For many years the Latter-day Saints have sung with dignity and deep feeling the inspired hymn “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer,” written by George Manwaring. The lyrics of this sacred song describe a visible appearance of God to man that thrills the souls of all believers. Note the picturesque beauty of these words:
(Hymns, 1985, no. 26)
As described in the hymn, Joseph Smith’s first vocal prayer resulted in a remarkable experience now known by millions of people as the First Vision. It was the first of many visions that the Prophet Joseph Smith received during his short ministry in mortality. It was the first in a series of events that ushered in the dispensation of the fulness of times—a time when there would be a restitution of all things spoken by all of the holy prophets since the world began (see Acts 3:18–21). It was the first of a number of spiritual occurrences that accompanied the restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the establishment of “the only true and living church” (D&C 1:30). It marked the beginning of a worldwide movement destined to roll forth “until it has filled the whole earth” (D&C 65:2).
But Joseph Smith’s first vision was not the first of its kind in the history of mankind. Moses saw God face to face and talked with him. In the process, Moses learned of his relationship to God, that he was a son of God, “in the similitude of [his] Only Begotten (Moses 1:6). He learned also of the darkness of Satan and the glory of Deity in contrast to man’s present condition (see Moses 1:2–20). The Apostle Paul testified that Jesus of Nazareth appeared to him on the road to Damascus and changed the course of his life (see Acts 26:9–23). His recital of the heavenly vision prompted King Agrippa to say, “Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian” (Acts 26:28). Who knows how many converts Paul won during his missionary journeys after receiving his fountainhead experience? Others, such as Lehi, Nephi, and Alma, could be added to the list of privileged individuals who received marvelous manifestations of godly powers. Each vision received and recorded was glorious in its own right and was provided in accord with divine will and to fulfill divine purposes.
One might ask what divine purposes were realized by the theophany that took place in a grove near Palmyra, New York, in the spring of 1820. The full answer to this question comes only to those who understand the circumstances surrounding this singular happening. A long night of spiritual darkness, unusual religious excitement, divisions among professed Christians, ordinary farm folks seeking a greater knowledge of godly matters, and other unique conditions set the stage for the Prophet Joseph’s entrance into a drama that is still being played. Among the many purposes fulfilled and the nuggets of truth drawn from the gold mine of the First Vision are these:
1. There are no winners in wars of words. Joseph learned that there are no winners in the tumult of opinions regarding religious matters. Such contention plays into the hands of Satan because he is the “father of contention” (3 Ne. 11:29). He is the devil who turns priest against priest and convert against convert, creating strife or engendering good feelings more pretended than real (see JS—H 1:6, 12).
Moreover, Joseph verified the fact that critical issues pertaining to the Spirit cannot be settled alone by “an appeal to the Bible” as long as teachers of religion understand the same passage of scripture so differently (JS—H 1:12).
2. Satanic powers and darkness are real. Joseph learned of “the power of some actual being from the unseen world,” which bound his tongue and enveloped him in thick darkness as he began to pray (JS—H 1:16; see also JS—H 1:15). This power was exerted by the evil one, who viewed Joseph Smith as a threat to his realm of sin and error.
Few men have disturbed and annoyed the adversary more than Joseph did; few have felt the combined powers of darkness more than he did; and few have triumphed over Satan more nobly than he did (see JS—H 1:20).
3. Powers of light and truth are of God. While praying for escape from the influence that bound his tongue and created within him a feeling of doom, Joseph learned what Moses had learned centuries before about Satan’s darkness and nothingness, as compared with the light and liberty associated with God (see Moses 1:10–15). Said Joseph:
“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” (JS—H 1:16–17).
“Light and truth [do] forsake [the] evil one” (D&C 93:37). The powers of darkness do flee before the powers of light, just as the night runs from the dawn.
4. The only true God and Jesus Christ appeared. Beholding the glorious appearance of the Father and the Son, Joseph learned that he was made in the image of God, exactly as the scriptures attest. “When the light rested upon me” Joseph recorded, “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 1:17.)
In a matter of only a few moments, the damning myth of an impersonal, uncaring, and incomprehensible God was dispelled. The true nature of a Father in Heaven—the father of our spirits—was revealed in company with his Beloved Son, even Jesus Christ, he who had atoned for the sins of man (see Heb. 12:9).
Said George Q. Cannon: “But all this [the myths of Christendom] was swept away in one moment by the appearance of the Almighty Himself. … In one moment all this darkness disappeared, and once more there was a man found on the earth, embodied in the flesh, who had seen God, who had seen Jesus, and who could describe the personality of both” (Journal of Discourses, 24:371–72).
5. The oneness of the Father and the Son is revealed. Joseph learned with one glance and through few spoken words the true doctrine of the oneness of the Godhead—a doctrine that had been confused for centuries by misguided men. There appeared before him two personages who were as separate and distinct as any earthly father and son. Yet, the two personages displayed a perfect unity of mind and purpose that could not be refuted. The Father expressed his love for the Son and invited him to speak, knowing that the Son would say what the Father would say if he had chosen to be voice.
Once the message was delivered, there was no need to speculate over the Savior’s recorded words:
“Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word;
“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” (John 17:20–21).
6. None of the churches of the day was right. Joseph was instructed not to join any of the churches. He recounts:
“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” (JS—H 1:18–19).
This pronouncement may have troubled Joseph at first, because members of his family had affiliated with a specific faith and he had leanings toward another. But God had spoken, and who was Joseph to dispute him?
7. Errors of existing churches are exposed. Joseph learned why he must not align himself with an existing church: “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’” (JS—H 1:19).
Having seen what he had seen and having heard what he had heard, how could Joseph possibly join a sect unacceptable to the Almighty? Perhaps some of the professors were “humble followers of Christ; nevertheless, they [were] led, that in many instances they [did] err because they [were] taught by the precepts of men” (2 Ne. 28:14).
Perhaps honest efforts were being made, but whatever was being done was insufficient “to teach any man the right way” (2 Ne. 25:28).
8. The testimony of James was true. Joseph learned that “the testimony of James [was] true—that a man who lacked wisdom might ask of God, and obtain, and not be upbraided” (JS—H 1:26).
He also learned that a soul in the early nineteenth century was just as precious unto God as a soul in Moses’ time or in the meridian of time, else why would the Lord answer his humble prayer and appear in person? Moreover, Joseph learned that personal revelation may be received by those who humble themselves and approach God with unwavering faith and with broken hearts and contrite spirits.
9. Joseph Smith had a mission. Three years after his first vision, Joseph learned “that God had a work for [him] to do” and that his name should be “had for good and evil among all nations, kindreds, and tongues” (JS—H 1:33).
That declaration has been fulfilled through the publication of the Book of Mormon, the restoration of the holy priesthood, the establishment of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and the preaching of the fulness of the gospel in all the world.
10. Joseph became a special witness for God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Bitter persecution and reviling followed the Prophet Joseph for the rest of his life from the grove to the grave. Nonetheless, he remained true to his word and true to his special commission. Said he, “For I had seen a vision; I knew it, and I knew that God knew it, and I could not deny it” (JS—H 1:25). And at the tender age of thirty-eight and a half years, Joseph Smith died a martyr’s death and sealed with his own blood his testimony—a testimony rooted in the First Vision.
These and other truths are associated with the first vision of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Each of the ten truths mentioned above constitutes a single powerful ray of living light that pierced the long night of darkness and apostasy that had held mankind in spiritual bondage for many centuries. All of the rays combined provided a floodlight of intelligence that has brought many men and women closer to God. As Orson Pratt summarized, “One minute’s instruction from personages clothed with the glory of God coming down from the eternal worlds is worth more than all the volumes that were ever written by uninspired men” (Journal of Discourses, 12:354).
It all started so quietly, so simply, and so very wonderfully 175 years ago. A believing boy took one small step and prayed. A loving Father in Heaven listened and responded. What has resulted could rightfully be referred to as one giant leap for mankind.
All the towers ever built and all the spaceships ever launched pale in comparison to Joseph Smith’s first vision. Though men fly higher and higher into the heavens, they will not find God or see his face unless they humble themselves, pray, and heed the truths revealed through the Prophet of the Restoration.
Some have foolishly said, “Take away Joseph Smith and his prayer in the grove and the First Vision and we can accept your message.” Such people would have us bury the treasure of saving truths already cited, and many more, and turn our backs to “the most important event that had taken place in all world history from the day of Christ’s ministry to the glorious hour when [the First Vision] occurred” (Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed., Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1968, p. 285).
Joseph Smith “lived great, and … died great in the eyes of God” (D&C 135:3). He “has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3). These words of tribute written by John Taylor, a personal friend of the Prophet Joseph and an eye witness to the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum, were true when spoken and are verified each passing day as the kingdom of God goes forth so that the kingdom of heaven may come (see D&C 65:6).
Oh, how very, very lovely was the morning in the spring of 1820 when Joseph Smith sought the God of love in humble prayer! And, oh, how very wonderful it is that a caring Father in Heaven, in company with his Beloved Son, answered that prayer in the form of the First Vision! We who now bask in the light and truth that flowed from that landmark conversation between God and man owe so very much to the participants of that memorable event. It is our privilege to praise the man who communed with Jehovah, to serve the one who is the means whereby salvation comes, even Jesus Christ, and to worship in spirit and in truth God, our Father, the true and living God.