December 23 is the birthday of Joseph Smith, the first Mormon prophet. December 25 is the birthday of the Savior Jesus Christ. Which birthday will the Mormons be celebrating? Which of the two do they worship?
I’m a Mormon and let me tell you about my December. Right now, I’m mostly focused on Christmas. Yes, I celebrate it. I worship Jesus Christ and God, so Jesus’ birthday—even though it probably wasn’t on December 25—is very special to me. I collect nativity sets and keep many of them out all year long. They remind me that Jesus Christ chose to come to earth to give me a gift beyond anything I can ever imagine. He gave up what could have been an easy life to teach the gospel so I’d know about it today. He took on all my sins. I believe He took mine on separately and individually, making it a deeply personal gift, and that He did this for everyone. He atoned for my sins so I could repent and be forgiven. I believe He died on the cross so I could rise from the dead someday and live forever. He made it possible for me not just to live forever, but to return home to God’s presence. I need only love God and Jesus enough to become the sort of person who can help to make Heaven heavenly with my character and choices.
The Christmas season is one of great devotion to my Savior and to my Father in Heaven. They’re the center of my December activities and thoughts. That said, there is room for many things in my life and I also try to take a little time to honor Joseph Smith.
I don’t worship Joseph Smith. It’s not what we do with prophets. Growing up outside the Church, I first learned of prophets when I was around ten, but I learned only about Old Testament prophets. I was not taught to worship them and no one thought I would. The religious leaders and teachers in the various churches I visited taught me to honor and respect those prophets.
When I started learning about the Mormons, I saw that the Mormons viewed prophets, both ancient and modern, in the same way. They honor and respect, but don’t worship their prophets. It is always appropriate to show respect to those God has personally chosen to be His voice. Whether it is Moses or Joseph Smith, we can honor without worshiping.
While all prophets carry out the role of being special witnesses of Jesus Christ, Joseph did have even more responsibility than most modern prophets. The fullness of the gospel had been gone since soon after Jesus died. The Christians who survived the terrible trials of those early days did everything in their power to keep Christianity alive and to convert others when they could. They did their best to carry forth the doctrines Jesus had taught. However, even when the apostles were still alive, there had been debates and uncertainties the apostles had to continually try to straighten out. Now, with the apostles gone, and no prophet called due to the wickedness of the world, those Christians had no official source for doctrine. If they weren’t sure of what was right, they had to do the best they could. This often led to disagreements and that led to the formation of many new churches. (There are now over 40,000 Christian faiths.)
It wasn’t the first time God had removed prophets from the earth because there weren’t enough people listening to them, but this was the last time. God prepared Joseph to become the prophet and promised we’d not be without again. The last days are going to be hard—no loving God would send us through them without someone to show us the right path. The world is just so different from when the Bible was written and the confusion even similar faiths have about how to interpret various verses is proof alone that we need a prophet.
Joseph had it far harder than modern prophets. The job is never easy, but most today do not face regular persecution and danger to their lives. To make his life easier, he needed only to deny his personal contact with God and Jesus Christ, to pretend he made up all those revelations. Then he might have been allowed to live. But he could not do that.
However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision. I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise.
I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.
So it was with me. I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation (The Testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Mormon.org).
Joseph Smith’s deep commitment to obeying the teachings of God and Jesus Christ, and his willingness to sacrifice his entire life because he loved them is why Mormons take time to honor him—but not to worship him. That is reserved only for God and Jesus Christ.
Terrie Lynn Bittner
The late Terrie Lynn Bittner—beloved wife, mother, grandmother, and friend—was the author of two homeschooling books and numerous articles, including several that appeared in Latter-day Saint magazines. She became a member of the Church at the age of 17 and began sharing her faith online in 1992.