M. Russell Ballard, “Joseph Smith’s First Vision,” Friend, Apr 1995, 34
The earthly ministry of the Lord Jesus Christ was comparatively brief. He lived only thirty-three years on the earth, and His ministry was only three years. But in those three years He taught the human family everything that is necessary to receive all of the blessings our Father in Heaven has in store for His children.
One of the most important accomplishments of the Savior was the establishment of His church upon the earth. When He called His twelve Apostles, He laid His hands upon them, ordained them, and conferred upon them the authority (priesthood) to act in His name and govern His church. Peter is commonly understood to have become the chief Apostle, or the President of the Church, after the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
The early Apostles worked hard to preserve the church that Jesus Christ left to their care and keeping, but they knew that their efforts would ultimately be in vain. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian Saints, who were anxiously anticipating the second coming of Christ, that “that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first” (2 Thes. 2:3).
Eventually, with the known exception of John the Beloved, Peter and his fellow Apostles were martyred (killed because they believed in Christ and served Him). The members of the Church struggled for survival in the face of horrifying oppression. To their everlasting credit, Christianity did survive and even grow. But these Saints did not hold the same authority Peter and the other Apostles had received through ordination under the hands of the Lord Jesus Christ. When that authority was lost, men began looking to other people for an understanding of the gospel. As a result, many plain and precious truths were lost. The things being taught became based more on popular opinion than on revelation. This period of time was called the Dark Ages because the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ had been lost.
Then, in 1517, the Spirit moved Martin Luther, a German priest who was disturbed at how far the church had strayed from the gospel as taught by Christ, to reform it. Other men also worked to reform the church.
I believe that these reformers were inspired to create a religious climate in which God could restore lost truths and priesthood authority. Similarly, God inspired the earlier explorers and colonizers of America and the framers of the Constitution of the United States to develop a country in which the gospel could be restored.
By 1820, the world was ready for the “restitution of all things” spoken of by Peter and “all [God’s] holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:21).
At this time religious excitement was sweeping across the countryside in upstate New York. Ministers of different Christian churches competed for new members in villages and towns, including Palmyra, the home of the family of Joseph Smith, Sr., and Lucy Mack Smith.
The Smith family listened to these ministers, and Mother Smith, Hyrum, Samuel, and Sophronia joined one church (see JS—H 1:7); Father Smith and his eldest son, Alvin, affiliated with another.
When fourteen-year-old Joseph, Jr., considered which church to join, he investigated each one carefully, listening to the different ministers and trying to sort out the truth. He knew that there could be only “one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Eph. 4:5), but which of the churches was the Savior’s he did not know. Later, he wrote, “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?” (JS—H 1:10.)
He looked for answers to his questions in the scriptures. While studying the Bible, he read this in James 1:5: “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.”
Joseph thought, “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 [thought about] it again and again.” (JS—H 1:12). Prompted by the Holy Spirit, Joseph decided to go into a grove of trees near his home and test the promise he’d read in the book of James.
On a beautiful, clear spring morning, he went to the woods and found a quiet spot where he could be alone. Then he knelt and began to pray. No sooner had he done so than an overwhelming feeling of darkness swept over him, as if some evil power was trying to overcome him. Rather than surrender, Joseph prayed harder—and God Himself answered his prayer. Joseph described what happened this way: “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!” (JS—H 1:16–17.)
I testify that those Beings were God, our Heavenly Father, and His resurrected Son, Jesus Christ!
They told Joseph he should join none of the existing churches. Their mission accomplished, the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, departed.
Young Joseph was physically drained but spiritually enriched with exciting restored truth. He knew with certainty that God, our Heavenly Father, and His Son, Jesus Christ, were real, for he had seen them. He knew that They are two separate, distinct individuals. He knew that no church on the face of the earth had the authority of the priesthood to act in the name of Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most important lesson young Joseph learned in the Sacred Grove is that the heavens are not sealed. God does communicate with mortals. He loves us today just as much as He loved those who lived anciently. He knows us and cares about us, individually and collectively. He communicates with us, either directly or through His living prophets, according to our needs.
[illustrations] Paintings top to bottom: “Ordination of the Apostles,” by Harry Anderson, “Martin Luther,” by Lyle W. Beddes, “Joseph Smith Seeks,” by Dale Kilbourn, “First Vision,” by Del Parson.^ Back to top