This reminds me of an incident in the life of Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, known as the Mormons.
In October, 1838, Missouri Governor Lilburn W. Boggs issued Executive Order 44, now known as the Extermination Order, to General John B. Clark. This order, in part, read as follows:
“Sir:—Since the order of the morning to you, directing you to cause four hundred mounted men to be raised within your division, I have received by Amos Rees, Esq. and Wiley E. Williams Esq., one of my aids, information of the most appalling character, which changes the whole face of things, and places the Mormons in the attitude of an open and avowed defiance of the laws, and of having made open war upon the people of this state.”
“Your orders are, therefore, to hasten your operations and endeavor to reach Richmond, in Ray County, with all possible speed. The Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the state, if necessary, for the public good. Their outrages are beyond all description.”
If you can increase your force, you are authorized to do so to any extent you may think necessary. … You will proceed immediately to Richmond, and there operate against the Mormons.” (Executive Order 44, emphasis added.)
In the process of events, Joseph Smith was captured by the militia, and held in Richmond Jail to await trial. Parley P. Pratt, an apostle in the Church, was with Joseph Smith during his imprisonment. In his autobiography, he told of Joseph Smith standing up to abusing guards, exhibiting the power of one.
Here are Parley P. Pratt’s words:
“In one of those tedious nights we had lain as if in sleep till the hour of midnight had passed, and our ears and hearts had been pained, while we had listened for hours to the obscene jests, the horrid oaths, the dreadful blasphemies and filthy language of our guards, Colonel Price at their head, as they recounted to each other their deeds of rapine, murder, robbery, etc., which they had committed among the ‘Mormons’ while at Far West and vicinity. They even boasted of defiling by force wives, daughters and virgins, and of shooting or dashing out the brains of men, women and children.”
“I had listened till I became so disgusted, shocked, horrified, and so filled with the spirit of indignant justice that I could scarcely refrain from rising upon my feet and rebuking the guards; but had said nothing to Joseph, or any one else, although I lay next to him and knew he was awake.”
Pratt had a gift for prose. You can feel the damp walls and the palpable darkness in his words. The guard’s trash-talk stings you now just as it stung Smith and Pratt 170 years ago.
So the guards had Joseph Smith in custody, but that was not enough. They had to brag about their atrocities and hate crimes against the Latter-day Saints. However, the prisoners as prisoners were powerless to do anything about the verbal abuse.
But Joseph Smith was not really a prisoner. Parley P. Pratt explains what happened next:
“On a sudden he [Joseph Smith] arose to his feet, and spoke in a voice of thunder, as the roaring lion, uttering, as near as I can recollect, the following words:
“‘SILENCE, ye fiends of the infernal pit. In the name of Jesus Christ I rebuke you, and command you to be still; I will not live another minute and bear such language. Cease such talk, or you or I die THIS INSTANT!’”
There is a saying that goes “if you have nothing to lose, then go for broke.” But I’m not sure if gambling was on Joseph Smith’s mind. He always believed that the Lord would protect him: “God will always protect me until my mission is fulfilled” (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 365). This belief gave him the faith to speak truth to power.
Whatever his thought-process was, he stood his ground. Again, picture this in your mind. Joseph Smith was worn out from his time in jail. He had been wearing the same clothes for several weeks. I imagine that he was unshaved and haggard form the ordeal, and a tad bit stir-crazy.
On top of that he was the Lord’s prophet. Every person who was abused, looted, raped, or murdered was his responsibility. They depended upon him for guidance, and here he was pinned-down in a stinking cell. He was powerless.
And then he had to endure the taunting guards reliving their sadism.
Parley P. Pratt continues:
“He ceased to speak. He stood erect in terrible majesty. Chained, and without a weapon; calm, unruffled and dignified as an angel, he looked upon the quailing guards, whose weapons were lowered or dropped to the ground; whose knees smote together, and who, shrinking into a corner, or crouching at his feet, begged his pardon, and remained quiet till a change of guards.”
That is the power of one. Be it standing up to tanks in Tiananmen Square, or rebuking obscene jailors, we must stand tall for what is right, regardless of the consequences.
Of course standing up for the right can be frightening. Some people believe that public speaking is scarier than death. If that is true, standing up for the right must require an extraordinary amount of courage. If anything, Joseph Smith’s example should encourage, even empower us to speak up.
And notice the guard’s reaction: they fell back into a corner, like the cowards they were. Keep that in mind the next time you must take a stand for the right and the good. Your opponent (and all opponents are potential allies) may just be bluffing. Shakespeare spoke of “sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Macbeth V.5.32). Have the courage to call someone’s bluff, get past the bluster, and speak the truth—even when you are afraid.
This encounter also suggests this question: Who were the real prisoners? Joseph Smith in irons or the vulgar guards? Jesus Christ said, “Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin” (John 8:34). The vainglorious guards were guilty of atrocities and hate crimes, and Governor Boggs’s Extermination Order was an affront to the spirit and intent of America, and a violation of Constitutional liberties. Yet, according to Christ, Joseph Smith was free as a bird, and the perpetrators were the ones in stocks. Worse than physical bondage is spiritual bondage.
Whatever your personal faith is, Joseph Smith was no less a hero than the apostle Paul, Martin Luther King, Boethius, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Henry David Thoreau, or Gandhi. They were all prisoners of hope, and had the courage to stand firm in the face of abusing power.
Parley P. Pratt summed his reaction to Joseph Smith’s rebuke this way:
“I have seen the ministers of justice, clothed in magisterial robes, and criminals arraigned before them, while life was suspended on a breath, in the courts of England; I have witnessed a Congress in solemn session to give laws to nations; I have tried to conceive of kings, of royal courts, of thrones and crowns; and of emperors assembled to decide the fate of kingdoms; but dignity and majesty have I seen but once, as it stood in chains, at midnight, in a dungeon in an obscure village of Missouri.” (Parley Pratt Autobiography, 179-180.)
Joseph Smith has inspired me over the years. This event, in particular, was one of his finest moments. He drew a hard line, took a stand, and spoke up for the right. He exhibited in a marvelous way the power of one.
Wrong is wrong and right is right. When we are put in dilemmas, we need to stand up for the right, just like Joseph Smith. Even if we stand alone.