My Thoughts on The First Vision
January 19, 1999
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.
When a fourteen-year-old boy, named Joseph Smith Jr, went into a grove of trees in 1820 to pray about which church he should join, his miraculous experience would change his life forever, and would also impact modern religion. It would become one of the most hotly debated topics in all of Christendom. Did God the Father and Jesus Christ appear to him? Here is Joseph Smith's own account of what happened in that grove, and the events that led up to what has been named "the First Vision". Following Joseph's testimony will be my own thoughts and analysis of the "First Vision".
It begins with a religious fervor sweeping the area of upstate New York where Joseph lived. Joseph was investigating each church, deciding which one he would join. This segment picks up as Joseph is reading his Bible, looking for answers.
"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 passage 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 marvellous 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 Beloved Son. Hear Him!
"My object in going to inquire of the Lord was to know which of all the sects was right, that I might know which to join. No sooner, therefore, did I get possession of myself, so as to be able to speak, than I asked the Personages who stood above me in the light, which of all the sects was right--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 their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrines the commandments 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."
Okay, I'm going to give my thoughts on this, and also demonstrate that the First Vision is entirely consistent with biblical precedents. I think that it is first, important to point out that Joseph's first step in determining which church to join was to study the scriptures. How many of us, both LDS and non-LDS, have searched through the scriptures to find what directions and guidance the Lord and his prophets of Old have given us on how to recognize Christ's church. This is also important to learn how the primitive church Jesus organized was structured. How can anyone truly claim that they belong to His church, when the church they belong to doesn't come close to resembling the church Christ himself organized. It is also interesting to note that before the revelation came the Spirit, testifying the truth of that verse to him. The great feeling Joseph felt in his heart was the Holy Ghost, confirming the truth of James 1:5. God does indeed teach and confirm truth to those who ask Him in faith. Joseph came to the conclusion that all men and women must come to when trying to decide which church is true: he must pray about it.
The next part I want to cover is where he says he was attacked by an unseen force. Satan must have known what was coming, or else he would have left Joseph unmolested. The devil wouldn't have bothered him if he thought Joseph was just another cook with a revelation story. Satan also might have left Joseph alone in his ignorance, the same that has happened with so many other "prophets" who have come and disappeared through the ages. The fact that the forces of darkness were trying to overcome Joseph sets him apart from others who have claimed to have received messages from God, such as Ellen G. White and David Koresh. This is saying that even Satan knew that Joseph was to be the prophet who would usher in the restoration or "refreshing", spoken of in Acts 3:19, that would end the Apostasy and precede the Second Coming. We can also compare this to a biblical perspective. We read in the Gospels of the New Testament that Satan began to try and tempt Jesus, just as He was beginning His ministry. Satan knew that Christ was about to begin teaching, so he tried to stop it before it could happen, by trying to get Christ to deny His Divinity. If Satan had been successful in tempting Jesus, he would have essentially destroyed the Savior spiritually. So here we also see Satan trying to foil the plan of God before it can happen, by destroying Joseph before he could utter the words of his prayer. Also, note that it was the power and glory of the Godhead that rebuked Satan's power, nothing Joseph did could stop the attack.
Now to cover the most important part, the vision itself. Notice that the first words out of God's mouth isn't "I am God and I have a message for you." It was "This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!" This stays entirely consistent with all biblical accounts of God the Father revealing Himself. He has always deferred to Christ. Christ is the Great Mediator between us and the Father. The Father always testifies of His Son. Compare this to the stories of Jesus' baptism in Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; and Luke 9:35. Just for fun, I would also like to point out that the vision happened in the setting it should have, while in prayer and alone. Joseph was not sitting in a trailer park watching for aliens, and he didn't suffer from the "Christ" complex people get after they visit the Holy Land. He was in prayer and alone, as was Abraham, Moses, Zachariah (John the Baptists Father), and Mary. Joseph prayed, and his prayer was answered. Now lets cover the answer.
Joseph asked Jesus what church he should join, and Jesus told him to join none of them. Jesus gave him two reasons why he shouldn't join any of the existing churches of that time.
1st: "all their creeds were an abomination in His sight." The creeds He is referring to are the Nicene Creed and the Athanasian Creed. But why would these creeds be abominable in His sight? The First Vision story testifies that Jesus and The Father are two separate Personages. These two creeds originated the tradition of the Trinity, the Godhead being 3 in 1, or as the Nicene Creed states, "being of one substance with the Father." The Athanasian creed also supports the three-Gods-in-one belief. Since the Godhead (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost) are three distinct beings, the creeds are leading men away from the true nature of God, and are therefore an abomination to Him. The concept of three separate Beings, one in purpose, and not in substance is biblical. One quick example is John 17: 21-22, "That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that THEY MAY BE ONE, EVEN AS WE ARE ONE"(emphasis added). Jesus is praying to God the Father that the apostles may be one even as They are. It is impossible for the apostles to physically become 12 in 1, so this teaches us that to be "one" means to be one in purpose, glory, and deed.
2nd: "that those professors were all corrupt; that "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; they teach for doctrines the commandments of men: having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof." When Jesus began His ministry in Jerusalem, the Jews were in a state of apostasy. The prophets were long since gone, and the Jews were being led by the Pharisees, a group of religious scholars who held close to traditions but had become spiritually corrupt by their own pride. Jesus chided them on several occasions for being hypocritical and leading the people astray. Jesus restored the gospel truths and the priesthood to His apostles. But, Paul taught that there would be another apostasy, or "falling away", in the Church before the Second Coming. In 2 Thessalonians 2:3, "Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first,...". At the time of the First Vision, the world was in this foretold Apostasy. It's not hard to look at history and see all the atrocities that were performed in the name of religion, and worse, sometimes in the name of Christ. Events like the Crusades, the Inquisitions, the enslavement and murder of the South American Natives by missionaries. Even in today's news you can see traces of apostasy still holding, look at Ireland for example. Two groups of people killing each other in the name of God. I believe Martin Luther and other Reformers recognized the "falling away" of the teachings of Jesus, and that's why they tried to reform it. But without revelation, they were merely teaching and preaching what they believed to be the true gospel.
It is easy to recognize the statement "having a form of godliness, but they deny the power thereof" in many of today's beliefs. There are people and churches who believe that God can perform miracles, but they don't believe He performs them in these latter days. They deny the power of God, because they don't recognize His hand in modern life. I read a criticism of the first vision where the writer claimed that he couldn't believe that Jesus would say something like "they draw near to me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me;". I testify that Jesus did say this to Joseph Smith, and that He meant it just as much as He did when He said it to the Pharisees. "He answered and said unto them, Well hath Esaias prophesied of you hypocrites, as it is written, This people honoureth me with their lips, but their heart is far from me."(Mark 7:6).
It ends off with Jesus once again telling Joseph not to join any churches. This of course, is because in the future, Joseph will be the tool the Lord uses to once again build up His church on earth. By revelation from God, through Joseph Smith, the apostasy will end, the Book of Mormon will be delivered to us, and the priesthood keys will be restored, and Christ's church will once again be upon the Earth. Another part of the first vision which rings true to me is that neither God the Father or Jesus mentioned anything about bringing a message to people or starting a church at this time. They simply answered his question, and set the wheels in motion for the rest.
Read Joseph Smith's Testimony in it's entirety.