Not long ago some friends and I were discussing oxymorons - those odd little expressions like "jumbo shrimp" and "freezer burn" that have a contradiction built right into them.
We'd made a list of 10 or so when one guy reached into the LDS history file in his head and brought out the term "Liberty Jail."Liberty Jail. "Freedom Prison."
I've thought about the words "Liberty Jail" several times since then. Mormons know the place as the Missouri jail where Joseph Smith spent a long, agonizing winter.
And I've wondered if the irony of being locked away in a place called "freedom" occurred to him.
I think it did. I picture Joseph Smith - cuffed and chained - being led to the door of the jail and musing, "A jail named Liberty. Think of that."
Liberty Jail may have even called up other paradoxes and contradictions for him: "Lose your life and you'll find it," or "The first shall be last, the last first."
He may have even wondered at the strange notion that humanity could be "healed" by another's "wounds."
Fawn Brodie got into some hot water with her biography of Joseph Smith, "No Man Knows My History." One complaint was she continually put thoughts, feelings and motivations into his head that she couldn't have known were there.
Perhaps she should have used an asterisk and this footnote: "*The following thoughts are mine, I'm just pretending they belong to Joseph Smith."
Before going any further, let me do that here: *The following thoughts are mine, I'm just pretending that Joseph Smith might have thought them.
In my version of the Liberty Jail episode, I picture Joseph Smith looking at the four walls of his cell and thinking "Here I am, a prisoner in Liberty. And it's true. Here, I am free from the obligations and pressure of day-to-day leadership. Here, I can't hear the clamor of people suffering. Here, I can read, pray, dream. Here, for a while, I'm free."
He may even have had thoughts similar to those philosopher Paul Tillich would have 100 years later.
I place Paul Tillich's thoughts in Joseph Smith's head:
"Our daily lives in office and home, at parties and conferences, are in themselves continuous examples of a life which has lost the dimension of depth. Our lives run ahead, every moment filled with something which must be done or seen or said or planned. But no one can experience depth without stopping and becoming aware of himself . . . as long as the preliminary, transitory concerns are not silenced - no matter how interesting and valuable and important they may be - the voice of the ultimate concern cannot be heard."
Judging by the amount of LDS scripture that Joseph Smith generated while a prisoner in Liberty, it would seem he was able to silence all those "transitory concerns" and could hear "the voice of ultimate concern."
Only with his body captive could he truly liberate his mind.
After his stay there, it's quite likely the oxymoron - the contradiction - in the words "Liberty Jail" didn't seem like a contradiction at all.
They made perfect sense.