A tribute to Joseph Smith by the archetypal Mormon composer Evan Stephens reminds us of the birthday anniversary of Joseph Smith, born on December 23, 1805.
I know it’s Bloggernacle chic to roll eyes at the intrusion of Joseph Smith into the Christmas season, to complain about “Smithmas” or about late December sacrament meetings with a Joseph Smith rather than Christmas theme, and to be dismissive – or derisive – about anything which, on the surface, seems to conflate Joseph Smith with Jesus Christ.
I would say, though, that there are at least two other points to make:
1. Joseph Smith’s birthday was an anniversary that was important to our ancestors (whether those ancestors are literal or spiritual). Marking birthdays of historic figures was an opportunity to honor their memory and commemorate their contributions, not to adore or worship them.
Think back to when Washington’s Birthday and Lincoln’s Birthday were important days, at least in the American school child’s calendar, before they became nothing but a theme for advertising furniture sales, and before they were merged into a generic and meaningless “Presidents’ Day.” I am guessing that the Queen’s Birthday in Commonwealth nations serves a purpose similar to America’s old Washington’s Birthday commemorations: It is more an occasion to celebrate the nation than the literal birth of the monarch.
None of these commemorative days confuses the honoree with the Savior. Neither does a commemoration of Joseph Smith’s December 23 birthday conflate him with the Savior. The accusation of blasphemy is possible only because of the December coincidence – if Joseph had been born in March or September, nobody would make the charge. We would simply mark the anniversary, recall his contributions and achievements, and move on. We shouldn’t let scoffers set the tone, aided by little more than an accident of the calendar.
2. I say “little more than an accident of the calendar,” because, of course, we do sometimes add a little powder to the charge with an overly adulatory rhetoric. Rhetoric that might go unnoticed in April or July is magnified by the nearness of Christmas, when commemoration is easily misconstrued as worship, and when reference to infancy or childhood – natural when the event is a birthday – unavoidably echoes the imagery of the Christ Child.
So the second point I think is worthy of discussion is this:
In a Christmas carol or story, a reference to the “wondrous story” invariably points to a truly wonder-full thing, the birth of the Creator and Savior of the world to the world, in a body of flesh and bone. It is the “condescension of God,” the entering of the Son of God into mortality, to live with and dwell among humanity.
In the context of this song, though, nothing wondrous is claimed for the birth of Joseph Smith. It is no more remarkable that Joseph should be born than that any other human child should be born. Joseph’s birth merely signaled, in retrospect only, that a long-promised event was near at hand. The “wondrous story” was not the coming of Joseph Smith to earth – it was the soon-to-be-accomplished Restoration, when the Father and the Son spoke again to mankind through a prophet.
And that should be “wondrous” to anyone.
Transcription, for the sake of search engines:
Sing the Wondrous Story
words and Music by Evan Stephens
Sing the wondrous story,
Of a hundred years
Since, from the courts of glory
To this vale of tears,
God sent His chosen servant
To restore again
The Gospel long since taken
From the midst of men.
Sing of the youthful Joseph,
He, the good, and true;
Who asked the Heavenly Father
How His will to do.
Sing how from heaven descended
Father and the Son,
And gave the boy the answer,
Which his faith had won.
Sing of the brother martyrs,
One in all the strife,
Each seal’d his testimony
With his mortal life.
Sing how the work has prospered,
Spreading o’er the earth;
Sing, sing our thanks to Heaven,
For a Prophet’s birth.