Lesson 6: Joseph Smith—History 1:1–20

Doctrine and Covenants and Church History Seminary Teacher Manual, 2013


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.

Suggestions for Teaching

Joseph Smith—History 1:1–4

Joseph Smith writes a history of the Church

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):

President Thomas S. Monson

“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:

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.)

Elder Dallin H. Oaks

“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.

Joseph Smith—History 1:5–13

In the midst of religious turmoil, Joseph Smith determines to ask God which church is right

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 1:12–13 aloud. Ask the class to identify how the principle taught in James 1:5 influenced Joseph Smith.

Joseph Smith—History 1:14–20

Joseph Smith sees God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ

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:

President Thomas S. Monson

“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.

Commentary and Background Information

Joseph Smith—History. When was Joseph Smith’s official history published?

In 1838 Joseph Smith began work on his official history, which was published in the newspaper Times and Seasons in 1842. This history later became part of the six-volume A Comprehensive History of the Church by B. H. Roberts in 1957. Joseph Smith—History, as it is found in the standard works, was extracted from Joseph Smith’s official history and published as part of a missionary tract called the Pearl of Great Price in 1851. The Pearl of Great Price was canonized as scripture in 1880.

Joseph Smith—History 1:3. What was Joseph Smith’s early life like?

“[Joseph Smith’s] parents, Lucy Mack and Joseph Smith Sr., were married on 24 January 1796 and settled on a family farm in Tunbridge, Vermont. Joseph and Lucy rented a farm [in Sharon, Vermont] from Solomon Mack, Lucy’s father, in the summer of 1805 and Joseph also taught school in the winter. It was there that their fifth child, Joseph Smith Jr., was born on 23 December 1805. Lucy and Joseph taught their children religious precepts and Lucy especially encouraged the study of the Bible. Joseph Sr. was suspicious of traditional churches but always retained a strong belief in God” (The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual [Church Educational System manual, 2000], 54).

“Joseph Smith grew up on the family farm and was almost exclusively under his family’s influence. … During his formative years, Joseph Smith began to incorporate and manifest qualities that would help him fulfill his foreordained mission.

“… He developed strong family bonds, learned to work hard, to think for himself, to serve others, and to love liberty” (Church History in the Fulness of Times, 2nd ed. [Church Educational System manual, 2003], 15).

“During Joseph Smith’s earliest years, his family moved frequently, looking for fertile soil or some other way to earn a livelihood. … In 1811 the Smiths moved to the small community of West Lebanon, New Hampshire. … Typhoid fever came into West Lebanon. … One by one the Smith children fell ill. …

“Seven-year-old Joseph, Jr., recovered from [typhoid] fever after two weeks but suffered complications that eventually required four surgeries. The most serious complication involved a swelling and infection in the tibia of his left leg. … Joseph was in agony for over two weeks.” Joseph endured an operation to remove the infection from his leg “without being bound or drinking brandy wine to dull his senses” (Church History in the Fulness of Times, 22–23).

“In 1816, Joseph Sr. went to Palmyra, New York, to investigate the report of good land at low cost. Joseph Jr., at the time a boy of ten, remembered that even though he was not yet fully recovered from his leg operation, the teamster engaged to assist the Smiths in their journey made him walk through snow, forty miles per day for several days, during which time he suffered the most excruciating weariness and pain” (The Pearl of Great Price Student Manual, 54).

“Joseph Smith, Sr., the father of a family of ten—eleven by 1821—worked hard for a living. After two years in Palmyra, he accumulated enough money for a down payment on one hundred acres of wooded land in the nearby township of Farmington. During the first year he and his sons cleared thirty acres of heavy timber, prepared the ground for cultivation, and planted wheat. … Young Joseph later recalled that ‘it required the exertions of all that were able to render any assistance for the support of the Family.’ [“History of Joseph Smith By Himself,” 1832 (written in Kirtland, Ohio, between 20 July and 27 Nov. 1832), LDS Historical Department, Salt Lake City, p. 1.] …

“At this time Joseph’s opportunities for schooling were limited. He attributed this to the ‘indigent circumstances’ he was raised under. ‘We were deprived of the benefit of an education. Suffice it to say, I was merely instructed in reading, writing, and the ground rules of arithmetic which constituted my whole literary acquirements’ [“History of Joseph Smith By Himself,” pp. 1–2]” (Church History in the Fulness of Times, 29–30).

Joseph Smith—History 1:15–17. Accounts of the First Vision

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. Another helpful article about the different accounts of the First Vision is Richard L. Anderson, “Joseph Smith’s Testimony of the First Vision,” Ensign, April 1996, 10–21.

Joseph Smith—History 1:15–17. The importance of the First Vision

President Gordon B. Hinckley testified of the fundamental importance of the First Vision to the Church:

President Gordon B. Hinckley

“Our entire case as members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints rests on the validity of this glorious First Vision. It was the parting of the curtain to open this, the dispensation of the fulness of times. Nothing on which we base our doctrine, nothing we teach, nothing we live by is of greater importance than this initial declaration. I submit that if Joseph Smith talked with God the Father and His Beloved Son, then all else of which he spoke is true. This is the hinge on which turns the gate that leads to the path of salvation and eternal life” (“What Are People Asking about Us?” Ensign, Nov. 1998, 71).

Joseph Smith—History 1:15–17. The significance of the First Vision and the testimony of Joseph Smith

President Joseph F. Smith declared the importance of the First Vision as compared to other events that have occurred since the Resurrection of Jesus Christ:

President Joseph F. Smith

“The greatest event that has ever occurred in the world, since the resurrection of the Son of God from the tomb and his ascension on high, was the coming of the Father and of the Son to that boy Joseph Smith, to prepare the way for the laying of the foundation of his kingdom—not the kingdom of man—never more to cease nor to be overturned. Having accepted this truth, I find it easy to accept of every other truth that he enunciated and declared during his mission of fourteen years in the world. He never taught a doctrine that was not true. He never practiced a doctrine that he was not commanded to practice. He never advocated error. He was not deceived. He saw; he heard; he did as he was commanded to do; and, therefore, God is responsible for the work accomplished by Joseph Smith—not Joseph Smith. The Lord is responsible for it, and not man” (Gospel Doctrine, 5th ed. [1939], 495–96).

Elder M. Russell Ballard of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles affirmed the reality of the First Vision:

Elder M. Russell Ballard

“Either the gospel has been restored or it has not. Either the Savior’s original church and its doctrine were lost or they were not. Either Joseph Smith had that remarkable vision or he did not. The Book of Mormon is another testament of Jesus Christ or it is not. Either the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ was restored to earth through God’s chosen latter-day prophet or it was not.

“The truth really is not any more complicated than that. Either these things happened just as I have testified or they did not. As a latter-day Apostle of the Lord Jesus Christ, my testimony, and the testimony of millions of faithful members of the Church the world over, is that what I have told you this morning is true. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has been restored to the earth through Joseph Smith and is administered today by a living prophet. These things I know!” (“Restored Truth,” Ensign, Nov. 1994, 67–68).

Joseph Smith—History 1:15–17. Trials that come before or after a spiritual experience

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles spoke of adversity, opposition, or darkness that can come before or after spiritual experiences:

Elder Jeffrey R. Holland

“It is the plain and very sobering truth that before great moments, certainly before great spiritual moments, there can come adversity, opposition, and darkness. Life has some of those moments for us, and occasionally they come just as we are approaching an important decision or a significant step in our life.

“… [There is also] opposition that so often comes after enlightened decisions have been made, after moments of revelation and conviction have given us a peace and an assurance we thought we would never lose. …

“… I believe that in our own individual ways, God takes us to the grove or the mountain or the temple and there shows us the wonder of what his plan is for us. We may not see it as fully as Moses or Nephi or the brother of Jared did, but we see as much as we need to see in order to know the Lord’s will for us and to know that he loves us beyond mortal comprehension. I also believe that the adversary and his pinched, calculating little minions try to oppose such experiences and then try to darken them after the fact. …

“Fighting through darkness and despair and pleading for the light is what opened this dispensation. It is what keeps it going, and it is what will keep you going. …

“I acknowledge the reality of opposition and adversity, but I bear witness of the God of Glory, of the redeeming Son of God, of light and hope and a bright future. I promise you that God lives and loves you, each one of you, and that he has set bounds and limits to the opposing powers of darkness. I testify that Jesus is the Christ, the victor over death and hell and the fallen one who schemes there” (“Cast Not Away Therefore Your Confidence” [Brigham Young University devotional, Mar. 2, 1999], 1, 2, 6–7, speeches.byu.edu).

Supplemental Teaching Ideas

Joseph Smith—History 1:5–20. “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer”

To help invite the influence of the Holy Spirit, ask the class to sing the hymn “Joseph Smith’s First Prayer” (Hymns, no. 26). If there are students in your class who feel comfortable and are capable, you may want to invite one or more of them to sing this song for the class. If you choose this option, be sure to ask students a few days prior to this lesson to allow them time to prepare.

video iconJoseph Smith—History 1:5–20. Video presentation—“The Restoration”

To help students better understand the context of Joseph Smith—History 1:5–20, show the video presentation The Restoration, which is available on DVD or online at LDS.org. This video presentation portrays how Joseph Smith’s search for truth led to the First Vision and the Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

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You could use this video in multiple ways: (1) Show the video at the beginning of class and then continue the lesson with Joseph Smith—History 1:14–20; (2) show video segments that relate to specific verses, pausing between each segment to ask questions contained in the lesson; or (3) show the video right before giving students an opportunity to share their testimonies of the First Vision. Whatever you choose, be sure to give students time to share their testimonies, as suggested in the lesson.

If time permits, invite each student to prepare a one-minute explanation of what we can learn about Heavenly Father and His Son, Jesus Christ, from Joseph Smith—History 1:15–20. Divide the class into pairs and ask students to share their explanations with each other.