Wednesday, April 6, 2016

April 6th

So today is April 6th. For the vast majority of the world, it's just another day with no significance. But for Mormons, i.e. members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it does have significance historically, but many also consider it to be of doctrinal importance. I hate to burst many of your bubbles, but, in short, this blog post is going to refute the doctrinal basis of April 6th because, well, it isn't doctrine and never has been!

I debated whether this post belonged more at Live From Kent... than here, but figured it definitely has a lot of history involved, plus I haven't posted here since last June. Plus, I'm planning on doing some blogging about my recent visit to Ukraine there, so this would get buried beneath those posts.

In any case, here we go! Historically, April 6th is the day of two significant events in LDS history. The first is the official foundation of what is now The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The organization meeting for what was originally called the "Church of Christ" was held April 6, 1830. The official history has this meeting taking place at the home of Peter Whitmer in Fayette, New York, a township near Waterloo, New York. Today you can visit the recreated Whitmer log home, which is adjacent to a church that includes a visitor center. There are some records that indicate the meeting took place at the home of Joseph Smith Sr., in the town (not to be confused with the village) of Manchester, just south of Palmyra. In any case, the date of April 6th is used by the LDS Church as it's official "start date" and how our annual and semi-annual General Conferences are numbered each year, with April 6, 1830, being the first annual General Conference of the church. In the church today, the annual General Conference of the church is always held around April 6, being held the first weekend of April. The semi-annual General Conference is held six months later in the first weekend of October. The many splinter groups who also claim the lineage of being founded by Joseph Smith, also use that date as their beginning. The other historic event in LDS history is the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, which occurred April 6, 1893.

While other events have obviously occurred on April 6 in the church, those are the two most significant. But ask a member of the church what else is significant about April 6, and many will tell you it's the day we believe Jesus Christ was born. Before just recently, I would've been one of them, but after some research, that doesn't appear to be so.

Now, for those of you who may not be familiar with LDS doctrine and practices, we do celebrate Christmas on December 25th just like the rest of the Christian world. As I have blogged about previously related to Christmas, the actual date of Jesus's birth is a matter of debate that will likely never be settled. About the only thing you see on April 6th is a casual mention of the church organization happening or a random "Happy Birthday Jesus" on social media. Even I have one of those from a few years ago! But no, Mormons don't celebrate Christmas in April by any means. And really, even the historic significance of the date only gets attention on major anniversaries. I imagine in 2030 there will likely be a big event for the bicentennial, much like there was for the 150th in 1980. I remember in 1993 the church celebrated the centennial of the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, but outside of that, the date is more a trivia fact that anything. Because General Conference is always near (or on) April 6th, you'll occasionally see mention of it in a conference talk, too, which helps to cement it as "doctrine" for many members when, in fact, it isn't.

A great resource for background and details on the "why" and "how" April 6th is regarded as such by so many members, even all the way to the top, can be found on the FairMormon website. They have a page specifically devoted to the date of birth for Jesus Christ, including the prevailing belief about April 6th, and it includes citations to several articles. In short, the belief stems from one verse in the Doctrine & Covenants, from section 20 verse 1, which is dated April 6, 1830:
"The rise of the Church of Christ in these last days, being one thousand eight hundred and thirty years since the coming of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in the flesh, it being regularly organized and established agreeable to the laws of our country, by the will and commandments of God, in the fourth month, and on the sixth day of the month which is called April—"
If you take that verse literally, then yes, he was born on April 6th, 1,830 years prior to when this section was written. The problem is that's not why the verse was written the way it was; it was simply a fancy way of saying "April 6, 1830". Indeed, historical analysis indicates verse 1 was inserted later as more of an introduction. Nowhere else in scripture will you find any mention of the Savior's birthday being April 6th, and outside the dedication of the Salt Lake Temple, no other major church event happened on April 6th, even ones that could've easily been held. The most significant to me is the dedication of the Kirtland Temple, which occurred March 27, 1836. If April 6th was that significant of a date, why not wait an extra few days and dedicate it then?

The most recent high-ranking person to reference April 6th as the birthday of Jesus was Elder David A. Bednar in a General Conference talk a few years ago. As is almost always the case, it was a passing mention (i.e. the talk wasn't about the birth of the Savior). At the time, I made a remark on my Facebook page that he was incorrect in stating we believed it was the birthday of the Savior (and yes, I obviously still stand by that remark), and you would've thought I had just openly renounced my beliefs and membership in the church the way some reacted. The reality is that, like many things in history, it's a case of being repeated so often, people assume it must be true since they've heard it so many times. They fail to analyze exactly where it comes from and if, in fact, it's an actual church doctrine vs. a general tradition. It's also the reality that even the Apostles are human beings who are not perfect, and that statements in General Conference addresses in themselves are not canon. In fact, the church has no official position on the birthdate of Jesus Christ and statements from various general authorities vary significantly. None of those statements, however, carry the weight of canon, and as I've already pointed out, only a very literal reading of D&C 20:1 supports the idea.

Bottom line, though, does it really matter? From a doctrinal standpoint, as I've stated before, no, it really doesn't. Our salvation and well-being is not determined by believing Jesus was born on April 6th or not. Even so, it's important to know the difference between doctrine and teachings, and understand what are official statements from the church and scripture vs. opinions or simply understandings from general authorities. And again, General Conference talks in themselves do not constitute canonized doctrine, nor do works like Jesus the Christ or other similar publications (and incidentally, a BYU article cited in the above site states that Jesus the Christ author James E. Talmage is the first person on record to use the literal reading of D&C 20:1 in identifying April 6th as the birthdate of Jesus...he wrote the book in 1915). One of these days I'll write a more detailed post about the difference between the teachings and doctrine as they're often confused.

"The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has taken no official position on the exact date of Christ’s birth. In his 1915 classic Jesus the Christ, Elder James E. Talmage maintained that Jesus Christ was born on April 6 in the year 1 BC. Talmage was apparently the first LDS writer to propose this particular date." --Jeffrey R. Chadwick (2010)

From a historical standpoint, it's merely interesting, both the actual birthdate of Jesus and the role of April 6th in LDS Church history. In any case, happy "Restoration Day" if nothing else! HA!

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