He That is Not Against Us is For Us—One Mormon’s Perspective on Interfaith Work

Then there arose a reasoning among them, which of them should be greatest. And Jesus, perceiving the thought of their heart, took a child, and set him by him, and said unto them, Whosoever shall receive this child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me: for he that is least among you all, the same shall be great.

And John answered and said, Master, we saw one casting out devils in thy name; and we forbad him, because he followeth not with us. And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us. (Luke 9:46-50.)

jesus-and-the-little-children-medium

Image from LDS.org

In a world fraught with polarization, violence, and distrust of that which is different from us, it is often tempting to focus on the Savior’s phrase “He that is not with me is against me” (Matthew 12:30), rather than the saying “he that is not against us is for us.” This is very apparent in the field of religion and religious differences, where people argue about which religion is the greatest in the eyes of Deity and often resort to force to make their point. As such, we live in a world where religion causes violence as much as it creates peace. In the United States alone, we’ve seen shootings that targeted Christians, like the one in Oregon last year reportedly did; shootings by a Christian targeting an abortion clinic in Colorado; radicalized Muslims engaging in violent attacks from time to time; and so forth. On the global scene, we see the ongoing conflicts and attacks caused by the ISIS in the Middle East and elsewhere, tensions in Northern Ireland that crystalize over Anglican-Catholic conflicts, and Christian-Muslim conflicts that have exploded into in civil wars in a few African countries.

Divides caused by religion carry over in smaller, less violent ways as well. I remember as a child that I lived near a Catholic school. Since we lived so close, my Mom would take my sister and me over to their playground to play. One day, however, another child who was there wouldn’t play with me. When I asked him why he would not, he simply told me that it was because I was a Mormon and his mom told him that I was going hell. That’s not to say that I was any better as a child—in the fourth grade, when a Hispanic boy told me that he was Catholic, I told him that his religion was “the great and abominable church,” referring to a private interpretation I had heard of a vision in the Book of Mormon. He got very defensive and upset, telling me that his church wasn’t “the great boom-boom church” I was saying it was. While not in any way as serious or devastating as the religious conflicts mentioned above, these events from my childhood were still not very pleasant and reflect some of the same mentality that, when taken to an extreme, results in more serious problems.

All this being said, is it possible to reach across divides and gain a better understanding of people who we don’t see eye to eye with on religious and philosophical ideas? Can we do that because of our religion rather than doing it in spite of religious convictions? I believe we can. In my own life, I’ve come a long way since the fourth grade. I’m currently going to college at Utah State University in Logan, Utah and I’m involved in the USU Interfaith Student Association; I ring in an interfaith handbell choir operated by the Presbyterian Church in downtown Logan; I have friends, relatives, and associates from a variety of religious backgrounds (Christians, Muslims, Jews, and agnostics mostly); while still remaining a devoted and active Mormon. Through many of these groups I’ve had some great opportunities to experience firsthand what happens when people reach across the divide to build understanding and friendship rather than division and distrust. For this reason, the words of one of my religious leaders—Dieter F. Uchtdorf—resonate deeply with me:

The effort to throw off traditions of distrust and pettiness and truly see one another with new eyes—to see each other not as aliens or adversaries but as fellow travelers, brothers and sisters, and children of God—is one of the most challenging while at the same time most rewarding and ennobling experiences of our human existence. . . .

This conviction and resolve to overcome our lower instincts and truly love all mankind regardless of race, religion, political ideology, and socioeconomic circumstances is one of the grand objectives of our human existence.

It is the essence of pure religion.

It may not be an easy thing to do.

But it is worth doing, and we can do it.[1]

Dieter F. Uchtdorf Throw of distrust is rewarding Interfaith

To answer the question, “Can we be inspired by our religion to reach across the religious divides?” I would like take a look into my own religion—Mormonism—to discuss how I am inspired by my religion to engage in interfaith work. As a framework to my remarks, I’d like to refer to a statement by Eboo Patel—an influential leader of the interfaith movement in the United States—about what is necessary for someone to successfully become an interfaith leader: “You need three basic things to be an interfaith leader . . . vision, knowledge base and skill set—all towards the end of creating spaces where people from different faith backgrounds come together to build understanding and to cooperate.”[2]

  1. Vision

In explaining his statement, Eboo Patel said that the vision is “the idea that people from different religions ought to come together to build cooperation. That’s not to be taken for granted. A lot of people who believe in the clash of civilizations believe that different religious identities are inherently opposed to each other. So the first thing you need to be an interfaith leader is a framework that understanding and cooperation is possible.”[3]

Over the years, LDS Church leaders have indicated that they have caught this vision and want members of the Church to carry it out. I’ll highlight a few examples below.

By the end of his life, the Prophet Joseph Smith (1805-1844) indicated that he wanted to engage in positive, interfaith-like ways with other Christian denominations. He taught that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism”[4]—a significant statement, given that he only used the term “fundamental principle of Mormonism” to describe two other things—a belief in Jesus the Christ’s resurrection, and the search for truth. He also made it clear that this friendship was meant to extend to people of many different faiths. For example, in July of 1843, he taught that:

The inquiry is frequently made of me, “Wherein do you differ from others in your religious views?” In reality and essence we do not differ so far in our religious views, but that we could all drink into one principle of love. One of the grand fundamental principles of “Mormonism” is to receive truth, let it come from whence it may.

We believe in the Great Elohim who sits enthroned in yonder heavens. So do the Presbyterians. If a skillful mechanic, in taking a welding heat, uses borax, alum, etc., and succeeds in welding together iron or steel more perfectly than any other mechanic, is he not deserving of praise? And if by the principles of truth I succeed in uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love, shall I not have attained a good object?

If I esteem mankind to be in error, shall I bear them down? No. I will lift them up, and in their own way too, if I cannot persuade them my way is better; and I will not seek to compel any man to believe as I do, only by force of reasoning, for truth will cut its own way. Do you believe in Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation which he revealed? So do I. Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst.[5]

Joseph Smith Drink into one Love Interfaith

With the goal of “uniting men of all denominations in the bonds of love,” Joseph Smith was suggesting that Mormonism could not only participate, but also become leaders in interfaith work. His belief that “Christians should cease wrangling and contending with each other, and cultivate the principles of union and friendship in their midst” is a core idea behind such interfaith efforts, though it is extended beyond the circle of Christianity to all of the world’s religions in today’s global world.

We also see in the Prophet’s statement above an expanded view of the church or kingdom of God on earth that encourages greater cooperation between people of various faiths. He stated that “we could all drink into one principle of love.” The only place in our scriptures that uses the phrase “drink into one” is Paul’s discussion of the “body of Christ”:

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13.)

If Joseph Smith was intending to make a passing reference to Paul’s epistle, he may have been suggesting that Christian churches, uniting together in love, could be viewed collectively as the body of Christ—often understood to be the Church of Christ. This wasn’t a suggestion that all Christian churches should lose all denominational distinctions and blend into one institution—for example, the Prophet maintained that Mormonism had priesthood authority and truths that other Christian denominations did not have. Instead, it seems to be a suggestion that disciples of Christ inside or outside of any individual religion could be considered a part of Christ’s larger following or church.

More recent LDS Church leaders have continued to call upon Church members to practice respect and love with people from different faith traditions. The current president of the Church—Thomas S. Monson—said that “We have a responsibility . . . to work cooperatively with other churches and organizations. My objective there is . . . that we eliminate the weakness of one standing alone and substitute it or the strength of people working together.”[6]

Thomas S. Monson Interfaith

President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910-2008)—one of the longest serving and most-beloved presidents of the Church in recent decades—declared in his inaugural address as president of the Church that:

I plead with our people everywhere to live with respect and appreciation for those not of our faith. There is so great a need for civility and mutual respect among those of differing beliefs and philosophies. We must not be partisans of any doctrine of ethnic superiority. We live in a world of diversity. We can and must be respectful toward those with whose teachings we may not agree. We must be willing to defend the rights of others who may become the victims of bigotry.[7]

Gordon B. Hinckley Diversity Interfaith

Many other examples could be given, but these three church leaders give a good sample of what LDS Church members are taught about the vision of interfaith work.

2. Knowledge Base

Eboo Patel had the following to say about having a knowledge base:

The second thing you need is a knowledge base. You need to have an appreciative understanding of other traditions. You need to be able to identify shared values across traditions. How does Islam speak to mercy? How does Christianity speak to mercy? How do Jews speak to mercy? You can do the same with hospitality or service or compassion. These are what the Interfaith Youth Core calls shared values.

Part of a knowledge base, for a religious person at least, is what we call a theology of interfaith cooperation. You ought to be able to tell somebody in your own faith why you, as a Christian or as a Muslim or as a Jew, engage in interfaith cooperation.

You also need to know the history of interfaith cooperation. You hear people say all the time, “Well, Muslims and Jews are fighting now because they’ve always fought,” and that’s just false. But if you don’t know about the history of cooperation between Muslims and Jews, in Andalucía or the Ottoman Empire, then that lie of Muslims and Jews always fighting stands.[8]

LDS Church members have been encouraged to gain an appreciative knowledge of other religions from a very early time. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught that if the “Presbyterians [have] any truth embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world. [and you will] come out a pure Mormon.”[9] President Brigham Young likewise told a son who asked if it was okay to attend a Protestant Christian service while he was living in the eastern United States that, “With regard to your attending Protestant Episcopal service, I have no objection whatever. On the contrary, I would like to have you attend, and see what they can teach you about God and Godliness more than you have already been taught.”[10]

Brigham Young Attend Episcopal Interfaith Meme

We are also taught to respect the good found in other religions and their teachings. In 1978, the First Presidency—the highest quorum of Church leadership—issued a statement that affirmed that “the great religious leaders of the world such as Mohammed, Confucius, and the Reformers, as well as philosophers including Socrates, Plato, and others, received a portion of God’s light. Moral truths were given to them by God to enlighten whole nations and to bring a higher level of understanding to individuals.” They went on to say that, “Consistent with these truths, we believe that God has given and will give to all peoples sufficient knowledge to help them on their way to eternal salvation, either in this life or in the life to come.”[11] President Brigham Young likewise taught that:

So far as mortality is concerned, millions of the inhabitants of the earth live according to the best light they have—according to the best knowledge they possess. I have told you frequently that they will receive according to their works; and all, who live according to the best principles in their possession, or that they can understand, will receive peace, glory, comfort, joy and a crown that will be far beyond what they are anticipating. They will not be lost.[12]

Brigham Young All who follow their religions receive glory Interfaith

Inspired by these ideas, I have been making the effort to spend at least part of my devotional study time each day learning about other religions. I’ve been alternating reading books that talk about the other religion (basics of belief and practice, etc.) and books that people in that religion would study in their devotional studies (the Qur’an, the words of the current Dalai Lama, etc.). It has been a fascinating, enlightening, and enjoyable journey to learn what they believe, what is similar to my own beliefs, and what is different. I have gained greater respect for many of those religions, particularly ones that I knew little about beforehand, such as the Sikh religion and Buddhism. I have also gained a deeper appreciation of aspects of my own religion that are viewed from a different light or emphasized differently in these other religions.

In addition, my wife and I have decided to celebrate one holiday from a different religion each year, and to take time to learn about the religion that celebrates that holiday as we do so. This is not done for the sake of cultural appropriation, but for the sake of gaining a greater understanding and appreciation of different religions. In addition, as part of the discussion, we intend to bring up our own, Mormon theology of interfaith cooperation. It is our hope that as we have children and raise them with this tradition, they will gain a knowledge base that lends itself to an appreciative understanding of other traditions, a knowledge of shared values across traditions, an understanding of our own theology of interfaith cooperation, and that they will learn a bit of history that will help them to participate in interfaith cooperation in their own lives.

3. Skill Set

Eboo Patel went on to state that: “The third thing you need is a skill set. Are you able to tell your story of interfaith enrichment compellingly? Are you able to speak with people from different religions in a way that they can trust you? Are you able to organize activities that bring them together?” [13]

Admittedly, developing the skill set necessary to engage in interfaith cooperation has been, at times, a slow process for the LDS Church as a whole. Our commitment to missionary work has often take priority at the expense of meaningful interfaith outreach, and a siege mentality developed during the traumatic experiences that Mormons underwent in the United States during the mid-19th Century that still influences Mormon culture to this day. In addition, even when Church leadership has been working on interfaith outreach, the individual practicing Mormon may not catch on to the vision.

That being said, great stride have been and are being made by the LDS Church. The general authorities running the Church lead the way—President Henry B. Eyring, Elder L. Tom Perry, and Bishop Gérald Caussé attended an interfaith Vatican Summit on the family in November 2014; Elder Jeffrey R. Holland has received the Torch of Liberty Award from the Anti-Defamation League for work in improving understanding between Christians and Jews; and Elder Quentin L. Cook has spoken occasionally of his friendship with prominent Jew by the name of Robert Abrams to cite a few examples. More recently, the 2015 Parliament of the World’s Religions was held in Salt Lake City, Utah. Elder L. Whitney Clayton participated in the opening ceremonies and later on, Temple Square hosted an interfaith musical performance that featured such diverse groups as Native Americans, Muslims, Jews, Quakers, Sikhs, and many other religious traditions. On a less official level, Mormons participated in the Parliament as local volunteers, and several workshops on Mormon topics were held over the course of the conference. I personally had the chance to attend the Parliament as a volunteer and while I was there, I was told by a Sikh girl from Southern California that she was very impressed with Mormons in her area because so many of them made the effort to be involved in interfaith activities.[14] Many other examples of Mormons being involved in interfaith activism might be given as well.

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Elder L. Whitney Clayton at the Parliament of the World’s Religions

There have also been efforts to tell a story of interfaith enrichment in compelling ways.  Many of the Church leaders—Jeffrey R. Holland,[15] Quentin L. Cook,[16] L. Tom Perry,[17] and Dieter F. Uchtdorf[18] being notable examples—have given address to Latter-day Saints and others that speak of their experiences in interfaith enrichment and encourage everyone else to have similar experiences. In addition, the Ensign—the official magazine of the Church for adult Mormons—has published articles from time to time that speak of interfaith enrichment and outline ways that Mormons can develop the skills that Eboo Patel listed as being necessary, most notably an article called “Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement” in December 2013.[19]

In my own life, I have not had a lot of experience in leading interfaith movements—I’ve mostly been a follower who tries to stay involved where I can. Still, I have taken the time to learn and practice skills in talking to people with different beliefs in ways that do not cause discomfort or to make them feel like I have alternative agendas from simply gaining understanding. I have found that most people are happy to talk about their own beliefs and to build bridges of friendship and understanding and that learning about other religions does not undermine my own beliefs as a Mormon. Developing that skill set further is something that will take time and effort on my part, as it does for anyone else.

 

Conclusion

My hope is that what I have written, simple though it might be, is an example of how one religion—Mormonism—has teachings and beliefs that lend themselves to interfaith cooperation. I know that my religion is not alone in having a theology of interfaith cooperation—my experiences have taken place with Christians of many denominations, as well as individuals from many other religions. It is very possible to reach across divides and gain a better understanding of people who we don’t see eye to eye with on religious and philosophical ideas because of our religion rather than in spite of religious convictions. It is also very necessary to do so if we are to have hope for a better future in a fractured world. As we do so, we can join with Jesus of Nazareth in saying: “Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us.” (Luke 9:50.)

Joseph Smith_Father

[1] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God,” John A. Widtsoe Symposium, University of Southern California, 24 April 2015. https://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/fellow-travelers-brothers-and-sisters-children-of-god?lang=eng

[2] Eboo Patel, “Look to young people for leadership in interfaith cooperation,” Faith & Leadership 10/10/2011, https://www.faithandleadership.com/qa/eboo-patel-look-young-people-for-leadership-interfaith-cooperation. Accessed 4/1/2016.

[3] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[4] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[5] Joseph Smith Jr. and Joseph Fielding Smith (ed.), Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1976), 313-314. Compare with sermon, 9 July 1843 in Ehat and Cook, Words, 229.

[6] Thomas, S. Monson, in “The Mormon Ethic of Civility,” Oct. 16, 2009, mormonnewsroom.org

[7] Gordon B. Hinckley, “This Work is the Work of the Master,” CR, April 1995.

[8] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[9] Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon, 9 July 1843, and Joseph Smith Diary report of Joseph Smith sermon 23 July 1843, in Ehat and Cook, The Words of Joseph Smith, Kindle Locations 4599-4600 and 4718-4719.

[10] Brigham Young to Willard Young, 25 July 1871. Cited in Leonard J. Arrington, “Willard Young: The Prophet’s Son at West Point,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, V.4, No. 4 (Winter 1969), 42.

[11] Spencer W. Kimball, N. Eldon Tanner, Marion G. Romney, Statement of the First Presidency Regarding God’s Love for All Mankind, February 15, 1978.

[12] Brigham Young, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young (SLC: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1997), 287.

[13] Patel, “Look to young people.”

[14] For more examples of Mormon interfaith involvement see the Mormon Newsroom article on Interfaith Relations found at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/article/interfaith.

[15] Jeffrey R. Holland, “Standing Together in the Cause of Christ,” Ensign August 2012. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2012/08/standing-together-for-the-cause-of-christ?lang=eng

[16] Quentin L. Cook, “Partnering with our Friends from Other Faiths,” August 9, 2010. http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Partnering-with-Our-Friends-from-Other-Faiths

[17] L. Tom Perry, “Why Marriage and Family Matter—Everywhere in the World,” CR April 2015. https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2015/04/why-marriage-and-family-matter-everywhere-in-the-world?lang=eng

[18] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Fellow Travelers, Brothers and Sisters, Children of God,” John A. Widtsoe Symposium, University of Southern California, 24 April 2015. https://www.lds.org/prophets-and-apostles/unto-all-the-world/fellow-travelers-brothers-and-sisters-children-of-god?lang=eng

[19] Betsy VanDenBerghe, “Becoming Better Saints through Interfaith Involvement,” Ensign December 2013. https://www.lds.org/ensign/2013/12/becoming-better-saints-through-interfaith-involvement?lang=eng

Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 7: Joseph Smith, an Instrument in the Hands of the Lord

Chapter 7 of the Ezra Taft Benson manual focuses on Joseph Smith, as the title suggests. The Life section focuses on how Elder Benson faced opposition to the Church while he served a mission in his youth to England, but had a wonderful experience in preaching about Joseph Smith and that he continued to testify of Joseph Smith throughout his life. Section one focuses on the experience and significance of the First Vision. Section two focuses on dealing with objections to supernatural aspects of the Restoration—the visitations of angels in the coming forth of the Book of Mormon and at other times to Joseph Smith. Section Three focuses on the importance of the Book of Mormon and an invitation to test the validity of the origin of the Book of Mormon. Section Four focuses on the restoration in a broad sweep covering the basic ideas of the Apostasy, First Vision, restoration of the priesthood, establishment of the Church, and the establishment of a new dispensation. Section Five deals with the persecution and faithfulness of Joseph Smith to his death. Section Six focuses on Joseph Smith’s role as the Prophet—his foreordination, his role in the work of Salvation, and the head of this dispensation.

Ezra Taft Benson as a missionary

Ezra Taft Benson as a missionary

Resources:

Suggested Hymns

The Spirit of God (2)

What Was Witnessed in the Heavens? (11)

Now We’ll Sing with One Accord (25)

Joseph Smith’s First Prayer (26)

Praise to the Man (27)

Videos

Seeker of Truth

Prophets of the Restoration Vignettes: Joseph Smith

The Restoration (20 minute First Vision video)

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (2002 version)

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (Proselyting Version)

The Great Apostasy (Wilford Woodruff’s Conversion Story)

Object Lessons

  • Tell the class you’re going to show pictures of different kinds of cars and that they’re supposed to raise their hands when they see a car that represents the kind of person they are (sports car, truck, minivan, racecar, luxury sedan, taxi). Explain that all cars get old and eventually break down. Age, accidents, and everyday use will wear a car out. Sooner or later all cars are destined for the junkyard unless someone restores them. In some ways, our lives are like the cars. Just as all cars break down, all people share a common problem that causes us to wear out and eventually die. Just as a car can’t fix its own dent or flat tires, we can’t fix the problem of death. The Savior keeps our cars running in good condition. He sends auto mechanics (prophets) who know how to restore cars to their best state when they get old and rusty. Joseph restored the Church after the Great Apostasy.[1]
  • Invite someone to play a hymn or song on the piano, but tape down most of the piano keys. After the death of the early Apostles, the authority was lost and the fulness of the gospel was not on earth. Explain that there are many wonderful churches on earth today that have some of the piano keys to enjoy, but the Church of Jesus Christ allows us to enjoy the whole song as it was intended and the fulness of the gospel. Joseph Smith was an instrument in the Lord’s hands.[2]

Further Reading

Ezra Taft Benson, Chapter 7

Sugardoodle

Joseph Smith Papers Website

Terryl Givens: Lightning Out of Heaven

Terryl Givens: The Woman in the Wilderness

Philip L. Barlow: To Mend a Fractured Reality (pp. 28-50)

Jan Shipps: Joseph Smith and Mormonism

James B. Allen: Emergence of a Fundamental

The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith, Part 1

The Restoration of Major Doctrines through Joseph Smith, Part 2

Gospel Topics page (access to a variety of articles on historical issues with Joseph Smith)

Podcasts

Neal A. Maxwell Institute: Reconsidering the Great Apostasy

Joseph Smith Papers Podcast

Quotes

Gordon B. Hinckley: Not long ago, while riding in a plane, I engaged in conversation with a young man who was seated beside me. We moved from one subject to another, and then came to the matter of religion. He said that he had read considerably about the Mormons, that he had found much to admire in their practices, but that he had a definite prejudice concerning the story of the origin of the Church and particularly Joseph Smith. He was an active member of another organization, and when I asked where he had acquired his information, he indicated that it had come from publications of his church. I asked what company he worked for. He proudly replied that he was a sales representative for IBM. I then asked whether he would think it fair for his customers to learn of the qualities of IBM products from a Xerox representative. He replied with a smile, “I think I get the point of what you’re trying to say.”[3]

An acquaintance said to me one day: “I admire your church very much. I think I could accept everything about it—except Joseph Smith.” To which I responded: “That statement is a contradiction. If you accept the revelation, you must accept the revelator.”

It is a constantly recurring mystery to me how some people speak with admiration for the Church and its work, while at the same time disdaining him through whom, as a servant of the Lord, came the framework of all that the Church is, of all that it teaches, and of all that it stands for. They would pluck the fruit from the tree while cutting off the root from which it grows.[4]

Gordon B. Hinckley

Gordon B. Hinckley

George Albert Smith: Many of the benefits and blessings that have come to me have come through [Joseph Smith,] that man who gave his life for the gospel of Jesus Christ. There have been some who have belittled him, but I would like to say that those who have done so will be forgotten and their remains will go back to mother earth, if they have not already gone, and the odor of their infamy will never die, while the glory and honor and majesty and courage and fidelity manifested by the Prophet Joseph Smith will attach to his name forever.[5]

George Albert Smith

George Albert Smith

Neal A. Maxwell: What came through Joseph Smith was beyond Joseph Smith, and it stretched him! In fact, the doctrines that came through that “choice seer” (2 Nephi 3:6-7) by translation or revelation are often so light intensive that, like radioactive materials, they must be handled with great care![6]

The Everest of ecclesiastical truth built from the translations and revelations of the Prophet Joseph Smith speaks for itself as it towers above the foothills of philosophy. . . . Revelations came to us through an inspired prophet, Joseph Smith. His spelling left something to be desired, but how he provided us with the essential grammar of the gospel![7]

Neal A. Maxwell

Neal A. Maxwell Image courtesy LDS.org

Wilford Woodruff: Those who have been acquainted with the Prophet Joseph, who laid the foundation of this church and kingdom, who was an instrument in the hand of God in bringing to light the gospel in this last dispensation, know well that every feeling of his soul, every sentiment of his mind, and every act of his life, proved that he was determined to maintain the principle of truth, even to the sacrificing of his life. His soul swelled wide as eternity for the welfare of the human family.[8]

Wilford Woodruff Image courtesy LDS.org

Wilford Woodruff
Image courtesy LDS.org

B. H. Roberts: One thing connected with the character of Joseph Smith, and one that distinguishes him from false prophets and mere enthusiasts is the unaffectedness of his conduct. It was the prevailing idea of his day and even now that the calling of a prophet is inseparably connected with a life of austerity . . . as if communing with God was such awful business that it chills the heart and drives all happiness out of the life of man! Joseph Smith was nothing of all this. . . . He was the Prophet of a joyous countenance; of unconventional but upright deportment; the apostle of cleanliness and becoming apparel. He believed that serving God should make men happier and that the good things of the earth were made for the comfort and to increase the happiness of the righteous.[9]

The Prophet’s teaching . . . was unique in its way. He may scarcely be said to have made any attempt at creating a system of philosophy however much may be said for his system of religion and of ecclesiastical government. His philosophical principles were flung off in utterances without reference to any arrangement or orderly sequence; and in the main were taught in independent aphorisms, which is a remarkably effective way of teaching, for an aphorism resembles the proverb, and is a form in which Truth is bound to live.[10]

B. H. Roberts

B. H. Roberts

D. Todd Christofferson: We are blessed in our day to have a growing body of information about the Prophet Joseph Smith and his work, but most especially about his teachings. In the Church’s study series, “Teachings of the Presidents of the Church,” the volume published in 2007 featuring Joseph Smith’s teachings and writings is particularly valuable. I hope it is a reference you will always have close at hand in your gospel library. For some years now, the Church History Department has spearheaded a major undertaking to publish all the documents and other materials we can locate that were ever generated by or under the direction of the Prophet. It is known as the Joseph Smith Papers Project. It is anticipated that this project will produce about 24 printed volumes in six series such as Revelations and Translations, Journals, Histories, and so on. . . . Also, the Internet and electronic publishing have made it possible to access additional early, and even original source material bearing on Joseph Smith’s life and times.

Our study of the Prophet’s life and ministry are more than an intellectual exercise to satisfy curiosity. Insofar as we can, we want to know what he knew; we want to understand what he understood; we want to draw near to God as he did, for as Nicodemus said of the Savior so we can say of Joseph, “Rabbi, we know that thou art a teacher come from God.” . . .

Be patient . . . while some answers come quickly or with little effort, others are simply not available for the moment because information or evidence is lacking. Don’t suppose, however, that a lack of evidence about something today means that evidence doesn’t exist or that it will not be forthcoming in the future. The absence of evidence is not proof. . . . Where answers are incomplete or lacking altogether, patient study and patient waiting for new information and discoveries to unfold will often be rewarded with understanding.[11]

D. Todd Christofferson

D. Todd Christofferson Image courtesy LDS.org

Come Unto Christ

We do not worship the Prophet. We worship God our Eternal Father, and the risen Lord Jesus Christ. But we acknowledge him, we proclaim him, we respect him, we reverence him as an instrument in the hands of the Almighty in restoring to the earth the ancient truths of the divine gospel, together with the priesthood through which the authority of God is exercised in the affairs of his church and for the blessing of his people. (Gordon B. Hinckley.)[12]

President John Taylor made the superlative statement—now canonized in the Doctrine and Covenants—that “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it.” (D&C 135:3.) President Brigham Young stated “I feel like shouting, hallelujah, all the time, when I think that I ever knew Joseph Smith, the Prophet.”[13] We sing the hymns of praise to the Prophet, such as “Praise to the Man Who Communed with Jehovah.” Statements like this cause many to worry that we worship Joseph Smith rather than Jesus Christ. Sometimes our actions do little to belay that concern—we talk often of Joseph Smith and the Restoration, and sometimes get carried away with celebrations of his life compared with our celebrations of Christ’s life. Consider, for example, the celebrations the Church put on for the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth in 2005 versus the celebrations (or lack thereof) of the 2000th celebration of Christ’s birth in 2000 (or on any year for that matter) or the tendency to sing hymns about Joseph Smith and the prophets in our excitement about General Conference this last week rather than focusing on celebrating Holy Week leading up to Easter.

The truth is, however, that the work that the Prophet Joseph Smith performed was to bring people unto salvation through Christ. He did not seek to replace Christ, but to build up Christ’s position. Truman G. Madsen—a BYU professor who spent a lot of his time studying the life of Joseph Smith—stated that:

[Joseph Smith] has no stature at all except in his ties with the Master. Much modern scholarship deals with the window frame and the window rather than the vista. Many have claimed to see through Joseph Smith; I am among the number…. For the things that matter most, however—and what mattered most to him and those who surrounded him was the way of the prophets and ultimately the way of Christ—he is not only clear; he is transparent. It is fascinating enough to study the window; I myself have not resisted the temptation. But that is not what I’m dwelling on here. I am dwelling on what one may see through the window. In doing so I am making a call to what is vital.”[14]

Stained Glass First Vision

Stained Glass First Vision

I appreciate this view of the Prophet. He is a window to Christ in that his teachings and the system of ordinances he revealed point out the way to know the Messiah. While Brother Madsen was aiming his remarks at scholars, they really do apply to Mormons and their understanding of our history as well. Similar to Brother Madsen, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland stated some of his reasons for admiring and learning about Joseph Smith as follows: “I want to know anyone who knows God, and the Son of God, and the Holy Ghost, and can lead me to Them.  I want to take Joseph’s testimony and bear it to millions.  Through him millions shall know God again and receive the saving ordinances of the Gospel of His Son.”[15]

While we may believe that Joseph Smith was a window to Jesus Christ, we must have a correct understanding of how he functions as a window. It is primarily through the doctrines and priesthood authority that were restored and the revelations that were given that the Prophet acted as a window for us. These things give us access to understanding and experiencing Christ more fully. He was not, however, a revelation or viewport of Christ in that he was a perfect example of Christ’s attributes and personality. Joseph Smith himself held that he was imperfect, unlike the Savior of the world: “There was one good man Jesus.—Many think a prophet must be a great deal better than any body else. . . . I dont want you to think I am very righteous, for I am not very righteous.”[16]

Joseph Smith was fairly consistent in declaring his faults and imperfections. In his official history, he stated that during his teenage years: “I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature; which, I am sorry to say, led me into diverse temptations, offensive in the sight of God” (JS-H 1:28). In a letter to Emma in 1832, he wrote: “I have called to mind all the past moments of my life and am left to morn and shed tears of sorrow for my folly in suffering the adversary of my soul to have so much power over me as he had in times past but God is merciful and has f[o]rgiven my sins.”[17] On an occasion later in life, he told a group of Saints that “I was but a man, and they must not expect me to be perfect.”[18] He further stated, though: “the wrong that I do is through the frailty of human nature, like other men. No man lives without fault.”[19] At times, he took a humorous route to emphasize his imperfection, declaring on one occasion that: “Suppose I would condescend. yes I will call it condescend, to be a great deal better than any of you. I would be raised up to the highest heaven, and who should I have to accompany me?”[20] If we try to present Joseph Smith as a God-like, almost perfected being, we portray him in a way contrary to his own understanding of himself. He was indeed one of the “weak things of the world” that the Lord used in His work (D&C 1:19, 23; D&C 35:13; D&C 124:1).

Perhaps, then, Elder B. H. Roberts best captured Joseph Smith’s relationship to Christ when he wrote:

Great as we believe the Prophet Joseph Smith to have been, and he was great. His spirit of quick intelligence was touched by the inspiration of God. The veil for him indeed was rent, and upon his vision burst the truths of eternity. He was commissioned to come with those truths to the children of men and expound them. It was given to him to see the truth as few souls have seen it in this world: and a divine authority and commission was granted unto him to give effect to those truths, not only by teaching them personally, but to bring into existence a great institution, the Church of Christ, to be the teaching agency of the gospel in the great and last dispensation of that gospel to the earth. All this we claim for him; but as between him and the Christ, as the mountains rise above the foothills so, too, does the Christ rise above him, and all men, all angels, all teachers, all prophets. To him [the Christ], and not to any man or set of men, do we pay divine honors.[21]

"To him [the Christ], and not to any man or set of men, do we pay divine honors." Image courtesy LDS.org

“To him [the Christ], and not to any man or set of men, do we pay divine honors.”
Image courtesy LDS.org

A Deeper Look

It is always important to consider the teachings of the prophets and apostles about Joseph Smith, but it is also important to learn what we can through scholarly means as well. While I don’t have room to give a detailed discussion of many the trends and thoughts in Mormon studies, I would like to highlight three major scholars—Jan Shipps, Terryl L. Givens, Philip Barlow—and their approaches to Joseph Smith’s ministry and Restoration. Articles by each of them related to the subjects are posted in the “Further Reading” section above while brief overviews of their thought are posted below.

Jan Shipps Image courtesy Wikipedia

Jan Shipps
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Jan Shipps—a fantastic non-Mormon historian who has done much to make Mormon studies a respectable field for scholars—took an approach to analyze different phases in the Restoration in her book Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition and a later article on Joseph Smith published in Makers of Christian Theology in America. Taking a secular, non-Mormon approach, she considered the early history of the Church to be the “reiteration, reinterpretation, recapitulation, and ritual re-creation of the significant events in Israel’s past and the significant events in the story of early Christianity” by Mormons in modern times.[22] Based on her analysis, Joseph Smith’s ministry went through three phases or tiers of restoration. The restoration and reinstitution of elements from both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament took place side-by-side throughout nineteenth-century Mormonism. Prior to late 1830, however, particular emphasis was placed on the restoration of primitive Christianity with the restoration of priesthood authority via messengers from the New Testament, and the establishment of the Church of Christ, a millennialist mindset, and renewed displays of spiritual gifts (particularly the prophetic gifts Joseph Smith displayed in the revelations and translations he produced). Shipps refers to this as the “Apostolic Restoration.”

During the Kirtland and Nauvoo eras, a layer of heavily Hebraic doctrine and practice was overlaid on the Church of Christ. This gave Mormonism a distinctly different appearance than traditional Christianity. Referred to by Shipps as the “Abrahamic Restoration,” this layer of restoration included the literal gathering of converts into Mormon enclaves—with a thrust towards the neo-Hebraic church-kingdom that characterized Mormonism in Nauvoo and pre-1890s Utah—the planning and construction of temples, the ordination of patriarchs and the practice of declaring Israelite heritage in patriarchal blessings, the clear distinction between Aaronic and Melchizedek priesthoods, and polygamy.[23] Based on these observations, historian Richard Lyman Bushman wrote that, “Throughout Smith’s life, the Old Testament was a major source of inspiration. His restoration can be thought of as purging the Hellenistic influences in Christianity and reviving the Hebraic. . . . In the end, Joseph Smith’s restoration pressed Christianity into an Old Testament mold.”[24]

The third tier in the development of Mormonism that has been referred to as “the fulness of the gospel” was introduced during the Nauvoo era by Joseph Smith that was constituted of many novel doctrines revealed by Joseph Smith. Teachings that are included by Shipps in this layer of Mormon theology include the temple ordinances of the Endowment and celestial marriage, the firm placement of mortal life between a premortal and postmortal existence, and other doctrines related to “a plan of salvation which entails the ceaseless persistence of personality and the eternal endurance of family units.”[25]

Terryl L. Givens

Terryl L. Givens

Another trend in Mormon studies has been to place Joseph Smith’s ministry and revelations in the context of his time and place. There have been further efforts to merge this eclectic appropriation of thought approach with the divine hand of God in the work of the Restoration. Two of Mormonism’s leading philosophical and theologically-minded scholars have provided models that are useful for understanding Joseph Smith’s work in this light. Terryl Givens has, perhaps, been most vocal in advocating his model of “inspired syncretism” using the Biblical imagery of the Woman in the Wilderness. While he has mentioned his beliefs on a number of occasions, Dr. Givens  has outlined them most thoroughly in three places: his essays “‘We have only the Old Thing’: Rethinking the Mormon Restoration” (which was published as the epilogue of the book Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy) and “The Woman in the Wilderness: Mormonism, Catholicism, and Inspired Syncretism,” and then most thoroughly in a chapter of his book Wrestling the Angel: The Foundations of Mormon Thought: Cosmos, God, Humanity.

In Givens’s eyes, Joseph Smith didn’t view the apostasy and restoration as a radical loss and abrupt reinstitution but that the ancient church was in some sense preserved through teachings and principles that were left intact and the restoration was a gradual process of assimilation, differentiation and development. “The grand project of restoration, then,” Givens wrote:

relied upon a vision of apostasy as retreat and admixture, rather than absence. His task would involve not just innovation, or ex nihilo oracular pronouncements upon lost doctrines, but the salvaging, collecting, and assimilating of much that was mislaid, obscured, or neglected. Space does not permit of elaborating one crucial caveat to this position: Like Fraser, Smith believed that apostasy did involve corruption beyond remedy of certain ordinances and covenants; and only heavenly transmission of authority could recuperate those essentials.[26]

To emphasize and contextualize his point, Dr. Givens referred to the allegory of the “woman in the wilderness” in Revelation and its interpretation by Joseph Smith’s contemporaries and writers that he may have been familiar with. Alexander Fraser, Joseph Milner, and a local newspaper all cited the idea that “the woman fled into the wilderness, where she had a place prepared by God . . . where she is nourished for a time.” To them, this was an indication that the church of God remained on the earth in the form of righteous servants of Christ while the outward institutional church disappeared. In other words, the corruption or apostasy drove the “true church of Christ” into the wilderness (rather than banishing it from the earth), rendering it “invisible, protected, nourished, and preserved—while it awaits the restoration of properly administered ordinances or sacraments.” Givens then pointed to a number of times where Joseph Smith used the terminology of brining the “church out of the wilderness” or other similar phrases to indicate that Joseph Smith believed in the same idea as those writers and felt that it was his work to gradually bring the church out of the wilderness into an institutional form by the “salvaging, collecting, and assimilating of much that was mislaid, obscured, or neglected. This would include doctrines, practices, sacraments, rituals, even blueprints for brick and mortar Zions, and temples with baptisteries modeled on Solomon’s temple with its brazen sea.”[27]

Philip L. Barlow Image courtesy Wikipedia

Philip L. Barlow
Image courtesy Wikipedia

The other scholarly model that I wish to bring up is Dr. Philip L. Barlow’s vision of Joseph Smith project as an effort to mend a fractured reality. This idea is most readily accessed in an essay entitled “To Mend a Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project,” published in the Journal of Mormon History Summer 2012 issue and in the 2013 preface to the book Mormons and the Bible. In Dr. Barlow’s eyes, Joseph Smith saw his project as something larger than an attempt to restore the primitive Christian church or the kingdom of Israel or merely restoring correct doctrine, spiritual gifts, ancient authority, etc. Rather, it was an attempt to restore wholeness to a fractured reality by restoring proper relations and order in time and eternity. Families, religion, social order, and language were all aspects of the fractured and broken relationships that were addressed by Joseph Smith. In order to do this he “sought to bring back the lost, to complete the partial, and to repair the broken.”[28]

Those three components of the process of restoration provide a framework for understanding how Joseph Smith approached the Restoration. In keeping with the traditional Mormon approach to the Restoration, bringing back the lost covers the idea of bringing back that which once existed, historically, and was lost by accident or design over the course of time. The repair of the broken covers “not to that which has been lost and brought back but to that which is broken and begs restoration to its perfect state,”[29] essentially those things that could be found in the Prophet’s environment that were assimilated into Mormonism. The completion of the partial has reference to “that which is neither lost nor broken, but absent—previously withheld and never before revealed. . . . This third aspect is made clear by the prophetic references to intelligence, knowledge, or ordinances kept hidden ‘from before the foundation of the world,’” such as parts of the Nauvoo temple rituals.[30] Thus, the Prophet’s mode of operation according to this approach was to use things lost over time, broken or incomplete fragments from his environment, and aspects of the pure religion never before revealed on this earth to fashion something new in the form of Mormonism.

These are three ways to understand the Restoration in new light and thought. Granted, some of them may be contrary to what has been understood in the past, even by prophets such as Ezra Taft Benson. I believe, however, that they still have great value and importance in understanding our history and theology as we gain access to more and more information in the 21st century.

Possible photo of Joseph Smith.

Possible photo of Joseph Smith.

[1] Boice, Trina (2014-11-09). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Kindle Locations 821-827). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[2] Boice, Trina (2014-11-09). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Ezra Taft Benson (Kindle Locations 827-830). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[3] Gordon B. Hinckley, “Joseph the Seer,” Ensign, May 1977. Web: https://www.lds.org/ensign/1977/05/joseph-the-seer?lang=sqi&clang=eng

[4] Hinckley, “Joseph the Seer.”

[5] George Albert Smith, Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: George Albert Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011), 34.

[6] Neal A. Maxwell, The Neal A. Maxwell Quote Book, ed. Cory H. Maxwell (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1997), 181.

[7] Maxwell, Quote Book, 181.

[8] Wilford Woodruff, Discourses of Wilford Woodruff, ed. G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1969), 36.

[9] B. H. Roberts, New Witnesses for God, 3 vol. (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1903-1908), 1:219-220.

[10] B. H. Roberts, Joseph Smith the Prophet Teacher: A Discourse by Elder B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: Desert Book, 1908), 62.

[11] D. Todd Christofferson, “The Prophet Joseph Smith,” BYUI devotional, 24 September 2013. Web: http://www2.byui.edu/Presentations/Transcripts/Devotionals/2013_9_24_Christofferson.htm

[12] Hinckley, “Joseph the Seer.”

[13] Cited in Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 495.

[14] Truman G. Madsen, Joseph Smith the Prophet (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989), 4.

[15] Elder Jeffrey R. Holland. “Knowing Brother Joseph”— Logan Institute of Religion Annual Joseph Smith Memorial Devotional Utah State University Spectrum, January 29, 2012, 7:00 p.m

[16] Joseph Smith, 21 May 1843 Discourse. Cited in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4018-4022). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[17] Richard Lyman Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York: __, 2005), 185.

[18] Joseph Smith, Teachings, 522.

[19] Joseph Smith, Teachings, 522.

[20] Joseph Smith, 21 May 1843 Discourse. Cited in Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4018-4022). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[21] B. H. Roberts, Essential B. H. Roberts, ed. Brigham D. Madsen (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1999), 208.

[22] Jan Shipps, Mormonism: The Story of a New Religious Tradition (Urbana, IL and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1985): 54.

[23] Jan Shipps, “Joseph Smith,” in Makers of Christian Theology in America, ed. James Duke and Mark Toulouse (Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1997), 210-215.

[24] Richard Lyman Bushman, Mormonism a Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 62-63.

[25] Shipps, “Joseph Smith,” 216-217.

[26] Terryl L. Givens, “‘We Have Only the Old Thing’: Rethinking the Mormon Restoration,” in Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy, ed. Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 338

[27] Terryl L. Givens, “The Woman in the Wilderness: Mormonism, Catholicism, and Inspired Syncretism,” Address at Notre Dame, 5 December 2013, p. 9-12. http://terrylgivens.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/The-Woman-in-the-Wilderness.pdf

[28] Philip L. Barlow, Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-day Saints in American Religion, updated edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), xxxvi.

[29] Philip L. Barlow, “To Mend a Fractured Reality: Joseph Smith’s Project,” Journal of Mormon History, 38, no. 3, 34.

[30] Barlow, “To Mend,” 34-35.

Joseph Fielding Smith, Ch. 20: “Love and Concern for All Our Father’s Children.”

We cannot truly love God if we do not love our fellow travelers on this mortal journey. Likewise, we cannot fully love our fellowmen if we do not love God, the Father of us all. The Apostle John tells us, “This commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.” We are all spirit children of our Heavenly Father and, as such, are brothers and sisters. As we keep this truth in mind, loving all of God’s children will become easier.

Actually, love is the very essence of the gospel, and Jesus Christ is our Exemplar.[1]

"Actually, love is the very essence of the gospel, and Jesus Christ is our Exemplar."

“Actually, love is the very essence of the gospel, and Jesus Christ is our Exemplar.”

These words, spoken by President Thomas S. Monson this spring are reflective of the theme of this lesson built from quotes from another president of the Church. In chapter 20 of Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Fielding Smith, President Smith teaches us to love and serve all of God’s children. In the “From the life of Joseph Fielding Smith” section, three examples of loving service are given by Joseph himself. Section 1 focuses on the idea that we are all children of God, and should love each other because we’re spiritual siblings. Section 2 focuses on working together and caring for each other, with a special focus on Church contexts. Section 3 encourages us to serve and help each other. Section 4 has a charming story about a horse President Smith took care of as a child with the message that we ought not to judge, but take the good in everyone and make room for a few faults. Section 5 focuses on the doctrinal necessity to love God and our fellow humans.

Extra-Manual Resources and Quotes

Perhaps the most obvious choice for a supplementary talk to this lesson is the general conference address by President Thomas S. Monson cited above, and available in full here. Beyond that, however, there are a plethora of quotes and comments available on the subject of love, service, and charity. Another great talk from a few years ago on friendship and love is Marlin K. Jensen, “Friendship: A Gospel Principle,” General Conference, April 1999. Another useful resource related to the story of President Smith’s horse is a clip taken from a short documentary that relates the story of going out with his mother in the middle of the night. It could be used to introduce the section and break up the lesson just a little, and is available here.

President Thomas S. Monson

President Thomas S. Monson

I also have several quotes from sisters, most of which, though directed to the Relief Society, are applicable to men. For example, Lucy Mack Smith taught the Relief Society in 1842 that: “We must cherish one another, watch over one another, comfort one another and gain instruction that we may all sit down in heaven together.”[2] Sister Clarissa Smith Williams, Relief Society President, taught in 1922 that: “The greatest thing in the world is love. And if we keep that always in our hearts, and give it as a message to those about us, we will be blessed and will be instruments in blessing those with whom we associate.”[3] Mary Ellen Smoot, Relief Society President, taught in 2000 that: “When we unitedly serve each other and all of our Father’s children, we can be instruments in the hands of God, not only to relieve physical suffering but, more importantly, to succor those who are in need spiritually.”[4]

Yet another wonderful address on the subject came in 2006 from President Gordon B. Hinckley: Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” General Conference, April 2006. A few excerpts are as follows:

I have wondered why there is so much hatred in the world. We are involved in terrible wars with lives lost and many crippling wounds. Coming closer to home, there is so much of jealousy, pride, arrogance, and carping criticism; fathers who rise in anger over small, inconsequential things and make wives weep and children fear.

Racial strife still lifts its ugly head. I am advised that even right here among us there is some of this. I cannot understand how it can be….

Throughout my service as a member of the First Presidency, I have recognized and spoken a number of times on the diversity we see in our society. It is all about us, and we must make an effort to accommodate that diversity.

Let us all recognize that each of us is a son or daughter of our Father in Heaven, who loves all of His children….

Why can’t all of us reach out in friendship to everyone about us? Why is there so much bitterness and animosity? It is not a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.”[5]

President Gordon B. Hinckley

President Gordon B. Hinckley

When it comes to serving and caring for others, a great sermon given in general conference a few years ago by President Henry B. Eyring entitled “Opportunities to Do Good,” comes to mind. If I could, I would place the entire talk here as the essential quotes from it, but I will simply encourage the reader to click the hyperlink to read or view the talk on their own. From the most recent general conference, we have Elder Jeffrey R. Holland’s talk, “Are We Not All Beggars?” There is also, of course the classic quote from Gordon B. Hinckley: “Generally speaking, the most miserable people I know are those who are obsessed with themselves; the happiest people I know are those who loose themselves in the service of others…. By and large, I have come to see that if we complain about life, it is because we are thinking only of ourselves.”[6]

The Ready Resources for Relief Society book I have lists several websites that are handy for discovering service opportunities in the area.[7] A few sites that are currently still existent are as follows:

www.volunteermatch.org

www.idealist.org

www.serve.gov

www.nationalservice.gov

In addition the following Church-sponsored sites have some service resources to look into:

www.ldsphilanthropies.org

www.ldscharities.org

https://vineyard.lds.org/

Come unto Christ Moment

"And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." Image courtesy LDS.org.

“And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Image courtesy LDS.org.

Towards the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ taught the following to his disciples:

When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats: And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not.

Then shall they also answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, or athirst, or a stranger, or naked, or sick, or in prison, and did not minister unto thee?

Then shall he answer them, saying, verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. And these shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal. (Matthew 25: 31-46.)

The Lord makes it clear that the dividing line between those beings who are saved and those who are not is the service provided to fellow humans in this life’s journey, which in turn reflects on relationships with Himself. King Benjamin likewise taught that: “when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God,” (Mosiah 2:17) and stated, in effect, there is no way we can directly repay God Himself for all that He blesses us with:

I say unto you, my brethren, that if you should render all the thanks and praise which your whole soul has power to possess, to that God who has created you, and has kept and preserved you, and has caused that ye should rejoice, and has granted that ye should live in peace one with another—I say unto you that if ye should serve him who has created you from the beginning, and is preserving you from day to day, by lending you breath, that ye may live and move and do according to your own will, and even supporting you from one moment to another—I say, if ye should serve him with all your whole souls yet ye would be unprofitable servants. (Mosiah 2:20-21.)

Thus, we serve and repay God in some degree by serving our fellow humans. To King Benjamin, as it was to Christ, to neglect other human beings in need was to neglect God. To serve and impart substance to the poor was to serve God and a necessary part of the process of “retaining a remission of sins from day to day.” (Mosiah 4:26.) Elder B.H. Roberts once expressed this idea succinctly: “About the only way in which men can effectively express their love for God is through service to the children of God, to men.”[8]

"When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”

“When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God.”

God places a premium upon the human soul, revealing to Joseph Smith that “the worth of souls is great in the sight of God; for, behold, the Lord your Redeemer suffered death in the flesh; wherefore he suffered the pain of all men, that all men might repent and come unto him. And he hath risen again from the dead, that he might bring all men unto him, on conditions of repentance.” (D&C 18:10-11). Elsewhere, it was revealed by God that, “This is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man.” (Moses 1:39.) This being God’s purpose, He is pleased when we work together to help rather than hinder each other in the process of gaining eternal life. That is why James wrote that: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction and to keep himself unspotted from the world.” (James 1:27.) At its heart, religion is for shaping us into beings that partake of the divine nature and giving us opportunities to develop right relationships with God and with our fellow humans.  The Prophet Joseph Smith, in addressing social righteousness, once stated that, “Righteousness is not that which men esteem holiness. That which the world call righteousness I have not any regard for. To be righteous is to be just and merciful. If a man fails in kindness justice and mercy he will be damed.”[9] Once more, righteousness is equated with how we treat each other.

Christ is not only pleased when we serve each other, but he showed the example we need to follow in how we treat each other, for, as President Monson observed: “Love is the very essence of the gospel, and Jesus Christ is our Exemplar. His life was a legacy of love. The sick He healed; the downtrodden He lifted; the sinner He saved. At the end the angry mob took His life. And yet there rings from Golgotha’s hill the words: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’—a crowning expression in mortality of compassion and love.”[10]

A Deeper Look

I’ve discussed this idea in my other blog,[11] but in all the recorded sermons and writings of Joseph Smith, Jr. available to us today, only three principles were ever given the lofty title of being a “grand, fundamental principle of Mormonism” or even simply the “fundamental principles.” If taken as the pillars of Mormonism, these principles could be considered the definitive essence of Mormonism, comparable to the “Five Pillars” of Islam or the “Four Noble Truths” and “Eightfold Path” of Buddhism. Yet, while most Mormons would be familiar with, for example, the 12 Articles of Faith or the threefold purpose of the Church, they probably could not list the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism enumerated by Joseph Smith in the latter end of his life.

Joseph Smith, Jr. laid down a few fundamental principles of Mormonism in his final years.

Joseph Smith, Jr. laid down a few fundamental principles of Mormonism in his final years.

What, then, are these pillars of Mormonism? In 1838, Joseph wrote that, “The fundamental principles of our religion are the testimony of the Apostles and Prophets, concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day, and ascended into heaven; and all other things which pertain to our religion are only appendages to it.”[12] Then, in the summer of 1843, Joseph declared that, “the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may,”[13] and that “friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism.”[14] While each of these three principles deserves a good look, the principle of friendship is the most pertinent to this chapter in the Joseph Fielding Smith manual.

In August of 1842, the Prophet wrote that, “How good and glorious it has seemed unto me, to find pure and holy friends, who are faithful, just, and true, and whose hearts fail not.”[15] On another occasion, he wrote that, “There are many souls whom I have loved stronger than death. To them I have proved faithful—to them I am determined to prove faithful, until God calls me to resign up my breath.”[16] Amidst all the trials and betrayals he had experienced, and perhaps because of those things, Joseph put great value on true friendship. He also felt that friendship could create a heaven wherever it was held: “Animation, virtue, love, contentment, philanthropy, benevolence, compassion, humanity and friendship push life into bliss.”[17] “Let me be resurrected with the saints whether to heaven or hell or any other good place—[where they are is] good society. what do we care if the society is good?”[18]

Beyond the friendships that played important roles in his life, friendship with its consequent brotherhood and sisterhood played an important role in the Prophet’s religious thought. In the Book of Mormon, the foundational document of Mormonism, the Nephite people are visited by the resurrected Christ, who (among other things) declared that, “verily, verily I say unto you, he that hath the spirit of contention is not of me, but is of the devil, who is the father of contention, and he stirreth up the hearts of men to contend with anger, one with another.” (3 Nephi 11:29.) Contention—the opposite of friendship and unity—was of the devil. Building on the teachings of a series of visits from the Christ, the people of the Book of Mormon built a utopian society where “there were no contention in the land, because of the love of God which did dwell in the hearts of the people…. And surely there could not be a happier people among all the people who had been created by the hand of God.” (4 Nephi 1:15-16.) Tribal divisions that had formerly existed among the people faded away during this time, being replaced by unity in Christianity: “There were no… Lamanites, nor any manner of ites’ but they were in one, the Children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God.” (4 Nephi 1:17.) After hundreds of years, this utopian society collapsed, but this was not the last time such a society would appear in Joseph Smith’s restoration scriptures. In his inspired translation of Genesis, Joseph spoke of the people of Enoch, who were called “Zion, because they were of one heart and one mind, and dwelt in righteousness; and there was no poor among them” (Moses 7:18). These people built a city that was called “City of Holiness, even Zion” which was so righteous, that God took it up into heaven. (Moses 7:19-21.)

City of Enoch, or Zion

City of Enoch, or Zion

Together, this dynamic duo of societies demonstrated the ideal that Joseph tried to have the Saints in his day live as they sought to build their own Zion on earth—a people, united in love and friendship. Among the commands given in the voice of the Lord to prepare the Saints to go to the land that Joseph designated as Zion are imperatives such as, “let every man esteem his brother as himself, and practice virtue and holiness before me…. I say unto you, be one; and if ye are not one ye are not mine.” (D&C 38:24, 27.) When Zion failed and the Saints were driven out of the land, it was declared to be at least partly because, “there were jarrings, and contentions, and envyings, and strifes, and lustful and covetous desires among them; therefore by these things they polluted their inheritances.” (D&C 101:6.) Although the Saints had lost their chance to build the city called Zion for the time being, they still strove to build stakes or outposts of Zion wherever they ended up—a process that, though spiritualized in many way, still continues today.[19]

In addition to the idea of building a physical kingdom of believers united in bonds of love, friendship manifests itself in other core aspects of Mormonism. Salvation, in Joseph Smith’s view, was obtained through covenants and related ordinances, and these covenants of salvation were not only to be made between humans and God, but also between human beings. Most explicit of all covenants of friendship revealed by Joseph Smith, perhaps, was the covenant members of the School of the Prophets made, in which participants greeted each other and declared that, “I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love, to walk in all commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever.” (D&C 88:133.) Baptism, for another example, not only involved taking the name of Christ upon an individual but also the covenant to “bear one another’s burdens… mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort hose that stand in need of comfort.” (Mosiah 18:8-9.) In addition, the crowning ordinance to be performed for most Mormons in mortality was and is the marriage ordinance performed in the temple, which not only involves covenants with God, but binds a man and wife as well any children they have or may have together eternally by priesthood authority as well as with covenants to each other.

Fellowship among the Saints was also prerequisite to gain power and reconciliation with God. Joseph told the Relief Society that, “it grieves me that there is no fuller fellowship—if one member suffer all feel it[.] by union of feeling we obtain pow’r with God”[20]  and that, “If you would have God have mercy on you, have mercy on one another.”[21] Likewise, in the version of the Sermon on the Mount preached by the risen Christ in the Book of Mormon, the Christ states that, “Therefore, if ye shall come unto me, or shall desire to come unto me, and rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee—go thy way unto thy brother, and first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I will receive you.” (3 Nephi 12:23-24.) To reconcile with Christ, the Saints must reconcile with each other.

"By union of feeling we obtain pow'r with God.”

“By union of feeling we obtain pow’r with God.”

Part of Joseph Smith’s vision for this grand principle of Mormonism, at least by the end of his life in 1844, was to bridge ecclesiastical differences and build friendships with people who believed than the Mormons. In 1842, the Prophet wrote that:

The Mussulman condemns the heathen, the Jew, and the Christian, and the whole world of mankind that reject his Koran, as infidels, and consigns the whole of them to perdition. The Jew believes that the whole world that rejects his faith and are not circumcised, are Gentile dogs, and will be damned. The heathen is equally as tenacious about his principles, and the Christian consigns all to perdition who cannot bow to his creed, and submit to his ipse dixit [dogma].

But while one portion of the human race is judging and condemning the other without mercy, the Great Parent of the universe looks upon the whole of the human family with a fatherly care and paternal regard; He views them as His offspring, and without any of those contracted feelings that influence the children of men, causes “His sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.”[22]

Like the God Joseph portrayed here, Joseph taught that Mormons were to reach out, care for, and befriend men and women of other faiths. He declared that, “If it has been demonstrated that I have been willing to die for a Mormon I am bold to declare before heaven that I am just as ready to die for a presbyterian. a baptist or any other denomination.”[23] Further, in July of 1843—a time when Mormonism was becoming more distant from mainstream Christianity and its teachings—Joseph offered this interesting statement in a sermon that was noted as “a conciliatory address to Strangers & all”:

“Wherein do you differ from other in your religious views?” In reality & essence we do not differ so far in our religious views but that we could all drink into one principle of love One the grand fundamental principles of Mormonism is to recieve thruth let it come from where it may.—we belive in the great Eloheim. who sits enthroned in yonder heavens.—so do the presbyterians. If as a skillful mechanic In taking a welding heat I use a borax & allum &c. an succeed in welding you all together shall I not have attained a good object.

if I esteem mankind to be in error shall I bear them down? No! I will will lift them up. & in his own way if I cannot persuade him my way is better! & I will ask no man to believe as I do. Do you believe in Jesus Chrst &c? So do I. Christians should cultivate the friendship with others & will do it.[24]

“But how truly magnanimous this declaration is,” observes writer Don Bradley, “cannot be appreciated without knowing the origin within scripture of the phrase ‘drink into one.’” Bradley continues:

Outside of the 9 July 1843 sermon, the phrase appears in LDS literature only in 1 Corinthians 12:13, where Paul uses the expression to explain the mystical or metaphorical “body of Christ”:

For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. (1 Corinthians 12:12–13)

Invoking this passage, Joseph Smith conveyed the radical idea that the Latter-day Saints and those of other traditions jointly comprise the body of Christ….

Joseph envisioned a Christendom united by faith in God and Jesus Christ and by mutual love, a contemplated unity which might best be understood on the model offered by Freemasonry. Freemasons have long sought cross-denominational unity, without ecclesiastical integration, based on belief in God, brotherhood, and a commitment to truth and to relieving the needs of the poor.

While advocating Christian unity, however, Joseph clearly did not envision the institutional unification of Christendom, the merging of all church structures into one. He continued to maintain Mormonism’s exclusive claims to authority to perform ordinances or sacraments. Sandwiched between his ecumenical 9 July and 23 July sermons, for instance, Joseph dictated and taught a revelatory text declaring that the sacrament of marriage was eternally binding only if performed by the priesthood of Elijah and that Joseph himself was the one man on earth holding the keys of this priesthood.[25]

"If as a skillful mechanic In taking a welding heat I use a borax & allum &c. an succeed in welding you all together shall I not have attained a good object?"

“Friendship [is] like Bro Turley [in his] Blacksmith Shop [welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence].”

In a sermon preached later in the month, Joseph continued the thought of welding all religions together in bonds of friendship by teaching that:

Friendship is the grand fundamental principle of Mormonism, [it is designed] to revolution[ize and] civilize the world.—pour forth love. Friendship [is] like Bro Turley [in his] Blacksmith Shop [welding iron to iron; it unites the human family with its happy influence]…. [If the] Presbyterians [have] any truth. embrace that. [Same for the] Baptist. Methodist &c. get all the good in the world. [and you will] come out a pure Mormon.[26]

Friendship is on the of grand fundamental principles of Mormonism and ought to be a defining force in all interactions that Mormons have with those inside their families and faith communities as well as with those of other faiths. If applied more fully, as Joseph Smith taught it should be, it would not only revolutionize and civilize the world, but would turn Mormonism into a veritable heaven on earth.

[1] Thomas S. Monson, “Love—the Essence of the Gospel,” CR, April 2014.

[2] Susan Christiansen, et. al (editors), Words of Wisdom: A Collection of Quotes for LDS Women, (Lulu, 5.

[3] Words of Wisdom, 5.

[4] Words of Wisdom, 63.

[5] Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Need for Greater Kindness,” General Conference, April 2006

[6] Gordon B. Hinckley, Teachings of Gordon B. Hinckley (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1997), 589.

[7] Boice, Trina (2013-11-13). The Ready Resource for Relief Society Teaching: Joseph Fielding Smith (Kindle Locations 2330-2333). Cedar Fort, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

[8] B.H. Roberts, CR, April 1914, 101.

[9] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4052-4053). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

[10] Thomas S. Monson, “Love—the Essence of the Gospel,” CR, April 2014.

[11] The full essay that this comes from is available here.

[12] Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007), 49.

[13] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4598-4604). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[14] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[15] Joseph Smith, Jr., Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), 461.

[16] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 463

[17] Smith, Teachings of the Presidents, 342

[18] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[19] For further reading on the idea of Zion in Mormonism, I have a four-part series of blog posts starting here.

[20] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 2607-2608). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[21] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Location 2621). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[22] Times and Seasons, 15 April 1842, 758

[23] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4592-4596). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[24] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4598-4604). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition

[25] Bradley, “Grand Fundamental Principles,” 37

[26] Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4714-4719). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition. The brackets are added from clarity, and the longer sections added are taken from the History of the Church rendition of the sermon.

Post-Contemporary Recollections About Joseph Smith’s First Vision

The event known as the First Vision gradually took its place as the founding story of Mormonism. As it rose to prominence, contemporary saints recorded recollections of times that the Prophet shared his sacred experience in the grove with them, resulting in several later reminiscences. These are found in transcripts of sermons, missionary tracts, and memoirs of these faithful pioneer saints. Since these accounts have a barrier of time—increasing the chances of faulty memory—they are not as reliable as contemporary secondary or primary accounts of the vision, but are of interest nonetheless.

A stained-glass window depiction of the First Vision on display in the Redlands, California Temple

A stained-glass window depiction of the First Vision on display in the Redlands, California Temple

The apostles and missionaries of the Church were among the earliest people to publish accounts of the vision. Building on the tradition that Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde began by including recitals of the vision in their missionary pamphlets, John Taylor and Lorenzo Snow produced their own versions of the vision for their fields of labor. The earlier of these two was written by Elder Taylor for the French mission in 1850. As it has come to us, this record went as follows:

The church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was first organized in the Town of Manchester, Ontario County, State of New York, U.S.A., 6th April 1830. Previous to this an holy angel appeared unto a young man about fifteen years of age, a farmer’s son, named Joseph Smith, and communicated unto him many things pertaining to the situation of the religious world, the necessity of a correct church organization, and unfolded many events that should transpire in the last days, as spoken of by the Prophets. As near as possible I will give the words as he related them to me. He said that “in the neighborhood in which he resided there was a religious revival, (a thing very common in that country) in which several different denominations were united; that many professed to be converted; among the number, two or three of his father’s family. When the revival was over, there was a contention as to which of these various societies the person who was converted should belong. One of his father’s family joined one society, and another a different one. His mind was troubled, he saw contention instead of peace, and division instead of union; and when he reflected upon the multifarious creeds and professions there were in existence, he thought it impossible for all to be right, and if God taught one, He did not teach the others, “for God is not the author of confusion.” In reading his bible, he was remarkably struck with the passage in James, 1st chapter, 5th verse. “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.” Believing in the word of God, he retired into a grove, and called upon the Lord to give him wisdom in relation to this matter. While he was thus engaged, he was surrounded by a brilliant light, and two glorious personages presented themselves before him, who exactly resembled each other in features, and who gave him information upon the subjects which had previously agitated his mind. He was given to understand that the churches were all of them in error in regard to many things; and he was commanded not to go after them; and he received a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be unfolded unto him; after which the vision withdrew leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace (Taylor 255-256).

John Taylor

John Taylor. Image courtesy LDS.org.

We see in John Taylor’s account influences of both the Pratt-Hyde-Smith publications and the “official” 1838 account. Elder Taylor would go on to be, perhaps, the man who spoke of the vision second most often, after Orson Pratt and there are many sermons recorded in the Journal of Discourses and other sources in which this man of God spoke of the First Vision.

Before we look at the accounts that come from Orson Pratt’s discourses, however, the second of the missionary accounts mentioned above was written by Lorenzo Snow as he labored in Italy as an apostle in 1852 as part of a larger pamphlet known in English as The Voice of Joseph. His account was as follows:

Joseph Smith, junior, whom it pleased the Lord to select and appoint to restore the primitive Gospel and apostolic Priesthood, was born in 1805 in Vermont, United States. When about 15 years of age, being seriously impressed with the necessity of seeking the Lord and preparing for a future state, his mind became much perplexed through difficulties thrown in the path of his researches by the multitude of religious sects and parties with which he was surrounded. Each system claimed its right and power to give belief and hope, but none to communicate knowledge of its divine Authority. In comparing them one with another there seemed too much confusion, the same also appeared in looking at each separately:–turning therefore from these clashing systems, and having been encouraged, and inspired with the following passage in St. James “If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God;” he retired to a grove, a little distance from his father’s, and in fervent prayer besought the Lord to communicate with him, and reveal the way of salvation. While thus engaged a light brilliant and glorious appeared in the heavens gradually descending towards him till he was enveloped in its power, and wrapped in celestial vision; when he beheld two glorious beings similar in dress and appearance who informed him that the religious sects had all departed from the ancient doctrine of the apostles, and that the Gospel, with its gifts and blessings should be made known to him at a future period. Many important things were manifested in this vision which the brevity of this work will not admit our noticing (Snow 1).

Much like the John Taylor tract, this publication depends much on the previously-published accounts of the Wentworth Letter, the Pratt and Hyde pamphlets and the 1838 account. Nevertheless, Elder Snow has left us a  polished and pleasant account of the First Vision.

Lorenzo Snow. Image courtesy LDS.org.

Lorenzo Snow. Image courtesy LDS.org.

A few years after the Snow account was published, Elder Orson Pratt spoke of the First Vision again, as he did more often than any other general authority of his lifetime. In a sermon dated as the 14th of August 1859, he said,

What is the testimony of the Latter−day Saints in regard to the calling of any one in this church? We want now to test ourselves. Are we the kingdom of God that was to be established in the last days? or are we not? Have we the characteristics of that kingdom? Have we been called in that way and manner that the servants of God in ancient days were called?

To answer this question, let us go back to Joseph Smith − the one that organized this church by the commandment of the Almighty…. I will give you a brief history as it came from his own mouth. I have often heard him relate it.

He was wrought upon by the Spirit of God, and felt the necessity of repenting of his sins and serving God. He retired from his father’s house a little way, and bowed himself down in the wilderness, and called upon the name of the Lord. He was inexperienced, and in great anxiety and trouble of mind in regard to what church he should join. He had been solicited by many churches to join with them, and he was in great anxiety to know which was right. He pleaded with the Lord to give him wisdom on the subject; and while he was thus praying, he beheld a vision, and saw a light approaching him from the heavens; and as it came down and rested on the tops of the trees, it became more glorious; and as it surrounded him, his mind was immediately caught away from beholding surrounding objects. In this cloud of light he saw two glorious personages; and one, pointing to the other, said, “Behold my beloved son! hear ye him.” Then he was instructed and informed in regard to many things pertaining to his own welfare, and commanded not to unite himself to any of those churches. He was also informed that at some future time the fulness of the Gospel should be made manifest to him, and he should be an instrument in the hands of God of laying the foundation of the kingdom of God (JD 7:220-221).

Elder Pratt would testify of the Prophet’s First Vision to the end of his life and—like John Taylor and many other general authorities—could fill up several pages with quotes about the First Vision. For brevity, however, we will look at only one other sermon in which he retold the vision towards the end of his life. Orson sated,

Joseph Smith, …was a boy about fourteen years of age at the time the Lord first revealed himself in a very marvelous manner to him. The circumstances were these: This boy, in attending religious meetings that were held in his neighborhood, seemed to be wrought upon in a very wonderful manner, and he felt great concern in relation to the salvation of his soul… but how to satisfy himself he did not know. If he went to one denomination they would say, “We are right, and the others are wrong,” and so said all the others. Like most boys of his age, Joseph had never read the Bible to any great extent, hence he was unable to decide in his own mind, as to which was the true church. When he saw several denominations contending one with the other, he naturally enough supposed that some of them must be wrong. He began to search the Bible in his leisure time after his work was done upon the farm; and in perusing the New Testament, he came across a passage which is very familiar indeed to most of my hearers; the passage reads thus − If any of you lack wisdom let him ask of God, who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.” Mr. Smith really believed this passage. He did not read this as one would read a novel, thinking that is was all imaginary; but, from his heart, he believed that it meant what it said, and he said to himself − “I certainly lack wisdom in relation to my duty. I do not know which of these denominations is correct, and which is the church of Christ. I desire to know, with all my heart, and I will go before the Lord, and call upon his name, claiming his promise.” He therefore retired a short distance from his father’s house, into a little grove of timber, and called upon the Lord, claiming this promise, desiring to know his duty and to be informed where the true Church of Christ was. While thus praying, with all his heart, he discovered in the heavens above him, a very bright and glorious light, which gradually descended towards the earth, and when it reached the tops of the trees which overshadowed him, the brightness was so great that he expected to see the leaves of the tree consumed by it; but when he saw that they were not consumed he received courage. Finally the light rested down upon and overwhelmed him in the midst of it, and his mind at the same time seemed to be caught away from surrounding objects, and he saw nothing excepting the light and two glorious personages standing before him in the midst of this light. One of these personages, pointing to the other, said—’Behold my beloved Son, hear ye him.. After this, power was given to Mr. Smith to speak, and in answer to an inquiry by the Lord as to what he desired, he said that he desired to know which was the true Church that he might be united thereunto. He was immediately told, that there was no true Church of Christ on the earth, that all had gone astray, and had framed doctrines, and dogmas, and creeds by human wisdom, and that the authority to administer in the holy ordinances of the Gospel was not among men upon the earth, and he was strictly commanded to go not after any of them, but to keep aloof from the whole of them. He was also informed that, in due time, if he would be faithful in serving the Lord, according to the best of his knowledge and ability, God would reveal to him still further, and make known to him the true Gospel, the plan of salvation, in its fulness.

Mr. Smith had this vision before he was fifteen years old, and, immediately after receiving it, he began to relate it to some of his nearest friends, and he was told by some of the ministers who came to him to enquire about it, that there was no such thing as the visitation of heavenly messengers, that God gave no new revelation, and that no visions could be given to the children of men in this age. This was like telling him that there was no such thing as seeing, or feeling, or hearing, or tasting, or smelling. Why? Because he knew positively to the contrary; he knew that he had seen this light, that he had beheld these two personages, and that he had heard the voice of one of them;…and he continued to testify that God had made himself manifest to him (JD 17:279-280, Sept. 20, 1874).

Orson Pratt. Image courtesy LDS.org.

Orson Pratt. Image courtesy LDS.org.

We see here specific details not mentioned before, but that seem to be logical inferences from the texts Joseph left behind, such as telling “some of his nearest friends” in addition to multiple ministers telling him the vision was false and that he had not read the Bible very much before the religious excitement his town experienced. One could easily assume that these were memories that Pratt had from hearing Joseph talk about the vision, but as we have no other record that records the details in that manner, it is hard to tell.

In addition to the apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the rank and file members also left memoirs of hearing Joseph Smith speak of the First Vision. For example, Edward Stevenson—mentioned in a previous post for his 1893 recollection—also left a journal entry on the 27th May 1883 in which he wrote:

With uplifted hand he [Joseph Smith] said, “I am a witness that there is a God, for I saw Him in open day, while praying in a silent grove, in the spring of 1820.” He further testified that God, the Eternal Father, pointing to a separate personage, in the likeness of Himself, said, “This is my Beloved Son; hear ye Him.” O how these words thrilled my entire system and filled me with joy unspeakable—to behold one who, like Paul the Apostle of olden time, could with boldness testify that he had been in the presence of Jesus Christ! (cited in Cheesman 27-28).

Jerry Thompson's illustration of the First Vision.

Jerry Thompson’s illustration of the First Vision. Image from Improvement Era 1970.

A more striking account comes to us through the journal of Charles L. Walker—a member of the Church from the latter part of the nineteenth century. While living in Southern Utah, he wrote,

2nd February, Thursday, 1893, attended Fast meeting…. Br. John Alger said while speaking of the Prophet Joseph, that when he, John, was a small boy he heard the Prophet Joseph relate his vision of seeing the Father and the Son, that God touched his eyes with his finger and said, “Joseph this is my beloved Son, hear him.” As soon as the Lord had touched his eyes with his finger he immediately saw the Savior. After [the] meeting a few of us questioned him about the mater and he told us at the bottom of the meeting house steps that he was in the House of Father Smith in Kirtland when Joseph made this declaration; and that Joseph while speaking of it put his finger to his right eye, suiting to the action with the words so as the illustrate and at the same time impress the occurrence on the minds of those unto whom he was speaking (Cited in Cheesman 30).

Here we see a detail found nowhere else that I know of—of God touching Joseph’s eyes to reveal the Savior. Since this is a tertiary account—a record written by someone recalling what someone else said or did—that was produced fifty years after Joseph died (and over seventy years after the First Vision took place), it is liable to be faulty, however it is an interesting idea.

Another post-contemporary  recollection was recently unearthed in conjunction with the lost sermons project. On 17 July 1853, Milo Andrus–an early convert who had served in Zions Camp and who had served several missions–stated:

Repent from your heart, reform of [your] sins, be baptized in name of Jesus Christ—and [the] promise is you shall receive the gift of Holy Ghost. What is [its] effects?  [The] effects upon you [are] as it was in [the] day of Pentecost, inasmuch as you have the same experience. After you have walked in obedience to commandments of God, then the promise is you shall see visions, dream dreams, [and] have revelations of Jesus Christ—[of] which thousands in this congregation [can] rise up and testify.

Suffice it to say [that] the nations of earth, both Christian and heathen, [were] in darkness, and darkness covered the nations. There [was] none to bear testimony, no prophet in [the] land. The seers, revelators, and prophets [were] all covered up by the wisdom of uninspired men. In this situation, the individual that [was]…called upon by the high courts of heaven to present a certainty to [the] human family: do you want to know who he was? I take great pleasure telling of it…

I was a boy, first nineteen years of age, when I heard the testimony of that man, Joseph Smith, that [an] angel came and that glory [shone] and [the] trees seemed to be consumed in [a] blaze and he was there entrusted with this information: that darkness covered the earth, that the great mass of [the] Christian world [was] universally wrong [and] their creeds [were] all upon [an] uncertain foundation.  “Now as young as you are,” [he was told], “I call upon you from this obscurity: go forth and build up my kingdom on the earth” (Andrus)

Although not technically an account of the First Vision, it is also of interest to make at least a note about the most famous poem and hymn that memorializes the momentous event: George Manwaring’s “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer.” As sung from our hymn book today, the text is as follows:

Oh, how lovely was the morning!

Radiant beamed the sun above.

Bees were humming, sweet birds singing,

Music ringing thru the grove,

When within the shady woodland

Joseph sought the God of love,

When within the shady woodland

Joseph sought the God of love.

Humbly kneeling, sweet appealing–

‘Twas the boy’s first uttered prayer–

When the pow’rs of sin assailing

Filled his soul with deep despair;

But undaunted, still he trusted

In his Heav’nly Father’s care;

But undaunted, still he trusted

In his Heav’nly Father’s care.

Suddenly a light descended,

Brighter far than noonday sun,

And a shining, glorious pillar

O’er him fell, around him shone,

While appeared two heav’nly beings,

God the Father and the Son,

While appeared two heav’nly beings,

God the Father and the Son.

“Joseph, this is my Beloved;

Hear him!” Oh, how sweet the word!

Joseph’s humble prayer was answered,

And he listened to the Lord.

Oh, what rapture filled his bosom,

For he saw the living God;

Oh, what rapture filled his bosom,

For he saw the living God (Hymns 26).

George Manwaring was a British convert who wrote the poetry after being inspired by a painting entitled “The First Vision” created by the LDS artist C. C. Christiansen in the 1800s. The text was published in the Juvenile Instructor—a periodical published for the youth of the Church—in 1878. Prior to publication, it is apparent that this beloved poetic setting underwent some extensive editing, since in Brother Manwaring’s own notebook at least the first stanza was as follows:

‘Twas on a lovely morn in spring

The sun was shining bright,

When Joseph saw the woodland shade

And humbly kneeling there he prayed

For Wisdom and for light.

The published edition was set to music by A.C. Smyth—a professional Mormon musician—using an expanded version of American composer Sylvanus Billings Pond’s tune, Divinity, and was published in the 1889 Latter-day Saints’ Psalmody (see Davidson 54-55), and continues to serve in our hymnbooks today as one of our more popular hymns of the Restoration.

Stained glass doors to the Palmyra Temple depicting the Sacred Grove.

Stained glass doors to the Palmyra Temple depicting the Sacred Grove.

The First Vision has taken on great importance for the Mormon people and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as whole. It is considered by many to be the greatest event to take place since the Atonement and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as it was the curtain-raising event that initiated the Restoration of the Church and Gospel of Jesus Christ in modern times. Many accounts were produced by Joseph Smith as well as people who came in contact with him. Of the latter category, many accounts were produced after Joseph Smith’s lifetime. While these accounts must be approached cautiously, they are rather interesting to read to gain insights into this important theophany. Between these records and the many other accounts that have been given, we can gain a fuller picture of the pivotal event that launched the career of the Prophet of the Restoration, Joseph Smith, Junior and how it has shaped the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The Holy of Holies in the Salt Lake City Temple, with its stained glass window of the First Vision.

The Holy of Holies in the Salt Lake City Temple, with its stained glass window of the First Vision.

Works Cited

Andrus, Milo. Sermon, July 17, 1853, transcribed by LaJean Purcell Carruth. TS. Church History Library, Salt Lake City, UT.

Cheesman, Paul. An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions. MA thesis. Brigham Young University, 1965. Web. 20 May 2013.

Davidson, Karen Lynn. Our Latter-day Hymns: The Stories and Messages. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1988.

Journal of Discourses. Ed. George D. Watt, et al. 26 vol. Liverpool: F. D. Richards, et al., 1854-1886. Print.

Snow, Lorenzo. The Voice of Joseph. Malta, 1852.

Taylor, John. “Letter to the Editor of the Interpreter Anglais et Français, Boulogne-sur-mer (25 June 1850).” Reprinted in John Taylor, Millennial Star 12 no. 15 (1 August 1850), 235–236.

The Contemporary Secondary Accounts of the First Vision: A Vision Through the Eyes of the Prophet’s Associates

Due to the importance that the First Vision is given by the Latter-day Saints, records that fill in the details of this experience are precious to believers. Luckily, it seems that Joseph Smith related the story of his First Vision many times throughout his life. Orson Pratt recalled in 1859 that, “I have often heard him [Joseph Smith] relate it” (JD 7:220-221). Journals and reminisces from the era give us a few such accounts, filling in details and helping us to understand that the how the early Saints reacted to the Vision.

The First Vision in the Movie Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration. Courtesy LDS.org.

The First Vision in the Movie Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration. Courtesy LDS.org.

Edward Stevenson recalled later in life that Joseph had visited the Pontiac, Michigan Branch in 1834, and during one of the meetings, “The Prophet testified with great power concerning the visit of the Father and Son, and the conversation he had with them.” Rather than commenting on the specifics of the Vision, however Stevenson went on to recall how he felt: “Never before did I feel such power as was manifested on these occasions” (cited in Stevenson 19-20). The problem with this account, however, is that we have no other indication that Joseph spoke of the First Vision prior to the Nauvoo period and thus, it seems to fly in the face of what we understand about how the Saints approached the vision in the 1830s. Noting this, historian James B. Allen wrote,

The reminiscence was written… some fifty years later, and on this issue it runs directly counter to all contemporary evidence. No one questions the personal integrity of Stevenson, but it is likely that after fifty years his memory played tricks on him by combining things he heard in one period with things he heard at other times. Another possibility is that he heard Joseph relate the account privately, to a select group, even though he was not proclaiming it publicly (Emergence 44-45).

The fact that Stevenson may have confused when or where he heard about the First Vision serves to underscore the fact that contemporary accounts—that is, accounts written by Saints during Joseph Smith’s lifetime—are far more valuable to us. Fortunately, we have five known to us at this point, which provide us with several important details—the Orson Pratt account, the Orson Hyde account, the Alexander Neibaur account, the David Nye White account, and the Levi Richards account. Although the Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde accounts were published first, we will save discussion of those accounts for later on, due to their length.

We only have one contemporary account mentioning Joseph Smith preaching about the First Vision in public.

We only have one contemporary account mentioning Joseph Smith preaching about the First Vision in public.

While the Stevenson account may or may not be accurate, we do have one contemporary journal entry that tells of Joseph speaking about the First Vision in a public address. Levi Richards, a cousin of Brigham Young, recorded a sermon given at the Nauvoo Temple on 11 June 1843. According to the diary, Levi,

Attended Meeting at the Temple weather vary fine moderately warm. heard J. Smith preach from Math “Oh Jerusalem Jerusalem &c, how oft would I have gathered you, as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings & Ye would not, behold your house is left unto you desolate &c Pres. J. Smith bore testimony to the same saying that when he was a youth he began to think about these things but could not find out which of all the sects were right he went into the grove & enquired of the Lord which of all the sects were right he received for answer that none of them were right, that they were all wrong, & that the Everlasting Covenant was broken==he said he understood the fulness of the Gospel from beginning to end—& could Teach it & also the order of the priesthood in all its ramifications==Earth & hell had opposed him & tryed to destroy him, but they had not done it==& they never would (Cited in Cook, Kindle Location 4256-4263).

The primary significance of this account is, as mentioned above, that it is the only time we know Joseph mentioned the vision in public discourse. There is little new information presented, but it is nice to have another account of the vision, as brief as it is.

Since public discourses on the subject were rare, more often than not, retellings of the Prophet’s initial theophany occurred in more personal settings, such as the one that Isabella Horne recalled hearing the Prophet speak in one non-contemporary account:

I heard him [Joseph Smith] relate his first vision when the Father and Son appeared to him; also his receiving the gold plates from the Angel Moroni. This recital was given in compliance with a special request of a few particular friends in the home of Sister Walton, whose house was ever open to the Saints. While he was relating the circumstances the Prophet’s countenance lighted up, and so wonderful a power accompanied his words that everybody who heard them felt his influence and power, and none could doubt the truth of his narration (Cited in Madsen 90).

Note that this narration occurred by special request of friends in a house, rather than in an unprompted retelling in a public setting. Much like Edward Stevenson, the focus of this reminiscence is on the feelings of the meeting rather than the words spoken, but it helps us get a feel for the settings Joseph felt comfortable speaking of the sacred experience of his youth.

Edward Stevenson, Levi Richards, and Alexander Neibaur.

Edward Stevenson, Levi Richards, and Alexander Neibaur.

One of the few contemporary journal entries we have that record what Joseph said on the subject comes to us from Alexander Neibaur—a Jewish German convert who came to Nauvoo and began to teach German to the Prophet and others. He was, notably, the grandfather of Hugh Nibley. The entry, dated 24 May 1844 records the words of an evening conversation with Joseph Smith:

After Dinner . . . called at BR. J.S. met Mr. Bonnie. Br. Joseph tolt us the first call he had a Revival Meeting, his Mother, Br. and Sisters got Religion. He wanted to get Religion too, wanted to feel and shout like the rest but could feel nothing, opened his Bible of the first Passage that struck him was if any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberallity & upbraideth not. Went into the Wood to pray, kneels himself Down, his tongue was closet cleaveh to his roof–could utter not a word, felt easier after awhile–saw a fire toward heaven came near and nearer; saw a personage in the fire, light complexion, blue eyes, a piece of white cloth Drawn over his shoulders his right arm bear after a while a other person came to the side of the first. Mr. Smith then asked, must I join the Methodist Church. No, they are not my People, have gone astray There is none that Doeth good, not one, but this is my Beloved Son harken ye him, the fire drew nigher, Rested upon the tree, enveloped him comforted I endeavored to arise but felt uncomen feeble got into the house told the Methodist priest, said this was not a age for God to Reveal himself in Vision Revelation has ceased with the New Testament (Neibaur; Allen  Eight 12).

Most of the details found in this account are found in the other First Vision accounts, though written in the sincere, unpolished style that one would expect from a humble man not used to writing in English. The most interesting and unique details here, however, are the description of the appearance of the personages—details not found in any other retelling of Joseph’s experience. Interestingly, other visionary accounts by Mormons also state that the Savior had blue eyes. For example, John Murdock recalled that during the School of the Prophets, after the Prophet promised them that they could see the Lord if they were worthy, “The visions of my mind were opened, and the eyes of my understanding were enlightened, and I saw the form of a man, most lovely, the visage of his face was sound and fair as the sun. His hair a bright silver grey, curled in most majestic form, His eyes a keen penetrating blue” (Cited in Brown and Smith 140, 165). In light of these interesting statements, it is fascinating to note that there is some evidence that the All-Seeing eyes on the Salt Lake Temple were originally painted blue (Brown and Smith 140).

Similar to the description of the Personages given in Neibaur's account, the All-Seeing Eye of the Salt Lake Temple was probably meant to be blue.

Similar to the description of the Personages given in Neibaur’s account, the All-Seeing Eye of the Salt Lake Temple was probably meant to be blue.

While most contemporary accounts come from members, we do have a few accounts from discussions with non-members, such as the 1835 account of Joseph telling the story of the First Vision to a visiting man, written in Joseph’s journal by Warren Cowdery. Another such account comes from an 1843 interview with the Prophet, published by David Nye White (the nonmember editor of the Pitsburg Gazette) in the The New York Spectator on September 23. According to the article, Joseph told the editor:

The Lord does reveal himself to me. I know it. He revealed himself first to me when I was about fourteen years old, a mere boy. I will tell you about it. There was a reformation among the different religious denominations in the neighborhood where I lived, and I became serious, and was desirous to know what Church to join.

While thinking of this matter, I opened the Testament promiscuously on these words, in James, Ask of the Lord who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not. I just determined I’d ask him. I immediately went out into the woods where my father had a clearing, and went to the stump where I had stuck my axe when I had quit work, and I kneeled down, and prayed, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join? Directly I saw a light, and then a glorious personage in the light, and then another personage, and the first personage said to the second, Behold my beloved Son, hear him.–I then addressed this second person, saying, O Lord, what Church shall I join? He replied, “don’t join any of them, they are all corrupt.” The vision then vanished, and when I came to myself, I was sprawling on my back and it was sometime before my strength returned.

When I went home and told the people that I had a revelation, and that all the churches were corrupt, they persecuted me, and they have persecuted me ever since (White).

Again, most of the details are found elsewhere, except the description of the grove that is detailed enough to state that it was “the woods where my father had a clearing” and that he went “to the stump where I had struck my axe when I had quit work.” It must also be noted here, however, that while most of the accounts being presented in this post were written soon after the listener heard Joseph relate the experience, every one of these accounts have passed through the filters of what the writer heard, what stood out to them in their memory, as well as their own way of speaking of things. Journalists, for example, have somewhat of a bad reputation of editing and twisting words even with modern recording equipment. But, such sentiment can be applied to all secondary accounts, and thus, even contemporary accounts must be approached with caution.

The White account gives us more details about the setting the First Vision took place in

The White account gives us more details about the setting the First Vision took place in

The first account of the First Vision to be published was not actually written by Joseph Smith, but by Orson Pratt. Pratt—mentioned above as having heard Joseph speak of the vision many times—wrote a pamphlet relating events in Church history and outlines of basic Church doctrine while serving as a apostolic missionary in Scotland in 1840. A section of this Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Vision relating the First Vision is as follows:

Mr. Joseph Smith, jun. who made the following important discovery, was born in the town of Sharon, Windsor county, Vermont, on the 23d December, A.D. 1805. When ten years old, his parents, with their family, moved to Palmyra, New York; in the vicinity of which he resided for about eleven years, the latter part in the town of Manchester. Cultivating the earth for a livelihood was his occupation, in which he employed the most of his time. His advantages for acquiring literary knowledge, were exceedingly small; hence, his education was limited to a slight acquaintance, with two or three of the common branches of learning. He could read without much difficulty, and write a very imperfect hand; and had a very limited understanding of the ground rules of arithmetic. These were his highest and only attainments; while the rest of those branches, so universally taught in the common schools, throughout the United States, were entirely unknown to him. When somewhere about fourteen or fifteen years old, he began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way, to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetermined in his own mind. He perceived that it was a question of infinite importance, and that the salvation of his soul depended upon a correct understanding of the same. He saw, that if he understood not the way, it would be impossible to walk in it, except by chance; and the thought of resting his hopes of eternal life upon chance, or uncertainties, was more than he could endure. If he went to the religious denominations to seek information, each one pointed to its particular tenets, saying–“This is the way, walk ye in it;” while, at the same time, the doctrines of each were in many respects, in direct opposition to one another. It also occurred to his mind that God was the author of but one doctrine, and therefore could acknowledge but one denomination as his church, and that such denomination must be a people who believe and teach that one doctrine, (whatever it may be,) and build upon the same. He then reflected upon the immense number of doctrines, now in the world, which had given rise to many hundreds of different denominations. The great question to be decided in his mind, was–if any one of these denominations be the Church of Christ, which one is it? Until he could become satisfied in relations to this question, he could not rest contented to trust to the decisions of fallible man, and build his hopes upon the same, without any certainty, and knowledge of his own, would not satisfy the anxious desires that pervaded his breast. To decide, without any positive and definite evidence, on which he could rely, upon a subject involving the future welfare of his soul, was revolting to his feelings. The only alternative, that seemed to be left him was to read the Scriptures, and endeavor to follow their directions. He, accordingly commenced perusing the sacred pages of i;he Bible, with sincerity, believing the things that he read. His mind soon caught hold of the following passage:–“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. From this promise he learned, that it was the privilege of all men to ask God for wisdom, with the sure and certain expectation of receiving liberally; without being upbraided for so doing. This was cheering information to him; tidings that gave him great joy. It was like a light shinning forth in a dark place, to guide him to the path in which he should walk. He now saw that if he inquired of God, there was not only a possibility, but a probability; yea, more, a certainty, that he should obtain a knowledge, which, of all the doctrines, was the doctrine of Christ; and, which of all the churches, was the church of Christ. He therefore, retired to a secret place in a grove, but a short distance from his father’s house, and knelt down, and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavored to overcome him; but he continued to seek for deliverance, until darkness gave way from his mind, and he was enabled to pray in feverency of the spirit, and in faith. And while thus pouring out his soul, anxiously desiring an answer from God, he at length, saw a very bright and glorious light in the heavens above; which, at first, seemed to be a considerable distance. He continued praying, while the light appeared to be gradually descending towards him; and as it drew nearer, it increased in brightness and magnitude, so that, by the time that it reached the tops of the trees, the whole wilderness, for some distance around was illuminated in a most glorious and brilliant manner. He expected to have seen the leaves and boughs of the trees consumed, as soon as the light came in contact with them; but perceiving that it did not produce that effect, he was encouraged with the hope of being able to endure its presence. It continued descending slowly, until it rested upon the earth, and he was enveloped in the midst of it. When it first came upon him, it produced a peculiar sensation throughout his whole system; and immediately, his mind was caught away, from the natural objects with which he was surrounded; and he was enwapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness. He was informed that his sins were forgiven. He was also informed upon the subjects, which had for some time previously agitated his mind, viz.–that all the religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines; and consequently, that none of them was acknowledged of God, as his church and kingdom. And he was expressly commanded, to go not after them; and he received a promise that the true doctrine–the fulness of the gospel, should, at some future time, be made known to him; after which, the vision withdrew, leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace, indescribable (Cited in Cheesman 113-116).

Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde left similar accounts of the First Vision.

Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde left similar accounts of the First Vision.

This account seems to have influenced Joseph Smith’s Wentworth letter as well as Orson Hyde’s account that covered the First Vision. Hyde’s account—the last one we will display here—was published while he was serving as an apostolic missionary in Germany in 1842. This document, published as A Cry From the Wilderness, A Voice from the Dust of the Earth, seems to have taken Pratt’s publication and added details to adapt it to the German culture of the time. The section relating the First Vision is as follows,

Joseph Smith, Jr., to whom the angel of the Lord was sent first, was born in the town of Sharon, Windsor County, Vermont, on the 23rd of December, 1805. When ten years old, his parents with their family, moved to Palmyra, New York, in the vicinity of which he resided for about eleven years, the latter part in the town of Manchester. His only activity was to plow and cultivate the fields. As his parents were poor and had to take care of a large family, his education was very limited. He could read without much difficulty, and write a very imperfect hand; and had a very limited understanding of the elementary rules of arithmetic. These were his highest and only attainments; while the rest of those branches, so universally taught in the common schools throughout the United States, were entirely unknown to him. When some where about fourteen or fifteen years old, he began seriously to reflect upon the necessity of being prepared for a future state of existence; but how, or in what way to prepare himself, was a question, as yet, undetennined in his own mind; he perceived that it was a question of infinite importance. He saw, that if he understood not the way, it would be impossible to walk in it, except by chance; and the thought of resting his hopes of eternal life upon chance or uncertainties, was more than he could endure. He discovered a religious world working under numerous errors, which through their contradicting nature and principles, gave cause to the organization of so many different sects and parties, and whose feelings against each other were poisoned through hate, envy, malice and rage. He felt that there should be only one truth, and that those who would understand it correctly, would understand it in the same manner. Nature had gifted him with a strong, discerning mind and so he looked through the glass of soberness and good sense upon these religious systems which all were so different; but nevertheless all drawn from the scripture of truth. After he had sufficiently assured himself to his own satisfaction that darkness was covering the earth, and gross darkness the minds of the people, he gave up hope ever to find a sect or party that was in the possession of the pure and unadulterated truth. He accordingly commenced persuing the sacred pages of the Bible with sincerity, believing the things that he read. His mind soon caught hold of the following passage–“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 I:5. From this promise he learned that it was the privilege of all men to ask God for wisdom, with the sure and certain expectation of receiving liberally, without being upbraided for so doing. And thus he started to send the burning desires of his soul with a faithful determination. He, therefore, retired to a secret place, in a grove, but a short distance from his father’s house, and knelt down and began to call upon the Lord. At first, he was severely tempted by the powers of darkness, which endeavoured to overcome him. The adversary benighted his mind with doubts, and brought to his soul all kinds of improper pictures and tried to hinder him in his efforts and the accomplishment of his goal. However, the overflowing mercy of God came to buoy him up, and gave new impulse and momentum to his dwindling strength. Soon the dark clouds disappeared, and light and peace filled his troubled heart. And again he called upon the Lord with renewed faith and spiritual strength. At this sacred moment his mind was caught away from the natural objects with which he was surrounded, and he was enwrapped in a heavenly vision, and saw two glorious personages, who exactly resembled each other in their features or likeness. They told him that his prayers had been answered, and that the Lord had decided to grant him a special blessing. He was told not to join any of the religious sects or any party, as they were all wrong in their doctrines and none of them was recognized by God as His Church and kingdom. He received a promise that the true doctrine–the fulness of the gospel–should, at some future time, be made known to him; after which, the vision withdrew, leaving his mind in a state of calmness and peace indescribable (Cited in Cheesman 158-160).

There are, all together, the five known contemporary accounts of the First Vision. Two were published by Mormons during Joseph Smith’s lifetime—Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde’s missionary tracts—while one was published by a non-Mormon named David Nye White. Two others come down to us from journals, one—Alexander Neibaur’s entry—records a personal conversation held after dinner, while the other—Levi Richard’s record—tells of a public discourse where the Prophet bore witness of the vision. These records are slightly less reliable than accounts written by Joseph or under his supervision, but still give us important details that would otherwise be unknown, and may have greater confidence placed in them than later recollections. Thus, these valuable documents help us to gain a deeper understanding of Mormonism’s founding story.

Harston's After the First Vision painting.

Harston’s After the First Vision painting.

Works Cited

Allen, James B. “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smiths First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era (April 1970), pp. 4-13.

— “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7 (1980) 43-61.

Brown, Matthew B. and Paul Thomas Smith. Symbols in Stone. American Fork, Utah: Covenant Communications, 1997.

Cheesman, Paul. An Analysis of the Accounts Relating Joseph Smith’s Early Visions. MA thesis. Brigham Young University, 1965. Web. 20 May 2013.

Cook, Lyndon W. (2009-09-03). The Words of Joseph Smith (Kindle Locations 4256-4263). Deseret Book Company. Kindle Edition.

Madsen, Truman G. Joseph Smith the Prophet. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989.

Neibaur, Alexander. Journal of Alexander Neibaur, 24 May 1844. TS. LDS Church Historical Department, Salt Lake City, Utah.

Stevenson, Joseph Grant. “The Life of Edward Stevenson,” (M.A. thesis, Brigham Young University, 1955).

White, David Nye, “The Prairies, Joe Smith, the Temple, the Mormons, &c.,” Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, 14 Sept. 1843.

The 1842 Account of the First Vision: Joseph Smith’s Prophetic Call

The last account of the First Vision to be written by Joseph Smith himself was—somewhat ironically—the first to be published. This account—written in 1842—was a part of what has become known as the Wentworth Letter. This document was initially prepared at the request of a John Wentworth—editor of the Chicago Democrat—in behalf of his friend George Barstow, who was writing a history of New Hampshire. The document Joseph Smith wrote in response covered the history of the Church up to that point, concluding with a statement about the future of the Church (the Standard of Truth) and a summary of a few basic beliefs (the Articles of Faith). Barstow never published the document, since he decided to only cover events through the year 1819 in his book, but a copy of the document was published in the Nauvoo periodical the Times and Seasons on March 1, 1842 (see Smith 437). The text was reprinted again with some slight revisions by Daniel Rupp in 1844 in a book called An Original History of the Religious Denomination at Present Existing in the United States.

The Wentworth Letter, as printed in the Times and Seasons.

The Wentworth Letter, as printed in the Times and Seasons.

The initial section, which related the First Vision, is as follows:

I was born in the town of Sharon Windsor co., Vermont, on the 23d of December, A. D. 1805. When ten years old my parents removed to Palmyra New York, where we resided about four years, and from thence we removed to the town of Manchester. My father was a fanner and taught me the art of husbandry. When [I was] about fourteen years of age I began to reflect upon the importance of being prepared for a future state, and upon inquiring [about] the plan of salvation I found that there was a great clash in religious sentiment; if I went to one society they referred me to one plan, and another to another; each one pointing to his own particular creed as the summum bonum of perfection: considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion I determined to investigate the subject more fully, believing that if God had a church it would not be split up into factions, and that if he taught one society to worship one way, and administer in one set of ordinances, he would not teach another principles which were diametrically opposed.

Believing the word of God I had confidence in the declaration of James; “If any man lack wisdom let him ask of God who giveth all men liberally and upbraideth not and it shall be given him.” [James 1:5.] I retired to a secret place in a grove and began to call upon the Lord, while fervently engaged in supplication my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision and saw two glorious personages who exactly resembled each other in features, and likeness, surrounded with a brilliant light which eclipsed the sun at noon-day. They told me that all religious denominations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as his church and kingdom. And I was expressly commanded to “go not after them,” at the same time receiving a promise that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me (Smith 438).

The Sacred Grove

The Sacred Grove

This account is, perhaps, the most polished and easily-digested of all the accounts we have of the First Vision. It is also the most brief and direct of all the accounts. It has often been noted that there are extensive similarities between the Wentworth Letter and Orson Pratt’s Interesting Account of Several Remarkable Visions. Both of these accounts approach the First Vision in the same basic way, relying on the same vocabulary at several key points. Church historian Steven C. Harper noted:

The 1842 Wentworth letter is very similar in some ways to Orson Pratt’s account. I don’t know whether Joseph Smith actually used Orson Pratt’s pamphlet to draft his Wentworth letter or if there was a source document behind the two of them. I don’t know. Other folks seem more certain about that than I’m willing to be, but clearly… there is a relationship between those accounts (Harper and Topp).

Whatever the case—the two accounts are similar, and the Orson Hyde account seems to be based closely on both of these accounts as well.

While this account is similar to a few other contemporary accounts, it is unique among the Joseph Smith accounts for speaking of the First Vision as a vision rather than a physical experience. As Joseph states it, “my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded, and I was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.” This understanding could lead to a possible reconciliation of the First Vision with a statement that some anti-Mormon authors have hit upon: In Section 84 of the Doctrine and Covenants, Joseph Smith stated that “without the ordinances thereof, and the authority of the priesthood, the power of godliness is not manifest unto men in the flesh; for without this no man can see the face of God, even the Father, and live” (D&C 84:21-22). Since it seems that Joseph received what we call the Melchizedek priesthood sometime between 1829 and 1832—about nine years after the First Vision—at first glance this statement would either invalidate the First Vision or be invalidated by the vision. Looking at the Wentworth Letter account, however, we see another idea in place—that it was indeed a vision, separate from the world around him and not a literal beholding the face of God as a physical experience.

Joseph was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

Joseph was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.

The other notable unique aspect in this letter is the promise that is given at the end—that, as Joseph said, “the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.” It is here that we have in writing a hint of his future prophetic calling—the central point that early Church leaders referred to the First Vision experience to proclaim. The fact that this is the only account written by Joseph that mentions a pending mission begs an interesting question, however—was the First Vision truly the moment that Joseph was called to the ministry?

Certainly the First Vision had an important role in the Prophet’s religious identity. It outlined the need for something to happen in the religious world and confirmed a direct link between Joseph and Deity. We do not see, however, a mission given or an immediate call to action—just an interview for information. Granted, in the Wentworth Letter we are told that Joseph was promised that “the fullness of the gospel” would be revealed to him in the future, and in the 1838 “official” account, Joseph refers to himself as “one called of God” (JS-H 1:28) between the First Vision and the visit of the Angel Moroni, but there is no explicit indication of what that calling was.

What event would serve as Joseph’s initial prophetic call then? The most likely candidate would be the visit of the Angel Moroni. During that interview—according to Joseph’s later record—we have Moroni telling the young prophet that “God had a work for me to do” and then relating the existence of the golden plates that would become the Book of Mormon (see JS-H 1:33-35)—indicating that Joseph’s initial prophetic call would be to translate this ancient record into a modern language. Indeed, four years later, Joseph was told by the Lord in a revelation that, “You have a gift to translate the plates; and this is the first gift that I bestowed upon you; and I have commanded that you should pretend to no other gift until my purpose is fulfilled in this; for I will grant unto you no other gift until it is finished” (D&C 5:4), giving validation to the idea that Joseph felt the translation would be his prophetic mission for the first few years.

joseph-smith-and-angel-moroni

Upon inspection, we also see that the visit of the angel Moroni both spoke of and led to more action than the First Vision. Elder M. Russell Ballard—a senior member of the Quorum of the Twelve today—wrote that “instead of simply telling him [Joseph] that all was well and that God still loved him, Moroni came to put Joseph to work” (41). Richard Lyman Bushman also noted that, “If Joseph initially understood the First Vision as his conversion, similar to thousands of other evangelical conversions, this vision [of Moroni] wrenched Joseph out of any ordinary track” (44). When it comes to the level of action following the visions, there is a difference as well. After the First Vision, Joseph told at least the Methodist minister and perhaps a few other individuals about what he had saw and heard, but did little else, especially since he received such a negative reaction. As Richard Lyman Bushman noted, “the 1820 vision did not interrupt the Smith family’s round of work” (41). After the visit of the Angel Moroni, however, Joseph produced a large religious text that he claimed was scripture—the Book of Mormon—gathered believers to support and assist him in the production of this text, began to record revelations from God, and organized the Church of Christ—later to be known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

To further our examination of the subject, let us compare the 1820 and 1823 visions of Joseph Smith to the prophetic calls expressed in the Bible and other Hebraic texts. In doing so, it must be kept in mind that the culture of the prophet writing affects how he speaks of his experiences. We have discussed previously how Joseph Smith’s 1832 account of the First Vision was written in the form of a born-again narrative and Christopher C. Jones has demonstrated that even the 1838 account was influenced by the style of a Methodist conversion narratives (see Jones), indicating that the Prophet’s style was influenced by the culture he lived in. Blake T. Ostler, in writing about ancient prophetic commissions noted that, “Such theophanic experiences [experiences of visions of God] were placed anciently ‘at the beginning of the traditions of the works and words of the prophet’ as a means of providing ‘vindication and legitimization of the prophet in his office’”, which meant that “these narratives are probably not simply transcripts of what was experienced at the time. They are as well accounts designed to serve certain definite ends and they no doubt to a certain extent stylized the call” (68). All accounts of prophetic calls are influenced by the culture of the prophet in question, some aspects of which may be very symbolic, meaning Joseph’s experience will be recorded differently than Isaiah’s or Ezekiel’s experiences. We may, however, catch glimpses of what the ancient prophets truly experienced and compare it to what Joseph Smith experienced.

There are two types of prophetic calls found in the Bible—the “narrative” type, which includes a dialogue with God or other divine messenger; and the “throne theophany” type, which introduces the prophetic commission with a vision of the heavenly throne of God (see Ricks 97). Both of these literary patterns also have use in apocryphal Jewish works and the revealed scriptures produced by Joseph Smith—including both the Book of Mormon and the Joseph Smith Translation of Genesis (published today, in part, as the Book of Moses). In reality, however, the throne theophany is really just a specific genre of the narrative call, so we will look at both types as one.

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The Prophetic Call

The prophetic call narrative consists of several parts, some of which may be absent or in a different order in individual cases. The general outline, formed from combining Blake T. Ostler’s summary of the throne theophany and Stephen D. Rick’s outline of the narrative form is as follows:

  1. Historical Introduction: A brief introductory remark providing circumstantial details such as time, place, and historical setting.
  2. Divine Confrontation: Either deity or an angel appears in glory to the individual.
  3. Reaction: The individual reacts to the presence of the deity or his angel by way of an action expressive of fear, unworthiness, or having been overpowered (Ostler 69).
  4. Throne-Theophany: A theophany is a vision of God, and a throne-theophany is a vision where “the individual sees the council of God and God seated upon his throne. This element distinguishes the throne-theophany commission from” the narrative call form (Ostler 70).
  5. The Introductory Word: The introductory word serves to both “arouse the attention [of the prophet]” and to “spell out the specific basis or grounds for the commission” (cited in Ricks 99). Often, the reasons for why the one called upon will serve as a prophet is explained.
  6. Commission: The individual recipient is commanded to perform a given task and assume the role of prophet to the people.
  7. Protest or Objection: The prophet responds to the commission by claiming that he is unable or unworthy to accomplish the task. This element is usually absent when the reaction element is present.
  8. Reassurance: “The deity reassures the prophet that he will be protected and able to carry out the commission.” In many occasions a miraculous sign is given to the prophet.
  9. Conclusion: “The commission form usually concludes in a formal way, most often with a statement that the prophet has begun to carry out his commission” (Ostler 69-70; see also Ricks 97).

There are many great examples of the prophetic commission. To illustrate the different parts of the call, we will look at Moses’s experience with the burning bush, Jeremiah’s call, Lehi’s throne-theophany in the Book of Mormon and Enoch’s vision in the Book of Moses.

Jeremiah, Moroni, Lehi and Enoch are great examples of the prophetic call patterns.

Jeremiah, Moroni, Lehi and Enoch are great examples of the prophetic call patterns.

The historical introduction element fills the function of establishing the time and place setting and giving certain biographical information about the prophet. For example, Isaiah’s call begins with the statement that, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw also the Lord” (Isaiah 6:1), indicating that the vision took place at a time of “transition, crisis and import” (Ostler 74).

In Nephi’s account of his father, Lehi’s, call, he relates that,

It came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign ofZedekiah, king of Judah, (my father, Lehi, having dwelt at Jerusalem in all his days); and in that same year there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city Jerusalem must be destroyed. Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in behalf of his people (1 Nephi 1:4-5).

In this account we have context telling the date, a little of Lehi’s history, and an indication of Jerusalem’s situation. Both of these historic introductions help set the tone and give reasons for why the prophet is going to be called.

The next element in the call pattern is the divine confrontation—an often unexpected visit from Deity or one of His messengers. Moses, for example, was tending the flocks of his father-in-law Jethro when “the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush…. And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt” (Ex. 3:1-3). Jeremiah simply relates that “Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying…” (Jeremiah 1:4). The Enoch text states that, “it came to pass that Enoch journeyed in the land, among the people; and as he journeyed, the Spirit of God descended out of heaven, and abode upon him” (Moses 6:26). After Lehi prays in behalf of his people, “there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much” (1 Nephi 1:6). This divine confrontation describes the appearance of the Divine and is often followed by the reaction.

The reaction element is an expression of unworthiness on the part of the prophet-to-be in response to being in the presence of a glorious being. Generally the reaction element or the protest elements are present, but not both. Lehi left the pillar of fire and “returned to his own house at Jerusalem; and he cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the Spirit and the things which he had seen” (1 Nephi 1:7). Isaiah exclaimed, “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts (Isaiah 6:5).

The introductory word element of the narrative form serves to both “arouse the attention [of the prophet]” and to “spell out the specific basis or grounds for the commission” (cited in Ricks 99). Often, the reasons for why the one called upon will serve as a prophet is explained. In the burning bush experience, after the divine messenger identifies Himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob” (Ex. 3:6), and adds, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters…. I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them” (Ex. 3:7, 9). As a result of this, the Lord stated that, “I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8). Enoch was called due to the wickedness and unbelief of the people: “And for these many generations, ever since the day that I created them, have they gone astray, and have denied me, and have sought their own counsels in the dark” (Moses 6:28). Rather than the historical context of the call, Jeremiah was commissioned to serve as the Lord’s spokesman because of a premortal foreordination: “Before I formed thee in the belly I knew thee; and before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee” (Jer. 1:5).

The throne-theophany is an ascension narrative where the prophet is taken into or shown the heavens with God sitting upon His throne, surrounded by the heavenly council. This element is specific to the throne-theophany narratives and is not present in the basic narrative calls. Ezekiel states that:

I saw visions of God…. And above the firmament that was over [the seraphim’s] heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone: and upon the… throne was the likeness as the appearance of a man…. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord (Ezekiel 1:1, 26, 28).

Isaiah’s throne theophany was reported by him by saying, “I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims… and one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory” (Isaiah 6:1-3). In the Lehi account, the prophet is “overcome with the Spirit” and “was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God” (1 Nephi 1:8).

Isaiah's throne-theophany.

Isaiah’s throne-theophany.

Following the steps above is the actual commission of the prophet. In the case of Moses, God tells him, “Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt” (Ex. 3:10). Jeremiah is told by Deity that, “I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jer. 1:5). Enoch’s commission actually comes before the introductory word, since the Lord states the commission and then offers the explanation: “And he heard a voice from heaven, saying: Enoch, my son, prophesy unto this people and say unto them—Repent, for thus saith the Lord: I am angry with this people” (Moses 6:27). Lehi’s narrative does not specifically spell out the commission, however, we see in the following chapter that, “the Lord spake unto… [Lehi], and said unto him: Blessed art thou Lehi, because of the things which thou hast done; and because thou hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee, behold, the seek to take away thy life” (1 Nephi 2:1), indicating that there was a commission that Lehi set out to fulfill.

After the commission is extended, the prophet generally protests his inability to fulfill his prophetic commission, hence the step known as the objection or protest. Moses initially objects to his call by saying, “Who am I, that should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Ex. 3:11) and continues from there to offer four more objections in his dialogue with the Lord. Since the reaction element is present in Lehi’s call, the protest element is absent. Jeremiah, however, objects that, “Ah, Lord God! Behold I cannot speak: for I am a child” (Jer. 1:6), and, similarly, Enoch states that he was “but a lad, and all the people hate me; for I am slow of speech; wherefore am I thy servant?” (Moses 6:31).

In response to this objection, God reassures the prophet that He will aid him in their commission. To Moses, He states, “Certainly I will be with thee” (Ex. 3:12), indicating that Moses will not face Pharaoh on his own power, but will have divine assisatnace. To Jeremiah, the Lord states, “Say not, I am a child: for thou shalt go to all that I shall send thee, and whatsoever I command thee thou shalt speak. Be not afraid of their faces: for I am with thee to deliver thee, saith the Lord” (Jer. 1:7-8). To Enoch, God’s response contains both command and reassurance: “Go forth and do as I have commanded thee, and no man shall pierce thee. Open thy mouth, and it shall be filled, and I will give thee utterance…. Behold my Spirit is upon you, wherefore all thy words will I justify; and the mountains shall flee before you, and the rivers shall turn from their course” (Moses 6:32, 34). Lehi is visited by a glorious being who gave the prophet a book that fills him with the Spirit of the Lord as he reads (1 Nephi 1:10-12). He learns from this book that whatever efforts he puts into his commission those at Jerusalem will reject his message and be destroyed, however, he knows that the Lord promises protection to his servant, as Nephi reminds us with his comment that God “is mighty even unto the power of deliverance” for those who will do His will (1 Ne. 1:20).

Often, to leave a token of and to guarantee the commission, God give the prophet a sign. Moses is told that he and the children of Israel would “serve God upon this mountain” (Ex. 3:12). After more objection is offered, his hand is made leprous and then healed again, and (after yet more objections are offered), Moses is given a rod “wherewith thou shalt do signs” (Ex. 4:17). God touches Jeremiah’s mouth, and says, “Behold, I have put my words in thy mouth” (Jer. 1:9). In the case of Enoch, God tells him to “anoint [his] eyes with clay, and wash them” (Moses 6:35). After this was done, Enoch “beheld the spirits that God had created; and he beheld also things which were not visible to the natural eye” (Moses 6:36; see Ricks).

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Finally, there is the conclusion­—the formal ending of the call, often concluding words from the divine spokesman or a statement that the prophet has begun his work. Jeremiah relates that the Lord concluded his call by stating, “see, I have this day set thee over the nations and over the kingdoms, to root out, and to pull down, and to destroy, and to throw down, to build, and to plant” (Jer. 1:10), while the Lehi account just simply states that “after the Lord had shown so many marvelous things unto” him, he went out and “began to prophesy and to declare unto them [the Jews] concerning the things which he had both seen and heard” (1 Nephi 1:18). Enoch’s account simply states that “it came to pass that Enoch went forth in the land, among the people… and cried with a loud voice, testifying against their works; and all men were offended because of him” (Moses 6:37).

All of these elements form the prophetic call narrative of Hebrew literature.

Joseph Smith’s Visions as Prophetic Calls

First Vision and Moroni

How well do Joseph Smith’s accounts of the First Vision and Moroni’s visits line up with the prophetic call narrative form? Let us break them down and discuss each element.

  • The Historical Introduction: The background given by Joseph Smith of his childhood and—more importantly—the religious excitements of the Second Great Awakening around his home serve as the best historical introduction for his prophetic calling. Great care is taken to outline the divisions and contentions among them as well as his own internal conflicts that came as a result of the strife he saw around him, indicating the timeframe and the need for a prophet prior to his First Vision. We do not get as strong of a historical introduction for the visit of Moroni, other than a date, the fact that he made a few poor choices after his previous experience and felt like he needed to receive confirmation of his worthiness.
  • Divine Confrontation: We have a strong divine confrontation for both accounts. In the First Vision, Joseph states he saw “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me…. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air” (JS-H1:15-16). Concerning the visit of Moroni, Joseph wrote that,

While I was praying unto God and endeavoring to exercise faith in the precious promises of scripture, on a sudden a light like that of day, only of a far purer and more glorious appearance and brightness, burst into the room. Indeed the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming fire. The appearance produced a shock that affected the whole body. In a moment a personage stood before me, surrounded with a glory yet greater than that with which I was already surrounded (Smith 439)

The Reaction: We don’t see a strong reaction from Joseph, other than, perhaps, speechlessness, since he states that it took him a minute to “get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak” (JS-H 1:18) during the First Vision. Prior to the First Vision, Joseph had a concern with salvation, stating that, “I became convicted of my Sins… and I felt to mourn for my own Sins” (Jessee 3), however, this was not a reaction to the divine confrontation, but a part of what drove him to pray in the first place.

Similarly, in the Moroni experience, Joseph prayed because he “frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature” (JS-H 1:28). He went on to say, “In consequence of these things, I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections….. [and] I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies” (JS-H 1:29). One difference for this latter vision, however, was that Joseph had already experienced the First Vision and felt particularly condemned because his choices were “not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been” (JS-H 1:28), almost serving as a delayed reaction to the First Vision.

  • Throne Theophany: Joseph’s calls seem to fit more in the basic narrative form than a throne-theophany, thus this element is absent. On a side note, however, we do see a throne theophany in the 1832 vision of the Degrees of Glory (often called “the Vision”—see D&C 76:19-24).
  • The Introductory Word: following the initial divine confrontation of the First Vision, the Lord spoke to Joseph, calling him by name, and stating in reference to the second personage, “This is my beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JS-H 1:17). Joseph was forgiven of his sins, and in response to Joseph’s question about which church to join, he was told, “That I must join none of them, for they were all wrong… [and] that those professors were all corrupt” (JS-H 1:19), and that “all religious demoniations were believing in incorrect doctrines, and that none of them was acknowledged of God as His Church and kingdom” (Smith 438). This statement would spell out the specific basis for Joseph’s commission—to found a Church that did teach correct doctrines, etc.

In relation to the visit of Moroni, Joseph recounts that the angel, “called me by name, and said unto me that he was amessenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (JS-H 1:33) and that “I was chosen to be an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of His purposes in this glorious dispensation” (Smith 439). This statement outlined the purpose of the angel’s visit and the fact that Joseph would be called as a prophet.

  • The Commission: As mentioned previously, the First Vision contains no explicit commission. The need for a prophet is explained, however, there is no statement of requirements for action in the near future, only a promise that “the fullness of the gospel” would be revealed to Joseph at a later date (Smith 438). In comparing Joseph’s records with the Lehi narrative, we do see that the ancient prophet’s call wasn’t explicate either (probably due to Nephi’s editing), however we see action afterwards resulting from his commission. There is little immediate action from Joseph’s call, as previously mentioned. In the case of the Moroni visit, however, we see that Joseph is told about a “book deposited, written upon gold plates… [and] the fullness of the everlasting Gospel was contained in it” (JS-H 1:34). Further, Joseph was told where to get it and given instructions about how to live after he had the plates (see JS-H 1:42). The next day, Joseph began to visit the place the plates were located and received instruction from heavenly messengers. The plates themselves formed the foundation of Joseph’s early prophetic career.
  • Protest or Objection: Joseph’s accounts do not mention any protests or objections after the message of each vision was given.
  • Reassurance: As discussed in the reaction section, Joseph went into both vision experiences feeling condemned for his sins. In the First Vision experience, he was told by the Savior, “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 crucifyed for the world that all those who believe on my name may have Eternal life” (Jessee 4). During the Moroni visit, Joseph was informed that God had forgiven his sins as well (see Smith 57). Neither of those statements were directly related to the Lord’s support in his prophetic calling. We find, however, that Moroni informed Joseph that there were seer stones that “God had prepared… for the purpose of translating the book” stored along with the gold plates (JS-H 1:35), indicating that Joseph would not perform the translation on his own power, but would have divine assistance.
  • The Conclusion: In the 1838 account of the First Vision, we have a final reminder from the Lord that Joseph was not to join any of the churches, the closing of the vision and Joseph returning home and telling his mother that Presbyterianism is not true, which serves very well as the conclusion to that account (JS-H 1:20). In the case of the Moroni visit, we have the disappearance of the messenger followed by repeated visits, the angel commanding him to tell his father about the visions, and the visit to the Hill Cummorah, indicating that he began his work with the Book of Mormon, serving as an effective end to the initial visits of the Angel Moroni.

Both the First Vision and the visit of the angel Moroni feature many of the aspects of the traditional prophetic call. The First Vision is stronger in the earlier aspects of the prophetic call—the historical introduction especially—and both contain a divine confrontation, while the Moroni accounts leave us with a stronger sense of the commission and reassurance for the Prophet. Another option is presented by this observation—perhaps the two visions work together to form Joseph Smith’s prophetic commission in two parts. After all, Lehi had the vision with the pillar of fire (which is, interestingly enough, how Joseph described the pillar of light on several occasions) and then went home to his bed where he had the throne-theophany experience. Perhaps the First Vision served much as the pillar of fire experience did for Lehi—the first half of his commission—and the nighttime visit of Moroni to Joseph’s bedroom corresponded to Lehi’s dream upon his bed, just with a longer time gap between the two parts in Joseph’s case. In that light, the feelings of condemnation for his lifestyle that led to the prayer prior to the Moroni appearance could fit very well into the reaction category of the narrative form, with the message of forgiveness and the divine aids that would be given forming the reassurance. Since the prophetic call would be regarded as two divine confrontations, that step, the historical introduction, the introductory words, and the conclusions would be duplicated with the stronger histrocial introduction being vested in the first vision and the stronger conclusion resting in the latter vision. The commission, meanwhile, would be specific to the Moroni visit. For a final comparison, we will use the basic format compared to Lehi’s vision to show how they would line up.

Step Lehi Joseph Smith
Historical Introduction “It came to pass in the commencement of the first year of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah… there came many prophets, prophesying unto the people that they must repent, or the great city of Jerusalem would be destroyed. Wherefore it came to pass that my father, Lehi, as he went forth prayed unto the Lord, yea, even with all his heart, in beahlf of his people” (1 Nephi 1:4-5). “Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion…. 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…. At length I came to the conclusion that I must either remain in darkness and confusion, or else I must… ask of God…. So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” (JS-H 1:5, 8, 13, 14).
Divine Confrontation And it came to pass as he prayed unto the Lord, there came a pillar of fire and dwelt upon a rock before him; and he saw and heard much (1 Nephi 1:6 “I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me…. When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air” (JS-H 1:15-16).”On a sudden a light like that of day, only of a far purer and more glorious appearance and brightness, burst into the room. Indeed the first sight was as though the house was filled with consuming fire. The appearance produced a shock that affected the whole body. In a moment a personage stood before me, surrounded with a glory yet greater than that with which I was already surrounded” (Smith 439) .
Introductory Word “He saw and heard much” (1 Nephi 1:6) “One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!… I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right…   I was answered that I must join none of them, for they were all wrong” (JS-H 1:17-19).The angel, “called me by name, and said unto me that he was a messenger sent from the presence of God to me, and that his name was Moroni; that God had a work for me to do; and that my name should be had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues, or that it should be both good and evil spoken of among all people” (JS-H 1:33) and that “I was chosen to be an instrument in the hands of God to bring about some of His purposes in this glorious dispensation” (Smith 439).
Reaction “And because of the things which he saw and heard he did quake and tramble exceedingly. And it came to pass that he returned to his own house at Jerusalem; and he cast himself upon his bed, being overcome with the Spirit and the things which he had seen” (1 Nephi 1:6-7). “During the space of time which intervened between the time I had the vision and the year eighteen hundred and twenty-three… I frequently fell into many foolish errors, and displayed the weakness of youth, and the foibles of human nature… not consistent with that character which ought to be maintained by one who was called of God as I had been….  In consequence of these things, I often felt condemned for my weakness and imperfections… [and] I betook myself to prayer and supplication to Almighty God for forgiveness of all my sins and follies” (JS-H 1:28-29).
Throne-Theophany “And being thus overcome with the Spirit, he was carried away in a vision, even that he saw the heavens open, and he thought he saw God sitting upon his throne, surrounded with numberless concourses of angels in the attitude of singing and praising their God (1 Nephi 1:8). NA
Commission Later on, “the Lord spake unto my father… and said unto him: Blessed art thou Lehi, because… thous hast been faithful and declared unto this people the things which I commanded thee” (1 Nephi 2:1). “He called me by name, and said unto me that… God had a work for me to do; and… there was a book deposited, writted upon gold plates” (JS-H 1:33-34).
Reassurance “And it came to pass that when my father had read and seen many great and marvelous things, he did exclaim many things unto the Lord; such as… because thou art merciful, thou wilt not suffer those who come unto thee that they shall perish!” (1 Nephi 1:14). Joseph was informed that God had forgiven his sins (see Smith 57). Moroni also informed Joseph that there were seer stones that “God had prepared… for the purpose of translating the book” stored along with the gold plates (JS-H 1:35).
Conclusion “After the Lord had shown so many marvelous things unto my father, Lehi, yea, concerning the destruction of Jerusalem, behold he went forth among the people, and began to prophesy and to declare unto them concerning the things which he had both seen and heard” (1 Nephi 1:18). “I left the field, and went to the place where the messenger had told me the plates were deposited” (JS-H 1:50).

The First Vision did serve an important part of Joseph Smith’s prophetic call, but must be placed together with the visit of the Angel Moroni for a complete picture of the Prophet’s commission.

Works Cited

Ballard, M. Russell. Our Search for Happiness. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2006.

Bushman, Richard Lyman. Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York: Vintage Books, 2007.

Harper, Steven and Brent L. Topp. “Historical Accounts of the First Vision.” Past Impressions. The Mormon Channel. Web. 22 May 2013.

Jessee, Dean C. “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” BYU Studies Vol. 9, no. 3 (1969).

Jones, Christopher C. “The Power and Form of Godliness: Methodist Conversion Narratives and Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 37, No. 2 (2011), 88-114.

Ostler, Blake Thomas. “The Throne-Theophany and Prophetic Commission in 1 Nephi: A
Form-Critical Analysis.” BYU Studies 26 (Fall 1986), 67-95.

Ricks, Stephen D. “The Narrative Call Pattern in the Prophetic Commission of Enoch.” BYU Studies, 97-105.

Smith, Joseph. Teachings of the Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith. Salt Lake City: Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2007.

The 1838 Account of the First Vision–The Great Mormon Theophany

By far, the most well-known and oft-quoted account of the First Vision is the 1838 “Official History” account, which is readily accessible in the Latter-day Saint volume of scripture known as the Pearl of Great Price. This narrative was first written in 1838 to “disabuse the public mind, and put all inquirers after truth in possession of the facts” concerning Joseph Smith and the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—a response to “the many reports which have been put in circulations… which have been designed by the authors thereof to militate against” the Church (JS-H 1:1). The next year, starting on 11 June 1839, Joseph Smith and James Mulholland began producing the manuscript of the History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which would be completed later by others, edited by B.H. Roberts and finally published in six volumes between 1902 and 1912. The narrative of the First Vision that had been written in 1838 was incorporated into this history and was first printed in Nauvoo in 1842 (see Jessee 6-7).

The 1838 Account is the Most Famous version of the First Vision story

The 1838 Account is the Most Famous version of the First Vision story

An excerpt from this account, as printed in the Pearl of Great Price today is as follows:

Some time in the second year after our removal to Manchester, there was in the place where we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion. It commenced with the Methodists, but soon became general among all the sects in that region of country. Indeed, the whole district of country seemed affected by it, and great multitudes united themselves to the different religious parties, which created no small stir and division amongst the people, some crying, “Lo, here!” and others, “Lo, there!” Some were contending for the Methodist faith, some for the Presbyterian, and some for the Baptist. For, notwithstanding the great love which the converts to these different faiths expressed at the time of their conversion, and the great zeal manifested by the respective clergy, who were active in getting up and promoting this extraordinary scene of religious feeling, in order to have everybody converted, as they were pleased to call it, let them join what sect they pleased; yet when the converts began to file off, some to one party and some to another, it was seen that the seemingly good feelings of both the priests and the converts were more pretended than real; for a scene of great confusion and bad feeling ensued—priest contending against priest, and convert against convert; so that all their good feelings one for another, if they ever had any, were entirely lost in a strife of words and a contest about opinions.

I was at this time in my fifteenth year. My father’s family was proselyted to the Presbyterian faith, and four of them joined that church, namely, my mother, Lucy; my brothers Hyrum and Samuel Harrison; and my sister Sophronia. 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. My mind at times was greatly excited, the cry and tumult were so great and incessant. The Presbyterians were most decided against the Baptists and Methodists, and used all the powers of both reason and sophistry to prove their errors, or, at least, to make the people think they were in error. On the other hand, the Baptists and Methodists in their turn were equally zealous in endeavoring to establish their own tenets and disprove all others. 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? While I was laboring 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. 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. 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. So, in accordance with this, my determination to ask of God, I retired to the woods to make the attempt. It was on the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty. It was the first time in my life that I had made such an attempt, for amidst all my anxieties I had never as yet made the attempt to pray vocally.

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 marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—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 BelovedSon. 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. 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 theirhearts are far from me, they teach for doctrines thecommandments of men, having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof.” He again forbade me to join with any of them; and many other things did he say unto me, which I cannot write at this time. When I came to myself again, I found myself lying on my back, looking up into heaven. When the light had departed, I had no strength; but soon recovering in some degree, I went home. And as I leaned up to the fireplace, mother inquired what the matter was. I replied, “Never mind, all is well—I am well enough off.” I then said to my mother, “I have learned for myself that Presbyterianism is not true.” 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; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? Why the opposition and persecution that arose against me, almost in my infancy?

Some few days after I had this vision, I happened to be in company with one of the Methodist preachers, who was very active in the before mentioned religious excitement; and, conversing with him on the subject of religion, I took occasion to give him an account of the vision which I had had. I was greatly surprised at his behavior; he treated my communication not only lightly, but with great contempt, saying it was all of the devil, that there were no such things as visions or revelations in these days; that all such things had ceased with the apostles, and that there would never be any more of them. I soon found, however, that my telling the story had excited a great deal of prejudice against me among professors of religion, and was the cause of great persecution, which continued to increase; and though I was an obscure boy, only between fourteen and fifteen years of age, and my circumstances in life such as to make a boy of no consequence in the world, yet men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me. It caused me serious reflection then, and often has since, how very strange it was that an obscure boy, of a little over fourteen years of age, and one, too, who was doomed to the necessity of obtaining a scanty maintenance by his daily labor, should be thought a character of sufficient importance to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling. But strange or not, so it was, and it was often the cause of great sorrow to myself. 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. I had now got my mind satisfied so far as the sectarian world was concerned—that it was not my duty to join with any of them, but to continue as I was until further directed. I had found the testimony of James to be true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided (JS-H 1:5-26).

A page from the 1839 manuscript for the History of the Church

A page from the 1839 manuscript for the History of the Church

Church historian Steven C. Harper noted that this account is the official account for good reasons: “It’s by far the most full, the most complete, the most definitive. It’s definitely the one to have in the cannon, although I hope folks won’t be bashful about reading the others as well—there’s no problem reading the others, we can get a fuller, flushed out picture from that” (Harper and Topp). It is the most definitive and well-rounded of the accounts, though not perfect in its details. It took a lot of practice and preparation, but Joseph seemed satisfied with this account.

This was not the first attempt Joseph made to record his history, hence the other accounts we have of the First Vision. Steven C. Harper noted that one reason why Joseph made several attempts at recording his history, particularly noting the First Vision accounts:

I don’t know for sure, but I think he probably, in later years, isn’t very satisfied with [the 1832 account]. At least 3 different times in the 1830s, he starts to keep another history, and each time gets a little more elaborate, a little more sophisticated. He gets good help from the literary people around him and so by the time he writes that one that we’re most familiar with, I think that he thinks of that as his best product, like we might write an essay for a college class—we might put it through two or three versions before we’re real satisfied with it, and since he was going to sent that one out to the world… I think that he definitely got that one the most definitive, the most complete (Harper and Topp).

As previously mentioned, this account was initially published in the Nauvoo Times and Seasons in 1842. It was the second account that Joseph himself had published—the Wentworth letter had been published in the same organ shortly before the serial publication of the History of the Church. It was also the third account to be published in general, with Orson Pratt’s missionary tract having been published previously. Later, in 1851, Apostle Franklin D. Richards—who presided over the British mission, where there were over 32,000 Mormons—published a compilation of several revelations and texts of scriptures by the Prophet Joseph Smith—including selections from his official history—and called this collection the Pearl of Great Price. The purpose of the compilation, he said, was to be “a source of much instruction and edification to many thousands of the Saints.” Later, on 10 October 1880, this compilation was accepted as a standard work of the Church by action of the First Presidency and the general conference of the Saints (The Pearl of Great Price 2). Although this volume has gone through several editions and revisions since that time, the Joseph Smith History, with its excerpts from the first five chapters of the History of the Church, has constantly remained a part of the volume.

1 First Vision

Discrepancies

            The descriptions, details and discrepancies present in this account are interesting to note. I have discussed the details of the Satanic attack previously, but there are other potential problems as well. One of the most conspicuous internal inconsistency is the fact that Joseph states that prior to the vision he, “often said to myself: What is to be done? Who of all these parties are right; or, are they all wrong together?” while he later states that at the time of the vision, “it had never entered into my heart that all were wrong.” The standard Mormon explanation is that Joseph probably considered the idea in his mind, but refused to accept it in his heart, thus allowing him to intellectually consider that they were all wrong, but not believe it at heart. That explanation is complicated, however, by the fact that in the 1832 account Joseph wrote that he was convinced that all the sects were wrong prior to the Sacred Grove experience, stating that he “became convicted… that mankind did not come unto the Lord but that they had apostatized from the true and living faith and there was no society or denomination that built upon the Gospel of Jesus Christ as recorded in the New Testament” (Jessee 3). Most likely, the statement that it had never entered his heart was truly just a slip of the mind on Joseph’s part as he was attempting to portray his struggle and desires. Those familiar with the process of record making shouldn’t be too concerned when there are some inaccuracies in the works that we accept as scriptures—they were, after all, prepared by imperfect men with limited literary skill and memory. The Bible—though accepted by many as infallible—has discrepancies in the multiple accounts of the morning of Christ’s resurrection or Paul’s vision of Christ, for example (see Backman). It was due to this sort of thing that Brigham Young once stated that, “I do not even believe that there is a single revelation, among the many God has given to the Church, that is perfect in its fullness. The revelations of God contain certain doctrine and principle, so far as they go; but it is impossible for the poor, weak low, groveling, sinful inhabitants of the earth to receive a revelation from Almighty in all its perfections. He has to speak to us in a manner to meet the extent of our capacities” (JD 2:314). That principle applies not only to revelations, but to scriptural history as well, since the mental capacity of those recording both revelation and history is the factor in questions.

Another minor problem is found in Joseph’s statement that, “men of high standing would take notice sufficient to excite the public mind against me, and create a bitter persecution; and this was common among all the sects—all united to persecute me” adding that it was odd that he seemed “to attract the attention of the great ones of the most popular sects of the day, and in a manner to create in them a spirit of the most bitter persecution and reviling.” It has been noted that similar visions were commonplace in western New York in this period; that the Palmyra newspapers made no mention of Joseph’s vision; and that close relatives such as Joseph’s mother and younger brother ignored it or confused it with the visit of Moroni. All of this seems to indicate that Joseph did not receive the immediate, intense persecution or wide-spread attention that the 1838 text suggests. It is likely that the Methodist minister did indeed react poorly, that any religious groups he told his beliefs to would be similar in reaction, and maybe even his family ignored or rejected his statements, feeling—like their neighbor—that Joseph’s words were “the sweet dream of a pure-minded boy” (cited in Madsen 10). Those occurrences would have stung the youth, and that deep-set hurt combined with the culmination of nearly ten years of being pursued, reviled, threatened, and driven from place to place—from the experiences of keeping the gold plates safe to the Missouri persecutions—by the time he produced his history is probably what led to his statement of being persecuted by all the religious groups of the time, including the “great ones of the most popular sects of the day.”

A third set of discrepancies stands in the chronology that Joseph gives of events. Much dispute has been given to the accuracy of Joseph’s date and location for the religious excitement that led to the vision. It is not the present author’s intent to give a thorough analysis of that discussion, though it may be noted that Marvin Hill’s article—cited below—does provide a good overview of the subject. In Hill’s analysis, there are some difficulties with the 1838 account’s accuracy—particularly when it comes to placing Lucy’s conversion to the Presbyterian church before the First Vision, as is done in the 1838 account:

The religious turmoil described by Joseph which led to some family members joining the Presbyterians and to much sectarian bitterness does not fit well into the 1820 context …. For one thing, it seems unlikely there could have been heavy sectarian strife in 1820 and then a joint revival where all was harmony in 1824. In addition… Lucy Mack Smith said the revival where she became interested in a particular sect came after Alvin’s death, thus almost certainly in early 1824.

Indicating the angel had told Joseph of the plates prior to the revival, Lucy added that for a long time after Alvin’s death the family could not bear any talk about the golden plates, for the subject had been of great interest to him, and any reference to the plates stirred sorrowful memories. She said she attended the revival with hope of gaining solace for Alvin’s loss. Such detail gives validity to Lucy’s chronology. She would not have been likely to make up such a reaction for herself or the family, nor mistake the time when it happened. I am persuaded Lucy joined the Presbyterians in 1824 (46-47).

The central argument over chronology, however, has been about the existence of a revival or religious excitement close enough to Joseph to have impacted his life by 1820. Reverend Wesley P. Walters has contended that contemporary records do not show evidence of such a revival in Palmyra in 1820—the closest one he accepts as plausible took place in 1824—and thus the vision could not have happened. Mormon scholars—such as Milton V. Backman, Jr. and Richard Lyman Bushman—have contended that there was indeed a revival in 1819 nearby that could have sparked Joseph’s interest. In addition, they have pointed out that Joseph probably had a larger area in mind than a 20-mile radius around his home in speaking of the “region of country” that the revivals took place in and that there was indeed a “religious excitement” (which they point out is different than a full-scale revival) in Palmyra that was strong enough to cause several conversions in 1820. Marvin Hill states that Walters does make some good points, but errs in assuming that an 1824 revival destroys the credibility of Joseph’s whole story. He goes on to state that:

An 1824 revival creates problems for the 1838 account, not that of 1832. Walters overlooks the fact that Joseph said nothing in his 1832 account about a revival prompting his prayer…. Not only does this account ignore the revival, so too does the 1835 account… Neither did Lucy Mack Smith mention a revival when she described Joseph’s first vision…. This vision occurred during the third year after their move to Manchester, Lucy said, which would have been in 1820….

At any rate, if Joseph Smith in 1838 read back into 1820 some details of a revival which occurred in 1824, there is no reason to conclude that he invented his religious experiences…. If he had been stirred by some local revivals earlier, between the ages of twelve and fifteen, then it was not so hard to confuse some of the details. Revivals had been a key factor in his religious experience (Hill 47-50).

Thus, Joseph may have confused some of the details surrounding the experience while writing his polished 1838 account, nearly twenty years after the event, blending revivals and that took place in 1824 and 1819. That does not, however, invalidate his experience of the entire account. To claim that it does is to use a logical fallacy known as negative proof. As David Hackett Fischer defined it, negative proof is “an attempt to sustain a factual proposition merely by negative evidence. It occurs whenever a historian declares that ‘there is no evidence that X is the case,’ and then proceeds to affirm or assume that not-X is the case” (cited in Harper 24). Walters stated, in essence, that a lack of evidence for a Palmyra revival was proof that the First Vision did not occur. Though Joseph spoke of two events in connection with each other, the absence of a revival in Palmyra immediately before the vision would have taken place doesn’t mean that Joseph wasn’t faced with religious questions in a charged atmosphere or that he didn’t have a vision in 1820. It just means that there may be details he confused while writing about the background of his vision twenty years after the fact.

From the evidence we have, it seems most likely that Lucy Mack Smith converted to the Presbyterian Church during revivals around 1824. That does not, however, invalidate the whole of the First Vision experience.

From the evidence we have, it seems most likely that Lucy Mack Smith converted to the Presbyterian Church during revivals around 1824. That does not, however, invalidate the whole of the First Vision experience.

Joseph’s Timing in Writing

            This discussion brings to a head another question about the First Vision accounts: Why did it take so long for Joseph to write about or publish an account of the event? If the vision did occur in 1820, then it was twelve years after the event before Joseph attempted to write about it and twenty two years before he published an account of the theophany. Why wait so long if this was indeed the beginning of Joseph’s career?

Anti-Mormon authors have harped on this particular point, saying that the delay equates to forgery of the past to fit what Joseph was attempting to portraying himself as. For example, in No Man Knows My History, Fawn M. Brodie initially wrote that Joseph concocted the vision in the wake of the 1837 banking crisis, “when the need arose for a magnificent tradition” (25). In the second edition—after the discovery of the 1832 and 1835 accounts—Brodie merely changed the date to fit the discovered accounts, stating that, “It may have been sheer invention, created some time after 1830 when the need arose for a magnificent tradition” (25).

How have Mormons responded to this theory? A survey of apologetic and scholarly work by LDS believers reveals five general responses: that delay in recording does not equate to forging the story later on; that Joseph’s culture did not encourage immediately recording experiences of the sort; that the initial criticism Joseph received for relating the vision would have made him a bit gun shy about sharing the experience; that Joseph felt it was too sacred to share with the world; and that the culture within Mormonism made the publication of an account of the First Vision unlikely during the 1830s. Now, let us look at each of these responses in detail:

1)      Delay in recording does not equate to forging the story later on.

Apostle John A. Widtsoe wrote,

Because this “first vision” was not published by the prophet in printed form until after the prophet began his “history,” in 1838 the conclusion has been offered that the whole story is a fabrication; that it did not occur; that it was invented to bolster up the Prophet’s claims to revelation. It is much the same as to say that the doings of Jesus are fiction because the gospels recounting them were not written until after the death of Jesus, or that Abraham Lincoln was not a rail-splitter because the story of his youth was not printed until he was a mature man. It is a new and astonishing historical dictum (118).

BYU professor Richard Lloyd Anderson has concurred with this point of view, adding that:

Famous people who write their life’s history usually have no diary of their early years, and Joseph Smith was intellectually mature at age thirty-two when he remembered his prayer in the grove at fourteen. As a comparison, there was no narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s youth when he became a serious candidate for United States president at age fifty. He then helped to produce campaign biographies that gave an overview of his teenage years on the frontier in Kentucky and Indiana. They reliably survey his daily life and education then, just as the Prophet responsibly recalls his early life and religious experiences in 1838 (Anderson 10).

Thus, Joseph Smith’s accounts—though written later in life—can be considered relatively accurate. As discussed above, some inaccuracies seem to have crept into Joseph’s memory, but he would have remembered the general experience well enough for it to be considered valid overall.

2)      Joseph’s culture did not encourage immediately recording experiences of the sort.

It is realistic to expect that Joseph would not have written the history at first, since journal writing was not expected or encouraged in the rural New York of the 1820s. Historian Milton V. Backman, Jr. wrote:

Why would Joseph have been keeping a diary at a time when other members of his family and nearly all farmers in his economic class in western New York did not? The poverty of his family prevented him from attending school as frequently as other children, and his continual labor in the fields was not conducive to advanced learning, let alone diary-keeping. Social historians have long understood that there are few writings from the childhood and youth of even the most prominent elites who lived before 1900.… It was not until the late nineteenth century that it became a middle class fashion to write detailed letters and keep diaries.

Thus, considering the culture he lived in, it is unlikely that Joseph would have a journal or made a record of the event immediately after it occurred.

3)      The initial criticism Joseph received for relating the vision would have made him a bit gun shy about sharing the experience

It is quite likely that Joseph didn’t feel comfortable talking about or recording the experience after its initial reception in the community. In the 1838 account, Joseph does discuss the negative reaction of the Methodist minister and—perhaps—some other members of the community. Such a reaction would have discouraged further discussion of his experience for the time being. James B. Allen wrote,

The young prophet said that he had been severely rebuffed the first time he told the story in 1820; and since it represented one of his most profound spiritual experiences, he could well have decided to circulate it only privately until he could feel certain that in relating it he would not receive again the general ridicule of friends (The Significance 34).

Joseph did indeed have excuses for not writing or publishing about the First Vision year after the event.

Joseph did indeed have excuses for not writing or publishing about the First Vision until years after the event.

4)      Joseph felt the First Vision was too sacred to share with the world

A similar—and perhaps not completely separate—point that has been made is that the First Vision was such a sacred experience that Joseph probably didn’t feel comfortable with the public knowing about it. After all, Christ himself taught his disciples to “give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you” (Matt 7:6). The fear was that if the experience was shared, it wouldn’t be taken seriously or even have been used against Mormons—much like it was when Joseph shared the experience with the Methodist minister.

Hugh Nibley, a Mormon apologist, spoke of this argument in this manner:

One may ask, why should Joseph Smith have waited so long to tell his story officially? From his own explanation it is apparent that he would not have told it publicly at all had he not been “induced” to do so by all the scandal stories that were circulating. It was a rule among those possessing the gospel in ancient times that the greater teachings be not publicly divulged. Even at the risk of serious misunderstanding and persecution, the early Christians and the Jewish sectaries before them would not reveal the secrets of their religion to the world; and the constant charge against the Mormons, and especially against Joseph Smith, from the beginning was that they clothed their affairs and doings in secrecy…. Silence in the record is not a proof of ignorance or lack of interest by the writers; the holiest things were not meant for general distribution….

The writer’s great-grandfather, a Jew, one day after he had given Joseph Smith a lesson in German and Hebrew asked him about certain particulars of the first vision. In reply he was told some remarkable things, which he wrote down in his journal that very day. But in the ensuing forty years of his life, during which he had many children and grandchildren and preached many sermons, Brother Neibaur seems never once to have referred to the wonderful things the Prophet told him—it was quite by accident that the writer discovered them in his journal. Why was the talkative old man so close-lipped on the one thing that could have made him famous? Because it was a sacred and privileged communication; it was never published to the world and never should be (Nibley 522).

5)      The culture within Mormonism made the publication of an account of the First Vision unlikely during the 1830s.

There were a few quirks to the culture of the Mormons in the 1830s that would have made creating a record of the event inadvisable. James B. Allen has written extensively on this subject, stating that:

There were at least two factors within the Mormon community of the 1830s that helped make it unnecessary or even inappropriate to lay out the vision as precisely as became the practice in the 1840s and thereafter, or to use it for the didactic purposes that are common today. One was a conscious effort among Mormon founders to avoid creeds and dogma. To the degree that the First Vision could lend itself to creating or supporting even a loose creedal statement about the personal characteristics of God, it simply would not have fit the rather open attitude toward doctrine that characterized the early years of the church….

[The Second Factor] was the general perception of God which, in the 1830s at least, was different in several respects from the doctrines advanced by Joseph Smith in the 1840s and built upon in later years by other church leaders….

What did the Mormons believe about the nature and character of God in the 1830s?…. Perhaps the most significant observation to be made about the pre-Nauvoo concept of God held by ordinary Mormons is that it was not radically different from some other Christian perceptions, and that the newly-converted Saint probably did not need to change his image of God very much just because he had become a Mormon. There may, in fact, have been several concepts of God within the popular Mormon community.

This does not mean that some Mormons did not believe in a corporeal God — only that there was still no creedal statement to that effect and that there was room for diversity of belief…. But this and other ideas about God had not yet found their way into the Mormon press and their profound significance was certainly not a part of the general Mormon consciousness (Emergence 46-48).

Thus, due to an aversion to creeds and allowance of diversity in opinions about the nature of God and other doctrines, creating an account that could perceived as a creedal statement about the nature of God as Joseph would later define it would have been improper and perhaps even disturbing to the Saints during the 1830s.

Overall, we can trust Joseph Smith’s experience as the profound prophetic call he claimed it was. Although he waited many years to record it and seems to have made some errors in his reports, there were reasons for the delay and the details he got right seem to far outweigh his mistakes.

The First Vision was not only Joseph Smith's theophany, but the Great Mormon Theophany

The First Vision was not only Joseph Smith’s theophany, but the Great Mormon Theophany

The Great Mormon Theophany

The 1838 account marked a full transition from the personal, inward conversion experience detailed in the 1832 account and partly in the 1835 account to the founding story of an entire church and people. As two English professors from BYU put it, “by the time Joseph Smith dictated the 1838 version of the First Vision, the transition from plow-boy to prophet was complete. This account of the original theophany thus takes on a significance far different from the earlier versions” (Lambert and Cacroft 37). They then went on to point out the significance of this account in the Mormon psyche:

The First Vision’s larger setting in the “Joseph Smith Story” has become a matter of deep significance for Mormons as they reiterate the well-known story in Church services and in missionary discussions. For while the First Vision is an important matter itself, its telling almost always anticipates the recounting of the appearances of several other heavenly messengers. Thus the appearances of the Angel Moroni and John the Baptist are also fundamental, well-known, and important parts of the account, and together form a recital so familiar as almost to shape a litany which could be repeated in concert by most gatherings of Mormons. It gathers up in itself the essential beginnings not just of the theology, the literature, and the authority, but of the whole religious movement. It reiterates in a profound way the origins not just of another church or even another movement, but of a whole new religious tradition.

The Joseph Smith Story in it completeness is, then, not just a series of interesting episodes in our historical literature. It has come to function on a deeper level of our collective psyche as the true narrative of the sacred origins of this last dispensation (Lambert and Cacroft 39-40).

The authors of the above-cited article continue on, speaking of how this experience has come to not only function as the founding story of Mormonism, but also a sacred story that can be repeated in a small way in the individual lives of believers—what some would term a religious myth:

Furthermore, the story is a narrative, the acceptance or “knowing” of which is a mark of true initiation into the fold of the church, and an experience which can be, in essence, repeated “in the sense that one is seized by the sacred, exalting power of the events recollected or reenacted.”…

[This] helps explain the important function and form of the canonized Joseph Smith 2 in the Pearl of Great Price, with its narrative series of epiphanies and persecutions. The 1838 version thus becomes at once a paradigm of the religious experience by which one may confirm the reality of the new dispensation, and a religious experience itself. The proper telling and hearing of the narrative allow one, in a sense, to “relive” for himself the sacred origins of his faith….

The Joseph Smith Story, as Mormons have canonized it, is repeated, not as an aesthetic or historical artifact, but as a kinetic experience, meant to bring about either a religious reinforcement or a spiritual reformation in the life of the narrator as well as the listener. Its present shape and form make clear that it is not just a fantastic part of a remarkable religious history. It is, in the best sense of that word, a religious myth functioning to identify and mold a remarkable religious tradition (Lambert and Cacroft 40, 42).

Thus, the First Vision—particularly as it has come down to us in the Pearl of Great Price—has come to function as the founding story of Mormonism and an experience all Mormons are expected to share in, one way or another. Although there are some discrepancies between the histories given in the accounts, they can be trusted as a true experience that shaped not only Joseph Smith’s life, but the lives of millions of others. In this way, as James B. Allen wrote, the Frist Vision “was, indeed, not just Joseph Smith’s theophany, but the Great Mormon Theophany” (Emergence 61).

Stained Glass Window of the First Vision, Zwickau, Germany. Image courtesy LDS.org

Stained Glass Window of the First Vision, Zwickau, Germany.
Image courtesy LDS.org



Works Cited

Allen, James B. “Eight Contemporary Accounts of Joseph Smiths First Vision—What Do We Learn from Them?” Improvement Era (April 1970), pp. 4-13.

—        “Emergence of a Fundamental: The Expanding Role of Joseph Smith’s First Vision in Mormon Religious Thought.” Journal of Mormon History, Vol. 7 (1980) 43-61.

—         “The Significance of Joseph Smith’s ‘First Vision’ in Mormon Thought.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 1, No 3 (Autumn 1966), 29-45.

Anderson, Richard L. “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision.” Ensign April 1996, p. 10-21.

Backman, Milton V., Jr. “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision.” Ensign Jan 1985. Web. 15 May 2013.

Brodie, Fawn M. No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1945.

—        No Man Knows My History: The Life of Joseph Smith the Mormon Prophet, 2nd ed. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Harper, Steven C. “Evaluating Three Arguments Against Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Interpreter: A Journal of Mormon Scripture, Vol 2 (2012), 17-33.

Harper, Steven and Brent L. Topp. “Historical Accounts of the First Vision.” Past Impressions. The Mormon Channel. Web. 22 May 2013.

Hill, Marvin S. “The First Vision Controversy: A Critique and Reconciliation.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, Vol. 34, No. 1 (2001), 35-53.

Jessee, Dean C. “The Early Accounts of Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” BYU Studies Vol. 9, no. 3 (1969).

Lambert, Neal E. and Richard H. Cacroft. “Literary Form and Historical Understanding: Joseph Smith’s First Vision.” Journal of Mormon History Vol. 7 (1980): 31-42.

Madsen, Truman G. Joseph Smith the Prophet. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1989.

Nibley, Hugh. “Censoring Joseph Smith’s Story,” Improvement Era (July, 1961), 490-492, 522-528.

The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2000.

Widstoe, John A. Gospel Interpretations. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1947.