This is a follow up article to “Elder James E. Talmage and the Birth Date of Jesus Christ.”
Apostle, scientist and scholar James E. Talmage added a belief statement to the Church’s doctrinal list in his landmark book Jesus the Christ when he declared: “We believe that Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea, April 6, B.C. 1.”
Instead of a modest statement supporting the Dionysian designation of 1 BC as the year zero of the Christian era via the April 6 BC 1 date; instead of a note in the preface or a footnote in his chapter 8 discussion of the birth of the Savior; instead of saying “it seemed to me that” or “I believe after study and contemplation that,” instead of any of those options, Elder Talmage boldly declared that “we believe” in April 6, BC 1 as the birth date of the Redeemer of the world.
A Classic of LDS Literature
As I was thinking of some of the excellent comments on my last article about this subject, I went to Deseret Book in Orem, Utah and saw the store’s ongoing 2010 advertising campaign as I entered the store, celebrating the 144th year since George Q. Cannon and Sons Bookstore opened its doors in Salt Lake City in 1866. After looking at the at least 12 foot high poster of President George Q. Cannon, I was surprised to see that another of the three large posters paid tribute to Elder James E. Talmage and his classic work Jesus the Christ.
The poster reads: “Jesus the Christ, written by James E. Talmage, was published on September 18, 1915 and is one of the all time classics of LDS literature. Just as in 1915, Deseret Book continues the rich tradition of publishing great literature for homes and families.”
First Presidency Endorsement
I looked up the official endorsement of Jesus the Christ in 1915 by the First Presidency, Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H. Lund and Charles W. Penrose. James R. Clark, the editor of the volumes on the First Presidency Messages explains: “This announcement of the forthcoming publication of the book Jesus the Christ by James E. Talmage states that the book was written or ‘prepared by appointment’ and was to be published by the church. It was the desire of the First Presidency that it ‘be read and studied by the Latter-day Saints, in their families and in organizations that are devoted wholly or in part to theological study.'” Clark also mentioned the book was the course of study used by the Melchizedek Priesthood quorums of the Church in 1962.
The CES Church History manual for religious instruction courses 341 through 343 describes the extent of the involvement of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve in the review and publication of the book.
“During eighteen separate sessions over a two-month period, Elder Talmage read the chapters to the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve Apostles for their input and approval. This book is still widely read and is a monument to Elder Talmage’s scholarship and inspiration.”
If the First Presidency or the Quorum of the Twelve had strongly objected to Elder Talmage’s assertion in Chapter 8 about the birth day of Christ, or felt that he had gone too far with his emphatic statement, he surely would have backed off. There were many ways he could have backed off while still claiming the inspiration he had felt on the matter. The First Presidency gave an unqualified endorsement of the book. It was not unanimous on the birthday of Christ assertion, as Elder Hyrum M. Smith’s published reservations show. But, Elder Talmage’s powerful assertion regarding Christ’s birth date was not revised during the review process.
Written in the Temple
Elder Talmage described the experience of being able to write Jesus the Christ in the temple.
“On 19 April 1915, Elder Talmage wrote in his journal: ‘Finished the actual writing on the book Jesus the Christ, to which I have devoted every spare hour since settling down to the work of composition on September 14th last . Had it not been that I was privileged to do this work in the Temple it would be at present far from completion. I have felt the inspiration of the place and have appreciated the privacy and quietness incident thereto. I hope to proceed with the work of revision without delay.'”
President Clark and Elder McConkie’s Tactful Disagreement
I happened to turn on the radio in April this year (2012) and was surprised to hear Jeff Chadwick on KBYU’s “Thinking Aloud” program talking about his BYU Studies article on the birth date of Christ. Brother Chadwick talked at length about President Clark’s statement in the preface and Elder McConkie’s statement in a footnote of their books on the life of Christ that did not support Elder Talmage’s view regarding April 6, BC 1, but supported the scholarly opinion of a 4-6 BC birth date.
The thought “President Clark and Elder McConkie pulled their punches” came to mind. “In the preface and in a footnotenot the main text!” It seemed to me that President Clark and Elder McConkie did not want to directly challenge the inspiration of Elder Talmage’s marvelous work. However, they also had not received the same inspiration themselves that Elder Talmage had received on the birth date of Christ, and noted it appropriately and tactfully. This was in my opinion a great example of the amazing harmony among the apostles and prophets in spite of sometimes differing interpretations or views. This spirit of harmony was also very important in President Joseph F. Smith’s day as the Brethren confronted what would become world-changing issues such as the origin of man confronting the implications of Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Why So Bold a Statement?
So back to the original question: Why so bold a statement by Elder Talmage? It could only happen, I am sure, if he felt very strongly that he had been inspired in his interpretation of D&C 20:1 as a clear indicator of an April 6, BC 1 birth date of Jesus Christ. It would have to be a powerful impression for his statement to rise from “it seems to me” in a footnote to the “we believe” almost “catechism level” in the main text that implies an application of this belief statement to the whole Church. He surely would have had to successfully defend this inspiration to the First Presidency and the Twelve as they reviewed his book in those 18 separate sessions. Otherwise, in my opinion, it certainly would not have been included in the final publication of the book.
Here is the crucial verse that he pondered:
“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” (D&C 20:1)
Whatever the editing and revelatory history of this verse may have been, it is part of the officially canonized scriptures accepted by the Church. This verse in the Doctrine and Covenants motivated Elder Talmage’s bold declaration. Revelation and inspiration while pondering a specific scripture is certainly a standard method to obtain more light and knowledge for modern prophets and apostles as well as for every member of the Church.
Christ’s BirthdayStill Hidden from Our View?
Jesus’ birthday remains a passionately debated topic today, even as it was in Elder James E. Talmage’s era. Perhaps someday we will be able to ask Elder Talmage himself about his bold declaration. And, at that time, we hope to be privileged to look at the Lord’s official calendar with its explanatory notes and finally know for sure the birth date of Jesus Christ, the Only Begotten Son of God.
 James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ : A Study of the Messiah and His Mission According to Holy Scriptures Both Ancient and Modern, 1915, p. 104, “copyright September 1915 by Joseph F. Smith, Trustee-in-trust for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Free ebook here.
 Church History in the Fulness of times Student Manual, “Chapter 36: The Church in the Early Twentieth Century,” James E. Talmage picture, CES Religion 341-343, 1989.
“Within the month of September, 1915, there will be issued from The Deseret News press a book entitled Jesus the Christ. This important work has been prepared by appointment and is to be published by the Church. The field of treatment is indicated on the title-page as ‘A study of the Messiah and his mission, according to Holy Scriptures both ancient and modern.’
“The book is more than a ‘life of Christ’ to the ordinary acceptation of that tile, as it not only treats at length the narrative of our Lord’s life and ministry in the flesh, together with his death, resurrection, and ascension, but deals also with this antemortal existence and Godship, and with his ministry in the resurrected state, both of old and in the current dispensation. The sacred subject of our Savior’s life and mission is presented as it is accepted and proclaimed by the Church that bears his Holy Name.
“We desire that the work, ‘Jesus the Christ’ be read and studied by the Latter-day Saints, in their families, and in the organizations that are devoted wholly or in part to theological study. We commend it especially for use in our Church schools, as also for the advanced theological classes in Sunday schools and priesthood quorums, for the instruction of our missionaries, and for general reading.
“Joseph F. Smith,
Anthon H Lund,
Charles W. Penrose,
First Presidency of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Salt Lake city, Utah, Aug. 13, 1915.”
See also: Joseph F. Smith, Anthon H Lund, and Charles W. Penrose, “Tidings of Comfort and Joy’ from the First Presidency,” in Messages of the First Presidency, edited by James R. Clark, 4:347, December 18, 1915, RPM note: This several page message relates important milestones and progress of the Church during the year 1915. Here is the excerpt relating to “Jesus the Christ” being published:
“The dissemination of Church literature and the publication of the newspapers and magazines containing Church and general news and doctrinal articles for old and young, are an increasing factor in the promulgation of the gospel of the Savior, the anniversary of whose birth we are just about to celebrate. A notable work of this character, recently issued from the press of the Deseret News, written by Elder James E. Talmage of the Council of the Twelve Apostles, Jesus the Christ is appropriate for Christmas circulation, and being published by authority of the Church, is worthy of perusal by its members and instructors. It differs from all other volumes on the history of the world’s Redeemer, in scope and extent of the subject and the accuracy of detail. It may be ranked as a standard of historical and religious information.”
“The First Presidency asked James E. Talmage to compile a series of lectures he had given a decade earlier on the life of the Savior into another book that could be used by the general membership of the Church. Elder Talmage began in earnest to work on the manuscript, but he still had to squeeze the actual writing between his other duties. He was spared many of his stake conference assignments, however, and wrote most of the book in the Salt Lake Temple. He seldom returned home before midnight, and the marvelous book Jesus the Christ was completed in just seven months.”
“In all probability the 6th of April is the anniversary of the birthday of our Lord.
[However,] the organization of the Church in the year 1830 is hardly to be regarded as giving divine authority to the commonly accepted calendar. There are reasons for believing that those who tried to ascertain the correct time [of the Savior’s birth] erred in their calculations, and that the nativity occurred four years before our era all that this Revelation means to say is that the Church was organized in the year that is commonly accepted as 1830, A.D.”
“The purpose of personal study is to strengthen your knowledge and testimony of the restored gospel and help you prepare to meet the needs of those you teach. In your personal study, focus on the standard works and the approved missionary library: Jesus the Christ [768 pages], Our Heritage [152 pages],
Our Search for Happiness [128 pages], True to the Faith [189 pages].”
 “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” Thinking Aloud, KBYU program, April 18, 2012.
“Jeffrey R. Chadwick, a member of BYU’s department of Church History and Doctrine, elaborates on possible historical dates for the birth of Jesus Christ. Chadwick’s article is titled “Dating the Birth of Jesus Christ,” and appeared in the December 2010 issue of BYU Studies. Original airdate: 4/18/2012″
 “The Origin of Man by the First Presidency of the Church,” Ensign, Feb 2002, originally published in 1909.
“It appears that whenever Latter-day Saints connect the date of Jesus’s birth with April 6, they have D&C 20:1 in mind. This verse is the opening preface that dates the “Church Articles & Covenants,” which were evidently transcribed on April 10, 1830, after the Church was organized as a religious association under New York law on April 6, 1830. . It appears that this verse, which is part of the initial heading of the section, is not a part of the revelation proper. [RPM note: Consider sections 124 and 128, letters from Joseph Smith.] For this reason, many people have thought, and probably correctly so, that these words are simply a way of stating the date on which the Church was organized. Indeed, in the historical record the Lord commanded John Whitmer to keep (see D&c 47:1), Whitmer used the exact language employed in D&C 20:1, but in reference to a different date. “It is now June the twelfth, one thousand eight hundred and thirty one years, since the coming of our Lord and Savior in the flesh.”
RPM Note: “these words are simply a way of stating the date” >>> Whether or not this statement is true in describing normal writing practices by Joseph Smith’s scribes, in both the Book of Commandments and the 1835 Doctrine and Covenants, each edited and corrected by Joseph Smith, the 20:1 verse reads as we have it in our modern scriptures as part of the text of the section 20 revelation. However the verse came about, it can still be a catalyst for inspiration as Elder Talmage has clearly claimed. When Joseph F. Smith and the First Presidency and the Twelve reviewed Jesus the Christ in those 18 sessions over two months, I can’t believe that a faulty verse needing re-translation or revision would have passed their scrutiny. If there were any doubts about the wording or reliability of the verse (and Elder Hyrum M. Smith doubtless brought up the same issues discussed in the BYU Studies article), I believe that it would have not been used as the basis of an important sweeping claim about Christ’s already controversial birth date and Elder Talmage would have at least revised it to make a less powerful statement.
Jensen, Robin Scott, Robert J. Woodford, and Steven C. Harper, eds. Manuscript Revelation Books. Facsimile edition. Second volume of the Revelations and Translations series of The Joseph Smith Papers, edited by Dean C. Jessee, Ronald K. Esplin, and Richard Lyman Bushman. Salt Lake City: Church Historian’s Press, 2009, pp. 47-48, 387-388.
 “Speaking of the resurrection of the dead, concerning those who shall hear the voice of the Son of Man: And shall come forth; they who have done good, in the resurrection of the just; and they who have done evil, in the resurrection of the unjust. (John 5:29) Now this caused us to marvel, for it was given unto us of the Spirit. And while we meditated upon these things, the Lord touched the eyes of our understandings and they were opened, and the glory of the Lord shone round about.” (D&C 76:16-19)
“On the third of October, in the year nineteen hundred and eighteen, I sat in my room pondering over the scriptures; As I pondered over these things [1 Peter 3:18-20 and 1 Peter 4:6] which are written, the eyes of my understanding were opened, and the Spirit of the Lord rested upon me, and I saw the hosts of the dead, both small and great.” (D&C 138:1, 11)