Looking Back: A Prophet Retraces Joseph Smith’s Footsteps

Contributed By Gerry Avant, Church News senior contributing editor

  • 31 August 2018

President Spencer W. Kimball and Sister Camilla Eyring Kimball on June 29, 1978, by the well near where Joseph Smith’s lifeless body fell from an upstairs window in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844. Sister Kimball dressed in period costume on the occasion of the dedication of the Relief Society Monument to Women in Nauvoo, Illinois.  Photo by Gerry Avant.

About this time of year, many Church members visit the faith’s historical sites. Some travel to places such as Nauvoo, Illinois, where they can walk where the Prophet Joseph Smith walked.

In my opinion, it’s one thing to walk where the Prophet Joseph lived; it’s quite another to do so with one of his successors.

Let me clarify a bit: There were moments during a June 27–29, 1978, trip to Nauvoo when I walked side by side with President Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball, but I spent most of my time there following them with a camera and notebook in hand.

President and Sister Kimball went to Nauvoo for the dedication of the Relief Society Monument to Women. While there, they visited some Church historic sites. I wrote of some of the events of June 28:

“A crowd gathered as the prophet and his wife walked up the steps to the Scovill Bakery in Nauvoo, Illinois.

“The couple went inside, visited with the baker, then returned to the front door to wave at the crowd that had grown in size and was waiting eagerly outside the white picket fence.

“The prophet and his wife left through the back door and got into a horse-drawn buggy. A prophet once again was riding the streets of Nauvoo, waving and smiling at his many well-wishers.”

I remember that buggy ride very well. Laden with a bag containing two camera bodies, three lenses, a strobe, about 20 rolls of 35mm film, a tape recorder (not the tiny lightweight digital device of today) and other stuff newspaper people feel they can’t do without, and feeling the heat and humidity of a Mississippi River town in the throes of summer, I walked at a quick pace behind them—all the way from the bakery, past many restored buildings of Nauvoo, until the carriage finally came to a stop in front of the Heber C. Kimball home.

President and Sister Kimball went on a condensed tour of the home and then visited other restored buildings, including Brigham Young’s home. Then they walked to the blacksmith shop.

On the next day, June 29, we went to Carthage Jail, a little more than 22 miles northwest of Nauvoo, where the Prophet Joseph and his brother, Hyrum, were martyred June 27, 1844.

A missionary couple related the story of Carthage Jail and escorted President and Sister Kimball and others upstairs to the room where Joseph, his brother, and others had been imprisoned.

President Kimball walked to the window from which Joseph’s lifeless body had fallen to the ground. For several minutes, he stood silently by the window, looking over its broad windowsill to the ground below. That image is emblazoned in my mind. I visualize it nearly every time I read about or visit the jail.

A missionary guide related some details of the murder and asked if President and Sister Kimball would like to listen to the recording that tells the story of the events that occurred in that room 134 years earlier.

Acknowledging that he would like to hear the recording, President Kimball sat with his head slightly bowed as he listened to the hymn “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” which the Prophet Joseph, just moments before his death, had asked John Taylor to sing.

The room was silent for a few moments after the recording had ended. President Kimball stood, thanked the guide, and asked some questions as he and Sister Kimball left the room to go downstairs.

Outside the jail, President Kimball shook hands with those who were fortunate enough to be near him. To the others, he and Sister Kimball smiled and waved. For as long as their time allowed, they posed for pictures taken by professional and amateur photographers.

I was fortunate to be among them.

A crowd of admirers gathered at the historic Heber C. Kimball Home in Nauvoo, Illinois, when President Spencer W. Kimball and his wife, Sister Camilla Kimball, visited on June 28, 1978. President and Sister Kimball arrived in a horse-drawn buggy, visible in the background. Photo by Gerry Avant.