Let's Get Real with Stephen Jones

Let’s Get Real with Stephen Jones | Church Historian: Here’s How I Approach Complex Church History – Dr. Steven C. Harper E0020


If you, or someone you love, has struggled to reconcile complex church history, join us in our conversation with Dr. Steven C Harper.

Exploring the mystery of multiple First Vision accounts, Stephen Jones sits down with BYU Professor Dr. Steven Harper, a renowned historian and expert on Latter-day Saint history.

They unravel the reasons behind the discrepancies and shed light on the broader implications for faith and history, guiding us toward a deeper understanding of this foundational event.

Hosted by Stephen Jones
Written and Produced by Stephen Jones
Edited and Produced by Skyler Sorensen

“Let’s Get Real with Stephen Jones” is a Scripture Central original production.


If you knew what I know, then I don’t think that you would want to stay a part of this religion.

It’s not knowing too much. It’s knowing too little that gives you that idea. Stephen Harper. Dr. Stephen C.

Harper. Worked on the Joseph Smith papers and the Saints Project.

The more I study the gospel, it’s history, it’s culture. I’m going to run into unexpected things. Often, they’re going to be disruptive to what I thought I knew already. That’s not the same as false.

You come across troubling history. How should we think about it?

We need to choose in intentionally how we’re going to interpret the past. There are other accounts of the first vision. If Joseph experienced a vision in the woods of Western New York, then right now I’m interpreting, assuming I know what a person would do if they lived in 1820 and saw God and Christ in the woods. They are assumptions. That’s a terrible way to do history.

What happened if Joseph Smith didn’t see this?

What’s at stake? If the first vision really happened the way Joseph Smith said it does.

1985, you walk into your kitchen or you’re eating breakfast, reading the newspaper, and you see something you’ve never seen before. Tell me about it. Let me experience that.

Yeah, right. It is a vivid memory for me in some ways, right? Some things are fuzzy around the edges, which is what I’ve learned to expect studying memory. I’m sure some things I’ve even distorted and got wrong. But my memory of it is that I’m home from my newspaper route. Every morning I would be woken up early by my dad, some of my siblings, too. We had newspaper routes, and he would do a massive amount of the work, folding the newspapers and getting us ready and getting us out the door. Then we’d go deliver them, come back, have breakfast. Sitting at the breakfast table with my dad, and I’ve got to be 14 years old at this point. This has got to be sometime in the second half of May or maybe early June, 1985, because the church newspaper is May 15th that year. Always? Yeah. Well, that’s the date on that one. I don’t remember that from the event. I remember it from going back now and finding the article. But the article that’s in, and there are a couple of them. One of them is a contextual piece, does the work of saying, Hey, there’s really nothing here to see.

You don’t need to freak out about this. Then the other one is a letter from Joseph Smith to Josiah Stoll. It says, This is the way you find your magic wand. It doesn’t say those words, but this is the way you find the right hazel branch. This is the way you cleave it. This is the way you lay it. If you do it all right, it will reveal to you where the buried treasure is. This purports to be the earliest document by Joseph Smith that we have. I’m I’m freaking out. I don’t know if I read the earlier letter.

Wait, you said, what now?

This is way before Harry Potter, man. I love that. I don’t remember exactly what I said to my dad, but it was something snarky like, why don’t they teach me this at church? The they. I’ve since come to notice that we blame they, them, whoever that is. The A sunbeam teacher should be making sure I understand these things. My dad did a beautiful, beautiful thing. He had just read it, too. He said, I’ve never heard that stuff before myself. I don’t know what that means. It’s a puzzle. I’m curious, but he also wasn’t freaking out. He had a high freak index. I had a low one. It didn’t take much to get me to freak out. But he was cool, and he helped me understand why he was cool. It’s because he said, I don’t know this, but I know this. What he knew is, I know the Book of Mormans is true. I’ve had these experiences with it, he told me. He decided, I’m going to bank on that, and then I’m going to watch and see. I’m going to keep my eyes open. I’m going to ask questions. I’m going to eventually come to some understanding about this weird letter, and you can, too.

He modeled for me how to do what elder Holland has since taught and others about, Hold on to what you know, cling to the faith you already have, press forward into your questions, into the unknown with faith. My dad gave me this problem, said, If you do it that way, you will see this will all work out. Then That fall, tragically, that fall, the man who had written that letter, which was a forgery and had forged a bunch of other documents, tried to cover his unraveling scheme by killing two people. Then he nearly killed himself, and the investigators quickly figured out he’s the one behind these documents. The man behind the bombs is behind the documents. I came out of that experience. Several years later, I’m at BIO, and I’m home from a mission. I’m learning the historical method, and I’m assigned to work with eminent historians, reading authentic documents from the 1830s. They bear such powerful witness of Joseph Smith as translator of the Book of Mormen and as a revelator, that it was a contrast. I I could see, wow, when I look at these authentic documents, they tell me such a different story than that one that was trying to disrupt my understanding that my dad was right.

It all worked out. I gained, in the meantime, a testimony of the Book of Mormon myself, and then gained historical tools and abilities. As I look back now, I think that breakfast conversation was fundamental for me. I wish that everyone who doesn’t have their head in the sand is going to run into these complexities. They’re going to find out that there are other facts out there or knowledge that disrupts what the simple narratives they inherited or brought with them. So that’s not remarkable. What do I mean here? What’s the contingency or the difference maker here for me was I had people I could trust. My dad was a rock. I knew that. And he treated me like a true seeker. He didn’t freak out. He didn’t say, You shut your mouth, boy. You don’t ask those questions around here. Don’t look at that. Even the article itself had a way of saying, There’s nothing for you to see. These are not the droids you’re looking for. Don’t worry about it. My dad wasn’t like that. He’s like, No, that’s interesting. He didn’t try to brush it under the rug, and he also didn’t make more of it than was there.

He did a really perfect job of situating it, not making it too big or too little, not discounting my disrupted feelings, but also not fostering them and not saying, My gosh, we ought to resign from the church this afternoon. I just love that I had that environment. What breaks my heart is that not everybody has that environment. That’s true. Folks who don’t, they don’t have a place to turn. They don’t have a place that I could turn next to me and say, What about this? And be well received. Joseph Smith, I think of, he he turns to the Methodist Minister and the Minister says, Shut up. That never happened, never will. You’re crazy. Yeah. To be shocked like that, to be the opposite of validated is really difficult. A lot of people have that experience instead of the really nurturing one I did. As I’ve grown into this thing, I want to be for other people what my dad was for me. I want to provide a safe place to ask questions. I want to say, I don’t know when I don’t, and help them realize, Oh, that’s a valid response. You can do that?

Absolutely, you can do that. I want to say, this is what I absolutely do know. I bank on it. This is what I’m still looking for. I want to model that for people, and I want them to feel safe asking questions.

Yeah. You have this experience that you’ll never forget. It was very vivid for you. It changed. You had a perspective that you thought it was supposed to be a certain way, and you love how your dad just was able to receive that. You think that’s important for other people to receive as well. Absolutely. Which comes to the question. I mean, obviously, in the world we live in now, there’s a lot of information President Nelson describes it where we live in what Satan has been doing this for millennia, right? He’s making good look evil, evil look good. Ai, what’s real? We don’t even really know. Is that a real article? Is that a real article? Back then, after time, you read other documents in comparison with your maturity. You’re like, yeah, that’s not what that was. But as a young man, it was very shocking.


I guess the question we want to really tackle today is, what do you do? You come across troubling history. How should we think about it? How should we interact with it? One of the questions that I even have about this letter that was in the paper, I can’t help but think, Well, the first presidency wrote this letter, and they approved it. How come they didn’t… It might be easy to say, Well, how come they didn’t discern? So there’s natural questions that I think come up. What is really the main issue when it comes to this idea of tackling child That’s a challenging question, especially in history.

That’s a great question. My thinking on this has been really influenced by the psychologist Daniel Kahneman. He and colleagues spent their career they’re studying heuristics or the mental shortcuts that all people make. This is our default mode, and they call that thinking fast. Oh, yeah. The book on this is Thinking Fast and Slow. What they urge is it’s fine to think fast about everyday routines and whatever else. But if there are something at stake, slow down.


You just raised a good example, where a person like me, 14, 24, 34, 54, might look at that letter in the church news. Here it’s being presented by the church’s official newspaper as an authentic document as far as we can tell, and turns out not to be. Within six months, it’s debunked. If I think fast, that means I’m going to make mental shortcuts and I’m going to think that assumptions are knowledge. One way that’s done is, my gosh, that was in the church news. The church news is official. If it’s official, the prophets said this is real. Prophets don’t make mistakes. You can see that my chain of reasoning takes me to a place where I don’t really know any of those things, but I think I do. I have a cognitive illusion that I’m perpetuating, and it gives me the idea that I have knowledge when really I need to slow down and ask every single one of those things. Is there any reason to believe that the savior himself directed the inclusion of that letter in that issue of the church news? I don’t know of any. I’d have to research that. Is there any reason to think that prophets are never, ever misled.

I mean, in the wake of the Hoffmann forgery thing, President Oakes gave a really important talk on campus at BIO where he explained, if you are assuming that all prophets and the Apostles know everything from beginning to end and cannot be misled, you’re assuming Rome. Yeah. He showed from the scriptures and so forth that that’s not the case. The Lord has said, doctrine Covenants 10 to Joseph Smith, You cannot always tell the righteous from the wicked. If I’m assuming, well, every prophet, every apostle always discerns completely all righteousness from all wickedness, there’s no possibility from being I’m just making that stuff up. I’m telling myself things that I am telling myself are true that have no basis in good grounded sources and so forth. They haven’t been revealed. The Lord hasn’t said them. These are ways that I was inclined to think fast. My dad slowed me down. That’s what I want to do for people now. I want to help people slow down, identify assumptions you’re making, interrogate them. Don’t assume their knowledge. Figure out if they’re knowledge, and if they’re not, then figure out what the real knowledge is.

This question can be pretty heavy for a lot of people. Sure. Because I think if you’ve been in a religion for your entire life, and let’s say you’re 14, you’re 20, whatever age you are, and then you have a piece of information that’s completely contrary to what you’re used to. I hear people say things like this. They’ll say, Well, if you only knew, if you knew what I know, then I don’t think that you would want to stay a part of this religion. You wouldn’t want to stay a part of this organization. You wouldn’t want to continue to do the thing that you’re doing. What would you say to that?

I can understand that, but I now realize that it’s half-informed. You’ve heard the phrase, We’re too smart by half maybe sometimes. I’m not sure what that means, so let’s never mind that. Richard Turley, who has been an assistant church historian. The church recently announced that he’s now writing a biography of Joseph Smith. He’s just one of the most informed and brilliant people I know. I’ve heard him say, It’s not knowing too much, it’s knowing too little that gives that idea. Think about it this way. You could disprove the assertion that if you only knew a lot of church history, you wouldn’t believe. I know quite a bit of church history. Richard Turley knows quite a bit of church history. President Oaks knows a lot of church history. He’s written a book about it. He’s no slouch. The editor The editors of the Joseph Smith papers, these people know their stuff, and they’re not clamoring to get out of the church. They’re faithful and true to their covenants. It is demonstrably not the case that the more you know about church history, the less inclined you are to be true and faithful to the restored gospel.

It’s not true. So that narrative is false. You might tell it to yourself, but it’s a false narrative. Now, it is the case that almost everybody who does any digging, anybody who grows up and doesn’t stay at a third-grade level of gospel knowledge is going to come across things they didn’t know before. This is an interesting phenomenon to me because in every other field, every other branch of knowledge, we expect that. That’s true. I expect that when I When I go to third grade, I’m going to go from plus and minus to multiplication. Multiplication division, yeah. That didn’t shock me. That didn’t throw me further. That was hard. That’s about as far as I got in math, but I wasn’t disillusioned by that. My wife is an artist, and since we’ve been married, I have learned a lot about art that I had no idea. We’re not even close. Every time I learn something new from her, I don’t think, Oh, my gosh, art’s not true. I would have learned that in primary or seminary if art were really true. We have this strange expectation that’s not founded in reality. We even say this rote prayer, Help me learn something new today.

Professor Nibly famously said, We don’t really want that prayer answered.

We don’t want it to change. Your brain is made to be homeostasis, right? It wants to be comfortable.

Yeah, exactly right. What we can do is reset our expectations. I expect that the more I study the gospel, it’s history, it’s culture, it’s whatever else, the more I’m going to learn. I’m going to run into unexpected things. Often, they’re going to be disruptive to what I thought I knew already. That’s not the same as false. We need to accommodate that. We need to be able to seek for a further light of knowledge and then to accommodate it as it comes. Instead of freaking out every time we confront something new, let’s expect to confront something new, and Let’s get good at the ability to think slowly about these new things and see how they may fit or not. That’s what people do who know the most about church history and about other things as well.

They slow down. They slow down. Yeah, they slow down. What slow down looks like is taking the time to understand more of the context, understand more information. Maybe there’s a piece that I don’t know about.

More, not less.

Exactly. You’re saying it’s more, not less. I think that’s so important.

Yeah. Professor Kahneman, for example, he uses this acronym, W-Y-S-I-A-T-I, I think it is, What you see is all there is. One of the heuristics that’s most common to us, one of the mental shortcuts that is our default mode is, I assume that what I see is all there is. Well, what if I switched that? What if I decided, No, I’m positive that I don’t see the whole picture here. When I do see a new letter in the church news, I could say, Well, I now know everything, and what I see is all there is. I now have enough knowledge to make a final, ultimate decision here. Or I could say, That’s an interesting new twist. I wonder what other knowledge there is out there. I wonder what context this might fit into. Since that breakfast conversation, I’ve been doing that for 30 years or more. I’ve been finding the other pieces that fit into it. At age 14, I thought I knew all this stuff. What I’ve since learned is, man, there are historians who spent their lives, and I didn’t know any of the stuff they did. A 14-year-old or a 24-year-old or a 54-year-old who assumes they know, they know too little, not too much.

So I love the… What’s the saying that people say, The more I know, the more I realize I don’t know? Yes, exactly right. I feel like that’s with all knowledge, right? I feel like it’s so vast for us to assume that we know everything about everything. It’s like it’s a… But I know we’ve… If we could slow down even in this moment. Sure. There’s obviously people who, we jokingly were saying, Yeah, your primary teacher, why wouldn’t they… You wouldn’t leave the… I can’t remember the exact example, but we’re making it sound ridiculous. But the truth is, there are some people that really want… They’re shook by some of this stuff. Absolutely.

We’re just using hyperbole to a degree just to ease the tension.

But There really are people who have encountered complex questions, right?

And who legitimately should and could have expected to have been better informed, right? Yeah. There is plenty of fault maybe to be spread around. One of the pillars of Come Follow Me, as you know, is you are responsible for your own gospel learning. That’s true. I really like to emphasize that point. At the same time, though, as a gospel teacher, I feel obligated to make sure that I am teaching the truth in love by the Holy spirit, not leaving out big chunks. In 2016, elder Ballard gave a powerful talk to all of the churches, religious educators, and he said, Hey, the time is gone when you can give people, don’t think about that, don’t worry, but don’t ask that question. Those days are gone. Stop it. Answer questions. Give good information. Of course, in the last generation, the church has published the Joseph Smith papers. It is now a time to ask and seek and find good solid information. Both those things are true at the same time. We need to be more responsible for our own gospel learning and our teachers and the church-needs to be prepared.needs to be prepared.

That makes it natural to come to the question of, let’s say we don’t do this well. What are we looking at? What’s at stake here if we don’t figure this out, if the teachers aren’t prepared, and if we’re slowing down, if we’re not taking the time to really learn how to think not only critically, but also there’s a faith element to it, too. What happens if we don’t?

Well, then sooner or later, that faith is going to be tested. The question we could ask is, where is your faith? Jesus asked this question, where is your faith? What do you put your faith in? Is another way to ask that question. The best answer to that question is, I put my faith squarely in the Lord Jesus Christ as he is, as he was, as he will be. We find that out best by coming to know him. We often have illusions about who Jesus is. I was teaching a class once, we read from Doctrine Compts 133. In that revelation, Jesus is both full of loving kindness and vengeance. That’s right. Doing Twitch story. Yeah. The student said, Well, that’s not very Christ-like. But notice that that’s someone who has an illusion or an image of what Christ is like, who then sees what Christ actually autobiographically says about himself and says, That’s not Jesus. The most important thing we can do- I love that you said, No, that’s what he’s saying. We might think of him saying, You never knew me. You never knew me. You never really knew me. You and I and everyone else, the most important thing we can do is come to know who…

Come to Christ. Come unto Christ and learn who he really is. When we do that, our faith in him will be well-founded. That, of course, is the first principle. That faith is a knowledge, and it can grow into to certain knowledge, and with it will come faith in those whom Jesus has called. I don’t think it goes the other direction very well. I don’t think- What do you mean? Well, I don’t think I can say, I have faith that Joseph Smith was a true prophet of God, but I’m not sure if Jesus is really God’s son. I see. See what I’m getting at? Yeah. But if I go the other direction, if I access Jesus Christ through his words and through my own seeking prayerfulness in the Holy spirit, then as I come to know that he’s God’s son, I simultaneously come to know he revealed himself through Joseph Smith, the prophet. Therefore, even though Joseph Smith, the prophet, is on record saying, I’m deeply flawed, and God’s on record saying, Joseph is deeply flawed, that’s not the determinant. My My faith isn’t in Joseph Smith as God’s prophet because he’s flawless. It’s in Joseph Smith as God’s prophet because God called him.

Jesus called him. So faith in Jesus Christ is first and fundamental. Love for God is first and fundamental, and it will incline us to love for everyone else. But both those things, I think it’s important to go first to faith in Jesus Christ, first to love for God, and then the other things naturally follow that as we work on that faith.

Because I hear people say, I think people have questions or people have doubts. There’s a lot of nuance between what does it mean to have a doubt? Doubting is bad, but you can have questions. Or I have a faith crisis. The more conversations I have, I feel like there’s not a lot of conversations about Christ. It’s more about this That person, that person, right? Not to knock that, but I’m saying, I think it’s important to distinguish the idea that it is faith in Jesus Christ. Amen. If I have my faith crisis, does it involve my actual foundation in his doctrine, in his teachings, in the things that he taught. You know what I mean? Absolutely do. What do you think about that?

Well, I’m completely convinced.

How do people get to the point where it says, what is maybe the thought process?

There There are different approaches to faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. For people who lose their faith in Joseph Smith as God’s prophet, that doesn’t necessarily mean they lose their faith in Jesus Christ as God’s son. True. Sean McCraney is an example of someone who lost his faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ, but who has, if anything, more more faith in Jesus Christ. That’s rare, though. It’s quite unusual. More people, when they lose their faith in the restored gospel, they lose their faith in any of Christianity for good reason. I believe in the Bible because I believe the Book of Norman and the modern revelations. The Bible itself, that’s got a tough case to make if it stands on its own.

We could go there, but I understand.

Yeah. My faith in the Lord Jesus Christ is square in the restored gospel, in the testimony that the savior has borne through Joseph Smith and the scripture he’s brought forth through Joseph Smith. Some people find, though, that they can’t hold on to Joseph Smith, but they can hold on to Christ. Whenever I talk to folks in these situations, I’m always curious where they’re headed. Where’s your faith now? If you lost your faith in the restoration, did you lose all faith completely? Many people lose all faith in Christ, some even in God and so forth. Others hold on to an evangelical Christian alternative. I always encourage people, if you can’t right now put your faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ, then at least put it in Jesus Christ and then see if you can work your way back. Many people have. You’ve mentioned to me, Don Bradley. He’s a brilliant person in mind and spirit who has had this whole experience, where he’s gone, lost his faith in the restored gospel, lost his faith in anything, and then come back, fully, completely back to faith in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.

I don’t mean to put us on a tangent. I just think it’s interesting that people that I do talk to, like Don Bradley, it’s that connection with God that brings them back.

Right. Experiences.

It’s those experiences with him that he, in an intricate way, lets them know, Look, I’m here.

It’s not rational arguments, right? Rationality takes a lot of shapes and forms. We sometimes imagine that rationality is an objective reality. There’s one size fits all logic. I know there are rules of form of logic, but there are people who are sure they’re thinking rationally on every side of every question. Rationality, our mind is a gift from God, our ability to think critically. But if that’s all we have, we do not have a sure guide. We have to combine that. The scriptures tell us that if we’re going to know We have to combine that God-given, I will tell you in your mind, but also I will tell you in your heart. A lot of people fear that. They lose their confidence in discerning anything by spirituality. Grant Palmer wrote about that in his book, about how he lost that ability to trust in spiritual knowing and so forth, and he cited other examples. So I testify that there is spiritual knowing and that it is reliable. I know that it can be noisy by that. We could talk about that. In other words, I know that both rationality and spiritual knowing can be disrupted and confusing and difficult.

But that’s not a reason to say that either one of those divine gifts is to completely throw it out. And get rid of it. We need both.

I think that idea of that goes in along with slowing down, too. Yes. I think that maybe we should get into this, this idea of assumptions, right? Let’s go deeper into that because we assume, for example, that because I can’t feel it a certain way because I know, for example, people who suffer from depression and they can’t feel, they can’t feel anything sometimes. They might get to a point where they’re like, I don’t feel. I don’t know if I really want to go down this road because I’m not an expert. I don’t know, you’re not a therapist, but if there’s any type of correlation with mental health when it comes to this topic in this area, right?

Yeah, I certainly am not a professional, but I think we can speak from our own experiences or people that we love or know. That’s the case. People who are suffering from depression may have felt God’s love and spirit before, but They try as they might. It’s just empty. It’s not there. I’ve heard one woman particularly say, I bank on my past experiences when I’m in depression, because when I’m in depression, I don’t feel it at all, but I know what I felt before. That’s that scriptural command to remember, right? Remember how merciful God has been in moments when you can’t feel it right now. I am grateful for that. I’ve got loved ones who suffer from a variety of things, and I’ve had my own bouts, and I’m grateful that one of the gifts we can have is to remember Remember. And that’s hard, though. It’s hard to do.

It’s not easy. I bring it up because I’m saying this idea of the importance of slowing down. Because, again, I’m not a therapist, but I’m saying depression or compulsive It’s just a lot of thoughts. If I struggle with things that are more compulsive, I might lay a heavy… I might weigh more on the side of, I need to know, I need to see it. I want to make sure. I I want to verify. It might be harder for me to even trust. To have faith. We live in a fallen world. We have challenges, we have weaknesses. I just think that to slow down can help with that. I mean, not to oversimplify it.

Yeah. Elder Bednar defines revelation as communication from God to us. That’s a terrific good definition. In any communication, no matter what, there’s an encoder that sends the signal, a decoder that receives a signal, and then between them there’s noise. That can be rock and roll noise. My dad would have said that. But noise in communication It’s not just audible stuff. Emotions can be noisy. Depression can be noisy. Quiet, complete quiet from the Holy Ghost can be noisy in terms of decoding divine signals. Slowing down is a way of helping us identify and cope with and get through the noise.

Many of us, we’re seeking answers from God. Yeah. The way you’re saying it works is there’s a conduit. God’s trying to connect somehow. We’re human. The words I’m saying to you are just vibrations from my voice that are going through the air. You didn’t say this, but you know what I mean? He’s using the physical world that we’re in to communicate to us. That’s how we communicate. But noise can be a lot of different ways. It may not necessarily be volume of a sound. It could be the condition of our heart. It could be the misunderstanding. It could be a lot of different things.

It could be all kinds of things. If we’ve decided that spiritual communication is unreliable, if we’re too skeptical of that, that’s noisy. All kinds of things can be noisy in terms of disrupting the encoded signal and us being able to decode it successfully. Yeah. My emotions, my desires, my pride, whatever it is, can get in the way. It’s not that God doesn’t want to reveal himself to us. It’s not that he’s incapable of revealing himself to us. He wants to, and he does, but we need to learn to be better decoders. One of the most important ways we can do that is to identify the noise and minimize recognize the noise that we’re bringing to this. This is just another way of saying that President Nelson, when he first became the Lord’s Prophet, admonished us, Do the spiritual work necessary to increase your capacity to receive revelation. Well, one of the ways we can do that is to identify the blocks that I’m bringing to this channel of communication.

Yeah. Joseph Smith said, Where’s the pavilion? Get rid of this date. I feel like if we’re trying to find out anything about church history, if we’re trying to find out truth in any sort, revelation is a key thing to know. Absolutely. Because you can know and know the fact and see the evidence But there also has to be that added element of receiving revelation, which is when he talked to Oliver Caldry, right? I’m going to tell you in your mind and in your heart. But he said, what did he say? Oliver, all you did was ask.

Yeah, you took no You thought all of it. You didn’t work hard enough for the revelation. You had to have both. Yeah. You thought God was going to do all the work, and revelation is hard work. Do President Nelson again. To the hard. Do the spiritual work necessary to receive revelations. I testify from my own experience that God does reveal himself to us. I know he does, and I know that I’m noisy. I know that there’s noise between him, and I know that it’s a struggle to get ourselves in a position to receive those revelations. What I hope is that the folks out there who are listening to this who might be struggling as I have, or who might be saying, This doesn’t work for me. I just try as I might. I can’t get a testimony of the Book of Romans true or whatever else. I hope they won’t give up on that. I hope they won’t despair and give in, and especially if you’re in despair, as we’ve talked about, despair, depression is super noisy, not of our own volition. We’re not trying to cut ourselves. We’re desperately trying to hear from God, hear some hopeful message or reassurance.

But the Just the nature of depression makes it a noisy silence sometimes. I hope that people will not give up. God will keep revealing. He will cut through the noise.

He wants to badly. He wants to. You said it was right when you open, boom. Joseph Smith, right whenever he repents, Morona is like, I thought you never had. The moment.

I love Joseph Smith’s history where he says, I exerted all my energy to call upon God. In that moment, I found myself delivered from the enemy that held me bound.

Maybe the question we should consider in this in this wrestle is, where might be my noise? It might not be, in its most In this case, it’s not a volume of noise. It’s somewhere in here in the condition of our heart. Not always. I don’t want to just pinpoint it. That’s the only thing.

I think we can ask God that. I think we can turn to God and say, Hey, heavenly Father, I realize that I might be blocking this communication between us. Help me know. How? Help me hear you. Help me see where I’m being too prideful or maybe where I’m interpreting emotions as spirit or something else. He’ll take us wherever we’re at, and he’ll reach us if we want to be reached.

It sounds like the consistency is the desire to align with what he wants. You know what I mean?


And it’s not a thing you earn, it’s a thing you qualify for. Willingness. It’s like It’s like math, even though we talk about what we hate about. It’s like gravity. Conditions are met, then that’s when it can come.

Right. It’s an act of agency. Yeah. It’s true that many of us, and I’ve had times in my life like this where I don’t want to hear from God. I don’t want to know what he has to say. I already have a hunch of what he wants to say, and I want to hear it right now. I can think of times where I’ve prayed this prayer or some variation on it. I don’t really want to repent. Please help me have the desire to desire to repent. Please help me at least get a toehold. And he does. He meets us where we are. He expects a lot of us. He expects us to become like him. So he’s not going to leave us where we are, but he’ll condescend to where we are and pick us up from there and bring us all the way home. But it has to be an act of our agency. He doesn’t force himself on us against our will.

The doctrine of Christ. First, faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. We have to trust in his character. We have to believe in him. Second, repentance. Right? When it comes to revelation, when it comes to finding and seeking answers, the cliché things that you hear people say is like, Oh, yeah, okay. Just read your scriptures. You’re only doing that because you need to repent. You need to change. Is there truth to that? Is there truth to it, doctrinally? Because I think we shy away from it on the simple side, right?

I’d say there’s truth to this. When our beliefs and our behavior do not match, we feel awful. We feel dissonance or tension. There’s all kinds of names for it, but we have an awful feeling. Unless we’re sociopathic or psychopathic, we don’t like it when what we believe in the true principles we believe, are in conflict with our actual selves. We work to reconcile those things, and there are lots of strategies for that. The gospel strategy for it is, repent. Doctrine Coven, section 66 is brilliant at this. This is William McClellan. Which one? William McClellan, Doctrine Coven, 66. It’s a mundane revelation, if you just read it surface level, not knowing what it’s about. But it’s about this new convert to the church who’s struggling with all kinds of personal challenges, asking God five secret questions and then going to Joseph Smith and saying, Will you seek a revelation on my behalf? Joseph seeks and receives. Mcclellan writes it down as Joseph dictates it and testifies later, God answered every question I lodged in his ears to my full and entire satisfaction. I desired it as a testimony of Joseph’s inspiration, and I testify to this day that it is evidence I cannot refute.

Now, he said that 10 years after he bitterly parts ways with Joseph Smith. He goes to the Richmond, Missouri place where Joseph is being held during his preliminary hearing before he ends up in Liberty Jail. And McClellan says to the Sheriff, Let me beat him for you. I’ll flog him for you. That’s how he feels about Joseph Smith. And he still… When you ask him, he still says, Well, on the 29th day of October 1831, Jesus Christ read me like an open book, and his words came out of Joseph Smith’s mouth. That’s evidence I cannot refute. He never could refute it, and he never could or would refute the Book of Mormen either. He bore his testimony of those two for his whole life. But he lived a tortured life for 40 years or more because he would not behave consistently in ways that the revelation prescribed. Chastity, faithfulness to covenants. Instead of doing that, he… Well, let’s say it this way. He tried both ways. He calls them out. Yeah. Commit not adultery, a tentation with the husband. Be glad we’re not all that exposed in the doctrine and covenants itself. Mcclellan is like the rest of us.

In a lot of ways, he often does The first commandment in there, I count 22 Commandments from the Lord. Things that he knows very intimately that God wants him to do. He knows God’s will for him in a way that few of us have ever known so specifically. The first commandment is, Repent. William, repent of your sins. I will show them unto you. You’re clean, but not all. So repent of the things that are still remaining. I’ll show them to you. Well, he does that a lot. We know this because he documents his life so well. He repents a lot, and he testifies when he repents, I’m good, I’m clean. This is okay. I slept well. Then he also tells us that he disobeyed the revelation. He specifically calculatingly disobeyed several specific Commandments. When you know that Jesus has spoken to you through Joseph Smith, the Prophet, and you don’t do what he says, you feel awful about yourself, and you cannot tolerate that at high levels. Humans will tolerate it at a high level for a short period of time, or humans will tolerate at a low level for a long period of time.

But none of us will tolerate this awful dissonance inside the The disharmony between belief and behavior, we will bring it close enough that we can live with it. The way to do that is to repent. That’s the prescribed way. Repent. The other way to do it is to rationalize. I don’t have anything to repent of. I did this for these justifiable reasons, and it was perfectly fine, and I don’t need to feel bad. Often, this can be a reason why we find ourselves distancing convincing ourselves from the church. It’s not always that simple, but for many of us, we don’t want to be reminded that we need to repent. I’m going to go fishing instead of to my quorum meeting or whatever the case may be. It’s painful. Yeah.

So we dull the pain.

Yeah. I don’t want to be reminded of my temple covenants, so I’m not going to go back there anymore because it is painful. Repentance is the antidote, and relentless repentance is the way to live. The really important thing here is to make sure you believe in things that are true. If you believe in things that aren’t true and trying to reconcile those beliefs with behavior, you’re going to be super frustrated. For example, if you believe, Jesus won’t love me until I’m perfect. Just as soon as I can be good enough, I can qualify for his love. Or you believe in something that’s not true, and that’s a recipe for being feeling awful. But the truth is, Jesus invites us to have faith in him as the one who can bring us to God. He can take us as we are, and he can perfect us. If I believe that I have faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, not in myself, but in him, he can save me, then that’s going to be faith unto repentance. I’m going to want to repent because I want to tell Jesus, if you’ll take this cross for me. I will be so thrilled, and I will follow you.

If we believe those two truths and find the joy of daily repentance, as President Nelson has emanished us to do, man, that’s the way to reconcile the dissonance between our beliefs and our behavior.


Repentance. Faith in Jesus Christ and repentance is the way to bring yourself peace when there’s disharmony between what you believe and how you behave.

We oftentimes I focus more on the mind. I think that you’re probably one of the better thinkers that I’ve read, that I’ve seen, to be able to think through questions logically. But I do want to just take a moment just to witness of what you just said. Said that I think it is almost cliché to say, well, are you reading your scriptures? If you come across something, well, you’re having trouble to have it come in because you’re not doing all of these things. But those things are what changed the way we see God. They’re the things that change the way we hear him. Both sides are important to have that balance.


What are some specific ways that you would say you do hear You hear of a challenging history fact, right? What are some things that you know that are logical, that we’re going to focus on this brain-to-mind side that can help us think through a question? Would it be easier if we had an example?

Let’s play with the first vision.

Play with the first vision? Let’s do it.

We come of age in the church hearing about the first vision. If you’re raised as a Latterday Saint, you probably, by the time you’re in your early teens, if you heard the pair of words first vision, you probably don’t need more explanation. You probably don’t say, What is that? You probably have some sense that Joseph Smith prayed in a grove and God and Jesus appeared to him. You may not know any more than that. You may not know how you know it or anything like that. You probably don’t have any sense for the historical record. You might be familiar with Joseph Smith history and the Pearl of Great Price. In other words, you might think you know a lot, but you hardly know anything. That can be dangerous. Thinking I know, Using the heuristic or the mental shortcut, what I see is all there is, and then coming face to face with the fact, what I saw is not even close to all there is, that is an experience that creates dissonance. It disrupts my faith. Shocking. It does. It’s shocking. What we can decide, if we’re metacognitive, if we’re aware of our thought processes, we could decide right now, I’m going to expect that.

That’s what life does. It brings me face to face with stuff I didn’t know before. What I see is not even close to all there is. I could set that as my expectation instead of assuming what I see is all there is. That’s one way we can start to make ourselves wiser and better prepared to think through life. When we do that, then we want to, when I realize what I see is not all there is, I want to see more. What else is there? Well, there are other accounts of the first vision. Great. Where are they? What do they say? Well, they’re on the Joseph Smith papers website, or they’re in my gospel library app. Let me see them. I want to read them all. We start to internalize this stuff. Instead of thinking, instead of assuming it shouldn’t be this way, if you listen closely, you can hear people say in their mind or even sometimes out loud, If Joseph experienced a vision in the woods of Western New York. Then he goes and tells mom and dad right away. Then he writes it down immediately. Then he always tells it the same.

Those are not facts of history. They’re not borne out by the historical record. They are assumptions. They’re me assuming I know what a person would do if they lived in 1820 and saw God and Christ in the woods. They’re not. They’re hypothetical history, and that’s a terrible way to do history. The real historical method is I let people who lived the past that I want to learn about tell me what it was like. I trust them. I don’t necessarily always take everything at face value, but I don’t start by impeaching them. How could you? Yeah, well, people do. People who should know better. Well, how sure can we be that Joseph really tells us what he experienced in the woods? We can’t. I’m going to tell you what really happened in the woods. That’s a completely different philosophical take than Richard Bushman’s. Bushman says, The only way I can know what happened is to listen to the participants, and I’m going to listen to them really well. I’m going to listen to them. I’m going to triangulate their testimonies and sources. I’m going to be critical thinking, but I’m not going to be suspicious from the outset.

I’m not going to start with the idea, Joseph Smith is a liar, so I have to tell you the truth. That is a much more responsible and better a way to do history.

You’re saying that the phrase of it is hermeneutics, right?

Yeah, hermeneutics is just a fancy word that means- Through your lens, right? Yeah, your way of seeing, your choice about how you’re going to interpret the historical record.

That’s important to know what lens I’m coming at, how I’m approaching it.

Absolutely. We need to be metacognitive about that. We need to not assume or just default without any knowledge. We need to choose intentionally how we’re going to interpret the past. I choose faith, hope, and charity as my hermeneutic for everybody, not just Joseph Smith, but for everybody. I want to be interpreted that way. I want to interpret Brigham Young that way. We could find plenty of fault with Brigham Young if we wanted to. That’s a fine thing to do if we don’t then become judge, jury, and executioner. We can learn from faults from people in the past if we bring faith and hope and charity to that project instead of judge, jury, and executioner. That’s what I think.

With the first vision, you’re saying the lens that I look at the data, it matters?

Yeah, it matters very much. I can either say, these accounts do not all match up. That’s a fact. Therefore, right now I’m interpreting, therefore, Joseph is not telling me the truth. Or I could say, these accounts don’t all match perfectly harmoniously. Then I could say, there’s quite a lot of consistency in them. I’m going to listen to Joseph Smith and make sure I’m hearing what he’s saying. I think he’s telling me the truth.

What are some of those? So there’s four counts.

Yeah, four- Five-ish? Four that are primary. Primary, right? They come to us from Joseph for somebody working with him closely during his lifetime. The first one’s in 1832, and it does not explicitly mention two divine beings, right? If we’re used to the manuscript history, which is excerpted in the Pearl of the Great Price, which is about a six or seven year later document, I saw two personages Jesus. Well, if you read the 1832 with that in mind, the line you hear is, I saw the Lord. No, sorry. The Lord opened the heavens upon me, and I saw the Lord. And he said to me, Joseph, my son, your sins are forgiven. Many people read that to mean he’s only talking about Jesus. Or Jesus? Yeah, he’s not seeing Father and Son. Therefore, when he says he does later in 1835, 1838, 1842, he’s embellishing his story. He can’t be trusted to tell you. If you can’t trust someone to tell you what they saw about God, then-They’re not a prophet.

They didn’t happen. Exactly.

That’s one way to interpret the facts. The facts are the same no matter how you interpret them. Dan Vogel and Richard Bushman know exactly the same facts. Anne Taves or me, we know exactly the same facts, and we just decide to interpret them differently based more on what we want to believe about God than about the nature of the facts. I’ve shown, and I think others have, too, that you can read that 1832 account charitably toward Joseph. For example, you can show that he may have been struggling as best he could to describe two divine beings. The Lord God, heavenly Father, opened the heavens upon me, and I saw Jesus Christ, and he said to me, Joseph, my son, your sins are forgiven. If we bring all of the accounts to bear, we can make a pretty strong case for that. In three of the accounts, he says, I saw one personage who then revealed the other one to me.

How many?

Two. In three? Oh, sorry. Three different accounts say that.

Of the personal?

Right. The 1835 journal entry says that, and then two of the secondary accounts, Alex Nybers and David Whites. They both tell that same sequence of events. Now, a person might say, Well, no, because he says, I saw two personages. Right, but there’s nothing in any of the accounts at all that says, I saw two personages at precisely the same moment for the exact same length of time. If we’re open, if we’re intentional, if we listen to him, we can see that there’s space. If we want there to be, there’s space to interpret Joseph telling me a consistent It’s a recent story. We could also say, Yeah, I wish he’d been more clear, but he granted to me that he’s had an experience that defies all description. He’s doing the best he can.

How is he going to put this experience in the words, in English, the broken language.

Yeah. That’s a hermeneutic of trust, as Richard Bush would call it, right? I start from a position of taking Joseph seriously and trusting him generally. Now, you could take the exact same facts and you could read them with a hermeneutic of suspicion. I know this kid is dece me. I’m going to figure out where I’m going to expose his. That’s a choice we make. It doesn’t have anything to do with the facts of the historical record. It has to with what I want to think about God, and prophets, and Joseph Smith.

But that lens that I bring to the table is going to have a lot to do with the experiences that I have. And so there is a difference between the actual fact, the facts are the facts, you can’t change the fact. But we have to be aware that I can interpret the facts based on my own personal experience, based on my own desire. Is that where we’re getting at?

That’s exactly where we’re getting at. So we want to be aware of what our biases are. What are my prejudices? I don’t want to I misinterpret these facts. I don’t want to be wrong in matters that involve eternal consequences. That’s Joseph Smith. That’s a line out of his vision accounts. I’m inclined to trust him, but I also want to be aware, why am I? What am I doing? What inclines me this way or that way? Does Anne Taves or Dan Vogel or someone else who takes a more skeptical view of these, do they have anything they can teach me? What are they seeing that I’m not seeing? These are all useful ways of being metacognitive, meta-aware of what we’re doing, not just blindly looking at these documents or coming to conclusions without real serious, you took no thought approach.

Well, I like to say that there’s always three sides to every story, side A, side B, and the truth.

Nice. You know what I mean?

Because I mean, everybody’s going to have a bias. There’s a bias in everything that we see. But then I feel like that’s why that noise, to be able to consider what noise there might be, because the Holy Ghost is what can verify what is true. That can help me see the flaws of my thinking. It can help me see the biases that I have.

That’s really well said. Biases are noisy. Prejudice is noisy. Doubt, though, is noisy. Skepticism can be noisy. There’s There’s a right dose of all these things, and awareness of them has a way of reducing the noise. Okay, I’m biased. I know I’m biased in this way, particularly, so I’m going to be aware of that and educate that bias. I want to pay particular attention to anything that might challenge my bias. In those ways, we can reduce that noise that may disrupt the communication between Joseph Smith and his documents and me. Which takes humility.

Takes humility to do that.

Humility and diligence.

Diligence, yeah. Are there any other assumptions that you find within the First Vision account? All kinds, right? Where are some other ones?

We assume that we know what it would be like, and I don’t think we do. I mean, unless we’ve had that experience, we don’t. So we should strip ourselves of all assumptions You hear people say, Well, I would have remembered it the same way every time. How do you know that? The science of human memory suggests, no, you wouldn’t. Elder Kyle McKay, who’s currently the church historian and a member of the seventh, he gave a brilliant talk about this a while ago, and he used his own experience to illustrate. He got his own documentation of his own life experience, and he showed how over time, he had told the same story in a variety of ways. This is a demonstrably true story. This was a great way of showing Joseph Smith’s accounts actually look like what we can expect in real life. Stephen Prothere, who’s a Religion Professor in Boston, too, not a Lattery Saint, but a really highly regarded professor, writer about religion, American religion. He wrote in his book, American Jesus, that this is what you’d expect from Joseph Smith as well. Well-informed people can come at this and recognize if you are biased and think Joseph didn’t tell precisely the same story every time, therefore, it’s not a true story, then that bias is clouding your judgment.

There’s all kinds of those. One of them is, well, his age at the time of his vision is inconsistent through the accounts. You might say inconsistent, or you might say it’s remarkably consistent. That’s an interpretation itself. But the fact of the matter is, the earliest document has an interlinear insertion that says, In the 16th year of my age, the other documents, the next one in chronological order says, as an afterthought, I was about 14 when this occurred. Next one says, In my 15th year or thereabouts. You could take all that together and you could say, Look, he’s not telling the truth because you see God and you can’t remember how old as you are. Joseph, if he were here, might say, Yeah, that’s right. Others, I’ve tried to make a case for saying his age at the time was not a matter of concern. He always remembers it as an afterthought, if he remembers it at all. What is vivid in his memory is James 1:5 and the experience of having a crisis in the woods just before he’s and God reveals himself to him.

Because it’s not really… To me, the age would be… My dad is, to this day, so funny because he has his birth certificate. It’s a long story, but basically, he grew up on a plantation that was no longer a plantation, and the record was not accurate. And so to this day, I’m like, How old are you? Are you this age or that age? And he’s like, Well, my birth certificate says. But he doesn’t even really… He doesn’t know what he knows, but he doesn’t know. Isn’t that something? Yeah, and this is in 2024.

And my assumption, my default would be to say, How can you not know how old you are? How old you are? I mean, this is not a legitimate case.

They didn’t keep records like we do now. And even back then, you had to watch maybe on your hip. And we have our little Franklin Company planners, and we make that assumption that it’s the same.

Is that what you’re saying? Exactly. The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there, as one novel puts it. It’s very useful for me to test my assumptions against that. I can’t count on my judgment about what the past would be like if it was like my imagination of it. That’s not a sound way to do historical work, but it’s all over the internet. You see that everywhere.

Give me some examples.

Well, everywhere, Facebook, Reddit, everywhere, people are saying, If Joseph Smith saw what he said, he saw then. The then is just something I imagined that would have happened. He couldn’t possibly misremember his age. He couldn’t possibly tell a story in 1832 that’s not explicit about two divine beings and then be absolutely explicit about two divine beings later. There’s all kinds of these assumptions. Instead This is people projecting onto Joseph Smith what he should have said if he said what they imagine he should have said. That’s not the way to do history. When you do history, you listen to people from the past tell you what their past was like, and you take them seriously, if not always absolutely, literally or at face value, you at least take them seriously. That’s one of the first rules, especially of religious history and so forth. You’ll notice that in Richard Bushman’s books, that’s his default mode. Whereas Vogtle comes at a much more skeptical angle. Vogtle essentially begins, since you can’t trust Joseph Smith to tell you what really happened, I got to get between the lines and dig-I’ll tell you. And I’ll tell you. Bushman says, Look, I listen very seriously and carefully to Joseph Smith and his contemporaries, and I let them tell me what it meant to them, and I take that seriously.

Here’s one of the assumptions that I think that it’s probably one of the hard ones that people have, or it’s the fact, and they’ll make assumptions based off the fact, that around that same time period, There were a number of people. This is probably the hardest one that I’ve seen to answer, and I’m curious what you would say. People around the same time period during this revival had similar visions. The claim that they make is, well, he’s just either copying some of these visions or these visions are from that they’re made up, or a lot of people were making them up. What would you say to that?

This is a perfect example. It’s Richard Bushman who taught us this. He’s the one who wrote the very important article 1997 article, The Visionary World of Joseph Smith. He’s the one who showed us the evidence that there are contemporaries of Joseph Smith, a similar time and place in American history, who are seeing God God and Christ sometime in the woods or in their law office or wherever, or maybe they’re seeing an angel. It’s not unusual. Now, it’s not everyone. Not everyone is having a first vision, but plenty of people are that if I assume, Hey, wait a minute. Only Joseph Smith would have ever had a vision of God and Christ. Why would I assume that? There’s no reason to assume that, except I just think that. I just feel that. Did God ever say Did Joseph claim that? No. Richard Bushman does a brilliant job of showing us this world, this visionary world of Joseph, and then we can situate Joseph in it. One way to see that is his mom has visions or dreams. She goes to a grove of wild cherry trees when she’s trying to figure out what church to join, and she’s all conflicted inside, and she pray.

She doesn’t receive a vision there, but she dreams that night.

Wait, his mom His mom had a vision?

Yeah. How about that? Wait a second. His mom had a vision, too?

I know his dad did.

Yeah. What does mom do? I think his mom’s at least as visionary as dad is. Wow. The reason we know mom’s visions and dreams and dad’s is because mom tells us. She’s the source. Her memoir is a fantastically rich source. Joseph is not in a vacuum. There’s no reason to think that he decides to go and pray in the woods because that comes out of the blue. There’s reason to be quite confident that he goes and pray in the woods because that’s what you do in the Smith family when you’re really conflicted. That’s what you do. Professor Bushman is the one who showed us that context. Then since then, other people have interpreted it to mean, well, if other people are having visions in the woods or wherever, Joseph Smith must just be copycatting He’s just repeating. He uses phrases that are common to this vocabulary, and therefore, he saw no real vision. Bushman didn’t arrive at that conclusion. He’s the one who excavated the evidence. He’s the one who put it all together. He’s the one with the Bancroft Prize, and he didn’t interpret the evidence the same way everybody else did. He just said, yeah, Joseph Smith lived in a visionary world.

Did any of the accounts say that… Because in the account, it says to join none of the churches. How do any of them proclaim that he would be a prophet?


That wasn’t until Moroni later in section 2, which was actually the first revelation. Right. So he doesn’t even… The first vision was just a vision that he had. I think maybe we make that connection of, oh, that’s when he called him to be the prophet. None of the other visions from others claimed that.

Nothing in any of the first vision accounts of Joseph Smith that give us the idea that he comes out of the grove I’m going to be a prophet someday. He comes out of the grove thinking, I’ve finally had the experience with God that I desperately needed. I’m relieved of my sins. I know that at some future time, the fullness of the gospel will be made known to me. But he didn’t have any reason to think it would be directly known by revelation and by him being the prophet. When Moroni says, God has work for you to do, That’s his initiation into being called into the ministry.

That’s when he’s feeling bad about… Because he had already seen Moronai the first time, and then it was around when he was 17. Then he’s down on himself because he’s like, This is not the way that a person called of God should act. Exactly right.

His 1832 history says it this way. He said, After the first vision, I was filled with love, and for many days I could rejoice with great joy, but I could find none who had believed the heavenly vision. After many days, I fell again into sins, which brought a wound upon my soul, and I went back to my knees in prayer and received the visit of Moroni. Now, I think you were asking also, what about these other visionaries? What about Charles Finney and others? Are any of them called to the work? Finney definitely feels called to evangelize. He becomes one the few most influential early 19th century preachers in American history, for sure. Really? He’s just down the road from Joseph Smith in time and space, receiving his vision. He goes into the woods to pray, doesn’t receive a vision there, but later in his law office, he envisions the savior. He’s converted, he’s born again, he becomes a Presbyterian minister, a hugely influential one. Finney, interestingly, will back away from the literalness, the heavy theological content of his vision. Over time, the further he gets from it, the more he’ll say, Well, I saw Jesus or I experienced Jesus, and I felt called to it.

Joseph Smith will get more concrete as he goes along. His history, his accounts will be more and more defiant, and the theological content of them will harden. I saw two personages. I knew it. I knew God knew it. I could not deny it. That stuff comes as Joseph is pushed on it. That’s one way in which Joseph’s accounts are not similar to the other accounts of visions in his time and place. Most of the others, the person is not called to the work. They’re just reassured of their status or their salvation or forgiveness. They’re brought peace and joy. Joseph’s lead on a trajectory, especially through his interpretive memories, the ones that look backward and see, how do I make sense of the first vision? Josephs situate him as the prophet of the restored Church of Jesus Christ. A With a theology that is disruptive to classical theism, in other words, to American, Protestant, and Catholic establishment.

Maybe that assumption would be for us to think that only God can work through the only one in true living church, right? We don’t have to really go down that road.

Why wouldn’t God send comforting visions, revelations-To all of his children? Exactly right. Exactly. Even today. Right. Even now.

There are people that claim to have things that are silly.

Absolutely. We might think, well, that doesn’t happen outside the Church of Jesus Christ, Fatherly Saints, to which I would say, I don’t believe that, and there’s no reason to believe it. Sarah Pierpont Edwards is a woman who’s a revelator. Where she’s married to the Reverend Jonathan Edwards in the 1700s. She hears this sermon one day, this minister, not her husband, pray, and she wants so desperately to call God her Father. She retires. She to her room and she pray privately and she says, I just wanted so badly to call God my Father. Could I really? Is he really a heavenly Father? I conceived of God and Christ as separate, she says. These would have been radical notions in her time and place, and she keeps them to herself. But she testifies God revealed his inconceivable loveliness and mildness to me. Why not believe that God reveals himself to his children like that? If any of you, any of you, lack wisdom, ask, and God answers and doesn’t upbraid. I think I don’t think of Joseph’s vision as the answer for everyone, everywhere. Ultimately, it’s a vision that leads to the restoration of gospel fullness. I don’t think of that work of God as limited in any way.

He’s casting the net wide, go ye, therefore, and teach everyone. President Nelson, if anything, has just drawn our attention to, look, anytime you do anything to help anyone on either side of death, that’s God’s work. I don’t interpret the facts narrowly as only applying, only Joseph, who’s not himself a member of the Church of Jesus Christ, where the Saint, since the time of his vision, can have these beautiful experiences.

Well, I’ve always thought, too, that he’s translating the Book of Norman before he was Norman. You know what I mean? God’s power, God’s ability, God’s strength can work through many people. I think that the one and only true living church is more of a responsibility to gather Israel than it is to look down on and say, We’re better.

Yeah. There can be a true and living church on the face of the earth that is led by the Lord’s handpicked apostle in whom he has vested his priesthood and its keys. They’re solely the ones he has appointed to perform the ordinances of exaltation. That can all be true, and God can be at work in the lives of Muslims and Christians. Christians, all of all kinds of flavors the world around and everybody else. There’s only two churches. Yeah. Apocalyptic speaking, you’re right about that. Apocalyptic speaking.

We could go down there. We can look at the assumptions You’re doing that with the first vision accounts. There’s multiple assumptions that people make. There’s different perspectives that people have with these different visions. There’s assumptions within those. Anything else to help us think about this well, to think it through well?

Yeah. When we are willing to suspend what we think we know about the vision, in other words, best thing to do is to start by saying, what do I really know about the vision and how do I know it? If we’re honest, we’ll pretty quickly realize, I really don’t know as much as I think. I want to know. I want to know everything that the historical record says. So then we would learn those accounts. We would read them backwards and forwards, over and over and over. They’re easily available now on the Joseph Smith papers website. There you can look at the actual images of the holographs if you want to. If that’s not your cup of tea, then there are transcriptions there, typewritten, and the church’s gospel library app in the church history part of that, it has all of the accounts also transcribed. There’s no reason to not dive deeply into these accounts. But once we We know what the historical documents say. We do not know if the historical documents are true. That’s right. Historical research can tell me what the historical records say. Only revelation from God can tell me if what the records say is true.

I’ve got to use my brain, seek out of the best books, in this case, the accounts of the first vision, by study and also by faith. By study, I can learn what the What the accounts say. By faith and by revelation, I can learn whether what the accounts say is true. If we’re only willing to bring half of our capacities, we can’t know as much as we could otherwise know.

Again, the same idea keeps coming up. You have to have both sides. That’s right. You have to have both sides to really confirm the things that you do see. There is the evidence that is shown that you act in faith to look for them. That’s right. And nowadays, it’s very easy to find. Well, I didn’t know that in the past, it wasn’t as easy to find. But now, we don’t really have much of an excuse to not be able to see it. What would you say, again, I think the question to ask is, what happens if Joseph Smith didn’t see this? What’s at stake? If Joseph Smith didn’t have this first vision, why does it matter so much to get your own personal witness by studying by faith and to the mind and to the heart?

That’s a great question. If the first vision really happened the way as Joseph Smith said it does, then it has really important implications for the nature of God. Almost all of the rest are what I call unrestored Christianity, which is a term of respect for me. I have admiration respect, holy envy for unrestored Christianity. But it conceives of God in terms of classical theism, a Greek philosophical overlay on the Bible that is like a pair of glasses, and I necessarily see through the tent on those glasses when I read the Bible. That gives me a God who is absolutely and completely immaterial, has no change in any way ever, is unchangeable, is impassible, so does not experience any human emotion or passion whatsoever. Whatsoever, and is somehow three in one and one in three. That is the God that grows out of the Christian tradition and that is encoded in the creeds of Christianity. Well, the God of Joseph Smith’s first vision does not fit that profile. That’s one of the things that’s at stake, right?

Go more on that.

Well, so if Joseph Smith is telling the truth, then God shows up materially, standing next to his son, Jesus Christ. There’s one account, I’m not saying it’s accurate or not, I don’t know. I can’t triangulate it. But it’s one account where a kid who heard Joseph Smith tell about the vision in the mid-1830s in Kirtland was speaking as an old man at a fireside in St. George. He said that Joseph said that when God appeared to him in the grove, he touched his eye and said, This is my beloved love and son, hear him. When God touched Joseph’s eye, he could see the savior. Now, I’m not trying to advance that as a fact. What I’m saying is that’s a Latterday Saint way of talking about this stuff. In unrestored Christianity, you wouldn’t find that as a story you would tell and that would be well received or liked. But in a Latterday Saint fireside-It’s like, What? That’s very cool.

It’s like, yeah, with the background.

Yeah. The idea that God God could touch you on the eye. The Book of Abraham opens that way, too. I don’t know how literal it is or not, but God touched the eyes. Isaiah. Yeah. He touches his lips. He touches his lips, right. The God of the restoration is a different character of a different nature than the God of unrestored Christianity. We often say this by emphasizing that God and Christ show up in corporeal in the grove and separate. That’s true, but that’s only a tiny part of what’s at stake there. God’s passability, which is a big point of contention between unrestored and restored Christianity, that’s also at stake. That means, Darryl Givens is the most beautiful person to explain this. He says things like, Does God’s heart beat in sympathy with mine? The God of the restoration? Yes. But not Not so much in the unrestored gospel. That God is impassible. He’s not influenced by a teenager who’s desperate for remission of sins in the same way that the God of the restoration is. This is shown especially beautifully in the Book of Moses, where God is talking to Enoch and he’s weeping, and Enoch wonders.

Enoch is thinking, God’s impassible. Why is he weeping? Why would you care?

He’s like, these are my kids.

The God who weeps says, My gosh, my kids hate each other and they hate me. Why wouldn’t I weep? That God is the God restored through Joseph Smith, and you don’t find that God in unrestored Christianity. When we talk about the nature of God being at stake in the first vision, there’s a lot there to think about and dwell on. Does this God come to the rescue of teenagers who are convicted of their sins and really, really angsty? Yes. That’s what I love most.

Call them by name.

Yeah. The first revealed word of the restoration, if we’re using Joseph 18:30, 32. History is Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Wow.

That’s powerful.

That’s it.

Moses in the same way. Yeah. My son.

My son.

He’s an intimate God. That’s right. I just think of this as, oh, yeah, I’ve always known that. But it’s not in the… I mean, there’s interactions, but it’s not… You’re saying that as this added element?

Well, by the fifth century of the Christian era, that’s dropped out of Christianity. The bishops have come together and they’ve agreed on creeds, and they’re using the Gospels and so forth, but they’re reading them through their Greek philosophical lenses. They can’t not, as Professor Faulkner, a great philosophy professor at BYU, has said, they can’t not. I mean, that’s the intellectual currency of their time. They don’t have any other vocabulary or conceptions to use than the Greek philosophical ideas that teach them that to be transcendent, to be anything like what you and I would imagine God to be, you have to be utterly immaterial and completely unchangeable. You can’t be in time. You can’t really be in space. You get coming down through that becomes classical theism. That way of articulating God is the unrestored gospel way. When God says to Joseph Smith, Their creeds are an abomination, one thing he must be saying is, They got me all wrong. Here I am to reveal who I really am. And those creeds, you can sweep them right out the door because they don’t get me right.

So if there isn’t a God who is intimate, if there isn’t a God who’s personal, if there isn’t a God that you can see, that you can touch, that you can feel, what does that mean to you?

Well, to me, as a Latterday Saint, true blue through and through, that’s the beauty of it. There is a God who, I don’t know if he touched Joseph on the eye, but he He could have, and he could touch me on the eye. His heart beats in sympathy with mine. To put it in a Professor Adam Miller’s wonderful way, this is not a God of original sin. I didn’t start my relationship with him as a mistake. This is a God of original grace. The original gesture from him to me was grace, love. He’s a Father who saves, who’s mighty to save, and who causes his own personal excruciating suffering. God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son. Me and all the unrestored Christians love that verse and believe it, but it means something different maybe to us in some ways. To me, it tells me about a God who could show up in a grove of trees in Western New York If he wanted to touch his sinful teenage son on the eye and introduce him to his begotten, beloved, atoning son, and who would do that for all of us, for every one of us, every angsty teenager, every troubled soul, everyone in despair, every depressed person, every exploited daughter, he will come to that rescue.

That’s the God of the Restoration. I’m not trying to argue that unrestored Christianity doesn’t also conceive of God and his grace in these marvelous and wonderful ways, but his person we think of quite differently. To me, that’s a big deal.

That’s so powerful to me. Even in Section 88, I was looking at that, knowing I was going to talk to you, and you just see her a God who’s like, I’m coming back. The world’s in commotion, and I need you to be ready, and this is how you do it. You need to…

Build a house. Build a house.

That’s what it is by study and by faith. He starts with that. He’s like, Okay, if you’re going to prepare, this is what you need to do. You need to prepare yourself, like Moses, to sanctify yourself, to see the face of God and live. That’s ultimately what we want to do, whether it’s like a Joseph Smith experience in this life or whenever we meet him again. He wants to be in our presence. He wants to see us again. He’s prepared a way for us to do that. I love that it goes back to the covenants in the temple. It goes back to the… That’s what you get with the restored gospel, right?

Christ-centered covenant Covenants. Somebody listened to this from outside the restored gospel, say that there they just went over the edge. They were talking about Jesus, and then they said, The way you get back to God is through temple covenants and so forth. Neither you or I intend to say that in the least. We would say, Yeah, covenants mediated by Jesus Christ, the covenants that are so Christ-centric that what we’re doing is our Father in heaven is saying, I will bring you back to my presence. The only way to get there is for you to hook yourself inseparably to Jesus Christ and let him bring you back. We I don’t want to be misunderstood, and I’m grateful for that witness.

This has been amazing to me. I want to just end with this last question to you. You’ve mentioned this idea of what do you know and how do you know it, and you’ve already expressed that to a degree. But how would you answer that question for you now as we sum things up? It’s important for us to look at things and examine them with an eternal perspective. We want to look at them with a concrete Crete. We want to consider our assumptions. We must act in faith. We have to do things that we can act on the things that, according to what we know from the best books, God will talk to us in our mind, in our heart, all of these things. What have you come to know and how have you come to know it? I don’t know everything, but I know God loves his children.

You’ve heard that before. Where are you going? That’s a beautiful line from early in the Book of Mormon. I echo that line, I know that God loves me because in my hardest times, when I’ve reached for God, he’s responded to me. I know that I feel the Holy spirit, not every minute of every day, but I know that, for example, when I’m desperate and reaching out to God, and when I open myself to him in the slightest way that he runs to me, he runs to me and he suckers me. He gives me just what I need in the moment. I don’t know why he doesn’t do that for everybody in the same way, or at least from my perspective, I think, what about the people who are starving to death right now? What about the people who are being abused or beaten or stolen from their family right now? I don’t know. I don’t know all things, but I know God loves his children. I know that through the Atonement of Jesus Christ, there is hope and help and healing and rescue for everyone. I know that he’s endowed us with individual agency and that that has something to do with why he lets us be awful to each other.

But I also know that he compensates and that his children will be… He will come soon. Doctrine 1:33 testifies, and he will come in loving kindness. The day of his redeemed will come. He will rescue all of those children who are being exploited and abused and hurt and so forth. He will come in vengeance. He will not tolerate forever the terrible things that happen, some of his children to others. I put my faith in that perfect future as a way to cope with this imperfect present. This imperfect present is what he prophesides, what he said would happen. It’s not a surprise to him. When I don’t find him everywhere, when I puzzle over why he’s not cutting short the suffering, I trust that he will and that he’ll put all things right. The Atonement will reconcile everything and make it right in the end. I know that the Book of Norman is full of Hebrew poetry, and I know it’s I know it’s got these features in it that are so far beyond Joseph Smith’s ability to compose. I know, intellectually, Joseph Smith did not write the Book of Norman, but that’s really not the power of the book for me.

I was reading the book. I finished it for the first time by myself when I was 19, and just a few weeks from leaving on a mission. I knelt by my bed and I asked God with a sincere heart and real intent and faith in Jesus Christ if it was true. I received in my mind a thought, you already know it’s true. I received in my heart a feeling, a conviction that has never left me. It affirmed that thought. I know by the power of the Holy Ghost that the Book of Norman is true, and I, therefore, know that the Bible is generally true, and that Christianity is true, and that the restored version of it, the version God gave to Joseph Smith and that he brought back is the fullness of it. I don’t think that means that Latterday Saints know everything, but I think it means that God has vested in the church of Jesus Christ of Latterday Saints, his priesthood, his prophets, his apostles, the keys of his priesthood to officiate in the covenants and ordinances that bind us to Christ, where we take upon ourselves his name and therefore become one with God because Christ is one with God and we add ourselves to him.

I sometimes tell myself an equation or a pair of equations. One is I equals zero. I know that’s not popular today, right? All of the therapists are telling us how great we are and so forth. But the scriptures tell me, No, you’re nothing. Remember your own nothingness, King Benjamin reminds me a couple of times. A Mormon says, You’re less than the dust of the earth. And Ammon says, I know I’m nothing, and so do I. Actually, I find that to be quite a comforting truth. I used to think, I’ve got to be something before Christ will love me. I’ve got to be worthy enough for his love. That’s not what the scriptures teach me. The scriptures say, No, you’re nothing. What you got to do is add yourself to Christ. Take your nothingness and get in a covenant with God. Take upon yourself the name of Christ, become his. Link yourself to his infinite grace, power, mercy, light, life, love, truth, glory, and then you’ll be something. I plus Jesus Christ equal infinity. That’s the gospel to me. That plus sign to me is the cross of Jesus Christ, and it’s the covenant by which I voluntarily took upon myself the name of Jesus Christ.

The minute I did that, I added my nothingness to his infinity, and I became infinite. I became perfect in Christ. I I don’t go 20 minutes without messing that up. But he says, Lynn, come back. Come back, take the sacrament. Let’s start again. I’m perfect in Christ as long as I’m in that covenant. That, to me, is the most glorious good news, the most hopeful message. It’s the one I want to share with everyone. It’s the one I find at the heart of the Book of Mormen. I can find it in the Bible, too, but I’d have a harder time finding it in the Bible if I didn’t have the Book of Mormen. That’s why I love the restored gospel, and that’s what I know and how I know it.

Well, I end every episode this way. I believe what you said is true. Talked about a lot of different things, but don’t take our word for it. Find out for yourself. This is Let’s Get Real. Until next time.

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