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—Doctrine and Covenants, Section 20.
Here’s a tricky question, connected ultimately to the scriptural verse above: James Madison, fourth U.S. president, turned two years old on March 16, 1753. On what date was he born? Answer: March 5, 1750. The trick is that between those two dates, the calendar changed. England and her colonies switched from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar already in use by much of Europe. One element of the shift was the elimination of eleven days, September 3-13, 1752, so that festivals would be aligned with the seasons and stars as they had been at the time of the First Council of Nicea in AD 325. People went to bed the night of September 2 and woke up the next morning on September 14. A second element was to mark the beginning of the year on January 1st, as the Romans had, instead of March 25. So, in Virginia, during the first year of Madison’s life, the day after March 24, 1750 was March 25, 1751, and the day after December 31, 1751 was January 1, 1751. That was the Old Style calendar. In shifting to New Style, December 31, 1752 was followed the next day by January 1, 1753. The year 1752 was a short year that began on March 25 and ended on December 31. The dates January 1 through March 24, 1752 never existed in the sense that no one in England (or Virginia) ever woke up on a day that was identified by one of those dates on the day that it was lived; by the time those dates arrived by the Old Style calendar, that calendar had been abandoned, and by the time the New Style calendar was put into force, those dates were already in the past by its reckoning.
Now, to avoid any schenanigans in the style of Frederick the 21-year-old, leap-day-born, indentured pirate who had only seen five birthdays, the Calendar (New Style) Act 1750 stipulated that contracts entered before the shift would be enforced “at and upon the same respective natural days and times as the same should and ought to have been payable or made or would have happened in case this Act had not been made.” If a person had leased a house for a two-year period starting on the day Madison was born, March 5, 1750, then the last day of the lease would be March 15, 1752, the day before little James’ second birthday.
Now why had New Year’s Day been March 25? Two reasons are given. One was the convenience of having a legal year that began and ended at a time before planting and after harvest, so that it aligned with the time that tenancy of fields would commence. The second reason was that March 25 marks the Feast of the Annunciation, commemorating (as an anniversary) the anouncement of Gabriel to Mary that she was to bear Jesus. The first day of the first year of Our Lord was the day Jesus’ mother became pregnant and Christ was incarnated. (Kevin Barney wrote “April Sixth and the Conception of Jesus” at By Common Consent laying out how ancient scholars’ went about assigning the Annunciation to March 25.)
In England, March 25 is known as Lady Day, and the legal year that began on Lady Day of 1752 ended on April 4, 1753. The next legal year began on April 5, Old Lady Day. In 1800, the Old Style and New Style calendars diverged an additional day; the Old Style had a leap day in February, and the New Style didn’t. Old Lady Day shifted to April 6 where it has stayed put since. (Old Style didn’t matter any more in 1900.) So it is that today the English tax year runs from April 6 through April 5. For example, Ancestory.com has a webpage listing christenings and burials in Eldersfield, Worcestershire from 1766 to 1789. The entries were arranged from one Old Lady Day to the next until 1777 when the record keeping was changed to a January through December system. The transcription indicates that the scribe recorded the baptism of Hannah on January 18, 1777 under the 1776 year, then crossed it out and re-recorded the event under the 1777 year, the first one with its entries beginning in January. From The Law Journal Reports for the Year 1867, pages 1 and 2, we read: “This is to certify, that we the undersigned T.H. Reynolds and Eliza Reynolds agree to commence business at the Marsh Farm from Old Lady Day, 1861, taking to all the farm stock from our father, Mr. John Reynolds, for the sum of 650£ [. . .] each paying an equal sum of 325£ [. . .] in the case of the marriage of said Eliza Reynolds [. . .] Eliza Reynolds agrees to withdraw from partnership in the farm altogether, on receiving the half amount of money due from the farm [. . .] a valuation of the farm effects to take place at the Old Lady Day following such marriage.” From The London Literary Gazette; and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Science, &c., No. 937, Saturday, January 3, 1835, page 628, we find exerpts from Capt. Blakiston’s Twenty Years in Retirement (a sequel to Twelve Years’ Military Adventure), including this gem:
To settle down quietly was, of course, my first thought; but where? was the question. To live in a town would not be settling down quietly. There was too much din of life in that, and every second face I met was some fellow-actor’s in the scenes I had just quitted. I was, besides, extremely fond of field-sports, and my wife (bless my soul, I almost forgot her casting vote!) was always partial to a country life. So down to the country we must go. A visit to the parents of my wife, who lived in a fine hunting county, decided the thing; and forthwith I set about looking for a box in their neighborhood. This I was not long in discovering; and, after having set a country friend to make all the necessary inquiries about taxes, poor-rates, highway levies, &c. &c. (of which I knew about as much as the man in the moon), as well as to bargain for the rent, I was told that I might take possession of the premises on Lady Day. Lady Day! thought I; what the devil’s Lady Day? The Lord’s Day I knew well enough, though I had spent ten years in a heathen land; but I could not, for the life of me, make out what Lady Day meant. Then there was old Lady Day and new Lady Day; which did I choose to enter upon? Oh! the young lady, by all means.
The first verse of Section 20 is often taken by Latter-day Saints to imply that Jesus was born on April 6. (See “Was Jesus Born on April 6?” at Gospel Cougar for a collection of quotes by Church leaders to this effect.) It appears to me that the verse is following the Christian tradition that Jesus was incarnated on Lady Day, and it is appealing to notions of antiquity by marking that event on Old Lady Day. It would be interesting to look at the influence of these things on Joseph Smith. All four of his grandparents were born under the Old Style calendar, two still living on Old Lady Day, 1830, and English legal traditions were the pattern for the post-colonial United States. I suspect that Joseph Smith, Sr. signed several contracts that commenced on an April 6. Section 20 begins not with a revelation of the true day of Christmas, but instead with a reminder of a well-established Christian tradition that Christ came in the flesh nine months before his December 25 birth. Perhaps if the Church had been restored a century later through a people with a Russian Orthodox tradition, then its founding would be dated April 7.
—March 25 is the traditional date assigned for the Annunciation, the declaration of Gabriel to Mary that she would conceive in her womb and bring forth nine months thence, on December 25, a son named Jesus.
—Up through March 25, 1752, the Annunciation, also known as Lady Day, marked the beginning of the new year in England and her colonies.
—The shift from Old Style to New Style calendar left as a remnant the use of April 6, Old Lady Day, as the beginning of the legal year.
—D&C 20:1 is identifying the organization of the Church of Jesus Christ on April 6 as an anniversary of Christ’s conception.