrey 17:16
Yeah, exactly. So this causes the Saints to leave, the Missouri legislature decides that they're going to create a new county in Missouri, where Latter-day Saints can live. Kind of believing that maybe they just can't live next to people who aren't of their faith.
So the legislature creates Caldwell County in the 1836-1837 time period. And that's the county in which the city of Far West is established by the Saints. And so you have more and more Saints moving to Caldwell County, but some begin to move into other counties that are around Caldwell.
So you have a group of Saints that begin to move into Davis County, which is just north of Caldwell County, and they established the community of Adam-Ondi-Ahamn in Davis County. And then there's another group of Saints that move into Carroll County, and establish a community at De Witt, Missouri.
Now in those two places they're again by people who aren't members of the Church. And so there's cultural differences that exist. You know, Missouri is a southern state, it's a slave state. Most of the Latter-day Saints are from the north, and so you have those cultural differences.
There's concerns on the parts of the Missouri citizens that if you get too many Latter-day Saints living here, then they're going to assume political control, they're going to assume economic control, and they didn't want to see that happen.
And then there's religious concerns where they just believed that Joseph Smith was a fraud, that he was an imposter. And they didn't think that, you know, the Latter-day Saint religion was worth anything.
And so all of this creates tensions that began to erupt in 1838. And in the summer of 1838, when a group of Saints in Davis county tried to vote in an election. In Gallatin, there's a group of non-Church members who oppose them and won't let them vote. And a fight breaks out between the two groups.
And this leads to other difficulties with the Latter-day Saints in October of 1838, mobs kick the Latter-day Saints out of De Witt, and I think a lot of Church leaders and a lot of members of the Church at the time thought, "Here we go, this is independence all over again, this is Jackson County all over again."
And so you have Church members–there's a group that springs up around this time called the Danites, which kind of go on to have their own legend within Latter-day Saint history, even though it seems like they only operated in Missouri, there's, you know, accusations that Danites exist in Salt Lake, you know, well into the late 19th century and that they just, you know, Brigham Young can order them out and they'll kill anyone who Brigham Young tells them to kill.
But this all kind of has roots in this Danite organization that appears in Missouri, and their purpose was to try to prevent what happened in Jackson County from happening again. And to also try to eliminate dissension from within the Church, because you had Church members of that time, you know, there were Church members in Kirtland who were falling away from the Church, mainly because of economic concerns over the Kirtland Safety Society.
You have Church members in Missouri who are falling away, and these are some key leaders they're, like Oliver Cowdery.
Morgan Jones 20:34
Matthew Godfrey 20:35
He's been there from the start David Whitmer, who's been there from the start. And so the Danites are wanting to kind of root out this dissension in the Church.
So what happens is you have members of Danites and also other Church members, who seeing these kind of pockets of mob activity spring up, decide that they're going to take preventative action.
And so they go into these areas, they burn some buildings, they confiscate property, believing that if they do this, then maybe they can quell the discontent and these, you know, the mobs will disperse after that.
But it has the exact opposite effect. It just kind of generates even more outrage against the Latter-day Saints and there's exaggerated reports that reach governor Lilburn Boggs' ears about depredations the Latter-day Saints are committing.
The Missouri citizens respond in kind but kind of escalate the violence. They attack villages, they beat up people, there's sexual assaults that are performed on women of the time. Just all these outrages that occur. You have the Hawns Mill massacre that happens where there's this community of Latter-day Saints and they're attacked by a group of Missourians.
There end up being 17 men and children who were ultimately killed in the Hawns Mill massacre, and then ultimately, you have governor Boggs, who issues the extermination order, which basically says to the Missouri militia, that if you see a Latter-day Saint, they need to be exterminated, or they need to leave the state.
Now, with all this going on, Joseph Smith, and a group of other Church leaders are arrested in November of 1838. And they're arrested on charges of treason against the state of Missouri.
They're arrested on charges of burglary and arson, you know, kind of stemming from some of these preventative attacks that occurred. And so there's a hearing that's held in Missouri in November of 1838. And from that hearing, the judge decides that there's enough evidence to commit Joseph Smith, Sidney Rigdon, Hyrum Smith, Caleb Baldwin, Alexander McCray, and Lyman Wight to jail to await a hearing in the spring.
So there's enough evidence for them to be charged and to be tried on this treason charge. And so they're moved to the Liberty Jail the first of December 1838. And they're in there for roughly four and a half months awaiting a hearing that's supposed to be held in the spring. So that's kind of why Joseph Smith is in the jail in the winter of 1838-1839.
Morgan Jones 23:11
Okay, so I think people will recognize, obviously, some of the names that you mentioned, there are also some names that people will not be as familiar with in terms of who was there in Liberty Jail. As I studied "Revelations in Context," to prep for this interview, I learned about Caleb Baldwin, who was a 47 year old father of 10, who was with Joseph and scribed several of the letters that he wrote from Liberty Jail. Tell us a little bit about who was Baldwin and also these other people that maybe people are not as familiar with, who were these men that were there with Joseph?
Matthew Godfrey 23:53
Yeah, so Caleb Baldwin's an interesting person. He joined the Church relatively early, around the fall of 1830, after Oliver Cowdery Parley P. Pratt, Ziba Peterson and Peter Whitmer Jr. had come to Ohio–they were known as the Lamanite missionaries that are going out to preach to Indian groups in the United States.
And they stopped off in Kirtland because Parley P. Pratt knew Sidney Rigdon and wanted to share the Book of Mormon with Sidney Rigdon. And so Caleb Baldwin heard them preach and decided that there was truth in their message and so he was baptized by Parley P. Pratt in 1830.
He lived in Ohio, and he was kind of closely tied to Joseph Smith from the start. You may be familiar with the story of Julia Clapp Murdock, who in April of 1831, gave birth to twins. The twins' name were Julia and Joseph. But in that delivery Julia Clapp Murdock died, and so she left her husband John Murdock with several children, including these newborn twins, and Joseph and Emma actually adopted those twins.
So when Julia gave birth to the twins, she was actually living with Caleb Baldwin and his family at the time. And so those births and her death occurred in Caleb Baldwin's home, so that kind of had this initial tie between him and Joseph Smith.
Caleb had lived in Jackson County, Missouri, he'd been expelled with the rest of the saints there. He had worked for a time on the Kirtland temple, building that. He had lived in Far West Missouri, he had participated in some of the preventative attacks that we'd talked about earlier, which is why he was charged with treason and some of these other things.
And he was someone who just, you know, was kind of a normal Latter-day Saint. Kind of an ordinary Latter Day Saint that we don't hear a whole lot about. But he, after he gets out of Liberty Jail, he moves over with the rest of the Saints into Illinois, he eventually travels to Salt Lake–the Salt Lake Valley in 1848, and then he dies in 1849.
So someone who we don't know a whole lot about but someone who, you know, was close to Joseph and participated in a lot of these different persecutions that the saints faced.
Alexander McCray, was another one who was in there. He–actually most of the letters that we have as Sections 121, 122, and 123–he was the main scribe. Caleb Baldwin wrote some in those too, but Alexander McCray was the was the major scribe for that.
But just another person who you would kind of classify as an ordinary Latter-day Saint. And I think that's, you know, one of the great blessings and looking at the story, because we often pay attention to Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon, and Hyrum Smith, but there were other Latter-day Saints who paid just as big of a price as these men did, whose family suffered just like these individuals family suffered.
And so I think it's always good to kind of pay attention to these people. Because I mean, frankly, most of us are just ordinary Latter-day Saints trying to live our lives the best that that we can, and we can gain a lot of insight from these people's lives.
Morgan Jones 27:12
For sure. I love that. So tell us a little bit about what made Liberty Jail so inhumane. Because as I read the Revelations in Context and the stuff in "Come, Follow Me," I was like–wow–this is a terrible place.
Matthew Godfrey 27:31
Yeah, it was, it was quite a building. I mean, I don't think any prison at this time is a great place to be. And certainly, if you're in a prison in the winter, it's not going to be a great place. It's not like there's central heating or anything like that.
So Liberty Jail, it had the main floor of the jail, but then that main floor had a trap door and through the trap door was a dungeon. And that's where Joseph Smith and the rest spent a lot of their time when they were in the jail is in this dungeon part.
Just to kind of give you a sense for how cold it could get in that dungeon, later on in the 1850s–I believe–when the building was no longer used as a jail, they actually use that lower portion as an ice house. So it's a place where you could, you know, kind of refrigerate things.
So that's how cold it could get down there.
Morgan Jones 28:21
Matthew Godfrey 28:22
Yeah, very pleasant. Initially, we thought that the ceiling for that little dungeon area was only six feet high, which would mean that several of the men wouldn't have been able to have stood up right in it. But over the last few years, there's actually been more research done into this and it looks like it was actually about six feet and a half inches high.
Which means that everyone, for the most part could have stood upright, but you're still you know, you would have been close to the ceiling, so I'm sure it was kind of a claustrophobic feeling down there.
There were only a couple of windows, they had bars across them. There was no real ventilation down there. So you can imagine how bad it would smell at times. The prisoners weren't fed a lot of good food. In fact they said their diets were mostly consisted of coarse food. There were also times when after they would eat, they'd begin vomiting profusely, which led some of them to believe that they had been intentionally poisoned at times.
So, I mean, they only had these little straw beds to sleep on, which I'm sure gave very little protection against the cold stone floor. So it's just not a great place. A lot of suffering went on in there. There are reports that Hyrum Smith went into shock at one period because the conditions were so bad.
Sidney Rigdon, who was older than most of those in the jail, and was suffering from sickness when he was put into the jail, was actually released in January of 1839 because he was suffering so greatly. And so he actually wasn't in the jail when Joseph wrote the letters that became Sections 121 through 123. But again, it just kind of shows just the poor circumstances that they were living in.
Morgan Jones 30:13
So now that we've kind of set the stage for what it was like, and giving people a little bit of a visual–which that's really interesting about the not being able to stand up, because when I was young, we went to Liberty Jail, and I remember them saying that, that they wouldn't have been able to stand up. So that's really interesting. But in Liberty Jail, we get some of the most beautiful parts of the Doctrine and Covenants. The things that probably the part–the sections that people are most familiar with. But you told me that Joseph Smith wrote nine letters total from the jail, and we really only know about two of them. What do the other letters contain?
Matthew Godfrey 30:56
Yeah, so it's interesting. So there's nine letters that still exist that Joseph wrote from the jail. He could have written other letters that just haven't survived today, but we have nine letters that have survived.
Morgan Jones 31:08
Matthew Godfrey 31:08
And so it's two letters. Two that he wrote to the Church in March of 1839, from which we get Sections 121 through 123. So there's seven other letters that we have that haven't been canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants. And in fact, the two letters from which we get those sections, they're actually quite lengthy letters.
So like one of them is 17 manuscript pages, the other ones, 9 manuscript pages, and those excerpts that we have in the Doctrine and Covenants are just kind of like a very small portion of what those letters contain. So there's a lot more information that we can glean from what Joseph Smith wrote when he was in Liberty jail.
So I think there are a few things that we can learn from these letters, one of which is just kind of how important friendship was to Joseph Smith. There was a woman who visited him one of Joseph's friends Presendia Buell, she and her father came and visited Joseph Smith while he was in the jail. And after they had gone, he wrote a letter to them, just kind of expressing how much it meant to him that they remembered that he was there, and how important it was for him, to be able to see them that that kind of made things bearable for him.
And I'll touch on this a little bit to the end, the actual sections of the Doctrine and Covenants that we have from these Liberty Jail letters, we also see the importance of friendship that come out.
So we're all familiar with how Section 121 begins, it's Joseph crying out, "Oh, God, where are thou? And where's the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?" And then that goes on for a few verses. And then I believe in verse eight, the Lord says, "My son, peace be unto thy soul." And it seems from that, that Joseph cries out to the Lord, and then the Lord kind of instantaneously responds with this comfort.
But actually, when you look at the letter that Joseph wrote, he has this cry, you know this prayer to the Lord, "Oh, God, where art thou?" But then the peace be unto thy soul doesn't come for another seven pages in the letter. So there's a lot of time that passes between that. And it makes you wonder, well what happened for Joseph to be able to feel that peace?
And it's interesting, because when you read the letter, you see that what happened is that Joseph says in there that he had received several letters from Emma, and from his brother, Don Carlos, and from Edward Partridge, and from other friends the night before.
And when he read those letters, they comforted him and they helped him. And I want to just read what he said from this.
Morgan Jones 33:47
Matthew Godfrey 33:47
So he said, "We received some letters last evening, one from Emma, one from Don C. Smith, and one from Bishop Partridge, all breathing a kind and consoling spirit. We were much gratified with their contents, we had been a long time without information. And when we read those letters, they were to our souls as the gentle air is refreshing. Those who have not been enclosed in the walls of a prison without cause or provocation, can have but a little idea how sweet the voice of a friend is, one token of friendship from any source whatever awakens and calls into action, every sympathetic feeling."
And then he continues that because of those letters, and because of those feelings that they brought to him, then he was able to hear the spirit whisper to him, "My son, peace be unto thy soul."
And so it's very interesting to me to think that there's Joseph, kind of in despair.
He's been in this prison by that time, for roughly three and a half months. He doesn't know when he's going to get out. He doesn't really know what the condition of his family is. He says he's had little information. For quite some time, and I think that's all kind of what drives him to cry out, "Oh God, Where art thou?" as he thinks about everything that the Saints have experienced and everything that he's experienced.
But then it's reading these letters, reading that support from his family and his friends that enables him to be in a spiritual state where the Lord can comfort him, and can say, "My son peace be unto thy soul." And it just makes me think, you know, how important is it for us, and for me, to be a little more aware of when a friend or a family member is suffering, and to reach out to them.
Even if it's just a text to say, "Hey, I'm thinking about you," or "I'm praying for you." Or just to let them know that there's someone who cares, and what a great blessing that can be in their life, and what a great support that can be to them.
Just kind of a little experience that I had with this, our youngest son–back when he was about two years old—had a period of a couple of weeks where he would complain that his head hurt, and then he would throw up and he would seem to feel better. But then the next day, it would kind of repeat.
And I was playing catch with him one night and I noticed that his eyes seemed off. There was something weird about it, it had kind of like turned a little bit. And so I mentioned that to my wife, and she took him into the doctor the next day. And I got a call at work from my wife, who was in tears saying, "The doctor said we need to take him to the hospital, they think he has a brain tumor." Which is not something that I ever thought we would ever need to experience.
And so we rushed to the hospital, they did a whole bunch of tests on him. And luckily, for us, he didn't end up having a brain tumor. And he's kind of suffered from migraines since then. But it wasn't a tumor, and we were very grateful for that. But before we knew that, when my wife and I were kind of in the midst of wondering what was going to happen to him, is this kind of the start of a process that could end up in him losing his life, and just kind of feeling overwhelmed by at all. We received texts from people in our ward, just saying, "We want you to know that we're praying for you guys."
We received texts from family members who said, "We've submitted Emmett's name into the temple." We had some of our dear friends who took two of our other boys who were, I think, 9 and 6 years old at the time, and said, "Hey, they're going to come sleep at our place, we got them, don't even worry about them." And I just remember kind of the relief that came over me just from those small acts.
I mean, it wasn't anything grand that anyone did. But I think this really kind of shows how just being there for people in the moments of their trials can really help and bless them.
Now kind of going along with that, I think we also get an insight into Joseph and Emma's relationship through some of these letters that he writes. We have three letters that Joseph wrote to Emma while he was in the jail, and one letter that Emma wrote to Joseph. And I think it kind of shows what they were experiencing at the time and kind of the depth of their relationship.
Because I think sometimes when we think about Emma and Joseph, just knowing about plural marriage in the Church, which I know, you know, you've had guests talk about before on this podcast, it kind of seems like, "Well, if Joseph's practicing plural marriage, you know, how can they even have any kind of a loving relationship?"
But when you look at these letters that are exchanged, you can see that Joseph and Emma really cared deeply for each other and really loved each other. So I wanted to just read a couple of excerpts from a couple of these letters.
Morgan Jones 38:45
Matthew Godfrey 38:46
So Emma writes to Joseph, and says, after she's written a few paragraphs, "I have many more things I could like to write but have not time. And you may be astonished at my bad writing and incoherent manner. But you will pardon all when you reflect how hard it would be for you to write when your hands were stiffened with hard work, and your heart convulsed with intense anxiety." And just from that phrase right there, "Your heart convulsed with intense anxiety," I think shows how concerned Emma was about this, how concerned she was for Joseph not really knowing when he was going to get out.
Joseph writes to Emma a letter that's really quite poignant where he talks about wanting to see his children again, and he also talks about how much he wants to see their family dog again, Old Major, and how much he misses his dog. But then he says this, about Emma, he says, "As to yourself, if you want to know how much I want to see you, examine your feelings, how much you want to see me and judge for yourself. I would gladly walk from here to you, barefoot and bareheaded and half naked to see you and think it a great pleasure and never count it toil." And I think you know what a loving statement that is about how much Joseph cared for Emma.
Now after he gets out of Liberty Jail in 1842, when he's in hiding for a period of time because those in Missouri are trying to extradite him back to Missouri to stand trial on various charges. Joseph reflects about his relationship with Emma. And he says, "My beloved Emma, she that was my wife, even the wife of my youth, and the choice of my heart. Many were the reverberations of my mind when I contemplated for a moment the many scenes we had been called to pass through. The fatigues and the toils, the sorrows and sufferings, and the joys and constellations from time to time that had strewed our paths and crowned our board. Oh, what a commingling of thought filled my mind for the moment. Again, she is here even in the seventh trouble. Undaunted, firm, unwavering, unchangeable, affectionate Emma." And I think these kind of show, like he knew that he got through Liberty Jail in large part because of her support of him. And I think this really kind of shows the loving relationship they had and their kind of partnership that they had in their marriage.
Morgan Jones 41:18
For sure. Matt, in an email prior to this interview, you mentioned to me that you think that Joseph's experience in Liberty Jail changed him both as a person and as a prophet. How would you say that we see that that's the case?
Matthew Godfrey 41:36
I think it kind of gave him more empathy for people and kind of softened his heart. There's something that he wrote to Presendia Huntington Buell, while he was in the jail, that I think is important. He said, "It seems to me that my heart will always be more tender after this than ever it was before. I think I never could have felt as I now do if I had not suffered the wrongs that I've suffered. All things shall work together for good to them that love God." And so I think he's saying in there, you know, I have a bit more understanding of what it means to go through trials and prosecutions. And I think I have a more tender heart because of that.
And it makes me kind of think of the passage in the Book of Mormon, kind of in those war chapters that are in Alma, where I think Mormon makes some commentary, or Alma makes some commentary. I can't remember who it is, but just about how you can go through these times of war and trial and your heart can either be hardened by it or it can be softened by it. And I think in Joseph's case, his heart was softened by up. And then I also think it gave him more of a sense of urgency into his prophetic mission, because I think you see after this when he gets to Nauvoo. You kind of have this outpouring of teachings that he provides to the Saints doctrines that are dear to us today. Baptism for the dead comes in Nauvoo. The temple endowment comes in Nauvoo. You have Joseph talking about the nature of God, and our potential as human beings. And I think you see him kind of have this urgency to teach the Saints as much as he could because he didn't know when his life was going to end. I think Liberty jail showed him that, really, he didn't have a lot of control over his life. If someone wanted to kill him, and it was his time, then that would happen. And so you see him really kind of his teachings develop after this time, and he's really trying to instruct the Saints into kind of the mediator doctrines of the Church, I think.
Morgan Jones 43:42
It's super interesting. Several apostles have used Liberty Jail in important talks that I think a lot of people really love. I myself being one of them. For example, President Eyring spoke of, "Where is thy pavilion?" And I just wondered, what do you think are some of the most powerful lessons we can take from these chapters that we study in Doctrine and Covenants?
Matthew Godfrey 44:10
So I think there's a lot of lessons we can gain. I think two of the most important ones: one is just the fact that even a prophet of God, and this great prophet of this dispensation—Joseph Smith—could have times where God felt distant to him. And I think that's an important lesson for us to learn because I think all of us at one time or another, and maybe multiple times, will have moments in our life where it doesn't seem like God's there.
And I know for myself when I've had those moments sometimes it makes me wonder, you know, do I not have enough faith? Have I offended God? Is he angry at me? You know, am I just not worthy enough to receive direction from Him? And I don't think those kind of thoughts are helpful when those moments come. But I think what Joseph teaches us in Liberty Jail is you can have those moments. But Joseph still trusted, that even though he couldn't, he didn't know the answers, or he couldn't feel God present with him at that time, that eventually he would, again, that it wasn't kind of a permanent thing. But that sometimes we have to wrestle through things on our own and that when it's time for the Lord to give us further direction, He will, He'll give us that enlightenment.
But at times, we just have to kind of do do the best that we can. And I think that's something that really comes out in a talk that Elder Holland gave. I think you've mentioned this one to me about, "Lessons from Liberty Jail" and this kind of gets into the second thing that I think is one of the great things that we learn from these sections. And that is, the Savior has experienced everything that we will experience and has even gone beneath some of that. That's what we get out of section 122. And I think that's an important point. And I think it's important to understand that Joseph Smith, I think he knew this before, but I think he probably felt this in a deeper manner in Liberty Jail, that there's really nothing that can happen to us in this life that the Savior can't experience.
So we can't ever say nobody understands me, nobody knows what I'm going through, because the Savior has experienced all of that. And I think that's something that for me, at least, can be a great blessing when I'm going through, you know, trials and suffering to understand that if I can just reach out that my Savior is more than willing to be there for me and to help get me through those moments.
And then just one other thing, I think, too, we get out of this, that there is meaning and trials that you know, we don't always understand what that meaning is. We may not ever understand why we had to enter something. I know right now I have, my mother is suffering, you know, from dementia and some other things. And I looked at her quality of life and I just think, "Why does she have to go through this? What's what's the point of this?" And I don't know the answer to that. And I probably won't ever know the answer to that. But I think what Joseph teaches in these letters, and in these sections is that there is meaning and that God is watching over us that He is in control. And if we just trust in Him, we can have these moments where we can feel His presence, even in the worst possible situations in our life, that He will be there. And He will watch over us and He loves us. And I think that's a great lesson to get from these.
Morgan Jones 47:51
Thank you so much. I could not agree more. So you mentioned Elder Holland's talk "Lessons from Liberty Jail." I love that talk so much. And one of my favorite quotes from it, he says, ". . . you can have sacred, revelatory, profoundly instructive experience with the Lord in the most miserable experiences of your life—in the worst settings, while enduring the most painful injustices, when facing the most insurmountable odds and opposition you have ever faced." And then later in the talk, he adds the lessons of the winter of 1838 to 1839 teach us that, ". . . every experience can become a redemptive experience if we remained bonded to our Father in Heaven," through that difficulty. "These difficult lessons teach us that man's extremity is God's opportunity, and if we will be humble and faithful, if we will be believing and not curse God for our problems, He can turn the unfair and inhumane and debilitating prisons of our lives into temples—or at least into a circumstance that can bring comfort and revelation, divine companionship and peace."
How would you say, Matt, that Liberty Jail was a redemptive experience for Joseph and for those that were there with him?
Matthew Godfrey 49:12
Well, I think, you know, kind of touching along some of these things that I've mentioned that it was a place where ultimately they felt God's Spirit and God's comfort to them, and where they kind of felt like the Lord was with them, that He would help them through this. And, again, you know, Joseph, up to this point, he'd suffered through persecutions before this, I don't think the Saints had never suffered anything quite as severe as what happened to them in Missouri in 1838 and 1839. And I don't think Joseph had ever really suffered anything as severe as being in prison for that lengthy period of time. So he was certainly familiar with persecution, but I think when he's in Liberty Jail, he really comes to know the Savior, I think in even a more intimate way than he had before. And again, I mean, we're talking about someone who had seen Jesus Christ when he was 14 years old, and then had been visited by the Savior again in the Kirtland Temple. So he had experiences with the Savior. But I think the depth of the Savior's love for him—for all of us, you know, all of us—the depth of our Heavenly Father's love for all of us children, I think, was really driven home to Joseph Smith when he was in Liberty Jail.
And I think, you know, I've studied a lot about the Zion's camp expedition that the Latter-day Saints had in 1834, which we won't go into right now. But one of the things that came out of that is that most of the people that experienced that said that that's really where they came to know that God was with them, and that God cared about them. And I think you can say the same thing about Joseph and those who are in Liberty Jail, that this really was a time when they could feel the nearness of God and His love for them.
Morgan Jones 51:05
Absolutely. Okay, well, we could talk about Church history stuff with you all day long. And I am so grateful to you for giving of your time and sharing these things that you've put so much time into learning and understanding. But our time is up. So my last question for you is: what does it mean to you to be all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ?
Matthew Godfrey 51:31
This is a great question. You know, I've heard many people on your podcast answer this. And I don't think I'll say anything as profound as what some of them have shared. But for me, I think it's just every day, making the choice to believe and making the choice to choose faith. And this kind of goes back to something that I said before, where sometimes when people know that I studied Joseph Smith and early Church history, they wonder if it's damaged my testimony. Because I think some people think that, you know, if you learn about plural marriage, or you learn about these other things, then you know, it's just automatic. You can't believe anymore, it'll hurt your testimony. And certainly, I don't want to downplay anyone who has difficulties with these subjects because they are difficult subjects. I fully understand that. But I think one thing that can help with this is just knowing that we have a choice. We have a choice whether or not to believe. We have a choice, whether or not to follow the prophet to believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet that the Book of Mormon comes from God. That's a choice that we make every day, whether we're going to choose that or not. And it's a choice that a lot of these early Latter-day Saints made too.
One of my favorite stories is just Vilate Kimball, Heber C. Kimball's wife, who in the middle of all the dissension that's occurring in Kirtland, wrote a letter to Heber talking about what had happened in Kirtland and talking about seeing dear friends who were falling away from the Church. And she had seen the same things in Kirtland that these people had seen, but she tells Heber that she's choosing to stay in the Church. And after I read that, it just really drove home that point that we have a choice whether or not we're going to believe. And for me, being all in, it's just choosing each day to make the choice of faith to make the choice to believe.
Morgan Jones 53:26
Thank you so much. We are so grateful to Matthew Godfrey for joining us on today's episode. You can find the "Joseph Smith Papers" volumes and "Know Brother Joseph" in Deseret bookstores now.
A huge thanks to Derek Campbell from Mix at 6 Studios for his help with today's episode, and thank you for listening. We'll be with you again next week.