Freedom Letters from Jail – Mormon Liberation Theology
Liberty Jail is a former jail in Liberty, Missouri, USA where Joseph Smith, Jr. and other associates were imprisoned from December 1, 1838 to April 6, 1839 during the Mormon War. It is sometimes described as the “Prison-Temple” because of revelations Joseph had at the jail. He was to record them in Sections 121, 122, and 123 of the Doctrine and Covenants. The jail was torn down although the walls and “dungeon” were still visible when a house was built over it. In 1939 the church bought the property and in 1963 Joseph Fielding Smith presided over the establishment of a partial reconstruction of the jail wholly within a museum.
Also in 1963, Martin Luther King wrote a ”Letter from a Birmingham Jail” as a response to a statement made by eight white Alabama clergymen, titled “A Call For Unity“. The clergymen agreed that social injustices existed but argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not in the streets. King responded that without nonviolent forceful direct actions such as his, true civil rights could never be achieved. He asserted that not only was civil disobedience justified in the face of unjust laws, but that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”
The letter was first published as “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in the June 12, 1963, edition of The Christian Century, almost 125 years after Joseph Smith received the revelation now recorded as Doctrine and Covenants 121 – 123 while in Liberty Jail, Missouri. Below is a rough comparison of the two letters demonstrating strong parallels between the early LDS movement and the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and the 1960s:
1 O GOD, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?
MLK: So I am here [...] because we were invited here. I am here because I have basic organizational ties here. Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.
2 How long shall thy hand be stayed, and thine eye, yea thy pure eye, behold from the eternal heavens the wrongs of thy people and of thy servants, and thine ear be penetrated with their cries?
MLK: I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
3 Yea, O Lord, how long shall they suffer these wrongs and unlawful oppressions, before thine heart shall be softened toward them, and thy bowels be moved with compassion toward them?
MLK: I would not hesitate to say that it is unfortunate that so-called demonstrations are taking place in Birmingham at this time, but I would say in more emphatic terms that it is even more unfortunate that the white power structure of this city left the Negro community with no other alternative.
4 O Lord God Almighty, maker of heaven, earth, and seas, and of all things that in them are, and who controllest and subjectest the devil, and the dark and benighted dominion of Sheol…
MLK: Birmingham is probably the most thoroughly segragated city in the United States. Its ugly record of police brutality is known in every section of this country. Its unjust treatment of Negroes in the courts is a notorious reality. There have been more unsolved bombings of Negro homes and churches in Birmingham than any city in this nation. These are the hard, brutal and unbelievable facts.
—stretch forth thy hand; let thine eye pierce; let thy pavilion be taken up; let thy hiding place no longer be covered; let thine ear be inclined; let thine heart be softened, and thy bowels moved with compassion toward us.
MLK: So we had no alternative except that of preparing for direct action, whereby we would present our very bodies as a means of laying our case before the conscience of the local and national community. We were not unmindful of the difficulties involved. So we decided to go through a process of self-purification [...] and repeatedly asked ourselves the questions, “Are you able to accept blows without retaliating?” “Are you able to endure the ordeals of jail?”
5 Let thine anger be kindled against our enemies; and, in the fury of thine heart, with thy sword avenge us of our wrongs.
MLK: I must confess that I am not afraid of the word tension. I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth.
6 Remember thy suffering saints, O our God; and thy servants will rejoice in thy name forever.
MLK: History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture, but groups are more immoral than invidividuals.
7 My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment;
MLK: Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct action movement that was “well-timed”, according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “Wait!” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity.
8 And then, if thou endure it well, God shall exalt thee on high; thou shalt triumph over all thy foes.
MLK: We have waited for more than 340 years for our constitutional and God-given rights.
9 Thy friends do stand by thee, and they shall hail thee again with warm hearts and friendly hands.
MLK: The nations of Asia and Africa are moving with jetlike speed toward the goal of political independence, and we still creep at horse and buggy space toward the gaining of a cup of coffee at a lunch counter.
10 – 11 Thou art not yet as Job; thy friends do not contend against thee, neither charge thee with transgression, as they did Job. And they who do charge thee with transgression, their hope shall be blasted, and their prospects shall melt away as the hoar frost melteth before the burning rays of the rising sun;
MLK: You express a deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. One may well ask, “How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?” The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: there are just and there are unjust laws. An unjust law is no law at all.
17 – 18 But those who cry transgression do it because they are the servants of sin, and are the children of disobedience themselves. And those who swear falsely against my servants, that they might bring them into bondage and death—
MLK: All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality. It gives the segregator a false sense of superiority, and the segregated a false sense of inferiority.
19 Woe unto them; because they have offended my little ones they shall be severed from the ordinances of mine house.
MLK: Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn’t segregation an existential expression of man’s tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness? So I can urge men to disobey segregation ordinances because they are morally wrong.
33 How long can rolling waters remain impure? What power shall stay the heavens? As well might man stretch forth his puny arm to stop the Missouri river in its decreed course, or to turn it up stream, as to hinder the Almighty from pouring down knowledge from heaven upon the heads of the Latter-day Saints.
MLK: I had hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth of time. I received a letter this morning from a white brother in Texas which said: “All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great of a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth.” All that is said here grows out of a tragic misconception of time. It is the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually time is neutral. It can be used either destructively or constructively.
34 Behold, there are many called, but few are chosen. And why are they not chosen?
MLK: I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people.
35 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—
MLK: We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.
36 That the rights of the priesthood are inseparably connected with the powers of heaven, and that the powers of heaven cannot be controlled nor handled only upon the principles of righteousness.
MLK: There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period when the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators”. But they went on with the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven” and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment.
37 That they may be conferred upon us, it is true; but when we undertake to cover our sins, or to gratify our pride, our vain ambition, or to exercise control or dominion or compulsion upon the souls of the children of men, in any degree of unrighteousness, behold, the heavens withdraw themselves; the Spirit of the Lord is grieved; and when it is withdrawn, Amen to the priesthood or the authority of that man.
MLK: But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I am meeting young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.
38 Behold, ere he is aware, he is left unto himself, to kick against the pricks, to persecute the saints, and to fight against God.
MLK: So the question is not whether we will be extremist but what kind of extremist will we be. Will we be extremists for hate or will we be extremists for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice – or will we be extremists for the cause of justice?
39 We have learned by sad experience that it is the nature and disposition of almost all men, as soon as they get a little authority, as they suppose, they will immediately begin to exercise unrighteous dominion.
MLK 1: We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
40 Hence many are called, but few are chosen.
MLK: I guess I should have realized that few members of a race that has oppressed another race can understand or appreciate the deep groans and passionate yearnings of those that have been oppressed and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action. I am thankful, however, that some of our white brothers have grasped the meaning of this social revolution and committed themselves to it. They are still too small in quantity, but they are big in quality.
41 No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, (but) only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned;
MLK: There is the more excellent way of love and nonviolent protest. I’m grateful to God that, through the Negro church, the dimension of nonviolence entered our struggle. If this philosophy had not emerged, I am convinced that by now many streets of the South would be flowing with floods of blood.
42 By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile-
MLK: The Negro has many pent-up resentments and latent frustrations. He has to get them out. So let him march sometime; let him have his prayer pilgrimages to the city hall; understand why he must have sit-ins and freedom rides. If his repressed emotions do not come out in these nonviolent ways, they will come out in ominous expressions of violence. This is not a threat; it is a fact of history. So I have not said to my people “get rid of your discontent”. But I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled through the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action.
43 Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
MLK: I must honestly reiterate that I have been disappointed with the church. I say it as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen. In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churches stand on the sideline and merely mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. I have heard so many ministers say, “Those are social issues with which the Gospel has no real concern.” Over and over again I have found myself asking: “What kind of people worship here? Who is their God? Where were their voices of support when tired, bruised and weary Negro men and women decided to rise from the dark dungeons of complacency to the bright hills of creative protest?”
44 That he may know that thy faithfulness is stronger than the cords of death.
MLK: In deep disappointment, I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church; I love her sacred walls. How could I do otherwise? Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and fear of being nonconformists.
45 Let thy bowels also be full of charity towards all men, and to the household of faith, and let virtue garnish thy thoughts unceasingly; then shall thy confidence wax strong in the presence of God; and the doctrine of the priesthood shall distil upon thy soul as the dews from heaven.
MLK: Maybe I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia and the hope of the world. But again I am thankful to God that some noble souls from the ranks of organized religion have broken loose from the paralyzing chains of conformity and joined us as active partners in the struggle for freedom. They have gone through the highways of the South on tortuous rides. Yes, they have gone to jail with us. Some have been kicked out of their churches, and lost support of their bishops and fellow ministers.
46 The Holy Ghost shall be thy constant companion, and thy scepter an unchanging scepter of righteousness(justice) and truth (nonviolence); and thy dominion shall be an everlasting dominion, and without compulsory means it shall flow unto thee forever and ever.
MLK: But they have gone with the faith that right defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. These men have been the leaven in the lump of the race. Their witness has been the spiritual salt that has preserved the true meaning of the Gospel in these troubled times. They have carved a tunnel of hope through the dark mountain of disappointment.