Not being a Mormon or Latter Day Saint of any manner made me weary of visiting any of the Mormon landmarks in this area. While I think it’s a VERY important part of the history of Western Missouri, I didn’t want to have anything to do with missionary efforts or attempts at recruitment. When I was in Liberty Missouri earlier this week, I decided to suck it up and see what happened. Luckily, this was a good idea as Liberty Jail, located near downtown Liberty, Missouri was a quick and easy stop on my History Tour and was absolutely free!
Historic Liberty Jail; Liberty, MO
I mostly wanted to visit these sites to see the other side of the narrative on the Mormon persecution. Having read a book on the so-called “Mormon Wars”, I can see that this area has a dark background dealing with faiths different than the Southern Protestant backbone of this part of the country. While the historical documents paint the historical Mormons as evil would-be conquerors, they paint themselves as peaceful victims. I’m sure the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but I wanted to experience one of their Holy Sites firsthand.
According to the website for the landmark:
“Liberty Jail, located in Liberty, Missouri, is a reconstruction of a jail where the Prophet Joseph Smith received divine revelations of comfort in March 1839. The reconstructed jail is housed within a Latter-day Saint visitors’ center that interprets these revelations about the persecutions and sufferings of the Saints and the peace promised to those who endure in faith.
The reconstructed Liberty Jail is presented as a cutaway, giving visitors a view inside. A brief audio presentation tells the story of the jail. On December 1, 1838, the Prophet Joseph Smith and five other men were falsely accused of treason and imprisoned in the original Liberty Jail. One of those men, Sidney Rigdon, was released from the jail in early February 1839. The others—Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Lyman Wight, Caleb Baldwin, and Alexander McRae—remained there until early April 1839. For Joseph Smith and his imprisoned companions, Liberty Jail was a place of intense suffering and glorious revelation.
In Liberty Jail, Joseph Smith and his companions endured many trials, not the least of which was the knowledge that their family members and friends were enduring intense persecution throughout western Missouri. Toward the end of their confinement, Joseph prayed to God for understanding and deliverance. He received a revelation that he sent in a letter to the Saints. Portions of that letter are now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 121, 122, and 123. President Joseph Fielding Smith dedicated the recreated jail and the surrounding visitors’ center on September 15, 1963.”
For this trip, and possibly another one, I read a book on the Mormon Wars called The Mormon Wars: The History of the Mormons’ Conflicts across the Frontier in the 19th Century (2017). When looking for a book like this you usually have two types of books, anti-LDS books that want to ridicule everything they stand for, a sort of book that I always see at Christian bookstores for whatever reason (ignoring those glass houses yet again), and books written by The Saints themselves. Neither of these are books I wanted because they are basically both entirely one-sided for opposite reasons. I saw that this book had polarizing scores on Amazon, but seemed to present the facts as-is, which is why I chose it. As stated above, I think the truth is somewhere in the middle due to the book’s use of primary sources (which were usually anti-Mormon at the time).
This was really a no-brainer – after going to the Clay County Museum, and the Jesse James Bank Museum, it was literally a two block walk to Liberty Jail, so I couldn’t pass it up. One of my friends joked about the fact that I’ve been seeing tons of jails this summer, which is pretty funny. It seems like this area loves historic jails! Once arriving in the building, we were greeted by a tour guide who led us into the briefing room of the museum. This is where we were given a short presentation on the Mormon wars and why The Prophet Joseph Smith ended up in jail in the first place. Mormons were embroiled in constant tit-for-tat skirmishes with whatever local militia they happened to come across. Overblown rumors abound and both sides did not really help the situation by basically declaring war on each other. After a number of massacres against The Saints, Joseph Smith turned himself in and was imprisoned throughout the cold winter of 1838 for treason. This site is seen in a similar manner to sites of Jesus’s greatest trials to the Mormons, as their prophet endured rough conditions in the facility for an upcoming trial that never really happened. There is scholarly debate as to whether the imprisonment was just.
The prison has been faithfully re-created in a large atrium in the facility; designed in a cutaway manner, the building can be observed from the outside with an impression of the conditions, the wall-thickness, ventilation, and small size. This is accompanied by the verbal tour given by the guide interspliced with audio queues he controlled with a remote. The entire presentation is slick, and gives you an idea why this site is so important, and why people drive hundreds, if not, thousands of miles to see it. It’s a bit preachy for obvious reasons, but they take care to not go overboard. I never once felt that I was being judged or anything, even though I could tell the guide was fairly certain I was not a member. There was no effort to recruit, nor did they even ask if I was a Mormon. It was presented in a straight historical context I appreciated.
This won’t be for everyone, as I know many will avoid religious sites for the preachiness that usually comes hand-in-hand with it. Not being a Christian, and seeing Christian religious intolerance first-hand, means I have some sympathy for the Mormons, despite having issues with their message. Rather than go after different faiths for their differences, I try to understand where they are coming from if I can. Being that this chapter of local history is almost entirely ignored (or even suppressed) for obvious reasons (Jackson & Clay County folks aren’t really the good guys) it’s good to learn about so that similar things won’t happen in the future. I recommend this if you have never seen it, especially of you are in town. The entire presentation only takes around thirty minutes so its pretty quick as well.
This is part of my 2021 series History Boy Summer, which you can read more of following this LINK.