President Joseph Smith said the greatest event that has ever occurred in the world since the resurrection of the son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high was the coming of the father and of the son to that boy, Joseph Smith, to prepare the way for the laying of the foundation of his kingdom.
Similarly, President Ezra Taft Benson described the first vision as bedrock theology to the church, given the singular importance of the first vision.
It is important to know what happened and what it means.
Well, in 1820 in the Palmyra area, there were the following churches.
There was a Presbyterian’s and his mother and brother Hyrum, who was 20 and Sorona, who was 17, and his younger brother Samuel, had joined that church.
The family has a Presbyterian interests. We know there was some congregational church is there as well, and they would have been very similar to the Presbyterians and belief. And there was the Baptists and the Methodist. But what most people don’t understand is that actually the largest denomination in terms of membership was the Society of Friends or the Quakers. But it doesn’t look like the Quakers or or the Congregationalists in general were in opposition with each other. It looks like Joseph only mentions the Presbyterians, the Baptists and the Methodists.
So my point is he has a conflict, No one with his own mother and siblings about their being united with Presbyterianism. He’s leaning towards Methodism.
And at the same time, his father is basically non churched. He’s not favoring any of them. So you can see in his own family there’s this religious divide and among the family.
So I think Joseph is not only going to try to exercise his faith to find out what the right church is that he should join, but it also has implications for his entire family.
Joseph had a problem, a dilemma, and in his earliest autobiography, he says that this way he says that he became intimately acquainted with people of different denominations and he listened to their teachings. He became familiar with the various doctrines of Christianity, pluralism. And then he says, I searched the scriptures and applied myself to them. And what happened when he did both of those things is there was dissonance. There was tension. He said he couldn’t find any denomination that practiced Christianity as it was revealed in the New Testament.
And this was a grief to my soul. He said it’s a problem. And he said I had become convicted of my sins. And I felt to mourn for my sins and the sins of the world. He needs Christ’s forgiveness and he trusts that he’ll find it in Christ Church like other people did in the New Testament. And yet, as he tries to find that he can’t do it. The problem then is not just an intellectual problem. Who has the right proposition’s?
Who has the right declarations of belief about Christianity? It’s a problem of the soul. It’s a problem of desperately needing Christ and not being able to find him. So Joseph tells us in his accounts of the vision really beautifully about his wrestle, about the struggle of of not knowing what to do, how to act. I did not know. And unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know. And the problem, never knowing how to find Christ, never knowing that he’d been forgiven of his sins was acute for Joseph.
So finally, he says in his earliest autobiography, I went to the wilderness and I cried into the Lord for Mercy. There was none else to whom I could go.
If he can find out who it is or which church is right, he could maybe help his family and especially his father.
He’s trying to figure out how we can reconcile these differences not only in the community at large, but among his own family, his own self, but also his own family.
He’s certainly not the only person to have gone to God in prayer looking for salvation for his son.
And I think there’s probably others who, like him, received answers from God. I, I don’t believe that God only loves Joseph Smith and answers only Joseph Smith and no one else in this time period. And I know that’s not not what we’re implying.
One of the insights that comes to us from Joseph’s Vision accounts, a couple of them, is that there is an actual being, an actual being unseen but real who has power. And this being is the art antagonist in the universe. Right. This is Satan and this being as opposed to God, to light, to truth, to Joseph’s happiness and forgiveness and redemption, to the restoration of true Christianity. This was an all out attack on this young boy to stop him from exercising the faith he would need.
And it’s just to me, an overwhelming witness that there is an opposing force against this church and against his prophets and against truth that he you don’t see it. You see it in subtle ways in society.
But there is a real dark side of the of that can really cause a lot of problems. And this really I think Joseph Smith by 1838 understood the significance of that opposition in that early age in his life. And one of the accounts that talks about the doubts that filled his mind and in that same account, it talks about inappropriate thoughts that that flooded his mind. And and I think those are things that that all of us, not just youth like Joseph Smith, but all of us live in a world that that floods our minds with doubts, that floods our minds with inappropriate images.
As anyone who watches media for any length of time will will will recognize how simple, how easy that that could happen.
Satan does not have God’s power. Satan can’t subject us to his will unless there’s an act of our agency involved, unless we relent to that. This is one of the most important theological lessons of the first vision. God is more powerful. He can vanquish Satan. But we have a role to play in that. We get to decide whether we exercise our power to call upon God or to just yield to Satan.
Who has astonishing power? Why was Joseph Smith able to actually be hold the father in the sun? Why did he get that privilege?
Well, I think, number one, this was his official call or appointment to be the head of the this dispensation and to as I’ve tried to express, I think he overcame that satanic experience and was rewarded for his faith.
When the Lord speaks to Joseph, he says their creeds are an abomination, their creeds are an abomination. That’s not a popular thing to say. It’s not an ecumenical thing to say. But there’s important meaning to it. Right? There’s a there’s a point to that. And the point of it is that the God of the first vision, the God and Christ of the first vision are indeed not the God of credal Christianity.
When other Christians say Latter-Day Saints are not Christian, that’s what they mean.
They mean they do not worship the God of the creeds.
Latter-Day Saints just have to say, well, you’re right about that. But Latter-Day Saints would testify. The God who revealed himself in the first vision is God. So for Joseph Smith to say, I saw the father and the son, they’re separate, they’re distinct.
And for him to begin revealing a restored gospel that says that basic assumption of traditional Christianity is wrong from the beginning, it’s wrong.
God and Christ are exalted beings, separate and distinct, and in some way or other, they occupy space. They could appear in a grove in western New York, tangible bodies embodied.
So the god of the restored gospel is relational. Joseph, my son, your sins are forgiven. The Lord says in the earliest account. Or Joseph, this is my beloved son. Hear him. Notice how Joseph’s accounts of the vision put God in relationship relationship with Christ relationship with Joseph himself. This God is possible. This God is in other words, passionate. This God fills Joseph with love. This God loves Joseph. These are things that are that make Joseph’s restoration distinct.
The God of. The first vision is different from the one without body parts or passions, the God that Joseph Smith reveals responds to teenagers who are worried about their sins condescends very far to answer their prayers, meet their needs, provide them a savior. That’s a different conception of Christ. And it’s a beautiful one in my mind. It’s why I’m a latter day saint. It is the most wonderful story I’ve ever heard outside of the one that makes it meaningful, which is the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the first place.
The resurrected Christ, the one who conquers death and obliterates the effects of sin in our lives, appeared to Joseph Smith in a grove of trees in western New York. And so it’s a personal story, right? This is the savior saying, Joseph, my son, your sins are forgiven. Those are the first words, the first revealed words of the restoration. Joseph, my son, your sins are forgiven. That tells us a lot, that tells us all we need to know about Christ and his redeeming love for us, for teenagers who are struggling with their sinfulness, feelings of guilt.
For Joseph to be in that dark place and then to be totally relieved of that burden by the vision Johs of my son, your sins are forgiven. I was filled with joy, unspeakable. Joseph says. For many days I was filled with love. I could rejoice with great joy, but I could find none.
Who would believe the heavenly vision? That’s a reflection on that painful rejection. That means that he clams up. There is no evidence that he tells anybody else. If he tells mom, dad, brothers, sisters, they don’t record it.
There’s nothing in their contemporary records and even in their reflections, nothing that isn’t dependent on Joseph’s later tellings of it. We don’t know exactly when he starts telling it, but he committed to writing sometime in the summer fall of 1832. We now know that at about that same time, he starts talking about it publicly or at least, let’s say in private circles. But he’s testing it. He’s telling the story and testing the response. Right. He’s in a different place now than when he was that kid who was rejected by the authority figure.
He’s the authority figure now.
He’s the president of the Church of Jesus Christ and he’s bearing his testimony of his original revelation. And it’s well received. It probably wasn’t until just a few years ago when the church put on the church website the different accounts, the the four accounts of Joseph Smith’s first vision as recorded by himself or under his direction, and then the five contemporary accounts given by individuals who heard Joseph Smith recount that experience. And all of a sudden we hear this slew of people saying, I never knew Joseph Smith had several accounts of his first vision.
Why did the church hide this from us?
And that’s not really a very good argument. We’ve had these accounts, but if you’re not engaged in in history or looking at primary sources or that kind of thing, you probably would have missed it. For example, in 1970, in the April issue of the Improvement era, which was the forerunner of the Insigne, James B. Allen gave a wonderful synopsis of each account of the first vision. So the church has never been trying to hide any of that from us.
It’s just that they probably didn’t know where to look or just wasn’t not just was not familiar with it.
I think it’s wonderful that we do have multiple accounts because each one is rich in and detail to some degree or another, but each provides additional insight into that marvelous experience of Joseph Smith.
Variances in the story to me have always been a sign that the story’s organic, but it’s real. A fake story is told the same way, exactly the same every single time. An organic story changes over time because it means different things to us as we change the story gains meaning and we tell it in different ways because we’re different people and the story changes. And it’s meaning.
I think what’s a fascinating principle about the first vision is that really marks the beginning of a new dispensation, a new era in which the fullness of the gospel will be restored and preached. And it follows an earlier, earlier patterns. We know, of course, Adam, as the first dispensation had virtually by his right as being the father of humanity. But he did talk with God.
And then we know that Enoch, another dispensation head says in the Book of Moses that he saw the Lord and spoke to him face to face and was called to preach the gospel. So it’s not surprising that Joseph Smith would have that same kind of an experience as the earlier dispensation heads by being called directly by God out of heaven.
I think what’s unique about Joseph, though, a couple of things. It looks like the others at least saw the Lord, but Joseph saw God and his son. And I think the other distinctive element to his visionary experience was he was so young. First vision represents the moment when Joseph learned there was a way for the power of the Atonement to be unlocked fully, and I think that makes sense if we’re talking about a restoration and the first event is the first vision before we get priesthood and before we get ordinances, before there’s even a church, there is the power of the atonement that has to be brought back to Earth.
And we sometimes don’t maybe appreciate the significance of those words. Your sins are forgiven, you being uttered by Jesus Christ for the first time in hundreds of years to this young man and in the woods. I think there’s more than just the fact that it was the first. I think it’s also a fact that God wanted it to be the first.
He chose it that way. He was the one who selected this to be the event that starts the restoration. So I think that’s worth thinking about it. Not just that it was first, but why was it first and why was it first? I think the knowledge that comes out of the first vision is foundational, that knowledge being that God is real, that Christ is the savior of the world, that they answer prayers, that they care about their children, that my sins can be forgiven, that Joseph sins can be forgiven.
Joseph Smith story is so simple and plain and universal that I think the reason why it became foundational wasn’t necessarily because any keys were restored. Their audience is brought back, but because it restored the basic idea, which is God loves you and you can speak to God. So why has the first vision just seem to have grown in stature and stature over the years? It’s because it’s so universal. It’s a story that any man or woman can relate to and anybody can emulate.
You don’t have to have a seer stone. You don’t have to have a prophetical. You don’t have to have a temple. You have to have a quiet place and and a desire to ask God and a willingness to be taught by him. And that’s all that you need to get started down that road. But the first vision starts us down this path to where God isn’t ethereal, being without body parts or passions that fills all portions of the universe.
He is a person that loves the way a person loves and cares, the way a person cares.