Joseph F. Smith once described the First Vision thus:
“The greatest event that has ever occurred in the world, since the resurrection of the Son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high, was the coming of the Father and of the Son to that boy Joseph Smith, to prepare the way for the laying of the foundation of his kingdom—not the kingdom of man—never more to cease nor to be overturned” (Joseph F. Smith, Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. , 495).
This is a very bold statement to make. I once shared it in a professional setting in discussing some aspects of Latter-day Saint theology. The audience questioned me about how such a statement could be made: “What about Pentecost?” As a side note I don’t think that we talk about the importance of Pentecost enough, but when we consider the claim that is being made, it should say something about the enormity of the First Vision that it’s importance surpassed events such as Pentecost.
In viewing the legacy of the First Vision I feel there are two legacies that need to be explored. The first will be explored fairly quickly.
How does this link with our idea of the legacy of the First Vision?
Again, returning to President Joseph F. Smith:
“Having accepted this truth, I find it easy to accept of every other truth that he (Joseph Smith) enunciated and declared during his mission of fourteen years in the world” (Joseph F. Smith Gospel Doctrine 495-6).
In terms of our testimonies, and also the progress of the Church and the ‘ongoing Restoration’ we can see that the First Vision is the first step in numerous steps. If we look at the progress of the Restoration between the First Vision and Joseph’s death twenty four years later we can see the First Vision as the catalyst for:
- The visitation of the Angel Moroni in 1823
- Joseph’s reception of the golden plates I 1827
- The Restoration of the Aaronic and Melchizedek Priesthoods in 1829
- The publication of the Book of Mormon on March, 26 1830
- The organisation the Church of Jesus Christ ion April 6, 1830
- The revelation of the Three Degrees of Glory in 1832
- The Word of Wisdom revealed in 1833
- The building of the Kirtland Temple and dedication in 1836
- First missionaries to the UK in 1837
- The founding of the Relief Society in 1842
The list could go on. In some ways the legacy during the lifetime of Joseph Smith is discussed in D&C 135:3:
“In the short space of twenty years, he has brought forth the Book of Mormon, which he translated by the gift and power of God, and has been the means of publishing it on two continents; has sent the fulness of the everlasting gospel, which it contained, to the four quarters of the earth; has brought forth the revelations and commandments which compose this book of Doctrine and Covenants, and many other wise documents and instructions for the benefit of the children of men; gathered many thousands of the Latter-day Saints, founded a great city, and left a fame and name that cannot be slain. He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood; and so has his brother Hyrum. In life they were not divided, and in death they were not separated!”
If we think further about all of the things that are in evidence today that have a direct line to the Sacred Grove of the First Vision the list would be innumerable. Some things that I am particularly grateful for include:
- A greater understanding and closeness of relationship with my Saviour Jesus Christ
- A knowledge that families can be sealed together for eternity
- The blessings of sacred covenants
- The opportunity to take the sacrament each week
- The blessings of Temples
- A living Prophet…
For me, the most importance legacy of the First Vision is the personal legacy for Joseph Smith, and also for each of us as individuals. From the known accounts the first was recorded in 1832, twelve years after the event. Why is that the case? In the early history of the Church the First Vision didn’t have the same pre-eminence that it has today (it is a discussion for another time when it became so- maybe with its exploration in the 1838/9, or in 1842 with the Wentworth letter, or its later inclusion in the Pearl of Great Price by Richards, or with the Reed Smoot hearings). I think, more evident in the 1832 recollection than in others, it is seen as a personal revelation. Terryl Givens has suggested:
”Smith’s theophany, in which he claimed a personal visitation from God the Father and Jesus Christ, had registered in Smith’s own self-conceiving as a private, personal conversion experience…” (Terryl Givens, 2019, p. 13)
The focus in the early years of the Church was on the message rather than the messenger. If we read the 1832 version we can see its personal nature, rather than its recording as a foundational event.
“My mind became exceedingly distressed, for I became 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, today, and forever, that he was no respecter of persons, for he was God… Therefore, I cried unto the Lord for mercy, for there was none else to whom I could go and obtain mercy. And the Lord heard my cry in the wilderness, and while in the attitude of calling upon the Lord, in the sixteenth year of my age, a pillar of light above the brightness of the sun at noonday came down from above and rested upon me. I was ﬁlled with the spirit of God, and the Lord opened the heavens upon me and I saw the Lord. And he spake unto me, saying, “Joseph, my son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Go thy way, walk in my statutes, and keep my commandments. Behold, I am the Lord of glory. I was crucified for the world, that all those who believe on my name may have eternal life” (1832 account).
Joseph’s main concern was his standing before the Lord, he sought mercy. Maybe later in his life, and to different audiences he recognised the events of the First Vision as foundational for the restoration of the Gospel, but in the early years this was a personal revelation. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am like Joseph Smith, but if I think back to my conversion experience at the age of 15 it was deeply meaningful personal experience for me. Now, it is an experience that has import for my children and the establishment of my family, but in my retellings it was a step towards a relationship with my Saviour.
When we moved to Macclesfield I was 14 and to coin a phrase “searching”. My paper round took me past the chapel but I never visited. I went into the local Church of England for a chat with the vicar but he wasn’t available. So that was that. Until one day I came home from school to find two missionaries in the front room. I said “Hello” and went upstairs to put some music on. My mum shouted me down and told me off for being rude- the missionaries wanted to speak with me. Apparently they had been visiting with her for about a month but this was the first time they had caught me in. They told me that my mum was coming to Church that Sunday with my baby sister, but that my older brother had no interest. Did I want to come? I said “Alright” and went back to my music. In some ways that is my conversion story- I have been active in Church since that very next Sunday. I went there, felt at home and spoke to the missionaries about wanting the Aaronic Priesthood. The missionaries realised they needed to keep me coming so sports activities began again- this time badminton at the leisure centre. The older youth in my ward took me under their wing and I never seemed to look back.
Until my final year of secondary where I was invited by my Sunday School teacher to fast and pray about the Book of Mormon- my assumption and automatic acceptance of its truthfulness didn’t seem enough if I was to serve a mission. I fasted and prayed- and remember reading 3 Nephi 17 with tears in my eyes to confirm the testimony of my Saviour I feel I had always had since the age of 8- the word of the Lord to Oliver Cowdery seemed to speak straight to me: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, if you desire a further witness, cast your mind upon the night that you cried unto me in your heart, that you might know concerning the truth of these things. Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?” (D&C 6:22-23). My testimony was confirmed and there has not been a single doubt since then. To paraphrase and misquote Joseph Smith: “So it was with me. I had actually seen felt the Spirit, and it did in reality speak to me; and though I may be hated ant persecuted for saying that I had felt the Spirit, 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 felt the Spirit; and who am I that I can withstand God, or why does the world think to make me deny what I had actually felt? For I have felt the Spirit; 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”. I know my Saviour lives and stand amazed at all that he has done for me.
Again, this is not a foundational event but a personal experience. Which, I think to take a step back links with the personal legacy of the First Vision.
“Joseph Smith’s epistemology—the seeking way of knowing he described and enacted in the grove—can be our way of knowing. In other words, if we seek as Joseph did, we can come to know what he knew as he knew it” (Stephen C. Harper, 2012, Joseph Smith’s First Vision).
“God hath not revealed anything to Joseph, but what He will make known unto the Twelve, and even the least Saint may know all things as fast as he is able to bear them” (History of the Church, 3:380).
The heavens are open and we can receive this same knowledge and this same relationship. Joseph’s experience while immense in its magnitude and influence is available to each one of us. I would suggest that from the First Vision there are three aspects that are key to the legacy for each of us.
- We know who God is.
“It is the first principle of the Gospel to know for a certainty the Character of God” (Joseph Smith, Teachings, 345).
The God whom I worship through the lens of the First Vision is on who is a personal, corporeal being, one with body, parts and passions. He is knowable, I can build a relationship with him. The Father is distinct from the Son. The importance of the First Vision as the lens through which to view the nature of God is highlighted by Gordon B. Hinckley:
“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. It is out of that knowledge, rooted deep in the soil of modern revelation, that we, in the words of Nephi, ‘talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that [we and] our children may know to what source [we] may look for a remission of [our] sins’” (2 Ne. 25:26) (Gordon B. Hinckley, 2002: 90-91).
- We know our relationship with God
This truth is taught often when we hear a discussion of the First Vision:
“He called me by name…”
The first word spoken to Joseph Smith was ‘Joseph’; in the 1832 account it says: “Joseph, my son”. We have a knowledge because of the First Vision that we are children of God, that I am a child of God. Within wider Christianity we become children of God through our acceptance of Jesus Christ; and while that has parallels in becoming children of Christ in the restored Gospel, it is an undeniable truth by the nature of our existence that we are each an individual spiritual child of loving Heavenly Parents. More than that, he knows each one of personally. Two scriptures that help me understand this are:
Behold, thou art Oliver, and I have spoken unto thee because of thy desires; therefore treasure up these words in thy heart. Be faithful and diligent in keeping the commandments of God, and I will encircle thee in the arms of my love (D&C 6:20).
The knowledge that he knows my name, and seeks to encircle me in the arms of his love is a direct legacy of the First Vision and provides a balm to my soul.
And I have a work for thee, Moses, my son; and thou art in the similitude of mine Only Begotten; and mine Only Begotten is and shall be the Saviour, for he is full of grace and truth; but there is no God beside me, and all things are present with me, for I know them all (Moses 1:6).
Again, knowing my identity as a son of God enables me to withstand the temptations of Satan (as highlighted later in Moses 1) where Moses counters Satan with:
And it came to pass that Moses looked upon Satan and said: Who art thou? For behold, I am a son of God, in the similitude of his Only Begotten; and where is thy glory, that I should worship thee? (Moses 1:13)
As an aside the Moses being in the similitude of the Son has echoes of the Wentworth Letter where the Father and Son “exactly resembled each other in features and likeness”. Truman Madsen made an interesting observation of this point:
Notice they not just resembled—they exactly resembled each other in features and likeness. We speak of a family resemblance: “Like father, like son.” The Son looked like his Father. Philip asked, “Show us the Father.” The Master replied, “Have I been so long time with you, and yet hast thou not known me, Philip? He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.” This is not because they are identical but because they are, in appearance as well as in nature, exactly similar.
This circumstance may give further insight into the phrase Alma used in his familiar set of questions about our spiritual progress: “Is the image of God engraven upon your countenances?”30 It may also give greater meaning to a favourite story of President David O. McKay’s about the great stone face: in the very loving of a countenance one may eventually take on the character of what one loves (Lecture 1).
- The reality and necessity of personal revelation
If the First Vision is primarily a personal revelation then it shows is that this how we know. Bruce R. McConkie taught:
“God is known only by revelation; he stands revealed or remains forever unknown. He cannot be discovered in the laboratory, or by viewing all immensity through giant telescopes, or by cataloguing all the laws of nature that do or have existed. A knowledge of his powers and the laws of nature which he has ordained does not reveal his personality and attributes to men in the true gospel sense. Certainly a knowledge of these laws and powers enables man to learn truths which are faith promoting and which help him to understand more about Deity; but saving knowledge of God comes only by revelation from the Holy Ghost as a consequence of obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel.”
Revelation is what makes our faith alive and the Church alive. Gerald N. Lund has suggested:
From the very first moments of the Restoration, revelation has been the driving force of the Church. God declared The Church of Jesus Christ to be “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” (D&C 1:30). Surely it is revelation that makes the Church both true and living! Indeed, it could be said that the dispensation of the fulness of times is the dispensation of a fulness of revelation.
To reiterate, just as the Church is living because of revelation, our faith is also living and vibrant because of the revelations we receive. The First Vision and its surrounding events help us understand the process of revelation.
- A broken heart and a desire
We read in the 1832 account Joseph’s desire to gain mercy, in verses 8 and 10 of the 1838 account we learn of a further desire:
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 process of time my mind became somewhat partial to the Methodist sect, and I felt some desire to be united with them; but so great were the confusion and strife among the different denominations, that it was impossible for a person young as I was, and so unacquainted with men and things, to come to any certain conclusion who was right and who was wrong… In the midst of this war of words and tumult of opinions, I often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together? If any one of them be right, which is it, and how shall I know it?
All of our personal revelation begins with a recognition that we need help, that alone we cannot hope to succeed. This is perhaps one of my biggest challenges, I recognise that I try and do things myself- I have to humble myself and recognise my standing before God, and my reliance upon Him. We then recognise what it is we need help with, the guidance that we need.
- Study the word that has already been revealed and return to the scriptures often and carefully.
This is where an amalgamation of the accounts is helpful. If we rely on the 1838 version it would appear that this study could have been a one-time event:
While I was labouring under the extreme difficulties caused by the contests of these parties of religionists, I was one day reading the Epistle of James, first chapter and fifth verse, which reads: 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 (v11).
The 1838 account suggests that this process of searching and studying began at about the age of 12. This consistent relationship with the scriptures is something that we should emulate in our daily lives. What better way to bring the spirit of revelation into our lives than studying the revelation that has already been given?
As a Bishop I am mindful that whenever anyone comes to me for spiritual help, that we open the scriptures together. It helps bring the Holy Spirit into our meetings, but it also helps the other person to become self-sufficient. Next time, before they come to me they may search the scriptures to open the windows of heaven and receive revelation.
- Pondering what we read and feel and listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit
Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible (JSH 1:12).
This passage perfectly elucidates the need to ponder, but also the promptings that the Holy Ghost will give. The scripture came to his heart and also to his mind (he reflected on it again and again)- this is a perfect description of the promptings of the Holy Spirit outlined in D&C 8:2-3.The Holy Spirit is a personage that teaches us the truth of all things. He helps us know the way to go. He is heard as we listen and ponder the scriptures and the questions that we have.
- Resolve to act.
Whatever the answer that we receive we must be prepared to act. This is the ‘real intent’ that that Moroni mentions. If we truly have a broken heart and are humble before the Lord we will be willing to do what he asks.
At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must do as James directs, that is, ask of God. I at length came to the determination to “ask of God,” concluding that if he gave wisdom to them that lacked wisdom, and would give liberally, and not upbraid, I might venture (JSH 1:13).
This decision is sometimes easy, and often hard. Not every prompting is easy or convenient. But just as with Joseph and his desire to seek his standing before the Lord it is necessary.
- Satan will oppose truth
As a missionary we often skipped this in the retelling of the First Vision, but it is a key aspect of the process of revelation to know that Satan is real and will oppose anything that draws a person closer to Christ. In the First Vision we read:
After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, 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, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvellous power as I had never before felt in any being… (JSH 1:15-16).
Satan knows us, and he wants us to not be in a relationship with Christ- anything he can do to put a barrier to any development in that relationship, he will. We also, see this happen after the event when Joseph is not believed and persecuted for his belief and testimony: “It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom…” (JSH 1:20). It is our responsibility to hearken to the revelation we receive, to live in this relationship with Christ and be a disturber and annoyer of his kingdom, by not listening to any of his words or temptations.
- We receive truth and light through revelation.
Immediately following the attack of Satan we read that:
…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! My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right (for at this time it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong)—and which I should join (JSH 1:16-18).
We do not receive more than we can bear, but we are promised that we will receive the light of revelation through the Holy Spirit. We may not receive a visitation of the Father and the Son but we will receive a visitation of the Holy Spirit.
I have talked with many individuals who question the strength of their personal testimony and underestimate their spiritual capacity because they do not receive frequent, miraculous, or strong impressions. Perhaps as we consider the experiences of Joseph in the Sacred Grove, of Saul on the road to Damascus, and of Alma the Younger, we come to believe something is wrong with or lacking in us if we fall short in our lives of these well-known and spiritually striking examples. If you have had similar thoughts or doubts, please know that you are quite normal. Just keep pressing forward obediently and with faith in the Saviour. As you do so, you “cannot go amiss” (D&C 80:3) (David A. Bednar).
The message and true legacy of the First Vision is that the heavens are open again and we can receive revelation from the Lord as to the things we should believe, the things that we should do, and what he requires of us. Throughout my life I have blessed with such revelation in every aspect of my life. But as with Joseph Smith we must realise that revelation is not a one time event but an ongoing process in our lives.
- Live the truth we receive.
Following the revelation we receive, we must bear testimony of the Saviour and act upon the revelation we have received. Joseph Smith continued his relationship with the scriptures- the restoration of the Aaronic Priesthood was a direct result of his engagement with the Book of Mormon. We live true to the revelation we receive and we do not rationalise them away for worldly acceptance. Joseph Smith likened aspects of his persecution to the events of Paul before King Agrippa:
However, it was nevertheless a fact that I had beheld a vision. I have thought since, that I felt much like Paul, when he made his defense before King Agrippa, and related the account of the vision he had when he saw a light, and heard a voice; but still there were but few who believed him; some said he was dishonest, others said he was mad; and he was ridiculed and reviled. But all this did not destroy the reality of his vision. He had seen a vision, he knew he had, and all the persecution under heaven could not make it otherwise; and though they should persecute him unto death, yet he knew, and would know to his latest breath, that he had both seen a light and heard a voice speaking unto him, and all the world could not make him think or believe otherwise.
So it was with me. 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; at least I knew that by so doing I would offend God, and come under condemnation (JSH 1:24-25).
As we continue in this way we build, brick by brick, and line by line our relationship with Christ (see 2 Nephi 28:30). If we don’t continue to receive and act upon it then we are told that “from them shall be taken even that which we have” (2 Nephi 28:30). This is very reminiscent of Alma 5 when those who have spiritually been born of God are asked:
And now behold, I say unto you, my brethren, if ye have experienced a change of heart, and if ye have felt to sing the song of redeeming love, I would ask, can ye feel so now? (v. 26).
We have to abide in Christ, continue in our relationship with Him through the ministrations of the Holy Ghost; we should not “withdraw yourselves from the Spirit of the Lord, that it may have no place in you to guide you in wisdom’s paths that ye may be blessed, prospered, and preserved” (Mosiah 2:36 emphasis added). I have a friend who once walked in the light of revelation, but over time withdrew from the Lord, not through heinous sins but just by degree. After a time, he had rationalised away all of his spiritual experiences and lost that light that he had received and no longer believes in God. He would tell a different story, but the message for each of us of the First Vision and Joseph’s life is to renew our spiritual experiences every day of our lives. A quote I remember from my teenage years seems appropriate to this point:
“Testimony isn’t something you have today, and you are going to have always. A testimony is fragile. It is as hard to hold as a moonbeam. It is something you have to recapture everyday of your life” (Harold B. Lee).
Returning to legacy of the First Vision. As important as the events of the Restoration are, the most important legacy for me is my personal relationship with my Saviour which is made possible through the opening of the heavens. Every event, every covenant, every development of the Restoration is important in the fact that it helps me draw closer to the Saviour. The beginning and ongoing reason for that faith is to know that God loves me and that he desires to speak with me. The First Vision has shown how that can happen- I now just need to emulate Joseph Smith in drawing close to the Saviour.