The Joseph Smith Family at Christmastime

By Nancy Harlacher

The Joseph Smith Family at Christmastime by Nancy Harlacher

This painting by Nancy Harlacher depicts Joseph and Emma Smith and their children at evening worship during the Christmas season of 1841. The setting is the Smith home, known as the “Homestead,” on the banks of the Mississippi River at Nauvoo, Illinois.

The four children are Julia, an adopted daughter, aged ten, who was small for her age; Alexander, who was three and a half; Frederick, aged five; and Joseph III, who was nine. In the painting the father has just finished reading the story of Christ’s birth, and the family is discussing that wondrous event.

A Home of Prayer

By Pamela Price

The home of Joseph and Emma Smith was a home of prayer. In later years, their son Joseph III spoke of the time previous to his father’s death. He stated, “We always had family prayers evening and morning, and the whole family would be present at evening and morning prayers; yes, . . . always” (Temple Lot Case, page 486).

The Homestead was built of logs and was one of the few houses standing when the Saints arrived in Nauvoo in the spring of 1839. When Joseph and Emma moved into the Homestead, it had only two rooms—a small one on the main floor and an attic above. In 1840 Joseph added to the north side of the building what became a kitchen-living room combination—the room depicted in this painting.

Joseph III had this to say about the new room,

It was one-story and but a single room, built of native lumber—oak siding and studding, rived lath and shaven shingles—but it gave us three rooms, the two in the old part being used for sleeping rooms above and below, and the new one, a rather large room as rooms were counted then, becoming the family living room. It had a fireplace in its north end which, with a roaring fire in cold weather, made it very comfortable. (Saints’ Herald, December 18, 1934, page 1611)

Scenes such as the one depicted here occurred while Joseph and Emma resided at the Homestead. Christmas carols and Restoration hymns no doubt filled the air as the family sang praises to God at worship time. At other times this north room overflowed with visitors, who met for preaching services, business meetings, and prayer meetings. At such times the room rang with hymns of praise to God.

A number of writers who visited in the Smith home spoke of Emma’s lovely hymn singing. She knew the hymns by heart and sang them as she worked about the home. She also often led the singing in church services. God had recognized her musical talents and called her to make a “selection of sacred hymns, to be had in my church” (Doctrine and Covenants 24:3). Emma’s first selection was published in 1835, and an enlarged second edition was published in 1841. Some years later she selected hymns for the first hymnal which was published after Young Joseph became Prophet-President at Amboy in 1860.

The Church’s music meant much to the entire Smith family. The first prophet of the Church was poetic, and several of his poems are still extant. Three of his sons—Joseph, Alexander, and David—lived to join with the Reorganization and become members of the First Presidency. All were gifted with beautiful singing voices. David and Joseph III were prolific hymn writers. The Saints’ Harp, the Church hymnal published in 1870, contains at least fifty hymns written by David and thirty-five by Joseph III. Surely their love of the Church’s music was enhanced by the worship settings provided jointly by their mother and father in the few years that they lived in the Homestead (1839–1842). And after Joseph’s martyrdom, Emma continued the practice of singing and praying with the children.

The Christmas of 1841 was one of rejoicing for the Smith family, for some of their earlier Christ-mases had been ones of sorrow and hardship. During the Christmas season of 1837, they had lived at Kirtland. The Church was divided, and mobs were threatening Joseph’s life. A few days after Christmas Joseph and Emma had to flee with their children to escape the mobs both within and without the Church. They traveled eight hundred miles by covered wagon in extremely cold weather during January, February, and March, to find a new home with the Saints at Far West, Missouri.

The Christmas of 1838 found Joseph and other Church leaders imprisoned at Liberty Jail in Liberty, Missouri. The governor had issued a decree that the Saints were either to leave the State of Missouri or be exterminated. Emma was struggling to get her four children out of the state to safety. The oldest one was then six and the youngest seven months. Emma and the children crossed Missouri in a wagon in freezing rain and snow. Upon reaching the frozen Mississippi River, it was feared that the heavy team and wagon would break through the ice. So she walked ahead of the team across the frozen river to Quincy, Illinois. She was carrying two babies, while the two older children clung to her skirt.

The Christmas of 1839 was also trying for the family. They lived at the Homestead in Nauvoo with its two small rooms, but Joseph was away. He had gone to Washington, D. C., to appeal to the federal government for the right to reclaim the Church properties in Missouri. He did not return until March of 1840.

The Christmases of 1840 and 1841 were better for the Smiths. They were together in comparative peace, able to laugh, to play, to study the Word of God, to sing the Lord’s praises, and to pray prayers of thankfulness for their Heavenly Father’s protection and abundant blessings—both those already received and those yet to come.

Prints of the above painting are available in various sizes for purchase at the Restoration Bookstore or from our online store.