Because the Come Follow Me curriculum for the next several months is about revelations received in Kirtland and many Church members would like to understand that period better, Meridian is running this series of articles by Karl Ricks Anderson on this remarkable period in Church history. To read the previous article in the series, CLICK HERE.
Cover image by Scot Facer Proctor.
In addition to the many direct witnesses of the Savior, Kirtland visions of Deity created an abundance of secondary witnesses. Secondary witnesses were those who were present when the Savior appeared but did not see the vision itself. Nevertheless, these men and women witnessed outward manifestations of divine power and glory. Records indicate that more than two hundred men and women became secondary witnesses. These secondary witnesses had parallel experiences to witnesses in past dispensations.
For example, when the Lord appeared to Paul as he journeyed to Damascus, others who accompanied him became secondary witnesses to his vision. Paul’s companions didn’t see the Savior directly, but they saw the accompanying great light. Because they observed this outward manifestation of the vision, they knew that Paul saw the Savior. Paul states: Suddenly there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I fell unto the ground, and heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And I answered, Who art thou, Lord? And he said unto me, I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest. And they that were with me saw indeed the light . . . but they heard not the voice of him that spake to me.[i]
Moses is an example of an Old Testament parallel. During the time he was in the presence of the Lord on the mount, the children of Israel became secondary witnesses as they saw an intensive bright light. They compared that light or “glory of the lord” that surrounded Moses and the mount to a “devouring fire.”[ii] When Moses descended the mount from the presence of the Lord, the distinguishing outward manifestation of his experience shone in his face. What the children of Israel particularly noticed was “that the skin of Moses’ face shone.”[iii] Because his face bore this divine radiance, they knew that Moses was in God’s power.
The same phenomenon is true of those present during visions of Deity in Kirtland. Outward manifestations they mentioned the most were feeling a sense of divine power and seeing light or glory around or upon recipients of the visions. They often noted the light or glow that was reflected from the Prophet’s face. Few accounts of these secondary witnesses have survived. Specific remembrances in surviving accounts are also few. Many who were present may even have been witnesses of the Savior, but accounts are not specific enough to fully establish the fact.
More Than Two Hundred Secondary Witnesses
Historical accounts certify that more than two hundred individuals, like Paul’s companions on the road to Damascus, witnessed outward manifestations of visions of Deity in Kirtland. The actual number is in all probability greater, but existing records cannot document a higher number with certainty. Following are descriptions of meetings where the Savior was present and that produced secondary witnesses: [iv]
• November 7, 1830 – 30 newly confirmed members of the Church became secondary witnesses. John Murdock, one of those, said, “the Spirit rested on me as it never did before and others said they saw the Lord, and had visions.” Philo Dibble remembered the outward manifestations that were seen at baptisms during this period: “There were many signs and wonders seen in the heavens . . . A pillar of light was seen every evening for more than a month hovering over the place where we did our baptizing. One evening . . . the moon was not to be seen that night. Although it was cloudy, it was as light as noonday, and we could seemingly see . . . farther that night than we could in the day time.[v]
• May 1831 – 15 secondary witnesses attended a meeting at the Smith family home where Joseph Smith announced, “The Savior has been in your midst this night.” Mary Elizabeth Lightner said: “Those who looked at him [Joseph] that day said there was a search light within him, over every part of his body. I never saw anything like it on the earth. . .. [The] power rested down upon the congregation. Every soul felt it. The spirit rested upon us in every fiber of our bodies.” Then, Mary said, “All at once his countenance changed . . .; he got so white that anyone who saw him would have thought he was transparent. . .. I shall remember it and see in my mind’s eye as long as I remain upon the earth.”[vi] Through this experience, Mary became an effective secondary witness of the Savior. Throughout her life she bore a strong witness of His presence.
• June 3-6, 1831 – 22 secondary witnesses were present at the ordination meeting of the first High Priests where Joseph saw God and Jesus Christ. During the meeting they witnessed outward manifestations of glory and power. John Whitmer became a secondary witness, of which he wrote: “The glory of the Lord shone around.”[vii] It was said of Lyman Wight that “his countenance was a brilliant, transparent white.”[viii] Levi Hancock stated that “Lyman [Wight] was white.”[ix] Lyman wrote, “I . . . saw the visible manifestations of the power of God.”[x]
• February 16, 1832 – 12 men became secondary witnesses at the Johnson Home where Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon declared, “He lives for we saw him.”[xi] Philo Dibble wrote, “There were other men in the room, perhaps twelve.” He attested to the outward manifestations of the vision, which made him a secondary witness: “I saw the glory and felt the power but did not see the vision.” He also noted, “Joseph sat all the time in the midst of a magnificent glory.”[xii] Philo especially noted Joseph’s countenance: “His face shone as if it were transparent.”[xiii]
• March 18, 1833 – 14 High Priests became secondary witnesses in a School of the Prophets meeting when approximately six high priests, including Joseph Smith, Zebedee Coltrin, and John Murdock, saw visions of Deity. Those who didn’t see Deity apparently felt an unmistakable presence and became secondary witnesses through observing outward manifestations. Zebedee described the feeling that accompanied the visions as “a sensation . . . of consuming fire.”[xiv] He described the accompanying light as “brilliant.”[xv] Zebedee summed up the overwhelming intensity of these manifestations this way: “[The] glory and brightness . . . and . . . power was so great that had it continued much longer I believe it would have consumed us.”[xvi]
• January 21, 1836 – 36 Church leaders became secondary witnesses when approximately three brethren in addition to Joseph Smith saw the Savior in the Kirtland Temple when the ordinance of anointing with oil was introduced. In describing, Joseph said “the power of the Highest rested upon us, [and] the house was filled with the glory of God.”[xvii]
• January 28, 1836 – About 100 priesthood holders became secondary witnesses as they gathered in the Kirtland Temple and witnessed visions of Deity and other great spiritual manifestations. In describing the outward manifestations accompanying the visions of Deity that day, Harrison Burgess said “all at once there was a Heavenly and Divine Atmosphere surrounded them.”[xviii] He also said, “All who were in the room felt the power of God . . . and the power of God was made manifest [to all these in the assembly], the remembrance of which I shall never forget while I live upon the earth.”[xix] Harrison confirmed that he was a secondary witness as he also testified, “I beheld the room lighted up with a peculiar light such as I had never seen before.”[xx] Joseph Smith cited another manifestation: “President Sylvester Smith saw a pillar of fire rest down and abide upon the heads of the quorum, as we stood in the midst of the Twelve.”[xxi] Harrison also identified Roger Orton, another person in attendance, as a secondary witness when he wrote, “Roger Orton [was] enveloped in the light.”[xxii] William Smith, Joseph’s younger brother, was probably also in this same category given that Joseph wrote, “William Smith . . . saw the heavens opened.”[xxiii] Hyrum Smith was at least a secondary witness and probably saw the Savior in the Kirtland Temple. Harrison wrote, “Hyrum Smith [was] enveloped in the light. . .. Hyrum exclaimed, ‘I behold the angels of heaven.’”[xxiv]
Secondary witnesses testify of Joseph while receiving revelation or speaking
Secondary witnesses often testified of seeing a light or a heavenly glow surrounding Joseph, especially in his face, when he was receiving revelation or speaking under direction of the spirit. Dozens were present and observed Joseph receiving revelations. Orson Pratt, present when Doctrine and Covenants 51 was revealed, observed that “Joseph’s face was exceedingly white, and seemed to shine.”[xxv] Heber C. Kimball said, “When the Spirit of God was in him . . . his countenance was as white as the whitest thing you ever saw.”[xxvi]
Brigham Young, another witness, explained the source of this change in countenance: “Those who were acquainted with him knew when the Spirit of revelation was upon him, for his countenance wore an expression peculiar to himself while under that influence. He preached by the Spirit of revelation, and taught in his council by it, and those who were acquainted with him could discover it at once, for at such times there was a peculiar clearness and transparency in his face.”[xxvii]
Zebedee Coltrin also testified to the effect of receiving revelation manifest on the Prophet’s face. Zebedee said to John Taylor that “he had seen Joseph giving revelation when he could not look on his face, so full was he [Joseph] of the glory of God, and the house was full of the same glory.”[xxviii] Zebedee testified that “when Joseph came out of the translating room after having received the revelation on the word of wisdom . . . his face shone with brilliance.”[xxix]
God’s revelations to the Prophet Joseph Smith created a large pool of latter-day witnesses. These witnesses received an unquestionable testimony that the Lord lived and directed His Saints. These witnesses built faith and strength in others as they shared their testimony of Christ’s leadership. Knowledge of this leadership through His presence and through revelations given to Joseph Smith validated the Saints’ sacrifice.
[i] Acts 22:6–9.
[ii] Exodus 24:17.
[iii] Exodus 34:35.
[iv] Some attendance estimates are approximations.
[v] “Philo Dibble’s Narrative,” in Four Faith Promoting Classics (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968), 78.
[vi] Mary Elizabeth Lightner, typescript, April 14, 1905, 1, BYU Special Collections.
[vii] From Historian to Dissident: The Book of John Whitmer, ed. Bruce N. Westergren (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1995), 70.
[viii] Zebedee Coltrin, in Hyrum Andrus, “Little Known Friends of the Prophet Joseph Smith,”
[ix] Levi Hancock, Autobiography, copied by Clara E. H. Lloyd, typescript, 33, BYU Special Collections.
[x] “Lyman Wight,” Saints without Halos, accessed March 1, 2012, http://www.saintswithouthalos.com/m/310603–06_x4.phtml#endzc.
[xi] Doctrine and Covenants 76:23
[xii] Philo Dibble, “Recollections of the Prophet Joseph Smith,” Juvenile Instructor 27 (May 15, 1892): 303–4.
[xiii] “Philo Dibble’s Narrative,” 81.
[xiv] Zebedee Coltrin, Salt Lake School of the Prophets Minute Book, 1883 (Salt Lake City: Pioneer Press, 1992), 54.
[xv] Coltrin, in Minute Book, 54.
[xvi] Zebedee Coltrin, address at a meeting of high priests in Spanish Fork, Utah, February 5, 1878, Church History Library
[xviii] Diary of Charles Lowell Walker, ed. Karl Larson and Katherine Miles Larson, 2 vols. (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:483.
[xix] Burgess, Autobiography,102–3.
[xx] Burgess, Autobiography,102–3.
[xxii] Burgess, Autobiography,102–3.
[xxiv] Burgess, Autobiography,102–3.
[xxv] Orson Pratt, in Millennial Star 36 (August 11, 1874): 498.
[xxvi] Heber C. Kimball, in Journal of Discourses, 6:35.
[xxvii] Brigham Young, in Journal of Discourses, 9:89.
[xxviii] Coltrin, in Minute Book, 63.
[xxix] https://scholarsarchive.byu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=6137&context=etd p44.