An often overlooked pattern recurs in scripture that teaches us how to draw closer to God. It is something that prophets and intent disciples have demonstrated in their spiritual journeys, and, of course, it is a practice that required something of them.
The pattern is going to the woods to pray. I know it sounds simple, but the practice of this principle has changed the world.
Those “woods” are referred to in the scriptures as:
An exceedingly high mountain
Our secret places
A place apart
It can even refer to the temple
Though, each of these places is different, what they share, is that they are a place apart that required those who came there to pray to abandon the clatter of the world as they sought the Lord earnestly. The results have been remarkable.
Let me give you ten examples to paint the picture clearly so that there can be no mistaking this principle of the gospel. I will only refer to actual woods in my examples.
Young Joseph and Prayer in the Woods
Of course, the classic example is the young boy, Joseph Smith. He was one day reading in epistle of James, the first chapter and fifth verse: “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.” Then Verse 6: “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering…”
Joseph said that no scripture came with greater force to the heart of man that this one did at that time to his. He pondered and thought about it over and over again, knowing that if any one lacked wisdom (to know which Church he should join)—he did—and how else could he obtain wisdom but by asking God himself.
Isn’t it interesting that he chose the woods on his father’s farm to go? It wasn’t the cabin, or his bedroom or a nearby meadow, or the local church building—it was the woods.
Remember he said: “After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God.”
Of course, you know what followed—the greatest religious and spiritual experience since the atonement, death and resurrection of the Savior.
Here Joseph was able to personally see the Father and the Son.
Here Joseph was given great knowledge.
Here Joseph was visited by many angels who attended him in this vision.
Here Joseph was taught his mission and calling on the earth.
Here Joseph was reminded who he was.
Here Joseph was shown many things which he did not tell us, but comprise the bulk of the First Vision.[i]
Joseph and Oliver on Friday, May 15, 1829
Joseph and Oliver had been working on the translation of the ancient gold plates—the Book of Mormon—for 38 days by Friday, May 15, 1829. Oliver Cowdery describes these events thus: “These were days never to be forgotten.”[ii]
Both recorded that they had been translating the account in 3rd Nephi, where the Savior comes and visits the Nephites in person and he immediately teaches them the mode and manner and authority of baptism so that there might not be any disputations among them.
This caused Joseph and Oliver to stop the translation and discuss the authority to perform the ordinance of baptism. They had some discussion that Friday morning and finally decided to ask the Lord for further light and knowledge on the subject.
What did they do? They retired to a secluded place in the woods there on Joseph and Emma’s 13 1/2 acres of land which ran south to the banks of the Susquehanna River.
Oliver recorded: “The Lord, who is rich in mercy, and ever willing to answer the consistent prayer of the humble, after we had called upon Him in a fervent manner, aside from the abodes of men, condescended to manifest to us His will. On a sudden, as from the midst of eternity, the voice of the Redeemer spake peace to us [that’s a [part of the vision we never talk about], while the veil was parted and the angel of God came down clothed with glory, and delivered the anxiously looked for message, and the keys of the Gospel of repentance. What joy! what wonder! what amazement! While the world was racked and distracted—while millions were groping as the blind for the wall, and while all men were resting upon uncertainty, as a general mass, our eyes beheld, our ears heard, as in the ‘blaze of day’; yes, more—above the glitter of the May sunbeam, which then shed its brilliancy over the face of nature!”
Joseph and Oliver had the Aaronic Priesthood conferred upon their heads and all the keys of that priesthood—the keys of the ministering of angels and of baptism my immersion for the remission of sins. This priesthood held the keys to the gates of the celestial kingdom.
Joseph and Oliver were then commanded to exercise that priesthood then and there and, baptized each other in, what I call, the Sacred Susquehanna River. Did you know that the Susquehanna River is considered by most the oldest river system in the world? That is but a footnote.
Oliver recorded again: “I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion.”[iii]
Again—Joseph and Oliver went to the woods to pray and they received great blessings.
Samuel Harrison Smith in the Woods to Pray that Very Same day
At that same time that Joseph and Oliver were there experiencing all these grand things, Joseph’s younger brother, Samuel Harrison Smith, was also in those same woods praying. He had been there at the little farm in Harmony, Pennsylvania for the spring to help Joseph with the planting of the crops and to do whatever he could to help with the work. He had known about Joseph and Oliver going to the woods to pray that Friday morning so he did the same. As Joseph and Oliver were on their return to the house, they overheard Samuel in a secluded spot, engaged in secret prayer. Joseph and Oliver approached him—their clothes soaking wet as they had just returned from the river and their own baptisms.
Here is what I think is fascinating from Lucy Mack Smith’s record of this event: “Joseph said that he considered it a sufficient testimony of Samuel’s honesty of heart and zeal for religion that they had found him privately bowing before the Lord in prayer, and that he thought it was an evidence of readiness for baptism. Oliver was of the same opinion, and they spoke to Samuel, who went with them straightway to the water and was baptized.[iv]
What a scene of love! What joy for all three of them! All because they went to the woods to pray and fervently seek the Lord for knowledge and understanding.
Joseph and Oliver Running into the Woods for Protection and the Restoration of the Melchizedek Priesthood
Towards the end of May, 1829, perhaps two weeks after the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood, Joseph and Oliver were called into court to stand trial, accused of being false prophets.
These were frivolous charges and were brought on by people who were out to hurt them.
Midway through the trial, the judge asked the defendants, Joseph and Oliver, to take a brief recess and come into chambers with him. The judge explained that there was a mob gathering outside with the intension of doing them great harm, perhaps even lynching them. He said that they could escape through his window and he would try to stall them people as long as he could, knowing that they were innocent men.
Joseph and Oliver went through the window and began heading as fast as they could, where? Into the woods. It wasn’t long until the mob was after them and came with great fury, seemingly from all directions. Joseph was known for his great physical strength and stamina—Oliver was not nearly as strong.
They ended up running all night long, through the woods and down along the banks of the Susquehanna River. They ran and ran, seldom able to stop for even a brief break. Just as the sun began to rise and peaked through the trees (they had run all night), they stopped, nearing complete exhaustion.
At that moment Oliver nearly collapsed. Joseph had to physically hold him up. Oliver cried out: “How long O Lord, O How long Brother Joseph have we got to suffer these things?”
At that moment, in these woods, right along the shores of the Susquehanna, Peter, James and John appeared to them and conferred upon them the Melchizedek Priesthood and the keys of the Apostleship, and keys of the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times, which keys they held. This was the blessing that was extended to them—thus, our celebration and commemoration in May is not just for the Aaronic Priesthood but for the Melchizedek Priesthood as well.[v]
The Three Witnesses of the Book of Mormon on the Whitmer Farm
Lucy Mack Smith recorded:
The next morning after breakfast, we repaired to the sitting room, and after attending the morning service, namely reading, singing, and praying, Joseph arose from his knees and approached Martin with a solemnity which thrills through my veins to this day, whenever it comes to my recollection. “Martin Harris,” he said, “you have got to humble yourself before your God this day and obtain, if possible, a forgiveness of your sins. If you will do this, it is God’s will that you and Oliver Cowdery and David Whitmer should look upon the plates.”
“Soon after this, these four left and went into a grove a short distance from the house, where they continued in earnest supplication to God, until he permitted an angel from his presence to bear to them a message, declaring to them that all which Joseph had testified of concerning the plates was true, and showing them the same.”[vi]
Of course we know that this was a grand vision—they were able to see the Gold Plates, the Liahona, the Urim and Thummim, the Breast Plate, The Plates of Brass and the Sword of Laban. Also in this Sacred Grove of trees on the Whitmer Farm they were able to hear the voice of God who said, “That part of the record which my servant Joseph has translated is true and you must testify of it to all the world.”
David Whitmer recorded his feelings about hearing the voice of Moroni: “…and the voice, majestic, ringing out from earth to the mighty dome of space, still lingers in [my] ears like a chime of silver bells.”[vii]
Enos and Prayer in the Woods
You are familiar with Enos in the Book of Mormon:
“Behold, it came to pass that I, Enos, knowing my father that he was a just man—for he taught me in his language, and also in the nurture and admonition of the Lord—and blessed be the name of my God for it—
“And I will tell you of the wrestle which I had before God, before I received a remission of my sins.
“Behold, I went to hunt beasts in the forests; and the words which I had often heard my father speak concerning eternal life, and the joy of the saints, sunk deep into my heart.
“And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.
“And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.
“And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.”[viii]
The invitation to us is clear from this story in the Book of Mormon.
Lucy Mack Smith and Prayer in the Woods
When Lucy Mack Smith and Joseph Smith, Sr. and their family was driven from Ohio to Missouri, Lucy recorded her experience of coming near to death.
“We traveled on through many trials and difficulties. Sometimes we lay in our tents through a driving storm. At other times we traveled on foot through marshes and quagmires, exposing ourselves to wet and cold. Once we lay all night in the rain, which descended in torrents, and I, being more exposed than the other females, suffered much with the cold, and upon getting up in the morning, I found that a quilted skirt which I had worn the day before was wringing wet, but I could not mend the matter by changing that for another, for the rain was still falling. I wore it in this situation for three days. In consequence of this, I took a severe cold and was very sick, so that when we arrived at the Mississippi I was unable to sit up at any length and could not walk without assistance…
“I was no longer able to ride in a sitting posture, but lay on a bedstead carefully covered, as the fresh air kept me coughing continually. My husband did not much expect me to live to the end of the journey, for I could not travel sometimes more than four miles a day. But as soon as we arrived at Huntsville, he sought a place where we might stop for some time, so that all that nursing could do for me could be done.
“Going as far as Huntsville was my own request, but they did not know why I urged the matter. The fact was, I had an impression that if I could get there and be able to find a place where I could be secluded and uninterrupted in calling upon the Lord, I might be healed. Accordingly, I seized upon a time when they were engaged, and by the aid of staffs I reached a fence, and then followed the fence some distance till I came to a dense hazel thicket. Here I threw myself on the ground and thought it was no matter how far I was from the house, for if the Lord would not hear me and I must die, I might as well die here as anywhere. When I was a little rested, I commenced calling upon the Lord to beseech his mercy, praying for my health.
… I urged every claim which the scriptures give us and was as humble as I knew how to be, and I continued praying near three hours.
At last I was entirely relieved from pain, my cough left me, and I was well…I arose and went to the house in as good health as I ever enjoyed.[ix]
I submit to you that we are not just talking about an agrarian, rural society here—we are talking about people who understood that there are times when we must remove ourselves to a place apart and plead with the Lord for the things that we need and desire of Him—and learn to exercise great faith.
Lorenzo Snow and Prayer in the Woods
Here is Eliza R. Snow’s account of her brother Lorenzo’s experience not long after he had been baptized into the Church.
“Some two or three weeks after I was baptized, one day while engaged in my studies, I began to reflect upon the fact that I had not obtained a knowledge of the truth of the work—that I had not realized the fulfillment of the promise “he that doeth my will shall know of the doctrine,” and I began to feel very uneasy. I laid aside my books, left the house, and wandered around through the fields under the oppressive influence of a gloomy, disconsolate spirit, while an indescribable cloud of darkness seemed to envelop me. I had been accustomed, at the close of the day, to retire for secret prayer, to a grove a short distance from my lodgings, but at this time I felt no inclination to do so. The spirit of prayer had departed and the heavens seemed like brass over my head. At length, realizing that the usual time had come for secret prayer, I concluded I would not forego my evening service, and, as a matter of formality, knelt as I was in the habit of doing, and in my accustomed retired place, but not feeling as I was wont to feel.
“I had no sooner opened my lips in an effort to pray, than I heard a sound, just above my head, like the rustling of silken robes, and immediately the Spirit of God descended upon me, completely enveloping my whole person, filling me, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, and O, the joy and happiness I felt! No language can describe the almost instantaneous transition from a dense cloud of mental and spiritual darkness into a refulgence of light and knowledge, as it was at that time imparted to my understanding. I then received a perfect knowledge that God lives, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and of the restoration of the holy Priesthood, and the fulness of the Gospel. It was a complete baptism—a tangible immersion in the heavenly principle or element, the Holy Ghost; and even more real and physical in its effects upon every part of my system than the immersion by water; dispelling forever, so long as reason and memory last, all possibility of doubt or fear in relation to the fact handed down to us historically, that the “Babe of Bethlehem” is truly the Son of God; also the fact that He is now being revealed to the children of men, and communicating knowledge, the same as in the Apostolic times. I was perfectly satisfied, as well I might be, for my expectations were more than realized, I think I may safely say in an infinite degree.
“I cannot tell how long I remained in the full flow of the blissful enjoyment and divine enlightenment, but it was several minutes before the celestial element which filled and surrounded me began gradually to withdraw. On arising from my kneeling posture, with my heart swelling with gratitude to God, beyond the power of expression, I felt—I knew that He had conferred on me what only an omnipotent being can confer—that which is of greater value than all the wealth and honors worlds can bestow. That night, as I retired to rest, the same wonderful manifestations were repeated, and continued to be for several successive nights. The sweet remembrance of those glorious experiences, from that time to the present, bring them fresh before me, imparting an inspiring influence which pervades my whole being, and I trust will to the close of my earthly existence.[x]
Joseph and Hyrum Smith and Prayer in the Woods
This example comes from the end of Zion’s Camp march after the cholera had broken out among the camp. Sixty-eight of the camp contracted cholera. Fourteen died.
“Soon after arriving at the point of destination, the cholera broke out among us, and the brethren were so violently attacked that it seemed impossible to render them any assistance. They immediately sent for us to lay hands on them, but we soon discovered that this also was the judgment of the Almighty, for when we laid our hands upon them in the name of the Lord in order that they might be healed, the disease instantly fastened itself upon us. And in a few minutes we were in awful distress. We made mute signals to each other and left the house for the purpose of going into some secluded place to join in prayer that God would deliver us from this awful influence; but before we could get a sufficient distance to be secure from interruption, we were scarcely able to stand upon our feet and we were greatly alarmed, fearing that we should die in this western wilderness so far from our families, without even the privilege of blessing our children or giving them one word of parting counsel. Hyrum cried out, ‘Joseph, what shall we do? Must we be cut off from the face of the earth by this horrid curse?’
“‘Let us,’ said Joseph, ‘get down upon our knees and pray to God to remove the cramp and other distress and restore us to health, that we may return to our families.’ We did so but without receiving any benefit, but still grew worse. We concluded, however, to make a second effort, and when we kneeled again, the cramp seized the calves of Joseph’s legs, gathering the cords into bunches, and then the operation extended in like manner all over his system. He cried heartily unto God, but the heavens seemed sealed against us and every power that could render us any assistance shut within its gates. The universe was still. ‘When we arose again,’ said Joseph, ‘I found Hyrum was in the same situation with myself.’
“We soon came to the resolution of appealing again to God for mercy, and not to rise from our knees until one or the other got a testimony that we should be healed, and he who received the first intimation from the Spirit should inform the other of the same. We prayed some time, first one and then the other, and soon perceived that the cramp began to loose its hold. In a short time Hyrum sprang to his feet and exclaimed, ‘Joseph, we shall return, for I have seen an open vision in which I saw Mother on her knees under an apple tree praying for us, and she is even now asking God, in tears, to spare our lives, that she may behold us again in the flesh.
The Spirit testifies to me that her prayers and ours shall be heard’-and from that moment we were healed and went on our way rejoicing.”
“Oh, my mother,” said Joseph, “how often have your prayers been a means of assisting us when the shadows of death encompassed us!”[xi]
We learn here, the power of family praying for family. I love Mother Smith’s love for her sons.
And now, one last example—the tenth—to bring this home to you:
Modern-Day Sacred Grove Experience
On Saturday, July 13, 1996, Maurine and I were leading a group of 46 on a Church History Tour. It was a very, very early that morning and we were just arriving with our bus at the Sacred Grove. We tell our people to trust us as we ask them to awaken at 4:00 AM and be on the bus no later than 4:30 so that we can arrive at the Grove no later than 5:00 AM. We know what happens [I hate to give away this secret] at 7:00 or 7:30 AM multiple busses of well-meaning Saints arrive (because they are there for the Hill Cumorah Pageant) so that their group can be the only ones in the Grove and have their own Sacred Grove experience. Before long there are three hundred or more people walking around in the Sacred Grove and it is hard to be alone.
We gave our little 10 or 15-minute lecture on the Grove, right by the Joseph Smith Cabin site, then we sent them into the Grove to seek the Spirit, to pray and to ponder—and/or just to feel the overwhelming significance of what happened there with the Prophet Joseph back in 1820. It was a glorious morning. Everyone was primed with the right thoughts, with prayer and with an understanding of the events here—and they headed alone into the grove.
There we were—a small group of us all alone in that Sacred Grove. But we soon discovered we were not alone at all. One other man had arrived to also be alone about the same time we did. We hadn’t noticed the White Suburban in the parking lot. This man had come because some things were weighing heavy upon him and he came to the woods—to these woods—to this Sacred Grove to pray and draw closer to God. Maurine’s brother, David Jensen, was with us and he was the first to meet this man. David was walking on the trail that leads out of the Grove and he felt a hand grasp his, and a voice that said, “David, what are you doing here?” David looked up and saw President Gordon B. Hinckley greeting him!
I think my point is now clear.
There are many things that weigh upon us in our mortal sojourn. None of us can carry the burdens of this life alone. There are times when we must turn aside from the abodes of men and find a place where we previously design to go and we look around to see that we are alone and kneel down to offer up the desires of our hearts in solemn and secret prayer.
We must do as Joseph did.
We must do as Oliver did.
We must do as Samuel Harrison Smith did.
We must do as the Three Witnesses did.
We must do as Enos did.
We must do as Lucy Mack Smith did.
We must do as Lorenzo Snow did.
We must do as Joseph and Hyrum and Lucy Mack Smith did, though separated by hundreds of miles.
We must do as Gordon B. Hinckley did.
Amulek and Prayer in the Woods
I end by quoting from Amulek in the Book of Mormon. This if from Alma chapter 34:
“Therefore may God grant unto you, my brethren, that ye may begin to exercise your faith unto repentance, that ye begin to call upon his holy name, that he would have mercy upon you;
“Yea, cry unto him for mercy; for he is mighty to save.
“Yea, humble yourselves, and continue in prayer unto him.
“Cry unto him when ye are in your fields, yea, over all your flocks.
“Cry unto him in your houses, yea, over all your household, both morning, mid-day, and evening.
“Yea, cry unto him against the power of your enemies.
“Yea, cry unto him against the devil, who is an enemy to all righteousness.
“Cry unto him over the crops of your fields, that ye may prosper in them.
“Cry over the flocks of your fields, that they may increase.
“But this is not all; ye must pour out your souls in your closets, and your secret places, and in your wilderness.
“Yea, and when you do not cry unto the Lord, let your hearts be full, drawn out in prayer unto him continually for your welfare, and also for the welfare of those who are around you.[xii]
May we, at times of great need, turn to the Lord in our secret places and in our wilderness, and in our woods where we can pour out our souls unto God and seek His choicest blessings upon us.
[i] See Backman, Milton V. Joseph Smith’s First Vision: Confirming Evidences and Contemporary Accounts. Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, 1971, pp. 112-137.
[ii] See Joseph Smith History, Chapter 1, Endnote.
[iii] Messenger and Advocate, vol. 1 (October 1834), pp. 14–16.
[iv] Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith By His Mother by Lucy Mack Smith, Scot Facer Proctor, Maurine Jensen Proctor. Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1996, Chapter 27, pp. 185-86.
[v] See Addison Everett to Oliver B. Huntington, February 17, 1881, recorded in “Oliver Boardman Huntington Journal no. 14,” under backdate of January 31, 1881; and “Oliver Boardman Huntington Journal no. 15,” entry for February 18, 1883, Archives and Manuscripts, Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah.
[vi] Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith By His Mother by Lucy Mack Smith, Scot Facer Proctor, Maurine Jensen Proctor. Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1996, Chapter 30, p. 199.
[vii] Cook, Lyndon W. David Whitmer Interviews: A Restoration Witness. Orem, Utah: Grandin Book Company, 1991, pp. 75; 78-79.
[viii] See Enos 1: 1-6.
[x] Biography and Family Record of Lorenzo Snow by Eliza R. Snow. Grandin Press, American Fork, Utah, 2010, Chapter 1, pp. 7-9.
[xi] Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith By His Mother by Lucy Mack Smith, Scot Facer Proctor, Maurine Jensen Proctor, Bookcraft, Salt Lake City, 1996, Chapter 42, pp. 318-19.
[xii] See Alma 34: 17-2