Today is Joseph Smith's birthday. Contrary to the claims of our more extreme critics, Latter-day Saints don't put up "Smithmas" lights, sing "Smithmas" carols or recite the story of Joseph's advent. In fact, we generally don't mark his birthday at all, let alone celebrate it — and not only because it's swallowed up in the mega-holiday that follows 48 hours later.
However, perhaps a word or two about Joseph wouldn't be out of place today.
But first, a word about his associate, Oliver Cowdery. In April 1838, charged with serious offenses, Oliver was excommunicated from the church. He was not present to defend himself, though he always vigorously denied wrongdoing and eventually sought rebaptism. Before returning, however, he demanded that the accusations be retracted. Why? Because they were false but also in order to preserve his credibility as a witness to crucial founding events of the Restoration.
In 1846, Oliver wrote to Phineas Young that, "from your last (letter), I am fully satisfied, that no unjust imputation will be suffered to remain upon my character. And that I may not be misunderstood, let me here say, that I have only sought, and only asked, that my character might stand exonerated from those charges which imputed to me the crimes of theft, forgery, &c. Those which all my former associates knew to be false. I do not, I have never asked, to be excused, or exempted from an acknowledgement of any actual fault or wrong — for of these there are many; which it always was my pleasure to confess. I have cherished a hope, and that one of my fondest, that I might leave such a character, as those who might believe in my testimony, after I should be called hence, might do so, not only for the sake of the truth, but might not blush for the private character of the man who bore that testimony."
As with Oliver — who was indeed rebaptized in November 1848 — so with Joseph. Like the gospel writers, and like Peter and Paul, he testified of the divine Savior of humankind with the authority of direct personal experience. But what about his character? Is his testimony reliable? He was not perfect, and his critics often portray him as a scoundrel. However, they do him a deep injustice. His goodness and his sincere dedication to the Lord are evident in reminiscences from hundreds who knew him (conveniently gathered in Mark McConkie's valuable book "Remembering Joseph"), and shine out from his personal letters and journal entries (now being gathered and published in the monumental Joseph Smith Papers project).
Why does this matter? First and foremost, because Joseph Smith pointed to Christ. And, at this particular season, his testimony supplies powerful evidence that Christmas is about much more than mere Victorian sentimentality and commercialism.
Through Joseph Smith came the Book of Mormon, "which contains a record of a fallen people, and the fullness of the gospel of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles and to the Jews also; which was given by inspiration, and is confirmed to others by the ministering of angels, and is declared unto the world by them — proving to the world that the holy scriptures are true, and that God does inspire men and call them to his holy work in this age and generation, as well as in generations of old" (Doctrine and Covenants 20:9-11). It was written, as its title page explains, "to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations."
"And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him," he and Sidney Rigdon wrote following their great vision of Feb. 16 1832, "this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives! For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father."
As we celebrate the ancient birth and mission of Jesus Christ, it's fitting to reflect for a moment on the modern mission of Joseph Smith. His significance is secondary, but it derives from the Lord who called him, from the Savior of whom he testified and whose birth we celebrate at this season.
He was and is a credible witness.