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A course could easily be taught on the First Vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith which would last the whole of the year. There is so much to be learned and so little time to discuss it as a class, it truly requires study, meditation, pondering and prayer at home where the Spirit can touch the learner to understand the great truths of this remarkable theophany.
Joseph came from a home where trust in God and seeking the truth was a part of his family’s approach. Joseph’s mother, Lucy Mack Smith, nearly died from a bout with tuberculosis. At the moment when death was at her door she “covenanted with God that if he would let me live, I would endeavor to get that religion that would enable me to serve him right, whether it was in the Bible or wherever it might be found, even if it was to be obtained from heaven by prayer and faith.” 1 Those seeking the truth in those days, like Lucy, were called “seekers.” Lucy was a seeker. Joseph became a young seeker in the 1818-20 period.
In order to fulfill her promise, Lucy went forth striving to find the truth. “In the anxiety of my soul to abide by the covenant which I had entered into with the Almighty,” she wrote, “I went from place to place to seek information or find, if possible, some congenial spirit who might enter into my feelings and sympathize with me.
“At last I heard that one noted for his piety would preach the ensuing Sabbath in the Presbyterian church. Thither I went in expectation of obtaining that which alone could satisfy my soul-the bread of eternal life. When the minister commenced, I fixed my mind with breathless attention upon the spirit and matter of the discourse, but all was emptiness, vanity, vexation of spirit, and fell upon my heart like the chill, untimely blast upon the starting ear ripening in a summer sun. It did not fill the aching void within nor satisfy the craving hunger of my soul. I was almost is total despair, and with a grieved and troubled spirit I returned home, saying in my heart, there is not on earth the religion which I seek.” 2
Joseph’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., was also a spiritual man who had received a series of seven dreams or visions over a period of years in the which he was shown and taught many things concerning the coming forth of the Kingdom of God upon the earth. The influence and patterns of seeking after the truth, receiving heavenly manifestations and obtaining answers to prayers was something deeply set in Joseph’s soul by the time he was fourteen years old. Joseph, like his own parents, began about age twelve to seek after the truth and to come to know the will of God in his young life.
Joseph Smith himself gave us four accounts of the First Vision. These are called primary source accounts-accounts given by the author during his life time. The ones written by his own hand are called autographs. The earliest written account of the First Vision was given in Joseph’s 1832 history and is relatively short (just over 700 words), but very insightful and is an autograph. In it we see the process of his inner thinking, his pondering, his wondering, the motivation that led him to the Grove. “At about the age of twelve years my mind became seriously impressed with regard to the all important concerns for the welfare of my immortal soul which led me to searching the scriptures, believing, as I was taught, that they contained the word of God.” 3
Drawing from each of the accounts Joseph gave, and from some of the contemporary accounts that were given, one begins to piece together part of what happened that pivotal spring day of 1820. I have carefully studied all of the accounts numerous times and wrote the following some years ago. After reading the passage in James, Joseph came to the conclusion that he must seek out the knowledge he desired by asking God Himself, which church he should join. He believed that the promise of James was true.
“This was cheering information to him,” wrote Orson Pratt, “tidings that gave him great joy. It was like a light shining forth in a dark place, to guide him to the path in which he should walk. He now saw that if he inquired of God, there was not only a possibility, but a probability; yea, more, a certainty, that he should obtain a knowledge, which, of all the doctrines, was the doctrine of Christ; and, which of all the churches, was the Church of Christ.”
“On the morning of a beautiful clear day in the spring of 1820, Joseph retired to a place in the woods on his father’s farm where he knew he could be alone. This was his first attempt to pray vocally. These were familiar wood to him, friends. Looking around to be sure that he was alone, he knelt down to offer up the desires of his heart and simply ask God what he should do.
“No sooner had he begun to pray than he heard the sound of footsteps of someone coming from behind him. He sprang to his feet to see who it was, but he could see no one.
“He knelt again and tried to pray. ‘I had scarcely done so,’ he wrote, ‘when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me and had such astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me and it seemed to me…as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.’
“Joseph was alone, and it seemed that nothing could free him from this power of darkness. The question about religion seemed far from him now. At the very moment when Joseph was ready to sink into despair, to be overcome by this evil power from the unseen world, ‘not to any imaginary ruin but to an actual being…who had such a marvelous power as I had never before felt,’ this young boy, fourteen years old, exerted all his remaining powers to call upon God to deliver him from this enemy.
“At this moment of greatest alarm, ‘I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually [Joseph originally wrote gracefully ] until it fell upon me. It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.’
“‘One of them spake unto me calling me by name and said (pointing to the other) ‘This is my beloved Son, Hear him.’ ‘He spake unto me saying, ‘Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes and keep my commandments. Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life.’
“‘My object in going to enquire of the Lord,’ Joseph wrote, ‘was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join…I asked the personages who stood above me in the light which of all the sects was right…and which I should join. I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong.’ ‘The world lieth in sin at this time and none doeth good, no not one. They have turned aside from the gospel and keep not my commandments.’ The Lord also said ‘that all their Creeds were an abomination in his sight, that those professors were all corrupt, that ‘they draw near to me with their lips but their hearts are far from me, They teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of Godliness but they deny the power thereof.’
‘He again forbade me to join with any of them and many other things did he say unto me which I cannot write a this time.’ ‘I was given a promise that the fulness of the Gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.’
“When the light had departed I had no strength, but soon recovered in some degree, I went home…I leaned up to the fire piece. Mother enquired what the matter was. I replied, ‘Never mind, all is well. I am well enough off.’ ‘My soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me.’ God had pierced the heavens and spoken to man once more. It was the beginning of the Dispensation of the Fulness of Times.” 4
Hugh Nibley has written: “Must the church always have living prophets in its midst? It is not enough that we have the words of the prophets of old preserved in holy writ? The answer to that is clear enough…The true church must and will always have living prophets. But that is unwelcome news to the world. It has always been poison. It is the one teaching that has made the restored gospel unacceptable to the wisdom of men. A dead prophet the world dearly desires and warmly cherishes; he is a priceless tradition, a spiritual heritage, a beautiful memory. But woe to a living prophet! He shall be greeted with stone and catcalls even by pious people. The men who put the Apostles to death thought they were doing God a favor, and the Lord tells us with what reverence and devotion men adorn the tombs of the prophets whom they would kill if they were alive (Luke 11: 47-48). 5
What is this thing that brings about the wrath of men? Why are the prophets rejected by most of the people of their time? Brother Nibley continued:
“Before considering the test of a true prophet, we must make clear the fact that a prophet is a witness, not a reformer. Criticism of the world is always implicit in a prophet’s message of repentance, but he is not sent for the purpose of criticizing the world. Men know the world is wicked, and the wickedest ones know it best. To denounce human folly has been the avocation of teachers and philosophers in every age, and their reward, surprisingly enough, has not been death but usually a rather handsome fee…we find quacks, impostors, and miracle mongers flourishing throughout the Roman empire…traveling philosophers and high-powered professors indulging in the most unsparing and outspoken criticism of all established institutions…
“To come down to modern times, why were people so furiously angry with Joseph Smith? It was not for being a reformer or rebuking a naughty world. In his day, the most popular preacher was the one who could denounce the manners of the times most fiercely and paint the most lurid pictures of wrath to come. Nobody led militant campaigns against even the most rabid preachers of hellfire or swore to drink their blood…the country was full of strange separatist cults with strange social programs and strange moral practices such as the Mormons were falsely accused of, but no one thought it virtuous to burn their settlements or shoot them on sight. In what did the modern prophet’s deadly offense consist?…” 6
Joseph, as so many of the Prophets of old, said, “I had seen a light, and in that light I saw two personages who did in reality speak to me.” As soon as he said this to the world, all hell broke loose. That changed everything. And so he testified throughout his life. And so it was for him. “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.” (Joseph Smith History, 1: 25)
1 The Revised and Enhanced History of Joseph Smith by His Mother. Edited by Scot Facer Proctor and Maurine Jensen Proctor. Bookcraft, Salt Lake City , 1996, p. 48.
2 Ibid , pp. 49-50.
3 Papers of Joseph Smith . Edited by Dean C. Jessee. Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City , 1989, volume 1, p. 5, spelling and grammar corrected.
4 Proctor, Scot Facer. Witness of the Light, A Photographic Journey in the Footsteps of the American Prophet Joseph Smith. Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City , 1991, pp. 42-45.
5 Nibley, Hugh. The World and the Prophets. Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City , 1987, p. 6.
6 Ibid, p. 15.