Christmas with the Prophet Joseph


A special, virtually tangible spirit envelops the Christian world at Christmas with an intensity unknown the rest of the year. To Latter-day Saints the Christmas story, from Bethlehem to Calvary, takes precedence over the tinsel and the toys, for the Savior is the center of Christmas.

Within the Church there is also a second story associated with Christmas—from Sharon, Vermont, to Carthage, Illinois—which draws our attention during this season.

The Prophet Joseph Smith spent his first Christmas in 1805 in the township of Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, on an eminence known today as Dairy Hill. Solomon Mack, father of Lucy, had invited Joseph and Lucy Mack Smith and their children, Alvin, Hyrum, and Sophronia, to occupy a cabin situated on land purchased by Solomon the previous year. The Prophet Joseph was born here just two days before Christmas. What a joy this beautiful infant son must have been to the Smiths, and to the Mack grandparents, who lived nearby, as they commemorated that holy day. Perhaps the event reminded them of another sacred birth under humble circumstances, in the meridian of time.

We can only surmise what was happening during certain of the thirty-eight Christmases experienced by the Prophet. Joseph’s writings and those of his contemporaries do not always reveal his activities on that particular day. However, enough has been recorded to enable us to recreate parts of those special occasions. When precise accounts are combined with general historical happenings, we are able to understand what it might have been like to keep Christmas with the Prophet.

We have no account of Joseph’s Christmases in New England. They can only be couched in a series of family moves extending from Sharon to Norwich, Vermont, interspersed with the joyous arrival of five additional children in the family, the ills of typhus fever, and successive crop failures vitally affecting the family fortunes. Accounts of Christmas seasons during the early New York years are similarly incomplete. The establishment of a new home, the First Vision, and visits by Moroni would have occupied much of Joseph’s thinking in this period. Alvin’s untimely death on 19 November 1823 could only have cast a pall of sadness over the entire family that December. 1

Christmas 1826 was certainly filled with Joseph’s contemplations of marriage with Miss Emma Hale—which took place on 18 January 1827. In December 1827, Joseph and Emma moved from Manchester, New York, to Harmony, Pennsylvania, where they took up an initial residence with Isaac Hale, Emma’s father. There the Prophet was finally able to begin a serious examination of the characters on the newly acquired golden plates.

Joseph spent Christmas in his own home for the first time in December of 1828, at Harmony on the Susquehanna River. He was undoubtedly still wrestling with the loss of his first child and the disappearance of the one hundred and sixteen pages of the Book of Mormon manuscript. 2 Both events had occurred earlier that year.

Joseph spent Christmas 1829 at his home in Harmony, no doubt thrilled with the knowledge that the pages of the Book of Mormon were then in the hands of a Palmyra printer and anticipating the volume that would shortly issue from the press.

In December 1830, Joseph was residing with the Peter Whitmer, Sr. family in the township of Fayette, Seneca County, New York.

That December was singularly marked by the receipt of three revelations contained in the present Doctrine and Covenants. One of these communications directed the Prophet and the Church to move to Ohio. (D&C 37:1–3) When the third conference of the Church in New York convened at Fayette on 2 January 1831, the Lord instructed those assembled, through his servant, that all of the New York Saints were to gather with their leader in the new location. (D&C 38:31–32) During April and May 1831, the main body of the Church removed to Kirtland and vicinity.

During December 1831 the Prophet and Sidney Rigdon were sent on a mission to proclaim the gospel “unto the world in the regions round about.” From December 4 to the following January 10, they preached to the people of Sharlesville, Ravenna, and other Ohio communities. (D&C 71; see also History of the Church, 1:238–41)

On 25 December 1832, Joseph explained, “Appearances of troubles among the nations became more visible this season than they had previously been since the Church began her journey out of the wilderness. … On Christmas day [1832] I received the following revelation and prophecy on war.” (History of the Church, 1:301–2) Then follows one of the most distinctive and far-reaching prophecies ever uttered by Joseph—Section 87 of the Doctrine and Covenants [D&C 87]. Joseph chronicled the outbreak of the Civil War with finality and identified that conflict as a forerunner of a series of devastating hostilities which would eventually envelop the whole earth.

On 16 December 1833, Joseph was grieved over the recent expulsion of the Saints from the Center Place, Jackson County, Missouri. In answer to his supplications, he was informed:

“I, the Lord, have suffered the affliction to come upon them, wherewith they have been afflicted, in consequence of their transgressions;

“Yet I will own them, and they shall be mine in that day when I shall come to make up my jewels.

“Therefore, they must needs be chastened and tried, even as Abraham, who was commanded to offer up his only son.” (D&C 101:2–4)

During the winter of 1834–35, Joseph organized the School of the Elders (not to be confused with the School of the Prophets already organized), and spent most of his time teaching in that school. In December he remarked, “Our school for the elders was now well attended, and with the lectures on theology, which were regularly delivered, absorbed for the time being everything else of a temporal nature.” (History of the Church, 2:175–76) 3

December 1835 proved to be a marvelous season for the Prophet. The History of the Church notes that the true spirit of Christmas was manifest on every hand throughout the entire month. The Prophet recorded:

December 1. “At home. … Fine sleighing, and the snow yet falling.”

December 5. Even the Prophet was plagued by postal problems. He stated in the Messenger and Advocate, “Dear Brother—I wish to inform my friends and all others abroad, that whenever they wish to address me through the post office they will be kind enough to pay the postage on the same.”

December 9 and 10. A number of friends called with heartfelt gifts. Joseph joyously wrote:

“Elder Packard came in this morning, and made me a present of twelve dollars, which he held in a note against me. May God bless him for his liberality. Also James Aldrich sent me my note by the hand of Jesse Hitchcock, on which there was twelve dollars due. And may God bless him for his kindness to me. Also the brethren whose names are written below opened their hearts in great liberality, and paid me. …

“My heart swells with gratitude inexpressible when I realize the great condescension of my heavenly Father, in opening the hearts of the these my beloved brethren to administer so liberally to my wants. And I ask God, in the name of Jesus Christ, to multiply blessings without number upon their heads, and bless me with much wisdom and understanding, and dispose of me to the best advantage for my brethren, and the advancement of His cause and kingdom. And whether my days are many or few, whether in life or in death, I say in my heart, O Lord, let me enjoy the society of such brethren.”

December 18. After spending the day with his brother Hyrum, the Prophet expressed his great affection for him. Joseph wrote:

“And I could pray in my heart that all my brethren were like unto my beloved brother Hyrum, who possesses the mildness of a lamb, and the integrity of a Job, and in short, the meekness and humility of Christ; and I love him with that love that is stronger than death, for I never had occasion to rebuke him, nor he me, which he declared when he left me to-day.”

This same day was made doubly pleasant with the receipt of a letter of apology from another brother, William Smith. William had attempted to resolve a debate with Joseph by physical force. Conscious of his own ill temper and action, William wrote:

“Brother Joseph—Though I do not know but I have forfeited all right and title to the word brother, in consequence of what I have done (for I consider, myself, that I am unworthy to be called one), after coming to myself, and considering what I have done, I feel as though it was a duty to make a humble confession to you, for what I have done, or what took place the other evening.”

The Prophet gladly replied:

“I freely forgive you, and you know my unshaken and unchangeable disposition; I know in whom I trust. … I take the liberty to admonish you, because of my birthright; and I grant you the privilege, because it is my duty, to be humble, and receive rebuke and instruction from a brother, or a friend.”

December 25. Joseph enjoyed a simple Christmas at home. He recorded this sentiment: “Enjoyed myself at home with my family, all day, it being Christmas, the only time I have had this privilege so satisfactorily for a long period.” (History of the Church, 2:323–45)

In December 1836, the Prophet rejoiced with the Missouri Saints over the incorporation of the newly created Caldwell County—a place of refuge for the Church membership in that state.

The Christmas season of 1837, however, was not pleasant for Joseph. The national financial panic of that year had helped cause the crash of the Saints’ own banking institution, the Kirtland Safety Society. A series of lawsuits, implicating the Prophet, arose from the demise of that institution. Many members, some in high places, turned against the Church. Returning from a trip to Missouri on 10 December 1837, Joseph found that some of the malcontents had leagued to deprive him of his presidency and, if need be, his life. On 12 January 1838, Joseph and Sidney Rigdon left Kirtland for refuge among the Saints in Missouri.

By December 1838 the Church in Missouri had suffered a series of severe setbacks. Charged with a multiplicity of crimes, Joseph and others were imprisoned by the state. Confined to a cell in Liberty Jail, Missouri, on 16 December 1838, the Prophet wrote words of comfort to the beleaguered Saints:

“Dear brethren, do not think that our hearts faint, as though some strange thing had happened unto us, for we have seen and been assured of all these things beforehand, and have an assurance of a better hope than that of our persecutors. 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. We do not care for them that can kill the body; they cannot harm our souls. We ask no favors at the hands of mobs, nor of the world, nor of the devil, nor of his emissaries the dissenters, and those who love and make, and swear falsehoods, to take away our lives. We have never dissembled, nor will we for the sake of our lives.” 4

Freed by providence from his captors in Missouri, Joseph was in Washington, D.C. and New Jersey during December 1839, seeking redress for the losses of the Saints at the hands of their Missouri persecutors, and preaching the gospel.

On 16 December 1840, Joseph welcomed passage of the act chartering the City of Nauvoo.

During December 1841, the building of the Nauvoo Temple dominated his exertions and prayers.

December 1842 witnessed the Prophet’s concern for his ailing wife, Emma, soon to be delivered of a child. The infant arrived the day after Christmas and Joseph made this simple entry: “She was delivered of a son, which did not survive its birth.” (History of the Church, 5:209)

Perhaps of all the Prophet’s Christmases, none was more pleasant than his last—25 December 1843. It had all the trimmings of a traditional Christmas. The day was complete with caroling, visits with friends and family, a delicious dinner, and a present from a cherished friend—the finest gift he could have received under the circumstances.

The day began very early for those residing in the newly completed Mansion House. They were awakened from their slumber by the strains of beautiful music. The Prophet recorded:

“This morning, about one o’clock, I was aroused by an English sister, Lettice Rushton, widow of Richard Rushton, Senior, (who, ten years ago, lost her sight) accompanied by three of her sons, with their wives, and her two daughters, with their husbands, and several of her neighbors, singing, ‘Mortals, awake! with angels join,’ &c., which caused a thrill of pleasure to run through my soul. All of my family and boarders arose to hear the serenade, and I felt to thank my Heavenly Father for their visit, and blessed them in the name of the Lord.” (History of the Church, 6:134)

A large gathering of family and friends “supped” with the Prophet and spent the evening enjoying good music and dancing “in a most cheerful and friendly manner.” And then an incident occurred which at first appeared to be a blot on an otherwise perfect day. An uninvited guest interrupted the party. Joseph described the happening:

“During the festivities, a man with his hair long and falling over his shoulders, and apparently drunk, came in and acted like a Missourian. I requested the captain of the police to put him out of doors. A scuffle ensued, and I had an opportunity to look him full in the face, when to my great surprise and joy untold, I discovered it was my long-tried, warm, but cruelly persecuted friend, Orrin Porter Rockwell, just arrived from nearly a year’s imprisonment without conviction, in Missouri.” (History of the Church, 6:134–35)

Thus an unusually fine, yet unexpected, gift closed the activities of a beautiful Christmas day. The Prophet must have felt all the warmth engendered by a lasting friendship which had spanned the years from the restoration in New York. Joseph wrote the following day, “I rejoiced that Rockwell had returned from the clutches of Missouri, and that God had delivered him out of their hands.” (History of the Church, 6:143)

Joseph was not privileged to see another Christmas season. Enemies from within and without the Church deemed otherwise. Even as he contemplated the new year and the prospects of a Presidential caucus in January 1844, his antagonists planned his destruction. Though he and his brother Hyrum were mortally wounded at carthage Jail on 27 June 1844, their spirits live on. The work promulgated in life did not dissipate with death. We are the beneficiaries of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, a work which had its earthly commencement with the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith, in the hills of Vermont on a December day in 1805.

As we commemorate the birth of the babe in Bethlehem, the Savior of the world, may we also remember his emissary, Joseph Smith, and consciously rejoice in his life and sacrifice, as well.

[illustration] Illustrated by Gary Smith

Larry C. Porter, associate professor of Church history and doctrine at Brigham Young University and the father of nine children, serves on the Church Youth Correlation Review Committee.

Show References

    Notes

  1.   1.

    Lucy Mack Smith, History of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Improvement Era, 1902, pp. 321–24. Her volume, however, gives an incorrect date for Alvin’s death—19 November 1824. His death actually occurred on 19 November 1823. (See “Alvin Smith: Reminder of the Fairness of God,” Ensign, Sept. 1978, p. 67, note.)

  2.   2.

    Lucy Mack Smith, pp. 410–15; see also History of the Church, 1:20–28.

  3.   3.

    See also Orlen Curtis Peterson, “A History of the Schools and Educational Programs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ohio and Missouri, 1831–1839,” master’s thesis, Brigham Young University, 1972, pp. 34–37.

  4.   4.

    Joseph Fielding Smith, comp., Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1977, pp. 123–24.