(Part eight of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
Elder Joseph F. Merrill of the Quorum of the Twelve (1868-1952), known of by few in the Church today, was the son of another slightly-better-known Apostle, Elder Marriner W. Merrill. His teachings are included here because he used much of his time in three General Conference talks over three years to teach and testify about the First Vision; seemingly he felt inspired to do so and there is much of worth in his words:
Mormonism, as the world generally calls the religious faith taught by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is noted for many characteristic teachings, one of which is that Joseph Smith was divinely called, beginning with a most wonderful and glorious vision. Relative to this matter a basic and fundamental question that every member of the Church may rightfully ask, as well as every honest investigator, is "Did Joseph Smith really see God?"
As I view it, this is perhaps the most natural and logical question that can be asked concerning the origin of Mormonism. It is one that might well challenge the attention of every person who believes in God and in life beyond the grave, whether he is a Mormon or non-Mormon.
All informed Latter-day Saints know the story of the first vision as related by Joseph Smith. He was a member of a sincerely religious family but belonged to no church. Though he was only fourteen years old at the time, this fact of non-church membership worried him. As a means of helping him to solve his problem, he read the Bible with deep interest, for he wanted to know which of the contending churches was the right one to join. He therefore resolved to heed the injunction of James (James 1:5-6) and so went into the woods and prayed that God would give him wisdom that he might know what to do. In answer to the boy's simple prayer, he related that he was enveloped in a pillar of brilliant light which descended from above. Looking up he beheld two personages standing above him whose brightness and glory defied all description. One of them, calling him by name and pointing to the other said, 'This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" and then Joseph heard the voice of Jesus Christ, the Son, and received instruction from him.
Thus, according to his story, Joseph Smith, the fourteen-year-old lad, saw the Father and the Son and heard their voices. So far as the records indicate, this was the most glorious vision ever given to mortal man. Never before had both Father and Son appeared simultaneously to any mortal man. I have called your attention to Joseph's story because of its extreme importance to our faith- -to Mormonism, which we testify is the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. So I ask again, did Joseph Smith really and in fact see God? I believe all of us can profit by asking ourselves this question, occasionally at least. The correct answer can be stimulating and satisfying to us.
The implications of the affirmative answer are tremendously significant. Through misunderstanding and wrong interpretations the world had lost the correct conception of the image and personality of God. To restore the truth, a new revelation was imperative. Though from the beginning to its end, the Bible, as we understand it, teaches that God is a personal being in whose image we are made, and that the Father and the Son are two separate and distinct personalities, alike in image and attributes, yet the modern world, through ignorance and lack of understanding, denies these fundamental truths. And so important are these truths to a satisfying faith that, I think, they are absolutely basic. Without any concrete conception of the image of God, how can one develop the necessary faith of the kind that the Apostle James asserts is needed to get an answer to prayer. Yes, God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, are personal beings in whose image man himself is made, so declared Joseph Smith. Hence in this sense we do believe in an anthropomorphic God and take great satisfaction in this belief.
In addition to seeing the Father and the Son, Joseph also claimed he was visited, in his eighteenth year, by the Angel Moroni who among other things told him that his "... name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people." (Joseph Smith History 1:33.) This was a very daring and reckless statement for Joseph to make, unless in very truth it was spoken to him by a divine messenger; for Joseph was then only seventeen years of age, a very poor and unschooled lad, living in a frontier village. Humanly speaking, there were no discernible prospects that he would ever be known beyond the limits of his own backwoods area.
Now, what evidence can we present of the truthfulness of Joseph Smith's claims, one might ask. Such a question is both natural and reasonable. My time in this meeting will permit of indicating only a few of the highlights relative to the man, his teachings, and his works. In his great Sermon on the Mount, Jesus emphasized the principle that a tree is judged by its fruits. Can there be a more fair, just, and satisfactory basis of judgment than this? All followers of the Prophet will ask for no other.
Then as to the man: He was born of worthy parents who lived in humble circumstances in one of the rural areas of Vermont. When Joseph was ten years old, the family moved to the frontiers of western New York where it continued by dint of frugality and hard work to earn a very modest livelihood. Joseph grew to manhood denied most of the opportunities for even a common school education, his school training therefore being very limited. Judged by modern standards, he was practically uneducated and untrained for leadership in any sphere of intellectual endeavor. Thus handicapped in the eyes of the world, is it any wonder that he was rejected by people generally and his stories regarded as the product of a wild and foolish imagination?
But notwithstanding all the severely handicapping conditions from an economic and educational point of view, what did Joseph Smith become? Let me make a few quotes. First from John Henry Evans' book entitled, Joseph Smith, An American Prophet, we read:
Here is a man who was born in the stark hills of Vermont; who was reared in the backwoods of New York; who never looked inside a college or high school; who lived in six States, no one of which would own him during his lifetime; who spent months in the vile prisons of the period; who, even when he had his freedom, was hounded like a fugitive; who was covered once with a coat of tar and feathers, and left for dead; who, with his following, was driven by irate neighbors from New York to Ohio, from Ohio to Missouri, and from Missouri to Illinois; and who, at the unripe age of thirty-eight, was shot to death by a mob with painted faces.
Yet this man became mayor of the biggest town in Illinois and the state's most prominent citizen, the commander of the largest body of trained soldiers in the nation outside of the Federal army, the founder of cities and of a university, and aspired to become President of the United States.
He wrote a book [the Book of Mormon] which has baffled the literary critics for a hundred years and which is today more widely read than any other volume save the Bible. On the threshold of an organizing age he established the most nearly perfect social mechanism in the modern world, and developed a religious philosophy that challenges anything of the kind in history, for completeness and cohesion. And he set up the machinery for an economic system that would take the brood of fears out of the heart of man—the fear of want through sickness, old age, unemployment, and poverty.
In thirty nations are men and women who look upon him as a Greater leader than Moses and a Greater prophet than Isaiah; his disciples now number close to a million; and already two granite shafts pierce the sky, one over the place where he was born, and the other over the place where he received the inspiration for his Book. . . .
I have briefly indicated who Joseph Smith was and some of the things he accomplished. Now another important question is what characteristic things did he teach—things not taught by other churches. A number of these are mentioned in the thirteen widely used Articles of Faith of the Church, and written by the Prophet himself. Many of his teachings are not accepted by the world, but time will permit me to speak of only a few of them. I have already indicated one such teaching—a very important and basic one—the personality and image of God the Father and of Jesus Christ his Son who redeemed mankind from the bondage of death, brought about by the fall of Adam. He also taught that we are spirit children of the Father and had an individual, conscious existence with him and Jesus Christ, our elder spirit brother, before we were born in mortality. Unquestionably, God created us in the flesh, and biologists teach that the human family came from the same parents. It follows that the universal brotherhood of man, both in the spirit and in the flesh, is a divine truth.
Another closely related teaching to the fatherhood of God is the personality and actuality of Satan, the devil. He is a real person with a spirit body in the image of man. He is here on earth, accompanied by a multitude of other spirit persons who cooperate with him in his evil work. This fact should be kept in mind by all who sincerely desire to live righteously and resist temptations to do wrong. All such temptations stem right back to the devil and his host of evil spirits, spirit brothers of ours who because of rebellion were cast out of heaven. They are permitted by the Father to be here as a means of testing us to find if in the exercise of our free agency we can prove ourselves worthy to return to his presence.
And this suggests a word relative to free agency—the freedom the Father has given to every child born in mortality to do as he pleases so long as he does not infringe upon or deny this freedom to others. Multitudes of people in the world today deny the existence of a loving and merciful Heavenly Father because he permits war with its associated terrors and horrors. Such persons do not understand the divine doctrine of free agency, else they would never hold the Lord responsible for the wickedness, crimes, and horrors in which his children engage. The Lord is merciful, loving, and good to all his children who will refrain from doing evil and follow the way of life he has given them. He said to Moses:
. . . this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man. (Moses 1:39,)
And the Lord will not fail in his purpose with those of his children who will render obedience to, and cooperate with, him.
This leads to a word relative to the beautiful doctrine of salvation for the dead, taught by the Prophet Joseph Smith. This doctrine, as I understand it, absolutely reveals the Father as a God of love, mercy, forgiveness, justice, and all other attributes we ascribe to a perfect Father. He has given his children their free agency. He has prepared for them a plan of eternal progression. Not one of them will be annihilated—all will have eternal life, be they saints or sinners. Every one coming into mortality will in this life or in the life beyond the grave have the opportunity of hearing and accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ. Those who comply with all the conditions, which they will have the privilege of doing, will eventually be saved in the Father's kingdom.
Brethren and sisters, how beautiful is the way of the Lord! How great his mercy and forgiveness! How all-embracing his love!
But it is very largely to the teachings and labors of the Prophet Joseph Smith that the modern world is indebted for a correct interpretation of the plan of life, salvation, and exaltation that the Lord has provided for his children to follow if they would care to return to his presence.
I close with the thought that Joseph Smith, his claims, his teachings, and his achievements are so very remarkable in character that they challenge every normal human being able to do so, to make an honest and thorough investigation of them. A refusal to do this is likely to bring sometime, somewhere, painful regrets and handicaps as a consequence. Certainly every member of the Church, in justice to himself, should rouse up to the performance of this important duty.
The testimony of a single witness who has the facts far outweighs the testimony of the multitudes who have no facts.
We read that Jesus once declared:
My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.
If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. (John 7:16-17.)
Further, on one occasion addressing the question to his disciples, Jesus asked:
But whom say ye that I am?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 16:15-17.)
The Latter-day Saints accept this teaching, and multitudes among them declare they know by personal experience that it is the truth. "But how can they know?" the doubter asks. Those having the knowledge rarely, if ever, claim they have ever seen or heard God. (But the boy Joseph Smith asserted that he both saw and heard.) "Then how can they know?" the doubter asks. The answer is: by the power of the Holy Ghost, as Moroni declared. (See Moroni 10:4-5.) Was it not by the power of the Holy Ghost that Peter got his knowledge?
There are avenues of getting knowledge other than those of seeing, hearing, or touching. One of them is mind and feeling. If one has a pain, does he not know it? How? Through his feelings. If he is elated, or sad, or depressed, or hungry, does he not know it? It is through our feelings that much of our knowledge comes. In his work of translating the Book of Mormon, how did the Prophet Joseph Smith know when a particular translation was correct? By a "burning" in his bosom, he declared that is, by a feeling of perfect assurance.
Many a prayer has been divinely answered while the petitioner was still on his knees. How did he know the answer came from above? By the way he felt—the feeling of satisfaction, of elation, of perfect assurance, of right accompanying the mental impressions received. But it is well for us to remember that mental impressions may come from two different sources—one from above, the other from below—from the Lord, or from Satan. Satan. We may know the source of the impression by the way we feel. If it is from the devil, it is never accompanied by a feeling of joyous satisfaction and positive assurance of right—a characteristic of impressions that come from the Lord. The one who prays need not be deceived by impressions that come into his mind in answer to prayer. Divine impressions have accompanying characteristics of genuineness.
Yes, God does live. The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost are three separate personal beings, alike in form, in whose image man is made. In order that these basic fundamental truths, lost to the world through centuries of erroneous teachings, might again be available to people of our day, a new revelation was necessary, and this was given to the fourteen-year-old Joseph Smith in the form of the most glorious vision ever given to mortal man, so far as the records indicate—a vision in which Father and Son appeared simultaneously—given to this uneducated, backwoods boy in order . . . that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth" (D. & C. 124:1)—a youth who three and one-half years later was told by a messenger from heaven that his name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues. Yes, Joseph Smith was divinely called, a truth to which his works and the personal testimony of hundreds of thousands of his followers sincerely testify. And judged solely by his works-the measuring stick universally employed in determining greatness in men—Joseph Smith surely presents a challenge to every normal-minded adult human being interested in the good and happiness of himself and fellowmen, a challenge to give careful study and thorough investigation to his claims and teachings. Personally, I believe that even very many of our Mormon people are more or less careless and indifferent to the significance of the message Joseph Smith was called to deliver to the world.
As is generally known, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is set off from all other churches—Christian and non-Christian alike—by many characteristic doctrines and teachings. We: hold firmly to the doctrine that the Holy Trinity is made up of three separate and distinct personal Beings—Father, Son, and Holy Ghost—in whose image we ourselves are created, as declared in Genesis 1:27. Notwithstanding the vast majority of civilized people, including nearly all Christians, reject the teaching that God is a personal Being, the truth of the matter is not in the least affected by this rejection.
In the fifteenth century the world believed the earth was flat, Columbus, that it was round. Who was right? The claim that Joseph Smith, a fourteen year old boy actually saw and heard two glorious personal Beings—the Father and the Son, who appeared in answer to his humble prayer for wisdom—is a basic truth in Mormonism, the validity of which is not affected even though disbelieved by the vast majority of civilized men. Can any unbiased, intelligent mind, untouched in the matter by the teachings of others, reading the Bible from cover to cover, get any other idea of God than that he is a personal Being in the image of which we ourselves were created? Yet I quote the following from a book that aims to teach a worldwide accepted view:
God is spirit, or the creative energy which is the cause of all visible things. God as spirit is the invisible life and intelligence underlying all physical things. . . . God is not a being or person having life, intelligence, love power. God is that invisible, intangible, something we call life. . . . Childlike, untrained minds say God is a personal being. The statement that God is principle chills them, and in terror they cry out, "They, have taken away my Lord and I know not where they have laid him!" Broader and more learned minds are always cramped by the thought of God as a person, for personality limits to place and time. God is the name we give to that unchangeable, inexorable principle at the source of all existence. (Lessons in Truth, H. Emilie Cady.)
Between this idea of God and that taught by Joseph Smith, there is the wide difference that exists between fancy and fact, between the false and the true. And because the modern world was engulfed in this stupefying fancy and falsehood. it was absolutely necessary that God should give a new revelation of himself that his children here in mortality might have a true and solid basis for their faith in him. But why did he not give this revelation through some world-renowned scholar instead of an obscure, worldly-ignorant fourteen year old boy—to one whom the world would accept rather than reject? Was there such a scholar who could qualify as to the statement of the Apostle James which says:
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?
However, there was a condition attached:
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.
For let not that man think he shall receive any thing of the Lord. (James 1:5-7.)
The humble, unspoiled boy Joseph, could qualify. What renowned scholar could? The Lord said to Joseph:
. . . I raised you up, that I might show forth my wisdom through the weak things of the earth." (D. & C. 124:1.)
Yes, as I have formerly said in this pulpit, in answer to his humble prayer, Joseph Smith received, so far as the records indicate. the most glorious vision ever given to man in mortality. For, looking up in the pillar of light enveloping him, he both saw and heard the Father and the Son, two highly glorious Personages, in the very image in which we are created. This is a fact; this is the truth, the world to the contrary notwithstanding. In great humility and extreme thankfulness we accept of these things and testify most sincerely of their reality.
But how may we know? the doubter may ask. When in answer to the Master's question, Peter replied, ". . . Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," what did Jesus say?
. . . Blessed art thou Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven. (Matthew 16 16-17.)
And Moroni wrote in the last chapter of the Book of Mormon:
And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.
And by the power of the Holy Ghost ye may know the truth of all things. (Moroni 10:4-5; see also One-Corinthians 2:11-13.)
It is by the power of the Holy Ghost that great multitudes of Church members testify that they really know that God lives. And I am one of that number. Did not Jesus have this method of knowing in mind when he said:
. . . My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me.
If any man will do his will, he shall now of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself. (John 7:16-17.)
Now in conclusion, may I say that three years ago last April I stood in this pulpit and asked the question: "Did Joseph Smith, the fourteen-year old boy out in the woods actually and really see two highly glorious heavenly personages, God the Father and Jesus Christ the Son, and hear the voice of each one? If a fair, open minded, competent judge were required to make a thorough study of all relative material and then give answer to the question, it undoubtedly would be affirmative—so strong is the evidence. For myself I am very sure that just as certainly as you are sitting there and I am standing here, I know that God lives and that this is his Church. He, himself, through the Holy Ghost, has revealed this to me. In answer to prayer I have been the happy recipient several times of revelation direct from God, given verbally, once orally. Hence I positively know that he lives. In recent years I have publicly related some of these experiences many times. Many thousands of other Latter-day Saints have testimonies as strong as mine. But all true Latter-day Saints are firm in our precious faith.
While this final item does not particularly have to do with the first vision itself, it does relate to the quotation above, giving further explanation. It also carries some valuable lessons in perseverance in faith before the Lord:
Some four years later, in the latter part of the month of August, 1887, in my nineteenth year, after I had been praying nightly for nine long years with all the earnestness of my soul for this special blessing, I was alone in the bedroom, and I said, half aloud, "O Father, wilt thou not hear me?" I was beginning to get discouraged.
Then, brethren, something happened. The most glorious experience that I have received, came. In answer to my question I heard as distinctly as anything I ever heard in my life the short, simple word: “Yes.” Simultaneously my whole being, from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, was filled with the most joyous feeling of elation, of peace and certainty that I could imagine a human being could experience. I sprang from my knees, and jumped as high as I could, and shouted: "O Father, I thank thee." At last an answer had come. I knew it.
. . . I have had many testimonies since. Brethren, I do know.