(Part eighteen of a series compiled by Dennis B.Horne)
As far as I can discover, it seems to me that President Hinckley had more to say about Joseph Smith’s First Vision than any other modern prophet or apostle. As the below quotations demonstrate, he had studied the historical records, was informed on the scholarship (including the faulty arguments of the critics), had visited the sacred grove repeatedly, and had pondered and prayed and received a witness from the Holy Spirit, probably multiple witnesses, that what Joseph testified took place did. President Hinckley’s testimony of the First Vision must therefore be considered one of the greatest prophetic witnesses given since the event of the vision itself. The below selections are given in chronological order:
Joseph Smith likewise was a figure of loneliness. I have a great love for the boy who came out of the woods, who after that experience could never be the same again, who was berated and persecuted and looked down upon. Can you sense the pathos in these words of the boy prophet?
For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation. [JS—H 1:25]
When I was a boy, twelve years of age, my father took me to a meeting of the priesthood of the stake in which we lived. I sat on the back row while he, as president of the stake, sat on the stand. At the opening of that meeting, the first of its kind I had ever attended, three or four hundred men stood. They were men from varied backgrounds and many vocations, but each had in his heart the same conviction, out of which together they sang these great words:
Praise to the man who communed with Jehovah!
Jesus anointed that Prophet and Seer.
Blessed to open the last dispensation,
Kings shall extol him, and nations revere.
Something happened within me as I heard those men of faith sing. There came into my boyish heart a knowledge, placed there by the Holy Spirit, that Joseph Smith was indeed a prophet of the Almighty. In the many years that have since passed, years in which I have read much of his words and works, that knowledge has grown stronger and ever more certain. Mine has been the privilege of bearing witness across this nation from sea to shining sea, and on continents north and south, east and west, that he was and is a prophet of God, a mighty servant and testifier of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Great is his glory and endless his priesthood:
Ever and ever the keys he will hold.
Faithful and true, he will enter his kingdom,
Crowned in the midst of the prophets of old.
That testimony I reaffirm to you this day, as I also affirm that he who presides at this conference is the legal successor to him of whom I have spoken. I know that, and I leave my testimony in the name of him of whom Joseph Smith was a witness and of whom I also am a witness, even the Lord, Jesus Christ.
Two weeks ago today I was in Nauvoo, the City of Joseph, with two of my brethren of the First Quorum of the Seventy and twelve mission presidents and their wives for a mission presidents’ seminar. The touch of autumn was on the land—the leaves golden, a little haze in the air, the nights cool, the days warm. The tourist season was over, and the old city was quiet and beautiful. We held our first meeting in the restored Seventies Hall, where in the 1840s men prepared themselves, through study and through teaching one another the doctrine of the Kingdom, to go out to declare the message of the gospel to the world. This was the forerunner of the Missionary Training Center. As we met in that and other homes and halls in Nauvoo, it was as if the figures of the past were with us—Joseph and Hyrum, Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, the brothers Pratt—Orson and Parley—and a host of others. . . .
In my looking back from Nauvoo the other day I thought of the forces that moved the Smith family from generations of life in New England to western New York, where they had to come if the foreordained purposes of God were to be accomplished. I thought of the loss of the family farm, of poor crops in that thin soil, of the great freeze of 1816 when a killing frost in July forced upon them the decision to look elsewhere; then of the move to Palmyra, of the purchase of a farm in Manchester, and of the revival preachers who stirred the people and so confused a boy that he determined to ask God for that wisdom so lacking in the contending revivalists.
That was the real beginning of it all, as you know—that spring day in the year 1820 when he knelt among the trees, opened his mouth in prayer, and beheld a glorious vision in which he spoke with God the Eternal Father and His Son, the risen Lord Jesus Christ. Then followed the years of instruction, the instructor an angel of God who on a dozen occasions taught, rebuked, warned, and comforted the boy as he grew into the young man.
On the morning of April 6th when we drove to this scene, I had great difficulty restraining tears because of the strong emotions that welled within me. I felt particularly emotional over standing in the restored Whitmer home under circumstances designed to simulate the meeting which occurred 150 years earlier where the Prophet Joseph Smith and his associates stood. Those of us who were in the little log house on April 6, 1980, were touched by the Spirit of the Lord in a wonderful way, as we were also when we moved over to the chapel. I was moved and impressed to reflect on the wonderful ways of the Almighty and of the terrible price paid by those who have gone before us for what we enjoy today. There came a strong and certain reaffirmation of my conviction that God our Eternal Father lives and that Jesus is the Christ, the Savior and the Redeemer of the world, that the Father and the Son in very deed appeared to the boy Joseph Smith in the grove. . . . I knew with renewed certitude that the Book of Mormon is exactly what Joseph said it is . . . I felt to rejoice over the opportunity to be a part of this great eternal work restored to the earth.
(Gordon B. Hinckley, "Thoughts and Feelings of Gordon B. Hinckley on the Occasion of the General Conference of the Church, Part of Which Originated in Fayette, New York, 6 April 1980," unpublished memorandum, LDS Church Archives. Cited in Go Forward With Faith, chap 18.)
This gospel dispensation, of which we are the beneficiaries, opened with a glorious vision in which the Father and the Son appeared to the boy Joseph Smith. Having had that experience, the boy recounted it to one of the preachers of the community. He treated the account “with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days.” (JS—H 1:21.)
Others took up the cry against him. He became the object of severe persecution. But, he said, and note these words: “I had actually seen a light, and in the midst of that light I saw two Personages, and they did in reality speak to me; and though I was hated and persecuted for saying that I had seen a vision, yet it was true; and while they were persecuting me, reviling me, and speaking all manner of evil against me falsely for so saying, I was led to say in my heart: Why persecute me for telling the truth? I have actually seen a vision; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I have actually seen? For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it.” (JS—H 1:25.)
There is no lack of certitude in that statement. For Joseph Smith that experience was as real as the warmth of the sun at noonday. He never flagged nor wavered in his conviction.
The second cornerstone—the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith. The year was 1820, the season spring. The boy with questions walked into the grove of his father’s farm. There, finding himself alone, he pleaded in prayer for that wisdom which James promised would be given liberally to those who ask of God in faith. (See James 1:5.) There, in circumstances which he has described in much detail, he beheld the Father and the Son, the great God of the universe and the risen Lord, both of whom spoke to him.
This transcendent experience opened the marvelous work of restoration. It lifted the curtain on the long-promised dispensation of the fulness of times.
For more than a century and a half, enemies, critics, and some would-be scholars have worn out their lives trying to disprove the validity of that vision. Of course they cannot understand it. The things of God are understood by the Spirit of God. There had been nothing of comparable magnitude since the Son of God walked the earth in mortality. Without it as a foundation stone for our faith and organization, we have nothing. With it, we have everything.
Much has been written, much will be written, in an effort to explain it away. The finite mind cannot comprehend it. But the testimony of the Holy Spirit, experienced by countless numbers of people all through the years since it happened, bears witness that it is true, that it happened as Joseph Smith said it happened, that it was as real as the sunrise over Palmyra, that it is an essential foundation stone, a cornerstone, without which the Church could not be “fitly framed together.”
I believe in prayer, in the invitation to come unto my Eternal Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. I believe in the integrity of the promise “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).
It was that promise that prompted the boy Joseph Smith to go into the grove, there to kneel in supplication and seek an answer to his question.
I believe, without reservation, in the reality of the vision he described. From that wellspring of communication between the God of Heaven, the resurrected Redeemer of the World, and a boy, pure in heart and unschooled, has grown this magnificent and wonderful and true Church that is spreading over the earth to bless the lives of all who will hear its message.
I believe in prayer, that prayer which is the practice of those who have been called to leadership in this Church and which brings forth inspiration and revelation from God for the blessing of his church and people. I believe in prayer, the precious and wonderful privilege given each of us for our individual guidance, comfort, and peace.
I have not spoken face to face with all of the prophets of this dispensation. I was not acquainted with the Prophet Joseph Smith, nor did I ever hear him speak. My grandfather, who as a young man lived in Nauvoo, did hear him and testified of his divine calling as the great prophet of this dispensation. But I feel I have come to know the Prophet Joseph Smith.
I have read and believed his testimony of his great first vision in which he conversed with the Father and the Son. I have pondered the wonder of that as I have stood in the grove where he prayed, and in that environment, by the power of the Spirit, I have received a witness that it happened as he said it happened.
I have read the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God. By the power of the Holy Ghost I have received a testimony and a witness of the divine origin of this sacred record. Joseph Smith did not write it of his own capacity.
When I was about 14 or 15, my brother and I would accompany our parents to the General Conference held in the Tabernacle. At that time there was room for everyone who wished to get in. Heber J. Grant was President of the Church. In imagination, I can still see and hear him. He stood tall. He did not read from a manuscript. He spoke from his heart. His voice rang out in moving words of testimony concerning Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.
From these and other experiences of my younger years, there came accretions of knowledge and faith concerning the Prophet Joseph. Was there ever doubt? Yes, admittedly at times, particularly in my university days. That was a time of general cynicism. It was the bottom of the Great Depression, a depression so deep and severe that the present recession, by comparison, seems to be a season of prosperity.
I read in those days, and have since read, much of the writing leveled against the Prophet by critics, not a few, who have worn out their lives trying, honestly or dishonestly, to find some flaw of character, some note of history to destroy the credibility of Joseph Smith. I am grateful to say that I have survived them all, and that the more I have read, the stronger has grown my faith in and my love for this most remarkable and wonderful man. His detractors, without exception, insofar as I know, have had their day in the sun, and then have faded into oblivion, while the name of Joseph Smith has been honored in ever-widening circles around the earth.
I thank him, I honor him, I love him for the faith, simple and trusting, that impelled him to go into the grove to ask of God, “nothing doubting.” From that experience came knowledge of Deity beyond any comprehended by the learned of the world through centuries of time. God, he learned, is indeed in form like a man. He hears. He speaks. He introduces His Beloved Son and directs Joseph to listen. The Son speaks, even the Resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, the firstborn of the Father, and the Savior and Redeemer of the world. He, too, is in form like a man. He counsels the boy before Them.
Those to whom he told this wondrous story ridiculed him. I thank him and love him for the courage to stand up to those who were much his senior and who mercilessly condemned him. “For I had seen a vision,” he said; “I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it, neither dared I do it; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation” (JS-H 1:25). Because of his experience and his testimony, I know to whom I may go in prayer, petitioning the Father in the name of His Beloved Son. . . .
I have walked where he walked through the fields to the Sacred Grove. Some years ago in company with the Rochester stake president, the Cumorah mission president, and a Regional Representative, I went to the Sacred Grove early in the morning of a spring Sabbath day. It had been raining in the night. Little drops of water glistened on the tiny new leaves. We prayed together in that quiet and hallowed place, and there came into my heart at that time a conviction that what the Prophet described actually happened in 1820 here amidst the trees.
I thank my Father in Heaven for the testimony I have of the reality of the First Vision. I have stood among the trees where Joseph knelt as a boy, and heard the whisperings of the Spirit that it happened as he said it happened. I have read the words of critics, who from 1820 until now have tried to destroy the validity of that account. They have made much of the fact that there were several versions and that the account as we now have it was not written until 1838. So what? I find security for my faith in the simplicity of his narrative, in its lack of argument, in its straightforward reasonableness, and in the fact that he sealed his testimony with his life’s blood. Could there have been a stronger endorsement?
Is it strange that James, writing anciently, would invite all who lacked wisdom to ask of God in faith? (see James 1:5). Is it strange that such prayer would receive an answer? I thank the Lord for the faith to believe that the answer to that prayer came with a glorious manifestation of the Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, to part the curtain after centuries of darkness and open a new and promised and final dispensation of the gospel. Did it happen? I have no doubt of it. Was it not time, as a great age of enlightenment began to dawn upon the world, that these, the Father and the Son, should reveal themselves to show their form and power and living reality, and thus declare, once and for all, the true nature of Deity?
God lives. He is our Eternal Father, the Creator and Governor of the Universe, the Almighty who is above all. He who is above all deigned to talk with a boy in a grove of trees in upstate New York. He who is above all will hear your prayer and hear mine. He lives. Jesus is the Christ, the foreordained Son of God who condescended to come to earth, who was born in a manger, in a conquered nation among a vassal people, the Son of God, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, the Firstborn of the Father and the Author of our salvation. He is our Redeemer, our Savior, through whose Atonement eternal life is made possible for all who will walk in obedience to His teachings. May testimony grow in our hearts that this is in reality the church of the living God and that it will continue to gain momentum and move forward to fulfill its divine destiny. (Go Forward With Faith, chap 25; Address at Crawley, England, Fireside, 26 August 1995)
And then comes the ringing testimony of the Prophet of this dispensation that in a wondrous theophany he saw and was spoken to by the Almighty Father and the Risen Son. That vision, glorious beyond description, became the wellspring of this The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with all the keys, authority, and power found therein, and the sustaining comfort to be found in the testimony of its people.
We are met to worship the Lord, to declare His divinity and His living reality. We are met to reaffirm our love for Him and our knowledge of His love for us. No one, regardless of what he or she may say, can diminish that love.
There are some who try. For instance, there are some of other faiths who do not regard us as Christians. That is not important. How we regard ourselves is what is important. We acknowledge without hesitation that there are differences between us. Were this not so there would have been no need for a restoration of the gospel. President Packer and Elder Ballard recently spoke of this in other settings.
I hope we do not argue over this matter. There is no reason to debate it. We simply, quietly, and without apology testify that God has revealed Himself and His Beloved Son in opening this full and final dispensation of His work. . . .\
A week ago I was in Palmyra, New York. I there dedicated two buildings. One was a restoration of the small log home in which the Joseph Smith Sr. family first lived in that area. It was in this humble home that the 14-year-old Joseph determined to go into the nearby grove to ask of God and experienced an incomparable vision of the Father and the Son. . . .
How grateful I am for the testimony with which God has blessed me of the divine calling of Joseph Smith, of the reality of the First Vision, of the restoration of the priesthood, of the truth of this, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As I mentioned earlier in this conference, I’ve recently been in Palmyra, New York. Of the events which occurred in that area, one is led to say: “They either happened or they did not. There can be no gray area, no middle ground.”
And then the voice of faith whispers: “It all happened. It happened just as he said it happened.”
Nearby is the Hill Cumorah. From there came the ancient record from which was translated the Book of Mormon. One must accept or reject its divine origin. Weighing of the evidence must lead every man and woman who has read with faith to say, “It is true.”
And so it is with other elements of this miraculous thing which we call the restoration of the ancient gospel, the ancient priesthood, and the ancient Church.
This testimony is now, as it has always been, a declaration, a straightforward assertion of truth as we know it. Simple and powerful is the statement of Joseph Smith and Sidney Rigdon concerning the Lord, who stands at the head of this work:
“And now, after the many testimonies which have been given of him, this is the testimony, last of all, which we give of him: That he lives!
“For we saw him, even on the right hand of God; and we heard the voice bearing record that he is the Only Begotten of the Father—
“That by him, and through him, and of him, the worlds are and were created, and the inhabitants thereof are begotten sons and daughters unto God” (D&C 76:22–24).
It is in this spirit that I add my own witness. Our Eternal Father lives. He stands as the great God of the universe, ruling in majesty and power. And yet He is my Father, to whom I may go in prayer with the assurance that He will hear, listen, and answer.
Jesus is the Christ, His immortal Son, who under His Father’s direction was the Creator of the earth. He was the great Jehovah of the Old Testament, who condescended to come into the world as the Messiah, who gave His life on Calvary’s cross in His wondrous Atonement because He loved us. The work in which we are engaged is their work, and we are their servants, who are answerable to them.
“We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (A of F 1:1). This first article of faith epitomizes our doctrine. We do not accept the Athanasian Creed. We do not accept the Nicene Creed, nor any other creed based on tradition and the conclusions of men.
We do accept, as the basis of our doctrine, the statement of the Prophet Joseph Smith that when he prayed for wisdom in the woods, “the light rested upon me [and] 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).
Two beings of substance were before him. He saw them. They were in form like men, only much more glorious in their appearance. He spoke to them. They spoke to him. They were not amorphous spirits. Each was a distinct personality. They were beings of flesh and bone whose nature was reaffirmed in later revelations which came to the Prophet.
Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. It was the parting of the curtain to open this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life.
Remember that God is in His heaven, that He is your Father and my Father and that He is the Father of His Only Begotten Son in the flesh, the Lord Jesus Christ, who lived and died for each of us. And after long generations of apostasy since He was raised from the dead, they, the Father and the Son, have appeared again and parted the curtain in this, the dispensation of the fulness of times, and brought back the ancient priesthood with all its powers and gifts and authority and the true Church of the Lord which carries His holy name, even the name of Jesus Christ, and it is our Father’s wish to bless us. He wants us to be happy. He wants us to live well. He desires to bless us. And we must put our trust in Him (regional conference, Santiago, Chile, 26 Apr. 1999).
This is God’s holy work. This is His Church and kingdom. The vision that occurred in the Sacred Grove was just as Joseph said it was. We are building a new temple overlooking this hallowed ground to further testify to the reality of this most sacred event. As I recently stood in the snow to determine where this new temple will stand, there came into my heart a true understanding of the importance of what happened in the Sacred Grove. The Book of Mormon is true. It testifies of the Lord Jesus Christ. His priesthood has been restored and is among us. The keys of that priesthood, which have come from heavenly beings, are exercised for our eternal blessing. Such is our testimony—yours and mine—a testimony which we must share with others.
As a Church we have critics, many of them. They say we do not believe in the traditional Christ of Christianity. There is some substance to what they say. Our faith, our knowledge is not based on ancient tradition, the creeds which came of a finite understanding and out of the almost infinite discussions of men trying to arrive at a definition of the risen Christ. Our faith, our knowledge comes of the witness of a prophet in this dispensation who saw before him the great God of the universe and His Beloved Son, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. They spoke to him. He spoke with Them. He testified openly, unequivocally, and unabashedly of that great vision. It was a vision of the Almighty and of the Redeemer of the world, glorious beyond our understanding but certain and unequivocating in the knowledge which it brought.
Now, in conclusion, I hope that all of you will remember that on this Sabbath day you heard me bear my witness that this is God’s holy work. The vision given the Prophet Joseph in the grove of Palmyra was not an imaginary thing. It was real. It occurred in the broad light of day. Both the Father and the Son spoke to the boy. He saw Them standing in the air above him. He heard Their voices. He gave heed to Their instruction.
It was the resurrected Lord who was introduced by His Father, the great God of the universe. For the first time in recorded history, both the Father and the Son appeared together to part the curtains and open this, the last and final dispensation, the dispensation of the fulness of times.
Never forget that this Church began with the humble prayer of the boy Joseph Smith in the grove of his father’s farm. From that remarkable experience, which we call the First Vision, has grown this work until today it is established in 160 nations, with a membership of over 12 million. It is the very personification of Daniel’s vision of a stone cut out of the mountain without hands rolling forth to fill the whole earth (see Daniel 2:44–45).
Joseph, when he was 14 years of age, had an experience in that glorious First Vision that was different from any other recorded experience of any man. At no other time of which we have any record have God our Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, the risen Lord, appeared on earth together.
At the time of the baptism of Jesus by John in the river Jordan, the voice of God was heard, but He was not seen. At the Mount of Transfiguration, again the voice of God was heard, but there is no record of His appearance. Stephen saw the Lord on the right hand of the Father, but They did not address or instruct him.
Following His Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the Nephites in the Western Hemisphere. The voice of the Almighty was heard three times, introducing the risen Christ, but there was no appearance of the Father.
How truly remarkable was that vision in the year 1820 when Joseph prayed in the woods and there appeared before him both the Father and the Son. One of these spoke to him, calling him by name and, pointing to the other, said, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith—History 1:17).
Nothing like it had ever happened before. One is led to wonder why it was so important that both the Father and the Son appear. I think it was because They were ushering in the dispensation of the fulness of times, the last and final dispensation of the gospel, when there would be gathered together in one the elements of all previous dispensations. This was to be the final chapter in the long chronicle of God’s dealing with men and women upon the earth.
Following the Savior’s death, the Church He had established drifted into apostasy. Fulfilled were the words of Isaiah, who said, “The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:5).
Realizing the importance of knowing the true nature of God, men had struggled to find a way to define Him. Learned clerics argued with one another. When Constantine became a Christian in the fourth century, he called together a great convocation of learned men with the hope that they could reach a conclusion of understanding concerning the true nature of Deity. All they reached was a compromise of various points of view. The result was the Nicene Creed of A.D. 325. This and subsequent creeds have become the declaration of doctrine concerning the nature of Deity for most of Christianity ever since.
I have read them all a number of times. I cannot understand them. I think others cannot understand them. I am sure that the Lord also knew that many would not understand them. And so in 1820, in that incomparable vision, the Father and the Son appeared to the boy Joseph. They spoke to him with words that were audible, and he spoke to Them. They could see. They could speak. They could hear. They were personal. They were of substance. They were not imaginary beings. They were beings tabernacled in flesh. And out of that experience has come our unique and true understanding of the nature of Deity.
No wonder that when Joseph in 1842 wrote the Articles of Faith he stated as number one, “We believe in God, the Eternal Father, and in His Son, Jesus Christ, and in the Holy Ghost” (Articles of Faith 1:1).
He [the Lord] further said, concerning that which is taught by His servants, that “those who receive it in faith, and work righteousness, shall receive a crown of eternal life;
“But those who harden their hearts in unbelief, and reject it, it shall turn to their own condemnation.” (D&C 20:14–15.)