Section 121

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 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 governor issued an order for the militia to expel Latter-day Saints, who were abused, raped, and compelled 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 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 mid-winter 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, 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 (verse 17). The Lord severs them “from the ordinances of mine house” and promises just punishments for their sins (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 exploit 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 specirically. 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” (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” (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 (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.

Section 122

Section 122 immediately follows the last part of section 121 in Joseph’s March 20, 1839 letter from Liberty Jail.[1] Several of the statements in it refer to his personal experiences. Verses 6-7, for example, evoke the awful events in Far West, Missouri the preceding fall as Joseph was wrenched from his family, sentenced to execution, later charged with treason, and confined in the “pit”—the underground cell in Liberty, Missouri.   

The revelation compounds Joseph’s suffering in heavy if statements that build to an unbearable cresdenco, as if they were rocks piling on his body or lashes across his bare back. The Lord does all that to make two profound points, communicated in what must have been, especially juxtaposed with what proceeded it, a reassuring voice of a loving Father. “Know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.” 

The revelation made the second point to Joseph by posing the profound question of verse 8. “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” The “therefore what?” follows as Joseph is encouraged to hold on, fear not, promised the priesthood forever and life until his work on earth is finished.

Joseph wanted Emma to be first to read his long letter, and he pled with her in a letter the following day to have it copied immediately and circulated to the leaders of the Church and his parents. Though the letter from which sections 121-23 derives exhibited the limits of Joseph’s schooling, he regarded it as the vessel of some of the most profound revelation he received and some of the best counsel he ever gave. The parts that became sections 121 and 122 reoriented and motivated Joseph, many have had a similar effect on many others, and continue to be a primary source of Latter-day Saint resolve to this day to keep the faith in the face of adversity.

In a dark, confined space he was powerless to escape, Joseph pled “how long” with an implied “why?” From His timeless and infinite vantage, the Lord answered “a small moment” and because “all these things shall give thee experience” (D&C 121:7, 122:7). These words “turned the raw Missouri experience into a theology of suffering” that made sense from God’s perspective. Liberty Jail, in effect, served Joseph as a microcosm of life in a telestial world, a dog-eat-dog sphere of power-seeking, aspiration, materialism, and unrighteous dominion. There, in that hell, Joseph was powerless. Or was he? 

B.H. Roberts called the jail “more temple than prison, so long as the Prophet was there. It was a place of meditation and prayer. A temple, first of all, is a place of prayer; and prayer is communion with God. It is the ‘infinite in man seeking the infinite in God.’ Where they find each other, there is holy sanctuary—a temple.  Joseph Smith sought God in this rude prison, and found him.”[2]

As a result, Sections 121-122 endowed Joseph with power. While the bounds of his enemies were set, Joseph would always have the priesthood (D&C 122:9). His oppressors, those who used their supposed power and influence to hurt, take, abuse, insult, misrepresent, and compel, would be cursed, lose their posterity, and be severed from the temple, and, thus, confidence in the presence of God. It was they who were powerless to “hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints” (D&C 121:33). The powerful on earth would, in a small moment, be impotent while Joseph and the faithful would reign with gentleness, meekness, and by love unfeigned forever and ever (D&C 121:41, 46).    

These divine explanations helped Joseph see as if from God’s eyes that things were not as they seemed. Section 122 made sense of suffering. Mankind was on earth to gain “experience.”  “The word ‘experience’ suggested that life was a passage. The enduring human personality was being tested. Experience instructed. Life was not just a place to shed one’s sins but a place to deepen comprehension by descending below them all.” In sum, sections 121-22 taught Joseph that “the Missouri tribulations were a training ground” for godhood.[3] Hell, it turned out, could serve as a temple, a place to be endowed with God’s heart and mind in anticipation of assuming His “everlasting dominion” (121:46). 

Joseph came to understand this because of his “experience” in Liberty.  He wrote from that stinking but sacred space, “It seems to me that my heart will always be more tender after this than ever it was before.” He recognized that trials “give us that knowledge to understand the minds of the Ancients” like Abraham, who typified the Savior’s unequaled unjust suffering.  “For my part,” Joseph wrote, “I think I never could have felt as I now do if I had not suffered the wrongs that I have suffered.”[4]

Renewed certainty resulted from these revelations. The day after he dictated them Joseph still did not know how long he would be in jail, but he wrote to Emma that since he knew “for a certainty of eternal things, if the heavens linger it is nothing to me.”[5] After he finally escaped from Missouri a few weeks later, Joseph seemed the most determined soul on earth. He knew what he had to do and nothing could stop him. His days were not only known but numbered, and with them he pursued a course to mentor the apostles and give them the priesthood keys he had received from ministering angels, build a temple and begin offering the ordinances of exaltation to the faithful.  

As a result of these revelations, Joseph emerged from his darkest unbroken, undaunted, and with his eyes fixed on eternity. So long as he saw the world through section 122 he could press forward, coping with any experience, come what may.

Section 123

Section 123 is in Joseph’s voice, not the Lord’s. It comes from a long letter composed in jail at Liberty, Missouri. It does not claim to be revelation, but it was nevertheless valuable counsel from the Prophet for the Saints to document the injustices and atrocities they endured in Missouri in order to assert their first amendment rights to petition the government to redress grievances. 

In section 123, Joseph repeatedly says that documenting what happened to the Saints in Missouri is “an imperative duty” they owed to God, angels, each other, those who were murdered, to the rising generation, “and to all the pure in heart” (7, 9, 11). In powerful, metaphor-rich language, Joseph and his brethren urge the Saints to attend to this important matter. Joseph was not certain that the government would respond to the petitions, but he knew the Lord required the Saint to do all in their power, including this “last effort” to obtain justice, before He would “send forth the power of his mighty arm” (6).  

In response to Joseph’s suggestion, 678 Latter-day Saints wrote or dictated sworn statements documenting the abuses they suffered and property they lost in Missouri.  In the fall of 1839, having escaped from Missouri, Joseph took the documents to the president of the United States. He literally knocked on the door of the White House and asked to see Martin Van Buren, whom Joseph had supported. Joseph presented the petitions and Van Buren, facing an election year, responded, “What can I do?  I can do nothing for you!  If I do anything, I shall come in contact with the whole state of Missouri.” Joseph turned to the Illinois congressional delegation for help in appealing to Congress. President Martin Van Buren pled impotence on the federalist doctrine of limited powers. He could not constitutionally intervene in a state matter, he said. The Senate referred the case to the Judiciary Committee, which, with pressure from Missouri, arrived at the same conclusion knowing that the Saints had been driven for their religion. There would be no justice, no redress of grievances or guarantees of the free exercise of religious conscience. 

The documentation of abuses “did have a long term effect on Mormonism’s public image. . . .  The accounts of the persecutions turned the expulsion from Missouri into an asset in the battle for popular support.” The redress petitions were turned over to the Library of Congress, where they remain to this day as a testimony of “diabolical rascality and nefarious and murderous impositions that have been practiced upon this people” (D&C 123:5).[1]

Section 121 notes

[1] “Journal, December 1842–June 1844; Book 1, 21 December 1842–10 March 1843,” p. 15, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 5, 2020,

[2] “Letter to Emma Smith, 12 November 1838,” p. [1], 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] Joseph Smith, et al., History of the Church, 7 volumes, edited by B.H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Deseret, 1980), 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] Bushman, Joseph Smith, 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.

Section 122 notes

[1] “Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 5, 2020,

[2] B. H. Roberts, A Comprehensive History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Press, 1930), 1:526.

[3] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: Knopf, 2005), 380.

[4] “Letter to Presendia Huntington Buell, 15 March 1839,” p. [1], The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed December 5, 2020,

[5] Joseph Smith to Emma Smith, March 21, 1839, Liberty, Missouri, in Dean C. Jessee, editor, Personal Writings of Joseph Smith, 408–409.

Section 123 notes

[1] Clark V. Johnson, Mormon Redress Petitions: Documents of the 1833-1838 Missouri Conflict (Provo: Religious Studies Center, BYU, 1992).

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