I was in a recent stake conference priesthood leadership meeting where Elder Russell M. Nelson of the Quorum of the Twelve presided and spoke. He opened up the meeting to questions, and one brother asked for his advice in preparing young people for a mission. Elder Nelson gave two pieces of advice: one, study the word of the Lord in the scriptures, and two, gain a testimony of the prophet Joseph Smith. I’d like to focus on the latter today, particularly on Joseph Smith’s First Vision.
Many of the important gospel truths that LDS missionaries teach were restored through Joseph Smith–that we lived with God before our birth, the importance of gospel ordinances, the necessity of priesthood authority, that families can be together forever, and much added depth of understanding of the Atonement of Jesus Christ. One of the most profound truths restored through Joseph the Prophet was about the nature of God and Jesus, and much of that was learned in the First Vision.
Summary of Joseph Smith’s First Vision
In the spring of 1820, after much meditation and studying of the bible, 14-year-old Joseph Smith followed the counsel in James 1:5 that “if any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God.” Joseph desired guidance in his life, he wanted to know which church was correct, and he desired to be cleansed from his sins. He left his home one morning and found seclusion in a grove of trees and prayed. In response to this prayer, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to Joseph Smith. This sacred experience was the beginning of the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It led to other visitations by angelic messengers, to the coming forth of new scriptures such as the Book of Mormon, and to the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with priesthood authority from God.
Four Accounts of the First Vision
Some young people are surprised to learn that Joseph Smith wrote, or dictated, his First Vision experience four times. Each account of the First Vision was written in response to different needs and addressed different audiences. The four accounts were written in 1832, 1835, 1838, and 1842 respectively. Critics of the Church like to focus on the differences in these tellings of the First Vision and use such differences as they can find to attack Joseph Smith. But I have found that the four accounts of the First Vision are rather complementary of each other, and come together in beautiful harmony. Each emphasizes different aspects of his experience, and gives different insights about Joseph and his interaction with Diety.
- 1832 Account: Though it was written twelve years after the experience, this is the first written account we have. It was part of Joseph’s autobiography and emphasized his search for religious truth and his desire to be forgiven of his sins.
- 1835 Account: This one comes from a conversation Joseph Smith had with a visitor to Kirtland, Ohio and was recorded in his diary by one of his scribes. One detail unique to the 1835 account is Joseph’s statement that in addition to two personages, he saw many angels.
- 1838 Account: This is the version found in LDS scriptures, in the Pearl of Great Price. It is clear that the Prophet Joseph more carefully prepared this account and intended it to be the primary one used in the telling of the history of the Church. The emphasis of this description of the First Vision is Joseph’s initial confusion regarding the various religions and God’s declaration regarding the true Church.
- 1842 Account: The fourth account by Joseph Smith was included in a letter he wrote in 1842 to a newspaper editor named John Wentworth. In this account, Joseph included a statement implied in the other accounts but not specifically stated—that he was told “that the fulness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.”
For more information, please refer to the gospel topic article called Accounts of the First Vision on LDS.org or the article appearing in the Ensign magazine in January 1985 called Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision.
The First Visitation
Though we call it a “vision”, the Mormon scholar Truman G. Madsen liked to refer to it as a “visitation” to emphasize that it wasn’t just a dream that Joseph made up in his mind, but that he was truly visited by heavenly beings. Furthermore, we call Joseph’s experience the First Vision, because it was the first in a series of heavenly visions, revelations, and visitations. But to Joseph Smith at the time it was not the First Vision. It was an answer to his prayer. It was a message of forgiveness and it gave direction to his life. Joseph said his “soul was filled with love and for many days I could rejoice with great Joy and the Lord was with me.”
Another LDS scholar named Richard Lyman Bushman noted in his book, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling, that at the time of the First Vision, Joseph didn’t tell many people, not even is family initially, much about the experience. He seems to have viewed it as a personal religious experience. The day of the event, Joseph only reported, “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.'” (JSH 1:20)
I was in a meeting once where Elder David A. Bednar spoke. He mentioned the scripture above and pointed out that a key doctrine in that verse is that Joseph Smith learned the truth for himself. Learning the truth for ourselves is something we all must do. Missionaries especially must gain their own testimony that Joseph Smith was the prophet of the Restoration, that the Book of Mormon is true, and that Jesus Christ is our Savior and Redeemer.
My Testimony of the First Vision
During my two years in Rosario Argentina as a missionary, I bore my testimony countless times of the Prophet Joseph Smith and of the truthfulness of his First Vision. I had the following scripture memorized from the frequent telling of the experience:
“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. One of them spake unto me, calling me by name and said, pointing to the other—This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (JSH 1:16-17)
I knew it then and my testimony is even stronger now. I know that this event really happened. Joseph was personally visited and called by God to be a prophet and to be the instrument in the Lord’s hand in restoring the full gospel of Jesus Christ to the earth.
I highly recommend that all future missionaries memorize this verse now. As you do so, your testimony will grow. Your purpose as a missionary is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ as restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith. The Book of Mormon is powerful convincing evidence that Jesus Christ lives and loves us, that Joseph Smith is a true prophet, and that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is God’s true church. I pray that you can develop your own testimony of these things and “learn for yourself.” The gospel will bless individuals and families, it will help meet their spiritual needs, and it will help them gain their deepest, truest desires in this life and in the eternities. And as a missionary you will have the pleasure of being an instrument in the Lord’s hands to deliver those blessings.