(Part seven of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
The April 1920 General Conference became a 100-year anniversary commemoration of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s First Vision. Most of the conference speakers referenced it one way or another. President Heber J. Grant, only a year into his administration, began by sharing his own feelings, and other speakers followed his example. These remarks were given in a day when most spoke extemporaneously for various lengths of time. Not all comments were equally insightful, but I have tried to select some of the more interesting excerpts—and some are powerful witnesses indeed (see for example, Elder Melvin J. Ballard’s remarks). Apostolic and prophetic commentary of spiritual things can enlarge understanding and perspective:
The Latter-day Saints were driven from city to city, county to county, state to state, and finally beyond the confines of the United States to the Rocky Mountains, then Mexican territory. They could have had immunity, they could have dwelt in peace, had they renounced their faith; but our fathers and our mothers had received the witness of the Holy Spirit and they knew that Jesus was the Savior, they knew that Joseph Smith was in very deed a prophet of God. The Lord Almighty had implanted in their hearts a knowledge that God did, one hundred years ago this spring, appear to a boy; that he did speak to that boy; and that when the boy asked of our Father in Heaven, "Which of all the religious denominations in the world is the true Church of Christ?" in answer to that question our God and our Father pointed to the Savior of the world and said: "This is my beloved Son, hear Him." The Savior of the world told that boy to join none of the sects, that they had all gone astray, that they were teaching for doctrine the ideas and the commandments of men, and that they did not have the true Church of Christ. When that boy returned from that wonderful and marvelous vision, the greatest event in all the history of the world, excepting only the birth and death of the Savior, his mother saw that there was something strange about his appearance and asked him some questions; and he simply answered, m substance, and said to his mother (who was a Presbyterian): "Mother, there is one thing I know now, and that is that the Presbyterian church is not the Church of Christ."
Three years later an angel of God appeared and told him there was buried in the hill Cumorah some golden plates containing a record, a sacred record of the forefathers of the American Indian, and that he should be the instrument in the hands of God of translating those plates. The angel gave him many wonderful instructions and quoted much Scripture to him; then disappeared. He returned and repeated his instructions and disappeared. He returned again and repeated those instructions, the three visitations occupying the entire night. The next day when that boy went to his work in the field with his father, having had no rest during the night, his father saw that he was not feeling well and told him to go home; and as he was climbing a fence he fainted, but he was aroused from his faint by the voice of the messenger who for the fourth time repeated all that he had said during the previous night, and told him to go back to his father and tell his father all that he had heard and seen. This he did, and the boy's father answered: "This is of God. Listen to the teachings of the angel." The boy visited the hill Cumorah; he saw the plates and was instructed by the messenger to come there once a year for four years, to be instructed by that angel of God, regarding the great and marvelous work that was to come forth in the last days. At the end of four years the plated containing the record were delivered to him by the angel Moroni. He translated those plates, and the translation is the Book of Mormon.
O but, says one, I don't believe a word of it. There are thousands, there are tens of thousands of men and women, from the midnight sun country in Scandinavia to South Africa, all over Europe, from Canada to South America, in every state of the Union of the United States, upon the islands of the Pacific, who stand up and in all humility bear witness before high heaven that God has given to them a knowledge that Joseph Smith did see him, that Joseph Smith did see the Savior of the world, that Joseph Smith was visited by angels of God, that he was ordained to the apostleship, that he did in very deed commune with the Savior of the world, that he was a prophet of the living God. All the non-belief, all the lack of faith of all the people in all the world cannot change that fact, if it be a fact, and God has given many of us a knowledge, an absolute knowledge that it is a fact, that Joseph Smith was a prophet and that this Gospel, called by the world "Mormonism," is in very deed the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.
I want to read one of the latest testimonies regarding the divinity of this gospel, given from this stand by our late beloved Prophet, Joseph F. Smith, as to where divine authority exists today:
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is no partisan church. It is not a sect. It is the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It is the only one today existing in the world that can and does legitimately bear the name of Jesus Christ and his divine authority. I make this declaration in all simplicity and honesty before you and before all the world, bitter as the truth may seem to those who are opposed and who have no reason for that opposition. It is nevertheless true and will remain true until he who has a right to rule among the nations of the earth and among the individual children of God throughout the world shall come and take the reins of government and receive the bride that shall be prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom.
Many of our great writers have recently been querying and wondering where the divine authority exists today to command in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, so that it will be in effect and acceptable at the throne of the Eternal Father. I will announce here and now, presumptuous as it may seem to be to those who know not the truth, that the divine authority of Almighty God, to speak in the name of the Father and of the Son, is here in the midst of these everlasting hills, in the midst of this intermountain region, and it will abide and will continue, for God is its source, and God is the power by which it has been maintained against all opposition in the world up to the present, and by which it will continue to progress and grow and increase on the earth until it shall cover the earth from sea to sea. This is my testimony to you, my brethren and sisters, and I have a fulness of joy and of satisfaction in being able to declare this without regard to, or fear of, all the adversaries of the truth. . . .
And I bear witness to you, here today that we have the truth, that God has spoken again, that every gift, every grace, every power, and every endowment that came through the Holy Priesthood of the living God in the days of the Savior, are enjoyed today. God lives, Jesus is the Christ, Joseph Smith was a prophet of the true and the living God. "Mormonism," so called, is in very deed the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. God has given me a witness of these things. I know them and I bear that witness to you, in all humility, and I do it in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.
See also President Heber J. Grant’s article in the April 1920 Improvement Era, “A Marvelous Work and a Wonder” (page 472) on the First Vision.
We have reminders, frequently now, of the fact that about a century has elapsed since the time when the Prophet Joseph, as a boy, went into a grove near his father's residence —where many of us have been, and have rejoiced in the spirit we found there—and there for the first time in vocal prayer—I presume he had prayed before, in a fashion—but in vocal prayer, from the heart, with faith, he called upon the Lord that he might learn which was the true religion. As we have heard today, and have heard many times before, the Father and the Son appeared to him. He saw them; they were there before him. We may not perhaps exactly explain how and by what means Joseph saw the Father and the Son. He called it a vision. That is right, it was a vision. But what is a vision of that kind? A vision like that which Moses had when he saw the Lord face to face. He saw the Father and spoke to him, and the Lord spoke to him. Moses declared that he saw him, not with his natural eyes, but with his spiritual vision: and that there is such a thing I presume many of us who are here are fully assured. We know it in our own experience, but not perhaps to the same degree as Joseph or Moses had it, when they conversed with the Lord. But that there is a spiritual sight or vision we realize, and we can draw very near to our Father and our God in the name of Jesus Christ, and see when others are in the dark, and comprehend when others are blinded in regard to the heavenly truths which come to people from him for their salvation.
See also President Charles W. Penrose’s article in the April 1920 Improvement Era, “The Edict of a Century” (page 484) on the First Vision.
Elder Melvin J. Ballard (grandfather of Elder M. Russell Ballard):
It undoubtedly seems a very positive position for us to take, to be able to speak with such certainty concerning the work the Lord is doing in the world, in our day; to speak with such certainty concerning the visitation the prophet Joseph Smith received a hundred years ago, wherein the Father and the Son actually appeared to him. We may impress our friends, by reason of our positive position with arrogance, but that is not the thought that is in our hearts. We know what we know, and we testify to it in earnestness and in humility. I remember a gentleman, a minister, said on one occasion, in a private discussion which I had with him, that he thought we were too positive about the things of religion. He thought we had not considered the question of God enough to be able to speak with such certainty. He informed me that he belonged to a church that was several hundred years older than the one to which I belonged, and he said that his church had been considering these questions for a long time and had altered their view and their opinion about a good many theological questions. I granted that that was true; and he ventured the assertion that after we had been discussing these theological questions as long as they had, perhaps we would change our opinion also. And in order to establish his point he used this illustration:
"If you had a problem to give for solution and you selected ten boys to solve the problem, and you gave one of them ten days in which to study it, and then another boy nine days and still another boy eight, and so forth, until you had one boy studying on the problem but one day and one studying ten days; now which boy, at the conclusion of the ten days, would know most about the problem, the one who had been studying but one day or the one who had studied ten days?"
Well, you would have to concede, as I did, that if all things were equal, of course, the boy that had been studying ten days ought to know most about the problem.
"Well, there you are," he said; "we have been studying it longer than you have, and you are one of the youngest churches, and so you are likely to change your mind when you study it a little longer."
"But," I said, "suppose the boy who has had the problem but one day receives the visit of a professor who knows all about the problem and who illustrates it so that now it is perfectly clear to the mind of the boy, who knows most about it, the boy who has thus been aided, only having had the chance to study it one day, or the boy who has been dreaming about it for ten days?"
"Why," he said, "of course, the boy who was thus aided and assisted knew most about the problem."
Then I said: "That is exactly where we stand." Joseph Smith did not know, because of earthly wisdom and his reading of the scriptures, more about our Father in heaven and his Son Jesus Christ, than the learned ministers of the world. Not by that means did he obtain his knowledge, but in the few moments that he knelt in the sacred grove in the presence of the Father and the Son he knew more about God the eternal Father and his Son Jesus Christ than all the ministers of all the world ever have known, or ever will know, except they shall be, in like manner, informed and instructed. So that the wisdom he had came to him from the source to which men must go if they shall know our Father in heaven. . . .
Therefore, we rejoice in the witness we have that Jesus told the truth, that the testimony of his disciples concerning his resurrection is the truth, and we also know that the testimony of Joseph Smith and his brethren, who looked upon the face of the Redeemer, is true. I bear witness that I know what they have said is the truth. I know, as well as I know that I live and look into your faces, that Jesus Christ lives, and he is the Redeemer of the world, that he arose from the dead with a tangible body, and still has that real body which Thomas touched when he thrust his hands into his side and felt the wound of the spear, and also the prints of the nails in his hands. I know by the witness and the revelations of God to me that Thomas told the truth. I know that Joseph Smith told the truth, for mine eyes have seen. For in the visions of the Lord to my soul, I have seen Christ's face, I have heard his voice. I know that he lives, that he is the Redeemer of the world, and that as he arose from the dead, a tangible and real individual. . . .
The importance of the Great Vision referred to, justifies, I think, directing my remarks particularly thereto, notwithstanding nearly all of the speakers in the conference have spoken upon that subject. I would call attention by reading again a verse from the sayings of Joseph himself, telling his own story, so that we may be refreshed in our minds. In regard to what the Son told Joseph, he says: "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.'"
I know not, my brethren and sisters, how offensive this statement is to the sectarian world, but we accept it as the words of God and not of men, and we think that they are defensible. For instance, the saying that Joseph was to join with none of them, for they were all wrong, that means to us that there had been a departure from the truth, and from the Church that was instituted in the days of the Savior. Now then, let us reason upon this for a moment. I might call your attention, in connection with this matter, to a saying of the Lord through his servant Isaiah, in regard to his knowledge of things which are to be, recorded in the 46th chapter of Isaiah: "I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times all things that are not yet done." The Prophet Amos says: "Surely the Lord God doeth nothing but he revealeth his secrets to his servants, the prophets." Whether or not we might call the apostasy a secret, it certainly was known to the Lord in advance and we might reason thus: If there was to be a universal apostasy from the Church, then the Lord would reveal that important fact to his servants, the prophets.
Joseph Smith, a boy fourteen years of age, however, had not studied this proposition out in this way, to reach the deductions that we have reached, but by a study of the scriptures, we do find that the Lord, through his prophets, did predict the apostate conditions which were to be. And reasoning a little further we conclude that if there had been a universal apostasy such a thing would be of record. So we consult the histories by men who have written upon ecclesiastical subjects, and we find the apostasy given in minute detail, step by step, until it had become universal. "The earth had become defiled under the inhabitants thereof," for they had transgressed the laws, changed the ordinances, and broken the everlasting covenant. Men would wander from sea to sea, and from the north even unto the south, seeking the words of the Lord and could not find them. So far, therefore, as this declaration is concerned, there is sufficient evidence before us to prove that the statement is true that they were all wrong.
Now in regard to that other statement: All their creeds were an abomination in his sight; that seems a serious arraignment of churches, and their creeds. Let us consider that a moment. What constitutes or may constitute an abomination in the sight of God? It does seem to me that the belief in and advocacy of that which is not true and the making of it a part of religious creeds must be abominable in the sight of him who is the God of truth. If the Savior had not told Joseph this great fact, the evidence of it was before him, and he would no doubt have discovered it in later years as his judgment developed, for he knew that in the creeds everywhere it was taught that God is a personage having no body, no parts, nor passions. Joseph now saw before him the Father, not such as was represented by the creeds, but an immortal, glorified being, and with him his Son. Of this there could be no mistake, for the one, introducing the other to Joseph, said: "This is my beloved Son, hear him." There Joseph saw the Father and the Son, the Son indeed in the very likeness and image of his father.
An examination of the creeds will reveal other principles there set forth which are man-made and are in conflict with the truth of heaven as it has been revealed and is recorded in the scriptures of the Holy Bible, as well as in the other standard works of this Church. It was a necessary thing that Joseph, whom the Lord had raised up to be his mouthpiece for the ushering in of this great gospel dispensation, preparing the way for the great and glorious coming of our Lord, should have a perfect knowledge of the Father and of the Son, that he might be able to stand and to be secure in his position and to accomplish his work which the Lord had for him to do, and a wonderful work it has been. . . .
In view of the importance of this, the dispensation of the fulness of times, it is only reasonable to believe that our Father would reserve one of the greatest of those noble spirits who were faithful in their previous state of existence, to come forth and lead the people of this dispensation as his mouthpiece and prophet. This we believe was done, and that Joseph Smith was one of the greatest prophets that ever lived, and that his life's work was one of the greatest that ever a prophet accomplished.
There is another evidence which is more convincing to me, even than all these, and that is the witness of the Spirit of God that comes through the Holy Ghost, bearing testimony to my soul. I am convinced in every fiber of my being that Joseph Smith was indeed a divinely inspired prophet of God, and that his story of the vision is true, and I bear this testimony to you today in the name of Jesus Christ.
Practically a full century ago, in the year of which this is the glorious centennial, there occurred an epoch-making event in the history of the world. Reference was made to this yesterday. I venture to call your attention to the actual record. You know the story, I know; but it is well sometimes that we be reminded of what we know. You know the testimony of the young man Joseph Smith, to the effect that he was greatly wrought up in his mind as to which among the many Contending seas of the day was in reality the Church of Christ, for he had common sense enough to know that they could not all be right, for they were opposed to one another. There was not only opposition but hatred among them, and one sect sometimes directed the batteries of its assault toward another particular sect, and in the year 1820 there was much confusion and much dissension. The young man afterward wrote:
"During this time of great excitement, my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness; but though my feelings were deep and often poignant, still I kept myself aloof from all these parties, though I attended their several meetings as often as occasion would permit." In his study and thought he turned to the Scriptures and was particularly impressed by this wonderful precept and the marvelous promise associated therewith: "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 felt that he lacked wisdom. He was in search of it, and he asked of God. He went into the woods in the early spring of 1820 to pray; he knelt down and poured out the desires of his heart to God.
"I had scarcely done so," he afterward wrote, "when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, 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." But though the powers of evil were thus trying to stop his utterance and to crush his effort, he called all the more fervently upon his God, and he avowed that there appeared a pillar of light, as he says, "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!"
The Celestial Personage thus indicated answered the question the youthful seer had specified in his prayer, namely, which of the sects or denominations of the day he should join, and, as he averred, "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.'"
We have been severely criticized because of the declaration that the sects and denominations of that day were wrong. Remember, please, the declaration was not of Joseph. He had not before known that to be the case. Those words were the words of One greater than he, greater than you, greater than all of us here assembled, the words of the Son of God. Wherein were those churches wrong? Had they not much within them that was good? I venture to affirm that they had. I doubt not that there were amongst them men of God, who were trying to live according to the best light they had received; but as churches they were wrong because they were making false pretentions. They claimed to possess the power of the holy Priesthood, and they essayed to administer the ordinances thereof, all in compliance with what they understood to be the rule of the form of godliness. We can create many a variation of the form of godliness. We can make it intricate and enticing; but no men or body of men can gather together or work independently and originate the holy Priesthood upon the earth. To do so would be a greater miracle than for one to originate life in dead matter. There is a chasm between inanimate and organic matter, between the living and the dead, and man cannot bridge it. He may take living things, plants and animals, and rear and nurture and tend them, and by selective breeding he may produce new varieties, but the man never lived who, with all his science, and all his facilities of laboratory and other research, brought into existence one microscopical living cell, except, indirectly, through the operation of the laws of life, which are not of man.
This Church, therefore, from its beginning, has been unique, for the organization of the Church was forecasted in this declaration that at the time of Joseph Smith's first vision there was no Church of Jesus Christ upon the earth; and I do not see why people should take issue with us for making that statement. A man of one political party professes to believe that the other political party is wrong; and he has a right to believe it, and if he can demonstrate that fact to his own satisfaction he has the right to promulgate his belief; but he should do it with regard to the rights of the other party and the members thereof. We are not assailing churches; we are not attacking sects; we have no war with any of the numerous denominations on the face of the earth. We are sending out our missionaries, we are using the columns of the press, not to attack Catholicism or Protestantism, or any form of religion, but to preach in a positive and constructive way the principles of the gospel of Jesus Christ as that gospel has been restored to the earth in this dispensation, in strict accordance with the predictions of ancient prophets.
See also the April 1920 Improvement Era for a special 100-year commemorative issue on the First Vision. It contains articles related to the First Vision written by Heber J. Grant, Anthon H. Lund, Charles W. Penrose, Janne M. Sjodahl, Charles H. Hart, Joseph Fielding Smith, David O. McKay, James E. Talmage, Osborne J. P. Widstoe, B. H. Roberts, Susa Young Gates (talking about women and the First Vision), John A. Widstoe, Andrew Jenson, and others.