(Part ten of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
Many Latter-day Saints are not aware of the below teachings that in order to be considered a full, true, and faithful Latter-day Saint, they must, sooner or later, develop a conviction born of the Spirit, that Joseph Smith received a visitation from the Father and the Son. Most missionaries gain this conviction by prayerfully studying and teaching the account from Joseph Smith’s history. Some critics, often referring to themselves as “cultural Mormons,” deny Joseph’s testimony (along with the historicity of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the priesthood, and other miraculous foundational matters), and desire participation in the “community” the Church provides without believing in it. The reason that doesn’t work is that they also seek to change the community to their way of thinking, or denying, the foundational truth claims of the Church. In reality, you either believe/know, or eventually come to believe/know, or eventually leave. Some (sadly) leave loudly and try to drag others out with them; too bad.
On a side note, I noticed that one of the listed subjects that may be examined in the forthcoming BYU Church History Symposium on the First Vision (March 2020), is “J. Reuben Clark’s 1938 statement that religious educators must assent to the First Vision as a historical event—context and implications.” This means a scholar may research and talk about the below teachings of President Clark at the symposium—we shall see. But the statement itself, taken from the “call for papers” is not correct. What President Clark actually said was “In all this there are for the Church, and for each and all of its members, two prime things which may not be overlooked, forgotten, shaded, or discarded.” I see that he was not simply talking about “religious educators” but “each and all of its members”—a major difference.
Whether or not that proves to be the case (that someone presents a paper on the subject), the fact is that President Clark and some other church leaders have taught that this is fundamental to personal faith and testimony. So much so, in fact, that President Clark, speaking for and in behalf of the First Presidency, stated that if you do not gain an inner conviction of Joseph’s First Vision and the restoration of the priesthood, you are “not a Latter-day Saint.” So much for so-called “cultural Mormons” and other dissidents who want to be in the Church community but not of it—President Clark is not gentle in referring to such and his declarations are strong. And you don’t have to attend a symposium or buy a book later to study them:
In all this there are for the Church, and for each and all of its members, two prime things which may not be overlooked, forgotten, shaded, or discarded:
First—that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the Only Begotten of the Father in the flesh, the Creator of the world, the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for the sins of the world, the Atoner for Adam’s transgression; that He was crucified; that His spirit left His body; that He died; that He was laid away in the tomb; that on the third day His spirit was reunited with His body, which again became a living being; that He was raised from the tomb a resurrected being, a perfect Being, the First Fruits of the Resurrection; that He later ascended to the Father; and that because of His death and by and through His resurrection every man born into the world since the beginning will be likewise literally resurrected. This doctrine is as old as the world. Job declared:
And though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God:
Whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another (Job 19:26–27).
The resurrected body is a body of flesh and bones and spirit, and Job was uttering a great and everlasting truth. These positive facts, and all other facts necessarily implied therein, must all be honestly believed, in full faith, by every member of the Church.
The second of the two things to which we must all give full faith is that the Father and the Son actually and in truth and very deed appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision in the woods; that other heavenly visions followed to Joseph and to others; that the gospel and the Holy Priesthood after the Order of the Son of God were in truth and fact restored to the earth from which they were lost by the apostasy of the primitive Church; that the Lord again set up His Church, through the agency of Joseph Smith; that the Book of Mormon is just what it professes to be; that to the Prophet came numerous revelations for the guidance, upbuilding, organization, and encouragement of the Church and its members; that the Prophet’s successors, likewise called of God, have received revelations as the needs of the Church have required, and that they will continue to receive revelations as the Church and its members, living the truth they already have, shall stand in need of more; that this is in truth The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; and that its foundation beliefs are the laws and principles laid down in the Articles of Faith. These facts also, and each of them, together with all things necessarily implied therein or flowing therefrom, must stand, unchanged, unmodified, without dilution, excuse, apology, or avoidance; they may not be explained away or submerged. Without these two great beliefs the Church would cease to be the Church.
Any individual who does not accept the fulness of these doctrines as to Jesus of Nazareth or as to the restoration of the gospel and holy priesthood is not a Latter-day Saint; the hundreds of thousands of faithful, God-fearing men and women who compose the great body of the Church membership do believe these things fully and completely, and they support the Church and its institutions because of this belief.
I want to refer to one aspect of the First Vision, that part (on which is hung a charge of epilepsy to discredit and destroy Joseph’s inspiration and mission) which relates that as he came out of the vision he found himself lying on his back, looking up into heaven, without strength, though he soon recovered (see Joseph Smith—History 1:20). You might find it interesting to compare this with the account of the condition of Moses after his great theophany (see Moses 1:9–10), and of Daniel (see Daniel 8:27), and of Saul (see Acts 9; 22), also the incidents connected with the transfiguration on the mount (see Matthew 17:1–9; Mark 9:2–9; Luke 9:28–36).
I wish to make here one observation about the First Vision. No man or woman is a true member of the Church who does not fully accept the First Vision, just as no man is a Christian who does not accept, first, the Fall of Adam and, second, the Atonement of Jesus Christ. Any titular Church member who does not accept the First Vision but who continues to pose as a Church member lacks not only moral courage but intellectual integrity and honor if he does not avow himself an apostate and discontinue going about the Church, and among the youth particularly, as a Churchman, teaching not only lack-faith but faith-destroying doctrines. He is a true wolf in sheep’s clothing. (“The Language of the New Testament, and the Words of Church Leaders as Scripture,” Lecture given to Seminary and Institute Teachers, July 7, 1954; Brigham Young University.)
As I approach this assignment, I am brought back to some guidelines, an expression made years ago by President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., who said:
“There are, for the Church and for each and all of its members, two prime things which may not be overlooked, forgotten, shaded, or discarded:
“First: That Jesus Christ is the Son of God. …
“Second … : That the Father and the Son actually … appeared to the Prophet Joseph in a vision … ; that the Gospel and the holy Priesthood … were … restored to the earth from which they were lost by the apostasy of the Primitive Church.” (“The Charted Course of the Church in Education,” an address delivered in Aspen Grove, Utah, 8 Aug. 1938, p. 3.)
I testify that these stipulations are true because this knowledge has been revealed to me by the unquestionable Spirit of God.
President Joseph Fielding Smith:
We are all members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I hope, and think I am right in having that hope, that we all have a testimony of the truth—that is, of the Restoration of the gospel. There are certain things that must be considered fundamental with us. First, we must accept Jesus Christ as the Only Begotten Son of God in the flesh. We must accept God the Father as our Father, the Father of our spirits. We must put our faith in and accept the revelations in what we call the standard works of the Church. We cannot have in our minds any doubts in relation to the First Vision, the coming of the Father and the Son. That is absolutely fundamental. We must accept the coming of Moroni and the revealing of the Book of Mormon and its translation by the gift and power of God. We must believe in the coming of John the Baptist to restore the Aaronic Priesthood. We must believe in the coming of Peter, James, and John with the keys of the Melchizedek Priesthood and the conferring of those keys upon the heads of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and the command given unto them to organize the Church. We must believe—there can be no doubts in our minds—as to the reason for the Restoration: that it is because of the universal apostasy that spread over all the Christian world, which made it necessary for the reopening of the heavens. (“Man: His Origin and Destiny,” Lecture given to Seminary and Institute Teachers, June 25, 1954; Brigham Young University.)
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.