Joseph Smith’s Letter from Liberty Jail: A Study in Canonization

In honor of this occasion and as a form of deeply sincere flattery, let me invite you to consider a letter from prison: specifically, a letter written by Joseph Smith while incarcerated in Missouri during the winter of 1838-39. Like virtually all letters from prison, this one reveals the human soul in the grasp of dehumanized authority, or that abstraction we call “the state” and its disciplinary technologies. The technology applied to Smith and his five cohorts was very rudimentary: a below-ground, dungeon-like jail, with a ceiling too low to allow its prisoners to stand upright, and open slits too high in the wall to allow sight but always open to the cold. Smith spent four winter months in the inaptly named Liberty Jail, sleeping on stone, choking on a draftless fire in the dark, and fed tainted and sometimes poisoned food. Possibly most burdensome were the tales his jailers told of their participation in the mayhem that was driving the Latter-day Saints from Missouri. For Smith, the jail was “hell surrounded with demons” where he was “compeled to hear nothing but blasphemous oaths and witness a scen of blasphemy and drunkeness and hypocracy and debaucheries of evry description.”

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Kathleen Flake, in Journal of Religion, 92, 4 (Oct. 2012): 515-526.