When teaching or reciting the story of Joseph Smith’s First Vision of Deity, Latter-day Saints are accustomed as a people to state simply that the young Joseph wondered which Church was the True Church of Jesus Christ, read James 1:5 which directed him to ask God, obeyed what he learned, and in response received his First Vision, which served as a Prophetic Call, and was the Origin Story of the Restoration of the Gospel In These Latter Days.
This way of telling the story is true, and serves an important role in condensing the overall Narrative of the Restoration. However, once we accept the event as Historical, is that as far as we should go in exploring and applying this sacred account to our lives?
While serving as a Missionary, the question I began to consider as relevant as I met and taught more and more individuals about this experience, was ‘why was it important to Joseph to know the answer to this question’? With many of those I met, if they had a similar question to Joseph’s at all, their interest in it was more often than not little greater than as an intellectual triviality, or perhaps as a Rhetorical question (or riddle) with the obvious answer of ‘it doesn’t matter’, or ‘we can never know, so why bother’ being implied.
It bothered me that there are many who simply didn’t care about the Truthfulness of Churches, or that do not want to be bothered with questions that could potentially shake up their life.
So then, what about Joseph Smith? Why did he have the question? Why did it matter to him?
As I read up and learned more about Joseph, I found that initially, he too was self-admittedly a little jaded and judgmental concerning organized religion from his early youth. This most likely came from the example of his father, a noble God fearing man who despised the organized religion he had come in contact with, refusing to unite with any of them.
That sounded a lot like many people I’ve met. They grew up in a home which had been traditionally religious, with good parents that had since lapsed in their religious activity, and transferred behaviors, questions, and attitudes to their children.
But not simply blindly following his dad’s lead, Joseph, too, saw the contention among the different sects, and based on elements of his upbringing, had independently come to the same conclusion as his father. In his words,
“I pondered many things in my heart concerning the sittuation of the world of mankind the contentions and divi[si]ons the wicke[d]ness and abominations and the darkness which pervaded the of the minds of mankind” .1
It’s easy to look around and to see hypocrites. Some even take pleasure out of doing so. Yet there came a point where Joseph began to grow out of this, and develop and express true character by turning the judgment inward – to take a deep look at his own faults. Now the questions and reflection and observations became intensely personal.
Let’s take a look at things from his point of view:
Joseph still has these questions in the back of his mind, and there’s a revival meeting going on. Several locals have approached the center, have fallen down, and appear under the influence of what is often referred to by them as ‘the power’. After a short interval, they arise, and begin singing praises to God, declaring that they’ve seen their salvation. This happens to more and more people. The crowds grow larger. The noise grows louder.
Benajah Williams, a Methodist preacher, shares the details of such a 1818 meeting near Palmyra, New York – Joseph’s home – in his journal:
“At one time in the Course of the meeting whilst we were holding a prayer meeting in our tent & God was pouring out his Spirit on the people sinners were weeping young Converts singing & old Saints rejoicing. I saw a young woman at the b[ack] of the tent weeping: I asked her if she w[ould] kneel Down if we would pray for her. S[he] said she would, & came forward & knelt Down…
[a] man the Sabbath after camp meeting was glad to have the privilege of having Christians pray for him, while he lay and roaled on the schoolhouse floor & cried for mercy so that he was heard half a mile.
As the same prayer meeting I observed a young man …. After the Congregation was Dismised & the people were Chiefly gone he still Remained on the ground, unwilling as he said to leave it till God had blessed his soul …. I then knelt Down & prayed for him the Lord heard our prayers, his Countenance changed, he began to whisper glory glory to God. His strength returned & rose & shouted clapt his hands & jumpd & exhorted, & cried of God.”2
Many of the penitent in these meetings who would desire such an experience would come forward when prompted to the ‘mourner’s bench’, and then be surrounded by a group of praying Christians for them to receive these spiritual evidences and manifestations. In the midst of such circles, some mourners would arise, and shout, proclaiming the fulfillment of these prayers, declaring visions of God, and the forgiveness of sins.
Young Joseph Smith is present at several of such meetings. Speaking of this time in his life, Joseph said,
“my mind become exceedingly distressed for I become convicted of my sins…I felt to mourn for my own sins and for the sins of the world for I learned in the scriptures that God was the same yesterday to day and forever that he was no respecter to persons for he was God”3
– yet Even though he knew that God was not a respecter of persons, when it came to his personal experiences in these meetings, he “wanted to feel and shout like the rest but could feel nothing”.
A highly attractive element of the local Methodism of the day was an emphasis on outward manifestations of the immediate regenerative work of Salvation. When you’ve become right with God, you know it.
Yet, as much as this desire filled his heart, as much as he desired to please God and inwardly pled for forgiveness, Joseph simply wasn’t feeling anything. The reassurance he sought that was being promised him just wasn’t coming, and it led to deep confusion, and self-reflection. Perhaps even doubt.
It’s easy to empathize with his confusion. Some of what individuals were claiming as manifestations of forgiveness from God seemed downright…scary. People claimed that when ‘the power’ came upon them, their tongues were bound, and they were unable to speak. Some started jerking in convulsions. Others opened their mouths and made unnatural sounds and noises.
However, it must have seemed like everyone else was having these intense seemingly spiritual experiences. This must have raised several questions to the young teenager:
Does God love me? Does He care enough to give me such an experience if He does? Were these experiences even truly from God? Were these mourners indeed having their sins remitted, and having encounters with deity? Or was it all a sham? Was this an experience he should still be actively pursuing?
Joseph desperately wanted to know, but the answers he was receiving from all he asked were in conflict.
According to Joseph’s brother William, a sermon was heard by a “Rev. Mr Lane of the Methodists”, who “preached a sermon on ‘What church shall I join?’ and the burden of the discourse was to ask God, using as a text, ‘If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally.’ And of course,” William continued, “when Joseph went home and was looking over the text he was impressed to do just what the preacher had said.”4
This was probably the last glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for Joseph.
Joseph “reflected on” the scripture “again and again”, and time passed. Did he dare ask the God of All Creation? And if so, how would he go about doing it?
It’s been suggested that perhaps he was inspired by something like a contemporary hymn, with the lyrics:
Ye saints, who love the Lord’s dear name,
Who love to worship at his feet…
If you retire into the grove,…
Each object there should kindle love,…
In every flow’r, and shrub, and tree,
God’s goodness you may plainly see.5
I can understand Joseph’s desire for solitude. And as he made the trek into the wood to be alone, I can understand how he couldn’t help but be overcome by the beauty of the scene
“I looked upon the sun the glorious luminary of the earth … and the earth also upon which I stood and the beast of the field and the fowls of heaven and the fish of the waters and also man walking forth upon the face of the earth in magesty and in the strength of beauty whose power and intiligence in governing the things which are so exceding great and marvilous even in the likeness of him who createdhim <them> and when I considered upon these things my heart exclaimed well hath the wise man said the <it is a> fool <that> saith in his heart there is no God my heart exclaimed all all these bear testimony and bespeak an omnipotant and omnipreasant power a being who makith Laws and decreeeth and bindeth all things in their bounds who filleth Eternity who was and is and will be from all Eternity to Eternity”6
I too have had moments where I have stared into Creation, knowing there was an all-powerful God who loved me, and desperately seeking answers to my very personal questions. In the latter years of college I would do this often – driving to the beach after midnight solely to have such a solitary contemplative experience.
Overcome with such great love and reverence for God in this atmosphere, Joseph says, “I cried unto the Lord for mercy for there was none else to whom I could go and to obtain mercy”
It is at this point, in a moment of such humility and vulnerability, that Joseph experiences ‘the power’ that others had proclaimed, and that he had seen people witness. But instead of being an edifying experience for him, it was one of terror.
“ 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.”7
“I made a fruitless attempt to pray My tongue seemed to be swoolen in my mouth, so that I could not utter”8
If Joseph knew anything in that moment, he knew that this experience was not of God. If he had not been struggling for his own being, it would have immediately made him discount the many experiences he’d witnessed that claimed to be signs of God’s love.
In this moment, Joseph felt trapped and abandoned. Yet he persisted, and continued to exert himself in inward prayer, desiring to express himself outwardly to His Creator, and be heard by Him…and Saved by Him.
“and the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness and while in <the> attitude of calling upon the Lord … a piller of fire light above the brightness of the sun at noon day come down from above and rested upon me and I was filled with the spirit of god and the <Lord> opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord”9
The darkness was overcome. An important question had already been answered, and cast away, forever leaving Joseph incredibly wary of ecstatic religious experience. And yet now, his eyes were opened, and he saw the Lord.
In Joseph’s earliest account, he skips the Lord’s introductions, and goes straight to the most important and significant statement spoken on that occasion.
Joseph tells us that the Lord “spake unto me saying Joseph <my son> thy sins are forgiven thee”.10
Joseph entered the grove with many questions. While one important question was certainly that of which religious society was the most correct and could direct him towards the truth of God’s salvation, in Joseph’s mind at the time, this question was simply an auxiliary or aside to the most pertinent, and most powerful and personal questions: How can I be forgiven, and how can I know that I am right with God?
Joseph was given much additional instruction on that occasion, which time alone would bring into full perspective. As the experience ended, Joseph says “my soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me”.11
Joseph’s First Vision is undoubtedly an important experience for the institutional Church, and it is this perspective of the story that is often emphasized and retold.
But I like to look at the account from how Joseph would have originally viewed it – a boy simply wanting to know that he was loved and accepted by His marvelous creator, asking Him, and receiving his answer.
- Joseph Smith, 1832 History – see http://josephsmithpapers.org/History/Default.htm [↩]
- Cited in Mark Staker, Hearken O Ye People: The Historical Setting of Joseph Smith’s Ohio Revelations, 128 [↩]
- JS 1832 History [↩]
- Staker [↩]
- ibid [↩]
- JS 1832 History [↩]
- Joseph Smith – History [↩]
- Wentworth Letter [↩]
- 1832 History [↩]
- ibid [↩]
- ibid [↩]