December 24, 2007

Orson's Christmas Sermon

Orson Pratt December 29, 1872 On the Sabbath following Christmas, Orson Pratt addressed the congregation, and began his Christmas discourse by emphasizing the importance and meaning of the sacrament:

We are, this afternoon, commemorating according to our usual custom, one of the most important events that has ever transpired in our world, and one which most concerns the whole human family, namely, the death and sufferings of the Lord Jesus Christ for the redemption of the human family. No other event can be compared with this in its importance, and in its bearings upon the human family. Everything else is but of a secondary consideration, when compared with the atonement that has been wrought out in behalf of man by the great Redeemer...[1]
As Joseph Smith taught,[2] everything in our religion is only an appendage to the atonement of Jesus Christ. After explaining the fallibility of the dating of the birth of Christ,[3] Orson expressed some historical thoughts on the celebrating of Christmas as a holiday:
Having found out that there is an error in regard to the year of Christ's birth, now let us inquire if the day observed by the Christian world as the day of his birth, the 25th of December, is or is not the real Christmas Day? A great many authors have found out from their researches that it is not. I think that there is scarcely an author at the present day that believes that the 25th day of December was the day that Christ was born on. Still it is observed by certain classes, and we, whether we make any profession or not, are just foolish enough to observe this old Roman Catholic festival. The boys and girls all look forward with great anticipations to Christmas. Many of them, it is true, do not know the meaning of it, or why it is celebrated; but when we come to reflect on the matter, it is all nonsense to celebrate the 25th day of December as the birthday of Jesus.
Lest he sound like too much of a kill-joy, he tempered his remarks:
It will do for a holiday, so you might select any other day for that purpose.
True enough, most scholars, and Latter-day Saints, do not believe December 25 is the actual birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. Celebrating Christmas in December seems to be a tradition began by the Roman Catholic Church. In he 2nd century A.D., the Romans began holding a festival on December 25 called "Dies Natalis Solis Invicti," or "the birthday of the unconquered sun." It is likely that the sun was considered "unconquered" then due to the prolonged day during winter solstice (which occurs today around Dec. 21-22). According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, the Sol Invictus festival has a "strong claim on the responsibility" for the date of Christmas.[4] The Encyclopedia explains The word Christmas originated as a contraction of "Christ's mass," from the Middle English Christemasse and Old English Cristes m├Žsse, a phrase first recorded in 1038, compounded from Old English derivatives of the Greek christos and the Latin missa. In short, Christmas, and many of its traditions, migrated from pagan celebrations to take on Christian connotations.
It is generally believed and conceded by the learned, who have investigated the matter, that Christ was born in April. I have seen several accounts—some of them published in our periodicals—of learned men in different nations, in which it is stated that, according to the best of their judgment from the researches they have made, Christ was crucified on the 6th of April. That is the day on which this church was organized. But when these learned men go back from the day of his crucifixion to the day of his birth, they are at a loss, having no certain evidence or testimony by which they can determine it. I intend this afternoon to give light on this subject from new revelation, which we, as Latter-day Saints, can depend upon.
For the sake of visitors in the congregation, Orson described the Book of Mormon as a record of Israelites who left Jerusalem and founded a civilization on the American continent. He reasoned:
Now if God led a company of Israelites from Palestine to colonize this continent, and taught them to keep the law of Moses with its sacrifices and burnt offerings, typical of the great sacrifice that was to be made at Jerusalem, it would not be at all strange for him to give to them a sign concerning Jesus, when he should be born, and when he should die. He did this by the mouths of prophets. Numerous prophets were raised up on this land, and they prophesied to the inhabitants thereof, and taught them about the coming of Jesus, and what signs should be given at the time he should come. They taught them that the night before Jesus should be born there would be no darkness on this land, but that it would be perfectly light. They would see the sun set in the evening, and that, during the night, until it should rise the next morning, there would be no darkness; that great signs and lights would appear in the heavens, and that they were to be to them indications of the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ [See Helaman 14:1-8]. These signs were given, and by them the people on this continent knew the very day that Jesus was born [see 3 Nephi 1:4-23].
The Book of Mormon gives us a wonderful addition to the nativity story as found in the New Testament. Orson describes the Book of Mormon account, including the widespread disbelief in Christ and the prophets in the years following the sign of His birth and before the crucifixion. The people were warned of the calamities that would occur at the death of Christ, including three days of darkness. Using the dates in the Book of Mormon, Orson came up with Christ's age at the time of the crucifixion, taking into account longitudinal differences between Jerusalem and Central America; but he runs into a little trouble regarding the exact nature of the Nephite calendar; proposing that the old Mexican calendar would provide a good estimate:
When Jesus was crucified, at the age of about, thirty-three years, if the Nephites reckoned according to the Mexican portion of the Israelites, they had not added the eight days that we would add for leap year, consequently this would shorten their years, and instead of being thirty-three years, three days and part of the fourth day, it would bring it, according to our reckoning, eight days less than the Book of Mormon date, or thirty-two years, three hundred and sixty days and fifteen hours. This, then, it is highly probable, must have been the real period that existed between the birth and the crucifixion of our Savior.

Now we have a clue in the New Testament to the time of his crucifixion, but not of his birth; that is, we know that he was crucified on Friday, for all of the Evangelists testify that Saturday was the Jewish Sabbath, and that on Friday Jesus was hung on the cross, and according to the testimony of the learned, that was on the 6th of April, consequently by going back from the crucifixion 32 years, 360 days and 15 hours, making allowance for the longitude, it gives Thursday for his birthday. Again, making allowance for the errors of Dionysius the monk, adding four years or nearly so to the vulgar or incorrect era, it would make the organization of this Church take place precisely, to the very day, 1,800 years from the day that he was lifted up on the cross.

Orson saw this "coincidence" as evidence that Joseph Smith was directed by God- as D&C 1 claims- to organize the Church on the anniversary of the crucifixion:
This is something very marvelous in my mind. Joseph Smith did not choose the 6th of April upon which to organize this Church: he received a commandment from God, which is contained in the Book of Doctrine and Covenants, setting apart that day as the one upon which the Church should be organized. Why did he set up his kingdom precisely 1,800 years from the day on which he was lifted up on the cross? I do not know why. The Lord has his own set time to bring to pass his great purposes....the very fact that God commanded that boy to organize the Church on that day, ought to be regarded as strong collateral evidence of the divine authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
Interestingly, Orson does not conclude, as is sometimes believed by some Saints, that Christ was also born on April 6:
Perhaps I have said all that is needful on this matter. If I were to celebrate Christmas, or the birthday of Christ, I should go back a little less than thirty-three years from his crucifixion, and it would bring it to Thursday, the 11th day of April, as the first day of the first year of the true Christian era; and reckoning on thirty-two years, 360 days and fifteen hours from that, it would bring it to the crucifixion, and bring it on Friday also (JD 15:253-265).
This post is not an endorsement of Orson's reckoning, just an interesting discussion regarding his views on the subject. After discussing the chronology of Christmas, Orson moved on to discuss the chronology of New Years Day, which I will blog later in the week. Footnotes: [1] Orson believed the sacrament was the most often preached subject in the Church, viewing the actual ordinance of the Sacrament as a sermon on the atonement: [The doctrine of the Atonement] is one that has been so thoroughly taught to the Latter-day Saints, that I esteem it almost unnecessary to repeat that with which they are so familiar. By partaking of the ordinance of the Lord's Supper every Sabbath day, we commemorate that great event. If we do not preach so much about it by word of mouth we certainly fulfill the commandment which God has given requiring us to remember unto the Father the crucified body and shed blood of his Son, without which there would have been no remission of sin, and no redemption, and mankind would have remained in their fallen state. No light could have penetrated the hearts of the children of men, and there would have been no resurrection, no exaltation in the kingdom of God without the atonement. [2] "[T]he fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and the Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it ..." (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, p. 121). [3] Apparently, Orson had been reading Smith's Bible Dictionary:
You will find a full account of these matters in the writings of the learned, in encyclopedias, and in various works touching upon chronology, so that you have no need to take my testimony alone on this subject, for you have access to our library here in this city, and you can examine works on chronology and see that I am correct. There may be those here who would like me to cite some works on this subject. I will cite one that I read while I was in England, a Bible dictionary, by a very learned author named Smith. This subject is treated very plainly and fully in that work.
[4] See "Christmas," Catholic Encyclopedia. I am relying heavily upon the Christmas entry in Wikipedia.

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