(Part three of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
These discussions of the First Vision contain sublime doctrinal insights from a past member of the First Presidency:
Many years ago, I visited for the first time a wooded area of extraordinary natural beauty near Palmyra, New York. This area is known to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as the Sacred Grove. On the day of our visit, the bees were kissing the wildflowers, and the soft zephyrs gently rustled the leaves of the great trees. It is a place of perfect peace and serenity. It was easy to believe that the heavens were opened and that the magnificent vision took place there.
I refer to the awesome experience of Joseph Smith when he beheld God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ, in the spring of 1820. There has been no event more glorious, more controversial, nor more important in the story of Joseph Smith than this vision. It is possibly the most singular event to occur on the earth since the Resurrection. Those who do not believe it happened find it difficult to explain away. Too much has happened since its occurrence to summarily deny that it ever took place. Some years later, still suffering under the impact of that happening, Joseph said, “If I had not experienced what I have, I should not have known it myself.” (Millennial Star, Nov. 1844, p. 93.)
Young Joseph Smith, fourteen years of age, lived with his family near Palmyra, New York. In the spring of 1820, Joseph, like many others, was caught up in the religious excitement of the day. Desiring to know the truth for himself, and encouraged by the epistle of James, he knelt in solitary, fervent prayer in that beautiful grove not far from his home. He was at first violently seized by “the power of some actual being from the unseen world.” (JS—H 1:16.) In an effort to extricate himself, he exerted all his powers to call upon God for deliverance from this tremendous evil power. At this point he said:
“Just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
“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 1:16–17.)
The message that Joseph received from the Father and the Son was that the full truth was not upon the earth and that he should not affiliate with the religions of the day, as well as other things of transcending importance which were not written.
Joseph stated in that account: “Many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time.” (JS—H 1:20.) Obviously, Joseph was overwhelmed by the occasion and the instructions he received.
Joseph soon declared this marvelous experience to others outside his family. As a result, much ridicule, contempt, and even hatred were visited upon him. His mother, Lucy Mack Smith, relates that after the First Vision, “from this time until the twenty-first of September, 1823, Joseph continued, as usual, to labor with his father, and nothing during this interval occurred of very great importance—though he suffered every kind of opposition and persecution from the different orders of religionists.” (History of Joseph Smith by His Mother, ed. Preston Nibley, Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1958, p. 74.) The prejudice and the hatred pursued Joseph until his martyrdom.
Of this experience, Joseph said: “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. … 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.)
There are several other accounts of the magnificent vision near Palmyra recorded by the Prophet’s associates or friends before the Prophet’s death, who, at various times, heard the Prophet recount the First Vision. These accounts corroborate the First Vision as written by Joseph Smith himself.
In the accounts of the Prophet and his mother, Lucy Mack Smith, there is also considerable historical background which has been confirmed by secondary sources as being accurate. As an example, the Prophet refers in the published account of the First Vision to the religious fervor in the area where the Smith family was living at the time. Among others, Brigham Young later affirmed: “I very well recollect the reformation which took place in the country among the various denominations of Christians—the Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others—when Joseph was a boy.” (Journal of Discourses, 12:67.)
Three years following the vision near Palmyra came the visit of the angel Moroni. Later, Joseph received the plates of gold and translated the Book of Mormon from them. He subsequently received the keys and powers of the holy priesthood of God, and established The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Joseph Smith’s stated purpose in relating his history was “to disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts, as they have transpired.” (JS—H 1:1.)
What was learned from the First Vision?
- The existence of God our Father as a personal being, and proof that man was made in the image of God.
- That Jesus is a personage, separate and distinct from the Father.
- That Jesus Christ is declared by the Father to be his Son.
- That Jesus was the conveyer of revelation as taught in the Bible.
- The promise of James to ask of God for wisdom was fulfilled.
- The reality of an actual being from an unseen world who tried to destroy Joseph Smith.
- That there was a falling away from the Church established by Jesus Christ—Joseph was told not to join any of the sects, for they taught the doctrines of men.
- Joseph Smith became a witness for God and his Son, Jesus Christ.
The First Vision confirms the fact there are three separate Gods: God the Father—Elohim, to whom we address our prayers; Jesus the Christ—Jehovah; and the Holy Ghost—the Comforter, through whose spirit we may know the truth of all things.
In the account of that profound theophany, the instruction came from Jesus. President Joseph Fielding Smith said:
“I would like to call your attention to one little thing in the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith. It is very significant, and Joseph Smith did not know it. If he had been perpetrating a fraud, he would not have thought of it. You will recall in your reading that the Father and the Son appeared, and the Father introduced the Son and told the Prophet to hear the Son.
“Now suppose the Prophet had come back from the woods and had said the Father and the Son appeared to him, and the Father said, ‘Joseph, what do you want?’ and when he asked the question and told him what he wanted, the Father had answered him; then we would know that the story of the Prophet could not be true.
“All revelation comes through Jesus Christ. I have not time to go into the scriptures and give references for that, but that is the fact.” (Answers to Gospel Questions, 5 vols., Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1957–66, 1:16.)
What resulted from the First Vision, which opened the prophesied dispensation of the fulness of times?
- The Book of Mormon, another witness for Christ, was received.
- The priesthood, or authority to perform saving ordinances, was restored, including the sealing powers of the priesthood.
- The Church of Jesus Christ was again organized on the earth.
- Revelations came to the Prophet Joseph Smith for the building of the kingdom of God upon the earth, declaring the universal salvation of mankind.
- Keys, principles, and powers were restored for the carrying out of the three great missions of the Church—the preaching of the gospel, the means of perfecting the Saints, and temples and ordinances therein for the redemption of the living and the dead. . . .
My associates and I are also his witnesses. We are eyewitnesses of the fruits of this work worldwide. The followers of the restored gospel of Christ can be found in over one hundred countries of the world. In the main they are decent, sober, chaste, honest, law-abiding, family-oriented, patriotic members of the countries in which they live.
“For every tree is known by his own fruit. For of thorns men do not gather figs, nor of a bramble bush gather they grapes.” (.)
At the very heart of this great work of teaching and establishing the gospel of Christ is the First Vision of the boy Joseph near Palmyra, New York, in 1820. Too much has happened to dismiss this magnificent vision as a nonevent.
Since no one was with Joseph when this great vision took place in the wooded grove near Palmyra, a testimony concerning its reality can come only by believing the truthfulness of Joseph Smith’s own account or by the witness of the Holy Ghost, or both. I have such a conviction. It is a sure conviction that lies deep in my soul. As a special witness of the same Christ who appeared with the Father and instructed the boy Joseph Smith, I bear witness of the truthfulness of the magnificent First Vision near Palmyra.
The First Vision of Joseph Smith is the most remarkable epiphany in the history of the world. We are all familiar with the Prophet Joseph’s story. He retired to the Sacred Grove to inquire of the Lord as to which religion was correct. He was seized by a power that completely overcame him and bound his tongue so that he could not speak. He wrote, “Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.” Then, calling forth all of the spiritual power he had, he asked God to deliver him from this power of darkness.
Just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.
It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.
Now here is the significant account:
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 1:15–17]
In the history of mankind, few indeed have been privileged to see God or hear Him directly. Yet the gifts of the Spirit since the restoration of the gospel have been rich in the Church and exist today among the faithful members of the Church.
Coming to know God is the principal spiritual gift that can come to any man or woman. Joseph Smith received this knowledge of God firsthand. Many years later, still pondering the impact of that and other happenings in his life, Joseph himself said: “I don’t blame any one for not believing my history. If I had not experienced what I have, I would not have believed it myself.”
No one was with the boy Joseph Smith in the Sacred Grove in Palmyra, New York, when God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared. Yet even those who do not believe it happened may find it difficult to explain away. Too much has happened since it occurred to deny that it ever took place.