Who spent Christmas in a Temple Prison and what was it like?
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On December 1, 1838, the Prophet Joseph, his brother Hyrum, and several other brethren were imprisoned in Liberty Jail in Missouri on trumped-up charges of murder and overt acts of treason, none of which was ever proven against them. The Prophet and his companions found themselves in very difficult circumstances. Liberty Jail was a basement dungeon of approximately 14 feet by 14 feet with only a trapdoor entrance from the main floor. The ceiling was so low that the men couldn’t stand fully upright and were forced to sit or lie on the dirty, straw-covered floor, their legs shackled.
There was no stove for heating, and when they used an open fire, inadequate venting caused the room to fill with smoke, which made breathing difficult. They had few blankets – certainly not enough to keep them warm in the freezing winter conditions – and the food was so bad they could hardly eat it. It was a difficult time. Joseph endured 5 months under these trying circumstances, including Christmas 1838.
The prisoners had suffered a week in the jail when Emma brought her 6-year-old son, Joseph, to visit. Having no means by which to travel, Emma had borrowed a two-seat carriage and a “beautiful span of cream horses” to cover the 40 miles from Far West to Liberty. With her were Phoebe Rigdon and Phoebe’s young son, John. John remembered, “We started rather late in the morn and did not get to the jail til after dark and they would not let us go in till the next morn. After taking breakfast at the hotel we were taken to the jail and there remained for three days.”
Emma was able to make a return visit on December 20, just before Christmas. In the midst of such dire circumstances, the prisoners were cheered by the presence of their loved ones. Joseph asked Emma if she could possibly bring some blankets for him. But the request reduced her to tears because the mob had recently attacked her home and destroyed all but two of her blankets. If she brought those to Joseph, then their children would go without. Emma’s visits were the closest the family got to a Christmas celebration that year.
Just a week before Christmas, Joseph wrote words of encouragement to the Saints from the dungeon. “Therefore God hath made broad our shoulders for the burden. We glory in our tribulation, because we know that God is with us, that He is our friend, and that He will save our souls.” Because of Joseph’s eventual triumph over these unjust and difficult events and the revelation and comfort the Lord gave to him while he was imprisoned, Liberty Jail has come to be known as a temple prison.
Porter, “Remembering Christmas Past”, p. 53
Willes, “Christmas with the Prophets”, p. 5-7