As is probably fairly well known by now to most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, at the October 2019 General Conference, President Russell M. Nelson said:
In the springtime of the year 2020, it will be exactly 200 years since Joseph Smith experienced the theophany that we know as the First Vision. God the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph, a 14-year-old youth. That event marked the onset of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fulness, precisely as foretold in the Holy Bible. . . .
Thus, the year 2020 will be designated as a bicentennial year. General conference next April will be different from any previous conference. In the next six months, I hope that every member and every family will prepare for a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.
I am sure many of us are curious what President Nelson meant about next conference being “different from any previous conference.” I have no inside information, but surely it would be safe to guess that such a conference would include powerful teachings and testimony from prophets and apostles and other general church officers regarding the First Vision and other Restoration events. I think myself on solid ground in so venturing, in part because President Nelson also noted it would be “a unique conference that will commemorate the very foundations of the restored gospel.” Those foundations are understood to be the very items President Nelson referenced by name in his address and should be on the tip of every member’s tongue.
In anticipation of a spiritual outpouring on the faithful in April, I have assembled some precious nuggets of such teachings and testimony already given to us over many decades, for posting in a series, from early January to early April of this bicentennial year, when this “unique” conference will convene and all who wish will then discover what is to be offered us as a spiritual feast by the Lord’s prophets, seers, and revelators. I take note that the April 1920 General Conference was somewhat unusual itself, with many speakers referencing the First Vision in-depth and bearing powerful testimony. (One item in this series includes some quotations from that commemoration.) I also direct interested readers to the April 1920 Improvement Era (yester-year’s version of the Ensign), which constituted a 100-year commemorative issue filled with teachings and testimony and history about the First Vision by Church leaders of that day.
Of course, President Nelson, the Prophet of God today, is free to organize the coming Conference however he feels directed. So far we have learned that “the Saturday evening session will be held for all members of the Young Women and Relief Society, and all holders of the Aaronic Priesthood and the Melchizedek Priesthood.” This is indeed unusual!
Until then, and for long afterward, we can expect the devil to have his mortal emissaries engaged at full throttle, doing all they can to cast doubt and disbelief on the reality of the boy prophet’s First Vision. They will use whatever means they can to harm and damage and destroy faith. Such is the nature of opposition in all things. “The adversary is quadrupling his efforts to disrupt testimonies and impede the work of the Lord” warned our Prophet. Yet it is hard for them to do much to diminish perhaps the best documented vision ever given a mortal man. And on top of the historical documentation we also have the (far more important) witness of the Spirit of the Lord at play also. This is so very much more than the devil can overcome; a common testimony shared within millions of believer’s hearts. I have heard faithful people declare they would rather lay down their lives at once than deny their inner spiritual witness from the Holy Spirit that the First Vision took place as Joseph declared, and that the Book of Mormon is a true historically authentic scriptural record.
I trust my small contribution, that of searching out, selecting, and re-presenting the contributions of others—precious “pearls of great price”—can help lift and edify and strengthen and stabilize the faith of any who chance to find these items. I find myself rejoicing in such testimonies as this from President Gordon B. Hinckley, one of the greatest among the Apostles of our dispensation to teach and testify of the First Vision—who declared: “How deeply grateful I am that we of this Church do not rely on any man-made statement concerning the nature of Deity. Our knowledge comes directly from the personal experience of Joseph Smith, who, while yet a boy, spoke with God the Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, the Risen Lord. He knelt in Their presence; he heard Their voices; and he responded. Each was a distinct personality. Small wonder that he told his mother that he had learned that her church was not true. And so, one of the great over-arching doctrines of this Church is our belief in God the Eternal Father. He is a being, real and individual. He is the great Governor of the universe, yet He is our Father, and we are His children.”
For any that are less familiar with this (evidently) unprecedented theophany, or visitation, of God and Jesus to a young farm boy named Joseph Smith in the spring of 1820, I here give a little list of helpful resources for further study, all from solid faithful sources:
- A good informative beginning might be one of two version of a fine BYU devotional address given a couple of years ago by Elder Richard J. Maynes (Of the Presidency of the Seventy): here for longer version or here for shorter.
- The Church published this good review in the Ensign in 1985, and this one in 1996.
- This article looking at eight accounts came out in the Improvement Era in 1970.
- In an effort to better inform members who were being misled or misinformed by critics and doubters, the Church published a Gospel Topics Essay on the various accounts of the First Vision. As one would expect, the critics have taken aim at it also.
- In support of the aforementioned Essay, and for people who want to delve deeper into the scholarship and documentation, the Joseph Smith Papers group has given us this. See also their new podcast channel
- Also worth noting, some faithful BYU scholars have written on the subject of the First Vision, one here, and one here. These also refute the false claims of the critics.
- Truman Madsen, a former (deceased) BYU professor and Joseph Smith scholar, lectured on the First Vision, giving a strong well-rounded perspective. You can read or listen to him, as preferred. I like his reference to this experience as the “first visitation,” which is an even more accurate way to describe what happened.
- A fine review and documentation of the canonized 1838 account of the First Vision by First Vision scholar Milton V. Backman.
- Highly respected scholar Richard L. Anderson’s article in BYU Studies, “Circumstantial Confirmation of the First Vision Through Reminiscences.” (Click the .pdf download button for free.)
- The already referenced April 1920 number of the Improvement Era, filled with articles on the First Vision and related matters.
This list is by no means comprehensive, but if pursued will give readers a strong introduction and sufficient foundation to better appreciate the teachings and testimonies shared in these blog posts. Of course, Joseph Smith—History is the best place to begin, or for that matter, to end; for the Spirit of the Lord will enlighten and witness of truth to any honest and sincere truth-seeker that asks of God, whether they are an investigator, already a gospel scholar, or a church leader—James 1:5 was not written exclusively for the Prophet Joseph Smith. Most of the posts in the series are made up of compiled quotations, with brief introductions or explanations in italics. I have sought to provide links to sources (or other citation), but have not treated these as scholarly articles filled with exhaustive documentation; what is given should be sufficient.
As for myself, I have had it made known to me by the power of the Holy Ghost that Joseph Smith saw the Father and the Son just as he said he did. And I have had that personal revelation reaffirmed while assembling this series.
To those who dispute and wrangle over supposed differences in the various accounts of the First Vision, especially the 1832 account wherein Joseph only spoke of “the Lord,” I say this: when you die and cross through the veil to the other side, if you are permitted, you might ask Joseph why he wrote it the way he did and he will give you an entirely satisfactory explanation—but by then it may be too late to enjoy the society of the prophets and apostles and faithful Saints who were valiant in the testimony of Jesus (D&C 76:79) as revealed through Joseph (see D&C 138:53-55).
This reminds me of what President Wilford Woodruff said at his ninetieth birthday celebration, as he briefly contemplated the false philosophies of a prominent agnostic (unbeliever) of his day: “I believe that when Robert Ingersoll goes into the spirit world he will find the Bible is not a novel. He will learn that there if never before. He will learn that the crucifixion of the Lord Jesus Christ and the sacrifice He made is not a burlesque, but that that was done for the salvation of the world. And he will find that there will be a God there, there will be a heaven there, there will be a hell there, there will be everything there of which the Bible has spoken concerning it.” Such will also be the case for all who doubt or disbelieve Joseph’s testimony; they will go into the spirit world and find they were led astray. On the other hand, those who feel and heed the Spirit of Truth (over any scholarship), know that “I the Lord, . . . called upon my servant Joseph Smith, Jun., and spake unto him from heaven, and gave him commandments” (D&C 1:17), and that by following this Prophet and his successors, they will gain eternal life.
Having thus introduced this blog series on the First Vision, I now provide the first installment.
Faithful Women Testify of the Prophet Joseph Smith’s First Vision
(Part one of a series compiled by Dennis B. Horne)
The below narrations regarding the testimonies of some faithful women are as faith-affirming and edifying as those given by men—since the Holy Spirit works according to personal purity and faith, not gender. Elders Lee and Andersen tell the stories of some women that they are familiar with.
M. Isabella Horne was an immigrant to Canada from England in the early 1800s and is the third-great-grandmother of the compiler of this series. She and Joseph Horne, whom she married not long before they joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, entertained some of the leaders of the Church in their home, and let them preach to locals in their barn. Her testimony as related below in two separate but similar sources is one of the lesser-known historical accounts mentioning the First Vision by a contemporary.
I first met the Prophet Joseph Smith in the fall of 1837, at my home in the town of Scarborough, Canada West. When I first shook hands with him I was thrilled through and through and I knew that he was a Prophet of God, and that testimony has never left me, but is still strong within me. While in Canada he visited all the branches of the Church, and gave the saints instructions. Brother and Sister [John] Taylor, my husband, and I enjoyed the privilege of accompanying the Prophet on these visits. I heard him relate his first vision when the Father and Son appeared to him: also his receiving the Gold Plates from the Angel Moroni. 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.
The last time I shook hands with the Prophet was at the Mansion House, on an occasion when I had called to see part of the family.
I testify that Joseph Smith was the greatest Prophet that ever lived on this earth, the Savior, only, excepted. There was a personal magnetism about him which drew all people who became acquainted with him, to him.
I feel greatly honored when I realize that I have had the privilege of personally entertaining this great man, of ministering to his temporal wants, of shaking hands with him, and listening to his voice. I heard him 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 [of the first vision], 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. I know that he was true to his trust, and that the principles that he advanced and taught are true.
I recalled an experience that we had with a group of students from Brigham Young University, who were gracious enough to come under the leadership of President Wilkinson to a little group over in the Lion House, and there sixteen, representing sixteen foreign countries, were asked to stand and tell how they came to know about the gospel and accept it, why they were at Brigham Young University, and to bear their testimonies. It was a most intensely interesting evening. We heard from young men and women from Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, the Scandinavian countries, France, and England. The story was the same. When they began to relate how they came to find the gospel, it was this: They were yearning for truth. They were seeking for light. They were not satisfied, and in the midst of their search, someone came to them with the truths of the gospel. They prayed about it and sought the Lord intensely, intently, with all their hearts, and came to receive a divine testimony by which they knew that this is the gospel of Jesus Christ. One young woman said, “I had been studying the gospel, and this night I came to a meeting and I heard them sing, ‘Joseph Smith’s First Prayer,’ which gave in song the story of the first vision, and before they had finished that song, into my heart the Spirit bore testimony that this is the Church and kingdom of God.” So within the heart of everyone, every honest seeker after truth, if he has the desire to know, and studies with real intent and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, the kingdom of God may be within him, or in other words, the power to receive it is his.
It was on “the morning of a beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” when 14-year-old Joseph Smith went into the grove, knelt in prayer, and “saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above [him] in the air.” He said: “One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” Can you imagine how 14-year-old Joseph must have felt to see God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, and to hear Heavenly Father call him by his name?
When I visited the Sacred Grove, I tried to imagine what it must have been like to have been Joseph Smith. In those quiet moments, the Spirit whispered to my beating heart that I was standing on holy ground and that all that the Prophet Joseph Smith had said was true. Then came the powerful realization that we are all the beneficiaries of his faith, courage, and steadfast desire to obey God. He had received an answer to his humble prayer. He had seen the Father and His Beloved Son. There in the Sacred Grove, I knew that Heavenly Father not only knew Joseph Smith by name, but He also knows each of us by name. And just as Joseph Smith had an important part to play in this great and marvelous work, we too have an important part to play in these latter days.
Elder Neal L. Andersen:
At the request of President Monson I conferred the sealing power upon a wonderful man named brother James Valery. When he and Sister Valery were sitting before me . . . I asked them what their history was. They explained they were converts to the Church, baptized in San Antonio, Texas. . . . As I was talking to them, to Sister Valery, I asked her about her testimony. She gave me more than I will tell you, but just this little excerpt. She said after her first lesson, it was in a home where six missionaries had come to watch a church movie in a member’s home. And then they gave the Valery’s their first lesson. She said, as I was about to go out the door a missionary looked at me very directly, and he said to me (I had her write it down and send it to me), “a missionary who had remained quiet throughout the discussion stepped out of the group and stood right in from on me. He told me about a young man named Joseph Smith who had knelt in prayer in a grove of trees, and that he saw God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ.” She told me that when he told her that testimony that it went into her heart like fire and she could not release it from her heart. I said to her, “did this Elder teach you the discussions?” She said, “No, that was the only time I ever saw him; that day.”
Note: Elder Anderson tracked down the missionary for Sister Valery, named Silvers, who was unable to remember that particular occasion, but they had a joyful reunion. (Excerpt from MTC devotional address, August 27, 2013.)
Elder Adam S. Bennion:
I want to take you into that Sacred Grove for just a minute. We had listened through those four days to 248 wonderful young men and women—missionaries, and students from Brigham Young University—if you could have heard them, you would have been proud, too. They all bore wonderful witness, but included in that Sunday service, attended by some 750 people, were two women I shall never forget, both of them brought up in wheelchairs to the little platform that stands in the Grove.
One of them, Sister Louise Lake, has a sublime faith, the faith that one day she will walk again. God grant her that request. The other girl, a Miss Brown from Connecticut, who said, as she was wheeled up, “I know that I shall never walk again”—misshapen limbs, which under palsy she has such a hard time to control. She said that when that disease first struck her, she was numbed for a while, and she was bitter for a while, but she said, “I have risen above all that”—and I think when she was through, there wasn’t a dry in the grove. The young people who heard Miss Brown that day will never forget. She said, “Crippled as I am in my body, I rejoice that my spirit is still intact. I have the faith to believe that one day, either here or elsewhere, God will work out the healing of my body- and while I live, let me never complain, but let me go about bearing my witness to his goodness.”
This article is cross-posted with the permission of the author, Dennis B. Horne, from the blog at truthwillprevail.xyz.