I have always loved Christmas. As far as I can remember, it has always been my favorite time of the year. I love the sights, the smells, and the tastes. Most of all, however, I love that we are able to remember the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
This leads me directly into the perennial debate: when was Christ actually born? Has there been any modern-day revelation on the matter? What is the Church’s official position about this? These are all interesting questions to ponder, and I will attempt to address these to the best of my ability throughout this post.
We, as members of the LDS Church, celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, along with the rest of the Christian world. Many faithful Latter-day Saints (including many of our leaders), however, believe that April 6 was actually the birth date of our Savior, using D&C 20:1 as scriptural justification. Does that match what the scholars say? And if not, how can we explain the disparity?
Before we get into the meat of this question, it is important to first determine the Church’s official position. In this case it’s easy—there isn’t one. Knowing the exact day and year He was born simply does not pertain to our salvation, and as far as I was able to tell, there has been no official revelation on the matter. The Church, as an organization, simply has not spent that much time and energy worrying about it.
Why then should we worry ourselves about something that (in the eternal scheme of things) really doesn’t matter all that much? That’s a legitimate question. First, I believe very strongly in gaining as much knowledge as possible (D&C 130:18–19), especially knowledge related in any way to the Savior. Second, I believe that as defenders of the faith, we need to be able to have ready answers to questions that we might be asked, and this topic is certainly fair game. Furthermore, no one should have their testimonies rocked because a critic brings this up as evidence that the Church cannot be true.
First, let’s examine what the Prophets and apostles have said on this matter. The first LDS author to speak on this subject was Elder James E. Talmage in his book Jesus the Christ. He was of the opinion that Christ was born on April 6, 1 B.C. He apparently interpreted D&C 20:1 as meaning that April 6, 1830, was literally one thousand eight hundred and thirty days to the day that Christ was born, as opposed to just the day that was revealed for the Church to be organized.1
The next major work by an apostle touching on the matter was done by Elder Hyrum M Smith in his 1919 commentary on the Doctrine and Covenants. He stated his belief that April 6 was probably the birthdate of Christ, but at the same time also commented that “all that this Revelation means to say is that the Church was organized in the year that is commonly accepted as 1830, A.D” and is not meant to be a revelation about the day Christ was born.2
In 1954 President J. Reuben Clark of the First Presidency, in his book Our Lord of the Gospels, said, “I am not proposing any date as the true date. But in order to be as helpful to students as I could, I have taken as the date of the Savior’s birth the date now accepted by many scholars,—late 5 B.C. or early 4 B.C.” This would clearly exclude April 6.3 It is also interesting that this book was later reprinted as the Melchizedek Priesthood manual in 1958.4
Finally, we had Elder Bruce R. McConkie addressing the issue in his Messiah series. Elder McConkie referenced all of the three aforementioned apostles, reiterated the fact that no one knows for certainty the true date of our Savior’s birth, but noted that for his purposes he would use the same timeline as President Clark.5 To date, he is the last apostle or prophet that I am aware of to try and address this issue in any comprehensive form.
I should also mention that there have been other apostles and prophets who have spoken (at least briefly) on this matter, including President Harold B. Lee, President Spencer W. Kimball, President Gordon B. Hinckley, and Elder David A. Bednar. When I read their various talks, I was unable to tell if they were saying that they had personally received revelation on the matter, if it was their own opinion, or if they were basing their remarks on what Elder Talmage and others have previously stated. None of them, however, declared it as official Church doctrine.
It also needs to be said that D&C 20:1 was not originally part of section 20 but was added at a later date.4 As far as we know, Joseph Smith never officially attempted to answer the question of the official date of Christ’s birth. And as discussed earlier in this post, no date has ever been presented to the Church as an official declaration or proclamation.
In addition to the leadership of the Church, multiple LDS scholars have attempted to answer this question. Some have been in favor of April 6, and others have fallen more in line with what other scholars hold to—that the date falls sometime between the end of 5 B.C. and the beginning of 4 B.C. (which interestingly means that December 25 could have actually been the day Christ was born). For those interested, you can read the arguments both ways here and here.
The purpose of this blog post isn’t to answer this question, and indeed it is impossible to do so. Rather, I wanted to present enough information so readers can research this issue on their own and make informed decisions as well as be able to give informed answers. I hope that I have been able to at least point readers in the right direction and have shown that this should be a non-issue when dealing with critics of our faith.
I definitely can’t end this blog post without one last comment. Remember that the important part of all of this was that the Savior was actually born. He wasn’t a fictional character invented for a book to teach us good moral principles. He was a real person, and really was the Son of God who came to this world to save us all from sin and death. Though it has been absolutely fascinating (and faith building) to research the day of His birth, it is secondary at best to His mission and His ministry. May all of us grow closer to our Savior the more we learn of His birth, His life, and His matchless grace.
- Jeffrey R. Chadwick, “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” Brigham Young University Studies 49 no. 4 (2010), 28–29, fn. 12.
- Jesus Christ/Date of birth. (2014 June 7). Retrieved at http://en.fairmormon.org/Jesus_Christ/Date_of_birth