The following is my talk that I gave on Sunday.
When I hear the story of the First Vision, the novelty-loving part of me is like, “Oh, that again.” But as I keep my heart open, I am inevitably struck by how amazing this event was. I invite you to keep your heart open as I go through this story and share some things that can be learned from it.
5 Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people. (JS-H 1:5)
[Joseph Smith observed that] ..that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions. (JS-H 1:6)
Note the lack of sincerity, lack of clarity, lack of charity. There was lots of contention and competition.
I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia. (JS-H 1:7)
Many seem to be making do with what was available.
During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit. In process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong. (JS-H 1:8)
He studied and observed the different faiths and was very confused.
11 While I was laboring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
12 Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. (JS-H 1:11-12)
Bruce R. McConkie on James 1:5 :
This single verse of scripture has had a greater impact and a more far-reaching effect upon mankind than any other single sentence ever recorded by any prophet in any age… these simple words …led to the opening of the heavens in modern times. (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 3: 247)
So Joseph Smith decided he would do as scripture advised and pray for wisdom, asking God which church was true.
So he went to a grove of trees and prayed there, a place we now call The Sacred Grove.
And at first he was seized by some power that tried to bind his tongue keep him from praying and caused him to feel he was doomed to destruction.
But he prayed anyway—prayed for deliverance.
I invite you to close your eyes now and try to imagine the scene.
…just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
17 It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!
18 My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join.
19 I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong; and the Personage who addressed me said that all their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that those professors were all corrupt; that: “they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines the commandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” (JS-H 1:16-19)
(you can open your eyes now)
This message about there not being a true church on the earth was the big payload of the vision that Joseph Smith meant us all to know in his account, though he was told many more things that he said he couldn’t write at that time.
21 Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them.
22 I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me. (JS-H 1:21-22)
I continued to pursue my common vocations in life until the twenty-first of September, one thousand eight hundred and twenty-three, all the time suffering severe persecution at the hands of all classes of men, both religious and irreligious, because I continued to affirm that I had seen a vision. (JS-H 1:27)
Joseph had to stand alone as a one witness against the world for some time. How interesting this was, even though we know the Lord follows the law of witnesses, He allowed Joseph to face the scorn of the world alone for a time.
--Joseph’s faithfulness to his testimony after the visit encourages us to trust him. Even though many people wanted him to deny it happened, he didn’t. This trust becomes fundamental to our testimony in Joseph Smith’s calling as a prophet. He would not deny it because he knew that to do so would offend God.
Joseph Smith is a wonderful model of someone who withstood so many forces tugging at him and so much emotional conflict and differing opinions about the subject of how to obtain eternal salvation.
My Personal Experience at the Sacred Grove and Hill Cumorah
I’ve been there and it is peaceful. I went there perhaps when I was 11 or 12 on vacation with my family. I remember being in awe that here was the place that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and Jesus Christ in the flesh. I looked around wondering if I would know the exact place if I saw it. It could be anywhere—at that tree, or near that one. I decided that because we don’t know, that could be another reason why the whole place is sacred.
I’ve been to the Hill Cumorah as well. It’s steep to climb, but it was neat to think that that was the place where the plates lay deep in the earth so secretly for so many centuries until the angel Moroni could tell Joseph where to find them.
Because he had the first vision
--We learn about the designs of Satan
--We know much more about the character and nature of God, which deepens our faith.
--We have an opportunity to learn what a witness of the Holy Ghost feels like
--We learn something about prophets
--We learn about the revelatory process
I will elaborate on each of these.
From reading the Joseph Smith story, we learn about the designs of Satan.
--There is an actual being from the unseen world who tried to destroy Joseph Smith and prevent him from praying.
--We see that he tries to create and maintain confusion about what the truth is.
--We see that he likes to see families divided over what is true. Joseph Smith’s family certainly was.
--We see that he would prefer people to profess faith and yet not act on it and to contend with others about and create a war of words and destroy good feelings (if real) and create hypocrisy.
--We see that it pleases him to cause people to lose confidence in the scriptures when they try to settle questions.
--We see that he tries to prevent people from praying and that he will even go so far as to make them feel unworthy to pray and doomed to destruction to daunt them from prayer.
--We see that once people have had a great spiritual experience, Satan tries to make them question it or doubt its authenticity or source.
--He tries to make us think that the heavens are closed, and that miracles have ceased.
--We learn he tries to stir people up against the truth and those who teach it.
How does learning about the First Vision deepen our faith in God?
--It is another witness that the Father and the Son live.
--Their brightness and glory defy description. Their presence chases away Satan’s darkness.
--It gives us information about their physicality and separateness and that man was created after their image.
--Spiritual unity of the Godhead. We learn this from Heavenly Father referring Joseph to listen to His Beloved Son Jesus, which He would not do if He had not complete confidence that Jesus would say all that Heavenly Father would say.
--It reassures us that they know us by name, and are interested in the affairs of us their children.
--It is evidence that they hear our prayers and answer. Therefore, prayer works and revelation continues.
--God reveals great and important things.
All this enables us to develop true faith in God. Without this knowledge, true faith in God would be impossible for the rest of us, (Faith in things which are not seen, which are true, so to have faith in something, it has to be true, and previously the truth about God had not been known, or it had been forgotten or twisted.
Elder Charles W. Penrose (an apostle) said:
“The Gospel came to us in the various nations of the earth, some belonging to the various religious sects, and some belonging to no sect whatever, and when we received and obeyed it a power took hold of us superior to anything we have ever experienced before, and witnessed to us in an unmistakable manner the truth of this work. It is not a phantom. It is not something imaginary, but it is a solemn fact, as certain as the fact of our existence. No one can reason us out of it, or force us out of it. Why? Because it is stamped upon our spiritual nature, it is a part of our very being. God Almighty has revealed this truth to our souls, and we know it as we know we live. That is why we are here.
Now, our business is to live this religion, to learn further of the ways of God, and to do his will in all things.” (JD 21:80)
From the First Vision we learn about the importance God sees in churches and their influence, both for good and evil:
Because Christ told Joseph Smith that all the churches were wrong and he should join none of them, we learn:
--The importance of a true church. The absence of it or the counterfeit of it receives the divine label of abomination. No matter how sincere their followers might be, the precepts of men are insufficient to teach the right way.
--We know that there was an apostasy from the truth.
--We know the right way had to be restored. (The next question that would come from that was “Now what do I/we do?”)
--Because Jesus advised Joseph Smith to join none of the churches at the time, we need not judge those who do not go to a church. They may be looking for greater light and knowledge.
It can also be said that the First Vision paved the way for real hope in the world. The Book of Mormon defines hope (loosely speaking) as anticipation of a better world and to be raised by the resurrection. We have to have the Holy Ghost to feel this hope, because the Holy Ghost is the earnest of our salvation, it is like a down payment on heaven.
From our perspective as members, we also learn something about prophets:
--We see there is such a thing as foreordination. This is the only explanation for this 14-year-old boy receiving a vision among all 14-year-old boys at any period in the world.
--God chooses the method of revelation best suited to His purposes. He could have given impressions or dreams, but He chose to reveal Himself.
--We see youth, lack of experience, and low education level are no bar to a prophetic call.
--We see prophets’ witnesses are based upon experience—hearing & seeing—which teaches more in 5 minutes than anything one could ever read on the topic.
--We see prophets don’t necessarily tell all they know and experience. Joseph Smith said Christ told him many other things that Joseph couldn’t write at that time.
More was needed after the first vision
To paraphrase Orson Pratt, if Joseph Smith had had the first vision and then translated the Book of Mormon and published it and stopped there, what good would it have done the world? Seeing the truths of the Book of Mormon would not by itself give the power to organize a church or the authority to run it. We would still be shut out of the kingdom of God. That would be like putting the hungry man at a table full of food and forbidding him from eating. It would simply be aggravating.
How happy we are that, in addition to the First Vision and the Book of Mormon, we have the restored keys of the priesthood that authorized the creation of the kingdom of God on the earth and enabled us to partake of all the spiritual blessings of belonging to it!
Other results from the First Vision that opened the dispensation:
--The Book of Mormon was received, translated, and printed as another witness of Christ.
--The priesthood authority to perform saving ordinances was restored, including the sealing powers of the priesthood and the gathering of Israel.
--The Church was organized on the earth as the kingdom of God.
--Revelations came to Joseph Smith about how to build the kingdom of God on the earth, including the salvation of mankind, both the living and the dead.
--Keys, principles, and powers were restored for preaching the gospel, perfecting the Saints, redeeming the dead.
What are you going to do because of what you know?
Elder Carlos H. Amado (April 2002 conference) pointed out:
The story demonstrates five principles, which will help us come to know God, as they did for Joseph Smith1) Have a sincere desire to know the truth and act on it. – Joseph Smith had an intense desire to know God and do His will. When we have this same desire, we will do all we can to live the truths we know. From Joseph Smith we learn the necessity of seeking the truth and seeking the Lord with real intent. Seeking with real intent is the opposite of being casual or apathetic. We can’t afford to become casual in our study of the scriptures or in our prayers. If we do we will start to drift. The fire we felt will start to die down.2) Learn the importance of reading the scriptures – His prayer came from learning truth about prayer in the scriptures and his determination to experiment on the word. Also, he received many additional revelations as a result of reading the scriptures.3) Learn the value of prayer – Just like Joseph Smith we can also testify that we have received answers to our prayers.4) Discover the blessing of meditation – Joseph Smith pondered often. His mother observed that he wasn’t a great reader of the Bible, but he thought very deeply.5) Experience joy from going to church – Joseph Smith went to various denominations and he observed what they taught and what they did. While he was in the sad position of not finding the truth church, we are blessed to have that today! We can know that we are part of the kingdom of God!
Everyone goes through a Joseph Smith experience
Bruce R. McConkie:
“….every investigator of revealed truth stands, at some time in the course of his search, in the place where Joseph Smith stood. He must turn to the Almighty and gain wisdom from God by revelation if he is to gain a place on that strait and narrow path which leads to eternal life. (Doctrinal New Testament Commentary, 3 vols. [Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1965-1973], 3: 247)
Every investigator into the church will be in the same position of Joseph Smith, having to grapple with the cries of “Lo here” and Lo there” and need to decide for themselves which of all the churches is right. After hearing the doctrine and testimony and reading the scriptures, they must do what Joseph Smith did and ask God for wisdom about which church is true. The Lord will reveal that this work is His work.
Everyone who is born into the church sooner or later must also do the same. No one can live forever on borrowed light. But whether you have a gift of knowing or the gift of believing the truth from others, you must be given that gift from God.
When we come to know this work is the Lord’s, we must muster the courage and integrity to embrace it and forsake the world. If we continue to grow and receive truth in the pattern of line-upon-line, we will have peace and joy and satisfaction here in the world and chart a course to salvation.
Though we have not been destined to open a dispensation of the gospel, we also must make decisions and sort through confusion and cut through a war of words in a whole host of subjects that affect our lives. The world is full of difficult decisions that make us face our ignorance, or our age, or our infirmities, or our fears.
Experience how testimony of Joseph Smith is a shield of faith:
On Monday for FHE we watched a TV program that sounded good, but turned out to present arguments that would deeply disturb a person’s faith in a particular story of the Bible. But because of my testimony of the prophetic call of Joseph Smith, and in particular my testimony in his work on the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible, I was able to withstand something that otherwise would have shaken my faith. I don’t know the answers are to the questions that TV program raised, but I found places to question their connections and conclusions. I can wait for more light and knowledge on the matter.
I’ve had a number of challenges to my faith throughout my life, but I have overcome a great number of them by thinking back to the First Vision. I believe in that First Vision. I believe Joseph Smith’s testimony. And so, I keep my faith that this is God’s work.
Lessons on praying
“When I was a little child, my parents taught me by example to pray. I began with a picture in my mind of Heavenly Father being far away. As I have matured, my experience with prayer has changed. The picture in my mind has become one of a Heavenly Father who is close by, who is bathed in a bright light, and who knows me perfectly.” ("Exhort Them to Pray," Ensign, February 2012, https://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/02/exhort-them-to-pray?lang=eng)
It seems to me that President Eyring has made the First Vision a model for how he should pray. It suggests to me that when he closes his eyes to pray, he tries to imagine that God is there in the room with him, standing above him in the air, listening to his prayer.
This is an invitation for us to do the same in our prayers, no matter where or when they are.
My testimony of Joseph Smith is based upon the following:
1) He never denied his witness.
2) He translated the Book of Mormon, and I have a testimony that book is true.
3) From my learning about Joseph Smith’s life, I am convinced that he was not just a good man, but a Prophet, Seer, and Revelator.