Perhaps, had he not been born so close to the superholiday of Christmas, Joseph Smith’s birthday would have been widely commemorated among contemporary Latter-day Saints, more or less in the manner of, say, Pioneer Day. Perhaps. As it is, like a celestial object that’s positioned adjacent to the sun in the daytime sky, any thoughts of Joseph’s birth that might arise among members of the Restored Church are overwhelmed by the festival of Christ’s birth and the celebrations (and, let’s face it, by the frenzy of commercialism) that precede and accompany it.
Perhaps, but I doubt it. To continue my astronomical metaphor, if Jesus is the sun, Joseph Smith is a moon. What do I mean by that? I mean to suggest that Joseph’s is a reflected light. He is not luminescent in and of himself, innately. Thanks to the sun, our planet teems with life on land, in the soil, in the air, and in the waters. The pale light of our moon cannot sustain life on its own. Earth would be sterile if lunar light were all we had. But, absent the sun, the moon itself would also be lost in utter darkness.
“God is the light of the heavens and the earth,” says Qur’an 24:35. Not Muhammad. Not Joseph Smith.
World religions explicitly recognize this fact:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.” (Genesis 1:1-4, NIV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5, NIV)
That Ultimate Truth is declared as the illuminator of all that illuminates, beyond the darkness of ignorance, residing within everyone. (Bhagavad Gita 13:18)
God is the light of the heavens and the earth. The likeness of his light is as a niche wherein is a lamp; the lamp is in a crystal, and the crystal, shining as if a pearl-like star, lit from the oil of a blessed olive tree that is neither of the east nor of the west. The oil would almost give light of itself though no fire touches it. Light upon light! God guides to His Light whom He wills. (Qur’an 24:35, my translation)
He that ascended up on high, as also he descended below all things, in that he comprehended all things, that he might be in all and through all things, the light of truth; which truth shineth. This is the light of Christ. As also he is in the sun, and the light of the sun, and the power thereof by which it was made. As also he is in the moon, and is the light of the moon, and the power thereof by which it was made; as also the light of the stars, and the power thereof by which they were made; and the earth also, and the power thereof, even the earth upon which you stand. And the light which shineth, which giveth you light, is through him who enlighteneth your eyes, which is the same light that quickeneth your understandings; which light proceedeth forth from the presence of God to fill the immensity of space—the light which is in all things, which giveth life to all things, which is the law by which all things are governed, even the power of God who sitteth upon his throne, who is in the bosom of eternity, who is in the midst of all things. (Doctrine and Covenants 88:6-13)
I am the true light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world. (Doctrine and Covenants 93:2)
But today, 23 December 2020, is indeed the anniversary—the two hundred and fifteenth, to be exact—of the birth of the Prophet Joseph Smith. And I won’t let that fact pass unnoticed on my blog.
As happens at this time each year, certain critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are rolling out their annual lie that the Saints celebrate “Smithmas,” Joseph’s birthday, with more enthusiasm and vigor than members of the Church give to the mainstream Christian holiday of Christmas.
For many such critics, I expect that it’s just a rather bitter and not particularly funny joke. Some, though, seem to take the falsehood seriously — or, at least, to want others to take it seriously.
The truth, of course, is that most Latter-day Saints don’t even know that 23 December is the Prophet’s birthday, let alone celebrate it. This year, as in all previous years, the First Presidency Christmas devotional failed to mention “Smithmas” even once.
Just to put the truth on the record, though, for those who might otherwise be innocently taken in by the claim, here are some things that I’ve written about it during previous years:
The image of Joseph Smith’s First Vision shown above will serve as clearly as anything, I suppose, to illustrate the believing Latter-day Saint view of his position. It is clearly subordinate. The Father and the Son initiated that visit. Joseph didn’t. He was the (surprised and eventually overwhelmed) petitioner. The Father and the Son are instructing him, not the other way around. He kneels before them. They do not kneel before him.
Latter-day Saints have no problem distinguishing a prophet of God from God himself, or telling Joseph Smith apart from the Lord.
Back in the day when my wife and I used to host a little “birthday party” for Joseph Smith on 23 December, we would maybe tell a story or two about the Prophet—or invite somebody else to do so. (One year, for example, the late historian Scott Faulring participated in our small event.) Maybe we would express some appreciation for Joseph. Then we would enjoy potluck refreshments and sing Christmas carols. Note: Not “Smithmas carols.” Christmas carols. It was an excuse to get together and to sing with some highly musical friends.
Perhaps, someday, we can reinstitute that pleasant little tradition.
I do not, however, confuse Joseph Smith with my Savior Jesus Christ. I don’t confuse the sun and the moon. But I’m deeply grateful for Joseph and for what, through the grace of God, he was able to do. And I want to put that on public record.
And, while I’m at it, here are a couple of new items on the website of the Interpreter Foundation:
The hosts for the 6 December 2020 broadcast of the Interpreter Radio Show were Neal Rappleye, Jasmine Rappleye, and Hales Swift. In this episode, they discussed the most recent First Presidency Christmas devotional as well as “radical orthodoxy.” The second portion of the show was a roundtable discussing the upcoming Come Follow Me Doctrine and Covenants lesson #3 (D&C Section 2 and Joseph Smith—History 1:27–65). The Interpreter Radio Show can be heard Sunday evenings from 7 to 9 PM (MDT), on K-TALK, AM 1640, or you can listen live on the Internet at ktalkmedia.com.
The participants on the 13 December 2020 installment of the Interpreter Radio Show were Terry Hutchinson, John Gee, and Kevin Christensen. In this broadcast, the hosts discussed the peer review process and academic rigor. The second portion of the show was a roundtable discussing the upcoming Come Follow Me Doctrine and Covenants lesson #4 (D&C Sections 3-5). The Interpreter Radio Show can be heard Sunday evenings from 7 to 9 PM (MDT), on K-TALK, AM 1640, or you can listen live on the Internet at ktalkmedia.com.