Cover image by Del Parson via Gospel Media Library.
A few years ago, I was teaching a seminary class about the First Vision. As part of that discussion, I spoke about the power of sharing that story in missionary work and why it has always been part of our first lesson since the beginning of organized missionary lesson plans. One of my students raised an objection that I think represents one of the most common misunderstandings about the First Vision. He said, “Brother Mathews I think you are wrong. I think that as missionaries we should teach the world about Jesus Christ, not about the First Vision.”
All my students looked at me to see my response. It was a perfect teaching moment. On the screen in front of the class, was the classic image of the First Vision painted by Del Parson. I pointed to it and asked my student what he saw in that image. Without really looking up or giving it much thought he said, “I see Joseph Smith. That’s my point, I think as missionaries we should teach about Jesus Christ not Joseph Smith.” I patiently asked him to look at it again and tell me what else he saw on the screen. More thoughtfully this time, he looked up, stared for a moment, and reflected. You could visibly see when the light turned on in his mind. He looked back at me and said, “I see Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ. I think I see your point, Brother Mathews. The First Vision is not just about Joseph Smith.”
I believe that this story represents a common misunderstanding about the First Vision and the reason why we sometimes fail to value it as much as we should. What makes this story so powerful is not that a farm boy named Joseph Smith went into the woods. (Farm boys go into the woods all the time, that’s not news!) What makes the story so powerful is that God the Eternal Father and His Son Jesus Christ revealed themselves to that farm boy. And in the process, they revealed themselves to all of us. It was their great introductory revelation to the world in the latter-days. Here are just a few of the many truths we learn about our Heavenly Father and our Savior Jesus Christ from the First Vision.
God the Father
Most members of the Church are quick to recognize that the First Vision reveals God to be different from the creeds of traditional Christianity (e.g. a separate being from his Son Jesus Christ), but how many understand why this really matters? This is so much bigger than just a theological point. This is an issue that strikes at the very heart of who God is and what our relationship to him is. It has to do with whether or not God is really our loving Father in heaven.
A common summary of the doctrine of the Christian creeds is that God is a being “without body, parts, or passions” (see Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, Nov. 2007 Ensign). This literally means that God has no form or feelings. In contrast, the First Vision reveals that God has a body and form like a man and that we are literally created in God’s image. Although the Bible states this in its first chapter (Genesis 1:27), traditional Christianity has long interpreted such statements as figurative. The idea that God has actual form and literally looks like us is a major revelation of the First Vision.
But this is not all that the First Vision reveals about God that contradicts the creeds. Through it we learn that in addition to form, God also has feelings. As Church historian Steven Harper expressed, “what does it matter if they have bodies unless they also have passions, including redeeming love for us?” (https://stevencraigharper.com/joseph-sought-the-god-of-love-and-found-him/). Although viewing God as a loving, approachable, personal being may seem common today, it was not the common view of Joseph’s day or what is described in the traditional Christian creeds. Contrary to these views of God as a distant, reproving, and impersonal being, the First Vision revealed that God loves us, knows us by name, and personally answers our prayers without upbraiding us (JS-H 1:25). As the classic hymn proclaims, “Joseph sought the God of Love” (hymn #26), and it was the God of love that Joseph found (see https://stevencraigharper.com/joseph-sought-the-god-of-love-and-found-him/). After his experience with this God, Joseph shared, “my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great joy and the Lord was with me” (1832 account).
The implications of these truths are profound. If God is a loving, personal being who looks like us, rather than a distant spirit essence without form or feelings, then it implies that God could actually be our literal Father in Heaven. Although the Bible calls God our Father, the Christian world does not interpret this as literal. As one Latter-day Saint scholar explained, “Since the fifth century, Christian orthodoxy had imposed an almost impassable gulf between the Creator and His creations. Humankind, Christians came to believe, was created from nothing. God was not a craftsman who refashioned existing materials but wholly different and apart from His creation—mysterious and unknowable. The Bible’s parent-child description of God’s relationship to us was understood largely as a metaphor instead of a literal kinship. To suggest otherwise, in the estimation of most Christian thinkers, blasphemously lessened God or dangerously elevated humankind” (https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/manual/revelations-in-context/man-was-also-in-the-beginning-with-god?lang=eng).
But the First Vision does suggest otherwise. In fact, in the 1832 account Joseph relates that the Lord even called him “my son.” Although it is not likely that Joseph understood the full meaning of these things at that time, this doctrine of our relationship to God would be revealed to him gradually, but it is in the First Vision that God first began to reveal that he is literally our Father in Heaven. Not only that, but the First Vision also implies that we have a Heavenly Mother, for if there is a Father and a Son, then there must be a Mother also (See https://stevencraigharper.com/bicentennial-of-joseph-smiths-first-vision-part-2/).
The Son, Jesus Christ
The First Vision is the most important revelation of Christ since Jesus Christ revealed himself to his disciples after his resurrection. This was powerfully taught to me through an experience I had a few years ago. While I was waiting in a local restaurant, I began to look through a magazine that featured an article on Easter. After reporting that Easter gives hope of life after death for millions of Christians around the world, it concluded by observing that there were no modern witnesses of Christ’s resurrection. Those who saw the resurrected Christ had all died thousands of years ago and now we were only left to trust their accounts found in the Bible. My mind immediately turned to the First Vision. It struck me how powerful that story is in confirming the main message of the New Testament, that Jesus Christ really is God’s “beloved Son” and that he really did conquer death through the resurrection.
But the First Vision does so much more than just confirm what the Bible says about Jesus Christ. While the Bible reveals that Christ lived and spoke, the First Vision reveals that he lives and speaks (Elder Jeffrey R. Holland, May 2008 Ensign). While the Bible reveals that Christ formed his Church anciently, the First Vision reveals that his Church was lost but has now been restored in our day. Contrary to traditional Christianity which asserts that “there [are] no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles” (JS-H 1:21), the First Vision dramatically reveals that revelation is for our day and so are living prophets and apostles. The living Christ is the Christ who reveals himself in the First Vision, and it is that Christ that all the world must come to know to be saved.
Knowing the Father and the Son
Although it was Joseph Smith’s First Vision, in a sense, it belongs to all of us. This is something that Joseph Smith seems to have realized over time. For many years Joseph treated the First Vision as a personal revelation intended only for him. In time, he began to recognize that the truths it reveals about God and Christ were not meant for him alone, so he began to share it more and more. And so did our missionaries. As one of those missionaries that shared this story often, the more I shared it, the more I realized how profound and powerful it really is. The First Vision is the great introductory revelation of God and Christ to the world in the latter-days. It is through this vision that all of us can come to know Them.
That is what is so powerful about this story. It not only reveals so much about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ, but it also shows us how we can come to know Them too. We can seek Them and find Them, just like Joseph Smith did. By following the pattern of Joseph, we can desire, study, and pray until we know Them for ourselves. Although I was not there in the woods to see the First Vision, I have followed this pattern, and through the eyes of Joseph Smith I have seen my Father in Heaven and my Savior Jesus Christ. I know Them because they have revealed themselves to me through the First Vision.
May each of us accept the prophet’s invitation to read the First Vision this bicentennial year. As we do, let’s ask ourselves: What does the First Vision reveal about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ and how we can come to know Them for ourselves? As we ponder and apply what we learn, I know we will come to know Them better, and knowing Them is what the First Vision is all about.
I conclude with President Nelson’s invitation: “When I spoke during last October’s general conference, I designated 2020 as a bicentennial period commemorating 200 years since God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith in a vision. That singular event in human history initiated the Restoration of the Lord’s gospel—an unfolding Restoration that continues today. God loves all of His children and has a vision for each of us. Just as He listened to Joseph’s prayer in 1820, He listens to you and yearns to speak with you through the Spirit. … You may wish to begin your preparation [for General Conference] by reading afresh Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price.” (President Russell M. Nelson, Facebook post Jan. 1 2020).