(Part two of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
Occasionally, when the first vision is reviewed by church leaders, they may state some doctrinal insights, interpretations, defenses, or positions about various particulars. The below items mention some of these. The first is a comment (from a memo) from Elder Bruce R. McConkie, then a member of the First Council of the Seventy, about some wording in relation to the first vision, found in a book written by a member of the Quorum of the Twelve.
The second is self-explanatory and is Elder Bangerter using President Hinckley’s comments to illustrate his own views. The others contain further doctrinal insights:
Elder Bruce R. McConkie:
You indicate that Joseph Smith communed with the Father and the Son “as one man speaketh with his friend.” This, or course, is what the record says that Moses did in talking to the God of Israel. I may be wrong, but I always assumed that this kind of communication meant that a man talked to God face to face with all his faculties. That is, it is the kind of communion that Joseph Smith had in the Kirtland Temple when the Lord appeared to accept the building. In the case of the First Vision Joseph, presumably, was in a trance; that is, he was unconscious. He came to himself after the vision was over. This view may, or may not be correct, it is just what I always have assumed this phrase meant.
The first glorious visions which the Lord gave him were not authority sufficient for the establishment of Christ's church in the earth; that authority came later with the restoration of the priesthood; but they were all preliminary and preparatory moves which were necessary in the great plan of human redemption which the Lord was about to establish in this dispensation.
Elder William Grant Bangerter (formerly of the Presidency of the Seventy):
I had a few reflections as President Hinckley was greeting a group of ministers during the open house in the Jordan River Temple several years ago. After he had welcomed them as our guests and expressed the appreciation we have for their service in bringing their people to righteousness, he invited their questions. Two or three in the group, forgetting their manners as guests in a warm and friendly situation, asked some cutting and antagonistic questions. Central to their criticism was a demand for President Hinckley to justify the declaration mentioned in Joseph Smith’s testimony, as he beheld the Father and the Son, that those professors of religion were all corrupt. President Hinckley responded that he did not say that.
As I have pondered the same question, I wonder: Do we believe that all ministers of other churches are corrupt? Of course not. Joseph Smith certainly did not intend that. By reading the passage carefully, we find that the Lord Jesus Christ was referring to those ministers who were quarreling and arguing about which church was true—that is, the particular group with which Joseph Smith was involved. They were drawing (the Savior said it, not Joseph Smith) “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 1:19).
It is clearly apparent that there have been and now are many choice, honorable, and devoted men and women going in the direction of their eternal salvation who give righteous and conscientious leadership to their congregations in other churches. Joseph Smith evidently had many warm and friendly contacts with ministers of other religions. Quite a few of them joined the Church: Sidney Rigdon, John Taylor, Parley P. Pratt, and others in America and England. Some of them who carried the Christian attitude of tolerance did not join the Church. There are many others like them today.
It is a fact, however, that Joseph Smith was roughly handled by the members and ministers of various prominent religions, who tarred and feathered him, took up arms against him and his people, imprisoned him, and finally instigated his murder and martyrdom. Some of them still follow a similar course of ridicule and active antagonism. This condition must not warp our own understanding and conduct.
Are ministers of other churches inspired of God? Of course they are if they are righteous and sincere. Do they accomplish good? Certainly. . . .
Now, our true position—realizing that other churches don’t always appreciate what we believe. Even though we do not believe the way they do, we stand firmly on the things that have been revealed to us. We do not apologize that we do not have the same doctrines and principles that other churches have. We can talk about it in a warm and friendly way but we do not apologize. We didn’t initiate this restoration. God did. If others do not appreciate it, we nevertheless know it is the truth.
Some people don’t want the gospel to be restored. Some people are offended that there might be prophets and apostles. Some people hate the thought that God would actually speak out of heaven again. I don’t know why, but I suppose from the traditions of their fathers they have built up those attitudes to the point where it is offensive.
Nevertheless, we know what God has revealed to us—that in the last days he has brought forth the fullness of his everlasting gospel that will prepare mankind to return into the presence of God and to be exalted in his celestial kingdom. Latter-day Saints understand that. They must be true to that vision. Our testimony says that God lives, that Jesus is in reality the Savior and the Redeemer, that Joseph Smith was called as the instrument of God to bring forth the Restoration in the last days. Among the most marvelous accomplishments that he brought forth was the Book of Mormon. Something else that cannot be understood or explained other than on the basis of spiritual testimony is that the apostles and prophets exist in the Church today and that President Kimball is the Lord’s representative and holds the keys of his authority to teach us the way we should go. All of this I know to be true as the Lord has revealed it to me through his Spirit.
President Gordon B. Hinckley:
And then came that most glorious of all manifestations, the manifestation of the Father and the Son to that boy of fourteen years of age, who had gone into the woods in response to the invitation and challenge of James: "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" (James 1:5). What a great promise! I sometimes wish that Joseph had added, in writing his history, the next verse: "But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering. For he that wavereth is like a wave of the sea driven with the wind and tossed" (James 1:6). There must be faith.
Joseph went in as a boy. I have wondered at times why the Lord would have him go in as a fourteen-year-old boy. Why didn't he wait until he was twenty or thirty or forty, when he would have had the weight of some bit of authority that comes with age? He went in—the Lord permitted it, responded to his inquiry—because he came in perfect trust. There was no doubt in his mind. He said that if anyone needed wisdom, he needed wisdom, and he asked for it with full confidence that something would happen as a result of his prayer.
What did happen, of course, is marvelous and wonderful and quite without compare with anything that had ever happened before. There was the Father, the greatest of all, the God of the universe, and His Beloved Son, the resurrected Redeemer of the world. I do not know how long the conversation took. We do not have all the language, of course. We do not have anything of Joseph's prayer. . . . But Joseph Smith learned in those few minutes, however long or brief, more about the nature of God than all of the learned divines of all time had ever learned. What a remarkable thing it was. (New York Rochester Missionary Meeting, July 12, 1996.)
We must not become disagreeable as we talk of doctrinal differences. There is no place for acrimony. But we can never surrender or compromise that knowledge which has come to us through revelation and the direct bestowal of keys and authority under the hands of those who held them anciently. Let us never forget that this is a restoration of that which was instituted by the Savior of the world. It is not a reformation of perceived false practice and doctrine that may have developed through the centuries. . . .
We can and do work with those of other religions in various undertakings in the everlasting fight against social evils which threaten the treasured values which are so important to all of us. These people are not of our faith, but they are our friends, neighbors, and co-workers in a variety of causes. We are pleased to lend our strength to their efforts.
But in all of this there is no doctrinal compromise. There need not be and must not be on our part. But there is a degree of fellowship as we labor together.
Similarly, attempts have been made by some to focus upon or magnify some minor weaknesses of the Prophet Joseph Smith, but in that process they too have missed the mark, the man, and his mission. Joseph Smith was the Lord’s anointed to restore Christ’s Church to the earth. When he emerged from the grove of trees, he eventually learned four fundamental truths not then taught by the majority of the contemporary Christian world.
First, he learned that God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, are two separate, distinct beings. The Bible confirms Joseph Smith’s discovery. It tells us that the Son submitted His will to the Father (see Matthew 26:42). We are moved by the Savior’s submission and find strength in His example to do likewise, but what would have been the depth and passion of Christ’s submission or the motivational power of that example if the Father and the Son were the same being and in reality the Son was merely following His own will under a different name?
The scriptures give further evidence of this great truth: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). A father offering up his only son is the supreme demonstration of love that the human mind and heart can conceive and feel. It is symbolized by the touching story of Abraham and Isaac (see Genesis 22). But if the Father is the same being as the Son, then this sacrifice of all sacrifices is lost, and Abraham is no longer offering up Isaac—Abraham is now offering up Abraham.
The second great truth Joseph Smith discovered was that the Father and the Son have glorified bodies of flesh and bones. Following the Savior’s Resurrection, He appeared to His disciples and said, “Handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have” (Luke 24:39). Some have suggested this was a temporary physical manifestation and that when He ascended to heaven He shed His body and returned to His spirit form. But the scriptures tell us this was not possible. Paul taught, “Knowing that Christ being raised from the dead dieth no more; death hath no more dominion over him” (Romans 6:9). In other words, once Christ was resurrected, His body could never again be separated from His spirit; otherwise He would suffer death, the very consequence Paul said was no longer possible after His Resurrection.
The third truth that Joseph Smith learned was that God still speaks to man today—that the heavens are not closed. One need but ask three questions, once proposed by President Hugh B. Brown, to arrive at that conclusion (see “The Profile of a Prophet,” Liahona, June 2006, 13; Ensign, June 2006, 37). First, does God love us as much today as He loved the people to whom He spoke in New Testament times? Second, does God have the same power today as He did then? And third, do we need Him as much today as they needed Him anciently? If the answers to those questions are yes and if God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, as the scriptures so declare (see Mormon 9:9), then there is little doubt: God does speak to man today exactly as Joseph Smith testified.
The fourth truth that Joseph Smith learned was that the full and complete Church of Jesus Christ was not then upon the earth. Of course there were good people and some components of the truth, but the Apostle Paul had anciently prophesied that the Second Coming of Christ would not come “except there come a falling away first” (2 Thessalonians 2:3). Following Joseph Smith’s First Vision, the Restoration of Christ’s Church commenced “line upon line, precept upon precept” (D&C 98:12).
I take issue with those who believe that the placement of men upon the moon is the greatest occurrence of the last two thousand years. I do so because I know of an event wherein the Creator of the universe himself came to earth in answer to an obscure boy’s humble prayer and revealed pure theology.
Greatness is measured by men in many ways. It is generally equated with size, cost, quantity, and position. God, however, has a better way, “for as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [His] ways higher than [man’s] ways.” (Isa. 55:9.) In God’s eyes, greatness is equated with light, truth, goodness, and service. (See D&C 93:36; Matt. 23:11.)
We are taught that eternal life is “the greatest of all the gifts of God” (D&C 14:7; italics added), and that eternal life is to know “the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom [He has] sent.” (John 17:3.) Therefore, it is concluded that anyone who would introduce the only true God to mankind and unwrap the gift of eternal life, making it available to all, would be a partaker of greatness and be associated with great events.
The obscure young man of whom I speak, who introduced the true and living God to a benighted world, was not sponsored by an organization or trained by a group of professionals. At the time, he was no prophet, nor was he a prophet’s son. But like many who have been called in times past to perform a holy work, he was a common farm boy. (See Amos 7:14–16.)
He was the product of a God-fearing family—a family that thirsted after righteousness and exercised a simple but deep faith in the Lord. His school was the home, his teachers were loving parents, and his textbook was the Holy Bible. Yet, at the tender age of fourteen, he demonstrated a type of faith which had power to thrust him into the presence of Deity. (See Mark 9:23.)
There were no cameras trained upon him when he stepped into that grove of trees in upper New York state. There were no cheering throngs or support personnel to provide him encouragement. Nor were there newspaper reporters on hand to describe his actions. He knelt alone under the gaze of his Heavenly Father and offered up the sincere desires of his heart with perfect confidence that his voice would be heard. He was unaware of the muted applause of unseen multitudes who had waited so patiently for the dawning of a new day and the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
His investment in working the miracle was not money, machines, manpower, or even the trappings of science; his was an investment of living faith and an indomitable will.
Joseph Smith’s prayer and first vision in 1820 were no small things, even though they began as “one small step for a [young] man.” Over the years they have proven to be “one giant leap for mankind”; for that act of supreme faith ended a long night of spiritual darkness, opened up a flood of unadulterated truths, and ushered in the dispensation of the fulness of times.
We are told that the spin-off effects of the moon mission were many. Such benefits are reflected in all the materials about us. However, the consequences of Joseph Smith’s first vocal prayer and his probe into the unknown are infinitely greater and should be pondered seriously by all who are interested in “things as they really are, and of things as they really will be.” (Jacob 4:13; italics added.)
Joseph did not emerge from the grove with lunar rocks in his pocket or with moon dust on his shoes. He emerged with a changed countenance and with a gold mine of truth lodged in his mind and heart:
- Joseph learned that there are no winners in wars of words or tumults of opinion regarding religious matters. (See JS—H 1:12.) Such contention plays into the hands of Satan because he is the “father of contention.” (3 Ne. 11:29.)
- Joseph learned of “the power of some actual being from the unseen world” which bound his tongue and enveloped him in thick darkness as he began to pray. (See JS—H 1:16.) This power was exerted by the evil one, who viewed Joseph Smith as a threat to his realm of sin and error.
- Joseph learned what Moses had learned years before about Satan’s darkness and nothingness, as compared with the light and liberty associated with God. (See Moses 1:10–15.) Said Joseph:
- Joseph learned that he was made in the image of God, exactly as the scriptures attest. In his own words:
- Joseph learned that none of the churches of the day were right and that he should not join any of them. He recounts:
- Joseph learned why he must not align himself with an existing church. His words are:
- Joseph learned that “the testimony of James [was] true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided.” (JS—H 1:26.)
- Soon thereafter, Joseph learned “that God had a work for [him] to do” and that his name should be made known among all nations, kindreds, and tongues. (See JS—H 1:33.)
Such prophecy has been fulfilled as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been established and as the fulness of the gospel has been preached in all the world.
Yes, it all started so quietly, so simply, and so very wonderfully. A believing boy took “one small step” and prayed. A loving Father in Heaven listened and responded. What has resulted is rightfully referred to as “one giant leap for mankind.”
All the towers ever built and all the spaceships ever launched pale in comparison with Joseph Smith’s first vision. Though men fly higher and higher into the heavens, they will not find God or see his face unless they humble themselves, pray, and heed the truths revealed through the Prophet of the Restoration.
Some have foolishly said, “Take away Joseph Smith and his prayer in the grove and the First Vision and we can accept your message.” Such people would have us bury the treasure of saving truths already cited, and many more, and turn our backs to “the most important event that had taken place in all world history from the day of Christ’s ministry to the glorious hour when it occurred.” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968, p. 285.)
Joseph Smith “lived great” and “died great in the eyes of God.” (D&C 135:3.) He “has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.” (135:3.). . .
I know that Joseph Smith was a prophet, for the fruits of his labors are sweet and abiding, and the Holy Spirit has borne witness to my soul. I feel honored to blend my voice with the chorus of millions who testify of his greatness and divine calling. I also know that “the Lord God doth work by means to bring about his great and eternal purposes; and by very small means the Lord doth confound the wise and bringeth about the salvation of many souls.” (Alma 37:7.)
The above excerpt from Elder Asay’s talk is missing some text, mostly items from Joseph personal accounts of the first vision; watch the video at the link provided to hear all that was said.
I cannot remember the time when I have not heard the story, quoted by Brother Bennion, concerning the coming of the Father and the Son to the Prophet Joseph Smith. I am convinced as I grow older and become proportionately wiser that if boys and girls in our Church could keep that story uppermost in their hearts, believing it, having a testimony of it, much of the ills of our youth which President Richards so graphically portrayed this morning would not be.
I am concerned however with one item which has recently been called to my attention on this matter. There appears to be going about our communities some writing to the effect that the Prophet Joseph Smith evolved his doctrine from what might have been a vision, in which he is supposed to have said that he saw an angel, instead of the Father and Son. According to this theory, by the time he was inspired to write the occurrence in 1838, he had come to the conclusion that there were two Beings.
This rather shocked me. I can see no reason why the Prophet, with his brilliant mind, would have failed to remember in sharp relief every detail of that eventful day. I can remember quite vividly that in 1915 I had a mere dream, and while the dream was prophetic in its nature, it was not startling. It has been long since fulfilled, but I can remember every detail of it as sharply and clearly as though it had happened yesterday. How then could any man conceive that the Prophet, receiving such a vision as he received, would not remember it and would fail to write it clearly, distinctly, and accurately?
It seems to me, too, that had he evolved such a thing, his enemies would have used it against him. In 1838 there was a crisis in the Church. Men were falling away. It was at that time that Oliver Cowdery became disaffected. If any man in this Church had ever heard that story of the first vision, Oliver Cowdery must have heard it. Yet his reasons for disaffection were never given as an evolution of the first vision. Other men of that time did not use it as their excuse. In 1844, when the final conspiracy was concocted to murder Joseph Smith, the reasons given by those men were not discrepancies in his story of the first vision, but rather other matters far removed from it.
When Joseph wrote the story in 1838, men and women who had known him ever since he had started this work took the story in their stride; that is, it was common enough knowledge from the beginning that no one took an exception to it. Everybody knew it; everybody had heard it; not exactly in the words in which he wrote it-I believe no man will speak extemporaneously in the same manner that he will write something-but essentially the same, and when the Saints read it, it merely confirmed what they had heard over and over again.
His mother should have known something about it. You will remember, he walked into her house that morning and told her that the church to which she had given allegiance was not true. To my way of thinking, he must have told her all about the vision. When she chose to write the story of her son's experience, she did not put it in her own words. I suspect that she must have felt that so nearly was what he had written the way he had described it to her, that she quoted his written statement.
All of these things seem to me to add up to irrefutable evidence, although not said exactly, that Joseph Smith, in 1838, told the correct story of his vision of 1820.
Recently I made some slight investigation, although not enough, trying to find the testimonies of some of those who had heard Joseph say these things before 1838. I did not find much-I did not have time to look far-but I have one, which I should like to give you.
Edward Stevenson told how in 1834 the Prophet came to Pontiac, Michigan, Stevenson's home town, and there held a series of meetings, attended by Brother Stevenson. Brother Stevenson wrote that the following was the Prophet's testimony on that occasion:
"I am witness that there is a God, for I saw him in open day, while praying in a silent grove in the spring of 1820." Then Brother Stevenson wrote: "He further testified that God the Eternal Father, pointing to a separate Personage in the likeness of himself, said, 'This is my beloved Son. Hear Him.'"
I submit this excerpt as enough like the story that the Prophet wrote to bear witness that he wrote it accurately and correctly.
I am of the fifth generation. I can remember the second generation. My grandchildren are of the seventh generation. Likely in their day, they will remember not only my generation, but will see also, before they die, the tenth or the eleventh generation. It is just possible that some of them may be interested enough to want to know what their grandfather thought about these things, and they will investigate the conference reports. I should like them to have in my words what I believe about this great event.
So will you indulge me while I talk a moment to my grandchildren and to my great-great-grandchildren, to Loraine, to Parkie, to Charlotte, to Annette, and Wendy, and any that may come hereafter. (I hope there will be many of them.) I want you to know that I know that Joseph Smith walked into a grove in 1820, inspired of the Lord to do so, knelt down, as he said, among the silent trees, offered up a prayer, and there he was given a vision in which he saw God the Eternal Father, who in his turn introduced to Joseph his beloved Son. The Son told Joseph many things which would transpire but of which he was not allowed to speak. Beginning with that vision, which gave us our first knowledge since the time of the Savior of the true relationship of our Father and his Son to us, has grown this Church. That is my solemn and humble testimony to those of my house who in the future will want to know what I thought and believed.
In order that they will have no doubt, and that no carping critic may read into my words things that are not there, I should like to repeat for their benefit what the Prophet said when he wrote his vision:
...I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
...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! (Joseph Smith 2:16-17.)
I will stand on that witness and add mine that I know by the Spirit of the Holy Ghost that it is true. . . .
Elder Orson F. Whitney:
It was no accident, no chance happening—Joseph Smith's going into the grove that spring morning, one hundred years ago. It was an event predestined, heaven-inspired. I once thought that any good boy who prayed in faith could see just what Joseph saw. But I have put away that childish notion. I have learned that all boys are not Joseph Smiths. God hears and answers the prayers of the humblest of his children; but he answers them as seemeth him best, and not always in the same way. He gives according to the capacity of the one who receives.
It was no ordinary man that went into the woods that morning to pray. It was a Prophet, a Seer. Joseph Smith was not made a prophet by the people who held up their hands for him on the sixth of April, 1830, when this Church was organized. He was already a prophet, chosen, as Abraham had been, before he was born; ordained, like Jeremiah, before he was formed in the flesh. The people merely "sustained" him in that position, manifesting by the uplifted hand that they were willing to follow him as their leader, and to accept of his ministrations in that capacity. He was already a prophet, already a seer; God had made him such in advance. But all men are not Joseph Smiths. He was a man like unto Moses. He was the rarest human being that has walked this earth in the past two thousand years. And why did he go into the grove that morning and pray for wisdom and light? It was because the time had come. The Hour had struck, and The Man was there—the man whom God had provided. (Conference Report, April 1920.)
Elder Rulon S. Wells:
From these scriptures which I have quoted and many more that might be cited, it is evident that our Redeemer, known to ancient Israel as Jehovah and to us as Jesus Christ, was the One who appeared to the prophets and although the voice of the Father had been heard as at the baptism of the Savior: “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” not until the spring of 1820 do we have any account of the appearance of the Father, when both Father and Son appeared to Joseph in the Sacred Grove, when this latter-day Prophet, then less than fifteen years of age, being transfigured before them and quickened by the Spirit, not only beheld them both, observing that the one was the express image of the other, but also heard again his voice declaring: “This is my beloved Son, hear ye him.” A most wonderful vision which, although most unusual, was doubtless made necessary in order to dispel forever the false conceptions of the modern religious world regarding the personality of God. (Conference Report, April 1931.)