Throughout his life, President Gordon B. Hinckley fostered a deep respect for the people and places involved in the restoration of the gospel. He felt special gratitude for Joseph Smith and his role in the Restoration, and he spoke of “an ever-growing compulsion to bear testimony of the divinity of the Lord and of the mission of the Prophet Joseph Smith.”1
In 1935, when Gordon was traveling home from his mission to England, he and other returning missionaries visited the Sacred Grove and the Hill Cumorah. They also stopped at Carthage Jail, where the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum Smith were martyred. They walked the dusty streets of Nauvoo, where exiled Saints had turned a swampland into a beautiful city. Undoubtedly, reflections on the trials and triumphs of the early Saints pressed upon Gordon’s mind while he was in these places and as he continued west along the pioneer route to Salt Lake City.
Gordon B. Hinckley returned to the sacred sites of the Restoration many more times in the following decades. At the First Presidency Christmas devotional on December 3, 2000, he shared this personal experience from a visit to the Sacred Grove:
“Some years ago I was assigned to the Rochester New York Stake conference. On Saturday I said to the brethren who were with me, ‘Let us get up early in the morning, early Sunday morning, and go to the Sacred Grove before the conference.’ They all agreed. Accordingly, very early on that spring Sabbath, the mission president, the stake president, the regional representative, and I went out to Palmyra and walked into the grove. No one else was there. It was peaceful and beautiful. It had rained during the night. Tiny new leaves were upon the trees.
“We spoke quietly one to another. We knelt upon the damp ground and prayed. We did not hear an audible voice. We did not see a vision. But in an indefinable way we were told in our minds, each of us, that yes, it happened here just as Joseph said it happened. It was here that God our Eternal Father and His Beloved Son, the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ, appeared to the 14-year-old boy and spoke with him. Their matchless light rested upon him, and he was instructed in what he should do.
“That sublime occasion, the First Vision, parted the curtains through which came the restoration to earth of the Church of Christ. It came out of the wilderness of darkness, out of the bleakness of ages past into the glorious dawn of a new day. The Book of Mormon followed as another witness of the Lord Jesus Christ. His holy supernal priesthood was restored under the hands of those who held it anciently. Keys and powers were bestowed upon the Prophet and his associates. The ancient Church was again upon the earth with all of the blessings, powers, doctrines, keys, and principles of previous dispensations. It is [Christ’s] Church. It carries His name. It is governed by His priesthood. There is no other name under heaven by which men must be saved. Joseph Smith … became His great testator.”2
[Jesus Christ] was and is the great central figure of human history, the zenith of the times and seasons of all men.
Before His death, He had ordained His Apostles. They carried on for a period. His Church was set in place.3
Following the Savior’s death, the Church He had established drifted into apostasy. Fulfilled were the words of Isaiah, who said, “The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant” (Isaiah 24:5).4
Paul’s letters cried out for strength among the followers of Christ, lest they fall into the ways of the wicked one. But a spirit of apostasy ultimately prevailed.5
The centuries rolled on. A cloud of darkness settled over the earth. Isaiah described it: “For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people” (Isa. 60:2).
It was a season of plunder and suffering, marked by long and bloody conflict. … It was an age of hopelessness, a time of masters and serfs.
The first thousand years passed, and the second millennium dawned. Its earlier centuries were a continuation of the former. It was a time fraught with fear and suffering.6
Somehow, in that long season of darkness, a candle was lighted. The age of Renaissance brought with it a flowering of learning, art, and science. There came a movement of bold and courageous men and women who looked heavenward in acknowledgment of God and His divine Son. We speak of it as the Reformation.7
Reformers worked to change the [Christian] church, notably such men as Luther, Melanchthon, Hus, Zwingli, and Tyndale. These were men of great courage, some of whom suffered cruel deaths because of their beliefs. Protestantism was born with its cry for reformation. When that reformation was not realized, the reformers organized churches of their own. They did so without priesthood authority. Their one desire was to find a niche in which they might worship God as they felt He should be worshiped.
While this great ferment was stirring across the Christian world, political forces were also at work. Then came the American Revolutionary War, resulting in the birth of a nation whose Constitution declared that government should not reach its grasping hand into matters of religion. A new day had dawned, a glorious day. Here there was no longer a state church. No one faith was favored above another.
After centuries of darkness and pain and struggle, the time was ripe for the restoration of the gospel. Ancient prophets had spoken of this long-awaited day.
All of the history of the past had pointed to this season. The centuries with all of their suffering and all their hope had come and gone. The Almighty Judge of the nations, the Living God, determined that the times of which the prophets had spoken had arrived. Daniel had foreseen a stone which was cut out of the mountain without hands and which became a great mountain and filled the whole earth [see Daniel 2:35, 44].8
After many generations had walked the earth—so many of them in conflict, hatred, darkness, and evil—there arrived the great, new day of the Restoration. This glorious gospel was ushered in with the appearance of the Father and the Son to the boy Joseph.9
How truly remarkable was that vision in the year 1820 when Joseph prayed in the woods and there appeared before him both the Father and the Son. One of these spoke to him, calling him by name and, pointing to the other, said, “This is My Beloved Son. Hear Him!” (Joseph Smith—History 1:17).
Nothing like it had ever happened before. One is led to wonder why it was so important that both the Father and the Son appear. I think it was because They were ushering in the dispensation of the fulness of times, the last and final dispensation of the gospel, when there would be gathered together in one the elements of all previous dispensations. This was to be the final chapter in the long chronicle of God’s dealing with men and women upon the earth.10
Every claim that we make concerning divine authority, every truth that we offer concerning the validity of this work, all finds its root in the First Vision of the boy prophet. Without it we would not have anything much to say. This was the great curtain-raiser on the dispensation of the fulness of times, when God promised that He would restore all the power, the gifts, the blessings, of all previous dispensations.11
In restoring the Aaronic Priesthood, the resurrected John the Baptist laid his hands on the heads of Joseph Smith and Oliver Cowdery and said, “Upon you my fellow servants, in the name of Messiah I confer the Priesthood of Aaron, which holds the keys of the ministering of angels, and of the gospel of repentance, and of baptism by immersion for the remission of sins” (D&C 13:1).12
This was followed by a visitation of Peter, James, and John, Apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, who conferred upon Joseph and Oliver Cowdery the Melchizedek Priesthood, which had been received by these Apostles under the hands of the Lord Himself.13
Three of [the Savior’s] Apostles—Peter, James, and John—appeared to Joseph and Oliver somewhere “in the wilderness” along the Susquehanna River (see D&C 128:20). They placed their hands upon their heads and conferred upon them this holy authority. …
I can trace my priesthood in a direct line to this event. It goes as follows: I was ordained by David O. McKay; who was ordained by Joseph F. Smith; who was ordained by Brigham Young; who was ordained by the Three Witnesses; who were ordained by Joseph Smith Jr. and Oliver Cowdery; who were ordained by Peter, James, and John; who were ordained by the Lord Jesus Christ.
It has similarly come to [each Melchizedek Priesthood holder]. Each of you brethren who hold this priesthood has also received it in a direct line from the bestowal made by Peter, James, and John.14
Permit me to name a few of many doctrines and practices which distinguish us from all other churches, and all of which have come of revelation to the youthful Prophet. They are familiar to you, but they are worth repeating and reflecting on.
The first of these … is the manifestation of God Himself and His Beloved Son, the risen Lord Jesus Christ. This grand theophany is, in my judgment, the greatest such event since the birth, life, death, and Resurrection of our Lord in the meridian of time.
We have no record of any other event to equal it.
For centuries men gathered and argued concerning the nature of Deity. Constantine assembled scholars of various factions at Nicaea in the year 325. After two months of bitter debate, they compromised on a definition which for generations has been the doctrinal statement among Christians concerning the Godhead.
I invite you to read that definition and compare it with the statement of the boy Joseph. He simply says that God stood before him and spoke to him. Joseph could see Him and could hear Him. He was in form like a man, a being of substance. Beside Him was the resurrected Lord, a separate being, whom He introduced as His Beloved Son and with whom Joseph also spoke.
I submit that in the short time of that remarkable vision Joseph learned more concerning Deity than all of the scholars and clerics of the past.
In this divine revelation there was reaffirmed beyond doubt the reality of the literal Resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
This knowledge of Deity, hidden from the world for centuries, was the first and great thing which God revealed to His chosen servant.15
I speak next of another very important thing which God revealed.
The Christian world accepts the Bible as the word of God. Most have no idea of how it came to us.
I have just completed reading a newly published book by a renowned scholar. It is apparent from information which he gives that the various books of the Bible were brought together in what appears to have been an unsystematic fashion. In some cases, the writings were not produced until long after the events they describe. One is led to ask, “Is the Bible true? Is it really the word of God?”
We reply that it is, insofar as it is translated correctly. The hand of the Lord was in its making. But it now does not stand alone. There is another witness of the significant and important truths found therein.
Scripture declares that “in the mouth of two or three witnesses shall every word be established” (2 Corinthians 13:1).
The Book of Mormon has come forth by the gift and power of God. It speaks as a voice from the dust in testimony of the Son of God. It speaks of His birth, of His ministry, of His Crucifixion and Resurrection, and of His appearance to the righteous in the land Bountiful on the American continent.
It is a tangible thing that can be handled, that can be read, that can be tested. It carries within its covers a promise of its divine origin. Millions now have put it to the test and found it to be a true and sacred record. …
As the Bible is the testament of the Old World, the Book of Mormon is the testament of the New. They go hand in hand in declaration of Jesus as the Son of the Father. …
This sacred book, which came forth as a revelation of the Almighty, is indeed another testament of the divinity of our Lord.16
Priesthood is the authority to act in the name of God. … I have read [a] book recently [that] deals with the Apostasy of the primitive Church. If the authority of that Church was lost, how was it to be replaced?
Priesthood authority came from the only place it could come, and that is from heaven. It was bestowed under the hands of those who held it when the Savior walked the earth. …
How beautiful is the unfolding of the pattern of restoration which led to the organization of the Church in the year 1830. … The very name of the Church came of revelation. Whose Church was it? Was it Joseph Smith’s? Was it Oliver Cowdery’s? No, it was the Church of Jesus Christ restored to earth in these latter days.17
Another great and singular revelation given to the Prophet was the plan for the eternal life of the family.
The family is a creation of the Almighty. It represents the most sacred of all relationships. It represents the most serious of all undertakings. It is the fundamental organization of society.
Through the revelations of God to His Prophet came the doctrine and authority under which families are sealed together not only for this life but for all eternity.18
The innocence of little children is another revelation which God has given through the instrumentality of the Prophet Joseph. The general practice is the baptism of infants to take away the effects of what is described as the sin of Adam and Eve. Under the doctrine of the Restoration, baptism is for the remission of one’s individual and personal sins. It becomes a covenant between God and man. It is performed at the age of accountability, when people are old enough to recognize right from wrong. It is by immersion, in symbolism of the death and burial of Jesus Christ and His coming forth in the Resurrection.19
I go on to mention another revealed truth. We are told that God is no respecter of persons, and yet, in no other church of which I am aware, is provision made for those beyond the veil of death to receive every blessing which is afforded the living. The great doctrine of salvation for the dead is unique to this Church. … The dead are given the same opportunity as the living. Again, what a glorious and wonderful provision the Almighty has made through His revelation to His Prophet.20
The eternal nature of man has been revealed. We are sons and daughters of God. God is the Father of our spirits. We lived before we came here. We had personality. We were born into this life under a divine plan. We are here to test our worthiness, acting in the agency which God has given to us. When we die we shall go on living. Our eternal life is comprised of three phases: one, our premortal existence; two, our mortal existence; and three, our postmortal existence. In death we die to this world and step through the veil into the sphere we are worthy to enter. This, again, is a unique, singular, and precious doctrine of this Church which has come through revelation.21
I offer this brief summary of the tremendous outpouring of knowledge and authority from God upon the head of His Prophet. … There is one more that I must mention. This is the principle of modern revelation. The article of faith which the Prophet wrote declares:
“We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God” (Articles of Faith 1:9).
A growing church, a church that is spreading across the earth in these complex times, needs constant revelation from the throne of heaven to guide it and move it forward.
With prayer and anxious seeking of the will of the Lord, we testify that direction is received, that revelation comes, and that the Lord blesses His Church as it moves on its path of destiny.
On the solid foundation of the Prophet Joseph’s divine calling and the revelations of God, which came through him, we go forward.22
Standing as the 15th in line from Joseph Smith and bearing the prophetic mantle which came upon him, I solemnly declare my testimony that the Prophet Joseph’s account of [the events of the Restoration] is true, that the Father … bore witness of the divinity of His Son, that the Son instructed the boy prophet, and that there followed a train of events which led to the organization of “the only true and living church upon the face of the whole earth” [D&C 1:30].23
Why did the people of the world need the Church and gospel of Jesus Christ to be restored? (See section 1.) What are some ways the Lord prepared the way for the restoration of the gospel? (See section 2.)
Ponder President Hinckley’s teachings about the First Vision (see section 3). In what ways has your testimony of the First Vision influenced you?
Why was it necessary that the priesthood be restored by heavenly messengers? (See section 4.) Why is important that Melchizedek Priesthood holders can trace their priesthood authority to Jesus Christ?
In section 5, review the summary of some of the truths that came by revelation to the Prophet Joseph Smith. How have these truths blessed your life? How might we help children understand and appreciate these truths?
“Your gospel study is most effective when you are taught by the Holy Ghost. Always begin your gospel study by praying for the Holy Ghost to help you learn” (Preach My Gospel , 18).