(Part thirteen of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
As one of the greatest doctrinal and scriptural thinkers and teachers of the 20th century, Elder McConkie occasionally turned his attention to expounding matters related to the First Vision. Further, his testimony of that supernal theophany left no doubt that he knew with perfect certainty that it had occurred:
By comparison to what then occurred, the command of the man Moriancumer unto the mountain Zerin, “Remove,” and it was removed; or the decree of the man Moses to the Red Sea, “Divide,” and the waters were divided, congealing on the right hand and on the left; or the command of the man Joshua, “Sun, stand thou still, and thou moon likewise,” and it was so—by comparison to what happened in that grove of trees in western New York on that spring morning, such things as these fade into an obscure insignificance.
As we approach with awe and reverence, in the spirit of worship and thanksgiving, the heaven-sent miracle of that bright morn, let us view first the setting in which the heavens would be rent and the miracle wrought.
That year of grace, 1820, like the 1,400 years which preceded it, was one in which darkness covered the earth and gross darkness the minds of the people. It was a day of spiritual darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, as the morning spread upon the mountains. Angels no longer ministered to their fellow beings; the voice of God was stilled, and man no longer saw the face of his Maker; gifts, signs, miracles, and all the special endowments enjoyed by the saints of old were no longer the common inheritance of those in whose hearts religious zeal was planted. There were no visions, no revelations, no rending of the heavens; the Lord was not raining down righteousness upon a chosen people as he had done in days of old.
The dead were not raised, nor the eyes of the blind opened, nor the ears of the deaf unstopped. There were no legal administrators whose acts were binding on earth and in heaven. That gospel preached by Paul, and for which Peter died, was no longer proclaimed from the pulpits of Christendom.
In short, apostasy reigned supreme; it was universal, complete, all pervading. The religion of the lowly Nazarene was nowhere to be found. All sects, parties, and denominations had gone astray. Satan rejoiced and his angels laughed. Such were the social and religious conditions of the day.
But in the wisdom of Him who knoweth all things, who rules supreme o’er earth and hell, the hour had come for the promised restoration. Eighteen twenty was to be the year when the Great Jehovah would commence the restitution of all things spoken by the mouth of all the holy prophets since the world began. The covenants made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob concerning their seed were about to be fulfilled.
When the season comes to plant and harvest, the Lord of the vineyard sends the needed husbandmen. The Lord’s work among men is done by men; choice and selected souls become his servants. And so at the time appointed came Joseph Smith, Jr., the man appointed. This spiritual giant of whom it is now said, “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3)—this foreordained prophet came to usher in the Lord’s great latter-day work. . . .
To him the Lord said, “The ends of the earth shall inquire after thy name, and fools shall have thee in derision, and hell shall rage against thee;
“While the pure in heart, and the wise, and the noble, and the virtuous, shall seek counsel, and authority, and blessings constantly from under thy hand.” (D&C 122:1–2.)
It was 1820; the man and the hour joined hands. The vision was soon to be, and the burning flames of gospel truth would then consume the briars and weeds of sectarianism that encumbered the Lord’s vineyard.
To prepare for the day of burning which was to be, a spirit of religious concern and unrest swept the frontier areas where the Lord’s future prophet dwelt in peaceful obscurity. The ministers of a decadent Christendom plied their trade with fanatical valor. Their cries went forth, “‘Lo, here is Christ,’ and, ‘Lo, there.’” (JS—H 1:5.)
Each professor of religion used all his powers of reason and sophistry to gain converts to his particular system of salvation. Feelings were intense; bitterness welled up in many hearts. A “war of words and tumult of opinions” spread rancor and division among the people. (JS—H 1:10.) In the midst of these contentious times, God’s future prophet often said to himself: “What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right, or are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?” (JS—H 1:10.)
It was at this critical point that divine providence caused a ray of living light to shine forth from God’s holy word and enlighten the heart of the troubled truthseeker.
Search the scriptures. Treasure up gospel truths. Enjoy the words of eternal life in this life, and hope for immortal glory in the life to come. Read, ponder, and pray about all that the prophets have written. Such is the course which the Lord invites men to pursue where his holy word is concerned. And it was into this path of progress and enlightenment that young Joseph was led by that providential hand which knows the end from the beginning and rules in love and mercy over all his children.
The boy Joseph—then in his fifteenth year and who but twenty-four years hence would die a martyr’s death for what he was about to see and for the witness which he bore of it—read in the book of James a verse of scripture destined to be the most influential single verse of holy writ ever to flow from a prophetic pen. . . .
And so at this turning point in history—while the Spirit of God was brooding over the darkness of the world and the spirits of men yet unborn were awaiting the decree, “Let there be light”—young Joseph was guided of God to ponder those words which would usher in the greatest era of light and truth ever to exist on earth.
“Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man,” the young prophet would say later, “than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again.” (JS—H 1:12.)
Such are the ways of God and such are the workings of his Holy Spirit. With a power that none can know save those whose souls are tuned to the Infinite, the words of James sank into the heart of the great prophet of latter-days.
Of the religious controversy which was pouring venom and confusion throughout the whole area, Joseph Smith said, “The teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question [of which church was right] by an appeal to the Bible.” (JS—H 1:12.)
He must ask of God, as all men must, and ask he did. He walked a short distance from his country home to a secluded place in a grove of trees. There, alone, he knelt and prayed, pouring out his soul to his Maker, offering up the desires of his heart to God.
This was the hour of destiny and hope. Amid the gloom of apostate darkness a light would shine forth. Creation’s decree, the great proclamation—“Let there be light”—was to be issued anew. The light of the gospel, the light of the Everlasting Word, would soon shed its rays o’er all the earth.
But great things do not come easily; events that shake the earth run into mountains of resistance. There is an opposition in all things; every person who seeks to find the true church runs counter to the ways of the world. Joseph Smith was no exception.
As he prayed, the powers of evil fought back with satanic terror. “I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me,” he said, “and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.” (JS—H 1:15.)
Such are the ways of Satan that when the God of heaven seeks to send the greatest light of the ages into the world, the forces of evil oppose it with the deepest darkness and iniquity of their benighted realm. Lucifer, our common enemy, fought the promised restoration as he now fights the accomplished restoration.
“But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me,” the Prophet continues, “and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head.” (JS—H 1:16.)
Thereupon the heavens parted and the veil was rent; the heavens, long brass, poured out showers of blessings; the age of light and truth and revelation and miracles and salvation was born.
The place, the hour, the need, the man, and the divine destiny all united to usher in God’s great latter-day work. The heavens did not shake, nor the earth tremble. It was not an event heralded by the thunders and clouds on Sinai but one patterned after the calm serenity and peace present before an open tomb when Mary of Magdala uttered the reverent cry, “Rabboni,” to the risen Lord.
This was the occasion when the greatest vision ever vouchsafed to man of which we have record burst the gloom of solemn darkness. The Gods of old revealed themselves anew.
“I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me,” the Prophet said. (JS—H 1:16.)
“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!” (JS—H 1:17.)
Great God in heaven above—what wonders do we now behold! The heavens rend; the veil parts; the Creators of the universe come down; the Father and the Son both speak to mortal man. The voice of God is heard again: he is not dead; he lives and speaks; his words we hear as they were heard in olden days.
“My object in going to inquire of the Lord,” our young supplicant says, “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—and which I should join.
“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 1:18–19.)
Once or twice in a thousand years a new door is opened through which all men must enter if they are to gain peace in this life and be inheritors of eternal life in the realms ahead.
Once or twice in a score of generations a new era dawns: the light from the east begins to drive the darkness of the earth from the hearts of men.
Now and then in a peaceful grove, apart from the gaze of men, heaven and earth share a moment of intimacy, and neither are ever thereafter the same. Such a moment occurred on that beautiful, clear morning in the spring of 1820 in a grove of trees near Palmyra, New York.
Man asked and God answered.
These things I know and of them I testify.
Of course, we are all acquainted with the First Vision in which the Prophet saw the Father and the Son standing above him in a pillar of light—holy beings, personages who defied description because of the glory and grandeur that attended them (JS—H 2:16-17). We are aware that they are personal beings (D&C 130:22-23). This First Vision is the beginning of the knowledge of God in this dispensation. In just a few moments of the opening of the heavens, the Lord swept away all the false concepts, the Apostasy, the cobwebs of the past, and once again there was one man on earth who knew that God was a personal being in whose image man is created. All of us are well acquainted with this proposition. We start out there, and we have no trouble. That is the beginning of the revelation of the knowledge of God in our day.
Then all of us are somewhat familiar with the crowning revelations and pronouncements that Joseph Smith made about Deity. These were made in two sermons—one on April 6, 1844, the King Follett Sermon (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 342-62), and the second on June 16, 1844 (Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 369-76), just eleven days before Joseph Smith went to a martyr's death. These statements in the King Follett Sermon and its companion sermon are the ones that give us a little trouble.
The pronouncements, the vision, the glory, the truth, revealed in the First Vision, are in effect, by way of illustration, giving us some arithmetic. It is teaching us some basic, fundamental things. When we come to these crowning, concluding weeks of the Prophet's life, the knowledge that he gives us about God is in the realm of calculus. Our problem is that we take this calculus, and with a slight and restricted view about it, which sometimes gets us out of perspective, we do not recognize, understand, and know the importance of all the algebra, geometry, and fundamental principles that intervened and were taught between the time of the First Vision and the crowning pronouncements.
The spirit men who were associated with Christ and with Adam in all the preexistent eternities, and who were more valiant than all their fellows, were the ones chosen to head the various dispensations of the gospel. One of these was the Prophet Joseph Smith. It doesn't take much reflection then, ... for us to know that Joseph Smith was one of the dozen greatest spirits that God the Eternal Father had in all the councils of eternity; that he came so as to be here at the appointed time and at the express hour and at the very moment that the Lord designed to open this dispensation. He was here to take part in that event.
I do not think that the Father and the Son would have appeared to an ordinary fourteen-and-a-half-year-old boy, if he had gone out into that grove of trees to ask the Lord which of all the churches was right .... The Lord had been preparing Joseph Smith for that event from all eternity .... Joseph Smith had the spiritual stature, the strength for righteousness that enabled him to endure the vision; he had the talent and ability to press forward in righteousness in the kingdom of God on earth: first, to establish it; and then, somewhat, to perfect its organization before he was taken home, before he sealed his testimony with his blood.
Christ and his prophets are one; and salvation in this day is, first, through Christ and his atoning sacrifice, and it is, second, through accepting the atoning sacrifice and the doctrines of Christ as they have been revealed by the Prophet Joseph Smith, and as they are taught by the living oracles who wear the mantle of the Prophet and stand at this moment at the head of the kingdom of God on earth. (Conference Report, October 1951.)
All of these wondrous things began in the spring of 1820. The person chosen of God to be His prophet was named Joseph Smith Jr. This young man desired to know which of all the churches was right. He poured out his soul to God in humble prayer.
The hour had then come for the opening of the new dispensation. Messengers from eternity appeared. The young man was told that if he were true and faithful, he would be the instrument in the hands of the Lord for restoring again the fulness of the everlasting gospel. He was true to the trust given him.
In process of time, line upon line, the gospel was restored. The Lord had to restore the knowledge and doctrines that the ancient Saints had. In large measure, He did this by giving a new volume of scripture. We believe the Bible to be the word of God. We accept it fully and completely. We study it and try to live in harmony with its teachings.
But in addition, we have another great volume of scripture. The Book of Mormon is a history of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. In it is recorded the plan of salvation. It tells what men have to do to be saved. It is in perfect and complete harmony with the Bible. It expands and clarifies many doctrines. It is a new witness for Christ.
There are two great truths that men must believe to gain salvation. The first great truth is that Jesus Christ is the Son of the living God, that He was crucified for the sins of the world, that He ransoms all men from the temporal and spiritual death brought into the world by the fall of Adam, that salvation is in Christ. We reverence Him as the Son of God. We bear witness of His holy name.
The second great truth that men must believe is this: God has in these last days restored the fulness of His everlasting gospel; He has called prophets and legal administrators again; He has set up His earthly kingdom; once again He has given the power to bind on earth and seal in heaven.
Now, incident to these great truths, there are many others. I single out the fact that God has given in this day eternal family units. This is a sample of the doctrines of the Restoration. It means that, in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are married for time and for all eternity. The family unit that commences here will continue in the eternal world. This is the noblest concept that can enter the heart of man.
God has revealed to me by the power of the Holy Ghost that there has been a glorious and wondrous Restoration in our day. I am a witness of that fact. I can assert it with absolute certainty. But any living soul who will obey the same law will come to know in his heart the same thing that I know in my heart. The way God speaks is by the pouring out of the gift of the Holy Ghost.
The person chosen of God to be his prophet was named Joseph Smith. This young man desired to know which of all the churches was right. He poured out his soul to God in humble prayer. The hour had then come for the opening of the new dispensation. The veil was rent. The heavens were opened. Messengers from eternity appeared. The young man was told that if he were true and faithful, he would be the instrument in the hands of the Lord for restoring again the fulness of the everlasting gospel. He was true to the trust given him.
In process of time, line upon line, the gospel was restored. The Lord had to restore the knowledge and doctrines that the ancient saints had. In large measure, he did this by giving a new volume of scripture. We believe the Bible to be the word of God. We accept it fully and completely. We study it and try to live in harmony with its teachings. The Bible is the history of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the old Palestinian world. We have the Bible the same as all the Christian world has.
But in addition, we have another great volume of scripture. This volume is named the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon is a history of God’s dealings with the ancient inhabitants of the Americas. In it is recorded the plan of salvation. It tells what men have to do to be saved. It is in perfect and complete harmony with the Bible. It expands and clarifies many doctrines. It is a volume of holy scripture. It was given to men in our day by the ministering of angels. It is now published in many languages. It bears witness of the Lord, Jesus Christ. It is a new witness for Christ. It teaches the doctrines of Christ. We rejoice in the additional revelation we have received.
As part of the great restoration the Lord sent many angels to minister to men. These angels gave priesthood and keys. Revelations were received. Arrangement was made to set up again the same organization had by the primitive saints. The name of that organization is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We hold the holy priesthood. Apostles and prophets have been called again upon earth. . . .
Now God is no respecter of persons. He has revealed to me by the power of the Holy Ghost that there has been a glorious and wondrous Restoration in our day. I am a witness of that fact. I can assert it with absolute certainty.
When the time drew near for the ushering in of this great latter-day dispensation—the dispensation in which the Lord designed to restore again the truths of everlasting salvation to men—he placed Joseph Smith in circumstances where the future prophet was confronted with a wave of religious revivalism. "In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions," Joseph heard various ministers proclaim conflicting systems of salvation. Some cried, "Lo, here is Christ," others, "Lo there." Confronted with this confusion, this young man, who had been prepared for his coming mission from all eternity, who had sat with Abraham and Adam in the councils in preexistence; who had the spiritual stature and was the one foreordained to usher in this great work—this young man read in the book 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.)
Joseph Smith said that never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did to his heart at this time. The Spirit of the Lord was working with him and preparing him to receive the great vision that was ahead. Having listened to the ministers, he concluded that there was no real prospect of resolving the question as to which of all the churches was right by reference to the scriptures, "for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible." In due course, being led by the Spirit, he retired to a secluded and appropriate place to ask God which of all the churches was right and which he should join. In his language, this is what occurred:
". . . 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!
"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—and which I should join.
"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.'
"He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time...." (See Joseph Smith 2:13-20.)
But on another occasion the Prophet was permitted to write one of these other things. He was told, in effect that if he remained faithful and true, he would be the instrument in the hands of the Lord to restore the everlasting gospel. In process of time he became that instrument- he received revelation upon revelation; heavenly ministers visited him; keys and powers, rights and prerogatives were restored, until the gospel in its fulness had been given again, which means that everything had been restored that was needed to enable men to gain a fulness of exaltation hereafter. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was set up, and the power of God was again manifest to men on the earth.