Note: this narration is only of the prayer and vision, not other closely related matters. It contains descriptive material (not word-for-word) from the four main accounts originating with Joseph Smith. I put it together to show how they collectively enlarge our understanding by adding depth, breadth, and detail. One quickly understands why this vision is considered as foundational to the restoration of the gospel and the eventual establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Editorial commentary is in parenthesis:
Young Joseph looked around to ensure he was alone and then called upon the Lord for the first time vocally (having previously prayed in his heart). As Joseph began to pray, the devil exercised his power to stop Joseph’s tongue from speaking (vocalizing) and he heard noises like someone walking behind him (noises probably made by Satan). Joseph strove harder to pray but heard more walking noises behind him. He jumped up and looked around but saw no one. He felt surrounded by overwhelming darkness. He thought he was doomed to destruction and knew it was the power of the unseen devil at hand. Joseph again kneeled; his tongue was loosed and he called on the Lord in mighty prayer, and he was heard.
While praying, a pillar of light or fire brighter than the noon sun appeared above his head, descended, and rested on him. The instant that Joseph saw the light the devil left him. He was filled with the Spirit of the Lord and unspeakable joy (which means he was transfigured at this time so that he could abide the presence of God).
Joseph’s mind was then taken from notice of his surroundings as he became enwrapped in vision. He was encircled by heavenly fire or light that consumed nothing in the grove. A (first) Personage, “the Lord” (meaning the Father), opened the heavens and appeared.
Momentarily another Personage appeared and Joseph saw “the Lord” (Jesus Christ the Son of God) who exactly resembled the Father. Joseph was now beholding two Personages whose brightness and glory he could not find words to describe but that looked like each other. They both stood above him in the air. The first Personage to appear spoke and said, “Joseph, this is My Beloved Son, Hear Him.” (This was the Father introducing and bearing witness of His Son.)
(We are not sure what order all of the conversation occurred in; probably Jesus spoke first.) Joseph collected himself enough to ask Them which Church was right, thinking to join it. Jesus, the second Personage, told Joseph that his sins were forgiven and that he should keep the commandments. Jesus told Joseph that He (Jesus Christ) was the Son of God.
Jesus told Joseph not to join any existing church (or sect or denomination) for they were all wrong; their (ancient formally prepared) creeds were an abomination in His sight; the local professors or ministers of Protestant religion that Joseph knew were corrupt (teaching false doctrines) and drew near to Jesus with their lips but their hearts were far from Him. They taught the philosophies or commandments of men for doctrine and had a form of Godliness, but in truth denied Him and His power. All religious denominations were believing incorrect doctrines and none were acknowledged of Him. Jesus again commanded Joseph not to join any church—to “go not after them.”
Jesus also told Joseph that He was crucified for the world so that believers may have eternal life. None then living were good (in the sense of being authorized ministers teaching pure truths); people had turned from the gospel and did not keep His commandments. God’s anger is kindled against the inhabitants of the earth (the result of the great apostasy). Jesus said He will come the second time soon, as prophesied, in glory. Jesus told Joseph other things which Joseph chose not to divulge then. One item that he later recorded was that he (Joseph) was promised that the fulness of the gospel would at some future time be made known to him.
Joseph saw many angels during this vision. (I speculate that they were Michael or Adam, Gabriel or Noah, Enoch, Abraham, Melchizedec, Moses, Elijah, Peter, James, and John, the brother of Jared, Nephi, other Book of Mormon prophets, and various others who were dispensation heads and prophets.)
When all of the personages, the Gods and angels, had departed, Joseph found himself lying on his back looking up into the sky because the extraordinary manifestation and transfiguration had spiritually and physically exhausted him.1
A Doctrinal Summary of the First Vision from the Teachings of Apostles and Prophets
[The below quotations and most doctrinal concepts are taken from the teachings found in the blog articles of the 20-part series (most of which have not yet been posted), so I have not footnoted them. I have put these concepts together in a fairly understandable fashion, but readers will quickly observe that they could also have been presented as bullet points. In a way, this precious material distills some of the most salient and interesting doctrinal concepts taught to the Church over the last century.]
One reason that Joseph Smith received the answer to his prayer that he did at age fourteen was because he had “perfect trust” in God and “no doubt in his mind.” Further, Elder Orson F. Whitney believed that God will not appear to just any young man or woman who asks Him the same question—that being which church is right, even one with no doubt and perfect trust. Joseph was foreordained and fore-prepared for this visitation.
Agreeing, Elder Bruce R. McConkie taught: “I do not think that the Father and the Son would have appeared to an ordinary fourteen-and-a-half-year-old boy, if he had gone out into that grove of trees to ask the Lord which of all the churches was right. . . . The Lord had been preparing Joseph Smith for that event from all eternity. . . . Joseph Smith had the spiritual stature, the strength for righteousness that enabled him to endure the vision.”
What was Joseph Smith’s form of communication with the Father and the Son on that occasion? When serving as a member of the First Council of the Seventy, Elder McConkie wrote, in an internal book review: “You indicate that Joseph Smith communed with the Father and the Son ‘as one man speaketh with his friend.’ This, of course, is what the record says that Moses did in talking to the God of Israel. I may be wrong, but I always assumed that this kind of communication meant that a man talked to God face to face with all his faculties. That is, it is the kind of communion that Joseph Smith had in the Kirtland Temple when the Lord appeared to accept the building. In the case of the First Vision Joseph, presumably, was in a trance; that is, he was unconscious. He came to himself after the vision was over. This view may, or may not be correct, it is just what I always have assumed this phrase meant.”
This ruminating by Elder McConkie brings up the question of whether Joseph was speaking directly with the Father and the Son, or was in some kind of trance, wherein the communication may have been more of an out-of-body spiritual experience. For example, the prophet Mormon reports that the Nephite disciples were not sure themselves regarding their own heavenly experience: “And whether they were in the body or out of the body, they could not tell; for it did seem unto them like a transfiguration of them. . .” (3 Nephi 28:15). Elder McConkie recognizes that his assumption may or may not be correct. Bearing on this question, I note this statement from Elder Orson F. Whitney, who passed away some fifteen years before Elder McConkie’s call as a General Authority: “I stood within the very grove where it is believed the Father and the Son appeared to and conversed with him as one man converses with another.”
Other Apostolic commenters have reinforced the directness of actual face-to-face communication, though it is of course also acknowledged that the Holy Ghost was involved. Elder Charles W. Penrose wrote: “We may not perhaps exactly explain how and by what means Joseph saw the Father and the Son. He called it a vision. That is right, it was a vision. But what is a vision of that kind? A vision like that which Moses had when he saw the Lord face to face. He saw the Father and spoke to him, and the Lord spoke to him. Moses declared that he saw him, not with his natural eyes, but with his spiritual vision. . . .” Other Apostles have likewise affirmed that the communication was direct vocal conversational speaking. Perhaps the notion of Joseph falling into a trance to communicate is incorrect.i Others who have commented have stated that Joseph conversed with these Heavenly Personages, in a state of transfiguration, and then, by the conclusion, lost his physical strength (as did Moses), falling to the ground on his back. (It is well-established one must be transfigured to endure the presence of God.)
President Marion G. Romney taught: “He heard their voices, for they both spoke to him. He was given a personal introduction to the resurrected Jesus by the Father himself.” On another occasion he reiterated the same thing: “When he came out of that sacred interview he knew with certainty the nature of God. He had seen and conversed with him. From him he had received a personal introduction to his resurrected Son Jesus Christ.” The definiteness of this conversation is a consistent teaching among the prophets and apostles. Over and over they indicate that he “spoke with” or “conversed with” the Father and the Son in full possession of his faculties.
While it is declared that this is the greatest vision or visitation ever given to a mortal man of which we have scriptural record, it should also be understood that no priesthood authority was given to Joseph during this vision, to act at this time; that power came later with visits from angels with keys.
Another item worth consideration is that the length of Joseph’s conversation with Jesus is not known, and Joseph did not share with others everything he was told by Jesus. Some things he stated that he held back, that he did not write; perhaps they were too sacred to share.
Among other things, in his vision, Joseph learned: the Father and the Son are two distinct beings; they have bodies of flesh and bones; Jesus is God’s son; God bears testimony that Jesus is His son; Jesus speaks for God His father (even today); that God’s church was not then on earth, that a complete apostasy had occurred on earth. Joseph was persecuted for repeating what Jesus told him about His church being absent from earth. We do not apologize for what the Lord told Joseph about all other churches.
Further, Joseph learned that there are no winners in contentious religious debates; the devil is real and powerful but is nothing compared to heavenly light; that he (Joseph) was made in God’s image; that he or anyone could ask God in faith and be answered (though not in the same way)—and that God has a work for him to do later. As a result of this visitation, Joseph became a perfect witness of God and Jesus.
Less thrilling is the truth that Satan is a real spirit personage of great power. President J. Reuben Clark wrote: “From that sacred hour in the grove, Satan never forgot Joseph for a moment until his murderers had finished their work, and never to this day has Satan forgotten Joseph’s mission and work. Slander, vilification, falsehood, persecution, plunderings, whippings, mobbings, law courts, jails, were daily piled upon Joseph for a quarter of a century, and then he was massacred by a mob. . . .” President Hinckley adds, the idea that all ministers of religion are not corrupt, but those that Joseph Smith dealt with after sharing his vision, and many he dealt with later, were.
The First Vision is the heart and foundation of the restored Church of Jesus Christ and is the most remarkable vision ever received in the history of the world, given at this time because it began or opened the final culminating dispensation of the fulness of times. The visitation of God and Jesus sanctified the sacred grove.
Lastly, many of these Apostles and Prophets declare their witness that this visitation occurred to be perfect, with no doubt or mistake or error involved. They have absolute knowledge that it is absolute truth and reality.
Joseph was wearied with his experience in the Grove. The encounter, however long or short, demanded much from him. He says, “I came to myself.” I think it inappropriate to say that he had been in a trance or a mystic state. The clearest parallels come from the ancient records of Moses and Abraham and Enoch. Like those prophets of old, Joseph was filled with a spirit which enabled him to endure the presence of God. Is that spirit enervating or is it energizing? My considered answer is, “Yes.” It is both. It demands from us a concentration and a surrender comparable to nothing else possible in this life. But it also confers great capacities that transcend our finite mental, spiritual, and physical powers.
In 1832, emerging from the vision on the three degrees of glory (Doctrine and Covenants 76) with his companion in the vision, Sidney Rigdon, the Prophet looked strong, while Sidney was limp and pale. To this the Prophet, with a certain humility as also perhaps with a little condescension, said, “Sidney is not as used to it as I am.” But after the First Vision, he was feeble. It was difficult for him to go home. Similarly, in his 1823 encounter with Moroni, the repetitive encounter, he was left weak, and his father sent him home. He couldn’t even climb the fence, though he was usually a strong and vigorous boy. Neibaur reports him saying of his condition immediately following the First Vision, “I . . . felt uncommon feeble.”