Joseph Smith, Sr. and Lucy Mack Smith and their eight living children (they had lost two sons) were living in this snug little cabin in 1820. The cabin is located on the north end of the 100 acres they had purchased in 1818. They accidently built the cabin just off their land (by a tiny distance). Here in this 20 x 30-foot cabin, Joseph was having his thoughts about obtaining forgiveness for his sins, being deeply concerned about the eternal welfare of his soul and trying to determine which church he should join.
We came to the Smith Farm for many years and we were not even sure where this cabin was located. President Gordon B. Hinckley wanted it reconstructed and so, the cabin was built on the original foundation site and completed in 1998. I love standing in front of the cabin, here on the east side, and just pondering about this amazing Smith family and their son and brother Joseph who would change the whole world.
Joseph’s younger brother, William reported: “My father’s religious habits were strictly pious and moral. … I was called upon to listen to prayers both night and morning. … My…father and mother, poured out their souls to God, the donor of all blessings, to keep and guard their children and keep them from sin and from all evil works. Such was the strict piety of my parents. We always had family prayers since I can remember. I well remember father used to carry his spectacles in his vest pocket, … and when us boys saw him feel for his specs, we knew that was a signal to get ready for prayer, and if we did not notice it mother would say, ‘William,’ or whoever was the negligent one, ‘get ready for prayer.’”
A local circuit preacher, Reverend George Lane, had preached a powerful sermon called “Which church should I join?” and in that sermon he quoted James 1:5. When Joseph came home and later found that verse he recorded: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know.”
In 1998 Maurine and I were leading a tour here and as I was preparing the group to have their own walk and experience in the Sacred Grove, I had a thought press upon my mind. We had our son Andy with us. He just happened to be 14 years old. I asked him (and we were standing not far from this angle) if he would just walk down to the grove. I gave him no other instructions. He started walking towards the grove. He looked around. He hooked his thumb in his side pocket. He stopped and picked something up. He acted like a 14-year-old. It was on a beautiful early morning. By the time he had walked about 100 yards all 50 of us were in tears. We felt like we were creating a very sacred memory, more familiar than we could imagine.
This barn is not authentic to the Smith Farm but it is authentic to the times. It was the barn of John Young, father of Brigham Young and we use it every year to give our lectures on Moroni and the revelations given on the farm. Joseph may have walked by the barn on the way to the grove that morning—we don’t know his exact path, but it may have been a morning like this, with low-lying fog that the sun would soon burn off.
I love this little brook. It has three names in the records, Crooked Creek, Hathaway Brook and Stafford Creek. I grew up on a farm with a little creek—mine was called Spring Creek. I knew that creek from where it entered our land to where it exited. I built dams, skipped rocks, looked for frogs and snakes, threw in big rocks to make big splashes—I loved my creek. Farm boys know their creeks. Joseph would have crossed this creek on the way to the grove. The source of this creek is the back side of the Hill Cumorah! I think that is significant.
I loved what brought Joseph to the grove: Simple, child-like faith. “I looked upon the sun…and…the moon…and the stars shining in their courses,” and he thought, “if there is so much order in the heavens, why is there not order among man? Why so much confusion in religion?” He knew that he could only obtain the knowledge that he needed directly from God Himself. I do love that pure faith. He certainly gives each of us a pattern to follow.
Perhaps as he was about to enter the thicker part of the forest, heading to the place he had previously designed to go, he may have turned around and caught the first rays of the sun as they disseminated upon the morning dew. Joseph’s pantlegs would have been soaking wet from that dew as he trekked across the fields and weeds to get to the forest. He truly had no idea what was about to happen, he just trusted in the promise of James.
It’s most likely that his attempt to pray would have been on the Sabbath, and, as we have published often on Meridian, two scholars believe the date was Sunday, March 26, 1820. Any other early-morning attempt to leave the family for a good part of the morning might have been suspected as leaving the chores and responsibilities of the farm. Joseph wanted to be alone, he wanted to be away “from the abodes of men” and have his time with God.
Remember, Joseph is entering the grove in the early spring. There would be no leaves. No or very few buds, but the hophornbeam, the cherry, the elm, the beech and the shagbark hickory blossoms could have been plentiful! So, even though there were no leaves in the early spring, Joseph would have come into a beautiful forest, under a canopy of vibrant blossoms, each signifying a new beginning—the hope of a newness of life. It was a glorious scene, but soon to be made glorious beyond description by the Visitors from on high.
Inevitably when Maurine and I are walking through the Sacred Grove one or more of our tour participants will come up to us and whisper, “Where do you think the First Vision happened?” We whisper back, “We don’t know.” But then I say, “Let’s think about it, though. Do you see down there? Those are the low-lying parts of the grove. In the spring there can be a foot or more of standing water there. Remember, there are no leaves, so Joseph is going to make sure he can be alone and far from Stafford Road (that runs right through their farm) or from other family members. He’s likely going to go deeper into the woods and perhaps he would more likely be on some high ground. I just say this as a farm boy, trying to think like a farm boy.”
Joseph was certainly familiar with these woods if he was headed to a place he had “previously designed to go.” He says he went to a place where he had left his axe in a stump the previous day of work.
Joseph knelt down and began to offer up the desires of his heart. As he opened his mouth, he heard a stick crack from behind him, then as the sound of footsteps coming toward him. He sprang to his feet to see who was there. Thick darkness surrounded Joseph and he was filled with fear and inappropriate images, and his tongue grew thick and clave to the roof of his mouth so that he could not speak. He felt like he was doomed to utter destruction. Joseph was under attack from Satan himself.
“…at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction” Joseph records, “not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being…
…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.” In the 1839 draft of this account, Joseph is struggling to describe how the pillar of light came down. He used the word “gracefully” and then his scribe crossed it out at his direction and wrote the word “gradually.” How do we describe heavenly things? The best we can.
Joseph was immediately released from the darkness and fear that had come upon him and was quickened by the Spirit and filled with indescribable joy. The words of the hymn are so appropriate here, “Oh, what rapture filled his bosom, for he saw the living God!” And how exquisite the joy to hear the first word to pierce the veil: “Joseph!” There is something about hearing your own name. You want to be called by name. You want to be validated that you exist. You want to hear that someone else knows who you are. “Joseph! This is my Beloved Son. Hear Him!”
I got right down on the forest floor with my camera for this shot. I wanted to be at the angle and level where Joseph likely had been. There is something about touching the earth in this sacred place that is very powerful.
The sixteen words in the 1838 version of the First Vision that have nearly driven me mad are these: “…and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.” That is the door to all the things we do not know about the First Vision. Surely Joseph was shown, as the great heads of the various dispensations of the past were shown, the history of the earth, the great plan of salvation, the Grand Council of Heaven, the ending of the earth, the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ and many other things. We know that angels attended Joseph in the vision.
I took this photograph to represent Joseph gazing into the heavens and the vision closed and he was left to himself. But I love what he says in the 1832 account: “My soul was ﬁlled with love, and for many days I could rejoice with great joy. The Lord was with me.” So, really, Joseph was not left to himself.
I can’t imagine all that going through young Joseph’s mind as he made his way back to the cabin where his family had likely already breakfasted and perhaps had even wondered where Joseph was. Had Joseph told Alvin or Hyrum that he was going to the woods to pray? Had he told his angel mother? We are not told these things in the record.
We do know that when Joseph entered the cabin, this scene ensued. Joseph records: “…as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, ‘Never mind, all is well–I am well enough off.’ I then said to my mother, ‘I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.’” This was significant because Lucy, Hyrum, Samuel and Sophronia had recently joined the Presbyterian Church in Palmyra.
Imagine the excitement and the humility of the Smith family as they gathered around the table here in this sacred space and heard from Joseph all that he shared with them in this grand and glorious experience! What joy must have filled each heart.
Joseph said, poignantly and truthfully: “It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy?” “However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision…I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true…For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it.”