The Prophet’s Last Christmas

by Albert L. Zobell, Jr.

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    It was 1:00 A.M. on Christmas 1843. A band of less than two dozen, dressed against the chill, approached the Mansion House at the northeast corner of Main and Water streets in Nauvoo. The group halted below the windows of the room where the Prophet Joseph Smith slept. With well-wrapped scarves, hats pulled low, and hands gloved or pocketed, the members huddled below the Prophet’s window. One of the group gave the pitch, and they began caroling:

    “Mortals, awake! with angels join,

    And chant the solemn lay;

    Love, joy, and gratitude combine

    To hail th’auspicious day.*

    As they sang the other six verses, the inhabitants of the house gathered at the window. Perhaps a few, including the Prophet, braved the foot-stamping cold to greet the singers. He later said, “It 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.”

    The chill forgotten, Widow Lettice Rushton, a blind English convert, her five grown children and their spouses, and a handful of neighbors who made up the singing group departed for Hyrum’s house two blocks west on Water Street. Naturally at that hour the patriarch to the Church was asleep. He arose and went outside to shake hands with the singers. He blessed each one of them, telling them it was such heavenly music that he thought at first that a choir of angels had come to visit him.

    For the Prophet and his brother, that Christmas was to prove their last.

    Joseph intended to stay home that day. A family man, his past Christmases had not always been as pleasant as this one. In the previous Christmas season, he had met with Governor Ford concerning problems between the Saints and their nonmember neighbors. In 1839 he had spent the Christmas season in Washington seeking redress for the Saints who’d lost their possessions in the Missouri conflicts. The year before that Joseph and several loyal friends had spent a miserable Christmas in Liberty Jail.

    Perhaps his thoughts turned to his good friend Porter Rockwell, now 30, who at the last account was still languishing in the Missouri prison where he had been for seven months. Because Porter was being illegally held, it did not seem likely that efforts on the part of the Saints in Illinois would secure his release.

    At noon on that last Christmas, Joseph met with some brethren from Morley Settlement, located near the present site of Lima, 25 miles south of Nauvoo. He counseled them to keep the law on their side despite the depredation of marauding citizens.

    At about 2:00 P.M., 50 couples sat down at Joseph’s table as guests. During the meal, Joseph was asked to solemnize the marriage of Dr. Levi Richards and Sara Griffiths. Not desiring to leave his guests, he had the request forwarded to Brigham Young, who was living on the southeast corner of Kimball and Granger streets, three blocks north and one block west of the Prophet’s residence. Brother Brigham complied with the request.

    Apparently the 38-year-old Prophet, who had a reputation for hospitality, spent the remainder of the day with his family and associates. That evening a large group also dined at the Prophet’s house before turning to music, dancing, and other festivities in the tradition of Christmas in that day.

    Latecoming guests, dressed in their best, arrived during the evening hours on that Monday. The troubles of the Saints, past and present, were temporarily forgotten as the guests enjoyed the festivities. Then the spirit of the evening was disrupted when a gaunt, seemingly drunk, unwashed Missourian, straggly and unkempt hair brushing his shoulders, forced his way into the room.

    Efforts were made to throw the ruffian out, but he was too powerful. In the ensuing struggle, Joseph had a good look at the man. It was his friend, Porter!

    The atmosphere cleared as friends gathered around Rockwell and welcomed him home. He explained how he had been honorably released after seven months in prison and had worked his way home through hostile territory. Because his feet were injured and men were seeking his life, it had taken him 12 days. He had just arrived in Nauvoo. The trick he’d played on the Prophet and his guests was merely his idea of fun.

    Rockwell’s safe return climaxed the day for Joseph on his last Christmas, the Christmas before the summer guns at Carthage.

    Illustrated by Gary Smith

    Show References

    • A Collection of Sacred Hymns for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, selected by Emma Smith, Nauvoo, Illinois: E. Robinson Printer, 1841, no. 12.