Cover image: “Ask of God” by Sandra Rast.
For the past fifteen years, I have regularly spent time with my students going through the various first- and secondhand accounts of the First Vision. Those have been such marvelous experiences that I was inspired to put all the accounts together in a way that would make it possible for families to sit with each other and go through as complete an account of the First Vision as possible. I hoped that families would have the same kind of experience my students and I had.
Of course, putting something into writing forces one to wrestle with issues that do not necessarily come up when treating the same topic orally. Thus, I was not surprised when, while writing I Saw the Lord, I learned more, and fell more in love with the First Vision than ever. What was unexpected was to have learned so much about the applicability of the lessons of the First Vision in our lives today as I have spoken about the First Vision after writing the book.
When President Nelson urged us to prepare for this upcoming General Conference, to be held in April of 2020, I decided that until that conference, every time I spoke or lectured somewhere, regardless of the topic, I would find a way to include something about the First Vision. I did not expect that it would be as easy it was. I was also surprised by how much added depth and insight came as a result of looking at topics in light of the First Vision.
For example, the first lecture I gave this year was on the Signs of the Times and the great battles of the last days. In order to see how the First Vision could cast light on this subject, I first asked myself, “What are the essential elements of the First Vision?” It seemed to me that they were:
- Joseph Smith is confused and agitated
- Joseph searches the scriptures for answers
- Joseph seeks the Lord
- The power of Satan is revealed
- Satan’s power makes all seem hopeless
- Joseph is delivered by God
- Great joy and knowledge flow to Joseph
As I looked at this list, I was immediately struck by how similar this process was to the Last Days lecture I had already prepared and had given in the past.
|First Vision Events||Signs of the Times and Battles of the Last Days|
|Joseph is confused and agitated||Calamities cause the hearts of men to fail|
|Joseph searches the scriptures for answers and then seeks the Lord||For some, these calamities will cause them search the scriptures for Signs of the Times and also to turn to God|
|The power of Satan is revealed||Satan (referred to as the Great and Abominable Church, the Whore of All the Earth, Gog, etc.) will react to this by making war against the saints of God|
|Satan’s power makes all seem hopeless||In the face of the wars, rumors of wars, pestilence, and other onslaughts by Satan, many will begin to despair|
|Joseph is delivered by God||The saints of God will be saved by His coming in great glory|
|Great joy and knowledge flow to Joseph||A millennial reign of joy and peace will follow|
These parallels, and in particular the parallel between Satan’s attack on Joseph Smith and Satan’s attack on the saints of God, reminded me of Lehi’s vision. Because the next lecture I was going to prepare was on the worth of women, and because I felt that the mocking done by the people in the Great and Spacious Building was partially responsible for some women (and some men) failing to recognize their own worth, I felt there was value in exploring the connection between the process of the First Vision and Lehi’s dream. I found very strong connections.
|First Vision Events||Lehi’s Dream|
|Joseph is confused and agitated||Dark and Dreary waste|
|Joseph searches the scriptures for answers and then seeks the Lord||Lehi prays, sees that God’s love is available, and that the rod of iron can lead one there|
|The power of Satan is revealed||Mists of darkness confuse the way|
|Satan’s power makes all seem hopeless||People in the Great and Spacious Building mocking others can drive them away|
|Joseph is delivered by God||In Nephi’s version, Christ gives His saints power and glory to overcome the Whore of all the Earth|
|Great joy and knowledge flow to Joseph||Those who partake of the fruit feel of joy and love|
I found similar connections when I spoke about the Book of Abraham, the Scattering and Gathering of Israel, and the Babylonian Exile of Judah. Similarly, when I discussed with friends and colleagues the issues of anxiety and depression that many of our students are dealing with, I saw more echoes of applicability. I would therefore like to discuss below three of the lessons from the First Vision I find most powerfully relevant in our lives today. This is not comprehensive nor is it based on scientific surveys of what people struggle with and what helps them. What follows below is merely a summation of some of my experiences after having done intense researching and writing about the First Vision, followed by discussing it with others.
Joseph as an honest seeker of truth
One of the things that stands out the most to me about Joseph Smith’s experience is how much he was honestly seeking for the truth. We see this especially in the 1832 account. Joseph had become convinced that he needed to be saved, but he could not figure out how to make sure it happened. His mother had a different opinion on the matter than his father had; each preacher Joseph listened to also differed from the others. We learn from this earliest account that Joseph went through this process for a few years. This was not a short-lived desire and he did not find his solution quickly. He spent month upon month, year turning into years, visiting with others, attending meetings, and searching the scriptures.
Apparently, he went to meetings where people would “get religion;” they would stand up, shout, and make manifest the things they were feeling. Joseph said he wanted to have the same experience. He must have gone to many meetings hoping that it would be his time to feel saved by Jesus. But that experience never came to him. He could have faked it, but Joseph had too much integrity. He remarked on more than one occasion that he did not want to take the chance that he was wrong on a matter that was so important. He was fully committed to doing whatever was necessary, for as long as was necessary, to find the truth about how to save his soul.
For Joseph, this search was confusing and somewhat frightening. He tried talking with his family members and did not find a certain answer. He tried talking with respected people in the community. He tried attending church meetings. He tried reading the scriptures, but he found that each church interpreted them differently, and since he did not trust his ability to discern who was right, he found no answers in the scriptures. He was frustrated, agitated, and beginning to fear because he didn’t yet know how to save his soul. Still, he did not give up. It was a long time before he was led to the scripture that would convince him to seek knowledge directly from God. But at the right time, after years of effort and angst, the Spirit moved upon him to teach him what he should do.
It seems to me that this is very applicable to our lives. We all experience times when we just can’t figure out what to do. We each, eventually, come to the realization that no quantity of study on our part, no amount of our personal effort and ability, will yield the answers we need. Sometimes the process of searching can stretch into years. When we read of Joseph Smith reading James 1:5 one night, and the next morning praying and having a vision, it may seem like answers to our dilemmas should come quickly. But for Joseph it hadn’t really come promptly, it had come after years of great effort. Often it will be the same for us. The key is to never give up honestly seeking for truth. If we want quick answers more than we want truth, we will surely find those quick answers, even if they aren’t true. On the other hand, if we are determined to know God’s will, the truth as only He can reveal it, then we will persevere. We can take comfort in the knowledge that sometimes the answers don’t come easily or swiftly, but that they do eventually come. For some of us, the answers may take even longer than they did for Joseph. For others, it may come a bit more quickly. In either case, the experience of the Prophet teaches us that they will come as long as we don’t stop believing or seeking.
The Power of Despair
When trying to put together the sequence of events in the First Vision by pulling from nine sources, the part that proved most difficult for me was the portion that dealt with the attack by Satan. There were clearly many elements to that episode, but unlike most other parts of the story, there was not a readily apparent sequence. As I finally put the features of the attack together in what seemed to be the right chronology, it seemed very disjointed. Upon further reflection, I realized that this should not have been surprising to me. Of course it seemed fragmented and choppy because Joseph had experienced it that way. In fact, I have come to believe that one element of the attack was the overwhelming emotion which occurred as so many things and feelings happened at one time. Satan threw everything at the boy prophet all at once. He created the sense that someone was near Joseph, bringing about fear. He filled his senses with darkness. He made it difficult for Joseph to call on God. Further, he filled him with feelings of hopelessness and despair. While Joseph struggled against all of this for some time, after a while he began to believe he would probably not survive this attack. He began to think there was no way out and that this was just too much for him. This was probably the worst part of the attack.
As I pieced this picture together, I couldn’t help thinking of the many students and loved ones I know who struggle with similar feelings. Let me be clear, the oppression of anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness are real attacks, not an “imaginary ruin” (JSH 1:16), and feelings of fear and of hopelessness are becoming all too common. Many try to soldier on for years, just trying to somehow make it through their terrible experience. However long the struggle is, it seems longer because of the depth of dark feelings that have a way of unnaturally drawing out every moment of despair. Then the length of the struggle itself becomes part of the feeling of despair. It seems as if there is no end, as if this will last forever. That is when it seems unsurvivable. That is when hopelessness reaches its dark talons deep into the flesh of our soul in such a way that it feels there is no hope of forcing the grip to loosen. Today there are many who feel they are under an attack so real that they will have to abandon themselves to destruction (JSH 1:16).
It is important to realize that Joseph’s deliverance did not come all at once. While he continued to try to call upon God in whatever way he could, he had not been able to do so aloud because his tongue was swollen and sticking to the top of his mouth, or at least so it felt. The first hint at deliverance came when, after continuing to try to ask for help throughout his dark ordeal, Joseph suddenly felt his tongue loosed just a little. That gave him the ability to call all the more on God. I do not know how long it was after regaining the use of his tongue before he received a greater deliverance, but I believe it is significant that deliverance began not with the dissipation of darkness, but with the ability to continue to call for deliverance. The situation had gotten that bad; it had gotten to the point where the young man would not even have been able to ask God for help without God’s help to allow him to ask for it. That little bit of aid, the small amount of extra, loaned strength, allowed him to continue until greater deliverance could come. I wonder how often such is the case for us. I wonder how often we don’t recognize the aid that God gives us as He helps us to get by just enough to keep asking for help. And yet, there is no more important form of support. If God will enable us to find the strength to keep coming to Him, we can all be assured of eventual deliverance.
That is just what happened to Joseph. After being aided enough to call on God, eventually a brilliant blast of light chased away the shadow; full freedom from darkness and despair came with that beam of radiance. This kind of deliverance is in the future for all of us. Whatever form of hopelessness, gloom, or black despondency we are going through, we can be sure that, eventually, a light more brilliant than we have ever imagined will shine upon our lives and be our new reality. Fortunately, we can also be sure that until that day, the Lord will give us the strength to keep begging for that day. Thank the Lord that it happened for Joseph and will happen for us.
The Reality of God’s Touch
The final applicable aspect of the First Vision I wish to discuss is one that I did not include in the book. It was not part of the publication because it was a third-hand account, and that kind of account can be too problematic from a scholarly point of view. While as a scholar I must maintain questions about this account, I personally believe it took place.
Charles Lowell Walker joined the church in England and eventually emigrated to Salt Lake City. He was an excellent journal keeper, though he is probably best known for writing hymns such as “Dearest Children, God is Near You.” In his journal, he records attending a “Fast Meeting,” where he heard John Alger tell the story of the First Vision as Alger had heard it from Joseph Smith. Afterwards, Walker and some of his friends asked Alger more about what he had said, and Alger told them some more. Walker recalled exactly where he was when he asked Alger (at the bottom of the stairs of the meetinghouse), and Alger (at least according to Walker) recalled exactly where he was when he heard the story from Joseph Smith (in the house of Father Smith in Kirtland), and the exact hand motions Joseph Smith had used to illustrate his story. The recollection of such details lends credence to the account, though we really can’t be sure of its accuracy.
The part of the story that caught both Walker’s and my attention was that Alger recalled Joseph Smith saying, “That God touched his eyes with his finger and said, ‘Joseph this is my beloved Son hear him.’ As soon as the Lord had touched his eyes with his finger, he immediately saw the Savior.” This is a remarkable detail in many ways. It reinforces the corporeality of God’s being. It informs us of how close the divine beings were to Joseph Smith, for they were clearly within touching distance. It also tells us so much more.
How blessed Joseph was to have this experience. What an intimate and tender gesture, to have his Father reach out and touch him so! We must wonder not only what this meant to Joseph, but also what it meant to God, who had not been able to reach out to one of His children in that way for a long time. How God must have yearned to be with all of us in that way, and oh, what it must have meant to be able to touch one of His children with the caress of a loving parent. Yet this was not just a caress, God was also touching Joseph’s eyes so that they would be opened. As God opened the eyes of this son of His, He was making it so that Joseph could open the eyes of millions of others.
believe we can all look forward to the day that surely our Father is also yearning
for. Our loving parent is longing for that time when He will be able to reach
out and touch each of us and help us feel of His love and tenderness. He will
touch us and bring back a flood of memories of when He had last touched us, in
our heavenly home. He will touch us and open our eyes to things we have
forgotten and to things He is trying to help us understand. From God’s
interaction with one of His sons, He has opened our eyes to the interactions He
is already having with us, and to interactions that He promises are yet to
 Kerry Muhlestein, “I Saw the Lord”: Joseph’s First Vision Combined from Nine Accounts (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2020).
 While I was scheduled to give this lecture and I prepared for it in great detail, I was unable to give the lecture because of the COVID-19 cancellations.
 “History, circa Summer 1832,” 1, as found at https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/history-circa-summer-1832/1.
 Muhlestein, I Saw the Lord, 9-13.
 Muhlestein, I Saw the Lord, 27-31.
 “Journal – 1835-1836,” 23, as found at https://www.josephsmithpapers.org/paper-summary/journal-1835-1836/24.
 Muhlestein, I Saw the Lord, 30-31.
 Karl Larson and Katharine Miles Larson, eds., Diary of Charles Lowell Walker (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1980), 2:755–56.