Matthew Godfrey has devoted more than a decade of his life to studying the documents of Joseph Smith. This week, as we study the sections of the Doctrine and Covenants that originate in Liberty Jail for Come, Follow Me, we asked Godfrey to share with us the context of these chapters on All In. One of the biggest things we learned is that these sections are comprised of the content of two of the letters Joseph wrote from the jail but there were seven more letters written by the Prophet to various people during his time in the inhumane “prison temple” of Liberty Jail. What do these additional letters teach us?
Morgan Jones: 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: Yeah, so it's interesting. 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. Two [letters] that he wrote to the Church in March of 1839, are where 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.
One of them is 17 manuscript pages, the other ones, 9 manuscript pages. [So] 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 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. [Their visit] made things bearable for him.
And…the actual sections of the Doctrine and Covenants that we have from these Liberty Jail letters, we also see the importance of friendship.
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, 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, 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: Please.
Matthew Godfrey: 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 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 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. What a great blessing that can be in their life, and what a great support that can be to them.