In 1838 Joseph Smith began work on his official history. In it he described his family and the places they had lived. He also detailed the unusual excitement about religion that prevailed in western New York in 1820. This religious fervor led him to “serious reflection and great uneasiness” about which church to join (Joseph Smith—History 1:8). After searching the scriptures, particularly James 1:5, Joseph decided to ask God in prayer for answers to his questions. In answer to his prayer, God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, appeared to him.
Ask a student to read aloud the following experience of two missionaries in Canada, as reported by President Thomas S. Monson (the rest of the account will come later in the lesson):
“Two [missionaries] called at the home of Mr. Elmer Pollard. … They presented their message and asked if he would join in prayer. He agreed, on the provision that he could offer the prayer.
“The prayer he offered astonished the missionaries. He said, ‘Heavenly Father, bless these two unfortunate, misguided missionaries, that they may return to their homes and not waste their time telling the people of Canada about a message which is so fantastic and about which they know so little.’
“As they arose from their knees, Mr. Pollard asked the missionaries never to return to his home. As they left, he said mockingly to them, ‘You can’t tell me you really believe that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, anyway!’ and he slammed the door” (“The Prophet Joseph Smith: Teacher by Example,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2005, 69).
If you were one of those missionaries, what would you have said to Mr. Pollard?
How can someone know for themselves that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God?
Invite a student to read Joseph Smith—History 1:1–2 aloud. Ask the class to follow along and look for reasons Joseph Smith gave for writing his history and the history of the Church.
According to verse 1, what was circulating among the people during the early days of the Church? (Many false reports which were meant to turn people against the Church.)
What reason did Joseph give for writing his history? (To provide the public with a reliable and accurate account of the events of the First Vision and the Restoration.)
Explain that there continue to be individuals and groups today who spread false or misleading information about the Church with the intent to undermine faith.
What can we learn from Joseph Smith’s reason for writing his history that can help us avoid being deceived by false or misleading information? (Those who sincerely want the truth should diligently seek out credible sources of information about the Church and its history rather than simply accept any information they hear, including whatever comes up as a result of an Internet search.)
Why is it important that “inquirers after truth” about the Restoration go to Joseph Smith’s account? (Relying on the Prophet’s account can help individuals avoid being deceived by false or misleading information.)
How can reading Joseph Smith’s own words help someone know the truth about his experiences?
Share the following warning from Elder Neil L. Andersen:
“There have always been a few who want to discredit the Church and to destroy faith. Today they use the Internet.
“Some of the information about the Church, no matter how convincing, is just not true” (“Trial of Your Faith,” Ensign or Liahona, Nov. 2012, 41).
Invite a student to read aloud the following statement by Elder Dallin H. Oaks of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Invite the class to listen for how we should evaluate what we read about the Church and its history. (You may want to provide a copy of the statement for each student so they can follow along.)
“Latter-day Saint readers should … be … sophisticated in their evaluation of what they read. …
“Our individual, personal testimonies are based on the witness of the Spirit, not on any combination or accumulation of historical facts. If we are so grounded, no alteration of historical facts can shake our testimonies. Our Heavenly Father gave us powers of reason, and we are expected to use them to the fullest. But he also gave us the Comforter, who he said would lead us into truth and by whose power we may know the truth of all things. That is the ultimate guide for Latter-day Saints who are worthy and willing to rely on it” (“Reading Church History” [address to CES religious educators, Aug. 16, 1985], 7, LDS.org).
Invite students to share what stood out to them in Elder Oaks’s counsel and why it was helpful.
You may want to explain that Joseph Smith wrote this account of the First Vision in 1838 as part of an official history of the Church to be published to the world. There are nine known accounts of the First Vision—four written or dictated by Joseph Smith and five written by others retelling his experience. (For more information about Joseph Smith’s four accounts of the First Vision, see Milton V. Backman Jr., “Joseph Smith’s Recitals of the First Vision,” Ensign, Jan. 1985, 8–17.)
You may also want to explain that the multiple accounts of the First Vision were prepared at different times and for different audiences. In these accounts, Joseph Smith emphasized different aspects of his experience of the First Vision, but the accounts all agree in the essential truth that Joseph Smith did indeed have the heavens opened to him and see divine messengers, including God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Because the 1838 account was part of Joseph Smith’s official history and testimony to the world, it was included in the Pearl of Great Price as scripture.
Just as Joseph Smith emphasized different aspects of his vision in his multiple accounts, the Apostle Paul emphasized different aspects of his vision of the Savior to different audiences (see Acts 9:1–9; Acts 22:5–11; Acts 26:12–20). Why do you think Joseph Smith and Paul emphasized different things each time they related the accounts of their visions?
Summarize Joseph Smith—History 1:3–4 by explaining that Joseph was born in Vermont but moved to Palmyra, New York, when he was 10 years old.
Explain that Joseph Smith lived during a time of great excitement about religion. Invite a few students to take turns reading aloud from Joseph Smith—History 1:5–7. Ask the class to look for words or phrases that describe the situation Joseph Smith faced. Invite a student to write on the board the words and phrases they find. Then invite a student to read Joseph Smith—History 1:8, 10 aloud. Ask the class to look for Joseph Smith’s description of how he felt during this time.
How did Joseph feel as a result of the religious excitement that surrounded him?
What were some of the questions he was struggling with?
Have any of you ever asked similar questions? What did you do to resolve them?
Invite students to read Joseph Smith—History 1:11 silently and look for what Joseph Smith did to find answers to his questions.
Where did Joseph turn for help in answering his questions?
What principle taught in James 1:5 helped Joseph Smith have confidence that he could find answers to the questions he had? (Students may use different words, but they should identify the following principle: If we ask God in faith, He will answer our prayers. You may want to explain that God will answer our prayers in His own time and way.)
Invite a student to read Joseph Smith—History 1:14–15 aloud.
Why do you think Satan tried to stop Joseph Smith from praying?
Invite a student to read Joseph Smith—History 1:16–17 aloud. Ask the class to identify how Joseph Smith responded to the opposition he experienced. Also ask them to note phrases from Joseph’s testimony that are meaningful to them or that they might use in teaching others about the First Vision.
Which phrases in these verses are meaningful to you? Why?
Write the following truth on the board: Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ.
Why is it important to have a testimony that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ?
How do you know that Joseph Smith saw God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ?
After a few students have shared their testimonies, explain that the First Vision was the foundational event of the Restoration. The First Vision also provided answers to important doctrinal questions. Invite students to review Joseph Smith—History 1:15–17 silently, looking for truths we can learn from this account. You may want to ask the following questions:
What principle can we learn from Joseph Smith—History 1:15–16 that can help us overcome temptation? (Students may use different words, but they should identify the following principle: If we earnestly seek God’s help when Satan tries to discourage us, God can deliver us.)
What do these verses teach about the nature of God the Father and Jesus Christ? (Answers may include the following: God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, live. Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, are separate and distinct beings.)
What was the first word God spoke to Joseph Smith? (Joseph.) Why is this important to know? What truths can we learn from this? (Answers may include the following: Heavenly Father knows us by name. God answers our prayers.)
To help students understand and feel the importance of the doctrines and principles they have identified in this lesson, you may want to ask the following questions:
Why are these truths about Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ essential to know and understand?
When have one or more of these truths blessed your life? (Remind students that some experiences are too sacred or personal to share.)
Explain that Joseph Smith also received answers to his questions during the First Vision. Invite students to read Joseph Smith—History 1:18–20 silently.
What did Joseph learn in answer to his prayer?
Remind students of the account about the missionaries that was read at the beginning of the lesson. Invite a student to read the rest of the account:
“The two returned to Mr. Pollard’s door. Mr. Pollard answered the knock and angrily said, ‘I thought I told you young men never to return!’
“The junior companion then said, with all the courage he could muster, ‘Mr. Pollard, when we left your door, you said that we didn’t really believe Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I want to testify to you, Mr. Pollard, that I know Joseph Smith was a prophet of God, that by inspiration he translated the sacred record known as the Book of Mormon, that he did see God the Father and Jesus the Son.’ The missionaries then departed the doorstep.
“[Mr. Pollard later testified:] ‘That evening, sleep would not come. I tossed and turned. Over and over in my mind I heard the words, “Joseph Smith was a prophet of God. I know it. … I know it. … I know it.” I could scarcely wait for morning to come. I telephoned the missionaries. … They returned, and this time my wife, my family, and I joined in the discussion as earnest seekers of truth. As a result, we have all embraced the gospel of Jesus Christ’” (“The Prophet Joseph Smith: Teacher by Example,” 69).
Encourage students to read Joseph Smith—History on their own and to ask Heavenly Father to help them strengthen their testimony that Joseph Smith’s account of the First Vision is true. You may also want to encourage them to look for opportunities to share the message of the First Vision with someone else. Conclude by sharing your testimony of the truths you have discussed today.