“Our whole strength rests on the validity of that vision. It either occurred or it did not occur. If it did not then this work is a fraud. If it did then it is the most important and wonderful work under the heavens.” Gordon B. Hinckley
Does God communicate with mankind? Sure, he spoke personally with Adam and Eve in the Garden, as some believe. How does God typically speak to us though? Through prophets, chosen seers set apart as His mouthpiece. He spoke to Jared, Enoch, Noah, Melchizedek, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Moses and Joshua, Isaiah, Malachi; John the Baptist, Jesus Christ and his Twelve Disciples, as well as a plethora of men and prophets in the Book of Mormon, Joseph Smith, and the prophets today, currently President Thomas S. Monson.
For most people, that last part is a whole lot to swallow. It’s for this reason I’m writing today about an experience had by Joseph Smith Jr that has come to be known as the First Vision.
Joseph Smith Jr. received his namesake from his father, Joseph Sr. His father and mother, Lucy Mack had eleven children, of which Joseph was the fifth. He was born on December 23, 1805 in Sharon, Vermont. In 1816, after several moves, Joseph Sr. moved to Palmyra, New York, and his family later followed. Up until the 1830’s, the nation was undergoing the Second Great Awakening, so called as it was a reaction against the Age of Enlightenment and the secularism that went along with it. Joseph Smith Jr. was raised in a family where they joined every morning and evening for prayers, scripture reading, and hymn-singing.
When he was 15, his mother, two brothers, Hyrum and Samuel, and his sister Sophronia joined the Presbyterian faith. In his recorded history, he states, “my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit” (Joseph Smith-History, v.8). Joseph wondered on matters deeply spiritual, and felt a great desire to join the correct, or at least the most correct church.
A scripture that can be recited by nearly every Latter-day Saint, it reads:
If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
Joseph Smith records he read the above scripture and determined to ask of God which church he must join. Others cite his brother William as saying Joseph heard the scripture quoted by a religious minister, and also suggesting his brother ask of God. Many of those who believe William believe that man was Methodist minister, Reverend George Lane, who visited the area around Palmyra during a large Methodist conference in 1819.
Before The Vision
In the spring of 1820, after coming to the conclusion that he would “do as James directs, that is, ask of God” (JS-H 1:13), he made his way into a grove of trees on their 100 acreage. When he found the place he had before decided to go, he knelt down and began a vocal prayer. He records that some great power took hold of him, binding his tongue. He records that “Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction” (JS-H 1:15). But he wasn’t. He did everything he could, praying for deliverance, and “at the very moment when [he] was ready to sink into despair and abandon [himself] to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin... just at this moment of great alarm...”
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me... When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
If we are to believe this, which many people do, in its simplest form it shows that God and Jesus Christ exist. Even more, it means they have bodies of flesh and blood like us, that we were created in their image, that they have two separate bodies, and that like the people in Biblical times, we’re not being left alone.
So Joseph Smith asked his question: Which church should he join? He was told that he shouldn’t join any of the churches, that none of them contained the fullness of Christ’s church. The way my missionaries explained it to me, the Gospel is like a glass table. After Christ and his disciples died (well, except John the Beloved and the three Nephites) the Gospel, or the table, shattered. From that, men picked up pieces of the Gospel and made their own churches, many, without a doubt, with the best of intentions. Each church had a piece, but not the every piece. The Restoration, completed through Joseph Smith, enabled that glass table to be repaired.
Like stated above, if this did occur, then Jesus Christ and God exist, and not only that, they also possess bodies of flesh, from their image we were created, and they possess separate and distinct bodies. As amazing as those concepts are, I think a greater reality is the fact that God hasn’t left us here to try to manage on our own, to try to work out our salvation without a chance of success. In other words, the promise that was made by James is true – if we ask God in faith, God will provide us with answers. Also, because of what Joseph experienced prior to receiving the Vision, he understood and appreciated the reality of Satan. Obviously, the big point of this is the fact that Joseph Smith was told all the churches at the time didn’t contain the truth, and this prepared him in his future task of restoring Christ’s church on the earth. President Joseph F. Smith said:
“The greatest event that has ever occurred in the world, since the resurrection of the Son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high, was the coming of the Father and of the Son to that boy Joseph Smith, to prepare the way for the laying of the foundation of his kingdom—not the kingdom of man—never more to cease nor to be overturned. Having accepted this truth, I find it easy to accept of every other truth that he enunciated and declared during his mission of fourteen years in the world.” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, p. 495-96.)
Inconsistencies (READ Assumed Problems)
There are nine accounts of the first Vision given by the Prophet Joseph Smith. There wouldn’t be anything wrong with this, critics say, except for the fact that they differ, some differing in a manner which seems to be great. I cannot enter into this in great detail, but I would like to touch on it, and since it was a problem for me in the early days of my membership, it seems important to me to include this and explain, at least a little, that just because they differ, it doesn’t mean the event never occurred, or that Joseph somehow evolved his story to be more and more grandiose. I won’t include the text of each version, but they were given as follows:
(1) the Prophet’s handwritten description in 1832, an attempt to start a manuscript history of the Church;
(2) a Church secretary’s brief 1835 journal entry of Joseph talking with a visitor who called himself Joshua, the Jewish minister;
(3) the 1838 history discussed above, published in 1842 and now in the Pearl of Great Price;
(4) Orson Pratt’s publication, the first publicly disseminated, of the Prophet’s vision in his Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions, issued in 1840 in Edinburgh, Scotland;
(5) Orson Hyde’s revision of Orson Pratt’s pamphlet, published in 1842 for German readers and adding some insights that may have come from his contact with Joseph Smith;
(6) the Wentworth Letter, created in response to editor John Wentworth’s inquiry and published by Joseph Smith in 1842 in Times and Seasons; this account adapted parts of Orson Pratt’s pamphlet;
(7) Levi Richards’s diary about Joseph Smith preaching in the summer of 1843 and repeating the Lord’s first message to him that no church was His;
(8) a newspaper interview in the fall of 1843;
(9) Alexander Neibaur’s 1844 journal entry of a conversation at the Prophet’s house. (Papers of Joseph Smith 1:1, 125–27, 265–67, 387–91, 405–9, 430, 444, 461.)
These accounts of the Vision are not all the same, obviously. So clearly something has to be wrong, right? Some critics cite this as evidence of an evolution of Joseph Smith’s experience. However, if a man were to get up on the stand in front of a judge on several different occasions, I think suspicion would arise if the man told the exact same story with the exact same words on each occasion. When I tell a story of one experience to a friend, I won’t emphasize the same points, or speak the same words I would use when talking to my mother, or a significant other, or a young child. It’s only through combining each record that we find the original. Just because some details are omitted in one version and included in another does not mean that those details have evolved through excessive story-telling or the like.
The 1932 record of the First Vision seems to refer to the presence of only one being. While I cannot provide the accounts (unless you go and pick up a copy of The Papers of Joseph Smith) in their entirety, this particular account refers to their being the Lord, who opened the heavens to Joseph, while the Son explains more to Joseph. This account seems to focus mainly on the words of the Saviour and seems to just hint at the presence of God there.
As my seminary teacher once told me: If the First Vision really happened, then Joseph is a Prophet. If Joseph is a Prophet, then the Book of Mormon is true. If the Book of Mormon is true, then the Church is truly God’s Church, and God's work.