The woodland was under a heavy shroud of cloud cover that weekend. Rain filtered through the air, and the cameramen waited patiently to expose their film. It rained, and they prayed. And it rained some more. If the filmmakers were unable to complete filming in that one week during the spring of 1975, the project would have to wait a year until the surroundings were right again. The season would soon change, and to add to the problems, the lead actor had to leave the following Friday. On Monday morning the crew awoke before dawn and and began to set up all their equipment, thinking somehow they could compensate for the weather. But suddenly it stopped raining. When the sun came up, they beheld the loveliest mist they had ever seen. The tall, wet grasses sparkled, and the birds burst forth in song, and they knew they had been blessed with a beauty they could never have produced themselves.
That morning the Brigham Young University Department of Film Production began filming scenes for the First Vision. Stewart Petersen, who played the Prophet Joseph, walked through those tall grasses with thoughts of that other “beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty” (JS—H 1:14) when Joseph Smith humbly prayed for an answer to his question, “Which of all the churches should I join?”
The First Vision is a historical film commissioned by the Church for release as a teaching aid and missionary tool. The script follows Joseph Smith’s own account of the spring of 1820 in Palmyra, New York, when, after reading and pondering James 1:5, he decided to ask of God which church was true.
The singular beauty of that first morning was followed by a week of busy filming. By Thursday renewed bad weather set in—more clouds and more rain. By the end of the day there was still one important scene that needed to be put on film—and that scene had to be filmed in bright sunlight. It was the scene where Joseph runs toward his home on a bright sunny day. So Friday morning they set up an 18-foot scaffold for their cameras in the center of the field that lay between the grove and Joseph’s home. They offered another special prayer and waited. After what seemed like hours the clouds parted. The cameras rolled. Just before the scene ended, the clouds closed in again, and darkness prevailed. “That’s all we got,” said David Jacobs, producer-director, “but that was all we needed—it’s the scene that opens the film.”
In Joseph’s own account of the First Vision he tells of entering the grove and kneeling to supplicate the Lord. Suddenly he felt a literal darkness—“some power which entirely overcame me … the power of some actual being from the unseen world.” (JS—H 1:15–16.) How to handle the feeling of such an evil influence was hard to conceptualize and then transfer onto the film. On the plane to New York the week before, David Jacobs had been studying some research material on a recently discovered account of the vision written by Joseph.
A couple of sentences jumped out at him as he read: Joseph said, “I heard a noise behind me like someone walking toward me. I strove again to pray, but could not; the noise of walking seemed to draw nearer. I sprang upon my feet and looked around, but saw no person or thing that was calculated to produce the noise of walking.” (As quoted in Dean Jesse, “Early Accounts of the First Vision,” BYU Studies, Spring 1969, p. 284.) “I knew instantly,” Dave said, “that this was how I wanted to get into the darkness scene. It was dramatic. It was true.”
But the most difficult scene was that portraying the Father and the Son. Whether to even show the divine vision was a major decision because of its sacred nature. Then one of the General Authorities mentioned to Jesse Stay (director of the Department of Film Production) that he felt that one of the most important messages of the First Vision was the fact that the Father and the Son were separate and distinct beings—contrary to the universal approach of the three-in-one Godhead. The decision was made: the Father and the Son are represented in the film.
Making a Church film such as the First Vision is different from any other film-making. Each of the workers involved—sound men, cameramen, actors, director, costume and make-up crew—all are devotedly intent on its success for unique and unselfish reasons. They know of the potential missionary impact and they know of the testimonies it could strengthen if the job is done right. Brother Jacobs said, “They’d laugh at me in ‘the industry’ for saying it, but I believe if a person is moved spiritually by the film, it’s because the Lord has blessed our efforts.”
After centuries of darkness and apostasy from Christ’s teachings, God once again chose to reveal himself to mankind. The revelation came in answer to a humble prayer by the 14-year-old boy, Joseph Smith, in the year 1820 near Palmyra, New York.
(In my fifteenth year) there was in the place we lived an unusual excitement on the subject of religion (that) became general among all the sects in that region of the country.” (JS—H 1:5.)
“During this time of great excitement my mind was called up to serious reflection and great uneasiness” (JS—H 1:8.) “Considering that all could not be right, and that God could not be the author of so much confusion, I determined to investigate the subject more fully.” (Wentworth Letter, paragraph 3.)
“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.” (JS—H 1:12.)
“I reflected on it again and again knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did.” (JS—H 1:12.)
“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.” (JS—H 1:14.)
“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 desire of my heart to God.” (JS—H 1:15.)
“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.” (JS—H 1:15.)
“Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.”
“… at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction … I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.” (JS—H 1:15–16.)
“It no sooner appeared than I found myself delivered from the enemy which held me bound.” (JS—H 1:17.)
“When the light rested upon me I saw two Personages, whose brightness and glory defy all description, standing above me in the air.” (JS—H 1:17.)
“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.)
Within the shady woodland the message was given by God. It was received by a young man—a boy prophet—in the hills of upper New York State. “Which of all the churches should I join?” Joseph humbly inquired. The supplication received its answer: “Join none of them.” Joseph said that “I was expressly commanded to ‘go not after them,’ at the same time receiving a promise that the fullness of the gospel should at some future time be made known unto me.” (Wentworth Letter, paragraph 3.)
Once again the heavens were opened and a man spoke with Deity face to face as had Adam, Abraham, Moses, Paul, and others. The Father and the Son visited the boy prophet kneeling in a pristine grove on a spring day more than 150 years ago. And through His Prophet Joseph, because of the First Vision and the revelations that followed, the gospel and true church of Jesus Christ were restored in their fulness to the earth.